For the burgeoning multitudes of Braves fans keenly following the minor leagues, today is just as big a day as Monday’s big league opening day. This post will look at the major story lines through all the minor league affiliates, and then take a quick look at the prospects that were cut last week and who is still in extended spring training.
AAA Gwinnett Braves
- In a recurring theme, the starting rotation will be watched closely. Even without taking into account the age and medical history of Atlanta’s projected starters, typical seasonal attrition means that each of the five Gwinnett starters — RHP Aaron Blair, LHP Sean Newcomb, RHP Matt Wisler, RHP Lucas Sims, and RHP Luke Jackson — have an excellent chance of effecting the big league club. Which (if any) of them answers the bell will have a big leg up when it comes to determining the 2018 rotation.
- In particular to Luke Jackson, the Braves are reversing a decision made by the Texas Rangers in 2015 to convert Jackson to a full-time reliever. As my colleague Brent Blackwell wrote up when the Braves acquired him back in December, the knock on Jackson hasn’t been his stamina but the development of his secondary offerings. Clearly the Braves have seen enough from Jackson to make them believe that starting may once again be within the realm of possible paths to the majors, and successfully showing himself to be a credible starting pitcher would do wonders for his trade value.
- In a new development, the Braves have signed former Phillies slugger and well-known Braves-killer Ryan Howard to a minor league deal. Once he works himself into playing shape in extended spring training, he should join Gwinnett as a DH and first baseman. If Howard can show he has anything left in the tank, he could work himself onto the Braves bench, which is currently punchless and terrible.
- As far as the youngsters go, this is the most prospect-laden Gwinnett team in perhaps their entire 8-year history. Second baseman Ozzie Albies, third baseman Rio Ruiz, and outfielder Dustin Peterson are position players that seem destined to play a roll on the big league squad at some point this season. Other young players worth keeping an eye on are infielder Johan Camargo and relievers A.J. Minter, Caleb Dirks, and Jason Hursh. But the big name here is Albies, whom Braves GM John Coppolella has stated will not be blocked from the big leagues by Brandon Phillips or any other player. A hot start with Gwinnett could push Phillips to the bench.
AA Mississippi Braves
- Three members of the vaunted 2016 Rome Braves starting rotation — LHP Max Fried, LHP Kolby Allard, and RHP Mike Soroka — will be skipping the high-A level completely to start 2017 with Mississippi, joining righties Patrick Weigel and Matt Withrow in what is certainly going to be the most scrutinized starting rotation in all of the minor leagues. While the talent level is without question (and the double promotion for Fried widely expected) that both Allard and Soroka still haven’t seen their 20th birthdays and will be pitching in the Southern League is nearly without precedent. It is likely that one, some, or all of these guys will struggle, but the Braves are counting on their high level of maturity to get past any troubles to emerge stronger out the other side. With so many organizations coddling their top prospects, especially pitching prospects, to avoid having them face too many challenges to risk bruising their psyches, the Braves push on Allard and Soroka is a fascinating deviation.
- That said, the Braves have surrounded those starting pitchers with a supporting cast that should give them every chance to succeed. The defense should be top-notch, anchored by 2B Travis Demeritte and SS Dylan Moore up the middle. In the outfield, Keith Curcio, Connor Lien, and Jared James are all top-notch as well. Behind the plate are strong defenders Kade Scivicque and minor league free agent signee Armando Araiza.
- Likewise the bullpen features strong minor league veterans like right-handers Akeel Morris, Chad Sobotka, Wes Parsons, and Evan Phillips and lefties Jesse Biddle and Michael Mader. Biddle, Mader, and Parsons all have had success in the minor leagues as starting pitchers and could step into the rotation as necessary. The ballpark itself will also aid all pitchers as TrustMark Park rates as one of the most pitching-friendly fields in all of the minor leagues.
- The top Braves positional prospect on the squad will be the aforementioned Travis Demeritte. After posting eye-popping home run totals in the high-octane Texas League while a member of the Rangers organization, Demeritte will have to contend with spacious TrustMark Park while also working on reducing his alarming strikeout rate. While there are some other intriguing position players on the squad, at least on paper this is a team that looks like it may have trouble scoring runs consistently.
A+ Florida Fire Frogs
- The newest Braves affiliate also looks to be perhaps the most formidable from top-to-bottom. The top two spots of the batting order will likely be outfielders Ray-Patrick Didder and Ronald Acuna. They’ll be followed by a Murderer’s Row of young sluggers, likely in some order third baseman Austin Riley, catcher/DH Alex Jackson, outfielder Braxton Davidson, catcher/DH Jonathan Morales, and first baseman Carlos Castro. This team will score, and will likely sore in bunches if they can rein in the strikeouts.
- One of the most watched players will be Alex Jackson, who is attempting to return to catching, his high school position, after playing in the outfield exclusively since drafted #6 overall by the Mariners in 2014. A successful position switch will instantly make Jackson the system’s top catching prospect.
- Even with Allard and Soroka jumping up to Mississippi, the Fire Frogs rotation should be fantastic. Opening Day lefty starter Luiz Gohara followed up a strong A-ball campaign with an Arizona Fall League that really had scouts impressed. He’ll be followed by righties Touki Toussaint and Ricardo Sanchez, two members of last year’s All-Universe Rome rotation that were particularly impressive in the second half. Lefties Drew Harrington and Tyler Pike round out the rotation. Harrington was the 2016 ACC Pitcher of the Year with Louisville before being drafted in the third round by Atlanta, while Pike is another intriguing off-season acquisition from the Mariners.
- The Fire Frogs bullpen figures to be a strength as well, with standout A+ holdovers LHP Sean McLaughlin and RHP Taylor Lewis joined by a host of former Rome standouts, RHPs Josh Graham, Devan Watts, and Jacob Webb and LHPs Corbin Clouse and Chase Johnson-Mullins.
- In addition to Jackson, prospects Austin Riley and Braxton Davidson come into the season with something to prove. For Riley, he will looking to build on a great second half with Rome and to silence critics who question his bat speed and defense at third base. For Davidson, he has to realize his power potential that has so far not been consistently brought into games.
A Rome Braves
- While it may be impossible to follow up the 2016 Championship team, the new R-Braves rotation is absolutely nothing to sneeze at. 2016 first-rounders Ian Anderson and Joey Wentz are the most high-profile of the newcomers, but the Opening Day starter will be fourth-rounder Bryse Wilson who reportedly made tremendous strides in instructionals and in spring training. They’ll be joined by 5th-rounder Jeremy Walker, whom I picked back in November as a potential steal. Left-handed Rome veteran Oriel Caicedo rounds out the rotation, but he’s only keeping the spot warm for another high-round 2016 draft pick, left-hander Kyle Muller who remains in extended spring training for now.
- Former Alabama closer Thomas Burrows leads the bullpen, and may make a Minter-esque quick ascent through the organization. Lefty Tucker Davidson parlayed a strong spring to get a double promotion from the GCL. RHP Matt Custred returns to Rome and will try to build off a strong second half.
- The catching situation is especially interesting. As expected, 2nd-round picks Brett Cumberland and Lucas Herbert will be behind the dish, but they will be joined by Tanner Murphy, who gets a surprise demotion after spending all season at high-A in 2016. Some or all of these players may also see some time at first base.
- The everyday positions will be dominated by recent international signees. In the infield, Juan Yepez will try to prove he belongs at third and brings an intriguing hit tool and power potential. Next to him will be 18-year-old Derian Cruz, an athletic shortstop who seemed overmatched at Danville last season but has a ton of talent. Infielders Kevin Josephina and Kurt Hoekstra look to share time at second base, while first base may be a revolving door between Anthony Concepcion and one of the catchers.
- In the outfield, 18-year-old centerfielder Cristian Pache should be a standout player, while legendary speedster Randy Ventura mans right field. Anfernee Seymour, who was playing the infield when acquired last season from the Marlins, looks to be transitioning back to the outfield, where he played in high school.
- Overall, this Rome squad looks to be built with pitching, defense, and speed but may have some trouble scoring as there are few power threats in the line-up outside of Yepez, Cumberland, and Concepcion.
The Braves culled thirty-three players from the system last week, eleven more than the number of cuts made at the end of spring training 2016. This is likely due not only to the amount of talent already in the system but the large number of international signees that are expected to start 2017 in the short-season leagues.
Many of those released are minor league veterans that were brought into camp for depth purposes. Those that got some major league spring training action include the previously announced RHP Blaine Boyer and LHP John Danks, LHP Adam Kolarek, infielder Colin Walsh, and first baseman Balbino Fuenmayor. Other minor league vets include RHP David Richardson, RHP Karl Triana, RHP Isaac Sanchez, RHP Navery Moore, LHP Michael Kirkman, and SS Rich Rodriguez.
Other veteran cuts include players who were with the Braves organization last season. The Braves say goodbye to Gwinnett OF/DH Ronnier Mustelier, LHP Steve Kent (who was in his second stint with the organization), LHP Michael O’Neal, IF Ryan Gebhardt, and RHP Jordy Lara, who was signed before last season as an outfielder but worked with the Braves to make a transition to the mound.
Beyond the minor league vets are some players from recent drafts that won’t continue their baseball dreams with the Braves organization: RHP Dalton Carroll, RHP Ryan Clark, RHP Connor Gilmore, RHP Grayson Jones, RHP Evertz Orozco, RHP Cameron Stanton, RHP Brandon T. White, LHP Parker Danciu, LHP Chris Diaz, LHP Jhon Martinez, C Matt Foley, 1B Alex Lee, 1B Robby Nesovic, 2B Darien McLemore, 3B Ryan O’Malley, OF Sandor Boeldak, OF Sean Godfrey, OF Matt Hearn, and utilityman Erison Mendez.
Soaking Up The Sun
Here are the most significant Braves players that are now in extended spring training in Orlando, either waiting for assignment if a player goes out with injury or working towards playing in one of the short-season leagues in June.
Infielders: Matt Gonzalez, Yeudi Grullon, Gabe Howell (suspended), Ramon Osuna, Alex Aquino, Griffin Benson, Jeremy Fernandez, Luis Mejia, Luis Ovando, Nicholas Shumpert, Kevin Maitan, Yunior Severino, Yenci Pena, Livan Soto, Braulio Vasquez, Juan Morales, Andres Adrianza.
Right-Handed Pitchers: Carlos Salazar, Raymar Navarro, Luis Mora, Jasseel De La Cruz, Luis Gamez, Anthony Guardado, Jesus Heredia, Odalvi Javier, Alan Rangel, Matt Rowland, Ryan Schlosser, Gilbert Suarez, Ramon Taveras, Jhoniel Sepulveda, Guillermo Zuniga, Yefri del Rosario, Juan Contreras, Zach Becherer.