Rome Braves: First Half Review

Continuing our look at the Atlanta Braves minor league affiliates, we come to the class-A Rome Braves. A year removed from winning the South Atlantic League Championship, the Rome squad saw almost 100% roster turnover (as expected), but with a farm system as highly regarded as Atlanta’s it still expected to be in contention for 2017. Rome finished the first half with a solid 38-32 record, good for third place in the SAL South Division, 3.5 games behind the front-running Greenville Drive of the Red Sox organization.

To put it in perspective, last year’s championship team went 27-42 in the first half, but caught fire in the second half to win a playoff berth and blitz the playoffs.

Other Braves’ Minor League Affiliate Reviews:
Florida Fire Frogs (A+)

OFFENSE

The Rome offense is built around getting on base and using tremendous team speed to have prolonged rallies to run up the score and demoralize the opposition. When it works, Rome is one of the more entertaining offenses to watch. However, when a good pitcher is able to make his pitches, Rome hitters overall don’t have a lot of firepower to punish any mistakes. Rome finished the first half with a .325 OBP (sixth in the SAL) and 103 stolen bases  (second behind Asheville), which put them at 4.5 runs per game overall, again sixth in the league. While the team was shut out only twice, it was held to 2 runs or fewer 23 times and Rome finished with a .347 slugging percentage in the first half, only ahead of the hapless Augusta Greenjackets.

For the first six weeks of the season, the offense was powered by the speedy outfielders Cristian Pache, Randy Ventura, and Anfernee Seymour, with third baseman Juan Yepez providing essentially the only power threat in the middle of the line-up (albeit mostly doubles power). The rest of the line-up regulars — catcher Lucas Herbert, designated hitter Brett Cumberland, first basemen Kurt Hoekstra and Anthony Concepcion, shortstop Derian Cruz, and second baseman Kevin Josephina — were all hitting near or below the Mendoza line, though Cumberland at least was getting on base consistently, in part due to a proclivity for being hit by pitches. With only half of a line-up producing, Rome only scored an average of 3.87 runs per game during the period through May 8.

Significant changes to the line-up occurred mid-May however. First, Seymour was promoted to class-A Florida, which allowed Randy Ventura to take over the lead-off role. Second, third baseman Juan Yepez was traded to the Cardinals in the Matt Adams deal. Infielder Kurt Hoekstra, who had been sharing time with outfielder Anthony Concepcion at first base, moved over to third to take most of the reps there. Thirdly, first baseman Ramon Osuna and outfielder Justin Ellison were promoted from Danville to take over most of the reps at first base and left field respectively. Osuna had hit .276/.342/.423 in Danville in 2016 and represented the best chance for a power upgrade. Finally, shortstop Derian Cruz was demoted to Danville and infielder Marcus Mooney was installed as the primary shortstop.

The offense did improve over the last eight weeks, but almost none of that was due to the changes made. While Hoekstra did start a resurgence at the plate, hitting .315/.351/.444 since May 8, Ventura and Mooney have since gone into slumps and Osuna has yet to really get on track. Nevertheless, runs per game improved to a robust 5.57. This is due mostly to under-performing hitters finding their groove, with the most dramatic being Brett Cumberland. Since May 8, Cumberland has hit a remarkable .303/.452/.606 to provide the Rome offense with a tremendous jolt. Ellison has also performed well at the plate in his second stint with Rome, hitting .297/.358/.541 since his arrival on May 14 and already tying last season’s home run total with 4.

Going forward, the offense may be challenged if the organization chooses to move Cumberland up a level.

Rome Braves Leaderboard (wRC+, minimum 120 plate apperances )

OF Cristian Pache (right) and C Brett Cumberland prepare to bat for the Rome Braves. (Photo: Andy Harris/Outfield Fly Rule)
  1. Brett Cumberland* – 170
  2. Justin Ellison – 152
  3. Cristian Pache* – 107
  4. Randy Ventura* – 105
  5. Anfernee Seymour – 104 (promoted)
  6. Lucas Herbert – 103
  7. Juan Yepez – 99 (traded)
  8. Kurt Hoekstra – 93
  9. Anthony Concepcion – 81
  10. Marcus Mooney – 67
  11. Kevin Josephina – 58
  12. Derian Cruz – 28

* – All-Star selection

STARTING PITCHING

The 2016 Rome rotation of Mike Soroka, Patrick Weigel, Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, Ricardo Sanchez, and Kolby Allard has become nearly legendary, but the current Rome rotation has quietly every bit as good as last year’s crew in the first half of 2017.

The rotation is lead by three 19-year-old 2016 prep draftees, first rounders Ian Anderson and Joey Wentz, and fourth rounder Bryse Wilson. Results-wise, Wilson has been the most successful of this trio so far, pitching to a 2.75 ERA and leading the team in innings pitched and the rotation in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Wilson skipped Danville completely, impressing the Braves in spring training to prompt a double promotion to Rome.

Anderson has pitched the three most dominating starts by the rotation this season, including a 6 inning, 1 hit, 1 walk, 11 strikeout performance on May 25 against Augusta. His results have been somewhat inconsistent relative to the other 19-year-olds however, including an early May stretch of 4 consecutive starts where he averaged only 4 innings per start. However, he also paces the staff with 11.3 strikeouts per nine.

Wentz’s performance has been somewhat between that of Anderson’s and Wilson’s, pitching to a 3.50 ERA with solid strikeout and walk ratios. Wentz’s season was briefly interrupted with a DL stint after a line drive struck him on the leg on May 19, but he has since returned with no apparent ill effects.

Fifth-round pick Jeremy Walker has the second most innings pitched this season, but poorer results than his prep star teammates. Walker has a 5.70 ERA, though his peripheral stats are kinder. Walker’s bugaboo seems to be that one inning meltdown that undoes otherwise good starts.

Left-hander Ryan Lawlor has been a solid fifth starter. Lawlor was a 2015 draft pick and made his Rome debut this season after spending all of last season as a swing man at the high-A level. Lawlor has been out since the end of May with an injury and his spot in the rotation was taken by 19-year-old Alan Rangel, who was promoted from Danville and has since been elevated to high-A Florida; this may however have been a temporary housekeeping move.

Lefty Oriel Caicedo, a dependable swing man for Rome since 2015, has started 3 times, and young lefty Jaret Hellinger got an emergency start as part of a doubleheader.

With the Florida rotation in flux, it’s probable that Walker and Lawlor may find their way up before too long. The Braves traditionally have liked to keep their prep pitching stars at the low-A level for an entire season, so it would be a little surprising for Wilson, Anderson, or Wentz to make a move this season. The end of the season may be quite interesting if 2016 2nd-rounder Kyle Muller and 2017 1st-rounder Kyle Wright are able to matriculate up to Rome, potentially giving the rotation five starters with every bit the hype and pedigree of their 2016 antecedents.

Rome Braves Leaderboard (xFIP, minimum 5 games started )

LHP Joey Wentz follows through on a pitch, June 15, 2017. (Photo: Chrissy Harris/Outfield Fly Rule)
  1. Ryan Lawlor – 2.82
  2. Joey Wentz – 3.43
  3. Bryse Wilson* – 3.48
  4. Ian Anderson – 3.84
  5. Jeremy Walker – 4.13

* – All-Star selection

RELIEF PITCHING

The Rome bullpen has been a tremendous strength for the team on the whole, and a key ingredient in keeping the team in contention during the first half.

Rome has five regular relievers who pitched more than 30 innings apiece and had ERAs under 3.00 in Tucker Davidson, Jon Kennedy, Thomas Burrows, Brandon White, and Adam McCreery. All of them except White are left-handed, and all of them have at least one pitch that can be rated as a plus pitch.

Davidson is the biggest workhorse of the five and has a plus slider that has helped him generate a 10.01 K/9 number, and he also has demonstrated good control so far. Kennedy has the best control of the bunch, allowing fewer than 1 walk per 9 innings, which allows his fastball-curve mix to play up.

Burrows, one of four players from the Mariners organization the Braves acquired in the offseason, has a wipeout slider that his a tremendous swing-and-miss pitch. McCreery has his own plus-plus breaking ball, a 12-6 curve that may be the best single pitch on the entire staff when he can throw it for strikes. White has the best blend of pitches, with his fastball, curve, and slider all above average to plus.

Along with those five, Rome has gotten excellent work from lefty swingman Oriel Caicedo who has pitched five relief appearances of at least 3 innings and one unearned run or less.

Rounding out the bullpen has been Bladimir Matos, a right-hander with good velocity but questionable control; journeyman Joe Rogers who has contributed 12.1 innings of solid relief; and lefty Jared Hellinger, who has struggled since his mid-May promotion from Danville. Other pitchers have climbed up and down from Danville as needs have required.

One of the few 2016 returnees to Rome was hard-throwing right-hander Matt Custred, who was off to a strong start before injuries derailed him. Likewise Luis Mora, who was promoted in mid may and only made two starts before he had to be shelved as well. Both are upside arms that could contribute in the second half. On the other hand, it would not be surprising to see some relievers, especially Burrows, White, or Kennedy, move up before the end of the season.

Rome Braves Leaderboard (“Goose Eggs“)

  1. Thomas Burrows – 18
  2. Tucker Davidson – 13
  3. Adam McCreery – 12
  4. Oriel Caicedo – 10
  5. Brandon White* – 9
  6. Jon Kennedy – 8
  7. Matt Custred – 7
  8. Bladimir Matos – 6
  9. Joe Rogers – 4
  10. Jaret Hellinger – 1

* – All-star selection

Note: Since “goose eggs” are a new thing, I feel free to modify it to my whim. My criteria for being credited with a goose egg are:

  • The reliever pitches a scoreless inning from the 7th inning on.
  • The game score is tied, the reliever’s team is leading by no more than two runs, or the reliever’s team is trailing by no more than one run.

DEFENSE

Whoa boy, if there’s an Achilles heal with Rome, it’s the defense. Their 85 team errors are second in the SAL, only behind the 101 committed by the hapless Augusta Greenjackets. Those errors have led to 53 unearned runs.

The main culprits have been the Opening Day keystone combo of shortstop Derian Cruz and second baseman Kevin Josephina. Cruz tallied 16 errors in the twenty six games he played before being sent back down, and honesty compels me to say that he easily could have been tagged for more. A gifted athlete, once the errors started it just started snowballing for Cruz, who clearly became more and more tentative in the field. Cruz’s difficulties have taken some of the focus away from Josephina, but he’s been challenged as well. Marcus Mooney replaced Cruz at shortstop, and has provided much needed stability at the position.

At third base, Juan Yepez showed a good arm and better than expected range at third base, though his hands still needed work. After Yepez’s trade to the Cardinals organization, Kurt Hoekstra took over third and has provided equivalent defense; Hoekstra has shown to be a little surer handed, but does not have as strong or as an accurate an arm as Yepez.

First base has been a hodge-podge of Hoekstra, Anthony Concepcion, and Ramon Osuna. None of them will be mistaken for rising Gold Glovers, but they handle the throws that they can get to.

As lackluster as the middle infield defense has been, the outfield defense has been exemplary. Cristian Pache is perhaps the best defensive center fielder in the organization other than Ender Inciarte, showing tremendous range and arm strength; Pache has 10 outfield assists already this season and would have even more except the league basically doesn’t run on him anymore. Randy Ventura in right field has been very good as well and would be a plus defensive centerfielder in his own right.

In left field, Anfernee Seymour was very strong, using his double-plus speed to track down almost everything despite some questionable route-running. Since his promotion, Justin Ellison has picked up without a hitch, making up for his lesser range with better routes. Anthony Concepcion also looks more comfortable in left field than he does at first base.

Rome has enjoyed solid catching, with Lucas Herbert getting the plurality of opportunities behind the dish. Lucas is a plus defender, excellent at blocking and game calling and has thrown out 33% of would-be basestealers. Cumberland has been used primarily as the designated hitter, and is not particularly polished at the catching position. Cumberland does not have good footwork or hands, but does show promise in game calling and is the better pitch framer between him and Herbert. Rome employs a third catcher; early in the season it was Tanner Murphy, making a return appearance with Rome after a season and a half at the high-A level. Murphy is an advanced receiver, and quite frankly too good for the SAL. After Murphy’s promotion to Florida, the Braves promoted 5-year rookie ball veteran Carlos Martinez up from Danville. Martinez is competent but unexceptional behind the plate.

SUMMARY

L to R: Cristian Pache, Brett Cumberland, Brandon White, Bryse Wilson, and Randy Ventura represent the Rome Braves in the SAL All-Star Game. (@RomeBraves via Twitter)

Rome came up just a little bit short in their bid for a second SAL playoff berth in as many years in the first half, but they should have a good shot in the second half. Most of the top performers — Pache, Ventura, Herbert, Anderson, Wilson, and Wentz — should remain in Rome for the entire season. There’s signs that the supporting players are starting to come around, and that bullpen is a great equalizer.

The biggest question mark will become of the offense if Brett Cumberland is promoted. The team will need Ramon Osuna and/or Anthony Concepcion to start hitting for power, and Ventura will need to come out of his three-week offensive funk. As 2016 draft picks like Tyler Neslony, Jared James, Devan Watts, and Corbin Clouse made it to Rome late to provide a boost, there’s a chance that could happen again with the likes of Kyle Wright, Riley Delgado, or Jordan Rodgers from the 2017 draft.

About Andy Harris 97 Articles
Andy Harris has been a baseball fan since seeing the Big Red Machine in 1978 and hardcore baseball fan since reading Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract in 1990. Andy moved to the Atlanta area in 1991, which turned out to be a pretty good year for the local team.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

[sc name="HeaderGoogleAnlytics"]