Perhaps the most interesting Braves affiliate in the first half has been the AA level Mississippi Braves. After Ronald Acuna‘s promotion to Mississippi in early May, the team became the only team ever in Southern League history to feature three 19-year-olds. To make it even more remarkable, all three 19-year-olds (Acuna and pitchers Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka) have been performing at a high level.
Despite the youngsters however, overall the team’s performance in all facets of the game run toward the middle of the Southern League pack, and the M-Braves went into the All-Star break with a 34-36 record, 6 games behind the Pensacola Blue Wahoos of the Reds organization in the South Division.
The Braves rank in the middle of the pack in the Southern League with 3.77 runs per game. Their home park, cavernous TrustMark Park, is notorious for suppressing offense. However, park effects don’t account for the Braves league-worst .295 team OBP. Power has actually been a little easier to come by, with a middle-of-the-pack .355 slugging percentage, but it’s simply very difficult to generate runs while making that many outs.
The best offensive player for the M-Braves had been unheralded 1B/3B Carlos Franco, who had tied his career high in home runs with 11 before May 19. That May 19 date is significant, because that is when he was promoted to Gwinnett to back-fill the roster for Rio Ruiz in the wake of the Freddie Freeman injury in Atlanta. While Franco was with the squad, the team averaged 4.44 runs per game. The offense got even better with the May 8th arrival of Acuna, and for 12 magical days the M-Braves were averaging 5.42 runs per game.
Franco’s departure was partially made up with a surge from first baseman Joey Meneses, who has hit .364/.400/.530 since May 19 coming off a strong winter ball off-season. Infield prospect Travis Demeritte started very strong, hitting .258/.339/.450 through his first 40 games and most importantly drastically cutting down his strikeout rate from his prior seasons. Demeritte was moved to third base from second on May 21, and his hitting has fallen off somewhat. Though he still has been hitting for power, his strikeout rate has crept back to around the 30% mark over that time.
Despite only having 625 professional plate appearances, including an off-season stint in the Australian Baseball League, Acuna was aggressively pushed to AA, and he made that decision look really good by hitting an insane .415/.467/.634 in the month of May, and working a .307/.364/.453 AA slash line overall so far with 4 homers after a more tepid June. He also has 15 stolen bases already, though his caught stealing mark of 10 shows that he still has some work to do on the finer points of basestealing.
Mississippi has also gotten league-average production from outfielder Jared James and catcher Kade Scivicque. James received a double promotion from Rome on Opening Day and struggled out of the gate, but the 2016 34th-round senior sign has hit .310/.370/.452 in June. Scivicque by contrast has started struggling after hitting .306/.344/.405 through the end of May. Scivicque has caught 45 of Mississippi’s 70 games to date, so he may be struggling under the workload; this may explain the All-Star break promotion of catcher Jonathan Morales from Florida to help shoulder some of the load.
The M-Braves have gotten solid offensive performance as well from role players infielder Luis Valenzuela and back-up catcher Sal Giardina, but the bottom half of the line-up has largely been a black hole. Outfielders Connor Lien and Keith Curcio have had the odd hot streak now and again, but overall both have had disappointing seasons, especially Lien who is repeating the level after an injury-marred 2016. Most alarming is the offensive cratering of shortstop Dylan Moore. Given the opportunity to start everyday at shortstop after being moved all over the diamond in the Rangers organization, Moore has been hapless at the plate this season.
Long-time organizational players Levi Hyams and Reed Harper were given recent opportunities to step into the gap and perform, but neither were able to step up their game. They have both now been released by the organization and Fire Frogs infielder Omar Obregon has just been promoted to fill the gap.
Mississippi Braves Leaderboard (wRC+, minimum 120 plate apperances )
- Carlos Franco – 164 (promoted)
- Joey Meneses* – 139
- Ronald Acuna* – 138
- Travis Demeritte* – 121
- Jared James – 98
- Kade Scivicque*– 95
- Luis Valenzuela* – 91
- Connor Lien – 89
- Keith Curcio – 75
- Dylan Moore – 26
* – All-Star selection
The Braves shocked the baseball community when they started both of their teenage 2015 first-rounders, Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard, at Mississippi bypassing the high-A level completely. Like Acuna, the performance to date of the young duo has made the Braves look like geniuses.
Soroka has a slight performance advantage so far, leading the team in innings pitched and leading the starting pitchers with a 4.5 K/BB ratio. While Soroka has been strong since Opening Day, he’s been absolutely filthy in June, allowing no runs in 22 innings over three June starts, striking out 18 and only walking 1.
Allard on the other hand had better performances early on, and he carried a gaudy 1.83 ERA through the end of May. June however has not been kind and he’ll be looking to show that recent problems with walks are just a blip on the radar.
Opening Day starter Max Fried however has had the most frustrating season. Fried leads the team in strikeouts, but between a 10.6% walk rate and hitters getting a healthy .322 BABiP against, he’s seen enough trouble that he’s the owner of an ugly 5.99 ERA. He’s been very unlucky, but he also has been having trouble locating his primary strikeout pitch, his big overhand curve, for strikes. Successful hitters lay off the curve and look for the fastball, so Fried has some adjustments to make.
Hard-throwing right-hander Patrick Weigel started 2017 where he left off 2016, pitching very effectively at the AA level and after 7 starts and a 2.89 ERA with 38 strikeouts, the Braves saw enough and moved Weigel up to AAA Gwinnett. Fortunately, left-hander Luiz Gohara was in high-A Florida making hitters at that level look silly, so it was a natural promotion. Things went off script in Gohara’s first start however when he had to leave with a biceps strain that landed him on the DL. He returned quickly however and after a tune-up relief effort, Gohara has resumed his spot in the rotation. His AA outings to date have been short, not going over 5 innings yet, but the results have been positive.
Right-hander Matt Withrow was high-A Carolina’s best starting pitcher in 2016, especially in the second half, and he picked up where he left off, pitching to a 2.08 ERA in 26 April innings with a better than 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio. When the calendar flipped however, Withrow really started to struggle, and he hit the DL with an undisclosed injury after a May 26 start. His spot in the rotation has since been taken by left-hander Tyler Pike, who had been pitching well for high-A Florida, though his first start didn’t go as planned as he surrendered 4 earned runs in 3.1 innings.
Going into the second half, it would seem that Mike Soroka may be next in line for a promotion to Gwinnett, especially in the wake of an apparent elbow injury to Patrick Weigel. Soroka’s spot could be filled by a return of Matt Withrow, or a possible promotion of Fire Frog left-hander Drew Harrington.
Mississippi Braves Leaderboard (xFIP, minimum 5 games started )
- Mike Soroka* – 3.10
- Luiz Gohara – 3.20
- Patrick Weigel – 3.23
- Max Fried – 3.75
- Kolby Allard* – 3.97
- Matt Withrow – 4.03
* – All-Star selection
The M-Braves bullpen has been solid if unspectacular on the whole. At the start of the season, right-hander Akeel Morris was the most effective reliever in his third tour of duty with Mississippi, not allowing an earned run in 6 appearances before getting the well-deserved promotion to AAA Gwinnett.
The workhorses for Mississippi have been a pair of former starting pitcher lefties, Jesse Biddle and Michael Mader. Biddle is a former top prospect of the Phillies and is coming off a lost 2016 after Tommy John surgery. It’s been so far so good for Biddle, who is pitching with power and is demonstrating the best control of his career so far. Biddle was used exclusively as a starter in the Phillies organization, but given his success to date and his return from surgery, I would think the Braves will keep Biddle as a long reliever.
Mader was a solid starter in the Marlins organization and with Mississippi last season after coming to Atlanta in the Hunter Cervenka trade. Pushed to the bullpen by higher ceiling starters, Mader has had mixed success. His current 3.44 ERA somewhat hides an unsustainable walk rate, an area that he has not had issues with earlier in his career. This may be due to his change in roll, but it will be worth watching in the second half.
The middle innings have mostly been handled by right-handers Chad Sobotka and Danny Reynolds and lefty Phil Pfeifer. Sobotka has the highest ceiling of this trio but has had his career disrupted by injury often before ending his 2016 strong with Mississippi. This season has not gone as well, as he’s seen his strikeouts drop and his walks spike up as he’s pitched to a 5.52 ERA on the season. Reynolds is a 26-year-old former Angels farmhand who struggled early, but has only allowed 1 earned run in his last 8 appearances. Likewise, Pfeifer had an ugly April that inflated his ERA before he too settled down, and he has a 7-game scoreless streak working.
Right-handers Wes Parsons, Evan Phillips, Rex Brothers, and Jason Hursh have also pitched for the M-Braves and have since moved on to Gwinnett, or in the case of Hursh, Atlanta. Bradley Roney has since returned to Mississippi after making it as far as Gwinnett last season after some time battling injuries and control problems.
Mississippi Braves Leaderboard (“Goose Eggs“)
- Danny Reynolds – 11
2(t). Michael Mader – 8
2(t). Evan Phillips – 8
2(t). Jason Hursh – 8
5(t). Jesse Biddle – 7
5(t). Philip Pfeifer – 7
- Chad Sobotka – 6
8(t). Wes Parsons – 4
8(t). Bradley Roney – 4
8(t). Rex Brothers – 4
- Akeel Morris – 3
- Luiz Gohara – 1
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 has been a strong-suit for Mississippi overall. In the infield, both Carlos Franco and Joey Meneses have been above average defenders at first base. Travis Demeritte and Luis Valenzuela started the season respectively at second and third base, but the two have effectively swapped places over the last month; this arrangement has improved the defense, as Valenzuela’s arm was limiting him at third base and Demeritte is a plus defender wherever they put him. As a third baseman, Carlos Franco makes the plays he can get to but has limited range.
At shortstop, Dylan Moore has been a pleasant surprise defensively, showing good hands and footwork. His range isn’t great however, and I expect Omar Obregon to get his share of playing time at shortstop going forward.
Outfield defense has also been a strength. Ronald Acuna, Connor Lien, Keith Curcio, and Jared James all have the capacity to play centerfield, though Acuna is the fastest of the bunch and has the chance to develop into a special player there. Lien’s outfield arm is nearly legendary at this point, and though he only has 3 outfield assists so far this season, it’s mostly because Southern League opponents simply don’t try to run on him.
Behind the plate, Kade Scivicque gets raving reviews for his leadership and game calling, though he already gotten a career high number of passed balls. At the beginning of the season Mississippi employed veteran Rays farmhand Armando Arazia as the back-up catcher. A defensive wizard without much of a bat, Arazia was sent to the Orioles organization after only 10 games in favor of the more offensively inclined Sal Giardina.
Going forward, I expect a little bit of shuffling. Scivicque seems to be in line for a promotion to Gwinnett before too long as the organization seems very high on him. The recent retirement of veteran organizational catcher Braeden Schlehuber off the Gwinnett roster and the promotion of catching prospect Jonathan Morales seem to be indications of that direction.
It’s been an exciting first half for the Mississippi Braves. The star power of the starting rotation was a top story of the minor leagues on Opening Day, and in May the promotion of Ronald Acuna sent a jolt though the whole organization.
Despite this, the inconstancy of the offense, especially the extreme lack of production from the lower half of the line-up, has helped lead to a below .500 first-half record. Likewise, the surprisingly poor results from Max Fried and a relatively uninspiring bullpen haven’t helped either.
The job won’t get any easier in the second half, especially if the team continues to see strong performers pulled up to AAA. I would not be surprised to see Soroka and Scivicque promoted soon. Others may only need a burst of strong performance to warrant a move as well, especially if the Braves elect to sell veterans off the major league roster approaching the trade deadline, opening up more opportunities.