June is the first month of play for the Braves’ three short-season league teams in the Dominican Summer League, the Gulf Coast League, and the Danville Braves of the Appalachian League. The DSL started play earlier in the month on June 3, the Danville Braves had a rain-delayed opener on Friday, June 23, and the GCL opened up play on June 26. With the influx of talent from last year’s monster international free agent class plus players from the 2017 draft class, these leagues are very interesting in their own
Wright right as potential future Braves make their professional debuts. This post will focus on Danville, a team I was fortunate enough to see on Opening Day at charming Joe O’Brien Field, home park of the Elizabethton Twins of Elizabethton, Tennessee.
With 35-man active rosters, the short-season teams will often feature revolving line-ups in order to give as many players time on the field as possible. That said, after a long weekend of games, it looks like Danville will feature a varied and potentially potent line-up every night along with better defense than you may expect from a rookie league team.
Leading off is returning D-Braves, outfielder Izzy Wilson and shortstop Derian Cruz. The two high-ceiling, toolsy 19-year-olds have something to prove after some setbacks. After a strong GCL season as a 17-year-old in 2015, Wilson’s proclivity for giving away at-bats come out in force with Danville in 2016. Wilson will look to show better patience and better bat control in 2017; to that end, he couldn’t have gotten off to a better start when he walked and scored in his first at-bat in Friday’s game opener, then hit a long homer in his second at-bat. Cruz started the season at Rome, but a poor start at the plate plus defensive problems had him back in extended spring training by mid-May. Watching Cruz Friday, it’s apparent he’s attempting to elevate the ball to some extent, and he sent several balls hard into the gap after a Rome campaign that saw him with a 60% groundball rate. Defensively, I saw him angle in on a slow hopper in front of second, throw off-balance, and get the runner at first with an strong and accurate throw.
In the pouring rain.
So… hopefully that’s a sign he’s turned things around from his work at Rome.
Perhaps the most interesting group of players to watch will be the catchers. This squad features young Venezuelan William Contreras, who shows advanced blocking and framing abilities already and has a strong line-drive swing that could see bigger power as a matures. He’s joined by hard-hitting 2017 draftees Drew Lugbauer (11th round) and Hagen Owenby (12th round). The left-handed slugger Lugbauer already has 3 pro home runs in as many games and also has experience at first and third base. The right-handed Owenby has a powerful compact swing with power as well, peppering the outfield with line-drives. Alan Crowley is a fourth catcher that showed solid defense and bat-to-ball skills in the GCL last season after being drafted in 2016.
Danville will also feature infielder Nicholas Shumpert who will play third base but can also fill in at second and short. He also has a strong, compact swing and likes to ambush first-pitch fastballs, which he did repeatedly on Friday, collecting four hits including two doubles. In addition to Cruz and Shumpert, the infield will have Luis Mejia, Jeremy Fernandez, and 2017 draftee Riley Delgado. Mejia and Fernandez are glove-first middle infielders that won’t embarrass the team at the plate. Delgado showed keen strike-zone awareness and a good hit tool while playing shortstop for Middle Tennessee State. First base will primarily be manned by 2016 high school draft pick Griffin Benson, a big kid with so far untapped power potential.
Flanking Wilson in the outfield are five corner outfielders led by 2015 high school draftee Bradley Keller who is trying to take the next step after poor results in both Rome in 2016. Keller has power and speed potential, and his swing looked more controlled on Friday and he destroyed a second inning fastball for a long homer into the trees in left field. Another Braves system veteran is Leudys Baez, who spent parts of the last two seasons with Rome before his 2016 season was ended prematurely last August with a nasty knee injury that required surgery. Baez didn’t exhibit and issues with his knee on Friday, but he still showed some of the contact issues that have plagued him over his career.
The newcomers in the outfield are 2017 draftees Garrison Schwartz (16th round), Justin Smith (20th round) as well as former University of Georgia and Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Sanders Commings. All three are powerfully built men with power potential, with Schwartz showing good strike-zone awareness as well. The 27-year-old Commings is returning to the game for the first time since high school and he looked about as awkward as you’d expect someone playing in their first professional baseball game at age 27.
Danville will open with a rotation of right-handers Kyle Muller, Odalvi Javier, Connor Johnstone and left-handers Dilmer Mejia and Jaret Hellinger. Muller is the big name of this group and the top prospect on the team, a second-round pick in 2016 with success in the GCL last year. Javier is coming off two solid seasons in the GCL and features a full compliment of pitches and an idea of what to do with them. Johnstone is both the newcomer to the group and the old man of the rotation, having been drafted in 2017 as a 22-year-old junior out of Wake Forest.
The left-side of the rotation has two high-ceiling lottery tickets. Mejia is only 19 but starting his fourth professional season after signing young out of Nicaragua; he features well-developed secondary pitches to go with a low-90s fastball and good deception. Hellinger was a late-round 2015 pick out of McDonough, GA and had a quick stint already in Rome this season after pitching in Danville last season.
As always with the short-season teams, expect the rotation to be somewhat in flux over the course of the season as some current relievers are swapped out into the rotation, or some pitchers are called up to Rome.
Danville’s LHP Dilmer Mejia strikes out OF Matt Albanese of the Elizabethton Twins. Change-up, curve, Lugbauer catching.
With the typical starting pitcher going no more than 4 innings in a typical game in this league, there’s plenty of opportunities for the legion of relief pitchers on the roster to show out. In the first game of the Opening Day doubleheader, the first man out of the pen was right-hander Gilbert Suarez. Suarez is a stocky fastball/slider pitcher that got hosed by the umpires when I saw him; with two runners on, Elizabethton firstbaseman Kolton Kendrick hit a ball off Suarez deep over the right field fence, but clearly hooking foul by at least six feet. To the astonishment of the crowd and the intense distress of Danville manager Nestor Perez, home plate umpire Harley Acosta called it a home run. Acosta clearly took his eye off the ball before it started hooking, and while Perez successfully persuaded Acosta to appeal to the second umpire of the crew, he wasn’t looking either. Suarez would end up with a 2 inning, 4 hit, 3 run line on the night on a foul ball home run that proved to be the key hit in a 7-6 comeback win for Elizabethton.
The agony and the ecstasy of minor league baseball.
Second man out was 2016 draftee right-hander Ryan Schlosser who has a nice, easy delivery and good control. In game 2 of the double-header, side-arming lefty Kelvin Rodriguez was the first call. Rodriguez is tall man who comes down way low with good movement and deception. The rain-shortened game 2 was finished by righty Raymar Navarro, a 26-year-old minor league veteran who who has bouncing around from the high-A level down to Danville and back again a couple times.
Filling out the bullpen are 2017 draftees right-handers Jacob Belinda, Landon Hughes, Cutter Dyals, and Keith Weisenberg and lefty Connor Simmons; 2016 draftees left-handers Taylor Hyssong and Zach Rice; and 22-year-old GCL veteran Jesus Heredia.