Gwinnett Braves: First Half Review

As is usual with AAA teams, the Gwinnett Braves encountered significant roster upheaval in the first half of the season on their way to a 44-44 record going into the International League All-Star break. Top performers that helped Gwinnett get off to a 27-24 mark over the first two months have been recalled to Atlanta. In addition, Gwinnett has suffered from the biggest injury to date to a major prospect when starting pitcher Patrick Weigel went on the shelf with a tear in his ulner collateral ligament.

Gwinnett finds themselves in second place in the International League South division behind the absolutely stacked Durham Bulls, 11.5 games back. They stand  10 games back in the wild card standings, so a return trip to the International League playoffs currently look to be a tall order.

Other Braves’ Minor League Affiliate Reviews:
Rome Braves (A)

Florida Fire Frogs (A+)
Mississippi Braves (AA)

OFFENSE

Gwinnett has been averaging 4.51 runs per game in the first half, good for fifth in the 14-team International League. This solid effort is despite the team not being in the upper half in the league in either on-base percentage nor slugging. The team seems to do two particular things better offensively than any other team, and that’s stealing bases (and not getting caught often) and hitting triples.

The primary catalyst in those categories has been infielder Ozzie Albies. As the presumed heir to the second base position in Atlanta in the near future, Albies has been under a lot of scrutiny from fans, scouts, and the Braves front office. Albies had an abbreviated spring training as he was not medically cleared for games until March 9 and then got off to a slow start to the season. On May 4, Braves special assistant Chipper Jones went in the booth with the Atlanta Braves broadcast team during a rain delay and said Albies was not ready for the majors. Around that same time, it appears that the Braves asked Jones to make Albies, a fellow switch-hitter, a special project, particularly in cleaning up his left-handed swing. On June 4th, Albies was only hitting .262/.311/.391 when he fouled a ball off his foot and had to leave the game with a foot contusion. The injury would have Albies cool his heals for 9 days, and it would seem the physical and mental break, and perhaps some of the batting cage work he was working on with Chipper and Gwinnett hitting coach John Moses, did him good.

Ozzie Albies Braves
Albies has had a lot to smile about the last few weeks.

Since returning from the DL on June 13, Albies has hit a blistering .351/.385/.570 in 26 games. He has 13 extra base hits in that time, including 4 homers,  and 13 multi-hit games (and only four hitless games). Perhaps most importantly, Albies has hit .351/.390/.532 as a left-handed hitter during this stretch. Overall, Albies is now hitting .292/.336/.451 on the season, within shouting distance of his minor league career .306/.368/.426 marks. He continues to be a terror on the basepaths, hitting 17 doubles, 8 triples, and stealing 21 bases while only getting caught twice. In short, he’s probably only a Brandon Phillips trade away from assuming the second base job for the Atlanta Braves.

The other main consistent presence in the G-Braves line-up in the first half has been 27-year-old outfielder Xavier Avery. Avery was signed as a minor league free agent this offseason and has been a steady force in the line-up all season, hitting .281/.373/.488. Avery’s 8 home runs to date has been a nice bonus for the Braves considering Avery is mostly known for his speed and his outfield defense.

The other primary contributors have been players that have gone up-and-down from the majors, including Gwinnett opening day starters SS Johan Camargo, 3B Rio Ruiz, OF Lane Adams, and C Anthony Recker. Camargo in particular used a strong early AAA campaign (.311/.353/.500) as a springboard for prolonged major league time, and now looks to have made a permanent home in SunTrust Park. Ruiz has been a little streaky, but has shown improvement across the board, including against left-handed pitching, a well-known issue from last season. With Gwinnett, Ruiz has hit a solid .267/.338/.400 versus lefties this season. Ruiz’s 9 home runs paces the team.

Less successful this season have been Gwinnett veterans such as 1B Matt Tuiasosopo, 3B/OF Kyle Kubitza, and IF Sean Kazmar. Other than Albies and Avery, this trio has logged the most plate appearances for the G-Braves, and their lack of production has weighed down the punch of the team. So too the catching corps of Recker, minor league veteran David Freitas, and the since-released Blake Lalli haven’t been strong offensively, with Recker cratering to a .219/.303/.391 slash line, as if his temporary run of success in Atlanta was a momentary blip and his fall back to career norms was immanently predictable. If an injury were to occur to one of Tyler Flowers or Kurt Suzuki, it’s easy to imagine the Braves bypassing this group and elevating Mississippi’s Kade Scivicque.

Finally, there’s a couple of late-comers in the form of OF Dustin Peterson and 1B/3B Carlos Franco. Peterson is the reigning Minor League Player of the Year after a strong AA campaign, and looked to be on the path to win a possible bench roll in Atlanta in spring training when he was struck in the hand by a pitch that broke his hamate bone and kept him out of action until mid-May. Franco came up from Mississippi as insurance in the wake of the Freddie Freeman injury, and though he’s shown flashes power with his five homers, he’s still very much adjusting to higher level pitching.

Also Ryan Howard and James Loney both were Gwinnett Braves at different points this year. Weird, huh?

Going forward, the Braves will add super-prospect outfielder Ronald Acuna and likely slide him into centerfield and in the #2 spot right behind Ozzie Albies. Needless to say, that will be worth the price of admission right there. The question will be how long those two dynamic hitters will be in the line-up together. My guess is about 17 games before Albies is promoted the majors. Acuna may not be far behind. Given the lack of production from the minor league veterans on the squad, the Braves may also elect to move up other Mississippi producers such as first baseman Joey Meneses or catcher Kade Scivicque.

Gwinnett Braves Leaderboard (wRC+, minimum 130 plate apperances )

Gwinnett OF Xavier Avery. (Photo: MiLB.com via Twitter)
  1. Xavier Avery – 138
  2. Johan Camargo – 132 (promoted)
  3. Rio Ruiz – 121
  4. Ozzie Albies* – 115
  5. Lane Adams – 108 (promoted)
  6. Mel Rojas Jr. – 98 (released)
  7. David Frietas – 96
  8. Sean Kazmar – 96
  9. Anthony Recker – 92
  10. Dustin Peterson – 90
  11. Matt Tuiasosopo – 86
  12. Kyle Kubitza – 85
  13. Carlos Franco – 80

* – All-Star selection

STARTING PITCHING

Gwinnett started the season with a rotation of Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims, and strangely enough Luke Jackson. Amazingly, considering the usual turnover of AAA rotations, that starting five is three-fifths intact, with Newcomb and Jackson now promoted to Atlanta and replaced with journeyman Andrew Albers and old favorite Kris Medlen.

This is mostly to do with the relative stability of the Atlanta rotation, who to date has only used seven starting pitchers. When Bartolo Colon was first put on the disabled list for his “oblique injury” and then later released, Sean Newcomb was the one to get the call and take the spot. Newcomb’s tenure with AAA was detailed in my Get To Know a Call-Up piece, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that his last two starts against the high-octane Houston Astros and Washington Nationals aside, the Braves have to be thrilled about what they’ve seen from Newcomb so far.

The other major contender for a seat at the grown-up table has been righty Lucas Sims. Like Newcomb, Sims has seen his walk rate dip to reasonable levels at Gwinnett, control being his main bugaboo during his steady ascent through the organization. There doesn’t seem to be much separating Newcomb and Sims at this point, other than Sims has been shakier recently, pitching to a 4.57 ERA in 7 starts since June 1. The Braves likely would prefer to see Sims have a run of success before promoting him, but even if that doesn’t happen I think we’ll see Sims in the majors for a September cup of coffee.

Now we come to Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair, the two living examples of the adage that there is no such thing as a “can’t miss” prospect. Wisler has been solid if unspectacular with Gwinnett, pitching to a 3.84 ERA in 11 starts in between four separate call-ups. Every appearance at Gwinnett has been as start, and all but one of Wisler’s eight big league appearances has been in relief. I believe Wisler could be a formidable reliever if he and the team commit to that path, but they keep bringing him back to start at Gwinnett, perhaps to try to bolster his trade value. In any case, his last four starts for Gwinnett have looked pretty good (1.85 ERA, 3 walks, 14 strikeouts), so perhaps he’s figured something out.

Blair on the other hand only sniffed the majors once, recalled to be an emergency pitcher one night, but returned to Gwinnett the next day having not appeared in a game. His work at Gwinnett has not been good overall with a 4.89 ERA and peripherals even worse than that. His last start before the break was his best however, his first that that he pitched through the seventh inning, allowing only two runs, walking none, and striking out six. He is still getting hammered by right-handed hitting, with his fastball still running flat and his slider, the new pitch that he was working on late last season with former Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, not really getting enough bite to be effective.

On the flipside, the Braves have gotten better than expected production from Andrew Albers. The control specialist has a 3.61 ERA in 20 appearances (11 starts) and his peripheral numbers look even better. Albers did come into the break with a streak of 4 subpar starts however after being pressed back into the rotation following right-hander Patrick Weigel’s UCL tear. Kris Medlen is another recent addition to the rotation and so far the results have not been positive as he’s pitched to a 6.25 ERA in his quest to mount a comeback after three TJS and shoulder issues last season.

Going into the second half, barring injury in Atlanta or trades this rotation of Sims, Wisler, Blair, Albers, and Medlen should stay stable for the next couple of weeks at least. It’s possible that the Braves may try to challenge one or both of their wunderkids at Mississippi, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, with a AAA assignment but I think it’s more likely they stay for the duration at this point.

Gwinnett Braves Leaderboard (xFIP, minimum 6 games started  

LHP Andrew Albers. (Photo: Chris Roughgarden/MiLB.com)
  1. Andrew Albers – 2.78
  2. Sean Newcomb – 3.54 (promoted)
  3. Lucas Sims* – 3.61
  4. Matt Wisler – 4.24
  5. Kris Medlen – 4.59
  6. Patrick Weigel – 4.89
  7. Aaron Blair – 5.03

* – All-Star selection

RELIEF PITCHING

Twenty-one different relief pitchers have toed the rubber for Gwinnett so far this season, and they have been largely successful. Of those, Gwinnett has maintained a core of right-handers David Peterson, Rhiner Cruz, Caleb Dirks, Mauricio Cabrera, and the recently promoted Akeel Morris.

Of this group, Morris produced the best best results in his 20 appearances between arriving from AA three weeks into the season and his promotion a week ago. Morris uses fastball movement and an excellent change-up to baffle hitters. Dirks is a similar pitcher, using a good change-up and slider to play off a low-’90s fastball. Unfortunately, Dirks has not appeared in a game in a month due to injury, otherwise I suspect he’d be up for a promotion himself.

David Peterson has been the workhorse of the group, leading the team in appearances and bullpen innings. Peterson has had an up-and-down minor league career since being drafted by the Braves back in 2012, including missing a year with TJS. At the age of 27 now, Peterson may be pitching to attract the eye of his next team.

Rhiner Cruz has been a story of Braves scouting casting the net wide and finding players everywhere. After a couple of seasons pitching in Houston after being claimed in the Rule V draft, Cruz didn’t pitch at all in 2015 and resumed his career in the Mexican leagues in 2016. Despite questionable control, Cruz has been mostly effective with Gwinnett and leads the squad in strikeouts-per-inning.

Mauricio Cabrera was expected to play a critical role in the Atlanta pen after a surprise call-up mid-season last year and an even more surprising run of success. It was different in spring training however as he battled control problems and injuries. Cabrera’s performance so far in Gwinnett is unlikely to get him a look in Atlanta again soon as his strikeouts are down, his walks are way up and he currently sports a 7.4o ERA. Cabrera does seem to be throwing a new pitch, a big breaking curveball that wasn’t seen last year.

Other Gwinnett contributors include several veterans that only passed through on their way to big league promotions, such as Jason Motte, Sam Freeman, and Rex Brothers. Another early contributor, right-hander Kevin Chapman, was sent to Minnesota in a trade for utilityman Danny Santana.

Two more recent additions are right-handers Evan Phillips and Enrique Burgos. Phillips was a 2015 draft pick, and has had early success since his bump up from Mississippi, pitching to a 2.57 ERA and even getting a spot start. Burgos has been very stingy, pitching to a 0.71 ERA in 12.1 innings since coming over to the Braves in a cash trade with the Diamondbacks. When looking at potential next call-ups, Burgos has the advantage of already being on the 40-man roster in addition to being effective at AAA.

Looking forward to the second half, Gwinnett is the latest home for the top relief prospect in the Braves system, left-hander A.J. Minter. If he proves to be as effective in Gwinnett as he’s been everywhere else in the system, he may not be in Gwinnett for very long. Rehabbing righty Daniel Winkler may hang around for awhile as well, at least until mid-August when his rehab stint has to end.

From the lower levels, look out for 2016 draftee Devan Watts, who was bumped up from Florida to Mississippi on June 25. His stuff and maturity is such that a look at AAA wouldn’t be out of the question.

DEFENSE

Gwinnett’s overall defense runs middle-of-the-pack in the International League. The quality of the defense can swing wildly night-to-night depending on who’s in the line-up.

When the middle infield consisted of Ozzie Albies at second and Johan Camargo at shortstop, not much could get through. Both have above average range and plus arms. When Camargo is in the majors, Albies has had a variety of double play partners, mostly Sean Kazmar, but also Jace Peterson when he’s slumming it in the minors. In both cases, the defense takes a big hit.

Gwinnett 2B Ozzie Albies. (Photo: Karl Moore/Gwinnett Braves)

Third base has been manned by Rio Ruiz for the most part, who has continued to show steady improvement around the bag and should now be considered an above average defensive third baseman. Carlos Franco and Kyle Kubitza have also gotten limited looks at third, and ideally they should stay limited.

Franco shows out better at first base, but the position has primarily been held down by Matt Tuiasosopo, who has become an above average first baseman after splitting time between first and the outfield over the course of his minor league career.

Outfielders Lane Adams and Xavier Avery are both above average in the corner spots but are stretched in center field. Dustin Peterson has solidified the left field spot after poor defensive showings from the since-released Mel Rojas Jr. and Kyle Kubitza for most of the early going.

Behind the plate, minor league free agent signing David Freitas has been a revelation; he has yet to commit an error or a passed ball and has thrown out 41% of baserunners. It’s clear that most of the pitching staff prefer throwing to him over the veteran Anthony Recker as well.

SUMMARY

The arrival of 19-year-old Ronald Acuna will light a spark in what has been an otherwise slightly disappointing season. Now the youngest player at the entire AAA level, Acuna displaces old man Ozzie Albies from the top of that list. The question now is how long will this dynamic duo remain in Gwinnett. It now seems extremely likely they will both end the season in Atlanta, and the question is when that will be. If the answer is September, Gwinnett will be one of the most interesting teams in AAA the rest of the way.

If it’s sooner than that — say, at the trade deadline — Gwinnett could have a long August, and the main topic of conversation about the team will be if they will actually be the Gwinnett Sweet Teas in 2018.

About Andy Harris 120 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.

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