As you would expect from an organization finishing up a rebuild cycle and particularly focusing on pitching, the low minors are awash in pitching prospects. After the success of Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Patrick Weigel, and Max Fried all skipping the high-A level on their way up the organizational ladder, the main pre-season drama will be if any of the young Rome starters of 2017 will make a similar jump to pitch in AA. The trio of Anderson, Wilson, and Wentz certainly have the talent and poise to handle such an assignment, but there’s other prospects in the system too, some of them very strong, who could take those rotation spots and keep those three 2016 draft stars simmering with the Fire Frogs.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
The Braves first round pick in 2017, the expectation is that the relatively polished Vanderbilt product will rise quickly though the organization. Wright’s innings were kept on a strict governor in 2017, and I would expect shorter outings this year as well in order to help him transition from the college season to the every-fourth-day slog of the professional pitcher. If he’s pitching effectively by the end of the season however, a cup of coffee with the big league club wouldn’t be out of the equation.
Toussaint made significant strides last season, and pitching coach Dennis Llewellyn will be re-joining him in Mississippi. Toussaint got a taste of the AA level in 2017 and held his own. A strong first half could see Toussaint to Gwinnett before the end of the year. There has been some speculation that Toussaint may be a bullpen candidate at some point, and that may be how he breaks into the major leagues, but if he continues to progress with a complete four-pitch repertoire and improves with runners on, I would expect him to be in someone’s starting rotation.
Withrow will likely begin the season in AA for the second year in a row after an injury-plagued 2017 campaign. A groundball specialist with an improving change-up, Withrow will look to solidify his standing as a starting pitcher as he is danger of getting squeezed by the higher profile pitching talent from the 2016 draft.
Pike’s 2017 season was cleanly bisected by his time in high-A Florida and AA Mississippi. Lack of control has long been Pike’s bugaboo, but after seemingly getting that problem under… um… control… he moved up a level and saw his walk rate spike. Interestingly, the same phenomenon occurred when he was promoted to AA in 2016 while still with the Mariners organization. Like Withrow, Pike may be pitching to stay in a rotation, and hopefully a reunion with his Florida pitching coach Llewellyn will get him back on track, because a walk rate that high is unsustainable as either a starter or a reliever.
The proud owner of a spiffy new 40-man roster spot, Sanchez will have his first chance at a big league spring training camp. The Braves will likely be evaluating him as a potential left-handed relief specialist, but in the end I think they’ll put him back in the minors and back in the rotation. Sanchez’s main troubles last season were around pitching out of the stretch, which doesn’t really make him a good relief option at this time, but his ceiling is certainly still high enough to make it worthwhile to spend a 40-man roster spot to protect him from December’s Rule V draft.
Harrington started for the Fire Frogs for three months before getting shut down in early July. The results were OK, but he allowed a lot of baserunners. Harrington both started and relieved in college, and I suspect his future is in the bullpen, but the Braves may want to put him back in a rotation, either back in Florida or with Mississippi.
Parsons played the swingman role at both Mississippi and Gwinnett last season, and will likely do the same this year.
RHP Andres Santiago
Santiago yo-yo’d through all four full-season minor league affiliates, pitching as both a starter and a reliever. In short, he plugged wholes in staffs when they came up due to injury or promotion. The Braves must have liked his work, because they quickly re-signed him after he became a minor league free agent in November.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
The Braves top pick in the 2016 draft didn’t have the results that some were hoping for in Rome, especially compared to his rotationmates like Wilson and Wentz, but he still has the best stuff of that group and the higher ceiling. Coming from a northern state, Anderson’s innings were carefully monitored by the Braves, who want to stretch him out to a full-season’s worth of work gradually. Anderson should take that next step this season with the Fire Frogs.
Wilson’s 2017 season for Rome was successful beyond anyone’s projection, except possibly Wilson’s. Wilson’s efficiency and control probably give him a shot at starting the season at AA Mississippi, but he’s got enough to work on with pitch quality that would make a high-A assignment, at least to start the season, the more likely route.
Like Wilson, Wentz started strong for Rome and then got even better as the season progressed, with his change-up in particular gaining ground. Like Wilson, Wentz would be a candidate for the double-promotion to Mississippi, but the same reasons to having Wilson start at high-A apply to Wentz as well.
Davidson has really streaked up prospect lists this offseason after a promising transition from the bullpen to the rotation for Rome mid-summer and showing improved velocity on his fastball as well as an improved change-up (see and listen to an interview with Baseball America, published this week). Davidson for now is firmly ensconced in the rotation.
Walker is an advanced strike thrower who like most of the Rome rotation got better as the season progressed. If he starts being able to strike out batter more consistently, he could be a sleeper in the organization.
LHP Oriel Caicedo
After two seasons of being a swingman for Rome, Caicedo had a little bit of a breakthrough in 2017, and was finally promoted to high-A Florida. With so many high-level prospects skipping high-A and a rash of injuries affecting the rotation, Caicedo ended up making all but one of his 12 appearances with the Frogs as a starter, and he held his own.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
Muller has battled mechanical issues and nagging injuries that has put him about a year behind his fellow 2016 high-round draftmates, but his ceiling is still as high as ever. When he finally got healthy at the end of the season for Danville, he put up an impressive show. I anticipate he will flourish in Rome under the tutelage of pitching coach Dan Meyer.
Rangel split time last season between Rome’s rotation and the bullpen. If the Braves elect to keep him in the bullpen, there’s a good chance he will advance to high-A Florida, but I think they’ll try to keep him working in the rotation. If any of the projected starters from Florida end up in Mississippi, Rangal is the most likely starter to move up early in the season.
Like Muller, Ynoa pitched his best the last couple of weeks for Danville as he really started to get a feel for his change-up. Ynoa has a relatively advances repertoire, and if I was placing a bet on an under-the-radar lower level Braves prospect to make a significant improvement this year, it would probably be Ynoa.
RHP Odalvi Javier
The “old man” of the staff at age 21, Javier won’t wow anyone with his stuff but he has a good feel for the craft for a relatively inexperienced pitcher. Javier should be one of the steadier pitchers for Rome this season.
There’s a lot of ways the Braves could go with the last spot in the Rome rotation, but my coin flip came up with De La Cruz. De La Cruz has a good fastball/slider combination, but needs work on a change-up or he’ll likely end up as a bullpen guy.
LHP Jaret Hellinger
A late-round 2015 local pick, Hellinger has and intriguing four-pitch repertoire, but he’s had enough mechanical difficulties to thwart his effectiveness. That started to change toward the end of 2017, and he should eventually get a look at starting, but may begin the season in the bullpen.
The Braves third-round pick in 2017, Tarnok is another project, though the tools he brought to the GCL were impressive. Given his relative lack of pitching experience, I expect him to remain in extended spring training and then proceed to a short-season Danville assignment, but this is the Braves, so there’s at least the possibility they could throw Tarnok into the fire of full-season ball.
LHP Bruce Zimmermann
A senior sign in the 5th round of the 2017 draft, Zimmermann was quietly the most effective starting pitcher for Danville last season. His average of just over 2 innings per start however probably hint towards what the Braves believe his future role to be however.
OFR TOP 10 STARTING PITCHER PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Mike Soroka
- Luiz Gohara
- Kyle Wright
- Kolby Allard
- Ian Anderson
- Max Fried
- Touki Toussaint
- Bryse Wilson
- Joey Wentz
- Patrick Weigel