Triple-A. I’ve nearly made it to the big time. After crushing it with Rome, Florida, and Mississippi, I’ve joined Gwinnett to preview this final roster. It’s kind of exciting. Unlike the other three squads, Gwinnett didn’t play yesterday. Their first game as the “Stripers” happens this evening at 7:05 in Norfolk. Go ahead and get your stripper jokes out of your system and let’s take a look at the roster.
Pitchers: Kolby Allard, Jesse Biddle, Aaron Blair, Rex Brothers, Caleb Dirks (DL), David Peterson, Phil Pfeifer, Evan Phillips, Andres Santiago, Lucas Sims, Miguel Socolovich, Mike Soroka, Patrick Weigel (DL), Matt Wisler.
The Braves’ restrained approached here works in the favor of Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler, who both receive yet another starting opportunity in the system. Kyle Wright and Max Fried would have both probably been in Triple-A under the previous regime. Instead, the starting staff looks like this: Mike Soroka, Wisler, Lucas Sims, Kolby Allard, and Blair. Don’t get hung up on the order. The organization doesn’t value Wisler and Sims over Allard. It’s just how things worked out.
Mike Soroka has only impressed in this system since he was drafted in 2015. Despite jumping a level last season, he saw little variance in his K% and BB%. Soroka may lack the stuff some of the other Braves’ pitchers have, but he has no match in the system when it comes to stuff + pitchability. He has four very good pitches he can throw for strikes at any time in the at-bat and he knows it. Fans who have tired of seeing young guns come up from the minors and nibble should be excited when it’s Soroka’s time. He doesn’t nibble. He comes right after hitters with quality strikes.
Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are so attached in people’s minds that it doesn’t make much sense to talk about them separately. Both pitchers had nice pedigrees. Both pitchers came to the Braves with a control artist/workhorse label. And now, both pitchers are running out of time. This will be the final option year for both pitchers. If they don’t figure it out and soon, their time in Atlanta will be over. And frankly, for many Braves’ fans, that can’t come soon enough.
Lucas Sims, who was one of the final premium prospects still standing from the Frank Wren era, made it to the majors last year. Unfortunately, his problems came with him. Sims has potential and is only 23-years-old. On the other hand, we’ve been waiting for a few adjustments for a while now and it seems less and less likely they will occur. He’s an extreme flyball pitcher during the flyball revolution. His command is not exact. And his out pitch isn’t that great. In fact, this description sounds a lot like Julio Teheran. To be fair, Sims did improve his command in a big way during 2017. That could help him if he lands a bullpen role in the near future.
Few pitchers in the system have such variety in opinions by “experts” attached to them than Kolby Allard. In Double-A as a 19-year-old, the lefty not only held his own but thrived. His numbers weren’t far removed from Soroka’s, but Soroka climbed prospect charts while Allard languished or slipped. This was entirely based on his fastball, which was a few ticks slower on the gun. Fastball velocity isn’t everything, but it definitely worries onlookers. Allard has a great changeup and curveball and while the velocity has been concerning, Allard locates his fastball and manipulates the ball well. Allard has done nothing but produce. Perhaps we should remember that instead of focusing so much on velocity.
The bullpen is a mix of AAAA types and interesting potential. Few have more of the latter than Jesse Biddle, who made a successful return from Tommy John surgery. A starting prospect with the Phillies, the Braves moved him to the pen and his control improved while his strikeout rate shot up. The Braves had him on a limit, shutting him down after nearly 50 innings. He’ll presumably have a bigger role in 2018. A guy that K’s a quarter of all hitters and walks around 7% is going to have a lot of fans in the organization.
We’ve already seen both Rex Brothers and Miguel Socolovich in Atlanta this season. Both are boring options and limited as major leaguers, but both could be quality options for Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill. Brothers has proven that he can get left-handers out with a 95 mph fastball and 88 mph slider. Socolovich passed through waivers and was outrighted to Gwinnett just yesterday. He throws a three-pitch mix and the slider isn’t half-bad, but he struggles to get into two-strike counts because he’s so hittable.
David Peterson is becoming a Gwinnett veteran and is a groundball artist with solid control. However, he won’t put up numbers that jump off the page. That doesn’t mean he won’t be successful, but he also is unlikely to land a major league job. Meanwhile, Phil Pfeifer strikes out a ton of batters, but he also walks far too many. If he throws more strikes in 2018, we might need to size him up for an Atlanta jersey at some point. Evan Phillips is in a similar boat that he needs to throw more strikes, but Pfeifer is a left-hander. That gives him the advantage.
In 2017, Andres Santiago did something you rarely see – he pitched at all four levels. It wasn’t because he was a young gun blasting through – he was 27. He was simply a guy who the Braves could plug-in-play wherever he was needed. That could be his fate in 2018, though perhaps the new regime doesn’t agree with that philosophy.
On the DL to open the year will be Caleb Dirks and Patrick Weigel. Dirks relies on a funky delivery to give him an edge and had put up amazing minor league numbers before struggling last summer with Gwinnett. That followed a return from injury. If he comes back healthy, Dirks could be a guy who earns a promotion to the big leagues this season. Patrick Weigel might pitch at some point during the 2018 season as he rehabs from Tommy John, but a much more likely approach is that we won’t see him in any game action until fall instructionals.
Catchers: Rob Brantly, Kade Scivicque, Chris Stewart
If you look up “attributes of a backup catcher,” Kade Scivicque checks off most of the boxes. He handles pitchers well. He’s a good leader, especially with younger arms. And he makes decent contact at the plate. But he lacks a real “wow” skill. His arm is fringey, his groundball rate is too high, and his bat doesn’t flash much pop. Many wondered why he didn’t get a shot after Tyler Flowers‘ oblique injury and Kurt Suzuki‘s hit-by-pitch, but I think the fact he didn’t is actually a good sign. Atlanta didn’t want to be in a situation where they might have to later designate Scivicque for a 40-man roster spot. That implies to me that he still has fans in the front office. Brantly is a guy and a decent option to stash in Triple-A.
I was about to edit this article when we got news that Chris Stewart accepted an assignment to the minors. That helps to explain why the Gwinnett roster was sitting at 24 this morning – one short of the roster limit. We all know the story with Stewart. He’s a backup catcher and not much else.
Infielders: Christian Colon (INF), Carlos Franco (1B), Sean Kazmar Jr. (INF), Rio Ruiz (1B/3B), Tyler Smith (INF)
Carlos Franco just keeps working. He’s a veteran of nine minor league seasons and broke out in 2017 with 21 home-runs after entering the year with 33 career jacks. He’ll walk a good deal and he’ll strikeout a lot. Across the diamond will be Rio Ruiz, who everybody in the system lauds for his work ethic. That’ll keep getting him chances, but I’m sure Atlanta wants a better season at Gwinnett than his slash last year of .247/.322/.446. Still, that represents a three-year high in OPS at .768.
Gwinnett has a trio of utility infielders who have all played in the majors. Christian Colon was listed as the second baseman on the roster, but he can play short and third base. He has no pop in his bat, nor does he have value as a baserunner. But he can ride a solid BABIP to a decent season and has 386 PA in the majors. Plus, some big postseason moments with the Royals. Sean Kazmar Jr. just keeps playing and the organization loves him so much that he has great job security. He also had a solid season last year with eleven home runs. Smith was picked up during the minor league portion of the Rule 5 and could be the favorite for the majority of starts at shortstop early on in 2018. He’s not that impressive with the bat but carries a decent reputation in the field.
Outfielders: Ronald Acuna Jr., Xavier Avery (DL), Ezequiel Carrera, Jaff Decker, Dustin Peterson, Danny Santana (UTIL)
Seriously, do I have to talk about Ronald Acuna Jr.? Fine. He’s good. Really good. Best true prospect in baseball. Going to be in the majors. Let’s just move on.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the other prospect in the mix – Dustin Peterson. As I recently wrote, predicting improvement with Peterson this year is a good bet. Fully recovered from a hamate injury last spring, Peterson has tweaked his swing and simply looks like a better hitter. I’m expecting a good deal more power in 2018. With Acuna Jr. already waiting in the wings for a major league assignment – and Preston Tucker potentially showing he’s around for good – Peterson might have a tough time getting a major league assignment this season.
Zeke Carrera (not sure if he likes to be called “Zeke”) is a thoroughly “meh” option. He doesn’t do much at the plate, nor is he a stud in the field. He will swipe a few bases, though, and has over a thousand plate appearances in the majors. Jaff Decker has also been in the majors a bunch, though used considerably less frequently than Carrera (just 191 PA over 5 years). He can flash decent pop with some speed. He’ll combine great walk rates with those skills as well. Could be another Lane Adams, but may find a tougher time getting to the majors with the depth in Atlanta this season compared to last year.
Some like Danny Santana and believe a return to form from his rookie season could be in the future. Others think he’s a terribly flawed player who had one nice year in the majors made possible by a high BABIP. I imagine both camps are happy, though, that he’s in the minors to begin this season. Santana can play some infield along with the outfield, has occasional power, and pretty good speed. He’s a decent Quad-A option. Xavier Avery opens the year on the DL and has 107 PA in the majors. He had a great year in 2017 as a high walk and strikeout rate guy with pop.
There’s the roster for Gwinnett. The offense lacks a lot of big-time prospects, though I hear Acuna Jr. is okay. Both Dustin Peterson and Rio Ruiz could force the Braves’ hand with a solid season. But like all Braves’ affiliates, the story begins on the mound. Soroka/Allard are an excellent duo of pitching prospects and probably the best 1-2 punch as far as pitching prospects go in Triple-A. There are a lot of other potential breakout arms, though many are seeing their time run out as well. Overall, this is your typical Triple-A roster. Veteran guys with major league experience sprinkled all over the roster with the occasional fine prospect.
By the way, if you haven’t already, consider purchasing the 2018 Atlanta Baseball Preview. I used it as a quick reference for this article. Take it to the game with you this year to give you the ability to quickly know what to expect from most of the Braves’ minor league players you’ll see this year. Also makes a great gift!