When the opening day rosters for the Braves’ minor league clubs were announced, a bit of a narrative was born. While it would be easy to suggest that the narrative was related to the demotion of Ronald Acuna Jr. to Gwinnett to open the year, that was really just a small part of a bigger picture. The previous spring, fans who follow the Braves’ minor leagues were excited about the hyper-aggressive promotions of Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard from low-A to Double-A. As the season progressed, Luiz Gohara and Acuna Jr. breezed through the system with the former pitching in the majors.
John Coppolella and his team were seen as willing to push players fast if they showed they could handle it. As a result, guys were getting promotions left-and-right. Even teenagers like Kevin Maitan, Drew Waters, Jean Carlos Encarnacion, and Jefrey Ramos were only given a few weeks in the Gulf Coast League before being thrown at college-age arms in the Appalachian League. The message was simple – produce and be rewarded.
That’s why some opening day assignments were of particular interest this spring. And the new narrative was simple: under Alex Anthopoulos, it looked like the Braves would be more restrained in their promotions. Guys would be on less of an accelerated timetable. This went well beyond Acuna Jr. Thomas Burrows, who had a 2.49 FIP in 38 games with Rome in 2017, was back on the opening day roster for the South Atlantic League squad. Top Rome starters like Bryse Wilson, Joey Wentz, and Ian Anderson were only bumped up to Florida and none of the trio received a Soroka/Allard-like push.
The most shocking of opening day assignments may have been that of William Contreras. Named the Danville Position Player of the Year last summer, he was nowhere to be found on the Rome roster. Rather, Drew Lugbauer, who ended the year with Rome after an aggressive promotion, was in the way. As were two other catchers – Brett Cumberland and Alex Jackson – who were given repeat assignments with the team they finished 2017 with. Even Austin Riley, who had a .408 wOBA in 48 games with Mississippi last year, was scheduled for a return trip.
But that narrative of slowly moving players through the system has been declared false by not just the moves that followed the trade deadline, but throughout the season. This current regime is just as aggressive in their promotions as the previous one. In fact, it could be argued that under Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves are even more aggressive. Under previous regimes, teenagers often played out their first year of full-season ball in Rome or even Macon before it. Chipper Jones had a .925 OPS with Macon in 1991, but the Braves wouldn’t promote him. A couple of years later, Jermaine Dye had a .818 OPS. No promotion. Andruw Jones had a .884 OPS as an 18-year-old. No promotion.
A number of top prospects have performed admirably well with Rome but couldn’t earn a promotion, including Ozzie Albies, Riley, Soroka, and Touki Toussaint. As I mentioned, you can add the 2017 trio of Anderson, Wentz, and Wilson to the list.
But you can’t add Contreras to that list. Despite missing the first few weeks of the season, he received a promotion following a .293/.360/.463 run over 82 games. He’s not alone. Waters joins him despite still playing high school baseball 14 months ago. Waters hit .303/.353/.513 with 20 steals over 84 games. Huascar Ynoa recently received a promotion up the ladder as well. Kyle Muller only made six starts before getting his own promotion from Rome.
Waters won’t join Cristian Pache in the Florida outfield because the still-just-19-year-old is headed to Mississippi after his OPS jumped 63 points compared to where it was in Rome during 2017. He would have joined Cumberland, but the latter was just traded. He also would have joined Alex Jackson, Kyle Wright, Riley, or Toussaint, but they’re all in Gwinnett now.
Chad Sobotka opened the year in Florida but is now pitching out of the Gwinnett pen. To be fair, his promotions aren’t quite as notable considering he was drafted in 2014 and had twenty games with Mississippi before this season.
The same can’t be said about the rocket-like climb of Bryse Wilson. He won’t turn 21 until December 20, was the fifth pitcher selected by the Braves in the 2016 draft, and is scheduled to make his Triple-A debut this week. He opened the season in Florida, a natural promotion after 26 starts in Rome the previous year. After five starts, the Braves pushed him up to Double-A out of mercy for Florida State League hitters. With Mississippi, Wilson struggled at first. He then found his way over a dominant July. He’s now 1/5th of a Gwinnett rotation that also includes Gohara, Wright, Allard, and Toussaint. Oh, and Max Fried and Wes Parsons will likely help out as well.
And then, there is Thomas Burrows, who opened the season with a save against the Hagerstown Suns, including a strikeout of Juan Soto. He immediately received a promotion to Florida where he had a 3.28 ERA over 46.2 innings. Recently, he earned a second promotion to Mississippi. From forgotten arm to accelerated timetable.
Even the draft has been full of guys on the move. Greyson Jenista quickly joined Rome after a brief layover in Danville. AJ Graffanino signed late but had a similar quick cameo in Danville before joining Rome. Justin Dean received a promotion yesterday after a .308/.419/.454 beginning to his career. CJ Alexander, plucked out of the 20th round, is already in Danville after starting in the Gulf Coast League and seemed primed to get a promotion to Rome before missing over a week of action. Brendan Venter, Brooks Wilson, and Michael Mateja have all received promotions to Rome. Mateja has even played for both rookie-league clubs already.
Our good friend, Andy Harris, of Outfield Fly Rule pointed out that two-thirds of his mid-season Top 30 have received promotions since the beginning of this year. We recently updated our Top 50 and I did the math. About half, or 26 players, have received a promotion up the ladder from where they started the year. That said, our numbers are far more comparable with Andy if you just look at our Top 30 where 19 have received promotions.
To be fair, top prospects throughout baseball are rising up organizations faster than ever so what Anthopoulos and his team are doing isn’t unique to him. That said, after a lot of talk about the Braves adopting a more conservative approach to timetables for their prospects, the quickness guys like Wilson have flown through the system makes it clear that the organization is far from conservative. Play well, get promoted. Even if you don’t wow the organization, sometimes you’re given a sink-or-swim moment like Alex Jackson. But above all, it doesn’t matter where you start, if you impress enough people, you might be a call away from the majors.
Talk about an incentive!