In the final Awards article of the 2015, we highlight the top players and performances of the 2015 season. All of the usual awards will be given along with a few additions of our own. From top to bottom it was a fantastic season filled with great players, coaches, games, and teams.
(photo credit: Garrett Spain)
Mallex Smith was one of many prospects who energized the Braves system this year. He was a force at the top of the Mississippi lineup for the first half of the season, with an on base percentage of .418 and 27 stolen bases in 57 games. He was slowed a bit early after his jump to AAA, but was strong down the stretch in hitting .336 with 13 stolen bases in the final month of the season. He provided value on offense, defense, and the basepaths, and helped lead Gwinnett on a playoff push late in the season. Gwinnett didn't quite get in the playoffs, but Mallex showed off the electricity he can provide at the top of the lineup.
(photo credit: Garrett Spain)
Another Smith is gonna win a major award, and this time it's veteran lefty Greg Smith. This was the best season of Smith's 11 year career, and his 2.71 ERA was among the leaders of the system. He provided solid numbers from both the bullpen and the rotation for Gwinnett, and was named as the Pitcher of The Year by the Gwinnett Braves. He doesn't have "wow" stuff but provided a consistent performance all season long. He was especially good in June when he posted in 0.40 ERA in 7 appearances.
The top prospect in the Braves system may have missed nearly the entire month of August, but made a huge case in his 4 months for being the best hitter in the system. He was the 4th youngest player in the South Atlantic League, but that didn't bother him as he hit .310/.368/404 with 29 stolen bases in 98 games. Prior to a short slump to end the season (that may have been affected by his injured thumb) he was .334/.389/.435 from the top of Rome's order. He was a reserve in the South Atlantic League all star game and never went more than 2 games without a hit until that slump in late July.
Riley was the best player in the Braves system in July and August in 2015, and it wasn't even particularly close. The two highest OPS numbers in the entire system over those 2 months was Austin Riley in Danville (1.042) and Austin Riley in the GCL (.967). If that doesn't give you an idea of how fantastic he is nothing will. While his numbers were no doubt inflated by a ridiculous BABIP the power is real. Awards aren't given based on what should have happened and clearly Austin Riley was at the top of the list for this year's draftees. Only 3 players from the 2015 draft class with more than 200 at bats had a higher OPS than Riley, and only 1 player had more home runs. He led all high school players in home runs, RBIs, total bases, slugging percentage, and OPS.
Newcomer Of The Year
Mallex Smith was named Minor League Player of the Year by the Braves after coming over in this offseason in a trade with the Padres. He was the best player in the entire system this year, so it's only obvious that he was the best newcomer.
Manager of The Year
Snitker led the Gwinnett Braves to their best season since their first one in Gwinnett. He had to deal with a constantly changing roster all while balancing playing time for a ton of talented players. Almost every prospect that came through Gwinnett this year showed marked on field improvement from their first game to their last with Gwinnett. 13 of his players got their first extended major league time after playing under Snitker in Gwinnett. He and pitching coach Marty Reed hosted 4 of the top pitching prospects in the system, and all 4 of them had better seasons than they had the year before.
Connor Lien patrolled the Mudcats outfield all season long, and absolutely wreaked havoc on baserunners and hitters. He had 21 outfield assists this season, which easily led minor league baseball, and played elite defense in both center field and right field. He has easy plus speed (6.6 second 60 yard dash) and takes good routes. He was a Carolina League postseason all star and will make an appearance in the Arizona Fall League. He was an all around force for the Mudcats all year long.
(photo credit: Garrett Spain)
I'm very happy that this article is about just minor league performance, because it will really allow me to brag on Ryan Kelly. His 0.77 ERA between AA and AAA was absolutely fantastic and easily led the Braves system. He saved 23 of 24 games this year. He had a .159 BAA and struck out more than a batter an inning while walking less than 3 batters per 9 innings pitched. He went the entire season without allowing a home run and only allowed 4 extra base hits all season. He may not have had a ton of success in Atlanta, but he was clearly the best reliever in the system this year.
Kleinknecht has been far from the best player in the system in his career, but his connection with the fans has been undeniable. He has been one of the most fan friendly players at every level he has played at. He is almost always the first person out of the dugout sign autographs for the fans and frequently stops to take pictures and have conversations with younger fans. He always plays hard and is a versatile defender. He has even pitched a few innings in his career and has a 2.35 career ERA in 7.2 IP. He is one of the most well liked players in the system and is a joy to watch play.
(photo credit: Garrett Spain)
First, let me start by saying that the announcers in the system are great top to bottom. Tony Schiavone for Gwinnett, Greg Young for Carolina, and Kevin Karel and Clarke Johnson for Rome are all fantastic at calling games. Kyle Tait barely nudges out the group with his entertaining calls and interviews. He deals with a tough slate, having to frequently deal with rain delays, sprinkler delays, and even the occasional drone delay. He is a one man crew on the radio and truly goes above and beyond to do his job. He was the 2014 Southern League Broadcaster of the year and has done a great job of helping the Mississippi Braves increase their media presence.
Reed Harper's Catch on July 2
This was an easy choice for play of the year, and landed Harper the number 1 spot on Sportscenter's top 10 plays. His catch was the talk of minor league baseball for days, and helped seal a 3-1 victory for the Mudcats. To make the play even more incredible, Harper was playing outside of his normal position at second base.
Best Walk Off
Cedric Hunter walks off the Railriders on April 27
Gwinnett was really scrapping to win games early in the season and came into this one at 6-11. Manny Banuelos had a rough start by giving up 4 runs but Gwinnett managed to fight back late in the game. They tied the game in the seventh, but a run in the 8th seemed to all but doom the GBraves to their 12th loss of the season. The 9th inning started with Jose Peraza getting hit by a pitch, but no one could get him in to tie the game. Gwinnett was down to their final at bat when Cedric Hunter stepped to the plate. Always one for dramatics, Cedric Hunter laced a ball into right field, clearing the wall into the Railriders's bullpen for a walk off 2 run home run.
Best Single Game Hitting Performance
Connor Lien's stellar July 9
There were more than a few great games in the Braves system this year. Bradley Keller and Joseph Odom's 2 home run games both stand out, but Connor Lien was a touch above the rest in this one. He went 4-5 with a home run, 3 RBIs. 2 runs scored, and 3 stolen bases for the Mudcats. Lien also recorded 4 put outs on the day, including the final out of the 9-4 Mudcats win.
Best Single Game Pitching Performance
Stephen Janas flirts with perfection
3 games truly jumped out in the system this year. Jake Brigham took a perfect game into the 9th inning for Mississippi, and Andrew Barbosa's debut with Mississippi when he went 7 innings and struck out 12 batters. No one pitched as well as Janas did on May 6, when he came within 2 outs of a 7 inning perfect game. This wasn't too out of the ordinary for what he did in Carolina this year and he finished allowing just 1 hit while striking out 4
Cedric Hunter hits in 21 straight
Cedric had the only 20+ game hit streak of the season in the Braves system this year. In the midst of Gwinnett's August playoff chase, Cedric Hunter put up the best performance of his career. He went 31-87 (.356) with 3 home runs, 3 triples, and 4 doubles. He drove in 21 runs in that span and scored 12 runs. He led the system in RBIs and total bases during that span.
Mississippi's Drone Delays
Mississippi suffered not 1 but 2 delays caused by drones flying in the area of the stadium. Apparently, there is a MiLB rule against drones causing umpires to stop play. The first incident happened on July 21st against the Jackson Generals, leading to a 5 minute delay in play until the pilot left. A couple of months passed, and on September 4th the drone delay popped back up again. This time the Jacksonville Suns were the opponent and it led to a slightly shorter 4 minute delay.
Best Single Game
Carolina Mudcat's exciting Season Finale
The Mudcats saved the best for last in 2015 with a thrilling 12 inning win over the Lynchburg Hillcats. Carolina fell behind early when Seth Webster gave up a solo home run to Clint Frazier in the 1st inning but fought back to take a 2-1 lead in the 3rd. Webster then went into shutdown mode and didn't give up a run in the next 6 innings. Luis Salazar turned the game over to the bullpen, and an unearned run in the 8th tied the game up. Richie Tate then danced around trouble for 2.1IP, allowing 6 hits and a walk. He was helped out by some great defense, including Connor Lien gunning down LeVon Washington at home with 2 outs in the 10th. In the bottom of the 11th Tanner Krietemeier also contributed an outfield assist by gunning down the potential winning run at home. Carolina finally broke through in the 12th, getting 2 runs on a Dustin Peterson single and then 2 more on a Carlos Franco home run. Justin Jackson finished out the game and gave Carolina the win in their final game of the season.
Moment Of The Year
Jose Yepez homers on the last day of the season
Jose Yepez came into the final game of the season hitting .185 with just 1 extra base hit. The 34 year old catcher hadn't hit since July 14th of 2012 against the Louisville Bats. Hardly a candidate to bring the crowd to its feet, he did just that with a bomb to left field. The crowd and bench exploded as the veteran rounded the bases. On its own this would have been an amazing moment for both Yepez and the Braves, but the context made the moment bittersweet. Not only was this the last game of the season, it is also the last of Yepez's 15 year professional career that has seen him play for 3 different organizations, 2 indy league teams, and the Cardinales de Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League. He stated soon after that he is 90% certain he will be hanging it up after this season and that he plans on coming back to the Braves as a coach next season. He is one of the most beloved players in the clubhouse and will be a great addition to whatever coaching staff he joins next season.
With the 2015 Minor League season in the books, we now turn our attention to the winter leagues. We have 5 players representing the Braves in the Arizona Fall League, and a few more dispersed through various winter leagues in South America and the Carribean. It was an incredibly fun season to cover and recap, and there were tons of memorable moments and plays
Two teams came within inches of postseason berths, and they look to continue that success into 2016. 2016 should be an even better minor league season, as we get to see the return of guys like Max Fried in addition to all of the prospects we already have. The J2 period should be a blast, and it will be fun to watch just how much money the Braves spend next year. Then there's the potential Top 3 draft pick. Guys like AJ Puk, Riley Pint, and Justin Groome will all be in play for the Braves next year as well as some guys who have yet to make a name for themselves.
The GCL season will be our first taste of Cristian Pache and Derian Cruz, as well as whatever draftees we take next year. Lucas Herbert should return from injury and hopefully we will finally see health from Wes Parsons, Max Povse, and Ricardo Sanchez. Rome will be stacked next year, with a potential lineup of Ronald Acuna, Luke Dykstra, Austin Riley, Braxton Davidson, Juan Yepez, Isranel Wilson, Tanner Murphy, Leudys Baez, and Justin Ellison. Then there is the rotation that should include Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, and Ryan Clark
All in all, it was a crazy, exhilarating season. The future looks as bright as ever in Braves Country. Let's hope we start a new Division Title streak extremely soon