Long the destination for washed up former prospects, and a few mid tier prospects in need of a bit more seasoning, the Gwinnett Braves have finally rolled out a roster worth talking about. They are stacked on the mound with some solid position prospects-especially in the infield-and roll out one of the more exciting team in the International League. Perhaps this year the GBraves can fill Coolray Field to more than 40% on average, at least I really hope they can improve that dismal attendance.
Boy howdy those are some pitchers. 4 former first top 50 prospects headline the group, with the combination of Wisler/Blair/Newcomb having a legitimate chance to be the back end of Atlanta’s rotation by the end of the season. Matt Wisler is certainly the most interesting name on the list as a guy who has on occasion flashed mid rotation potential while a member of the big league club, but has been stung by high home run rates and general inconsistency. As it stands Wisler would be the first man up should a member of the rotation go down for any length of time due to injury, and could perhaps make a spot start or two if the Braves determine he would be a better option than Josh Collmenter (he would be). The Braves will be looking for big things from Wisler as they try to determine if he is a legitimate rotation option for the future.
No player saw his stock sour quite as much as Aaron Blair, but the command of all of is pitches got away from him once he was called to the major leagues and he was slaughtered by MLB hitters in his 15 starts. Blair was strong in Gwinnett prior to his call up to Atlanta, but couldn’t keep the ball down in his return and saw both his slider and fastball hit hard. Blair simply needs to get himself right mentally and get back to working low in the zone and towards the corners, at which point things should fall back in place and he should regain some of his previous success.
Sean Newcomb is another player that has seen his star fade a bit, but there is no question he is still the most physically talented pitcher in the upper minor leagues in the system. Newcomb simply has to work hard on maintaining focus through games and improve his ability to hit corners especially with his fastball. If he can build on his late season performance in AA he could get off to a flying start in Gwinnett, and the Braves would not be shy to get him to Atlanta if he shows he is ready. Sean Newcomb is my minor league comeback player of the year pick, as I expect him to take his game to another level and dominate the AAA level this season.
Lucas Sims continues to confound, but there’s one thing you should expect out of him-lots of strikeouts. Sims piled up Ks as well as anyone in the minor leagues last season, and has 3 pitches that generate swings and misses on a consistent basis. Sims has to show he can throw strikes early in this season, or with the reinforcements coming from the AA level he could find himself relegated to a bullpen role as soon as midseason. No one wants to see a guy with three 55 or better pitches stuck in a late inning role, but 6 walks per 9 innings is completely unacceptable for a starter. We here at Talking Chop have long been among the biggest believers in Sims and continue to be.
The Braves want Luke Jackson as a starter. Boy is this going to be an interesting decision. Jackson hasn’t started consistently since 2014, but as a starter in the Rangers he was dominant prior to reaching the Pacific Coast League. We all know Jackson can touch triple digits, and if he can settle into a role with Gwinnett could show off the arm talent that made him one of the better starters in the Rangers system in 2013 and 2014. If Jackson can’t reign in his control? Just slide him back into an 8th inning role and stick him in Atlanta’s bullpen where he’d be a welcome piece. I honestly don’t know what to expect from Jackson, which makes it all the more fun.
The average age of the rotation on opening day will be 24 years, 127 days-more than 2 years younger than the average age of a pitcher in the International League.
Jason Hursh was the Braves first rounded in 2013, and while he has disappointed in regards to his draft position, he should have a chance to take his nasty sinker to the major league level in 2017. Now on his second stint with Atlanta, Dirks has had a dominant 1.32 ERA in his career. While he may seem a bit further from Atlanta than Hursh, his insane performance could allow him to jump over a long list of relievers that are on the brink of a call up. Bradley Roney will be on the DL to start 2017, but his gaudy strikeout numbers have drawn attention over the past few seasons. Walks will always be a part of his game, but he will need to show the ability to limit them if he wishes to be an impact reliever in the big leagues.
Adam Brett Walker
All 4 of the aforementioned players have strong cases to get promoted to Atlanta in 2017, but Ozzie Albies reigns supreme as the #9 prospect in baseball and now #1 prospect in the Braves system following the graduation of Dansby Swanson. Perhaps the best pure hitting prospect the Braves have produced this century, Albies will still be the youngest player in the International League despite this being his second time up. Expect him to spend a lot of time at the top of that G Braves order, especially with Brandon Phillips making a potential early arrival a bit unneeded.
Rio Ruiz has been promising but extremely frustrating as a Brave. He led the GBraves attack last year and will return again in better shape after a lot of hard work this offseason. He impressed in Spring Training and was considered one of the most improved players in camp, and has looked noteably better versus left handed pitching. Ruiz truly is a call away from the big leagues, and any opening left by the aging and not-good-when-he-was-young Adonis Garcia could be turned into a permanent spot in Atlanta for the 23 year old Ruiz.
Johan Camargo has put in a lot of time in the weight room for Atlanta, bulking up in a a way that has allowed him to move past his approach as a singles hitter in the lower minor leagues. He is a steady defender at short, though lacking in the range necessary to be a premium defender, with a cannon for an arm and very good instincts. He and Albies will make up the best defensive middle infield in the International League, and with Camargo’s improvement at the plate you would be hard-pressed to find a better overall infield than what Gwinnett will roll out.
Dustin Peterson has steadily improved throughout his career, but a broken hamate bone has sidelined him for the start of the season and will prevent him from riding the momentum of last season into a strong early start. Peterson is by far the most major league ready outfielder in the system, and would be the only long term solution if one of the Braves corner outfielders were to go down. It’s doubtful he gets a chance in 2017, and should have a full season to post good numbers once he returns from injury.
Still just 25, many have written off the powerful Adam Brett Walker and his future with a major league club, and he hopes to prove the naysayers wrong in 2017. He possesses arguably the best raw power in the Braves system, but his ridiculous strikeout rates and lack of defensive versatility have made it hard for him to find any footing. The Braves want right-handed power off of the bench, and a strong opening to the season could convince them that Walker is the answer.
Mel Rojas Jr. was a member of the Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic, and got a chance to play off the bench beside some of the top sluggers in the world. Rojas is a very good defender who can play center in a pinch, and while he lacks an offensive tool necessary to become a starter he has just the type of versatility to make him a valuable bench piece in the major leagues. Many thought Matt Tuiasosopo could make Atlanta’s team after his home run binge early in spring training, but he cooled off and was relegated to Gwinnett. If Freddie Freeman goes down for any period of time, Tui would likely be the next man in line. Lane Adams is a superstar athlete that just hasn’t been able to show the tools necessary to play at the major league level. He plays above average defense at all 3 positions and is a threat on the basepaths when he can get on. He also has potential to be a bench outfielder if the Braves needed him.
Predicted Record for 2017: 86-57, 1st Place IL South
The GBraves haven’t posted more than 80 wins since their first season in Gwinnett, but this is the team to do it. They have both talent and reinforcements at the lower levels, and should hold onto the core long enough to put up a serious run in the International League.
Team MVP: Ozzie Albies
Team Pitching MVP: Sean Newcomb
First Player to Be Called Up: Mel Rojas Jr. (one can only hope the Emilio experiment ends swiftly)
Breakout Player: Rio Ruiz
IL Result: First Round loss-true Braves fashion (after 3/5 of their rotation and half the infield is in Atlanta come August)