Okay, let me gather myself. The Braves have recently used their Double-A affiliate as a landing pad for aggressive promotions and there has been a lot of turnover on the roster as a result. One need only look back to last year where Ozzie Albies, despite only just recently (at the time) being able to watch R-rated movie, skipped high-A entirely to start the season at Mississippi. Later we saw Dansby Swanson, Max Povse, and others promoted to Mississippi quickly to supplement losses to Triple-A Gwinnett.
Given that context, it will be interesting to see how the Braves handle roster moves midseason for this team given how many important prospects are on the team and how aggressively some of them were promoted there in the first place. With that said, let us talk some specifics.
...okay, I needed to compose myself again. Without looking too hard, this may be the best and most talented rotation in minor league baseball. Three of these pitchers (Allard, Soroka, Fried) made top 100 prospect lists this past offseason and Weigel was in strong consideration for at the very least Baseball America’s list.
Fried was lights out down the stretch for Rome last season including being their most dominant postseason starter. His performance then as well as this spring led combined with his age led many to believe that he would skip high-A and he has done just that. His combination of strong command of a mid-90s fastball, one of the best breaking balls in the system, and a changeup that plays up given his other pitches, he could be among the better pitching prospects in Double-A this year and he could threaten for a call-up to the big leagues before the end of the season.
Kolby Allard, who will remain a teenager until August, was a far more surprising addition to the Double-A roster. In addition to his age, he only pitched 87.2 innings last year as he recovered from a procedure on his back, but when he returned and knocked the rust of, he was sensational especially in the second half. He takes his cutting fastball, plus curve, and improving changeup to go along with great command to Double-A thanks to his high ceiling and, from what I hear, a great spring showing.
If Allard was surprising, arguably more surprising to the casual observer was the inclusion of Mike Soroka on the roster as well. Again a teenager until August rolls around, Soroka possesses three above average to plus pitches with the two variations of his fastball, breaking ball, and changeup that he throws with arguably some of the best control in the minors. His mental aptitude and feel for pitching is at the top of the charts and if he can make strides with his changeup, he could very well be the pitcher that puts the best overall performance in the rotation even if his upside may not be quite as high as Fried or Allard.
The three pitchers above from Rome who skipped high-A will be rejoining Patrick Weigel who made the jump from Rome to Mississippi before the end of last season. Weigel’s performance last season led to him being named the Braves Organizational Pitcher of the Year in 2016. The thing that jumps out about Weigel first and foremost is his fastball which can touch triple digits but that he also can change speeds well with. He has a curve and a slider with the slider being the better of the two pitches and while his changeup is only average right now, he is only this past year or so throwing it with any frequency so there could be more there especially when paired with his fastball. In the past, mechanical issues caused some very real control issues, but he made big strides in that department this past season. If he can continue to keep his walks down, he could get to Triple-A quickly given his age, upside, and previous llstint at Mississippi last season.
The final addition to the Mississippi was Matt Withrow after a good if not great showing in high-A. Featuring a good fastball, average slider, and developing changeup, Withrow was one of the few bright spots from the Braves’ high-A affiliate last year. The good news here is that he struck out better than a batter an inning and generally avoided heavy damage by limiting opposing batters to a .225 batting average last season. However, he will have to improve his command as his 68 walks in 120.2 innings last year were far too many.
Akeel Morris - Nearly called up last year and has two plus pitches with one and off command. Could quickly get promoted with a good start to the year
Philip Pfeifer - Had a strong 2016 before and after being traded to the Braves. Had some substance abuse problems early in college, but seems to doing much better now and his fastball-curveball combination could make him an impact reliever down the road
Evan Phillips - Really live stuff with command issues, Phillips seemed more hittable than usual in Double-A. If he can locate his pitches and keep the ball down, he can rack up strikeouts and could find a home in the Gwinnett bullpen quickly.
The lineup isn’t as exciting as the rotation (and these players above are just the highlights), but there is still real talent here in addition to some quality minor league depth. Joseph Odom and Kade Scivicque both could eventually profile as backup catchers in the big leagues if they can prove their bats can at least be serviceable against high quality catching. Scivicque in particular had himself a good stint in the Arizona Fall League at the plate with a nearly .900 OPS in a small sample size and will be a player to watch.
In the infield, the highlight of the entire lineup is Travis Demeritte. He has the defensive upside and power to dream on, but the question he will have to answer this season is whether or not he will be able to cut his strikeouts down (striking out over 30% of the time is...not good). He made strides in the AFL towards that end and really impressed some scouts there. He could be a big mover on prospect rankings if he can get it together. Dylan Moore posted a .820 OPS between A and high-A ball last season and has tons of versatility on defense. He was older for those levels though, so it will be interesting to see what he does against more quality competition in Double-A.
The outfield in Double-A isn’t as strong as it is at other levels of the Braves system, but it is still a quality group and could change drastically depending on how some Fire Frogs play early on in the season. Connor Lien is a plus-defender who can play all three positions in the outfield with a cannon for an arm. That said, injury and pretty severe contact issues derailed his season in 2016. If he can recapture his offensive mojo from 2015, he has the tools to move up. Jared James was the biggest surprise on the roster as he gets bumped up to Double-A after playing his way into full season ball in his first season and performing very well there. His bat is a weird profile for left field, but he consistently puts the ball in play with a good line drive stroke. Joey Meneses is a guy that seems to always take a bit to acclimate himself to a level, but when he does he often becomes the best hitter in the lineup. While his ceiling is at best uncertain, he could be a driving force in the middle of the order in 2017.
(I will almost certainly be wrong about all of these)
Team MVP: Travis Demeritte
Team Pitching MVP: Kolby Allard (this is a toss up, any of 4 answers could easily be justified)
First Player Promoted: Max Fried (Weigel is a close second, but Fried seems to be fast-tracked right now)
Breakout Player: Jared James (going deep here, but the aggressive promotion means the Braves see something there)
Southern League Record (Season): 80-58 and playoff bound (Mississippi won 73 games last year and should improve drastically between the talent in the rotation now and the position talent that hopefully will be added during the course of the season)