Today, we round out our minor league roster previews with the Rome Braves. Rome is always a tough roster to preview simply because it is these players’ first taste of full season ball. Sure, most of them had time down in rookie ball that we can look at, but that is often such a small sample size and even then...we are talking about really young guys who are still filling out and learning their craft. As a result, much of what we think about these is based on projection....moreso than the other levels of the minors.
With that said, while the 2016 Rome Braves squad could very well go down as historically good, the 2017 incarnation has the chance to perform equally well with tons of talent again in the rotation in addition to some dynamic young position prospects. Let us take a peek...
There is definitely a lot to be excited about here, although all the caveats about how young and inexperienced these players are. The headliner of this group is the 3rd overall pick in the 2016 draft, Ian Anderson. Featuring three pitches that project as plus, Anderson is a product of the Northeast and impressed down in rookie ball with his command, stuff, and projectability. It would be understandable if he had some growing pains in his first season of pro ball (Vlad Guerrero Jr. gave him one of few bumps in the road in rookie ball), but don’t be surprised if he grows out of the “just an underslot guy” label that some have put on him since the draft and becomes a top 50 prospect in all of baseball by midseason.
Joey Wentz joined Ian in the 2016 draft class after turning his focus to pitching after being an intriguing position player prospect. While he doesn’t seem like a guy who will be a power pitcher, his fastball should live in the low 90’s and touch a bit higher with good movement, an above average curve, and a changeup that he has confidence in and is better than most pitchers drafted out of high school. The trick for Wentz will be to try to piece together a full season and shake some of the velocity/dead arm concerns he has dealt with in the past. The third member of the 2016 draft class, Kyle Muller, is in extended spring getting stretched out and should join Rome in due course.
Bryse Wilson seemed to be considered a relief prospect before the draft due to the absence of a third pitch in his arsenal, but the Braves saw enough in him to sign him away from a strong college commitment and scouts say that he looked much better this spring. Whether he can shed that “destined to be a reliever” label remains to be seen. Jeremy Walker has had a lot of helium with folks we have talked to. Drafted in the 5th round in 2016, he is a college draftee with 4 pitches (fastball, changeup, slider, curve) that he has feel for and his 6’5 frame is ideal to withstand the rigors of a full season. He could surprise folks this year in a very similar way that Patrick Weigel did last season (although Walker will never throw as hard as Weigel does). Rounding out the rotation to start the Oriel Caicedo who was at Rome the last two seasons, is 23 years old, and at this point profiles as minor league depth.
Thomas Burrows - Acquired in the Mallex Smith trade that brought Luiz Gohara over (thank you Seattle), he was a college draftee out of Alabama where he was an elite closer. He could move quickly.
Brandon S. White - The lone survivor of the Brandon Whites the Braves drafted in 2016, White features a fastball/slider/curve arsenal with the slider being his out pitch. Had a strong showing in rookie ball.
Matt Custred - Repeating at Rome this year, but could get moved up as the need arises. Was much better in the second half (2.03 ERA) but has to keep his walks down.
Ryan Lawlor - Started off as a starter in Carolina last year, but became a reliever and struggled mightily at high-A. Gets bumped down a level this year.
These are just the highlights from the position player roster, but there is definitely a ton of talent here. The catching staff of Lucas Herbert, Brett Cumberland, and Tanner Murphy will likely fight for playing time but between the DH and a clear opening at first base, all should get regular at-bats. Tanner Murphy gets sent back down to Rome where he will look to utilize his improved approach and new batting stance (much more upright and loose) to see if he can find his groove again. Brett Cumberland and Lucas Herbert both had rough seasons at the plate in pro ball last year, but are also super talented and should benefits from an offseason of rest and preparation. Cumberland will look to show that he can stick behind the plate and Herbert will simply have to show he can hit as a pro because his .528 OPS in his first season as a pro (after having functionally no at-bats in rookie ball due to a knee injury fwiw) isn’t going to get it done.
In the infield, Derian Cruz is the headliner and it is presumed that he will get the lion’s share of the playing time at shortstop. The switch-hitter was one of the more prominent signees from the Braves 2015 international free agent crop and he was excellent in the GCL (.782 OPS) before tiring a bit and struggling in Danville (.483 OPS). Anfernee Seymour is listed as an infielder, but the initial signs are that the Braves are going to try him in the outfield a good bit given his defensive limitations in the hopes that his speed will play up there. Juan Yepez is listed as a first baseman on the roster, but the reports are that he will see a good amount of time at third base this season. With Austin Riley getting promoted, Yepez will hope to make an impression at the hot corner and make up for lost time after most of 2016 was lost to him due to injury.
The outfield is a dynamic one with Cristian Pache being one of the big risers on prospect lists. He has great hand-eye coordination, a somewhat funky swing, plus speed, and is great defensively in center field. Pache is definitely a player to watch, although it may take some time for him to get going (reports are that he was a bit overmatched in spring). Randy Ventura, the man/myth/legend, has filled out a bit and it sounds like he isn’t the uber-speedster he was in the DSL, but he adds more quickness to a lineup that has tons of it. Anthony Concepcion adds some pop to the lineup, although it has yet to show in games much as of yet.
Team MVP: Cristian Pache - A pretty safe pick given the helium he has, but don’t sleep on Derian Cruz or Juan Yepez here
Team Pitching MVP: Ian Anderson. He is really good
First Player Called Up: Thomas Burrows, although Tanner Murphy could get the call if the need presents itself and he gets off to a good start this season.
Breakout Player: Jeremy Walker. Any number of players could get the nod here (Bryse Wilson, Brett Cumberland, Derian Cruz), but I am going to give the nod to Walker here.
Predicted Record: 75-64. The Rome team last year got off to a rough start before destroying everyone in the 2nd half to win the SAL championship. I don’t think this team is AS good, but I also don’t think they will struggle as much in the 1st half, hence the 5 game improvement over last season.