Gwinnett will be the center of attention for a couple of grand weeks this April, as #1 overall prospect in baseball Ronald Acuna will be taking the field for them. Beyond Acuna, there is plenty of talent to keep this team interesting, centered around a starting rotation in which all five starters were Top 50 prospects at some point in the last 4 years.
Gwinnett’s rotation will be topped by Mike Soroka, who to most evaluators is if not the best pitching prospect in the system is at least second. Soroka has risen meteorically through the Braves system featuring his good three pitch mix and an astonishingly advanced feel for and understanding of the game. Soroka’s ERA has actually managed to drop each year he has spent in professional baseball, and if he can top last year’s stellar Mississippi campaign in which he posted a 2.75 ERA he will find himself in Atlanta by the end of the season
Kolby Allard was the higher pick in the same draft as Soroka, but questions about his regression in his stuff has caused his stock to slip since then. Allard has managed a strong professional career in his own right, but lacks an outstanding tool on which to rely (as Soroka has with command/control and pitchability). That’s not to say Allard is not a great prospect, as he still has 3 average or better pitches, above average command potential, and a more advanced understanding of pitching than most his age, but Triple-A may be a test for him if he can’t take a step forward with one of his pitches.
Lucas Sims has flown under the radar for a few years during this rebuild, all the time fighting inconsistency but putting up staggering strikeout totals. Sims struggles in Atlanta in his call up prevented him from being able to make the team out of camp, but if he’s shown anything in the past it’s the ability to adjust and overcome after a rough start at a level. Sims actually had a strong season last year with much improved walk totals and still fantastic strikeout numbers, but will have to show he can keep the ball out of the middle of the plate where he gets hurt by hard hit balls.
A bad campaign for either Wisler or Blair could end with their release, though both at 25 still have time to figure things out. They will likely do so in the bullpen if they pitch at the major league level as there just doesn’t seem to be spots for either, but both have go to off speed stuff that could be effective in a relief role if they can refine their fastball command to keep from getting hit hard.
Evan Phillips is coming off of a rough campaign in 2017 in which his command cause him problems and led to some poor numbers, but all is not lost for the young reliever. Phillips works in the low-to-mid-90’s with could breaking stuff that could play in a major league bullpen if he can keep his walk rates down this season and let his natural strikeout stuff play.
Jesse Biddle was limited in his action last season making his return from Tommy John surgery, but had no problems with Double-A. Biddle made such a quick impression that by mid-May the reports were already saying he could be major league ready, and now all he has to do is prove he can stay healthy with an increased workload. Biddle features a three pitch mix, starting with a low 90s fastball that he is efficient at keeping in the zone and away from hitters with good movement. His loopy curveball is his best pitch and is tough for opposing batters to put wood on, and he also features a solid changeup. Biddle has been effective in both short and long stints, and is a manager’s dream to have ready in the bullpen for long relief outings as he can really work through a lineup like a starter.
Blah, blah, blah pitching what we all really want is to watch Ronald Acuna cranking fastballs about 450 feet onto the left field berm. Ladies and gentlemen, enjoy it while it lasts as Acuna won’t spend much time this year on a minor league field, but when he does you’ll be in for a show. In Gwinnett’s workout Acuna was consistently launching balls in places I’ve never seen batters hit baseballs before, all with a smile on his face and an attitude that is going to be fun to watch other team’s fans hate. Acuna has his fun, and I would too if I could play baseball like that.
Dustin Peterson’s 2017 season was shortened by his hamate injury which also sapped his power, but from seeing him in Mississippi two years ago to seeing him in BP on Wednesday evening, his raw power has taken about a half grade step forward. If Peterson shows that power in games, he has the hitting ability and the defense to be a contributor for the Braves in the outfield, and with currently too many players for too few spots there is no rush for Peterson to develop into a major league hitter.
Rio Ruiz is a frustrating player to watch at times, because the talent to be an above average MLB third baseman is clearly there. Last season Rio knocked 20 home runs between Gwinnett and Atlanta, but that jump in power came with an equally large jump in strikeouts and drop in walks. Ruiz has to get back to consistently putting up above average on base numbers or he could be surpassed by Austin Riley in the near future.
Franco is a large, powerful first baseman (who can play third), and when he connects to the ball you know it’s him. He can match Acuna for raw power, but hasn’t found a consistent contact ability in his career. Franco isn’t really much of a prospect anymore, but he could be a serious power bat off of the bench if he can show enough competence with the bat to strikeout at a reasonable rate.
Team MVP: Carlos Franco
Team Pitching MVP: Mike Soroka
First Player to Be Called Up: Ronald Acuna, followed by Dustin Peterson
Breakout Player: Lucas Sims-a bit of a re-re-re-breakout for Sims