We have known for a long time that the Braves have a really deep farm system. This is a product of a number of things from trades that infused the minors with substantial talent, some savvy international signings (that also got the team in a fair bit of trouble), and several years of successful drafts. All of these are good things...you want to your team to continue to bring in quality players both to provide a steady stream of talent to the big leagues as well as to give your team assets to trade for assets at the major league level.
However, one of the unintended consequences is that it has real repercussions for the players. Playing time becomes tougher to come by, rosters become glutted with deserving players, and promotions, even when deserved, become harder to give not because of merit but because of lack of roster space.
Before you guys scroll to the end and start commenting that I am spewing hysterics about nothing, this is a real concern. In talking to multiple players in the minor leagues over the last couple of months, there is a growing and real frustration with the roster logjam in the farm system. While all of them, to the man, agree that having so many good players is a great problem for the Braves as an organization to have, it is frustrating to players that feel like they have earned a promotion but there just isn’t room for them. Some are even questioning their futures with the organization, not because they don’t want to be Braves...but ballplayers have limited shelf-life and guys can’t toil away in the minors forever. Some of this has been building from the start of the season where we saw a lot of players repeating minor league levels that normally would be promoted a little more aggressively.
In that spirit, lets more closely examine the roster crunch in the minors.
The biggest logjam is at pitcher
To the surprise of exactly no one, the biggest traffic jam in terms of minor league rosters is amongst pitchers. The Braves have prioritized adding pitching to the prospect ranks over the last several years and they have certainly been successful in doing so. Here are the starting rotations in the minor leagues right now.
Bruce Zimmermann (rumored to have recently been promoted to Mississippi from low-A)
Ricardo Sanchez (on rehab assignment for the moment)
Jasseel de la Cruz
Freddy Tarnok (should be headed to the rotation soon now that a slot has opened up)
This isn’t a hard problem to see: of the 23 names on this list, 13 of them are top 30 prospects in the Braves’ farm system while others are 40 man roster stalwarts and others are very much in consideration as top prospects. With Gwinnett being treated as an extended bench for the Braves and so many real arms there, the cascading effect has been that players that would normally be in consideration for promotions instead have to wait for something to happen to the rosters above them.
Reliever are equally deep even if they don’t have the same name value/recognition. Here is a good sampling of the relievers that could end up in the major leagues (I will forget someone that ends up being good/having value and others on the list won’t ever get there, but you will get the general gist).
Mauricio Cabrera (well ok, maybe not again...but he did get there)
Brandon S. White
Relievers are a stickier problem because, by their nature, they are a more volatile commodity. Normally, this would lead to a fair bit of attrition and “fix” the problem on its own. We have seen some of this already in the release of Devan Watts for example. However, with Atlanta clogging the upper minors with guys with major league experience and some semblance of a track record combined with wanting to hang on to every asset possible, guys in the lower levels are getting stuck waiting their turn. The bigger problem with relievers specifically is that many of them were not prep arms drafted right out of high school. Most relief prospects in full season ball (but not all) were drafted out of college so they are older. One can justify stashing a prep arm or a teenager signed in the IFA market in the lower minors as they learn their craft, but guys who are already headed towards their mid-20s and performing well is a harder sell.
There are roster crunches with position players as well, although they are a bit less pressing for the moment. The biggest problem on the position player side is that there are players who are not particularly good but continue to hang on to roster spots which causes issues with roster flexibility the further you go down the minor leagues. When Player X may have some talent but can’t perform very well at a level for 2-3 seasons, their presence means that another guy below them may not get an opportunity when he deserves one. We are seeing this now with the Braves, although it is fair to say that it isn’t AS prevalent as on the pitching side.
The Braves haven’t helped since they keep signing minor league free agents and not unloading enough players
Adding to the problem has been that it feels like the Braves have been unusually active in minor league free agent market. In addition to grabbing a bunch of minor league free agents in the offseason which is the norm, the Braves have been continuing to snatch up minor league free agents and grabbing guys off waivers as the season has gone on. They signed eight minor league free agents in the month of June alone and that doesn’t factor in waiver claims and the slew of players that they have signed from the draft. Its easy to see the logic in grabbing players you might think have some value. As an organization, you want to gain edges in terms of talent wherever you can. However, there are unintended consequences because players in lower levels start to feel overlooked even when the team thinks highly of them.
With roster spots being precious and the fact that the Braves just drafted a ton of college players that will likely need some roster spots in full season ball sooner rather than later, the Braves find themselves in a real pickle with their minor league roster management.
Its time to make some trades
As a result of all of this, the Braves are going to have to make some moves. No one wants to see a player released, especially when they have some talent. However, at some point hard decisions have to be made and you have to decide, from a player development standpoint, who you think has a future with your organization. There are times for signing organizational filler because you just need to fill out a minor league roster, but the Braves shouldn’t be doing that....they need to be pruning back a bit. Sure, its possible that someone they let go turns out to be a good player in the majors, but you can’t keep everyone and hopefully they will know who is the most deserving.
Moreover, this is an organization that needs for a couple trades to happen. There just are not enough at-bats and innings to go around. We have known this for a while, but now the theoretical “what are they going to do with all of these guys?” has come to a head. Realistically, there isn’t a need for a big blockbuster trade to help alleviate some of the issues here. A couple smallish trades that see the Braves trade a couple of prospects each for bullpen pieces or a bench player would go a long way.
Again, no one WANTS to trade away guys...especially guys like me that want to keep everyone I like. However, the reality of the situation is that minor league rosters need a pruning. The major league team is full of young players which prevents vertical movement in a lot of ways for players. The roster logjam is real and it has moved away from just being a theoretical problem we all saw coming and into a place where it is a real thing and players are being adversely effected by it.