It seems like an eternity ago that Kris, Eric and myself sat at the Rome Braves media day. A chill filled the air that night, and it was different than years past. Normally, there were five or six of the top Atlanta Braves prospects on display, but 2019 opened with nary a top 10 prospect in Rome.
Instead we watch Trey Harris and Justin Dean entertain with the bat and their beaming personalities and quickly learned there was plenty to like in the 2019 rendition of the Rome Braves.
Let’s take a look back at the 2019 season.
Outfielders breakout in Rome
There’s no denying that the two biggest breakout stars in Rome this year played in the outfield. Trey Harris and Justin Dean began the season as under-the-radar prospects, but both finished well inside the top 30 Braves prospects heading into the 2020 season.
Before yesterday's game, we awarded our 2019 Minor League Pitchers and Players of the Year!— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) September 9, 2019
Among the awarded was Trey Harris. Harris hit the first-ever home run at @SunTrustPark while playing with @MizzouBaseball in 2017! https://t.co/bDipgXAmE4
Harris stole the show, rising three levels and becoming the Atlanta Braves minor league player of the year. The right-hander hitting right fielder made Rome his playground, making the South Atlantic League look all too easy. He slashed .366/.437/.594 in his 56 games there, with 26 extra base hits and just 32 strikeouts in 222 plate appearances. Those who felt he was taking advantage of younger pitching as a college bat were proven wrong as Harris succeeded in both Florida and Mississippi after his promotions.
Dean will join his former outfield mate back out in Arizona this fall, where both should benefit from having many more eyes upon them. Dean missed some time with an injury mid-season, but if he hadn’t, he may have stolen the player of the year from Harris. In fact that may have been the only thing Dean didn’t steal, leading the SAL in stolen bases with 47. He also led the league in runs (85) and triples (nine) while slashing an impressive .284/.386/.431 with nine home runs and 62 walks in 429 at bats. Combine all that with legit defense in centerfield and Dean will enter 2020 as one of the more exciting prospects the Braves have to offer.
But it doesn’t end there. Jeremy Fernandez, Andrew Moritz, and Michael Harris may not have the stat lines to show it, but all three proved interesting prospects. While Fernandez and Moritz will likely never become more than depth pieces who can hit a little and field a little, Harris — an 18-year-old taken in the third round of the 2019 MLB draft — showed a lot of promise in the GCL before the more mature pitching of the SAL caught up to him. He’ll have a chance to show more in 2020.
Draft picks aplenty highlighted the Rome season
Harris is the perfect segue to the draft picks that debuted in Rome in 2019. First rounder Shea Langleiers played 54 games in Rome and showed well after a slow start. He hit .281 with a .670 OPS in August after an abysmal June and July while throwing out 16 attempted base stealers. While the defense is there, the hitting left a lot of question marks, especially the lack of power, but his late season surge certainly left promise.
Braden Shewmake had a strong run in Rome. So strong that when he was promoted, he skipped High-A and headed right to Mississippi. Shewmake, the left-handed hitting shortstop out of Texas A&M, made solid contact in Rome before slowing down in Double-A. He slashed .318/.389/.473 with 18 doubles in 51 games to go along with 11 stolen bases. The biggest takeaway was his 29-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio. While he may have an odd approach at the plate, that discipline and contact ability shown in Rome leaves promise.
Then there is 24th-rounder Bryce Ball. The 21-year-old first base prospect out of DBU exploded onto the scene and quickly into the hearts of the Talking Chop team. After terrorizing the Appy League in Danville, Ball continued his onslaught in Rome. The enormous lefty hit .337 with a .913 OPS in his 21-game Rome debut, smashing four home runs and six doubles. It’s been quite some time since there’s been talk of an heir apparent to Freddie Freeman, but as our own Eric Cole points out, Ball is becoming that first base prospect Braves fans have long yearned for.
Pitching was not what it used to be
Just take a second to think about all the pitching prospects that have come through Rome since 2016. Rome Braves fans have been spoiled by the likes of Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, Bryse Wilson, Tucker Davidson, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, and Patrick Weigel just to name a few over that three-year span. Most other organizations would be drooling at the bit to have half of those.
When it came to legitimate starting pitching prospects, Jasseel De La Cruz was really the only big player in Rome this season. He lasted a whopping four starts before beginning his climb to Mississippi. That said, there were some arms that impressed in 2019.
Perhaps the most exciting arm was Victor Vodnik. The 6-foot righty was expected to go the Freddy Tarnok route a bit, bit stayed primarily in the bullpen. He was very effective, striking out more than one an inning and keeping his ERA under three. His last outing of the season was his third start of 2019. He went five innings with five strikeouts, allowing just one earned run and leaving us excited for more in 2020.
Nolan Kingham, who yours truly is way too high on, made quick work of Rome, posting a 0.56 ERA before climbing to Mississippi with some exciting starts along the way. Mitch Stallings finally made his full-season debut and showed well, while future bullpen arms Kasey Kalich and Jake Higgenbotham gave us plenty to look forward to in 2020. And let’s not forget that transformation of Kurt Hoekstra began in Rome. If he can convert from infielder to effective bullpen arm, it will be one of the best stories on the Braves farm.
The biggest disappointment is without a doubt Trey Riley. We watched him through pitches on media day that his own teammates were laughing at, but it simply didn’t translate to the playing field. He spent lengthy time on the disabled list on two occasions, but his command and ability to miss bats just wasn’t there. Still just 21 with intriguing stuff, if he can get it to work, we’ll see how he can bounce back in 2020.
Don’t forget about these guys
Greg Cullen and Logan Brown put themselves on the map in 2019 and deservingly so. Both were afterthoughts entering 2019, both enter as top 30 prospects entering 2020.
Cullen, the 22-year-old infield prospect who led the NCAA in hitting before the Braves took him in the 2018 MLB draft, had a solid year from start to finish. Simply put, he did everything well, slashing .270/.393/.401 with 23 doubles, six triples, nine home runs and ever-improving defense at second base. That made him one of our prospects to watch for next year.
Brown’s most memorable game may be catching Dallas Keuchel in his first rehab start after signing with the Braves, but he also proved he may be quality depth at the catching position. He made solid contact in Rome, although his free-swinging tendencies were a bit more exposed at the next level, but his defense improved seemingly every game behind the plate. He has a rifle of an arm, throwing out 37 runners this season, and his receiving and blocking skills were heads and shoulders above were they were when he started Rome to where he left it.
It was a different year in Rome. There weren’t groves of top 100 prospects to watch, there weren’t many championship expectations at the beginning of the season. But that didn’t change the fact that there were plenty of positives from another exciting year in the Sally.