On to Mississippi, and here the predictions get fun as the talent takes a real step forward and we can start talking about players that could be a few months from an MLB call up. Once the season starts at least. The hardest decision to make was the pitching, as I figured there to be at least 22 players that have a legitimate case for being in Triple-A, and I gave the Stripers 13 pitching spots. Let’s do it.
The headliner for the Mississippi Braves pitching staff is Kyle Muller, and this is going to be a really tough call. Muller got 111 innings at Double-A last season and he did enough that he absolutely deserve to be promoted. 111 2/3 innings, 120 strikeouts, 3.14 ERA, he just did it all. He had an injury which put him a bit behind others, but all in all he is ready to try his hand in Gwinnett. There is just one problem. Well five of them. Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, Tucker Davidson, and Bryse Wilson will all be gunning for a starting spot in Gwinnett. MAYBE Wright could do enough to earn a spot straight out of camp, but the chances are lower that it won’t happen than that it will. Then for the final spot you’ve got Patrick Weigel, Touki Toussaint, and Huascar Ynoa all gunning for it. Yes those players could be slotted in the bullpen, but I don’t think Atlanta is ready to do that with them yet. In fact, if anything I could see Ynoa being moved down to Mississippi to start. There are simply too many pitchers and not enough spots, and these guys are all too valuable to force into a bullpen role. For now, I expect the Braves to start everybody, keep them all available for trades, and then when a move is made or they finally decide it’s time to move a guy to the bullpen then we’ll see Muller. I expect that within a month of the season starting. Muller is too good to be in Double-A long, but another month to see where his command is and adjust to changes during the offseason won’t hurt him.
Number two in rotation is going to be Jasseel De La Cruz, and this is exactly where he needs to be right now. He was good in Mississippi last season, but he wasn’t spectacular and the peripherals could use some improvement. Normally I would say give JDLC a half season and then reevaluate, but with the season being shortened it may be smart to just give him the full season in Mississippi depending on how much of the year they lose. De La Cruz is a tremendous talent and should have a chance to excel in Double-A this season, but he is also one I could see being a trade piece that gets moved out. While he’s always been a personal favorite it’s arguable his value will ever be higher, so letting him ball out this season and seeing who wants him would be a wise decision.
The remainder of the Mississippi starting rotation is going to be college guys, and I have a lot of interest in all three that I expect to take roles. Nolan Kingham got his chance last season in Mississippi, and he did quite well over six starts once he had an actual defense behind him. Kingham, is a ground ball heavy pitcher and with a defense like the one the Braves should feature he is really in a good spot for his talents. Hayden Deal made the transition to starter last season and he was lights out, posting a 3.24 ERA over 119 ⅓ innings in Florida last season. He’s earned his promotion and Double-A will be the test he needs to truly evaluate where his stuff stands especially since we couldn’t actually get many eyes on him last season. For the final player, I could see making a case to demote Philip Pfeifer and keep him starting, but I want to make a case for Connor Johnstone. I don’t think he’s a starter long term, but any time he’s been put in that role he has done well, be it in Double-A last season or in the Arizona Fall League. In my opinion he’s earned a shot to prepare as a starter and get a couple of months to prove he belongs in that role.
The relief staff for Mississippi is going to feature a lot of intriguing arms regardless of the decisions Atlanta makes. Ben Rowen and Chris Nunn were both non roster invitees to big league camp. I don’t think they are MLB talent but they are worth mentioning. Then we get to the real arms here. Daysbel Hernandez has been up and down in his short career, but the arm talent is there and getting him a consistent home and a consistent defense will help him improve. Brandon White has been in Florida for three seasons. It’s time to make that move. He was ridiculous in 2019 (1.35 ERA) and despite his fall league stint he deserves a chance to prove he belongs. Bradley Roney deserves a chance, but that roster is kind of stacked and at this point I don’t know what is left to learn about him. We know about his arm talent, we know the stuff, the command, and the problems. I don’t think embarrassing Triple-A hitters will tell us anything more than embarrassing Double-A hitters would, so I think the logical decision is to throw him in Double-A, let other guys duke it out and try to improve themselves, and if Roney is ready he’s ready regardless of what team he is pitching for. Kurt Hoekstra also has a case for Triple-A, but for now I think his story is great but we need to be a little more realistic and give the league time to adjust to him and see what he can really do. I think he’s a legit relief prospect. I also think he needs to learn how to actually pitch and Double-A is a good place to do that. The final player I want to touch on is Kasey Kalich. We expected Kalich to come in and jet through the system, and I think his 1.31 ERA at Rome last season has shown enough that he can just skip High-A and slot right into Mississippi’s bullpen. I could still see the argument to only move him to Florida and that would not surprise me, but I think Kalich could be a real option by 2021 and I want to really see him pushed.
William Contreras should get much of the season to be the main catcher, and I don’t think that repeating the level is in any way a sign of inadequacy. Contreras is a tremendous hitter, but there were times I felt he looked a little overmatched in Double-A and a little extra time to simmer should be good for him. I also think having him and Langeliers on the team together for a spell could work wonders for both, and then give Contreras a month or so in Gwinnett to end the season and work with more experienced players. Best case scenario, and I could see this happening, Contreras comes out and hits .300 with a half dozen home runs in the first month and you just promote him and move on. I would like to see Contreras and Langeliers together though, and this idea of one or the other for the future discounts the idea that there is no reason they can’t coexist as a catching tandem. They’re both talented, they both have legitimate futures, and some may prefer one or the other, but if the Braves have two really good catchers well I can’t see that being a problem.
Every single player in this group confuses me, but also intrigues me, and all for different reasons. The attention will all fall squarely on the shoulders of Braden Shewmake, and I think he can handle it. Ultimately, I see Shewmake as a bat first, average defensive utility player, but the talent is there and I would welcome much more. Shewmake is going to hit and I don’t think that’s really a question, but how those hits come is. In 14 games in Mississippi last season he produced no extra base hits, which is a small sample size but that lack of power seems like it may be what holds him back from being a starter. Overall I don’t think Mississippi will be a major challenge for Shewmake, but I want to see him drive the ball more consistently if I’m going to buy into this idea that he can be an everyday shortstop.
CJ Alexander is actually my favorite player on this infield, but after that disaster of a season he had and the injuries that kept him off the field it’s impossible to be confident in what he can do. Talent-wise I think he is a rival for Austin Riley and could very well push Riley for a starting role in Atlanta in 2022, but right now he just needs to show that last year was a total fluke and he is the player he showed us in 2018. Alexander has the defense at third base, he has the raw power to be a star, but if he doesn’t show us he can hit then it’s all for naught. That said, I think he can hit, and I think 2020 is his first step towards proving that he can be a major league starter.
Riley Delgado will round out the infield, and while you shouldn’t expect him to be a show like you would with Shewmake and Alexander, he is a solid little player who is going to do his job on defense and put the bat on the ball. He’s a bench player long term, but he is a fit for that job and has already shown defensive versatility. There are plenty within the organization that have liked what they’ve seen from Delgado, both on the field and from a point of leadership, so don’t be surprised to see him get a longer leash than many in a similar position might.
Mississippi’s outfield is all but locked down for the 2020 season, with Trey Harris, Justin Dean, and Greyson Jenista being the clear front runners for playing time. Trey Harris came back down to earth a bit once he got to Double-A, but that was expected for a guy who jumped two levels in a season and his numbers (111 wRC+) were still very impressive. He’s a guy you almost expect to take another leap forward this season, and I don’t think he spends more than a month in Double-A before making the trek to Gwinnett. The improvements we want to see are mostly in regards to plate discipline. The strikeout rates are good enough, the power is decent (and will get better with more forgiving parks), and he has a good batted ball profile, but the walks backed up at Double-A and his profile needs that for him to really excel.
Justin Dean, as discussed in the Florida Fire Frogs article, may not make it to Double-A but I expect him to. There’s no reason at least to leave him in Rome, and the general sense last season was that the only reason he was still there was because they didn’t want him in Florida. So expect Dean to skip a level and make it to Double-A, which will be his real test. Dean has relied on his speed and experience to steal bases, and with much of his value lying on his legs he needs to show he can do that against real competition. I think he can, but he won’t go buckwild like in 2019. Dean has a lot to prove this season, and now that we’re going to see him against real competition he will be at his make or break season for his long term value. I think he is a legit prospect, I also think you may need to have a little patience if his start isn’t all we want it to be.
Greyson Jenista is someone I just can’t place. There’s no reason he can’t succeed. He’s a tank at the plate, more athletic than he is given credit for, and his numbers weren’t as completely awful as they look on the surface once adjusted for park factors. He just isn’t hitting the way the Braves want and the power isn’t developing. Some of that is park related, but some of that is just a guy who needs to make more consistent, hard contact. I don’t have much faith in Jenista, but the talent is real if he can ever put the package together.