We continue our look around the Atlanta Braves minor league system with a preview of the Rome Braves 2023 season. Rome has been one of the most consistent rosters for developing the Braves most interesting talent, vaulting names like Michael Harris and Vaughn Grissom into national recognition in recent seasons.
Rome is going to see a lot of coaching turnover this season, starting right at the top. Kanekoa Texeira was promoted to Double-A Mississippi and in his place Angel Flores was named manager for this season. This is Flores’s first assignment as a manager. Mike Steed will be taking over as Rome’s pitching coach in his second year with the organization after spending last season as Augusta’s pitching coach. Hitting coach Garrett Wilkinson is going into his third season in the organization and second as a hitting coach after spending last season in the Florida Complex League. The one constant will be assistant coach Bobby Moore who is going into his 26th season in the Braves organization and has spent the past six in Rome.
Rome will be opening their season at home against the Greenville Drive on April 6th, a three game set for the first of the year. After that the schedule is the same format as last season with six game series and nearly all Mondays as off days. The exception is around July 4th, where the Braves will have a big series with the reigning champion Bowling Green Hot Rods from June 28th to July 3rd. They close out the season at home against the Asheville Tourists on September 10th. Full schedule
Projected top prospects
The Rome Braves will likely feature the player we ranked number one in the system in AJ Smith-Shawver to headline their pitching staff. This is, admittedly, not a guarantee given Smith-Shawver only pitched 68 2⁄3 innings last season and did have it cut short due to injury, but given both his development at the level and the projected log jam at Augusta he will likely be pushed up. Outside of him, Rome will mostly be filled with fringe arms like the returning JJ Niekro. Niekro was phenomenal in Augusta with a 2.09 ERA in 73 1⁄3 innings last season but ran into trouble once being promoted to Rome. He will be likely to repeat the level and will be looking to find ways to get more whiffs. His raw staff doesn’t project to the major league level, but his bloodlines as the son of Joe Niekro and nephew of Braves Hall of Famer Phil Niekro make him an fun name to watch this season. 20 year old Luis Vargas should also be promoted after quietly putting together a solid 2022 with a 3.75 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 96 innings at Augusta. Vargas is undersized and is another who doesn’t project as a likely major league arm. but his youth and history of success give him something to build on in 2023.
On the offensive side of the ball the story gets more interesting and the opening day lineup should be headlined by third round pick Drake Baldwin. Baldwin won’t have much competition behind the plate in earning the majority of the defensive reps and should be one of the league’s better offensive players. Baldwin has the type of on base skills that typically translate to big numbers at the lower levels of the minor leagues and there is raw power in his bat the Braves hope he can tap into. Baldwin’s biggest question marks are on the defensive side of the ball where the Braves hope they can develop him into an average receiver but most evaluators are less confident.
Fellow 2022 draftee David McCabe should also be promoted to the level and is one of the more interesting power bats in recent years for the Braves. McCabe has plus raw power with some evaluators giving him double-plus grades and had solid peripheral contact numbers in his debut with Augusta last season. One major question for McCabe is his ability to handle high level pitching, as coming from a smaller Division 1 school he hasn’t had as much exposure to top end velocity and breaking stuff. He also is likely going to be a first baseman long term, a position the Braves have well-manned at the major league level, though Atlanta will be developing him as a third baseman for the time being.
Utility man Geraldo Quintero will also be opening the season in Rome after putting his name on the map in Augusta last season. Quintero finished the season in Rome and put up a decent .238/.347/.362 line in 2022 games, a baseline he hopes to build from this season. Quintero has above average bat-to-ball skills and a solid understanding of the zone, although his power is likely maxed out and will project below average at the major league level. He is not likely to ever be one of the system’s top prospects, but hits and fields well enough that he has the potential to carve out a utility role.
Cal Conley would be the best offensive prospect on the team, but it’s unlikely if he will return to Rome or be promoted to Mississippi. At age 23 with 44 High-A games, an Arizona Fall League stint, and consistent spring training time under his belt he should be projected as a Double-A assignment, but could still be an option to go back to Rome.
Adam Zebrowski will almost certainly be assigned to Rome to kick off the season, and is a bat with oodles of raw power but not a ton else in the profile to be interesting. He drew a lot of walks at Augusta last season, but everyone in that league did really and his bat-to-ball skills are well below average. He also lacks a defensive home, but if he can tap into that immense raw power he can still be a reasonable designated hitting prospect. He could get some time at first base this season, a position he has not played professionally, while also spelling Baldwin behind the plate. Keshawn Ogans is another utility infielder that got playing time in Rome last season, and the 2022 20th round pick has put some interesting things on paper. Ogans has the defensive ability to play all across the diamond and produced consistent contact in his professional debut before getting to High-A and struggling. His power is his limiting tool, but he has a hit tool, speed, and defense that could make him an interesting bench piece.
Much of Augusta’s 2022 outfield will just carry up to Rome, our highest ranked being Brandol Mezquita. Mezquita opened up the 2022 season on a tear, but down the stretch injuries and inconsistent performance chopped into his numbers and he ended up struggling in a short stint in Rome. Mezquita is gifted athletically with the ability to stick in center field and flashes of above average raw power, but he doesn’t tap into the latter ability much and produced well-below-average power. Mezquita produces hard line drive contact as often as anybody when he makes contact, but far too often didn’t make contact and will be ultimately propped up or limited by the development of his hit tool.
Kadon Morton takes high end athleticism to its next level and was the system’s most improved prospect from opening day to the end of the season. Morton was atrocious for the first two months of 2022 but made key changes in his swing and developed into a player that was consistently tapping into his plus raw power. Morton hit 13 home runs last season, but 10 of those came in his final 231 plate appearances. Morton is an above average defender with a double plus arm giving him the ability to stick at all positions and be a dynamic player on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, despite making high level contact he simply doesn’t make contact much at all. Even with his marked offensive improvement he still struck out 33% of the time over his final 50 games at Low-A. He will ultimately just be a talented underperformer until he starts cutting back significantly on that number, but he is moving the right direction to make that happen.
Stephen Paolini did not get a promotion to Rome to end the 2022 season, but I think he has done enough to earn a promotion to start 2023. Paolini languished in Augusta with one of the worst offensive seasons in my memory in 2021, and we were ready to write him off after seeing much of the same to start 2022. Paolini turned it around though, and in the second half of 2022 cut his strikeout rate to 23%, walked 14.2% of the time, and hit six home runs in 48 games. There are still questions for sure on whether Paolini will ever hit velocity enough to succeed at higher levels, but he made the adjustments he needed to make and was in that conversation with Morton for most improved player. Paolini certainly has the athleticism to succeed and finally showed glimpses of that on the field.
Rome is not likely to be stacked this season outside of that one notable exception, but there are a few top prospects that could either be promoted to the level or even have an outside shot at starting there. We’ve raved about Ignacio Alvarez’s hitting ability since his debut last season, and it would not be a surprise to see him start the season out at High-A. After all, he did post a 160 wRC+ and 19 walks to nine strikeouts last season. I do, however, think he is more likely to debut at Augusta before getting a promotion to Rome after a month or so. He is still only 19 years old, and the competition late in the season at Single-A isn’t usually as good as the early season competition. If he does start at Rome he is clearly the best offensive prospect there and would likely get significant time playing shortstop.
Owen Murphy and JR Ritchie both will start the season at Augusta but have the sort of profiles that could earn mid-to-late season call ups. Each have a three pitch mix with some measure of command and enough polish that it is unlikely Single-A hitters will be much of a challenge for them. There isn’t much of an incentive for the Braves to push either particularly hard, but high draft picks with their abilities sometimes just do their own thing and force the hand of an organization. Still, the Braves have been somewhat slow to promote prep arms out of Single-A in their first full season even if they are wildly successful with an example being Joey Estes who had a sub-3 ERA but spent all of 2021 in Augusta.
The final interesting name that could see time in Rome is 17th round pick Kevin Kilpatrick Jr. Kilpatrick being 22 helps make the case to move quickly if he has success, and he could potentially be part of the opening day outfield rotation. More likely however is another stint in Augusta where he hopes to build off of a .287/.354/.425 line in 2022. He could make a breakout case this season, with his most eye-catching ability being his high end bat speed. He also has the athleticism to play all three outfield positions. There is raw power in the bat, but given how his swing is geared I do expect him to be mostly limited by his ability to make contact. Overall however he is an interesting athlete worth keeping an eye out for a potential midseason move.