The Gwinnett Stripers have in recent years been mostly passed over by the top Atlanta Braves prospects, but this year will feature all of those that seem likely to make it to the major leagues. Many players will come up from this roster to contribute to Atlanta this season, though it’s not yet certain which players from the 40 man will be here.
The Stripers will be led once again by Matt Tuiasosopo, who is the only manager returning to the same team in the system this year. Hitting coach Carlos Mendez is another holdover from last season’s staff, but the big change for Gwinnett will be on the pitching staff. Mike Maroth has been a highly regarded member of the organization but left the role with Gwinnett to join the coaching staff at the University of Central Florida to be closer to family. Replacing him will be former Mets bullpen coach Craig Bjornson. Wigberto Nevarez returns to the staff as an assistant and former Oriole Stevie Wilkerson has a Triple-A assistant job in his first season post-retirement.
Gwinnett is opening up the season at home against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp on March 31st, the earliest opening day in the minor leagues. They have a big home series against the two-time reigning International league champion Durham Bulls starting on May 23rd, which will be a test following a two week road trip. Gwinnett has another two week road trip from August 8th to 20th which concludes in Durham and they will close their season out on September 24th again against the Bulls.
The pitching staff for the Stripers will be in constant flux, but there seems to be a clear most-likely group of arms to join it. The Braves are more than likely going to go with Ian Anderson for their opening day fifth starter, but given his struggles last season and all spring they have two other options on the 40 man roster in camp. Bryce Elder would likely be the next favorite to make the major league roster, but as of now I would project him to the Triple-A level. Elder had a mediocre triple-A showing last season with a 4.45 FIP and a penchant for allowing home runs, but excelled against some frankly terrible major league teams in his ten games in Atlanta.
Former Braves first round pick Kolby Allard returns to the system and could have also been an option for the fifth spot, but it seems particularly unlikely given his recent oblique strain. With the uncertainty surrounding our next player’s health he still probably has a spot in the Gwinnett rotation now, but the Braves may eventually attempt to offload him from the 40 man or move him to a team that feels they can use him. Allard simply hasn’t shown anything yet in his major league career that gives hope that he can be a contributor, and if injuries force anyone into action it would probably be a different left handed pitcher.
Michael Soroka is of course the fan favorite from this roster, but his journey back from his August 2020 achilles tear has been arduous. He hasn’t pitched this spring due to a hamstring injury and an abundance of caution. Soroka was already almost certainly going to start at Triple-A and this setback only further confirms that. The Braves still have some measure of faith in Soroka as the continue to tender him major league contracts, and given his success in his early career that faith is justified multiple times over. Still. he has to rediscover himself with a new body and new mechanics and he struggled to the tune of a 5.03 FIP in 21 Triple-A innings last season.
The surprise of the spring has undoubtedly been Jared Shuster, who has done enough to now be legitimately in the conversation to make the opening day roster. Shuster long has made his way with a dominating changeup and a solid slider but now has shown an impressive tick up in velocity that saw him touch 96.8 mph on Sunday. Shuster has been dominant with nine strikeouts, one walk, and one run allowed in 8 2⁄3 innings this spring, continuing a breakout 2022 campaign. Shuster was the system’s best minor league pitcher last season, and although he ran into troubles in Triple-A he made enough of a step forward to already be considered a potential player for 2023.
Darius Vines is on the 40 man roster, but he isn’t a real option for the major league roster and is a lock for Triple-A. His time in major league camp was short-lived and justifiably so as he is a player who just needs more development time. That said, he did impress enough last season to earn that 40 man spot and could still be an option for the major league roster this season. Vines posted a 3.21 ERA in seven games with Gwinnett last season, but his peripherals dropped off of a cliff after he spent 20 games dominating at the Double-A level. Vines has nasty secondary stuff, but needs to learn to command his fastball better as it’s a dangerous pitch in the zone and has led to him struggling at times with home runs.
Dylan Dodd was on a roll this spring before a third inning blow up in a scrimmage against the stacked Dominican Republic World Baseball Classic team, and like Shuster he has come in and impressed enough to raise questions as to whether he is an option in 2023. Internally the Braves like Dodd’s metric and command, and his abilities played out statistically as he advanced across three levels last season. Dodd struck out 153 batters and only walked 31 in 142 innings and ended his season with one start in Triple-A to get a foot forward on what could be his breakout season.
The bullpen is going to be full of a lot of veteran names that could get brief calls to the major leagues, but the most exciting name is a player who has not debuted yet. Victor Vodnik touched triple digits this spring and has all of the talent to be a major league reliever, but a combination of poor command and injury has kept Vodnik from getting that chance yet. He has lost a lot of development time due to those injuries which forced him to move to the bullpen in the first place, but if he can stay on the field he put up gaudy numbers in 2022 and could be a player for the major league bullpen. Brooks Wilson is another who could play in Atlanta this season as he had a breakout 2021 but had to undergo Tommy John Surgery last spring.
Gwinnett will return the same primary catching tandem as last season with Chadwick Tromp being the most important of the two. Tromp is the Atlanta Braves third catcher on the 40 man roster and if an injury occurs to Travis d’Arnaud or Sean Murphy he is going to be the promotion. Tromp had his best professional season with 12 home runs in 70 games in 2022. Backing him up is Ryan Casteel who is in his third season in the Braves organization. The 31 year old Casteel isn’t much defensively but had a ridiculous power surge in 2022 with 17 home runs and a .264 ISO in 69 games.
Braden Shewmake is going to be the team’s best offensive prospect by a wide margin, and with uncertainty surrounding the shortstop situation at the major league level he has a shot to debut this season. The first injury in the infield would almost certainly give Shewmake a spot as he is the only infielder on the 40 man that won’t be on the opening day roster. Shewmake has struggled with the bat in his professional career, but also has been prone to minor injuries that may have taken a toll on his numbers. He is the best defender among prospects in the system, with the ability to come in and be an above average to plus shortstop right now. There is rampant skepticism that he will ever hit enough to be an every day major leaguer, but his glove is so good that he should carve out a decent career regardless.
Elsewhere there won’t be much to speak of in the infield, though Drew Lugbauer could and probably should be promoted to Triple-A. Lugbauer put up a monster campaign with a Mississippi-Braves record 28 home runs, but despite this being his second season in Double-A never did receive a call to Gwinnett. Truthfully, his abysmal strikeout rates may be so high he wouldn’t even succeed in Gwinnett but there really isn’t much left for him to prove in Mississippi. Luke Waddell could join the team later in the season and is an interesting utility-type prospect.
The Gwinnett outfield is where the game gets a bit interesting. There are six names to know, with four of them likely joining Gwinnett or leaving the organization. Sam Hilliard, Jordan Luplow, and Eli White are all borderline players for the final two major league roster spots. Given Hilliard is out of options it is safe to assume he will be in Atlanta or moved to another organization. Kevin Pillard could get the final spot on the team and may be the favorite, and in the case of veterans like Pillar often they will be released from their contracts to seek other opportunities if they don’t make the opening day roster. This may not happen, but I would expect that regardless Pillar should be the favorite for the final spot.
Luplow and White are certainly reasonably good players to come up in the event of an injury with the assumption White would be the most likely to get the final spot. Luplow has a much better bat and has put up some solid years in his career, but White’s elite speed and outfield defense make him a much more valuable player at the end of a bench where few at bats go with the universal DH. Among players that almost certainly won’t make the roster you have Justin Dean and Forrest Wall. Wall is a former first rounder who just never figured out how to hit, and Dean is a player with a much lower profile but a similar weakness. Dean should get another crack at Gwinnett following an atrocious showing in 2022, and is most similar to White in how he can provide value. Now, Dean has more power than you might think given his smaller frame and if he can manage some sort of hit tool could be a fourth outfielder type, but more realistically he is a guy who can give plus defense at all three spots and provide value on the basepaths. I’ll go ahead and vouch for the guy a bit, as he is a well-liked player in any clubhouse he’s been in and is the type willing to play whatever role he is given. That does provide some measure of benefit for a player who would only play sparingly at the major league level.