Braves star prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. undaunted by return to minors

Ronald Acuña Jr. is still getting used to all the hype. He just spent his first big league spring training under the proverbial microscope, heralded not only as the top prospect in the Atlanta Braves organization but all of baseball.

It’s an impressive distinction that brings with it incredible expectations.

Heading into his age 20 season, Acuña is perhaps just weeks away from making his major league debut. That will come after a well-publicized layover in Triple-A Gwinnett. Yes, his ascension to Atlanta is only a matter of time.

But this time a year ago, who would have thought it possible?

To be honest, even Acuña was surprised.

“It’s amazing and I’m definitely not taking it for granted,” Acuña said through team translor Franco Garcia. “I never imagined that it would all happen this quickly.

“It’s like I’ve said before, I always believed in myself that I could become something and that I could do something with myself as a baseball player. I always had confidence in that, but I never thought it would all happen this quickly. It’s very exciting.”

The Braves strapped a rocket to his back in 2017 and Acuña went from a player with only 40 games of experience above rookie ball to one who probably deserved a September call-up.

He posted a .325/.374/.522 slash line while belting 21 homers and stealing 44 bases in 139 games. Then he went to the Arizona Fall League and brought home MVP honors.

That reign of terror across three levels of the minor leagues earned Acuña his top prospect status and catapulted him into the national spotlight as one of the top young players in baseball.

That’s a far cry from last spring, when he was just hoping to have a full, healthy year. Acuña suffered a thumb injury that robbed him of three months’ worth of playing time with Rome in 2016. He returned in time for the playoffs and helped the club win the South Atlantic League title.

To make up for the lost time, Acuña shipped off across the Pacific and turned heads in the Australian Baseball League that winter. Needless to say, he was a big hit in the Outback and that was just the beginning of the buzz that now surrounds this five-tool talent.

Acuña got the chance to show out last spring and impressed Braves manager Brian Snitker, who said he’d have been temped to bring the young outfielder north with the big league club if given the chance.

That said, Acuña still had plenty of developing to do in all facets of the game in 2017.

“I think there’s a big difference between last year and this year,” Acuña said when asked of his growth over the past year. “I would say last year I hadn’t matured as much and wasn’t as mature as I was going into this spring training. This year, I just knew what I wanted to focus on and I knew what I wanted to work on.”

Heady stuff, but this is an ultra-talented player who climbed the minor league ladder in what felt like a fortnight and got better at every stop along the way. With his skills on display and his confidence building from experience, Acuña’s name began to receive regular mention across the industry.

Other than the one injury setback, Acuña hasn’t been forced to wait very long in his minor league career. The rapid promotions and ensuing success has given little reason to believe he has much of anything left to prove in the minor leagues.

But lessons come in all shapes and sizes.

Acuña’s current learning experience comes courtesy of the business of baseball. He’ll spend some time back in Triple-A. The club has cited development and a little bit of seasoning, but two weeks of minor league time buys the Braves an extra year of contractual control with Acuña down the line.

That decision, however, is out of Acuña’s hands. And it’s already been made.

To his credit, he’s seemingly moved on after being reassigned to minor league camp last week despite torching the Grapefruit League in his time with the big league club this spring. It certainly hasn’t affected his confidence, of which he has a seemingly endless supply. Acuña has instead turned his focus to doing any and everything he can at whatever level he may be playing. That outlook shows a considerable amount of that aforementioned maturity.

It can also be chalked up to another, equally important quality.

“Patience really,” credits Acuña. “I preached that about last spring training and the same could be said for this one as well. Being sent down, I’m trying to just practice patience and just anxiously waiting for the opportunity in the big leagues.”

That sounds great, but nobody likes waiting. Acuña is no different. He’s put in the work. He’s put up the numbers. Now he’s simply playing the waiting game.

And that’s a game he’s determined to win.

“I’m not feeling impatient at all to be honest, and I don’t think I’ll feel that way,” said Acuña. “It’s just not the right moment right now and that’s just part of the business.

“Baseball is a business and I understand that. There’s a lot of things that go into these decisions. All I can do is go down to Gwinnett, give my best effort and hope to get the call as soon as possible.”

Gwinnett opens the season with a six-game road trip before coming home for the second weekend in April. That’s just a couple of days prior to the April 14th date that Braves could feasibly summon Acuña to the majors while still gaining that coveted seventh year of contractual control.

Atlanta will return home to host the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday, April 16, and all signs seem to point to the impending arrival of a certain top prospect, though the team has yet to specify a timetable.

Who knows, Acuña may never have to fully unpack his suitcase before arriving at SunTrust Park.

His phone should be ringing sooner than later.

Opportunity knocks for Preston Tucker with Braves

When the Houston Astros won the World Series last October, Preston Tucker was not in uniform. He’d already spent the entire 2017 season waiting for a call that never came.

His time in Houston came to an end not long after.

Tucker was designated for assignment in December, and the Atlanta Braves decided to take a flyer on an outfielder with some power potential. His new club is hoping Tucker has a bigger role to play in 2018 and perhaps beyond.

Tucker, 27, served his time last season with Triple-A Fresno. He swatted 24 home runs and drove in 96 runs, but a crowded outfield kept him on the outside looking in with Houston.

Settling in with Atlanta this spring, Tucker is aiming to find his way back to the big leagues to stay. That’s a chance he’s getting with the Braves. Last winter he was recovering from shoulder surgery which adversely affected his bid to make the Astros big league roster.

Now healthy, Tucker is out to prove he belongs.

“I think I’m getting a lot of at-bats and that’s a good thing,” said Tucker. “They want to take a good look at me and, you know, I’m still trying to work on timing, approach and all that stuff, but right now I’m just trying to keep it simple and see the ball and put it in play and do some damage.”

Opportunity is a beautiful thing; Tucker’s is unique. His bid to make Atlanta’s opening day roster was enhanced when the Braves reassigned top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. to minor league camp. Though Acuña is unlikely to remain in Triple-A for long, Tucker gets at least a couple of weeks to show he’s capable of contributing.

That’s a couple of weeks more than he got last season.

While some of his new teammates spent their winter making changes and reinventing their swings, Tucker was just happy to have a normal offseason. With that going for him, Tucker focused on turning good habits and routine at the plate into the desired results.

“Not so much reinventing, just trying to find some consistency,” said Tucker. “Finding the right swing path and being able to do it not only in BP and all of those things, but to do it against some of the best pitchers in the game. Because that’s the biggest difference.”

Though he showed flashes of power with 13 homers in 300 at-bats during his rookie season of 2015, Tucker struggled to find success in his second go-around. He was optioned to the minors in May and came back up July, but that’s when shoulder issues cropped up. Tucker finished the season batting just .164 in 48 games in 2016.

All of that big league time, both highs and lows, as well as the setbacks that followed have only served to provide valuable experience for Tucker.

“You can repeat the same thing in the cage all day and when you go out and have to face the No. 1 starter, sometimes you have to go back to square one.” Tucker said of his current mindset. “I try to do the little things right and keep my approach simple. I think so far I’m staying on that track and I’m going to try to do that as long as I can.”

Baseball runs in the family for Tucker, whose younger brother Kyle is one of Houston’s top prospects. About the time one Tucker was debuting in the majors, the Astros were selecting the other with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft.

The elder Tucker enjoyed a storied career at the University of Florida, where he set multiple school records for the Gators, including hits, doubles and RBI, while finishing second in career home runs.

The former first baseman moved to the outfield during his junior year in Gainesville and has seen little time at his old position professionally, though he could play there in a pinch. With All-Star Freddie Freeman entrenched, the corner outfield spots are the ticket to playing time for Tucker in Atlanta. He’s open to either.

“I played right up until Triple-A, before I got called up, but then they moved me to left as soon as I got up in the big leagues,” said Tucker. “So, I do have experience playing a little bit of both.

“I’ve probably played 20-30 games in the big leagues in right, but most of my time has been out there in left. Last year I kind of split 50-50, so I feel comfortable with both.”

It’s been a good spring for Tucker, who heads into the final weekend of Grapefruit League play slashing .386/.460/.591 with 10 RBI in 20 games. He’s drawn six walks and struck out just four times.

Tucker is now with a team that provides at least a fighting chance to carve out some playing time. A change of scenery and new opportunity are both welcomed developments. Tucker is joining a team with young, hungry talent that is hoping to make its mark sooner than later. And he’s already seen firsthand in Houston what a club that grows together can do.

“It’s an awesome group of guys,” said Tucker. ”A lot of the guys have played together before or played against each other. I think we’re meshing pretty well and, you know, I think that the team has been swinging it and we’re throwing the ball well. I think when you have that chemistry you’re going to do that pretty often.”

The Braves are providing Tucker with a chance to play. The rest is up to him.

Braves phenom Ronald Acuña to begin season in minors

It was a move that most expected when spring training began, but the Atlanta Braves made it official on Monday when they reassigned top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. to minor league camp. This ended any speculation that the talented outfielder would make the big league team to start the season.

Two simple words will become the focus of the Braves’ decision to send Acuña down.

Service time.

Unfortunately, this issue and the ensuing debate are nothing new for Major League Baseball. Acuña isn’t the first and is unlikely to be the last player to go through such a situation. He’s simply the latest.

Just ask Chicago Cubs superstar Kris Bryant. He tore up the Cactus League in 2015, but the Cubs opted to send him to Triple-A following a torrid spring training rather than start his service time clock on opening day. Chicago did this because rules state that a player must spend 172 of a possible 187 days on the big league roster in order to be credited with a full year of service.

The club maintains control of a player for his first six seasons, but service time does not round up. That means that roughly two weeks in the minor leagues can create a loophole which could keep a player from accruing the six full years of service time needed to qualify for free agency, thus giving the team a seventh year of control under arbitration.

The Braves will need to keep Acuña in Triple-A Gwinnett for 16 days in order to gain the additional year of team control. That would put the talented outfielder on target to be called up no earlier than April 14.

Sounds like smart business for a club to be mindful of when managing its assets, but the optics of such a move have come under fire by players, agents and even fans in recent years. Though teams are perfectly within their rights to send a player down with an obvious eye on service time, the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance for Bryant and Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco in 2015. Both men started in the minors before being called up after the date which would preclude them from gaining the necessary service time to become free agents after their sixth season.

This is where we find Acuña in 2018.

Atlanta has a long-term building block on its hands here. He’s a potential franchise cornerstone. He’s the top prospect in baseball. In fact, he’s the best prospect the Braves have seen since Andruw Jones over two decades ago.

That’s something new general manager Alex Anthopoulos is well aware of.

“We’re just hoping to give him an opportunity to play and show us what he can do,” Anthopouos told me when spring training began. “Everyone I’ve talked to in the organization is very high on him and very optimistic he’s going to do great things.

“You don’t want to hype him, but you also understand he’s as good a prospect as anyone’s talked about in this organization. We’re not going to be able to slow that down or stop it. The hope and the key for us is that we don’t put too many expectations on him when he does get up there, that he’s not coming in to save the team or save the season.”

It’s going to be hard to slow down the hype train that Acuña has become.

As a 19-year-old, he tore through three levels of the minor leagues and became the top prospect in the game for virtually every outlet that ranks such things. Acuña batted .325 with 31 doubles, 21 homers, 82 RBI, 88 runs scored and 44 stolen bases in 139 games between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. All of that was en route to being named Braves minor league player of the year.

If that wasn’t enough, he torched the Arizona Fall League as an encore, winning MVP honors and the league’s home run crown. Then Acuña came to spring training this February and picked up right where he left off, leading the Grapefruit League with a .432 average while hitting four home runs in 52 plate appearances.

Sure, spring training statistics are hardly the definitive measuring stick, but Acuña is doing all of this at the age of 20. And he’s making it look easy. It’s understandable a player of Acuña’s talent would set off a firestorm of reaction to a move that, at least on the surface, would be standard operating procedure for many, if not most, clubs faced with a similar situation.

Typically, a club’s decision on a talent being ready for the next level is subjective, but Acuña would appear to defy conventional wisdom. He’s a five-tool player who has gotten better and better at each level he’s played. And he’s done so despite the competition at each level doing the same. Following what figures to be a brief detour, Acuña’s final destination is Atlanta, where the Braves are hoping he’ll be a fixture for years to come, alongside the likes of Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Ender Inciarte and a host of others.

On one hand, people will say “it’s just two weeks.” On the other hand, it’s the optics of the move that draws criticism. It sends a mixed message at best. The club wouldn’t be doing its due diligence if it did not pursue the extra year of control, but the player gets stuck in a situation that ideally should not exist. However unpopular to some, this was a business decision that is within a team’s rights in a system that was collectively bargained. Yes, it’s an imperfect system, but it’s the one that’s in place.

We’ve seen it before.

Bryant went through all of this in 2015. He proceeded to win the rookie of the year award that season and the MVP award a year later. The MLBPA couldn’t have asked for a bigger, better poster boy for the service time issue heading into the last collective bargaining agreement, yet the issue wasn’t fought for. At least not enough to affect change. That’s puzzling.

Bryant’s grievance did not stem the tide three years ago. In order for that to have any chance of happening, the union will have to make the early season service time manipulation of top prospects a hot button issue when negotiating the next CBA three years from now. Nothing seems likely to change on this front before that time, though Acuña and his representatives could likewise choose to file a grievance. No indication has been given that they plan to do so, however.

That said, there is another component in the Acuña equation. Atlanta’s aggressive approach with the development of some of its prospects has been subject to some criticism, particularly as it comes to shortstop Dansby Swanson. He rocketed to the major leagues after roughly one calendar year in the minors and dealt with his fair share of growing pains during his first full season. Now Swanson finds himself looking to rebound and get his career on track.

While there are some obvious differences in the case of these two young Braves players, Acuña had just 42 games above rookie ball to his credit coming into 2017 but was still aggressively promoted through the minors last season. Atlanta’s current front office, spearheaded by Anthopoulos, may look to take a more measured approach to things when it comes to challenging their minor leaguers with frequent and sometimes rapid promotions. That remains to be seen.

Perhaps if the Braves were in a different situation, like they were with Jason Heyward in 2010, the outcome might be different. Just like Acuña, Heyward was 20 years old at the time and was widely regarded as the top prospect in baseball. He’d played just three games at Triple-A in 2009, but Atlanta was in a better position to contend and placed Heyward on the opening roster in 2010. The Braves were coming off an 86-win season and made the playoffs with Heyward’s help in 2010. This time around with Acuña, the team is in the midst of a prolonged rebuild and coming off a 72-win season.

The sense of urgency is simply not the same when weighed against the potential benefit of an extra year of contractual control, especially when the team can call upon Acuña after a short while. Again, the collectively bargained system created that loophole.

A growing trend in the game has been to sign young players to extensions which buy out the arbitration years and potentially a year or two of free agency. The team gains payroll stability in exchange for offering the player some financial security. Of course, the Braves never reached a long term extension with Heyward and instead trading him to the Cardinals in his free agent walk year. Would an extra year of team control changed that situation or the trade return? Possibly.

But that’s water under the proverbial bridge.

If Acuña plays up to his tremendous potential, there is little doubt the team would seek to explore an extension. Time will tell just how this service time decision might impact those prospective talks down the line.

In reality, it appears Acuña has little if anything left to prove in the minors. There’s not a reputable talent evaluator out there who’s seen him play that could make a convincing case to the contrary. While development may also be mentioned as factor, the only thing left for Acuña to do is to face the best competition, and that can only be found in one place. The major leagues, a place he’ll end up sooner than later.

Regardless, Acuña will open the season with the new-look Gwinnett Stripers on April 6, giving him at least 8-10 games to terrorize the International League yet again. While April 14 is the earliest date the Braves could promote Acuña and net the extra year of control, the club is facing the Cubs at Wrigley Field that weekend. Atlanta could choose to call him up for the Monday, April 16, game against the Phillies at SunTrust Park. That would give them a couple of extra days to insure the rule is satisfied. Whatever the case, it seems unlikely he’d spend any extended time in the minors. However, no official timetable for a call-up has been set.

So, as opening day approaches, and fans find themselves asking: “Why is a player as talented as Ronald Acuña heading to the minor leagues?”

Two words. Service time.

 

 

Riley made most of time with Chipper, Washington in big league camp

The Atlanta Braves have been building for the future over the past three years. While much of the focus has been on the glut of pitching prospects assembled in the minor leagues, there are more than a few hitters making a name for themselves as well.

One such man is slugging third baseman Austin Riley.

A 20-year-old Mississippi native, Riley got his first taste of major league camp this spring. Armed with prodigious power, he turned in consecutive 20-homer campaigns and the team is hopeful that Riley could answer the third base question that has plagued Atlanta since the retirement of Chipper Jones in 2012.

While no one is expecting him to replicate Jones’ lofty numbers, Riley’s bat could make an impact in the middle of the order for years to come. For now though, it’s been all about getting comfortable in his surroundings this spring and spending time around the big leaguers.

“It’s been fun just being around the guys, the veteran guys really,” said Riley. “I’m just taking it all in. Chipper’s been in town. Fred McGriff is always around. It’s kind of cool to experience it all and I’m just thankful to be a part of it.”

The presence of Jones at Braves spring training is always of particular interest for both the fans and players alike. Many of the younger generation of players grew up watching him play for nearly two decades in Atlanta. Now they get a chance to don the same uniform and pick the brain of a Hall of Famer.

“He’s been around quite a bit, and I spent some time with him for sure,” said Riley of his time with Jones. “Really he’s just focusing on trying to develop my game as much as he can.”

That development goes beyond simple cage tips, fielding pointers and sage advice. Jones was one of the most cerebral hitters in the game. It’s one of the many reasons he earned a place in Cooperstown. That mental makeup and the ability to think along with the opposing pitcher is something Jones is hoping to impart to Riley and other young hitters.

“We talked about the game inside the game,” said Riley. “That’s the biggest thing that’s clicked for me with him is that there’s the game and then there’s the game with the pitcher. I tried to pick his brain and what he’s trying to do with the at-bat and that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve taken with advice from him.”

Already this spring, Riley has shown glimpses of the light-tower power that’s helped him climb the prospect hot sheets. He belted a pair of home runs among his five hits before being reassigned to minor league camp this week. Though Riley batted just .208 and struck out 10 times in 24 at-bats this spring, his growth as an all-around player over the past three seasons is evident.

Riley opened 2017 with High-A Florida and was promoted to Double-A in July. He closed out the year with a .315/.389/.511 slash line and eight home runs in 48 games with Mississippi. Riley followed that up with another power display in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .300 with six home runs, just one off Ronald Acuña’s league-leading total. Even more encouraging from Riley’s overall numbers, his walk rate improved and his strikeout rate dropped from his 2016 season with Low-A Rome.

As the competition has gotten better, so has Riley. With the physical skills already on display, he is hoping this spring will be the kind of learning experience that will prove beneficial in other ways.

“Really just getting that feel of being around everybody and trying to get that big league experience, but you know at the same time I’m just trying to be the best that I can and get better,” said Riley of his spring so far.

“I’ve got some more time in the minor leagues for sure, so I’m really just trying to take everything in, being all-ears to what everyone says and just enjoy it as much as I can.”

Though Riley’s bat gets most of the the attention, he’s spent plenty of time trying to improve in every facet of the game. Riley slimmed down a touch over the winter and has been working hard to develop into a solid defensive third baseman.

The former high school pitcher has the arm, but improving his footwork and range have been top priorities. He cut the errors down from 30 in 335 chances in 2016 to 20 in 326 chances last season.

“You don’t want to be a liability out there on the field, so you’ve got to take just as much pride in defense as you do hitting,” said Riley.

He got a little help in that department this spring. Spending a month in big league camp meant that Riley got a chance to work with one of the top fielding gurus in the game.

“Ron Washington has been tremendous,” said Riley of the Atlanta infield coach. “The first couple of days I worked with him I was like, ‘Wow, there’s so many things that I didn’t know.’ Whether it’s position with the glove, coming through the ball, whatever it might be, I have that much more room to improve. That’s the thing that’s going to make me that much better on defense.”

The extra time spent at the hot corner will only make Riley a better player and raise his prospect stock. The bat may take him to the big leagues one day, but the glove could definitely help him stay.

It will probably 2019 before Riley finds his way to SunTrust Park. Expect him to return to Mississippi for an encore to open the season. But if last year’s success is any indication, it may not be long until Riley is knocking on the door in Triple-A Gwinnett.

Restored slider brings restored confidence for Braves’ Teheran

The Atlanta Braves are hoping homegrown pitching will be one of the key ingredients in the recipe for long-term success. Now, four years into a rebuild, they find their top starting pitcher is undergoing his own rebuild of sorts.

And for Julio Teheran, it all starts with one pitch. The slider.

After a challenging 2017, Teheran aiming to prove he’s still front and center in Atlanta’s plans. To do that, Teheran is going to have to find a way to get back to the All-Star form he displayed two seasons ago. And to do that, he retraced his steps.

Teheran turned to his uncle, Miguel Teheran, to help reclaim a pitch that is critical to arsenal. The two worked together this winter to make improvements to the slider. With his duties every fifth day on hold, the time was right to make changes.

“During the season he watched me a couple of times,” said Teheran of his longtime mentor. “Obviously, he made some calls to me, but it wasn’t like I was going to do something during the season. We spent a lot of time in the offseason working together and I think a lot of things are better.”

Teheran reflected on the difference between his All-Star campaign of 2016 and the roller coaster ride that followed. He realized his breaking ball was the difference maker.

“My slider wasn’t like it was the year before,” said Teheran. “My command wasn’t the best at the beginning and I kind of worked during the season a little bit, but I knew that the season wasn’t the time to work on making the adjustment.”

Turns out the winter came at a good time. Despite working with Braves pitching coach Chuck Hernandez between starts for months, Teheran was unable to truly right the ship until later in the season.

“I think it’s easier in the offseason because you don’t have a game and you don’t have to prove what you’ve been working on,” said Teheran. “You just need time to work and try to fix something and then by the time the game comes in spring training, you’ve got everything fixed and it’s something that you don’t even think about.”

According to FanGraphs, Teheran threw his slider just 19 percent of the time last season. That represented a career-low rate and was nearly 7 percent lower than 2016, when he enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career. Losing confidence in that pitch led to an increased reliance on his fastball and that in turn gave hitters the ability to adjust their expectations when it came to Teheran’s offerings.

With his uncle’s assistance, Teheran worked to implement some necessary pitch corrections. Rather than changing his slider altogether, he said simply loosening the grip provided the improved movement he was searching for.

The results received some immediate recognition from batterymate Tyler Flowers.

“When I threw my first bullpen, I threw with Flowers and he said the slider looks different,” said Teheran. “I hadn’t even told him that I was working on it and he told me that it’s looks like the slider two years ago. That’s when I told him that I was working on it.”

Armed with some early returns this spring and feedback that supported his efforts to improve the slider over the winter, Teheran feels much more confident about his ability to generate the results he’d become accustomed to over the prior four seasons.

“The slider is the pitch that I need,” he said. “When I don’t have my slider, it’s like a different game.”

One of the big reasons why the right adjustments may have taken longer to identify was the fact that Teheran appeared to be two different pitchers at times.

Something was definitely off.

One glance at Teheran’s home-road splits revealed a truly bizarre set of circumstances. In roughly the same number of innings pitched, his season careened out of control at home yet remained closer to his career norms on the road.

  • Home (17 GS): 3-10, 5.86 ERA with 17 HR allowed in 93.2 IP
  • Road (15 GS): 8-3, 3.14 ERA with 14 HR allowed in 94.2 IP

Teheran’s new home ballpark didn’t exactly greet him with open arms. Following a solid debut performance in the SunTrust Park opener, he allowed 13 home runs over his next eight outings there and posted a 7.36 ERA during the dozen home starts that followed between April and August.

On a brighter note, Teheran seemed to be finding his way in September. That was due, at least in part, to beginning to recapture the feel for his slider. He posted a 2.81 ERA with just two homers allowed over 25.2 IP in his final four home starts.

Teheran got his first taste of the major leagues in 2011. Once the top pitching prospect in the game, he’s since become the mainstay of the Atlanta starting rotation. Now he enters his sixth full season and is scheduled to make his fifth opening day start.

It’s not like Teheran is a true elder statesman either. He just turned 27 years old, but he looks forward to the opportunity to lead the Braves starting five again this season. It’s a group that includes many young arms and up and coming prospects hoping to make their mark in 2018. Many of them are in big league camp this spring as well.

“It’s fun to be the guy that’s in front of the rotation, especially in a young group,” he said. “It’s guys you’ve been watching and they’re not even that far from you. We’re like three years difference and two years difference.

“I know they’ve been watching what I’ve been doing, and I try to motivate. We’re here working together to get a starting rotation and it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a lot of competition this spring and I’m excited to see who’s going to be in our rotation.”

Ruiz hopes revamped swing is ticket to Big League success

Rio Ruiz should not feel like a stranger this spring. However, his sense of urgency may be at an all-time high. The Atlanta Braves have invited the third base prospect to big league camp in each of the last four seasons, but Ruiz is hoping this latest opportunity is the one that leads him to Atlanta to stay.

It won’t be easy. But he’s never expected that to be the case.

Ruiz is competing for the Braves’ starting third base job along with fellow youngster Johan Camargo, a man who went from unproven commodity to productive major leaguer last season. One was thriving while the other was struggling, but a new swing could level the playing field for Ruiz this season.

“I think 2017 was a big year for me in the sense that I was able to learn,” said Ruiz. “I learned about myself and learned about how good these guys are up at this level. You’re going to constantly need to make adjustments, whether it’s big ones or minor ones.”

Armed with the knowledge he collected during his time in Atlanta, Ruiz headed into the offseason eager to make changes to his swing. He sought out Doug Latta, the same hitting coach who helped Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner turn his career around.

Latta espouses creating more of an uppercut swing. If you couldn’t tell by the rising number of home runs in recent years, an increasing number of big league hitters have focused on hitting the ball in the air with greater frequency.

Count Ruiz among them. He realized it was time to adapt.

“I just knew with the things I was doing that it wasn’t going to last very long,” Ruiz said. “I was getting exploited pretty often and pretty regularly.

“I got away with things here and there, but the first thing I told myself going into the winter was I needed to make adjustments. So, that’s the first thing I did. I made the adjustments I had to make and I’m going to continue making the adjustments.”

For starters, he’s going to have to find a way to prove he can handle the steady diet of off-speed stuff he faced in 2017. Ruiz batted just .193 and struck out 41 times in 150 major league at-bats. According to FanGraphs, only Matt Kemp (48.1 FB%) saw a lower percentage of fastballs than Ruiz (49.8 FB%) among Braves hitters with at least 150 PA. Conversely, only Ozzie Albies (19.3 CH%) and Danny Santana (19.5 CH%) saw a higher percentage of changeups than Ruiz (18.5 CH%) last season.

Three years ago, Ruiz was challenged by the Braves front office to devote the winter that followed a challenging 2015 season to getting in better shape. He answered that challenge and has maintained that commitment level to winter training in each of the two offseasons that followed

“A lot of work,” Ruiz said of his offseason regimen.  “I didn’t really take too much time off because I really just wanted to make adjustments within in my game. I feel like I’ve done that and I’m really looking forward to this spring and this year in general.”

This spring could very well be Ruiz’s last, best opportunity to prove himself with the Braves.

He will turn 24 years old in May and has spent the last two seasons on the shuttle between Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta. Overall, Ruiz belted 20 home runs among 52 extra-base hits in 538 at-bats. He also struck out a career-high 151 times. That’s a number Ruiz would like to trim back to a career-norm.

Third base was one of the major question areas that new general manager Alex Anthopoulos was looking to address over the winter. Since the Braves opted not to jump into the free agent market or make a significant trade to address that need, the duo of Ruiz and Camargo will compete for playing time at the hot corner this season.

With third base and a roster spot up for grabs, Ruiz is focused on making a good impression.

“Just as it is for anybody else who’s competing for it, my goal is to try and win it, plain and simple,” said Ruiz. “If you don’t win it, you just open up some eyes and let them know that you are close and you are ready to take that job full-time.

“It’s just all about competition. Whether you’re fighting for a spot or you have a spot locked in, it’s never really, fully yours. You’re always competing and you’re always trying to get better. And I think that’s what it’s going to be. I think it’s going to be a healthy competition over there, and anywhere for that matter. Hopefully the hard work pays off.”

While the bat always plays a substantial part to earn regular playing time, Anthopoulos stated his desire to improve his club’s defense. That’s something Ruiz has been working tirelessly on over the past few years. Like many of Atlanta’s young infielders, Ruiz has spent extra time working with infield instructor Ron Washington to help elevate that facet of his game.

“Obviously, if you make a big adjustment with the bat and show them that you really can hit and that you do belong here, the glove needs to be there as well,” said Ruiz.

“It’s easier said than done. Balls are hit a lot harder and a lot more often they’re squared up, so you’ve got to be ready to go at all times. You never shy away from defense, you always work on it, like every facet of your game. That’s what I’ve done and taken into account as well.”

This spring, Ruiz is also putting on the first baseman’s mitt. Added versatility may be an X factor that could help secure a spot on the 25-man roster. With Matt Adams gone, the Braves don’t have a true first baseman to serve as a back-up for Freddie Freeman.

It’s another chance for Ruiz to prove himself. The early returns have been encouraging.

Unlike years past, Atlanta did not bring an overwhelming number of veterans to camp this spring. While Ruiz and many young players still have much to prove, they should at least feel right at home with plenty of familiar faces in the Atlanta clubhouse.

“The vibe is a lot looser,” said Ruiz. “Everybody knows each other. They’ve played with each other for a couple years now. That plays a big factor with being comfortable with each other.”

Atlanta’s rebuild is stretching into its fourth year, but that time has helped the next generation of Braves begin building a new culture. It’s one they hope will be marked with a return to winning baseball.

“It’s been building,” said Ruiz when asked about the state of the minor league system. “Like everybody knows, we’ve played with each other, not only up here, but in the minors as well. It’s going to be fun. There’s a lot of chemistry between us and it’s only going to grow from there.”

Healthy A.J. Minter striving for breakout season in Atlanta bullpen

Perhaps no reliever in Atlanta Braves camp this spring brings as much excitement to the table as left-hander A.J. Minter. A strikeout machine with electric stuff and the mentality to match, Minter’s only major hurdle to reaching his potential has been getting healthy.

And that’s a designation he’s been striving for over the past three years.

Minter, 24, has lit up the radar gun and piled up the punch-outs over the past few seasons, including an impressive stint with Atlanta in 2017. Despite eye-popping numbers that included an average of 15.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 16 big league appearances, Minter was still reestablishing himself after Tommy John surgery during his final season at Texas A&M in 2015.

A few other assorted maladies had cost him time as well, but for the first time in the last three seasons, Minter was finally able to head into a winter in which he would not spend the bulk of his time rehabbing from an injury. That was a relief for the young lefty reliever.

For the first time in a long time, Minter was able to focus solely on training.

“I feel real good,” Minter said upon reporting to camp this spring. “It was an offseason where I could kind of sit back and just kind of work on my body, listen to my body and make sure it’s healthy and ready for 162 games this year. That’s the ultimate goal.”

The burden of working his way back from injury and all of the uncertainty that comes with it is something that Minter was happy to leave behind this winter. He got to be a normal pitcher having a normal winter.

And just what is that like?

“It’s new to me, so I couldn’t really tell you,” said Minter. “It’s my first time having a true offseason where I can go in and rest for that first month, eat whatever I want and kind of relax that first month, but by the time the end of October came I was back working out.”

The opportunity to get into a regular routine was not lost on Minter, who brought a wealth of knowledge gleaned from having to go through the extensive rehab programs in recent years. That experience helped Minter tailor his regimen to achieve the results he wanted.

“I didn’t start throwing until December,” he said. “The difference was lifting smarter. Rather than lifting heavy weights, I’d get in there and focus on what I need to get ready for this year.”

Utilizing an upper-90s fastball and sharp-breaking slider, Minter’s minor league numbers illustrate just how dominant he can be. He posted a 2.77 ERA while striking out 77 men in 59 innings and holding opponents to a .182 batting average in the minors.

Minter parlayed those numbers into big league success, but not before having to work out a few kinks with Triple-A Gwinnett. When the call came to join Atlanta, he felt ready for the challenge.

“That first month in the big leagues felt like a whole year, it really did,” said Minter of his late-season call-up. “I learned so much and it felt like forever up there. It’s definitely something to remember for the rest of my life. But before that, in Triple-A, I struggled. I remember there were seven consecutive outings where I was giving up runs. And I couldn’t figure out what it was. I didn’t know if it was mechanically or mentally. Honestly, what it came down to was just confidence.

“I didn’t have confidence at Triple-A. I was trying to do too much and trying to catch up from half the year I lost rehabbing. I was trying to do too much. I was trying to impress people and I got outside of myself. Then I remember it was three good outings in a row and I got called up just like that. So it was definitely a learning experience, that’s for sure.”

With some big league innings under his belt, Minter enters spring training vying for a prominent role in the Braves bullpen in 2018. Atlanta has been cautious with Minter’s workload and he will have to prove he is capable of throwing on consecutive days on a regular basis, something he has done just once in his professional career.

His manager, Brian Snitker, is already a believer in the potential impact a healthy Minter could make in Atlanta’s relief corps.

“I think we saw it last year,” said Snitker. “He was healthy at the end, but we were aware of how we used him. If you look at his numbers last year, strikeouts per innings pitched and that whole thing was pretty good. You watch him on tape and you see this kid has got a chance of being special.”

In order for Minter to make an impact, he knows there’s one major key to success.

“Just to stay healthy this year,” said Minter. “It might be kind of selfish goal to have, but I’m just here to help this team as much as I can. And that means me staying healthy the whole year, not missing any outings and just doing my role wherever that is.”

Minter has the stuff to be a late-inning force, but with Arodys Vizcaino around, the ninth inning duties may not be up for grabs. Even if the closer’s job belongs to someone else, Minter knows there are plenty of important outs to be accounted for.

“Whether that’s in the sixth inning or getting some late innings to close a game out, I’ll be here to do my job. Get one out or three outs,” said Minter of the bullpen competition. “It’s a great thing to have, it’s a great problem to have. We’re all here to support each other and push each other, so it’s awesome to have someone there to push you forward and make you better as a player and as a teammate.”

Minter may have walked through the door last spring as a relative unknown with tempered expectations, but won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. He returns armed with big league experience and the confidence he can get the job done against major league hitters. Snitker felt fortunate to get a sneak preview of Minter’s arsenal in 2017.

“I had just heard about him,” Snitker said of last spring’s look at Minter. “You see things the year before where he’s literally striking out the side on nine pitches and things like that. Talking to guys who played behind him, it was really impressive what they had to say and then we saw him and how he handled things. The stuff is really good. He’s got a chance of being absolutely electric, and like I said, playing a big part in our bullpen.”

The Braves have battled through challenging times during the current rebuild, but now the club is finally seeing many of the great young players that were drafted and acquired to build the future all converging on Atlanta. A wave of talent is in big league camp this year, knocking on the door.

“As a team, you know people are saying ‘it’s still a rebuilding year’ but we have a pretty damn good team,” said Minter. “It’s young, but it’s exciting to see. Getting to play with all these guys going up through the system, it’s just a chemistry that I feel is unique.”

With opportunity knocking, it’s up to Minter and others to answer.

“At the end of the day, it’s a new year, a new challenge ahead,” said Minter. “The goal is just to pick up where I left off. I’m coming into this spring training ready to rock and roll and just excited to get this year going.”

Scott Kazmir’s long road leads to opportunity in Atlanta

Scott Kazmir has just about seen it all on his journey through professional baseball. That 16-year odyssey has led him to the Atlanta Braves with his career once again seemingly at a crossroads.

He’s been there before.

Traded. Injured. Working his way back. Looking for an opportunity to pitch every fifth day. All familiar territory for Kazmir, who is now 34 years old and coming off a season in which he did not pitch in the big leagues. This isn’t the first time.

If he wants to crack the Atlanta rotation, Kazmir has his work cut out for him in a crowded camp this spring. It’s a camp that’s filled with the same kind of first round talent he once was for the New York Mets about a decade and a half ago. The Braves have 12 former first round picks in big league camp, with nine of those men vying to impact the big league rotation at some point in 2018.

Kazmir went from first round pick in New York to top prospect, to Tampa Bay in a trade deadline deal, to American League strikeout leader, to All-Star and found himself pitching in the World Series. That all happened in a whirlwind six-year run, and he did all of this by the age of 24.

Then the Rays traded Kazmir to the Angels in 2009. That’s when things began to unravel. His time in Los Angeles was marred by injury and inconsistency and he was released in 2011. After a short and unsuccessful stint in independent ball in 2012, it appeared his career might just be over.

He was 27 years old. He’d lost his fastball. He’d lost his slider. He’d lost his command.

Then the comeback began.

With the work of personal coaches and trainers, Kazmir reestablished himself as a top flight starting pitcher. He signed a minor league deal with the Indians in 2013 and was back in the All-Star game as a member of the Oakland Athletics just one year later. Kazmir returned to his hometown of Houston to pitch for the Astros in 2015 and then signed a three-year, $48 million contract with the Dodgers.

It would seem the story has a happy ending, but the injuries continued to put hurdles in front of the veteran lefty. A hip injury sidelined Kazmir for the entire 2017 season. Now he is in camp with the Braves and hoping his book has more chapters left to write.

It’s time for yet another comeback.

WATCH: Here’s Scott Kazmir’s first bullpen session with the Braves from Thursday. He told me afterwards that he was feeling good. Manager Brian Snitker added, “It looked like the ball was coming out pretty good, so it was encouraging. I was excited to see him out there and it looked okay for me for where he’s been. Again, we’ll just take all that a day at a time and see where we’re at.”

Here’s my Q&A with Scott Kazmir:

Grant McAuley: I’m sure it’s good to get back to baseball. How are you feeling as Spring Training begins?

Scott Kazmir: “Definitely feel better than I have for the past however many years. I put in a lot of work in the offseason. Different game plan, different program I guess I’d say and I’ve never felt better.”

GM: You’ve dealt with injury. You’ve dealt with all kinds of different things and had a unique journey through major league baseball. What was this past year like for you, not being able to pitch last year and having to work your way back?

SK: It was frustrating for a lot of different reasons. A lot of stuff I don’t want I get into because it will take you down a dark road, you know what I mean? You know, it was unfortunate, the situation [with the hip injury last season>, but where I’m at right now, that’s something that I’m not looking back. I’m really excited moving forward and I’m happy where I’m at.”

GM: As far as the physical road back, how do you feel coming into camp and what’s it been like to get back on the field and be around your new teammates?

SK: “I felt really good. I changed my program up. I was always a big weight lifting type of guy in the offseason. I always tried to bulk up and get stronger, but I definitely changed. I did yoga, pilates and all that stuff pretty much the entire offseason. Did some light weight stuff just to keep my arm in shape, but mainly focusing on that [flexibility>. Focusing on baseball-specific stuff, just pitching and working drills to cement a good delivery. I’m really pleased with how the offseason went.”

GM: It’s a new year and a new team for you. When you heard about the trade in December, what was your reaction to joining the Braves?

SK: “Very excited, very excited. This is one of the teams that I actually grew up watching. Hard to believe but more than the Astros, because when I was a kid the Astros were always blacked out [on local television>, so I never got a chance to watch them. But I was always able to watch the Braves on TBS. It’s surreal to be able to wear this uniform knowing that all the guys in the past that I’ve watched over the last couple of decades were wearing this uniform and wearing it with pride and just kind of playing the game the right way. I feel like that’s something you don’t really see too much in this game anymore. I’m proud to be a part of this organization.”

GM: MLB Network aired its “Atlanta Rules” special this week that looked back on the 90s Braves. It showed how the Braves had fans coast to coast and everywhere in between. Older guys had mentioned to me that Houston was one of those places…

SK: “Definitely. I believe it, just because of what I said before with the TV situation. We never really got to see too many games unless you went to the park, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to go the park as much as I’d like to. It was the Braves. It was TBS that I would always watch. I was always watching baseball and that was the channel that was always on.”

GM: How are you feeling this spring. Are there any limitations?

SK: No limitations. I’m just looking to go out there and progress. I’m just going to take one day at a time and not really look to far ahead. Just continue to progress. You know, I feel good where I’m at and I’m going to keep the same game plan.

GM: I know the focus for you is on being healthy and going out there and competing, but this is a relatively young club with a lot of young starting pitchers. You were in their place at a time. As a veteran, what do you see your role being when it comes to having a locker room full of guys who could look up to you for some of the knowledge that you can provide?

SK: “I feel like I’ve kind of been in that situation the last four or five years and I’ve embraced it. You don’t want to tell kids too much, but at the same time provide a little bit of guidance and a little bit of that team chemistry. Stuff like that, I feel like it’s important to have that veteran in the clubhouse to kind of guide people. If there are any questions you can bounce it off of veterans like that. It’s just really important to have those guys in the clubhouse and around. It’s really got to the point where it’s a little bit unappreciated and you see how the teams evolve when you have that right group of veterans kind of leading the way for all the young guys on a team.

Braves lefty Sean Newcomb gets head start on 2018 at TB12 Center

The Atlanta Braves are opening Spring Training this week with high hopes that some of their talented young pitchers can take a big step forward in 2018. One of the best of the bunch is the big left-hander, Sean Newcomb. After a rookie season that showed both flashes of promise and some rough edges to polish, Newcomb reported to camp ready to cement his spot in the Atlanta rotation.

He took upon himself to raise the bar the winter. Newcomb, a Massachusetts native, spent a portion of his offseason working out at the TB12 Sports Therapy Center, the gym and treatment facility in Foxborough which was founded by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his personal trainer, Alex Guerrero. Implementing some of the aspects of the TB12 regimen along with his own workouts and an early throwing program, Newcomb arrived in Orlando last week with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and ready to prove he belongs.

Here’s my Q&A session with the young Braves left-hander:

Grant McAuley: It always seems like the winter is long until you suddenly run out of days and here we are getting set to open spring training. How was your offseason and what was your focus after completing your rookie year?

Sean Newcomb: “After my first time playing through September like that, it felt good to get home. I took a couple of weeks off and then got going and got back into my working out. Once the new year rolled around, it was time to make sure I was really ready to go. That’s kind of the end of your offseason.”

GM: You did something a little different this winter. You’re up in the New England area and a certain quarterback is doing some interesting things in both the football and the training world. Tell me about how you got hooked up with TB12 Sports and what that did for you this winter?

SN: “I live probably 15-20 minutes away from Foxborough, where the Patriots’ stadium is, so I got in there and worked a little bit with Alex Guerrero and TB12 Sports and just kind of introduced myself to that a little bit. I didn’t do the full-on program. I didn’t go there and do the whole working out every single day and the diet that they all preach about. I went in there and got treatment done three, sometimes four times a week. I also supplemented that with the Cressey performance workout that I’ve always done. It was good. It was definitely a new way to stay on top of myself. It was a good way to get some type of treatment and some kind of care for my legs, my arm and what not when I’m away from the team and don’t have the trainers around. It was definitely really helpful.”

GM: What were the main benefits of training at TB12 Sports?

SN: “It helped me recover from my workouts quicker. It helped me feel a little bit better as far as being loose and just getting my muscles just feeling good in general. It’s a good program and it obviously has shown a lot results. A lot of guys go there, so it was good to step in there and see what they do and get a feel for it.”

GM: Were you working with other big leaguers or was this more of an individual approach?

SN: “It’s kind of weird. You don’t really see people while you’re in there because it’s pretty isolated in a room. They do a lot of soft tissue work, so you have your own room with your own ‘body coach’ they call them.”

GM: Well, the winter training is one element, but you’re also coming off the longest season of your professional career and your first taste of the big leagues. When you reflect on it, what did you take from that experience and bring with you to spring training this time around?

SN: “It was awesome to look back and see how the year went. Obviously, I wish it could have gone a little better in the bigs as far as just being more consistent through all my starts, but I felt good and I felt strong at the end, so that’s a good sign. I definitely feel I could have done more as far as innings count and just pitching longer. That’s obviously the plan and what we’re all here for. It was definitely good just to look back and see what I did, build off it and look back at what I can take from it. I just want to take that going into spring. I feel a lot more comfortable this spring than I have before,  just knowing all the guys, knowing how things go and where I stand as of now.”

GM: Looking at the rotation, there are a couple of veterans in Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir coming in and more than a few prospects in big league camp this year. The guys coming back, yourself, Mike Foltynewicz, Luiz Gohara and even Julio Teheran are on the young side. It’s an interesting mix all around. When you have all that talent, especially some younger arms, does that start to stoke the flames a little bit for some friendly competition?

SN: “It’s good to have competition around, especially when they’re all around the same age and you’ve got all the young guys kind of battling to show that they’re best. It’s a good feel and it keeps the competition up. The rotation is looking pretty young, but those two veterans (McCarthy and Kazmir) that got traded over here are going to come in and contribute and help us younger guys learn some stuff and see what they do in their daily routines. We can take some stuff from them, but at that same time we’re all going to be battling to be on the opening day roster.”

GM: An interesting note about a lot of these arms is just how many lefty starters are running around here in camp this year – yourself, Gohara, Max Fried, Kolby Allard. That’s a big change from years past. Scott Kazmir has had unique journey in the big leagues. Do you think having him around could be beneficial for you guys, the lefties?

SN: “I think last year, and even the year before, there weren’t anywhere near as many lefties. We were talking about that the other day, looking around at the lefties and it’s almost a 50-50 split at this point. But yeah, having Kazmir will be huge. I’d met him before in Arizona when I was with the Angels. I know that he’s a good guy. He’s one of those guys that will come up to you and help you out whenever you need it. It’s going to be good to have the veterans around.”

More reading: Check out the entire Sean Newcomb capsule from my 2018 Braves Positional Preview Series: The Rotation.

A big lefty with an excellent fastball-curveball combination, Sean Newcomb arrived in Atlanta by midsummer and entrenched himself into the big league rotation. Originally a first round draft pick by the Angels in 2014, strikeouts and walks have been his calling card thus far and Newcomb gets more than his fair share of both. The major return from Los Angeles in exchange for slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons in 2015, Newcomb’s future will dictate whether that was a trade worth making. There were some ups and downs during his rookie season, but Newcomb has shown enough promise to merit a spot in the Braves starting five in 2018. What he does with that opportunity remains to be seen. Given the stats he put up in 19 starts last year, the numbers are open to interpretation.

For Newcomb, a 6-foot-5 lefty with a power arm, bases on balls are the main area he must improve, but his strikeout stuff in tantalizing. His 9.72 strikeouts per nine innings pitched ranked 10th best in the NL among starters with at least 100 IP. On the flip side, Newcomb’s 5.13 walks per nine innings was the worst rate among that same group. That’s been a trend for Newcomb in the minors, but he has routinely been tough to hit and that has taken the edge off the walks. That said, Newcomb somewhat predictably incurred more damage when facing big league lineups, which was to be expected. His hit-rate jumped from 7.0 hits per nine innings in his minor league career to 9.0 H/9 in the majors. Newcomb’s sparkling home run rate also nearly doubled, from 0.4 home runs per nine innings in the minors to 0.9 HR/9 with the big league club. That’s not altogether surprising considering the historic rate at which balls were leaving the park in 2017. The home runs are manageable, but dealing with nearly 14 base runners per nine innings is not a recipe for success.

2018 Braves Positional Preview: Bullpen

The Atlanta Braves will bring a host of arms to camp to compete for jobs in the bullpen this spring and the team is no doubt hoping for more stability than the 2017 version. That group posted a 4.58 ERA which ranked 26th in the major leagues while blowing 23 save opportunities. Atlanta has some quality holdovers and audition a wide range of other men in hopes of getting the job done this season. It will be integral to the club’s success, especially if the Braves opt to go with an eight-man bullpen in 2018.

Arodys Vizcaino | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.4 million

The Braves will hand the closer’s role back to hard-throwing Arodys Vizcaino in 2018, hoping he can provide a full season’s worth of late-inning stability. Unfortunately, Atlanta did not get that from veteran Jim Johnson in 2017. He eventually lost the job to Vizcaino and was shipped to the Angels in an off-season trade that helped the Braves offload some salary. Vizcaino has shown himself to be more than capable of handling the ninth inning when healthy, but injuries have derailed him throughout his career. Vizcaino made a career-high 62 appearances in 2017 and posted a respectable 2.83 ERA over 57.1 IP while punching out 10 batters per nine innings. His fastball velocity was once again among the best in the National League, averaging 97.8 mph, which was good for third best in the NL and ninth best in MLB. That top-shelf velocity gives him excellent change of speed and eye level for his sharp-breaking slider. That pitch netted Vizcaino 49 of his 64 strikeouts last season according to Statcast. With teams relying more and more on the bullpen night in and night out, Vizcaino is a good guy to have around when the Braves need a strikeout. He’s also under team control for the next two seasons.

Jose Ramirez | RHP | Age: 28 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Gleaned from the Mariners in a 2015 trade, Jose Ramirez has steadily developed into a quality relief option for Atlanta. He’s certainly been busy. Ramirez made a team-high 68 appearances last season and posted a solid 3.19 ERA, though his 4.88 fielding independent pitching illustrates the difficulty he had at times with keeping the ball in the park. Of course, most pitchers found that to be problematic in 2017. Ramirez will be counted on to bridge the middle innings to Vizcaino and has the stuff to get the job done. Right-handed hitters managed just a .220 batting average against Ramirez last season, while lefties hit just .180 against him. While his walk-rate improved over 2016, Ramirez still issued 4.2 BB/9 last year. That’s a number that will need to see continued improvement. Ramirez throws hard and has an excellent changeup that he relies on as a strikeout pitch. His fastball touches the high-90s, while the change sits in the upper 80s and could make Ramirez a formidable piece in the Atlanta pen in 2018.

Sam Freeman | LHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.08 million

Atlanta found a bargain when it scooped Sam Freeman off the scrapheap last winter. Pitching for his fourth club in as many years, Freeman enjoyed the best season of his career in 2017. He posted a career-best 2.55 ERA and 3.34 FIP while averaging 8.9 K/9 in a career-high 60 innings of work. The Braves allowed Freeman to be more than simply a situational lefty, a role that didn’t really fit him all that well to begin with. He responded by upping his work across the board. Lefty hitters batted just .189 in 105 plate appearances against him, while righties batted just .236 in 149 PA. Freeman carved out a role as a dependable reliever and was given more responsibility as the year wore on. He mixes his mid-90s fastball with a slider and changeup. Like Jose Ramirez, finding a way to cut down the walks would only make Freeman that much more effective.

A.J. Minter | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

No relief prospect in the Braves system since Craig Kimbrel has brought as much potential to the back end of the Atlanta bullpen as A.J. Minter. Drafted out of Texas A&M in 2015, Minter was on the mend from Tommy John surgery. That may have slowed his development, but Minter has been making up for lost time and blazed his way to the majors last summer. He possesses a fastball that can reach the upper 90s and a slider that may be the best in the organization, at least among relievers. In his big league debut for the Braves last season, Minter struck out 26 men in just 15 innings of work, an average of 15.6 K/9. He posted a 3.00 ERA and 0.96 FIP, allowing just 13 hits and two walks to the 60 big league batters he faced. Health has been the only question when it comes to Minter. He pitched on consecutive days just once in his 57 minor league appearances and has yet to do so in his limited time with Atlanta. Obviously, his availability will be a big factor in the impact he can make in 2018.

Rex Brothers | LHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.1 million

The former Rockies closer joined Atlanta’s bullpen mix last season, but the results were in fact mixed for Rex Brothers. Yet another strong-armed reliever, Brothers looks the part. His sometimes erratic command and a bout with shoulder problems derailed his career for a couple of years. Back in the big leagues with Atlanta last season, Brothers was routinely hitting 97 mph again and struck out 33 of the 105 batters he faced, good for a 12.5 K/9 clip. While his 7.23 ERA is uninspiring, Brothers posted a 3.67 FIP that was more in line with the numbers he put up while closing games for Colorado in 2013. The Braves signed Brothers to a split contract, meaning he will get $1.1 million if he makes the big club or be paid $450,000 if he opens the season in the minor leagues. Bottom line, Brothers is a hard-throwing lefty with options, clubs like those.

Dan Winkler | RHP | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 1-year. $610,000

You’d be hard=pressed to find a better comeback story than that of Dan Winkler, but the young right-hander is hoping there are quite a few more chapters still to write. Taken from the Colorado Rockies in the Rule 5 draft way back in the winter of 2014, Winkler still has big league time to serve in order for the Braves to fulfill that obligation. Injuries have sidetracked the former starter, beginning with Tommy John surgery which he underwent just a few months before joining the Atlanta organization. Once recovered, he made his major league debut in September of 2015 and seemed primed to get an opportunity to earn a place in the Atlanta pen the following spring. That’s exactly what Winkler did. He made the Braves’ opening day roster that season, but his dreams came crashing down on April 10, 2016. Winkler fractured his right elbow while throwing a pitch in a game against the Cardinals. What followed was another grueling year of rehab. Winkler worked his way back to Atlanta last season and pitched well in his 16 appearances, posting a 2.51 ERA (2.81 FIP) with 18 strikeouts and just six walks in 14.1 innings of work. He utilizes a deceptive delivery to go along with a three-pitch mix that should keep hitters off balance. Perhaps 2018 is the year that Winkler finally gets a chance to show what he can do over a full season.

Mauricio Cabrera | RHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

To say that 2017 was a lost season for Mauricio Cabrera would be a bit of an understatement. He went from closer candidate in the spring to afterthought in September. Though he avoided the kind of major injury that typically derails a pitcher’s career, Cabrera found himself struggling to replicate the success of his rookie season and struggling to find the strike zone in the minor leagues. Let’s flashback to 2016 first, because that’s when Cabrera ascended to the major leagues and made a favorable first impression. That came thanks in large part to his triple-digit fastball, a pitch that routinely registered 100 mph. In fact, only Aroldis Chapman did so more frequently in that 2016 season. Cabrera was an effective arm in the late innings for Atlanta during his rookie season, with a 2.82 ERA and six saves in 41 appearances. Though he possessed that dynamite fastball, Cabrera averaged just 7.5 K/9, which was just below his minor league career rate. Fast forward to last spring and his conditioning was questionable, his elbow started barking and Cabrera found himself on the disabled list to open the season. He’d never appear in a big league game in 2017. Cabrera was activated from the DL in May and optioned to Gwinnett, where his control problems really got out of hand. Demoted to Double-A Mississippi after another stint on the disabled list, Cabrera finished last season with a 6.49 ERA and 45 walks in 43 IP. Obviously, that 9.4 BB/9 is not going to get the job done. He’ll have to find a way to harness his control in order to regain a spot in the Atlanta bullpen this season.

Josh Ravin | RHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Josh Ravin is one of two relievers that new general manager Alex Anthopoulos plucked from the Los Angeles Dodgers this winter. He has shown the ability to miss bats, but never carved out a full-time spot in the big leagues. Originally a fifth round pick by the Cincinnati Reds way back in 2006, Ravin has spent parts of the last three seasons with L.A. and posted a 5.05 ERA with 11.1 K/9 in 33 appearances. Along with a fastball that can reach the high-90s, Ravin throws an adequate slider. The Braves are hoping to have plenty of depth to call upon in the bullpen should they need it and a live arm like Ravin certainly helps with that.

Shane Carle | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

A recent addition to this spring’s bullpen competition is Shane Carle, who came over in a January trade with the Pirates in exchange for a player to be named later. Carle spent most of 2017 pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but found his way up to Colorado and got his first taste of the big leagues. After serving as a starter for the first four seasons of his minor league career, Carle switched the bullpen full-time in 2017. He went 3-5 with a 5.37 ERA across 62 innings with 22 walks and 50 strikeouts. The Rockies cut him loose earlier this winter in order to make room on the 40-man roster for newly-signed closer Wade Davis. That allowed Pittsburgh to reclaim Carle, who was drafted by the Pirates as a 10th rounder out of Long Beach State in 2013. He was then shipped to Atlanta to clear roster space following the Gerrit Cole trade less than two weeks later. Along with a low-mid 90s fastball, Carle has a slider, curve and a change. He’s a fringe pitcher who is most likely to be spending time at Gwinnett, but could be called upon to cover some innings at some point in 2018.

Jason Hursh | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

There was a time not too long ago when Jason Hursh was among Atlanta’s top prospects, However, following an extensive rebuild and the stockpiling of arms, those times have changed dramatically. The Braves drafted Hursh out of Oklahoma State with the No. 31 selection in the 2013 draft, just one pick ahead of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. After beginning his career as a starter, Hursh shifted to the bullpen in 2015 and has enjoyed some success thanks to a sinking fastball that can sit in the mid-90s. Hursh has a chance to carve out a role as a useful middle reliever, but will have plenty of competition this spring.

Grant Dayton | LHP | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The other former Dodgers reliever who was scooped up by new general manager Alex Anthopoulos was lefty Grant Dayton. He was a bit of a late bloomer who made it to the majors at age 28 and immediately became a valuable piece of the Dodgers bullpen. Dayton turned in a 2.09 ERA and punched out 39 batters in just 26.1 IP as a rookie, but a slew of injuries which culminated in Tommy John surgery derailed his 2017 season. Dayton had the elbow surgery in August, which means he’ll be shelved for 12-18 months and may not appear for Atlanta this season. When he’s right, Dayton is capable of shutting down lefty bats, but he may not get that chance in 2018.

Key Prospects on the 40-man roster:

RHP Akeel Morris, 25, got a brief taste of the big leagues with Atlanta in 2017 and made the most of his opportunity. The former Mets farmhand allowed just one run in eight appearances, posting a 1.23 ERA to go along with nine strikeouts and four walks in 7.1 IP. He’s been a strikeout machine in the minors, averaging 11.8 K/9 in nearly 400 innings. Morris is a dark horse candidate to crack Atlanta’s opening day roster.

LHP Jacob Lindgren turns 25 years old this season and was a reclamation project started by the previous regime. He was cut loose by the Yankees and signed with Atlanta last winter while recovering from Tommy John surgery. That elbow injury kept him on the shelf in 2017, but Lindgren should be ready to join the Atlanta bullpen at some point this season. New York selected Lindgren out of Mississippi State with the 55th overall pick in the 2014 draft and he made his major league debut the following year. In seven appearances, Lindgren allowed four runs in seven innings, walked four and struck out eight. Strikeouts are a theme for Lindgren, who posted a 1.72 ERA and punched out 77 men over 47 innings for an average of 14.7 K/9 in the minors before running into elbow problems. His fastball-slider combo may yield a few walks (4.4 BB/9 before his injury), but Lindgren has the makings of a quality bullpen arm if he can return to his pre-surgery form.

RHP  Anyelo Gomez comes to camp hoping to stick as a Rule 5 draft selection. He is just 11 days older than Lindgren and was a Yankees farmhand as well. Gomez made four minor league stops last season, compiling a 1.92 ERA with 11.1 K/9 and just 2.7 BB/9 in his 70.1 IP. If the Braves want to hold onto Gomez, they’ll have to keep him on the big league roster for the entire season or they must offer him back to the Yankees.

LHP Jesse Biddle, 26, is yet another rehabbing prospect who was added to the system in recent years. A first round pick by the Phillies in 2010, he dealt with Tommy John surgery in 2015. Atlanta claimed Biddle off waivers from the Pirates in 2016, knowing that he’d miss the entire season. Originally a starter in his early career, Biddle moved to the bullpen and was an effective reliever for Double-A Mississippi last year. He turned in a 2.90 ERA with with 53 strikeouts and just 16 walks in 49.2 IP. That good work could get him an extended look this spring. Being left-handed certainly doesn’t hurt either.

LHP Adam McCreery was acquired in the Jhoulys Chacin trade with the Angels back in 2016 and is coming off a very capable season as late-inning reliever at two A-ball stops last season. A towering presence on the mound at 6-foot-8, McCreery posted a 2.74 ERA and fanned 90 batters in 62.1 innings while holding opponents to a .205 batting average. The one obvious downside was 38 walks, an average of nearly 5.5 BB/9. That said, he’s 25 years old and has a live arm, so the Braves are intrigued enough to challenge him in 2018. If all goes well, he could make his way to Atlanta at some point this summer.

Non-roster Invitees:

RHP Josh Graham, 24, has been an intriguing minor league reliever in the Atlanta the system. The converted catcher was drafted out of the University of Oregon in 2015 and has flashed good stuff in his three seasons of professional baseball. Graham has a mid-90s fastball which he pairs with an above-average changeup. He has used that combo to strike out 137 batters across 120.1 IP in the minors. Graham split last year between High-A Florida and Double-A Mississippi, finishing with a 3.98 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 in 60.1 IP. He’ll likely return to Double-A, but could see Atlanta before the season is out.

RHP Luke Jackson, 26, is no stranger to the Braves bullpen. That’s where he spent most of 2017 as the de facto long reliever. Jackson came over from the Rangers organization and owns a 5.64 ERA in parts of three big league seasons. He cleared waivers in December and was outrighted to Triple-A Gwinnett, where figures to see time in 2018.

LHP Phil Pfeifer, 25, came to Atlanta from the Dodgers in the Bud Norris trade in 2016. He pitched his college ball at Vanderbilt and was a teammate of Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson before being selected in the third round of the 2015 draft by Los Angeles. Pfeifer has put up solid minor league numbers and reached Triple-A Gwinnett last season. He owns a 3.23 ERA in 76 appearances with 139 strikeouts in 108.1 career innings. Like many young relievers, free passes are a bit of a red flag. He’s averaged 6.0 BB/9 in is career, but has limited the damage by holding opponents to a .214 batting average and allowing just three home runs. He spins a nice breaking ball and has a change that backs up his low-90s fastball. Pfeifer battled substance abuse issues that ultimately led to a suspension during his college years at Vandy. Overcoming those demons ultimately opened the door for his professional career. He’ll have a chance to impress the big league club this spring and could get the call he’s be waiting for this summer.

RHP Miguel Socolovich, 31, is a well-traveled veteran from Venezuela. He had some success with the Cardinals in 2015, going 4-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 29 appearances. More recently, Socolovich has bounced between St. Louis and Triple-A Memphis for the past two seasons and will try to latch on with Atlanta this spring. This signing is more of an organizational depth move and Socolovich will probably see time with Gwinnett if he remains in the organization after spring training.