February 2016

Braves’ Freeman Aiming For Healthy 2016

Updated from the 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series – The Infield

As the Atlanta Braves continued the process of rebuilding the club over the offseason, it became clear that first baseman Freddie Freeman was the one player who isn’t going to be dealt away. He is, in fact, “untouchable.” To that point, general manager John Coppolella made a bold declaration back in November:

“I cannot make it any more clear. We are not trading Freddie Freeman,” he told USA Today. “We are not. I’d give my right arm before we trade Freddie Freeman. It is not happening.”

It’s unusual to see any GM put life and limb, or at least limb, on the line to keep a player in his team’s uniform. However, it’s a stance that Coppolella has not backed down from in the months that followed. Freeman is a cornerstone player for the Braves and over the last two years, those have been in increasingly short supply. For his part, Freeman is happy to know the club intends to keep him right where he is.

“Very reassuring,” Freeman said of Coppolella’s stance. “When you sign a long term deal and all of a sudden start seeing your name scrolling in some rumors, he called me right away and told me ‘don’t listen to those – those are just rumors.’ You know, everybody’s name gets thrown around. Even Mike Trout’s [name] probably gets thrown around, but the Angels shut those down real quick. Every time the rumors started to come back up, [Coppolella] would come back and just shut them down real fast. It just makes me feel good because I committed to them, they committed to me and they’re staying committed to me. You know, I love the Atlanta Braves. It’s the only team I’ve ever been with and I want to stay with them for the rest of my career. For them to have that belief in me, it’s definitely reassuring.”

Freeman signed the biggest of the long term extensions handed out by then-GM Frank Wren in early 2014, and he is entering the third season of an eight-year, $135 million deal – the largest contract in franchise history. With the market yielding bigger and bigger free agent deals each winter, it may end up being a bargain when all is said and done. But that, of course, depends on a healthy and productive Freeman to make it happen.

Getting back in the swing of things…

When I caught up with Freeman at Braves Fanfest (hear the full interview below) last month, he was upbeat and excited about getting spring training underway.

 

As Freeman checked into his locker at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Tuesday, it became clear that the club wanted to take a cautious approach with its star first baseman. While Freeman told David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’s not dealing with a setback per se, Atlanta is going to ease him back into action as it cannot afford to lose the biggest source of power in the lineup. Freeman opted to rest the troublesome right wrist which sent him to the disabled list last June, rather than undergo surgery. He received a number of anti-inflammatory injections and began swinging the bat pain-free in January. Live pitching will be the first big test for Freeman this spring.

“The start of the off-season wasn’t very good. I ended the year hurt, obviously. We got an MRI a few days afterwards [following the season] and it still showed that I had all this inflammation, all this pain, in my wrist. We did all these treatments and nothing was really working until December 20. I had another injection and we put a lot more medicine in it that time and we waited 11 days. On the 11th day, I took 10 swings and that was the first time I felt pain-free. It took seven months for all the pain to go away, but I’m just really happy it did. I’m starting to hit again and everything feels good,” Freeman said back on January 30.

A few stats of note for the Atlanta first baseman…

Over his first four full major league seasons, Freeman averaged a .287/.368/.466 line with 21 HR and 89 RBI in 153 games. The mid-season wrist ailment and subsequent oblique injury resulted in two trips to the disabled list which cost him 44 games in 2015. Prior to tweaking his wrist, Freeman was batting .299/.367/.520 with 12 homers in 66 games. He then spent five weeks on the shelf, only to return for 10 games before the oblique cost him another 15 days. Freeman batted just .248/.380/.408 with six homers in his final 198 PA and was only available off the bench in the final series of the season as the wrist flared up again.

Even though last season was marred by injury, Freeman had proven extremely durable prior, playing all 162 games and logging a major league-leading 1,449 innings in 2014. A fiery competitor, he prides himself on being on the field from start to finish. Injuries cost Freeman 44 games last year as he batted .276, which ranked 22nd among all first basemen. His 18 home runs ranked 18th, but were enough to lead the light-hitting Braves, as were his 66 RBI. Freeman is hoping the rest and rehab approach will allow him to get back to normal in 2016.

Atlanta has not been given much credit in the way of seasonal projections, with PECOTA pegging the Braves for a forth place finish in the NL East with a 68-94 record – just one more win than last season. Even without a clear clean-up hitter, the team remains hopeful that the lineup will actually be able to provide more offense than the 2015 model, which scored a major-league low 573 runs (40 behind the Miami Marlins). With a top of the order that should be improved by the additions of Ender Inciarte and Erick Aybar , Freeman could stand to get more chances to be a run producer in 2016. Nick Markakis and Hector Olivera did not provide much in the way of power last season, but both men will be counted on to protect Freeman in the heart of the Atlanta lineup this year.

However the starting nine shakes out, the Braves are going to have a unique spring training in which they’ll get a look at a multitude of young players that could be a big part of the club’s future. One look around the Atlanta clubhouse at Champion Stadium illustrates the youth movement. Among those men are infielders Dansby SwansonOzzie Albies and Rio Ruiz as well as outfielders Mallex Smith and Braxton Davidson. While some, if not most, of those prospects may require more time in the minors, Atlanta has options coming through the system. That’s something that excites Freeman for the near future and beyond.

“Hopefully we can put together a good team here,” said Freeman of his 2016 outlook. “It’s going to be a fun year. [There’s] going to be a lot of exciting young players that a lot fans are going to get to see for the first time this year in a Braves uniform. I think everybody, as a fan, as a player, as a front office, everybody is looking forward to this year.”

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook. All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher).

Braves 2016 Preview Series: Top 20 Prospects

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. The series concludes with this, the Prospect Report. Follow the directory below to access all six parts of the series. Each article includes a podcast, featuring special guests to discuss each position group.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

 

The Atlanta Braves once again have one of the richest farm systems in baseball. That is thanks in large part to revamping its front office in hopes of taking a one-time perennial contender that was teetering into one that will be on solid ground as the club moves into a brand new ballpark. Atlanta went from an organization that had fallen toward the bottom of the prospect rankings just two seasons ago, to one that is now ranked among the top five in baseball. Within the Top 20 prospects ranked below are 10 first round picks, a number that few, if any other, clubs can currently boast. Of those 10 men, seven were acquired over the past two winters.

While there is certainly no shortage of prospect rankings and hot sheets available, I thought it would be fun to comprise a list of my own. Projecting minor leaguers is an inexact science to say the least, but player development has always been a passion of mine. For a first timer, I figured 20 would be a good place to start, with an extra group of 10 prospects who bring the total up to the requisite 30 that seems to be all the rage these days. Personally, any rankings after No. 20 begin to lose some of their relevance. It just feels even more speculative for a number of reasons. In any event, below are my Top 20 Braves Prospects. I hope you enjoy this list as much as I did putting it together.

 

1.) Dansby Swanson | SS | Age: 22 | Experience: 2nd Year | ETA: 2017

On December 9, 2015, the Braves made the deal that changed the face, pace and possibly the perception of their current rebuild. After a series of painful trades helped Atlanta restock the minor league system at great cost to the major club, the stars aligned for the Braves to make a deal that netted three big pieces from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Shelby Miller. Shortstop Dansby Swanson was the centerpiece of that trade. A Marietta native who starred for Vanderbilt, Swanson got $6.5 million after being taken with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft by Arizona Diamondbacks. He has both the instincts and the tools to remain at shortstop and be an impact player for Atlanta. Swanson exhibits an advanced approach at the plate, but got just 83 at-bats in his professional debut in Low-A last season, batting .289/.394/.482 in 22 games. Given his collegiate experience and all-around skills, Swanson could be on the fast track to the major leagues. He plays the position well, hits well and runs the bases well. He could develop more power, but his plate discipline, coverage and quick wrists are already evident. Moreover, Swanson’s impressive makeup, competitiveness and baseball smarts all profile as exactly the kind of player Atlanta desires. Competing for the starting shortstop job in 2017 should not be out of the question if he rises quickly through the ranks. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said recently that he would very much like to aggressively challenge Swanson this spring, though the club intends to put the young infielder through the paces according to general manager John Coppolella. With incumbent shortstop Erick Aybar only under contract for 2016, the position could well be Swanson’s by the time the team moves into SunTrust Park.

2.) Sean Newcomb | LHP | Age: 22 | Experience: 3rd Year | ETA: 2016

The centerpiece of the Andrelton Simmons trade, left-hander Sean Newcomb was the top pitching prospect in the Angels organization after showing considerable strikeout prowess in reaching Double-A by the end of his second professional season. Of course, much was expected from the 2014 first rounder. Newcomb, for better or worse, has drawn a Jon Lester comp from some talent evaluators, though I hesitate to attach those kinds of tags to any young player. That said, if you are a club looking to acquire a Lester-type pitcher, then you’d be foolish not to do it prior to his hitting the open market via free agency. Thus far in the minors, Newcomb has posted a 2.75 ERA in 150.1 IP with 82 BB (4.9 BB/9) and 182 K (11.1 K/9). The 6-5, 240-pound Newcomb works a fastball in the mid-90s and can run it up to home plate as high as 98 mph. He complements that with a curveball that peaks in the high-70s, a pitch that has seen improvement over the past two seasons, and a changeup in the low-80s. Newcomb will likely see some time at Double-A to open 2016, with an early or mid-season promotion to Gwinnett if he enjoys immediate success. With the number of starting pitchers Atlanta has stockpiled for the spring, it will be interesting to see what kind of opportunity Newcomb gets to showcase his stuff in big league camp

3.) Ozhaino Albies | SS | Age: 19| Experience: 3rd Year | ETA: 2018

This talented shortstop is likely to see a slightly more methodical ascent through the system. Having just turned 19, the Braves no doubt want to make sure Ozzie Albies gets valuable experience at each stop. Signed by Atlanta for $350,000 as an international free agent at 16 years old in 2013 out of Curacao, Albies hails from the same island country that produced both Andruw Jones and Andrelton Simmons. He made his pro debut the tender age of 17 in 2014 and immediately impressed. A switch-hitter who is skilled at making contact, Albies is blessed with excellent speed but very little in the power department. Thus, he profiles as a top of the order bat. Albies has been praised for his approach and characterized as being wise beyond his years in most facets of the game. A fractured thumb ended his 2015 season in early August, but Albies enjoyed a strong year with Low-A Rome, producing a .310/.368/.404 line with 29 stolen bases in 98 games. Though he could remain a level ahead of Swanson as the 2016 season opens, it will be interesting to see if the two become a double play combination sooner rather than later, with Albies shifting over to second base. This would very likely be the case if the duo opens the season together at High-A Carolina. Though we could see Albies reach Atlanta sometime in 2017, chances are he sticks for good in 2018.

4.) Aaron Blair | RHP | Age: 23| Experience: 4th Year | ETA: 2016

The closest to the majors of Atlanta’s top prospects, Aaron Blair has an outside shot at earning the fifth starter’s role with a strong showing in spring training. That said, it would have to be a very strong showing with such a crowded house in camp. Blair came over with Swanson in the blockbuster December trade with Arizona, where he had been rated the club’s No. 3 prospect and one of the Top 50 in the game entering the 2015 season according to Baseball America. A 6-5, 230-pound righty, Blair operates with a fastball that is typically in the low-mid-90s and can reach 97 mph. He works with a curveball in the high-70s and a solid changeup, giving Blair a three pitch mix with which he attacks the strikezone. He was 13-5 with a 2.92 ERA in 160.1 IP between Double-A and Triple-A for the Dbacks last season, though his strikeout numbers dipped from 10.0 K/9 in 2014 to 6.7 K/9 in 2015. A flyball pitcher by nature, Blair has done a good job of limiting home runs throughout his minor league career and has issued an acceptable 2.9 BB/9 in 363 IP. While he is most likely to begin the 2016 in Gwinnett, Blair is at the front of the next wave of Braves starters.

5.) Kolby Allard| LHP | Age: 18| Experience: 2nd Year | ETA: 2019

Were it not for a back injury, Kolby Allard might well be the No. 2 prospect in the Braves system. However, were it not for that back injury, he might not even be in the system. Touted as one of the premier prep pitchers available in the 2015 draft pool, Allard suffered a stress fracture in his back which cost him the majority of senior season. If healthy, he could have easily gone in the first half a dozen picks. Instead, he slipped to Atlanta at No. 14. The Braves paid him a slightly above slot $3 million bonus out of San Clemente High School (CA). Though he signed late, Allard did make it on the mound for Atlanta’s Gulf Coast League affiliate. All he did there was strikeout 12 men of the 20 men he faced and allow just one hit in six scoreless innings. Allard underwent back surgery following his time in the GCL, a procedure that is not expected to impact his readiness for spring training. There were some reports that this was Allard’s second surgery. He eventually took to Twitter to clear up speculation and confirm that he has only had one back surgery. Though slightly built at 6-1, 170-pounds, the young lefty has an excellent fastball-curveball combo. He has already reached the mid-90s and was touted as having perhaps the best breaking ball in his draft class. He should be able to hold onto that velocity as he puts on some weight over the next few years. While the back injury forced him to slide in the draft, the Braves may be rewarded with the best value of any pick in the first round. Allard profiles as a front of the rotation starter and it will be interesting to see where the Braves assign him to open the 2016 season.

6.) Austin Riley | 3B | Age: 18 | Experience: 2nd Year | ETA: 2018

A high school bat who shined in his professional debut, Austin Riley is one of only a handful of top shelf position player prospects. Atlanta selected Riley with the 41st pick in the 2015 draft and saw immediate results. A two-way player in high school, the Braves installed Riley at third base and he proceeded to turn in a .304/.389/.544 line with 12 home runs in 60 games between the GCL and Danville. With a clean, crisp swing and power potential, Riley is an exciting player in an organization that is light on such offensive talents. He will have to work diligently to improve in the field, where he committed 16 errors in just 53 starts last season. Riley has quite a few stops to make before he is knocking on the door in Atlanta, with his first likely in Low-A Rome in 2016. As a hit-first prospect, he will also have to demonstrate that the flash of power in his pro debut was no fluke. I have seen Riley up and down the prospect hot sheets, but his impressive debut vaults him considerably in the rankings in my book. The first full season of professional baseball is the first major adjustment for a young a player. Atlanta is eager to see what kind of numbers Riley can put up with 450 or more plate appearances.

7.) Lucas Sims | RHP | Age: 21 | Experience: 5th Year I ETA: 2017

After suffering through the struggles of 2014 and then an injury setback as a result of the Carolina Mudcats bus crash in 2015, Lucas Sims sent a clear message in the Arizona Fall League: He is ready to reclaim that top prospect mantle. After being selected 21st overall in the 2012 draft, Sims pitched well in his first season and a half of pro ball, including a 12-4 campaign with a 2.62 ERA in 117 IP with 34 BB and 134 K with Low-A Rome in 2013. Sims took a big step back the following year in High-A Lynchberg with an 8-11 record and 4.19 ERA in 28 starts. His strikeout rate fell from 10.3 K/9 in 2013 to just 6.1 K/9 in 2014. Last season, Sims lost roughly six weeks to an injured hip following the crash, but earned the promotion to Double-A Mississippi after putting together a handful of decent outings. Once there, Sims was 4-2 with a 3.40 ERA in nine starts, punching out 56 batters in 47.2 IP. The one issue for him throughout the season was command, evidenced by his 5.2 BB/9. That strong finish to the season carried over to the AFL, where Sims lit up the radar gun and demonstrated improved command – 2.65 ERA with 3 BB and 17 K in 17 IP. That performance gave hope that Sims is turning a corner and poised for bigger things as he returns to Double-A to open 2016. A hard-thrower who reaches the mid-90s with regularity when he’s on, Sims utilizes a curveball that can get a bit slurvy at times. His changeup is a definite work in progress, and a necessary tool for big league success. If he continues to shine, there is every reason to believe he could pitch is way into Atlanta’s big league plans at some point in 2017.

8.) Max Fried | LHP | Age: 22 | Experience: 5th Year | ETA: 2018

There’s no question that Max Fried is the most exciting prospect on this list who has yet to even throw a ball for Atlanta. Lost to Tommy John surgery for the entire 2015 season, the Braves took a calculated risk by acquiring Fried from the San Diego Padres last winter in the Justin Upton trade. Now they are poised to find out exactly what it is they have in the young left-hander. Fried was in the top half of most Top 100 prospect rankings entering 2014, when he was forced to go under the knife in August. Thus, Atlanta did not get to see one of its best pitching prospects at all last season. The Padres selected Fried seventh overall in the 2012 draft and were instantly impressed with his power curve and a fastball that sits in the low-90s and has reached 95 mph. He’ll be working on many things as he returns to the mound with an innings limit in 2016. One of those will be his changeup, though the main focus will be staying healthy throughout the season. Fried has logged just 147 innings in his pro career thus far, posting a 3.61 ERA to go with 4.1 BB/9 and 7.8 K/9. If he clears the hurdle of making it through 2016 injury-free, Fried should be free to resume his trek to the big leagues post haste. He is at least two full years away, however.

9.) Touki Toussaint | RHP | Age: 19 | Experience: 3rd Year | ETA:  2018

A hard-throwing right hander who may have been the best prep pitcher available in the 2014 draft, Touki Toussaint has the stuff to be an impact arm. What he needs now is the polish. Atlanta has been very aggressive in its pursuit of young talent over the past two seasons and at no time was it more evident than the trade with Arizona that landed Toussaint. The Braves essentially absorbed the money owed to an injured Bronson Arroyo in order to add a young, controllable former first round pick. Money and creativity aside, Toussaint is one of the most intriguing talents in the system. While Arizona surprising dealt the 16th overall pick in the previous year’s draft last summer, it is worth noting that Toussaint is still very much a work in progress. Incredibly raw, he possesses a fastball that lives in the mid-90s, a unique gift for a young man who did not begin playing baseball until the age of 11. Originally from Haiti, Toussaint moved to the United States prior to his seventh birthday. He pairs that great fastball with a sharp curveball in the mid-70s and a changeup that sits in the low-mid-80s. He was roughed up in his pro debut in 2014 – 8.58 ERA in 28.1 IP with 12.1 H/9, 5.7 BB/9 and 10.1 K/9. While his hit rate was much improved last season (7.3 H/9), Toussaint dealt with control issues and allowed 4.9 BB/9 while uncorking 10 wild pitches. He closed the year 5-7 with a 4.83 ERA in 17 starts, but will likely see another turn in the South Atlantic League as he seeks consistency in both command and mechanics. If he is able to harness his tremendous stuff, Toussaint could be a frontline starting pitcher.

10.) Mallex Smith | OF | Age: 22 | Experience: 5th Year | ETA: 2016

Speedy outfielder Mallex Smith has excited the Braves with what he can do at the plate and the basepaths. He may have slid to the edge to the Top 10 prospects because of the influx of talent in recent months, but Smith is knocking on the door. Originally a fifth round pick by the Padres in 2012, Smith was part of the package Atlanta received for Justin Upton. He led the minors with 88 stolen bases in 2014, and swiped 57 more between Double-A and Triple-A for the Braves last season. Smith also does his base stealing with a high rate of success – 79% (226 steals in 285 attempts). His speed is at the top of the scouts 20-80 scale and he finds his way on base at a solid rate (.380 career OBP) in order to make the most of his abilities. Smith hit .306/.373/.386 in 548 PA between Mississippi and Gwinnett last season, work that earned him Braves Minor League Player of the Year honors. He grinds out at-bats and is an excellent bunter, which comes in handy with his kind of speed. Smith’s progress in center field, particularly improving his routes to the ball, was a primary objective for 2015. By all accounts, my own included, he has made progress. Atlanta has frequently compared Smith with Michael Bourn, a man they are eager to pair the young outfielder with throughout spring training as a mentor. With Ender Inciarte now on board and given the keys to center field, it will be interesting to see what Atlanta’s plan for Smith may be.

11.) Tyrell Jenkins | RHP | Age: 23 | Experience: 7th Year | ETA: 2016

The other arm acquired in the Jason Heyward trade last winter, Tyrell Jenkins is coming off organizational pitcher of the year honors for his work between Mississippi and Gwinnett after going 8-9 with a 3.19 ERA in 25 starts. While his fastball can reach the mid-90s, he has not piled up the strikeouts at the same rate he did prior to lat surgery in 2013. Jenkins is an excellent athlete, passing up a football scholarship to play quarterback at Baylor in order to sign with the Cardinals as a 1st round pick (50th overall) in 2010. He complements his fastball with a power curveball and a changeup. For Jenkins, it is really more about compiling the requisite number of reps that come through innings in order to take that next step. He lost nearly half a season to injury in both 2013 and 2014, but completed 138 innings last year, crossing the century mark for the first time in his career. He has a big build at 6-4, 204-pounds and a competent and smooth delivery, which he repeats well. Jenkins is earmarked for Gwinnett to start the 2016 season, but if he pitches well then he should find himself among that first wave of young starters.

12.) Mike Soroka | RHP | Age: 18 | Experience: 2nd Year | ETA: 2019

Of the many exciting arms in the system, Mike Soroka is one of the youngest. Selected with the 28th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Soroka hails from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He put on a fine display in his pro debut last summer, posting a 3.18 ERA and striking out 37 batters against just 5 walks in 34 innings while not allowing a home run. As one might have gathered from his strikeout to walk ratio, Soroka attacks the zone at will. He does so with a fastball in the low-90s, a sharp curveball and a changeup. He stands 6-4, 195-pounds and could add velocity as matures. Soroka will likely begin the 2016 season in Rome, with what could be one of the better pitching staffs in the entire system. While he will look to establish himself in his first full professional season, Soroka is already among the top arms in the entire organization.

13.) Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 21 | Experience: 5th Year | ETA: 2018

It was a disappointing 2015 for Rio Ruiz, who is one of the few highly-touted position players among Atlanta’s top prospects. His mega-slump over the first two months of the season put his status as the possible third baseman of the future in question. That remains the case entering 2016. Spending the entire season in Double-A, Ruiz batted just .179 with 10 RBI over his first 41 games, heating up in June only to falter in July. For the year, Ruiz hit .233/.333/.324 with five homers and 46 RBI, with his ability to draw walks (63 BB in 489 PA) serving as one of the few overall bright spots. He finally seemed to find himself at the plate in August and September, with 14 XBH in his final 34 games serving as a promising sign. This, however, comes off a year in which he batted .293/.387/.436 with 50 XBH in 2014. Ruiz has an excellent eye, which made his struggles in 2015 all the more puzzling. A lefty hitter with a smooth swing, he may or may not develop consistent home run power. That remains to be seen. At the very least, he should be able to get back to the norms of his first two full seasons. Defensively, Ruiz is nothing special, though he does have a decent arm. He could become a solid third baseman with more work and, of course, more reps. Ruiz is likely heading back to Mississippi, where he will aim for a better start in 2016 in order to earn a timely promotion to Gwinnett, perhaps around mid-season.

14.) John Gant | RHP | Age: 23 | Experience: 6th Year | ETA: 2017

Another arm in the seemingly endless supply for the New York Mets, the Braves picked up John Gant in a mid-season trade. He rewarded Atlanta with a strong showing down the stretch in Double-A, going 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA and 9.5 K/9 in 40.2 IP over 7 starts. A 6-5, 205-pound righty who succeeds with a low-90s sinking fastball, Gant possesses a good changeup and a decent curveball to complete his arsenal. He may not have the same electric stuff of some names on this list, but he makes the most with what he has. A 21st round pick by the Mets back in 2011, Gant has put together three consecutive strong campaigns. His excellent finish to last season put him on the map, but Gant will have to prove it was no fluke against higher level competition in order to establish himself as a viable middle-rotation starter. He could begin the season in Triple-A, giving him a chance to work his way into the big league plans in 2016.

15.) Braxton Davidson | OF | Age: 19 | Experience: 3rd Year | ETA: 2018

A young hitter with an excellent eye, Braxton Davidson was challenged in his first full season of professional baseball. After being drafted with the 32nd overall pick in 2014, Davidson did not put up very good numbers in 50 games at rookie ball that summer. Despite that, Atlanta sent him to Low-A Rome in 2015, where the results were mixed. A first baseman who spent limited time in center field in high school, the Braves transitioned Davidson to right field. He will need some work there to get comfortable, but he should be able to master the position with refined routes and a solid arm. At the plate, Davidson already has a good approach and it should continue to improve with more at-bats. He led the system with 84 walks, however he also struck out 135 times in 401 AB. His power hasn’t manifested itself, but that could happen sooner than later. Davidson belted 10 home runs while posting a .242/.381/.374 slash line last season. Though he is probably three years away from the majors, he could push the issue in 2018 if he is able to establish himself as a complete hitter.

16.) Chris Ellis | RHP | Age: 23 | Experience: 3rd Year | ETA: 2017

The other pitching prospect acquired in the Andrelton Simmons trade, Chris Ellis may not have the flash of Sean Newcomb, but he certainly has the tools to mature into a middle of the rotation starter. Ellis was a third round pick by the Angels in 2014 and shot all the way to Double-A by the close of last season. The University of Mississippi product was 11-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 26 starts in 2015, picking up 132 strikeouts in 140.2 IP. He issued 4.0 BB/9, however, a number which needs to come down in order for him to enjoy more success at the higher levels of the minor leagues. That walk rate skyrocketed in Double-A, where he issued 43 BB in just 78 IP. Ellis works consistently in the low-90s, but has peaked at 95 mph on occasion. He follows that up with a sharp, biting slider and a changeup that has gotten high marks. The Angels decided to skip Low-A ball with Ellis, pushing him in two stops last season with a full workload after an easy debut in 2014. The Braves will give him an extended run in Double-A, with the strong possibility of a second half promotion to Gwinnett if he pitches effectively this summer.

17.) Zack Bird | RHP | Age: 21 | Experience: 5th Year | ETA: 2017

His arrival may have flown under the radar, given his inclusion in the Hector Olivera trade, but Zack Bird is another of Atlanta’s seemingly endless supply of pitching prospects acquired over the last two seasons. A big, athletic right-hander who possesses a fastball that has gotten up to 99 mph, Bird has made steady improvements over the course of the last four seasons. Originally a ninth round pick by Los Angeles in 2012, Bird is a Mississippi native, which should make it fun to pitch there in 2016 after a brief cameo last season. With his high-octane stuff, Atlanta can continue to work him as a starter unless or until the bullpen becomes the better option. His walk rate (5.3 BB/9) trended back in the wrong direction in 2015, while his strikeout rate (9.1 K/9) was the best of any full season in his career. Bird has allowed just 25 home runs in 364.2 career innings, but the free passes continue to be cause for concern and have contributed to his 4.73 ERA. Without an effective changeup or reliable secondary pitches, Bird’s future in rotation is tenuous. That said, his electric stuff is an exciting possibility for Atlanta to ponder.

18.) Ricardo Sanchez | LHP | Age: 18 | Experience: 3rd Year | ETA: 2019

Here is another of Atlanta’s more aggressive and/or creative prospect acquisitions. The Los Angeles Angels signed Ricardo Sanchez out of Venezuela at the age of 16 for just under $600,000 in 2013. At the time, he was rated the No. 27 International prospect according to Baseball America. The Braves swung a trade with the Halos last January to bring the young lefty over, sending third baseman Kyle Kubitza and reliever Nate Hyatt to L.A. in return for Sanchez. Currently listed at 5-11, 170-pounds, Sanchez is already throwing in the low-mid-90s and most believe he could add velocity as he matures. His curveball flashes plus, but his changeup still needs refinement as does his command in general. Obviously, Sanchez has plenty of time to make the necessary adjustments. He has been competing as one of the youngest players in his league, first in the Arizona League for the Angels, then in Low-A Rome last season for the Braves. He was 2-2 with a 3.49 ERA and 10.0 K/9 in 38.2 IP as a 17-year-old in rookie ball, but did not have the same success in the South Atlantic League in 2015. Sanchez made just 10 starts last season, going 1-6 with a 5.45 ERA in 39.2 IP. His strikeout rate dropped to 7.0 K/9, otherwise most of his rates remained the same, underscoring the small sample size of his numbers to this point. At his young age and relative inexperience, learning how to pitch is the focus for Sanchez as he returns to Rome in 2016.

19.) Lucas Herbert | C | Age: 19 | Experience: 2nd Year | ETA: 2019

The high school batterymate of first rounder Kolby Allard at San Clemente, Lucas Herbert was nabbed by the Braves in the second round of last year’s draft. Unfortunately, Herbert played just three games in his professional debut before a knee injury shut him down. The Braves do not have much in the way of catching prospects ahead of him, so a healthy Herbert could quickly establish himself at the top of the pecking order by putting together a strong 2016. Drawing high marks defensively, the Braves put a premium on catchers who can field the position and handle the pitching staff. That said, Herbert does have some power and may be able to make regular contributions at the plate. He should get the chance to demonstrate all of the above in Low-A Rome this season.

20.) Dustin Peterson | OF | Age: 21 | Experience: 4th Year | ETA: 2018

One of countless former Padres farmhands added to the Atlanta system last winter, Dustin Peterson has probably gotten the least amount of talk thus far. A former second round pick by San Diego in 2012, Peterson switched from third base to the outfield full-time in 2015 and was off to a good start before the Carolina bus crash. He finished the year with a .251/.317/.348 line in 498 PA. On the year, he improved his walk rate, while lowering his strikeout rate, both positives to take away from 2015. Peterson has flashed some power at times over the past two seasons and the position switch seemed to agree with him. He’ll be heading to Double-A Mississippi, where Atlanta will hope to see his raw power start to translate consistently in game.

The Best of the Rest:

RHP Rob Whalen – Another arm acquired from the Mets, Whalen has an excellent curveball and could have a ceiling as mid-rotation starter… RHP Ryan Weber – Got a brief taste of the majors last season as Atlanta rifled through pitchers. Weber is fringy starter who fires strikes, but it’s unclear what kind of opportunity he’ll get with so many better prospects in the organization… SS Derian Cruz – Rated the No. 5 International Prospect last season by Baseball America, Cruz signed out of the Dominican Republic for $2 million and has yet to debut… OF Christian Pache – One of the top international prospects last year, Pache likewise signed for $1.4 million out of the Dominican Republic and has yet to debut… OF Ronald Acuna – Signed out of Venezuela in 2014, Acuna flashed an excellent power-speed combo (22 XBH with 16 SB) in his rookie ball debut in 2015… INF Juan Yepez – Signed in 2014 out of Venezuela as well and showed excellent on-base skills with some power (.299/.364/.458) as a 17-year-old last season… RHP Mauricio Cabrera – Perhaps the hardest thrower in the organization, Cabrera has yet to fully harness his stuff. Transition to the bullpen should allow him to do so… RHP Jason Hursh – After struggling as starter, the hard-throwing former first-rounder found himself in the bullpen. His stuff could translate to a late inning role… RHP Daniel Winkler – A Rule 5 pick who must stay on the big league roster or be offered back to the Rockies, Winkler could be a casualty of the numbers game. If not, he should be in line to resume his work as a starting pitcher after missing just over a year with elbow surgery… RHP Andrew Thurman – A fringy starter who may end up in the bullpen sooner than later, Thurman lost some time due to the bus crash as well. After a decent early showing in High-A Carolina, he was touched up in Double-A and the Arizona Fall League.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher). All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Braves 2016 Preview Series: Bullpen

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

 

The Atlanta Braves bring a multitude of arms to camp this spring in hopes that the bullpen woes of 2015 will not follow them into this season. It was perhaps the most singularly frustrating aspect of last year’s 95-loss team. Among National League clubs, only the Colorado Rockies (32) and Cincinnati Reds (31) bullpens lost more games than Atlanta (29) in 2015. Consider both of those teams don’t exactly operate in pitcher-friendly parks. The Rockies’ 4.70 ERA was a mere percentage point higher than the Braves’ 4.69 ERA for worst in all of baseball, and Colorado relievers logged just over 80 innings more than Atlanta’s relief corps. The Braves also led the NL with 26 blown saves last season, just one behind the major league lead. Those are the kinds of numbers a team can expect after using 27 different relievers – including outfielder Jonny Gomes – in a single season. Needless to say, both general manager John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart were adamant that fixing Atlanta’s bullpen problem was a top priority entering 2016.

Jason Grilli | RHP | Age: 39 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.5 million

On the road back from a torn Achilles tendon which ended his season in July, Jason Grilli is expected to be healthy this spring and will get first crack at closing games according to Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. Prior to his injury on July 11 in Colorado, Grilli had returned to his all-star form and provided Atlanta with a more than capable replacement for Craig Kimbrel, who was traded just before opening day. Grilli was 3-4 with a 2.94 ERA and 24 saves in 26 chances over 36 appearances.

Grilli, who turned 39 years old back in November, was pitching like a man on a mission in 2015. His 1.2 WAR in roughly half a season was on track to be among the best in the game if he’d been allowed the chance to continue his work. Before he went down, Grilli was enjoying one of his best years in a number of categories. Among MLB relievers with at least 30 IP last season, Grilli’s WAR ranked 30th, his 12.03 K/9 ranked 11th, his strikeout percentage of 32.1% ranked 14th and his 2.12 FIP was eighth best in the game. Another good trend for Grilli in 2015 was his career-high average fastball velocity of 94.0 mph.

After watching Adam Wainwright overcome his Achilles injury in roughly five months to return to the Cardinals last season, Grilli has remained upbeat and positive throughout his rehab. The 13-year veteran has even agreed to chronicle his return in a series of videos for The Players’ Tribune (recommended viewing). His leadership and enthusiasm were notably missing from the Atlanta clubhouse as the team fell on hard times in the second half. A healthy and productive Grilli should be one of the center pieces of a revamped bullpen this season.

Arodys Vizcaino | RHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: 1-year, $897,500

It could be said that Arodys Vizcaino took a somewhat circuitous route to major league success. Oft-traded and oft-injured, the hard-throwing right-hander also had to sit out a performance-enhancing drug suspension before ultimately seizing the closing duties by year’s end. Originally a Yankees farmhand, Vizcaino was traded to the Braves in 2009 and then to the Cubs in 2012, only to be dealt back to the Braves in 2014. He spent years among the Top 100 prospects in baseball, but injuries took the shine off Vizcaino’s stock.

A pair of arm surgeries, including Tommy John in 2012, cost Vizcaino two full seasons on the mound. The Braves reacquired him from Chicago after a good showing in the minors in 2014 and were hoping he’d make an immediate impact last season. Unfortunately, he was wild in spring training and was slapped with an 80-game suspension for PED use (Stanozolol) just before opening day. It was not the start the team nor the reliever envisioned. Despite the setback, Vizcaino emerged as one of the few bright spots in a grueling second half for Atlanta.

Despite his injury history and the PED-cloud hanging over his head, Vizcaino quickly dispelled his doubters in the second half. Among all MLB relievers with at least 30 IP last season, Vizcaino ranked 8th with an average fastball velocity of 97.0 mph – Craig Kimbrel was 6th with a 97.3 mph AFV. It wasn’t just the velocity that was impressive, but what he was able to do with both that and a dynamite slider put Vizcaino on the map as a potential closer. Vizcaino’s 1.60 ERA was ninth best among MLB relievers, his 0.27 HR/9 ranked 11th and his 85.5 LOB% was 23rd best in baseball last season (minimum 30 IP). His 9.9 K/9 over 33.2 IP is a solid number, which could actually improve with refinement. While Jason Grilli may have the first shot at save opportunities, Vizcaino is a nice handcuff for the Braves.

Jim Johnson | RHP | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 1-year, $2.5 million

Last season was definitely a tale of two halves, or perhaps a tale of two teams for Jim Johnson. The former all-star closer signed with Atlanta last winter in hopes of rebounding from a disastrous 2014 campaign. And that is exactly what Johnson did. Following a July trade to the Dodgers, however, he did not enjoy the same kind of success. Back with Atlanta, where he revived his career, Johnson will try to put a rocky stay in Los Angeles behind him.

Johnson finished his season with a 2-6 record and 4.46 ERA in 72 appearances, but he was 2-3 with nine saves and a 2.25 ERA in 49 outings with Atlanta. He seemed to have refined the command issues that plagued him with the Athletics and Tigers in 2014, but Johnson will have to reestablish himself this season in order to prove his previous success in Atlanta was no mistake. Working with pitching coach Roger McDowell, who helped Johnson make those strides last season, should be beneficial. A hard-thrower (94.3 mph AFV in 2015) who does not rack up strikeouts at a high rate (6.8 K/9 in 2015 – 6.2 K/9 career), Johnson relies on a heavy sinker to put away hitters. That pitch was flat and very hittable in 2014, when he went from a closer who recorded 50 saves in consecutive seasons, to one that lost his role and finished with a 7.09 ERA and 5.9 BB/9. His work with McDowell helped turn his sinker back into a reliable out-pitch, something the Braves would like to see plenty of in 2016.

Shae Simmons | RHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Atlanta is hoping Shae Simmons can make an impact in the bullpen after losing him to Tommy John surgery last February. The young right-hander impressed the team with a solid rookie campaign in 2014, when he turned in a 2.91 ERA (3.13 FIP) in 26 appearances and drew comparisons to Craig Kimbrel. That may have been an unfair tag to throw on Simmons, but when your fastball sits in the mid-90s and is coupled with an excellent slider, these things happen. Those weapons helped him climb the ladder quickly after being selected by Atlanta in the 20th round of the 2012 out of Southeast Missouri State University.

Simmons blitzed through the minors as a dominant closer. He turned in a 1.76 ERA and 13.1 K/9 in 102 IP while saving 40 games in 88 appearances. Once in Atlanta, Simmons was immediately thrust into pressure situations and seemed to excel in the role of set-up man. He averaged 9.6 K/9 and held opponents to a .197 BAA in 21.2 IP while picking up nine holds in 2014. Simmons’ rookie year ended when he was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain on July 29. That injury lingered through the rest of season, including an unsuccessful rehab assignment with Gwinnett in mid-August. The good news for Simmons and the Braves is that he has not dealt with any shoulder flare-ups during his rehab from elbow surgery. A full year removed from his Tommy John procedure, Simmons should have a chance to be ready by opening day, though Atlanta will undoubtedly take a cautious approach.

Chris Withrow | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 1-year, $610,000

The Braves have taken quite a few risks on injured pitchers, all in hopes that their investment will pay off with good results. Chris Withrow is one of those arms. The hard-throwing right-hander was acquired in a six-player trade with the Dodgers last May. Though the Braves were hoping to see him on the mound in 2015, his recovery from Tommy John surgery was complicated by back surgery to repair a herniated disk. Those two things conspired to keep him out of action last season.

A first round pick (20th overall) by Los Angeles in 2007, baseball has been something of a family affair for Withrow. His father, Mike, spent three seasons pitching in the White Sox organization back in the early 80s. Just this past June, the Braves drafted his younger brother, Matt, in the sixth round (180th overall). The elder Withrow transitioned to the bullpen in 2012, utilizing a fastball that can touch 98 mph to go with a sharp slider. Averaging 5.0 BB/9, command has always been an issue for him, dating back to his minor league days. That said, he averaged 11.4 K/9 and a 2.73 ERA (3.65 FIP) in 56 IP for the Dodgers. Withrow boasted a solid 1.08 WHIP with L.A. because he is extremely hard to hit. Opponents have mustered a meager .157/.277/.267 slash line with just nine XBH in 224 PA. That is the kind of arm that could come in handy as the Braves try to get leads through the middle innings and into the late frames. If Withrow is healthy and pitches like he did for Los Angeles, then Atlanta will have yet another weapon to shorten the game.

Ian Krol | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The Braves lacked reliable lefty relievers in 2015, just one of the numerous inadequacies which seemed to be on display on a nightly basis last summer. With limited in-house candidates, the Braves acquired southpaw Ian Krol from the Detroit Tigers in the Cameron Maybin trade. Krol has moved around quite a bit in his seven-year career. Originally drafted by the Oakland Athletics, then traded to the Nationals in 2013. He pitched briefly for Washington that season, turning in a 3.95 ERA (4.69 FIP) in 27.1 IP over 32 appearances. Krol was then dealt to the Tigers in the Doug Fister trade, and has spent parts of the last two seasons working out of the Detroit pen.

Krol crept into the A’s Top 10 prospects in 2011, but a forearm injury and a team-mandated suspension for using a homophobic slur on Twitter wiped out that season. Krol told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he had learned from his off-field mistake(s) and was committed to returning to form, but his 2012 was highly unsuccessful (2-9, 5.20 ERA) and saw him transition from the rotation to the bullpen. Since then, he has pitched well enough to see time in the majors with both the Nationals and Tigers, to the tune of a 4.91 ERA with 7.8 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 in 88 IP over 110 career appearances. Krol works in the low 90s and features an inconsistent breaking ball, something Roger McDowell will certainly look to tighten up. Like many of Atlanta’s southpaw relievers the past two seasons, Krol is a reverse-split guy as well. He allowed left-hand hitters to sport a .326/.442/.442 slash line (53 PA) in 2015. Krol will have to improve his success in his primary function in order to be of value this season. If he can’t, Atlanta will continue its search for a reliable lefty reliever.

Matt Marksberry | LHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Speaking of left-handers getting an opportunity, Matt Marksberry will be given a chance to prove what he can do this spring. Thrust out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire as Atlanta’s bullpen woes reached critical mass in the second half, Marskberry took his lumps but seemed to be putting it together in the final three weeks of the season. While his 5.02 ERA (4.63 FIP) in 31 appearances is not awe-inspiring, Marksberry received plenty of praise for his professional demeanor and work ethic. And why not? He had a 2015 to remember.

Beginning his trek to the big leagues last season in Single-A with the Carolina Mudcats, Marksberry was a passenger on the team’s bus when it crashed in mid-May, rolling over and injuring several of his teammates. He bypassed Double-A and shot straight up to Gwinnett in late June and was called up to Atlanta in late July. Serving as the primary lefty specialist in September, Marksberry allowed just one earned run and held opponents to a .182 BAA in his final 13 appearances. It’s a small sample size, but his work on the whole against left-hand hitters last season was solid – .170/.267/.264 in 60 PA. Those are some encouraging numbers as he looks to carve a niche in the Atlanta bullpen in 2016. However, he’ll need to cut down his walks (6.2 BB/9 last season) if he wants to enjoy sustained success at the big league level.

Andrew McKirahan | LHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Acquired from the Marlins after being selected from the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft last winter, Andrew McKirahan seemed poised to contribute before being handed a suspension for PED-use (Ipamorelin) just two weeks into the season. Once he returned, the results weren’t exactly pretty. He enjoyed a handful of effective appearances before going on a month-long stretch (August 3 – September 3) during which he turned in a 9.49 ERA in 12.1 IP as opponents batted .390/.471/.542 in 68 PA. Overall, he finished the season with a 5.93 ERA (3.79 FIP) and 1.82 WHIP in 27.1 IP. McKirahan dealt with Tommy John surgery in 2012 then returned to post a decent season in the between High-A and Double-A in the Cubs chain two years later. That earned him a Rule 5 selection by Marlins, who ultimately placed him on waivers and opened the door for a desperate Atlanta team to claim him. Given the lack of lefty options, McKirahan will have another opportunity this spring.

Danny Burawa | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Another former Yankees farmhand – which is a running theme given several high-ranking Atlanta executives have spent time in the Bronx – Danny Burawa got a shot last season as the Braves looked high and low and everywhere in between for capable relievers. He made his big league debut in 2o15 with the Yankees, but landed on waivers after allowing four earned runs in just two thirds of an inning. He put together a strong season, mostly at Triple-A (2.64 ERA in 39 appearances) and found his way into 12 games for Atlanta, in which he posted a 3.65 ERA (3.78 FIP) in 12.1 IP. Aside from his mid-90s fastball, Burawa’s secondary pitches – a splitter and a slider – have been shaky at times. While last season represented a big step forward, he will have to continue that trend in order to remain in the mix and on the staff in 2016.

Daniel Winkler | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

While Daniel Winkler has been a starting pitcher throughout his young career, he finds himself in a unique position in 2016. When Atlanta selected him from the Colorado Rockies during the Rule 5 draft in December of 2014, Winkler was already on the mend from Tommy John surgery the previous June. Prior to his injury, he was leading the minors with a 1.41 ERA – this just one season after leading the minors with 175 strikeouts in 2013. Given that he was going to spend a significant portion of 2015 on the disabled list, the standard Rule 5 parameters (a Rule 5 draftee must spend the entire season on the major league roster) were augmented. Winkler must instead accumulate 90 days of service time, which began with a brief cameo in September, or he will have to be offered back to Colorado. Winkler made his major league debut with a pair of appearances out of the bullpen, where he is likely to stay unless or until Atlanta is able to option him back to the minors. With an unorthodox delivery that causes problems for righty and lefty hitters alike, he has enjoyed success despite less than overpowering stuff. Winkler was an interesting flyer when the Braves drafted him, but he is well down Atlanta’s list of arms given his current circumstances. Still, he is an intriguing story line to follow this spring.

Jose Ramirez | RHP | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Here we have yet another former Yankees farmhand imported this winter. Jose Ramirez was dealt from the Yankees to the Mariners in a trade deadline deal that sent Dustin Ackley to New York. Along with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can hit 98 mph, Ramirez features an excellent changeup and a slider. He was rated the Yankees No. 13 prospect by Baseball America heading into 2014, when he made his major league debut. Ramirez was on the list again last season at No. 26. The major league results aren’t anything special thus far – an 8.66 ERA in 17.2 IP with 17 BB and 15 K. An assortment of injuries, though none requiring major surgery, have conspired against him. Atlanta plucked Ramirez away from Seattle in an early December trade. While he comes with exciting potential, a track record of command issues and injuries have kept him from cashing in thus far. The Braves have gone to great lengths to bring in plenty of candidates with upside to compete for jobs in the bullpen this season. Ramirez is out of options, so he may get a longer look. If he finds a way to put it all together, Atlanta could be very happy with the results.

Evan Rutckyj | LHP | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

This left-hander represents the best of both worlds. Evan Rutckyj is not only another Rule 5 pick seeking a place in the Braves bullpen, but he was also selected from the Yankees. Given Atlanta’s propensity for taking a shot on lesser-known New York prospects and the team’s need for as many lefty options as possible, Rutckyj will get a fair shot to make the 25-man roster. He took a major step forward in his development during his second season pitching in relief. Rutckyj split 2015 between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, finishing with a 2.63 ERA while posting 12.0 K/9 and 3.9 K/BB in 61.2 IP. A lanky lefty at 6-5, 213 pounds, he has a fastball that sits in the low-90s and pairs it with an improving slider. Worth monitoring with every Braves lefty in recent years is his ability to neutralize left-handed hitters. Rutckyj did a fair job in two minor league stops, limiting them to a .231/.329/.323 line in 76 PA last season. Given that he has just 11 appearances above A-ball, Rutckyj will be put the test if he is to remain in Atlanta in 2016.

Paco Rodriguez | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery, Paco Rodriguez will be a non-factor this year, but could stand to be a nice arm in the future. This was not originally supposed to be one of the risk/reward arms that Atlanta has been stockpiling over the past two years. However, Rodriguez was forced to go under the knife just before the end of last season. He was a quality lefty for the Dodgers, posting a 2.53 ERA and 9.6 K/9 in 85.1 IP prior to the trade and subsequent injury. Atlanta will monitor his progress and hope he can be ready for 2017.

Also of note:

RHP Mauricio Cabrera is on the 40-man and thus will get a look this spring as well. He will be profiled in the upcoming Prospect Preview on Feb 8th.

Non-Roster Invitees

The Braves have a handful of veterans and young arms also vying for spots in the bullpen, chief among them is RHP David Carpenter. Yes, that David Carpenter – Version 1.0. Carpenter, 30, was dealt to the Yankees last winter and split the 2015 season between New York and the Washington Nationals. He made just 30 appearances (4.01 ERA and 5.5 K/9 in 24.2 IP) thanks to shoulder issues that impacted his season. Carpenter was at his best with the Braves from 2013-2014, turning in 2.63 ERA with 10.0 K/9 in 126.2 IP across 121 appearances. He will have to prove himself both healthy and effective to earn a spot this spring.

RHP Alexi Ogando will try to recapture the form that made him an all-star with the Rangers in 2011. The hard-throwing righty has put together a decent career in Texas between the rotation and the bullpen – 3.44 career ERA in 471.1 IP over 247 games. Now 32 years old, Ogando is coming off a 3.99 ERA (5.32 FIP) season in 64 relief appearances for the Red Sox in 2015. Once one of the most electric arms in the game, shoulder injuries derailed his career in 2013. However, Ogando’s fastball velocity (94.4 mph AFV) last year was the highest it’s been since 2012. That said, both his walk (3.9 BB/9) and hit rates (8.1 H/9) were above career norms, while his home run rate (1.7 HR/9) was the highest it’s ever been.

LHP Alex Torres, 28, would have a better chance of making the big league club if he were more effective against same-handed hitters. Yes, Torres is yet another reverse-split southpaw. He’s allowed lefties to post a .228/.352/.299 line in 292 PA, while right hand hitters have just a .180/.285/.281 line in 368 PA over the course of four seasons in the majors. That trend was very much the case last year, as  lefty hitters batted .268/.406/.393 against him in 39 appearances. A starter throughout his minor league career, who switched the bullpen when he debuted in the majors with Tampa Bay in 20013, Torres can pick up his fair share of strikeouts – 9.2 K/9 career in 154.1 innings. Like many other candidates the Braves have in camp, he also issues his fair share of walks – 5.0 BB/9 career. The Braves would be his fourth different major league club, should he make it up at any point in 2016. He profiles as more of a one-inning reliever than a lefty specialist.

RHP Ryan Kelly is a journeyman reliever who got a shot in the Braves bullpen last season. He made his big league debut after nine seasons in the minors and was greeted somewhat rudely. Kelly, 28, turned in a 7.02 ERA in 17 appearances. His success in both Mississippi and Gwinnett – 0.77 ERA with 9.2 K/9 and just 4.8 H/9 in 47 IP to go with 23 saves in 41 appearances – earned him a call-up, but he has much to prove if he wants to make it back to Atlanta in 2016.

LHP Hunter Cervenka, 26, went to big league spring training with the Cubs last season, but found himself pitching in independent ball by mid-summer. The Braves signed him on July 7 and he proceeded to pitch well at two levels (0.00 ERA in 20.2 IP with 9 BB and 33 K in Mississippi and Gwinnett) to earn an invite to spring training this season. Cervenka has demonstrated the ability to retire lefty hitters, but control problems have hindered him throughout his career (6.0 BB/9 in 380.2 IP). Given the lack of viable lefty options that Atlanta has dealt with in recent years, the team will explore all options.

RHP Madison Younginer, 25, is a long-time Red Sox farmhand who has made just two appearances above Double-A. With a 4.69 ERA in 370.2 IP over six seasons, Younginer may have finally been turning the corner last season. He cut down the baserunners and posted personal bests across the board – 3.05 ERA and 1.18 WHIP among them in 77.1 IP. The Red Sox always liked Younginer’s arm, which fires a fastball that can stick in the mid-90s, but his secondary pitches and command were both a career-long work in progress. Though he may be a long shot to make the big club, Younginer could put himself on the map with some good work in the spring and a strong showing with Gwinnett.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher). All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.