January 2017

2017 Braves Preview Series: The Catchers

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

 

 

Tyler Flowers | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3 million

The Braves signed Tyler Flowers to shore up their catching situation a year ago. Lauded for his pitch-framing ability, which remains among the best in baseball, Flowers also provided a steady bat in his return to the organization that originally drafted him back in 2005. After spending seven years with the White Sox and morphing from an offense-first catching prospect to one of the better receivers in the game, Flowers set career-highs across the board as he batted .270/.357/.420 last season. Were it not for a broken hand in July, which cost him about 5 weeks, Flowers may have posted even better numbers. It was a pleasant surprise for a hitter who came into the year with a career slash line of .223/.289/.376 across 1,267 at-bats. After veteran A.J. Pierzynski was unable to duplicate his 2015 success, the club relied more on Flowers than most initially projected. Atlanta’s staff employed 16 different starting pitchers and another 19 relievers, but Flowers drew high marks for his attention to detail, game calling and overall receiving skills.

Despite that praise, Flowers had some defensive woes in 2016, none more pronounced than his inability to halt opposing base stealers. He was successful on just 3-of-63 attempts, which was by far the worst mark in baseball and well below his career rate of 27 percent – which would have qualified as league average last season. Outside of a handful of passed balls, which happen to any and every catcher to some extent, there really wasn’t much to complain about. If anything, it would be fair to expect some regression at the plate and some improvement behind it in 2017. Another encouraging sign, however, was that Flowers saw a modest bump in his walk rate (8.9%) while his strikeout rate fell slightly (28%) last season when compared to his career norms. The offense would certainly he appreciated, but the Braves continue to value the catcher more for his work with the staff than anything else. Flowers will be counted on to make a solid contribution again this year.

 

Kurt Suzuki | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.5 million

Atlanta spent the winter scouring the market for ways to upgrade at catcher, but did not pull the trigger on a move until the middle of January, signing veteran Kurt Suzuki to a one-year deal. General manager John Coppolella has referred to catching as the biggest need, one that stretched from top to the bottom of the system. While he added that the team would be comfortable with Tyler Flowers and Anthony Recker opening the season as Atlanta’s catching contingent, it made sense for Coppolella to continue to weigh the options via free agency or trade. After months of speculation involving Matt Wieters and former Brave Brian McCann, the team opted to go with a low-cost free-agent option, rather than be pulled into an scenario that could have proved costly in both money and/or prospects. Suzuki is a 10-year veteran and a former All-Star who batted .258/.301/.403 and collected 33 extra-base hits – 8 home runs – last season while posting his best slugging percentage since 2009. He also fits the bill as a capable defensive catcher, though not known for his pitch framing. Suzuki caught just 19 percent of attempted base-stealers last season and has not been above league average in that category since 2012.

While Flowers and Recker were productive in the second half of last season as Pierzynski faded out of the picture, bringing in a durable catcher on a short-term deal helps Atlanta bridge the gap at the position. Suzuki started 92 games in 2016 and has made 110 or more starts in seven of his nine full big league seasons. His contract includes an extra $2.5 million in incentives, but remains a solid bargain even if he manages to max those out based largely on games played. With most of the catching prospects in the lower levels of the minors, Atlanta will continue to explore options for a long-term solution at the position. Paired with Flowers, Suzuki provides continuity for the staff in 2017.

 

Anthony Recker | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 2nd year arbitration, $800,000

After bouncing between five organizations over a 12-year career, Anthony Recker enjoyed his best run in the big leagues last season with Atlanta. A career .185 hitter in 455 at-bats, Recker proceeded to slash .278/.394/.433 in 33 games with the Braves. He was a pleasant surprise behind the plate and also boasts some power, which you’d expect from a guy who is 6’2”, 240 lbs. Atlanta was pleased his 2016 showing and avoided arbitration with Recker on a one-year deal. Until the signing of Kurt Suzuki, it appeared Recker would be the Braves’ primary backup. As it stands now, he is could begin the season with Triple-A Gwinnett or be shopped to a team in need of catching help. It’s hard to blame Atlanta for adding Suzuki, but the club is happy to have Recker available should an injury change the plans.

 

Other options: The Braves will have a handful of catchers in camp this spring, with several added over the past year to improve the organizational depth. David Freitas will turn 28 in March and has some interesting ties to some of his new teammates. He has been traded for both Jim Johnson and Kurt Suzuki over the course of his seven-year minor league career. After flashing a decent bat in his early years, Freitas hit a lull and missed significant playing time in both 2014 and 2015. He rebounded to hit .295/.349 /.437 at two stops in the Cubs system last season. Freitas is likely ticketed for Triple-A Gwinnett… Blake Lalli, 33, has seen big league time with three different clubs, including Atlanta. He serves as organizational depth and won’t factor heavily into Atlanta plans. On an interesting side note, Lalli has made 23 appearances on the mound during his minor league career, posting a 3.44 ERA when pressed into mop-up duty… Braeden Schlehuber, 29, returns for his 10th season in the Braves system. He’s a well-liked back-up that will likely have a chance to coach down the line if he so desires. Schlehuber has batted just .219 over the course of 1,948 at-bats and will be stationed in Gwinnett for a third consecutive season… Joe Odom, 25, received an invite to big league camp after hitting a career-high .278 with nine home runs in 91 games last season. He should return to Double-A Mississippi in 2017… Kade Scivicque, 23, was acquired in a trade last summer and could be an interesting name to keep tabs on this season. Gleaned from the Tigers in return for Erick Aybar last August, Scivicque should see time at Double-A this year as well. An LSU product who was selected in the 4th round of the 2015 draft by the Tigers, he has batted .272 with 11 home runs and 62 RBI in 655 at-bats thus far in his minor league career. Atlanta sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he got some

2017 Braves Preview Series: The Outfield

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

 

Matt Kemp |LF | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 3-years, $54 million

The acquisition of Matt Kemp was many things. For starters, it was unexpected. The former All-Star center fielder of the Dodgers did not enjoy the same success following a trade to San Diego two years ago, and perhaps that led to a rejuvenated Kemp joining Atlanta. He took to The Players’ Tribune to pen an open letter to Braves fans in which he pledged to turn over a new leaf and make the most of his opportunity to play for the team he grew up watching. The early returns were encouraging. Kemp batted .280/.336/.519 with 12 homers and 39 RBI as Atlanta went 31-25 in his 56 games played. He seemed to fit right in with his new teammates and was an important piece of a larger turnaround for the offense, which ranked fifth in MLB with 4.8 runs per game in the second half after ranking dead last in baseball with 3.4 RPG before the break. Kemp provided a stabilizing force in the clean-up spot and much-needed protection for Freddie Freeman. That middle of the order duo appeared to bond rather quickly, which was another encouraging sign. The deal with San Diego also allowed Atlanta to divest itself of Hector Olivera, the Cuban star who was arrested in April and handed the longest suspension to date under the league’s domestic violence policy. It was a change of scenery trade for Kemp, who settled into his new home, but the Padres immediately designated Olivera for assignment once his 82 game suspension was served. In essence, Atlanta was able to redirect the funds earmarked for Olivera and turn that money into an actual left fielder. It helped that the Padres just so happened to be looking for any taker for Kemp at the time.

What can be expected of Kemp as he enters the first of three full seasons in a Braves uniform? That’s an excellent question. One thing that came up almost immediately upon his arrival was the state of his physical conditioning. It was clear he was playing at his heaviest in 2016, something GM John Coppolella said would need to be addressed over the course of the winter. Billed at 210 lbs, Kemp was easily 25-plus pounds above that weight. That aside, it’s clear that Kemp’s bat still provides some value, though he is no sabermetric darling. Defensively speaking, he has been at or near the bottom when it comes to the advanced stats. Kemp’s days as a center fielder are behind him, but improving in left field would go a long way toward stabilizing his overall value to the team. At the end of the day, he was acquired to improve the offense. That is something Kemp should be able to do annually. After coming to Atlanta, Kemp’s walk-rate improved and he posted a 126 OPS+, his best since departing L.A. Kemp’s conditioning will draw immediate attention this spring. If he comes to camp in better shape, as he pledged in the open letter, then he could be primed for a successful run with the Braves.

 

Ender Inciarte | CF | Age: 26 | Contract Status: 5-years, $30.5 million

The Braves got a firsthand look at Ender Inciarte in 2016 and it’s safe to say they like what they saw. Inciarte won his first career gold glove while serving as a catalyst atop the order in Atlanta’s resurgent second half. Slowed by a hamstring injury over the first few weeks of the season, Inciarte scuffled at the plate and shuffled between center and left field as well. Following the dismissal of manager Fredi Gonzalez in late-May, new skipper Brian Snitker installed Inciarte in center field. That move resulted in countless amazing plays and all-around excellence. There’s no doubt the injury and the time it cost Inciarte contributed to his slow start at the plate, but the way he finished the season was encouraging to say the least.

inciarte-splits

Now let’s talk about defense. Inciarte was a human highlight reel during his first season with Atlanta. With seemingly no ball hit out of his reach and a strong and accurate arm, Inciarte is fast building a reputation as a run-deterrent with opposing base runners. He led National League center fielders with 12 assists, among his 14 overall (two more as a left fielder). Those 14 assists ranked second only to Pittsburgh left fielder Starling Marte among the NL outfielders. According to FanGraphs, he ranked among the top three among all NL outfielders with 15 defensive runs saved (3rd), a 13.4 ultimate zone rating (2nd), a 16.0 UZR/150 (3rd) and led the league with an 8.6 ARM (outfield arm runs, which is the amount of runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm by preventing runners from advancing). While advanced metrics certainly smile on Inciarte, he also had a flair for the dramatic which helped him pass the eye test with flying colors. Inciarte’s incredible leaping catch in New York to deny Yoenis Cespedes of a game-winning home run on September 21 was one of the highlights of the 2016 season.

“I thought that ball was gone off the bat,” Inciarte told reporters afterwards, “but it was the last play of the game, so I was going to try for it. This is probably the best catch I’ve ever made. I was really pumped up. I caught the ball and I knew I had it, but the fans were waiting until I took it out of the glove.”

While that grab against the Mets may well be the crown jewel of Inciarte’s highlight reel last season, his heads-up decoy play on May 10 against the Phillies was another fine example of next-level instincts. Inciarte’s acting was so good that it not only fooled Carlos Ruiz on the basepaths, but also his fellow outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Nick Markakis. Inciarte circled under a shallow pop-fly in right center, motioned as though he’d lost it in the lights, then recovered immediately to catch the ball and double the veteran Ruiz off first base with a great throw. It’s something you don’t see everyday. Check it out.

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Inciarte has fast established himself as one of the best outfielders in baseball over three years in the big leagues. He spent the first two patrolling all three spots for the Arizona Diamondbacks and bounced between center and left last year before ultimately settling in as Atlanta’s center fielder in late May. A hard-worker who takes pride in his defense and base-running ability, Inciarte is just the kind of player the Braves want when it comes to building a contender. That’s a move that could pay off for years to come. After signing a five-year extension with a sixth year option, Inciarte is officially a big part of this team’s future.

 

Nick Markakis | RF | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 2-years, $22 million

It has been an interesting couple of years for Nick Markakis, who seemed to be somewhat back to normal in 2016. Soon after signing with Atlanta two offseasons ago, neck surgery cost Markakis much of that winter and sent him into the regular season with little-to-no time to prepare himself. Thrown into the mix with about a week’s worth of at-bats in the spring, he ended up posting a fairly productive season in 2015. The notable exception was the home run column. After hitting just three homers in his first year with the Braves, Markakis hit .269/.346/.397 with a much more acceptable 13 long balls in 2016. He also collected 89 RBI, his most since 2009, and was another man who benefited from the acquisition of Kemp. That move allowed Markakis to slide into the No. 5 spot in the order, where he batted .278/.349/.415 with 43 RBI in 73 games on the year. That gives him a regular spot in the order after bouncing around in each of the top five slots. Markakis posted a .397 SLG last season, his highest mark since 2012 thanks to his 51 extra-base hits which were his most since 2010. There was one notable deficiency in Markakis’ offensive contributions last season, however, as he became more susceptible to left-handed pitchers than at any point in his 11-year career. A dozen of his 13 home runs came off rights, against whom he posted an .800 OPS in 418 at-bats. That’s a start contrast from just one homer and a .613 OPS in 181 AB against lefties. If that trend continues or the struggles become more pronounced, he could be given the occasional day off against tougher southpaws.

Some have wondered why the Braves handed Markakis a four-year, $44 million deal soon after trading away Jason Heyward. Atlanta continued to dismantle its team over the past two years. Given the direction that was taken, it does seem a curious move at face value. However, the Braves have maintained from Day 1 that Markakis not only fills the role of right fielder, but also contributes to the overall team dynamic. A quiet leader who has the respect of the clubhouse, Markakis comes to the park ready to go to battle every day. He is a solid right fielder with an average arm, who makes the routine plays. Flashy really isn’t his modus operandi. While the term “grinder” elicits eye-rolls in certain circles, Markakis takes pride in being in the lineup every day. The bottom line for any player evaluation is and should always be production first, and he was able to make a solid contribution to the club’s improvement during the second half last season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to expect that to continue in 2017.

 

Dustin Peterson | LF | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Perhaps no hitter in Atlanta’s minor league system did more to improve his stock than Mississippi outfielder Dustin Peterson. Awarded Organizational Player of the Year in 2016, Peterson took a big step forward in his development last season. In fact, he seemed to put it all together. The Braves acquired Peterson as part of the Justin Upton trade with San Diego in December of 2014. Originally a third baseman, Atlanta immediately moved Peterson to left field, a position he has found much more agreeable. After showing modest success despite being injured in the team bus crash with Carolina in 2015, Peterson really excelled in the Southern League last season. Batting .282/.343/.431 with 12 home runs and 38 doubles in 132 games, he led all Atlanta farmhands with 88 RBI and was second in both extra-base hits (52) and total bases (226) while setting career-highs across the board offensively.

One thing that may not be immediately evident when looking at Peterson’s career is that he has been one of the younger players in his league each season. He tallied just 18 plate appearances against pitchers younger than him in 2016, while playing his age 21 season at Double-A. Enjoying a little continuity as he settles into his regular defensive position, Peterson has been able to focus on making strides at the plate. He does not profile as a classic power hitter, but Peterson is quick to the ball and can barrel pitches with regularity. That should provide regular extra-base hit ability as he climbs the ranks. Still prone to the occasional swing and miss (100 strikeouts last season), Peterson has improved his pitch recognition annually. While his good play last season may have culminated in a September call-up some years, Atlanta’s outfield became rather crowded with the addition of Matt Kemp and remains locked down heading into 2017. Peterson will get a chance to test his wares against Triple-A pitching in 2017. (Read more about the Braves Top 30 Prospects for 2017)

Other options: With Sean Rodriguez on board, the Braves have added a player who can literally fit anywhere. He has played 163 games in the outfield, mostly in left. That could mean he’ll shift around in the late innings as a defensive replacement, but he’s also a top shelf option should injury sideline one of the starting outfielders… Jace Peterson spent some time last year getting acquainted with the outfield as well. He was one of the revolving door of left fielders, getting 11 starts out there before Kemp arrived in August. It’s highly likely that Peterson will take to the outfield some in the spring as the Braves attempt to explore his versatility more in 2017… As I mentioned in the infield preview, Chase d’Arnaud was in the right place and the right time last year. His ability to play some center field might come in handy, though he’ll have to provide a little bit more consistent production (.299/.364/.393 over his first 35 games and .190/.271/.276 in final 49 games) to warrant a spot on the roster… Emilio Bonifacio has had a couple of stints in Atlanta, returning last season to see limited time with the big club. A career .258 hitter with 166 steals in 793 games for 8 teams over the 10 seasons, the 31-year-old will likely begin 2017 in Gwinnett, where he batted .298 with 37 steals in 107 games last year … Micah Johnson was acquired from the Dodgers in mid-January to add another speedy, versatile option in the upper minors. Johnson, 26, was the White Sox opening day second baseman in 2015, but failed to produce and was dealt to Los Angeles in the Todd Frazier trade last winter. He’s batted .226 in just 43 big league games, but is a .292 hitter with 179 steals in 505 minor league games. The Dodgers started moving him around the diamond last year, with starts at 2B, 3B, CF and LF. Johnson is young enough that he could work his way into Atlanta’s plans if he remains productive.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

Braves Negotiating New Spring Training Complex

The Atlanta Braves have been in the market for a new spring training home for a couple of years. It appears they my have finally found a match. Sarasota County announced on Tuesday that exclusive negotiations are ongoing between the county and the team, with the Braves targeting a 2019 move-in date according to club Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk. The new complex is pending a final agreement.

The prospective site is located in the City of North Port, which is along Florida’s Gulf Coast, and would be part of the West Villages development project. The complex would be built off West Villages Parkway and U.S. 41, near the State College of Florida. The city will also play a role in the negotiations and eventual construction should the project be approved. The Braves have been in talks with Sarasota County since March of last year.

“We appreciate the patience of all parties during this process,” McGuirk said in the official release from the county. “This is the perfect location for our team and we couldn’t be more excited to be part of Sarasota County and West Villages.”

Zach Murdock of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that the current proposal for the complex includes a 6,500 seat stadium, additional practice fields and a sports medicine academy on a 70-acre plot, all at a projected cost of $75-80 million. Murdock adds that McGuirk as well as Braves Vice Chairman John Schuerholz will be in town to meet with Sarasota County and City of North Port officials next week.

County Administrator Tom Harmer has handled the negotiations with the Braves. An agreement could come within the next few months. The county is planning a public update next week with Braves officials in town.

“There’s still a lot of work to do to finalize the terms, agreements and approvals necessary, but this announcement is a major step forward in the efforts to bring the Braves to our area,” Harmer said in the release. “Continuing to expand sports tourism is high on the county’s list, and the opportunity to bring a major sports anchor to the City of North Port could have a significant impact in south county.”

This move would end a two decade stay in the Orlando area for the Braves, who have trained at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex since 1997. In recent years, the team has explored relocation following the exit of many other teams from the immediate area. Sarasota County, Palm Beach County, Collier County and St. Petersburg have all been discussed as prospective spring training sites for the Braves.

Most recently, the Nationals and Astros moved into a joint-complex in West Palm Beach which opens this year, leaving only the Tigers within an hour’s drive of Atlanta’s spring home. If the Braves move to North Port, they would be nestled in an area with favorable commutes to the Rays, Pirates, Red Sox, Twins, Yankees, Phillies, Blue Jays and even the Tigers to a lesser extent.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

2017 Braves Preview Series: The Infield

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

 

Freddie Freeman | 1B | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 5-years, $106.5 million

The All-Star stalwart and face of the franchise, Freddie Freeman has seen it all over the past two years. Through it all, he went on to have a break-out campaign in 2016. After trade rumors were snuffed out by GM John Coppolella last winter, Freeman was able to turn his attention to on-field matters and that resulted in the finest season of his career. He put up numbers that may have earned him MVP honors on a pennant contender. Freeman posted a career-best 6.1 fWAR, which ranked third in the National League, ninth in MLB and was tops among all first basemen in baseball. He batted .302 and set career-highs in virtually every offensive category, including hits (178), doubles (43), triples (6), home runs (34), runs scored (102) on-base percentage (.400), slugging percentage (.569) and weighted runs created-plus (152). That’s impressive work for a guy who was coming off a season in which a wrist injury had cast some doubt about his health heading into 2016. Though he finished sixth in the MVP voting, there was a strong case to be made that his production may have warranted a Top 3 finish. Freeman was that good.

All of that begs the question: Is this the kind of annual production we can expect from Freeman? The easy answer to that is, of course, no. At least until he racks up a few similar campaigns. However, there is reason to believe that he can at least approach this kind of production on a regular basis. The arrival of Matt Kemp paid huge dividends for Freeman, who slashed .365/.484/.730 with 16 homers, 17 doubles, 48 RBI, 48 runs scored and 42 walks over the final 50 games. Those are video game numbers, a term I don’t like to throw around haphazardly. That production was fueled by an unsustainable .408 batting average on ball put in play (BABIP), but seeing Freeman enjoy the best production of his entire career after getting a legitimate clean-up hitter to protect him is an extremely encouraging sign. While Freeman may have been tempted to press prior to the acquisition of Kemp, it appears that some of that weight was lifted over the final two months of the season. Who is Freddie Freeman? MVP candidate or simply steady producer? We may find out the answer to these questions and more in 2017.

 

Brandon Phillips | 2B | Age: 35 | Contract Status: 1-year, $14 million

A late addition to the Atlanta infield, Brandon Phillips came over from the Reds in a trade just before spring training. An injury to Sean Rodriguez forced the Braves back out on the market to look for a solution to second base, a position at which the club has ranked among the least productive in baseball in recent years. Phillips, 35, is a three-time All-Star and four-time gold glove award winner and has been one of the steadier producers at the position over the last decade. After failing to land Phillips in a trade earlier this winter, Atlanta got him to waive his no-trade clause in February. This marks a home coming for the 15-year veteran, who grew up in nearby Stone Mountain. He does a little bit of everything, blending power, speed and defense to establish himself as one of the best second basemen in the National League over the last decade. Phillips’ production has not approached the 30-30 campaign of 2007, but he has averaged a .279/.325/.429 slash line with 17 homers, 77 RBI, 18 stolen bases and a 2.8 WAR over the past 11 seasons in Cincinnati. Phillips does not draw many walks, but does not strikeout at an alarming rate either. However, he has grounded into 179 double plays since 2006, tied for seventh most in baseball over that stretch.

Phillips batted .291/.320/.416 with 11 homers, 64 RBI and 14 steals last season, but his defense regressed. Phillips committed 14 errors – easily his most since 2006 – and finished with a career worst -2.3 UZR/150 and -7 DRS (defensive runs saved) per FanGraphs. He was a 2.7 fWAR player in 2015, but slipped to 0.9 last season due in large part to the defensive woes. However, a major aspect of this trade is the fact that Atlanta is getting an extreme discount on the veteran’s services. Cincinnati is paying $13 million of the $14 million Phillips is owed in 2017, leaving Atlanta responsible for just $1 million. The Braves traded a pair of arms who were non-factors in clubs future plans as well in Andrew McKirahan and Carlos Portuondo. Basically, the Reds were ready to move on and the Braves provided that opportunity. It’s one that could benefit all parties as it turns out. Phillips was unlikely to be guaranteed regular playing time with a logjam of younger infielders on the rise in Cincinnati, but he should see substantial action with Atlanta. If he performs to anywhere close to his career-norms, this will trade will have paid for itself several times over. Atlanta also has incumbent second baseman Jace Peterson, who could be groomed for a super-utility role beginning in 2017. If Phillips struggles or needs the occasional day off, Peterson could provide that. The future of the position is top prospect Ozzie Albies, 20, who is coming back from a broken elbow and could benefit from extended experience at the Triple-A level. It’s nice to have an All-Star hold things down until Albies is ready.

 

Sean Rodriguez | INF | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 2-years, $11.5 million

Coming off a career-year with the Pirates, the Braves were hoping Sean Rodriguez could bring both his versatility and newfound power stroke to Atlanta. Unfortunately, a January car crash has put his season in jeopardy. In late January, Rodriguez and his family were riding in their SUV when it was struck by a man driving a stolen Miami police cruiser. His wife and children were hospitalized, but Rodriguez did not initially require medical care. With his family recovering, Rodriguez has dealt with a lingering shoulder issue which eventually required surgery. That procedure will reportedly sideline Rodriguez for 3-5 months. After losing their projected starting second baseman, the Braves moved quickly to acquire veteran Brandon Phillips from the Reds. The team maintains hope that Rodriguez will be able to return in 2017.

As for what a healthy Rodriguez was projected to bring, power was high on the list. It’s not that Rodriguez has never shown that home run potential, because he had in the minor leagues, but he altered his stance and employed a high leg kick that allowed him to tap into it more regularly last season. Rodriguez belted a career-high 18 home runs in just 300 at-bats – one every 16.6 AB. For comparison, Matt Kemp slugged 35 homers at a rate of one every 17.8 AB. That illustration makes Rodriguez’s accomplishment that much more impressive, but it’s not just a big year with the bat that makes him so valuable. Versatility has long been his calling card. Rodriguez has played every position on the field over the course of his nine-year career except for pitcher and catcher. He hit well both home and away and against lefties and righties last season as he played in 140 games for Pittsburgh. Though Rodriguez is technically a platoon player, the ability to perform well in virtually any match-up scenario is yet another feather in his cap and could have allowed him to push 500 at-bats this season were it not for the injury. The changes he made in 2016 led to his improved power, but making necessary tweaks and adjustments will remain the key to continued success. Eno Sarris of FanGraphs wrote a detailed account of Rodriguez’s metamorphosis, which is recommended reading for those with an analytical slant. It’s probably unrealistic to expect Rodriguez to continue belting home runs at his 2016 rate, but a productive bat and capable glove at multiple positions gives the team an added layer of depth that should prove valuable when Rodriguez returns.

 

Jace Peterson | 2B | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The 2016 season was quite the odyssey for Jace Peterson. Atlanta’s opening day second baseman found himself in Triple-A a month later, only to reclaim his job and become a steady contributor during the team’s resurgent second half. It’s entirely possible that Peterson felt the need to press after a misdiagnosed ligament injury in his thumb led to severe slump in 2015. He spent most of last winter with his hand in a cast, which no doubt hindered his ability to prepare for the season. Couple that with being placed all over the field during spring training games and you have a player who just never seemed to be comfortable. Perhaps he was pulled in too many different directions. Peterson was hitting just .182 before being sent to Gwinnett to get back on track on May 1, but once there his bat remained ice cold. He batted just .186 over 26 games in Triple-A. However, Peterson was needed by the big club in June and returned to finish the season strong. Over the final four months, he batted .265/.362/.389 with 23 XBH, 25 RBI and 38 runs scored in 94 games as he earned 77 starts, primarily at second.

Peterson’s excellent athleticism has won favor in the organization. A hard-worker with a football mentality, he has seen both stretches of success and struggle at the plate. If he can strike a balance and avoid those peaks and valleys, he has demonstrated the ability to be a productive hitter. Peterson has shown a good approach at the plate and will take what he’s given. He showed moderate improvement as a hitter by raising his walk rate from 10% to 12.7% all while cutting his strikeout rate from 20% in 2015 to just under 16.9% last season. Ultimately, versatility may be the thing that helps Peterson carve out a spot on the roster in years to come. With Sean Rodriguez on board, we may see a shift toward moving Peterson around yet again. The difference between this spring and last is that he isn’t coming in off an injury or after a prolonged slump. Though second base is still the most logical place for Peterson, he may see some time in the outfield as well as third base as a defensive replacement in 2017.

 

Dansby Swanson | SS | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The centerpiece of one of the best trades in franchise history, Dansby Swanson burst onto the scene in Atlanta last summer and showed why he has a chance to be a franchise fixture for years to come. Blessed with off the charts makeup and a well-rounded tool set, Swanson has drawn rave reviews for his all-around game from Braves executives. The local kid from nearby Marietta handled his call-up with the kind of grace and consistency the team expected, while establishing himself as an asset on a nightly basis. Swanson batted .302/.361/.442 with a 115 OPS+ in 38 games after making the jump from Double-A Mississippi to the majors just over a year after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft by Arizona. He did everything the club asked on the trek to the big leagues, opening the season with Carolina before an early promotion to Mississippi, where he batted .261 with eight homers and 45 RBI in 84 games.

Some were surprised initially that Swanson got the call, given that his minor league numbers don’t jump off the page. He put any concerns to rest relatively quickly, however, as he settled into the everyday shortstop job with Atlanta. Swanson was one of the catalysts for the Braves’ second half surge. After hitting just .236 in his first 15 games, he batted .351/.417/.568 over his final 23 contests and ended the season just two at-bats shy of surpassing rookie status. A contact hitter who can spray line drives all over the ballpark and possesses the ability to work counts, the Braves are likely to move Swanson up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order in 2017. Swanson is a standout player defensively as well. He displayed his quickness, range and arm strength throughout his major league orientation. As Braves president of baseball operations John Hart put it recently, “Swanson is a player whose overall game is better than the sum of the parts.” He does everything well, though he does not possess one stand-out tool. What Atlanta loves about Swanson is that he is a steady contributor with a winning mentality. In other words, the intangibles may be hard to quantify, but they give him a chance to be an All-Star player for years to come. That could begin in 2017 as the Braves move into SunTrust Park. (Read more about the Braves Top 30 Prospects for 2017)

 

Adonis Garcia | 3B | Age: 31 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Much like Jace Peterson, the Cuban born Adonis Garcia had a somewhat bumpy ride in 2016. With his fellow countryman, Hector Olivera, moving to left field during the spring, it appeared the door was open for Garcia to become the team’s everyday third baseman. After all, Garcia had flashed surprising power in limited playing time in 2015 by hitting 10 home runs in 191 at-bats. There was no initial carryover effect for Garcia, however. His defense, which was already questionable, left much to be desired over the first few weeks and his bat was ineffective. After Olivera found himself suspended for legal trouble, there was some thought that Garcia could transition to left field given his struggles at third. Unfortunately, that was also an adventure defensively. Garcia was dispatched to Gwinnett to spend some time getting comfortable in the outfield, only to return to the hot corner for Atlanta just three weeks later. The surprising result was a third baseman who was doing his best Brooks Robinson impression from that point on, with far fewer miscues.

Garcia was batting .260/.319/.308 with just three extra-base hits – one homer – and eight RBI when he was demoted on May 6. Bear in mind, this was coming from a player who was serving as Atlanta’s clean-up hitter and getting starts in the three-hole. Not only was his defense much improved upon his return, but he slashed a much more acceptable .276/.310/.430 with 40 XBH – 27 doubles and 13 homers – with 57 RBI and 57 runs scored over his final 106 games. Despite the uptick, Garcia is still not providing All-Star production for a third baseman by any stretch of the imagination, a point clearly illustrated by his 90 wRC+ for the season. However, when you consider the quiet start and factor in the improved play both at the plate and in the field, it’s easy to start feeling a little more comfortable with Garcia returning to man third base in 2017. That said, his hold on the position will be tenuous at best. Garcia posted just a .700 OPS against right-handed pitchers and if that drops any further then it would probably be in Atlanta’s best interest to explore its options and search for ways to add production to a projected lineup that falls off notably after the five-spot. Garcia’s second half numbers were encouraging – .293 with a 119 OPS+ in 67 games, but there is also enough reason to question whether or not he’ll be able to duplicate that production over the course of a full season. If he falters, Sean Rodriguez figures to see more time at third base unless or until another option can be found. Atlanta will continue to keep tabs on prospect Rio Ruiz as well.

 

Chase d’Arnaud | INF | Age: 30 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The affable Chase d’Arnaud comes from a baseball family. His younger brother, Travis, plays for the Mets. The elder d’Arnaud has bounced around some over the course of his nine-year career, but happened to be in the right place at the right time with Atlanta last season. After being drafted in the 4th round and spending seven seasons in the Pirates organization, the speedy infielder has taken to playing wherever and whenever over the last two years. Originally a shortstop, d’Arnaud has also seen time at second, third and all three outfield spots as he’s begun carving out a niche as a utility type. As discussed with both Sean Rodriguez and Jace Peterson, Atlanta has put a premium on finding players that can serve the team in a variety of ways. d’Arnaud is another example of this.

He did not have much of a chance to get rolling in Gwinnett before Atlanta began shuffling the roster in May after getting off to a dreadful start. d’Arnaud came in and batted .345/.402/.452 over his first 25 games, easily the best stretch of his big league career. While he proved useful throughout the season, he saw his playing time scaled back after the arrival of Dansby Swanson and the return of both Jace Peterson and Adonis Garcia from Triple-A sabbaticals. With his starts fewer and further between, d’Arnaud cooled off considerably over the final 100 games, hitting just .188 (with a bad-luck .231 BABIP). Given the current roster construction, d’Arnaud can still provide some value as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner and late inning defensive replacement. Atlanta certainly doesn’t mind having yet another versatile player in the fold.

 

Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 22 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Acquired from Houston in the Evan Gattis trade, Atlanta was hoping to have added a potential third baseman of the future in Rio Ruiz. However, prolonged struggles at the Double-A level were assuaged only slightly by a solid final month of the 2015 season. Following that rocky debut in the organization, the Braves challenged Ruiz heading into last winter. Many, if not most, figured that a return to Mississippi was in order as Ruiz was sent home for the winter with the goal of dropping some weight and improving his approach. The results, however, exceeded expectation. Ruiz went to work and returned this past spring 25 lbs. lighter and ready to tackle what would come next – a somewhat aggressive promotion to Triple-A. Ruiz put some things together in 2016, so much so that he found himself in Atlanta by September.

Though a fast start gave way to some May struggles, Ruiz navigated his way through those to put together a respectable .271/.355/.401 line on the season with 10 homers and a team-high 62 RBI in 133 games for Gwinnett last year. That was a major improvement from the .229/.331/.318 campaign he posted with Mississippi in 2015. The power is there, though it may not necessary result in a high home run total annually. Ruiz is a good judge of the strikezone and that should allow him to work counts and find pitches to hit. He also improved his footwork and general play around the bag at third base last season. Ruiz is an adequate fielder who could develop into a productive hitter, but it is important to keep in mind that he was among the youngest players in Triple-A last season. Ruiz will get a look by the Braves this spring in big league camp, but a return to Gwinnett seems to be the most likely scenario. Heading into his age 22 season, that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. (Read more about the Braves Top 30 Prospects for 2017)

 

Ozzie Albies | 2B | Age: 20 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Ozzie Albies has been a fast-riser since signing with Atlanta nearly four years ago for $350,000. The speedy Curacao native wasted little time establishing himself as one of the best contact hitters in the minor leagues. Despite being one of the youngest players in his league annually, Albies is a lifetime .310/.377/.419 hitter with 81 stolen bases in 293 games and even flashed some extra-base hit ability last season. He has rocketed through the ranks and accomplished all of this while never facing a pitcher younger than him in his minor league career. With an excellent blend of offensive and defensive skills to go along with a tremendous competitive spirit, it’s no wonder Albies has enjoyed success wherever he’s gone. It has him knocking on the door of the major leagues.

The Braves have not been hesitant to challenge Albies, whose gregarious nature helps him fit right into any clubhouse. He speaks four languages and has tremendous makeup as well, which certainly plays in his favor. Albies was the youngest player in the Double-A Southern League in 2016, where he won the batting title with a .321 average despite a stint in Triple-A in the middle of the season. Though he’s an excellent defensive shortstop, the Braves decided to go ahead and move Albies to second base last season and even paired him with Dansby Swanson upon his return to Mississippi. The club hopes that double play duo will be together for years to come. After an excellent all-around season, Albies suffered a bizarre injury in the Southern League playoffs when he fractured the olecranon bone in his right elbow on a swing. Though it ended his season and scuttled any thoughts of a September call-up, Albies is on schedule to be ready for the start of spring training. He will come to camp to compete for Atlanta’s second base job, but could begin the season with Triple-A Gwinnett, where he showed signs of figuring things out before dropping back down a level to play alongside Swanson. If his past is any indicator, it won’t be long until Albies is ready to make the jump to SunTrust Park. (Read more about the Braves Top 30 Prospects for 2017)

Other Options:

The Braves have a handful of other players who will come to camp to compete for reserve roles and provide depth at the Triple-A level. Well-traveled veteran INF/OF Emilio Bonifacio has had a couple of stints in Atlanta, returning last season to see limited time with the big club. A career .258 hitter with 166 steals in 793 games for 8 teams over the 10 seasons, the 31-year-old will likely begin 2017 in Gwinnett, where he batted .298 with 37 steals in 107 games last year … INF Micah Johnson was acquired from the Dodgers in mid-January to add another speedy, versatile option in the upper minors. Johnson, 26, was the White Sox opening day second baseman in 2015, but failed to produce and was dealt to Los Angeles in the Todd Frazier trade last winter. He’s batted .226 in just 43 big league games, but is a .292 hitter with 179 steals in 505 minor league games. The Dodgers started moving him around the diamond last year, with starts at 2B, 3B, CF and LF. Johnson is young enough that he could work his way into Atlanta’s plans if he remains productive … INF Colin Walsh got his first taste of the majors with the Brewers last season and signed a minor league deal with Atlanta this winter. Walsh, 27, had a truly odd slash line for Milwaukee, batting .085/.317/.106 thanks to 15 walks in 63 plate appearances. The former Cardinal farmhand joins his fourth organization and is a career .277/.394/.419 hitter across seven minor league seasons. Walsh can play 2B, 3B and the OF and will likely factor into Gwinnett’s plans in 2017 as he remains on the ready for a possible call-up… 1B Balbino Fuenmayor is a fun name, for a couple of reasons. One of those is rather obvious, while the other is tied to the rampage he went on during winter ball, hitting .342 with nine HR and 37 RBI over 38 games in his native Venezuela. He found his way back into organized ball with the Royals in 2015 after playing for a Canadian independent league. Not known for his glove, Fuenmayor is likely earmarked for a season in Gwinnett.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

Braves trade Smith, Simmons for Seattle pitching prospects

The Atlanta Braves got back to business with their first trade of 2017, dealing outfielder Mallex Smith and righy reliever Shae Simmons to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for left-handed pitchers Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows on Wednesday.

Smith, 23, made his big league debut for the Braves last summer, but a broken thumb cost him significant time. He batted .238/.316/.365 with 16 stolen bases in 72 games and was then plagued by an oblique injury during winter ball. Atlanta’s front office seemed undecided on his status for 2017, which may have included a stint as the club’s fourth outfielder or a trip back to Triple-A Gwinnett to continue his development. Smith’s time in Seattle was brief, however. He was immediately traded to the Tampa Bay Rays as part of a four-player deal in which Seattle received lefty starter Drew Smyly.

Simmons, 26, was a hard-throwing righty reliever who reached Atlanta in 2014, but has dealt with arm injuries. Tommy John surgery and assorted ailments have limited Simmons to just 25 innings over the past two seasons. He made just seven appearances for the Braves in 2016. He is 1-2 with a 2.54 ERA and 8.3 K/9 in 33 career appearances. By trading Smith and Simmons, Atlanta cleared two spots off the 40-man roster, which adds flexibility and could signal more moves are in the offing. The Braves are in need of a fourth outfielder and could look to bolster the bench before spring training next month.

As for the prospects the Braves received, the deal is headlined by the Brazilian-born Gohara, who has tremendous upside and was recently rated the No. 3 prospect in the Mariners system by Baseball America. The 6’3″ lefty trimmed down some in 2016 and enjoyed a strong season, but dealt with a hamstring injury in August. On the year, Gohara finished 7-2 with a 1.81 ERA and 23BB/81K in 69.2 IP over 13 starts in A-ball. He followed that up with a good showing while pitching in relief for Peoria in the Arizona Fall League, striking out 19 men and walking just three to go along with a 3.86 ERA in 11.2 IP over nine appearances. Gohara has scintillating stuff, featuring a mid-high 90s fastball which he complements with a good breaking ball. Though he is far from a finished product, his command took a step forward in 2016, which bodes well for his future. Gohara is likely to join several of the Braves top pitching prospects (Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint and Ricardo Sanchez) in rotation for the Fire Frogs of the Florida State League at some point in 2017.

It’s worth noting that Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that Gohara could have been dealt to Cincinnati last season, but the Reds had concerns about the young lefty’s shoulder according to a source. Rosenthal also mentioned it is not uncommon for young arms to exhibit enough “wear-and-tear” to fail a physical and that multiple scouts sent him unsolicited text messages questioning Seattle’s willingness to part with Gohara following his impressive run in the AFL. Of course, Simmons is still trying to reestablish himself following reconstructive elbow surgery in 2015, a risk the Mariners were willing to take. As for the injury concern on Atlanta’s end, general manager John Coppolella told Rosenthal that the team has done its due diligence on this and all deals:

“Our medical group puts a lot of time, effort and thought into evaluating every potential acquisition. We have had to walk away from two trades this offseason because of failed medicals. We feel good about the health of both players we acquired in the trade.”

Burrows, 22, was a 4th round pick by the Mariners last June out of the University of Alabama, where he set the school’s saves record. He has an excellent fastball-slider combination that could allow for him to rise through the system quickly. Burrows posted a 2.55 ERA in 20 appearances in his pro debut for short-season Everett, recording six saves and averaging 13.5 K/9 over 24.2 IP. His collegiate experience puts him in the same boat as fellow lefties A.J. Minter and Corbin Clouse when it comes to climbing the ranks, but he will obviously have to prove himself on the way up. The Braves have taken steps over the past year to add quality southpaw depth to the system and Burrows is another step in the right direction.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

Braves Notebook, What’s Up With Second Base?

No homecoming for Brandon Phillips…

The big Hot Stove news item of the week appears to have expired back in November. That’s when Brandon Phillips reportedly rejected a trade that would have sent him to Atlanta. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote about the failed deal on Thursday. It was nixed because Phillips invoked his 10-5 rights (10 years of service and five consecutive with the same team) to block the trade to the Braves. Phillips has one year and $14 million remaining on the extension he signed in 2012 and Cincinnati would have covered a portion of that salary in order to facilitate a trade. Phillips would not have fetched much in the way of prospects, with possible names likely among the players Atlanta has traded away in subsequent deals or cut loose this winter. The Braves went on to sign free-agent infielder Sean Rodriguez, which makes any chance of revisiting the deal remote at best despite claims to the contrary.

It’s a curious turn of events on several fronts. Phillips, 35, has been with the Reds since 2006, but grew up in nearby Stone Mountain and still lives in Atlanta. It stood to reason that the opportunity to play closer to home may have appealed to him, but other factors appear to have led to his decision to pass on that opportunity. This marked the third time the Reds had lined up a trade for their second baseman only to have it vetoed by Phillips. Cincinnati had previously attempted to trade him to both the Nationals and Diamondbacks.

Phillips batted .291/.320/.416 with 11 homers, 64 RBI and 14 steals last season, but his defense bottomed out with 14 errors – easily his most since 2006 – and a career worst -2.3 UZR/150 per FanGraphs. In the midst of a rebuild, the Reds are looking to get younger and create some playing time for former Braves prospect Jose Peraza among others. This could affect Phillips’ playing time in 2017.

Whither Brian Dozier?

Rumors persist that the Braves could indeed be in the mix for Twins second baseman Brian Dozier. He has drawn interest from multiple clubs, including the Dodgers. As discussed last week, Atlanta did not seem to be at the forefront of talks, but remains at least an outside possibility should the right deal come together. Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press trotted out a rumor of a Dozier to Atlanta possibility, before walking it back on Friday morning.

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It’s hard to imagine that a pair of young arms who have struggled to establish themselves at the big league level is all it would take to land an All-Star second baseman. While Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair both have upside, Minnesota would likely require more in return. Dozier, 29, is under team control for two more seasons at a total of $15 million. He belted a career-high 42 home runs and posted a 6.5 WAR during a career-year in 2016. Given his team-friendly salary, the Twins could very well hold onto him and let the demand build. As an aside, Dozier is also one of the better defensive second basemen in the game, making him a far better player than former Atlanta second baseman Dan Uggla, whose name seems to be top of mind for many fans when discussing Dozier’s hitting exploits. The Uggla trade is a cautionary tale, sure, but that deal went south thanks in large part to a multi-year extension and his rapid, almost inexplicable decline. Make no mistake, these are two entirely different people, if not players.

Stick with what you have…

The Braves could very well opt to go with their in-house options and look to the newly-signed Rodriguez and holdover Jace Peterson at the keystone position, while awaiting the debut of top prospect Ozzie Albies later this summer. Rodriguez could potentially get at-bats at third base as well, where Adonis Garcia is the incumbent. Though he showed improvement in the second half, Garcia is not a big factor in Atlanta’s long term plans. On the other hand, Albies’ arrival has been anticipated since last summer and may well have happened were it not for the broken elbow he suffered in September during the minor league playoffs. Albies is expected to be ready for spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report on February 14 and the first full squad workout is on February 18.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

McAuley: 2017 Braves Prospects Honorable Mentions

Putting together my Top 30 Atlanta Braves Prospects was no small undertaking. In a farm system loaded with talent, it was extremely challenging to weigh the factors that ultimately shaped the list. I’ve been asked what comprised the criteria for my ranking system. That’s a fair question, but I’ve maintained first and foremost that this list is a fluid situation. As for establishing the order, talent, projectability, makeup, statistical indicators of success and other variables all play a part. Proximity to the majors is also a minor consideration when it comes to establishing a depth chart of sorts. Here are a few names that could be popping up on my list or others in the very near future.

Catch up on the my full Top 30 list here:

Drew Harrington | LHP | Age: 21 | Acquired: 3rd Round, 2016 | ETA: 2018

An impressive left-hander out of the University of Louisville, Drew Harrington was the first college arm Atlanta selected in last June’s draft. The 80th overall pick, he received a $900,000 bonus from the Braves after closing out his collegiate career by winning ACC pitcher of the year for the Cardinals. Harrington posted a 12-2 record with a 1.95 ERA and 37BB/100K in 110.2 IP as a junior last season. A highly-touted lefty starter out of high school, Harrington spent his first two years at Louisville pitching primarily out of the bullpen and followed that same path when he made his professional debut with Danville in 2016. Harrington went 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA and 5BB/15K in 14.2 IP over nine appearances (one start). There’s a good chance Atlanta simply wanted to watch his innings and get him some work in short-season ball, though he could project as a reliever down the line. Harrington has a sinking fastball that he operates in the low-90s and backs up with a sharp slider and an emerging changeup. That third pitch will be a critical factor to Harrington remaining a starter. At some point, it will be a numbers game when it comes to setting the minor league rotations. Given that Harrington is a college arm who has experience as a reliever, he could stick in that role and be fast-tracked through the system. He’ll turn 22 just before the season and it would not surprise me to see him advance to Double-A by the second half if he has success in either Rome or Florida.

Abrahan Guitierez | C | Age: 17 | Acquired: Free Agent, 2016 | ETA: 2021

One of many highly-touted talents among Atlanta’s international signees in 2016, the Braves hope Abrahan Gutierrez could blossom into something special behind the plate. Atlanta’s system has lacked both depth and long term answers at the position for some time, especially in the wake of Christian Bethancourt’s failed run. By the time all is said and done, Gutierrez could very well be riding that same kind of hype train, but with the hopes he will reach Atlanta to stay. A stand-out performer since the age of 11 in his native Venezuela, the Braves signed him for $3.5 million. Gutierrez is a good receiver with a strong, accurate arm, but his power potential is the most exciting part of his game. Gutierrez has drawn comparisons to both Mike Piazza and budding Yankees slugger Gary Sanchez, but has plenty of development in front of him before those comparisons may prove accurate. Like any player in his mid-late teens, Gutierrez will continue to grow into his body and begin the process of polishing his skills both at and behind the plate. He should debut in the Dominican Summer League or perhaps join Kevin Maitan in the Gulf Coast League later this summer.

Dylan Moore | INF | Age: 24 | Acquired: Trade with Texas | ETA: 2018

The Braves added the versatile Dylan Moore as part of a three-way trade that sent Jeff Francoeur to the Marlins in late August. With a mix of speed and power and the ability to play multiple positions, Atlanta may have quietly added a useful piece. Moore was a bit old for the low minors, but he could move quickly after a good showing in the Arizona Fall League. Originally a seventh round selection as a senior out of the University of Central Florida in 2015, Moore spent his final two years at UCF after transferring from Cypress College in California. A well-rounded collegiate hitter, he has hit the ground running thus far in the minor leagues, posting an .824 OPS. His success in the AFL is encouraging and could be a sign of things to come. The fact that he basically does a little bit of everything makes him an intriguing prospect in an organization that values a well-rounded game. Moore has a nice blend of power and speed (46 extra-base hits and 42 steals in 2016), which should allow him to hit for extra-bases and take the extra base on a fairly regular basis. He has seen time at all four infield spots after playing shortstop in college and is adequate in the field. That along with his bat could help him carve out a spot as a super-utility-type. Moore may begin 2017 in Mississippi, or jump there quickly after a stop in the Florida State League.

Corbin Clouse | LHP | Age: 21 | Acquired: 27th Round, 2016 | ETA: 2018

The draft can provide all nature of necessary pieces. While the early rounds typically provide fans with most of the initial excitement, the later rounds can help tell the tale of a draft class. Atlanta may have found a useful lefty reliever in 27th rounder Corbin Clouse. Selected out of Davenport University in Grand Rapids, MI, Clouse gave up just two extra-base hits as he dominated in his debut season between Danville and Rome in 2016. He finished with video game numbers, going 5-0 with five saves, a 1.19 ERA and 15BB/53K in 30.1 IP. It’s worth noting that he was tough on both righty (.137 BAA) and lefty hitters (.107 BAA) as the Braves allowed him to work full innings to excellent results. It’s a small sample size, but those who witnessed Clouse firsthand can vouch for the devastating slider that helped him rack up 15.7 K/9 in his first taste of pro ball. He could get a chance to close in the Florida State League and earn a promotion to Double-A before season’s end.

Ray-Patrick Didder | OF | Age: 22 | Acquired: Free Agent, 2013 | ETA: 2019

I saved perhaps the best of this bunch for last. One of the more intriguing prospects on the edge of jumping into my Top 30 was Ray-Patrick Didder. Originally signed out of Aruba as a middle infielder in 2013, he put himself on the map upon moving to the outfield in 2015 and enjoyed a very solid season atop the lineup for Rome last year. Didder was both a South Atlantic League and organizational All-Star in 2016, while establishing himself as perhaps the best defensive outfielder in the Atlanta farm system. A converted shortstop, Didder has natural instincts, great speed and a strong arm that all work in concert. He racked up 20 assists last season, a total that tied him for second most among outfielders in the Sally League and tops in the entire Braves organization. It’s not just the arm that draws notice. Didder gets a consistently good read on the ball and takes efficient routes, which is impressive considering he is relatively new to the outfield. He has all the makings of a strong center fielder, but only got extended time there because of an injury to Ronald Acuña.

Didder had an interesting year at the plate to say the least. Installed in the leadoff spot for Rome, he batted .274/.387/.381 in 132 games and led the system with 95 runs scored and 37 stolen bases. Didder runs the bases with abandon and his speed is among the best in the system as well. He should remain a base-stealing threat as he climbs the ranks. His on-base percentage was influenced by a staggering 39 times hit by pitch, which led the minor leagues last season. It’s doubtful that rather painful brand of charity can be depended on annually. Didder is still a work in progress as a hitter, but could tap into some extra-base ability with continued refinement and a bit more lower body involvement. He is vulnerable inside thanks to a swing that is a bit long at times. If he can make the adjustment, those HBP’s may start turning into extra-bases. Didder spends his offseasons working out with Xander Bogaerts, a fellow Aruban and budding star shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. Atlanta would undoubtedly love to see Didder’s bat follow a similar path. He will open 2017 with the Fire Frogs in the FSL.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.