July 2017

McAuley: Midseason Top 30 Braves Prospects (1-10)

My updated list of the Top 30 Atlanta Braves Prospects features several new faces and a brand new No. 1 overall prospect. Ronald Acuña has been one of the fastest rising stars in the minor leagues, vaulting to the dozens of spots on Top 100 lists for multiple publications. Acuña’s onslaught made him the undeniable choice to top the latest version of my list as well. For each prospect, you’ll find accompanying notes on his progress this season.

  • New to the list: Kyle Wright, Drew Waters, Abraham Gutierrez, Yunior Severino
  • Gone from the list: Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb, Jeremy Walker, Braxton Davidson
  • Biggest riser (position player): Ronald Acuña, up 11 spots from No. 12 to No. 1
  • Biggest riser (pitcher): Bryse Wilson, up seven spots from No. 26 to No. 19

As always, prospect hot sheets are a fluid situation and stock rises and falls for a variety of reasons. Performance, injuries and attrition shapes and reshapes the rankings throughout the year. Ultimately, these lists are an indicator of where these players stand at this particular time. Factoring the numbers along with individual tools and skill sets as well as scouting reports helps determine how projectable they are, but the human element is very much in play here. That includes the evaluators and list makers who judge the players based on the aforementioned variety of criteria in order to stack them in some order. Thanks to a talent pool that seems to get deeper by the year, the Atlanta farm system makes this no easy task.

Let’s wrap up the list in Part 3 with the top 10 prospects in the Atlanta Braves system.

1.) Ronald Acuña | OF | Age: 19 | Previous Rank: 12

After an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, Ronald Acuña has been making up for lost time and then some this season. Rocketing through the Braves system at break neck speed, Acuña is leading the organization in batting average, hits and stolen bases and ranks in the top five in virtually every other offensive category in 2017. He opened some eyes across baseball with a trip to the All-Star Futures Game in July. That was followed by a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett, where he becomes the youngest player in the International League. Like many budding power hitters in today’s game, strikeouts sometimes come in bunches. However, that is the only real area of concern for Acuña. He will be challenged by advanced pitching in the International League, but has already proven himself to be up the task with aggressive promotions. With all five tools on display and his star on the rise, Acuña could reach SunTrust Park sooner than later.

2.) Ozzie Albies | 2B | Age: 20 | Previous Rank: 2

Shaking off a slow start only to catch fire in the month of May, Ozzie Albies is knocking on the door for Atlanta as the second half begins. The speedy middle infielder has taken to second base and is poised to join Dansby Swanson as Atlanta’s middle infield duo of the future.  A switch-hitter with an advanced hit tool and surprising power, Albies has routinely been among the youngest players at each level on his way through the system. In fact, Albies has yet to face a pitcher that is younger than him – something that is true for Acuña as well. A broken elbow suffered on a swing last September sidetracked Albies over the winter, but he’s found his way back to the form that allowed him to win the Southern League batting title at the age of 19 last season. A natural right-handed hitter, Albies has worn out lefties in 2017 while finding the sledding a bit tougher against right-handers. Regardless, he’s been swinging the bat well for the past two months and just represented Gwinnett in the Triple-A All-Star Game. Albies has little left to prove in the minor leagues and awaits an opportunity to get his feet wet in Atlanta.

3.) Kolby Allard | LHP | Age: 19 | Previous Rank: 3

The Braves aggressively promoted Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka from Low-A Rome to Double-A Mississippi this season. The team’s faith in the two highly-touted 19-year-olds was rewarded. Allard was Atlanta’s first round pick in 2015 and has put all thoughts of the back injury that dented his draft stock in the rearview mirror. Were it not for the injury concerns, Allard was in the running to be the top pick. Instead, Atlanta got him at No. 14 overall. The lefty has excelled this season with Mississippi, posting a sub-3.00 ERA and averaging nearly 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in the first half. He’s used a strong three-pitch mix to have success in the Southern League despite being at least five years younger than the average age for the level. Allard’s trajectory was sped up when he bypassed High-A, which means he could get the call the big leagues at some point in late next season. The best bet remains a 2019 ETA.

4.) Kevin Maitan | SS | Age: 17 | Previous Rank: 5

The crown jewel of Atlanta’s international signings in 2016, Kevin Maitan has all the makings of a star prospect. And he comes with substantial hype and even greater expectations. A switch-hitter with projectable power and an advanced approach at the plate, Maitan was linked to the Braves for over a year before signing with the club for $4.25 million last summer. Drawing comparisons to Miguel Cabrera (a fellow Venezuelan) and Braves great Chipper Jones, the aforementioned expectations are building for Maitan. He made his stateside debut with the Gulf Coast League this summer and the early returns indicate that Maitan is fitting right in. He was slowed by a minor hamstring injury and has split time between shortstop and designated hitter. After just a couple of weeks in the GCL, the Braves believed Maitan was ready for a promotion to Danville. Putting the comparisons to star players aside, it should be great fun to watch Maitan develop as he climbs the ladder in the Atlanta system.

5.) Kyle Wright | RHP | Age: 21 | Previous Rank: NR

Atlanta added another top-end starting pitcher to its stable by selecting Kyle Wright out of Vanderbilt with the fifth pick in the 2017 Draft. Wright will debut with the GCL this summer, but should shoot through the system as a high-upside college arm with polish. Wright possesses the talent to have been the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, but fell to Atlanta and received a sizeable, over-slot deal. He boasts four pitches, including a pair of breaking balls. While the Braves have focused on prep arms in recent years, they saw the opportunity to add an experienced pitching prospect to the system with their top pick this summer and rewarded Wright handsomely to the tune of a $7 million signing bonus. The Braves made that investment in hopes that Wright may be able to impact the big league club within the next two seasons. As it turns out, Wright may reach Atlanta alongside many of the aforementioned young arms in the Braves’ youth movement.

6.) Mike Soroka | RHP | Age: 19 | Previous Rank: 8

When it comes to prep prospects, Mike Soroka has spent roughly two seasons establishing himself as one of the very best in minor league baseball. Not only does he have the physical tools to compete as a 19-year-old in Double-A, but Soroka has shown the aptitude and pitchability that could make him a front of the rotation starter. The Braves found a gem when they selected the Canadian right-hander in the first round of the 2015 draft. Soroka limits base-runners and keeps the ball in the park. He’s allowed just 10 home runs in nearly 270 career innings. At the half-way point, Soroka is at or near the top of the Atlanta organization in wins, ERA, WHIP and opponents’ batting average. Like fellow 2015 draftee Kolby Allard, Soroka skipped High-A and picked up speed on his way through the Braves system. Soroka also represented Atlanta in the All-Star Futures Game along with Ronald Acuña this summer. Though he may debut at some point next season, Soroka appears poised to be rotation-ready in 2019.

7.) Ian Anderson | RHP | Age: 19 | Previous Rank: 6

Prep arms were once again the highlight of the early rounds for the Braves last summer, with Ian Anderson representing the club’s highest draft pick in 25 years when he went third overall in 2016. Anderson’s innings have been managed during his first two seasons, but he’s made the most of his opportunity to pile up strikeouts. The righty posted over 11 K/9 with Rome thus far, though he is averaging just 4-1/3 innings per start thus far. Another starting pitcher who does a nice job of keeping the ball in the ballpark, Anderson has yet to allow a home run through 14 starting assignments and surrendered just one homer over the first 105 innings of his career. Signed to an under-slot deal that allowed Atlanta to creatively spread its money through the 2016 draft class, Anderson has drawn a Mike Mussina comparison from some and is filling out his 6’3” frame in the South Atlantic League during his first full season. His workload may be lighter than some this year, but that should begin to change in 2018.

8.) Luiz Gohara | LHP | Age: 20 | Previous Rank (NR)

One of two top prospects on this list that was gleaned from the Seattle Mariners over the off-season, Luiz Gohara has electric stuff and has put it to good use in two stops in the Atlanta system this season. Gohara blitzed through the Florida State League with a 1.98 ERA over seven starts before getting the bump to Double-A Mississippi. He’s continued his fine work there, averaging 10 K/9 across his first 16 starts. There was some concern over Gohara’s shoulder prior to his acquisition, but the Braves felt confident that the medicals checked out and pulled the trigger on a January trade. Gohara’s high-90s fastball was on display in the Arizona Fall League, where he struck out 19 men in 11-2/3 innings. That proved to be a sign of things to come this season. He has climbed into Top 100 prospects lists after enjoying success at two levels. Gohara will likely finish this season in Double-A, with a chance to jump to Gwinnett for a late season look. He’ll join a host of talented pitching prospects that could fill out the Triple-A rotation in 2018.

9.) Austin Riley | 3B | Age: 20 | Previous Rank: 9

One of the top power hitters in the system, Austin Riley earned a midseason promotion to Mississippi. He finished strong to post a 20-homer campaign and was the driving offensive force for Rome’s South Atlantic League championship in 2016. Between Rome and Florida, Riley has belted 27 home runs in his last 139 games, which amounts to a full minor league season. He does not walk much, but Riley has improved his strikeout rate this year with the Fire Frogs. The promotion for Riley continues the trend of younger players advancing through the system and being among the youngest at that level. Riley continues to hone his craft at third base, where he is making great strides this season. After committing 30 errors in 2016, Riley made just seven over his first 80 games this year. The Braves would love to have a power bat who could offer a long term solution at the hot corner. Riley may be that guy.

10.) Max Fried | LHP | Age: 23 | Previous Rank: 7

The first trip through Double-A has not been kind to Max Fried, who entered spring training as one of the most talked about prospects in the organization. His command has simply not been there consistently, evidenced by 4.5 BB/9 through 16 outings. His ERA is approaching 7.00, but his FIP is nearly two and a half runs lower. That aside, it’s been a challenging season for Fried, who owns one of the sharpest curveballs in the system when he’s at his best. The problem has been that neither his stuff nor his command have been consistent from start to start. His fastball, which can reach the mid-90s, has not shown the same life either. Fried had to put various injuries behind him to reclaim top prospect status over the past three seasons. He dealt with a back ailment in April and has battled a blister problem as well. Fried has been given a mid-season break and will have to get healthy and battle through some inconsistency in hopes of finishing his season in similar fashion to last.

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: Midseason Top 30 Braves Prospects (11-20)

My updated list of the Top 30 Atlanta Braves Prospects features several new faces. As always, prospect hot sheets are a fluid situation and stock rises and falls for a variety of reasons. Performance, injuries and attrition shapes and reshapes the rankings throughout the year. Ultimately, these lists are an indicator of where these players stand at this particular time. Factoring the numbers along with individual tools and skill sets as well as scouting reports helps determine how projectable they are, but the human element is very much in play here. That includes the evaluators and list makers who judge the players based on the aforementioned variety of criteria in order to stack them in some order. Thanks to a talent pool that seems to get deeper by the year, the Atlanta farm system makes this no easy task.

Let’s continue the list in Part 2 with the next 10 prospects on the list.

11.) Drew Waters | OF | Age: 18 | Previous Rank (NR)

Another young player who debuts on this list, Drew Waters hails from nearby Woodstock, GA, and was Atlanta’s second round pick (41st overall) in the 2017 Draft. The club believes this switch-hitting, prep outfielder can grow into some power as he matures and are already in love with his makeup and competitiveness. Scouting director Brian Bridges raved about Waters’ ability to play “with an edge” and referred to him as a throwback player. Atlanta went after the local product from Etowah High School after working him out twice at SunTrust Park, where the dimensions of the new ballpark could be quite friendly to Waters from the left side of the plate. Waters debuted in the Gulf Coast League and earned a quick promotion to Danville after posting a 1.020 OPS across 14 games in the GCL.

12.) Touki Toussaint | RHP | Age: 21 | Previous Rank: 10

The hard-throwing righty with a dynamic curveball has run into some trouble in the Florida State League. Despite that, the pure stuff and continued effort to refine it makes Toussaint a fascinating prospect. After coming over in a trade that was designed to essentially purchase his services from Arizona in 2015, Toussaint has shown flashes of his potential each season. His work with Rome in 2016 demonstrated he can make necessary in-season adjustments. While his 2017 may appear to be nothing more than a rough first half on the surface (2-9, 5.46 ERA), he is averaging a career-best 10 K/9 across 16 starts. Toussaint is considered a raw talent when compared to some of the other arms in the system, but Atlanta would like to smooth those rough edges as he climbs in the ranks. A bounce back effort down the stretch similar to his 2016 exploits would go a long way to further his development.

13.) Joey Wentz | LHP | Age: 19 | Previous Rank: 11

One of a trio of prep arms taken by Atlanta to begin the 2016 draft, Joey Wentz has put together a fine season with Rome in his first full year of pro ball. He’s shown both polish and poise, posting a sub-3.00 ERA and averaging 10 K/9 through 17 starting assignments in the South Atlantic League. Wentz has honed his command and cut his walk rate in half from his debut season, all while allowing just one home run in 82.1 IP to begin 2017. If he continues those trends, Atlanta may have yet another lefty climbing to the top of the prospect rankings.

14.) Alex Jackson | C | Age: 21 | Previous Rank: 16

The Braves took a couple of chances in trading for Alex Jackson, a former No. 6 overall pick by the Mariners in 2014. After the slugger seemed to stall out as an outfielder in the Seattle system, Atlanta moved him back to his high school position of catcher. He has flourished at the plate thus far, posting a .284/.353/.530 line and leading the system with 13 home runs in just 56 games. Jackson has also been gaining comfort behind the plate, where his emergence as a power-hitting catcher only enhances his value.

15.) Travis Demeritte | INF | Age: 22 | Previous Rank: 13

A power-hitting middle infielder who can also play third base, Travis Demeritte is an intriguing prospect. Atlanta gleaned the former first round pick in a mid-season trade with the Rangers in 2016. After a solid start, he has been mired in a midseason slump this year. Despite those struggles, Demeritte still possesses surprising power for his size and could pair that with versatility to turn himself into a weapon in the future. Strikeouts continue to be the major area of concern offensively. It’s worth noting that Trustmark Park does not have a reputation as a hitter’s haven either. Demeritte is brimming with potential and has shown the willingness to play wherever he has been asked.

16.) Cristian Pache | OF | Age: 18 | Previous Rank: 19

One of Atlanta’s major international signings from 2015, Cristian Pache has a blend of skills and athleticism with room to grow. He has been a solid contributor in his first taste of full season ball with Rome and has drawn high praise from Braves president of baseball operations John Hart. Pache is already a fine outfielder – evidenced by 12 assists and six double plays through 70 games this season – and has demonstrated the ability to make consistent contact. Since making his stateside debut in 2016, Pache is batting .294 in just over 500 at-bats. Four of the five tools are already on display. While Pache’s swing has yet to provide much in the power department, that may come with time.

17.) Dustin Peterson | OF | Age: 22 | Previous Rank: 14

A broken bone in his left hand sidelined Dustin Peterson in spring training, just as he was getting a chance to show what he could do in big league camp. That setback aside, Peterson has improved immensely since being acquired from San Diego in the winter of 2014. He settled in as a regular in the outfield and collected 52 extra-base hits in Mississippi last season. Peterson’s power has yet to fully return in Gwinnett, but as he regains strength and timing that is an issue that is likely to correct itself. He may never provide the wow factor, but Peterson has the ability to be a steady contributor and the work ethic to go along with it.

18.) Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 23 | Previous Rank: 17

No hitting prospect in the Braves organization has transformed as much in two years as Rio Ruiz. His hard work has resulted in quality play which has led him to the big leagues in each of the past two seasons. He saw a brief trial run after Freddie Freeman was placed on the disabled list this season, but what outshined by fellow rookie Johan Camargo. Atlanta sent Ruiz back to Gwinnett so that he can continue to get regular at-bats. Ruiz continues to flash power that could eventually mature into 20-homer potential. His play at third base has improved as well. While he is still susceptible to southpaws, Ruiz showed marked improvement in that category at Triple-A this season.

19.) Bryse Wilson | RHP | Age: 19 | Previous Rank: 26

While other prep pitchers may have stolen the headlines toward the very top of the draft in 2016, the Braves knew they added another talented arm when they took Bryse Wilson in fourth round. The buzz from team officials has been there since Atlanta selected him. Wilson has rewarded that confidence by becoming one of the best arms in the system thus far in 2017, posting a 2.54 ERA with nearly a strikeout per inning through 17 starts with Rome. Wilson’s most impressive performance came on July 8, when he fired a complete game shut-out at West Virginia on just 105 pitches. A big, projectable right-hander and a tremendous athlete, the Braves may have an under the radar stud in Wilson.

20.) Lucas Sims | RHP | Age: 23 | Previous Rank: 24

One of the few holdovers remaining prior toAtlanta’s aggressive overhaul of the minor league system, Lucas Sims has seen his fair share of ups and downs. He’s turned his big strikeout stuff into positive results in his second trip to Gwinnett, though he still has a clunker now and again. Sims led the organization with 104 strikeouts in the first half and earned Triple-A All-Star honors as well. On the flip side, he has allowed 18 home runs across 17 starts thus far. With an electric fastball and a plus-breaking pitch, he remains one of the best arms in the system, though his long term role remains up in the air.

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: Midseason Top 30 Braves Prospects (21-30)

My updated list of the Top 30 Atlanta Braves Prospects features several new faces. As always, prospect hot sheets are a fluid situation and stock rises and falls for a variety of reasons. Performance, injuries and attrition shapes and reshapes the rankings throughout the year. Ultimately, these lists are an indicator of where these players stand at this particular time. Factoring the numbers along with individual tools and skill sets as well as scouting reports helps determine how projectable they are, but the human element is very much in play here. That includes the evaluators and list makers who judge the players based on the aforementioned variety of criteria in order to stack them in some order. Thanks to a talent pool that seems to get deeper by the year, the Atlanta farm system makes this no easy task.

Let’s get the list started with the first 10 prospects on the list.

21.) A.J. Minter | LHP | Age: 23 | Previous Rank: 21

Injuries have conspired to keep A.J. Minter off the mound on a regular basis, but he’s shown enough in glimpses to make one truly excited about what he could offer the Atlanta bullpen. Great velocity and hard-breaking stuff gives Minter the weapons to carve up just about any lineup he’s faced. The lefty has posted a 1.35 ERA and 12.2 K/9 in 43 career appearances, but has yet to appear in consecutive games. Once he proves healthy, it seems only a matter of time before Minter is testing his mettle against big league bats.

22.) Brett Cumberland | C | Age: 22 | Previous Rank: 23

A slow start in Rome gave way to a prodigious hot streak that sent Brett Cumberland to High-A Florida. The slugging, switch-hitting college backstop was Atlanta’s second round pick in 2016. He has shown the ability to hit for power and find his way on base despite a plenitude of strikeouts. Cumberland is one of a growing number of quality catching prospects in the system, but has made the majority of his starts at designated hitter this season. With his advanced approach, Cumberland figures to reach Triple-A at some point in 2018.

23.) Kyle Muller | LHP | Age: 19 | Previous Rank: 15

Completing the trio of prep arms taken at the top of the 2016 draft, Kyle Muller is a sizeable left-hander who could climb back up the rankings once he gets rolling. Muller was held back in extended spring training and joined Atlanta’s Danville affiliate for some rookie ball seasoning as he attempts to ramp his overall stuff back up to the level that made him a high-round draft pick last summer. The early results have been positive and a trip to Rome by season’s end is probably in the cards. If Muller gets on the right rack, the 6’6” southpaw will present an imposing presence on the mound for opposing hitters at any level.

24.) Patrick Weigel | RHP | Age: 23 | Previous Rank: 20

Just as Patrick Weigel appeared poised for an opportunity to reach the big leagues, an elbow injury sidelined the talented right-hander. Weigel underwent Tommy John surgery in June and is likely targeting a 2019 return. With high-90s heat and two breaking pitches, Weigel adds a change-up to round out his four-pitch mix. He began the season with Mississippi prior to being bumped up to Gwinnett, where he received just eight starting assignments before suffering a torn UCL in his right elbow.

25.) Abraham Gutierrez | C | Age: 17 | Previous Rank: HM

One of many big international signings for the Braves in 2016, Abraham (né Abrahan) Gutierrez is a talented young backstop who could very well be the future for Atlanta behind the plate. He has a strong arm to go along with good receiving skills. Offensively, Gutierrez possesses power potential that has drawn comparisons to hall of famer Mike Piazza and Yankees star Gary Sanchez. If he taps into that power, the Braves could really have a star on their hands. This young catcher was an honorable mention on my pre-season list, but his stock is rising. Gutierrez debuted with the GCL club this summer.

26.) Yunior Severino | INF | Age: 17 | Previous Rank: (NR)

Another in the line of young, talented middle infielders to join the Braves organization in the last few years, Yunior Severino is a switch-hitter who has handled himself quite well thus far in his debut season. Atlanta signed the youngster as a shortstop out of the Dominican Republic for $1.9 million last summer. While highly-touted in his own right, Severino was somewhat overshadowed by the signing of Kevin Maitan. After a brief stop in the Dominican Summer League, Severino has been productive with the GCL Braves. Though he is extremely young, he’s demonstrated a solid approach at the plate. That bodes well for his development, regardless of what defensive position he finds himself playing down the line.

27.) Derian Cruz | SS | Age: 18 | Previous Rank: 22

One of Atlanta’s top international signees in 2015, Derian Cruz is a switch-hitting shortstop who has flashed potential in parts of two seasons in the organziation. It has not come without some rough edges, however. The speedy Cruz had a tough time as an 18-year-old in the South Atlantic League with Rome to open the 2017 campaign, but has bounced back nicely in his return to Danville. Unfortunately, that improvement is limited to his work with the bat. In the field, Cruz committed 27 errors in his first 43 games. It’s not altogether unexpected for a young player to make some mistakes, but he’ll obviously need to get that under control. His raw talent makes Cruz an intriguing prospect.

28.) Anfernee Seymour | OF | Age: 22 | Previous Rank: 18

My pre-season list had Anfernee Seymour inside the Top 20. He’s improved his on-base percentage by more than 50 points this season and has handled a move to the outfield with aplomb. You may be wondering why he cascaded down the rankings. It has more to do with the rising stock of other players in the system than any step back on Seymour’s part. A potential top of the order hitter who possesses perhaps the best speed in the organization, he’ll need to work on his base stealing to maximize that impact. Seymour has been successful just 60 percent of the time (19-of-32) thus far in 2017. He already jumped from Rome to Florida, where he has more than held his own thus far. The switch-hitting Seymour named Juan Pierre as the player he patterns his game after.

29.) Ricardo Sanchez | LHP | Age: 20 | Previous Rank: 24

Sometimes lost in the shuffle when discussing the 2016 Rome rotation, Ricardo Sanchez is another impressive lefty pitching prospect. Acquired from the Angels two years ago, Sanchez has upped his strikeout rate this season – punching out a career-best 9.3 batters per nine innings across 73.2 IP. His ERA is floating around 5.50, but his FIP is nearly a run and a half lower. That gives a more accurate portrayal of the season he’s putting together, though he has been erratic (4.3 BB/9) and has not posted a quality start since late May. The fastball is lively and the curveball is sharp, but the command has been shaky at time. Sanchez flourished down the stretch last season and could use another strong finish this year in order to punch his ticket to Double-A.

30.) Lucas Herbert | C | Age: 19 | Previous Rank: 29

The Braves drafted Lucas Herbert in hopes of adding a solid all-around catcher to a system in need of help at the position. Herbert was the high school battery-mate of Kolby Allard, but had a challenging first full year in the system. After batting .185 in 2016, he returned to Rome and has found his swing. He’s batting .263 with a .729 OPS through 60 games this season. While Herbert may never be relied upon for his contributions at the plate, he offers plenty of value behind it. He gets high marks for handling a staff, game-calling and is efficient at neutralizing an opponents’ running game. Those skills may be what creates the initial opportunity, but if Herbert can find a way to make steady offensive strides then he could work his way into Atlanta’s plans within the next three years.

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 By The Numbers Through 81 Games

The All-Star Break is approaching, but the Atlanta Braves have already completed half of their 2017 schedule.  A sweep of the Oakland Athletics on Sunday punctuated the 81-game marker which saw the club post a 40-41 record over the season’s first three months.

With Freddie Freeman on the mend and apparently on his way back as the Braves’ new third baseman, the team embarks on a grueling stretch of games that could determine both the fate of their season and their strategy for July’s non-waiver trade deadline.

Here are some notes and trends at the halfway point (81 games):

  • Following the Oakland series, Atlanta’s record without Freddie Freeman is 24-20.
  • The Braves were 16-21 when Freeman went on the disabled list.
  • The team’s 40-41 record is substantially improved from 2016, which was 28-53 at this point.
  • Atlanta is 7.5 games behind Washington in the NL East and 6.5 games out of the second wild card.
  • Would you believe the Braves and Chicago Cubs (41-41) are separated by a mere half-game in the wild-card race?
  • The Braves are 12-10 in one-run games, the third best mark in the National League.
  • Atlanta’s record in 205 games under manager Brian Snitker is 99-106 (since May 17, 2016).

Some statistical trends through 81 games:

  • Atlanta’s rotation owns a 4.80 ERA, which ranks 11th in the NL and 24th in MLB.
  • The Braves were 5-8 in Bartolo Colon’s 13 starts, though it may have felt otherwise.
  • Starters not named Colon have combined for a 4.28 ERA (402 innings) this season.
  • That 4.28 ERA minus-Colon would rank ninth best in MLB, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.
  • Braves relievers have combined for a 3.98 ERA, which is fourth among NL teams and ninth in MLB.
  • Closer Jim Johnson is tied for second in MLB with six blown saves. Atlanta is 3-3 in those games, however.
  • The Braves have committed 53 errors, fourth most in the NL and seventh most in MLB.
  • A staggering 27 of those errors came in the month of May.
  • Those 53 errors have contributed to 41 unearned runs, the most in the NL and third most in MLB.
  • Atlanta’s offense ranks fifth in the NL with a .263 batting average, but ninth in the league with 370 runs scored.

“Business is about to pick up…”

Based on strength of schedule, the Braves have played the easiest schedule in MLB thus far according to ESPN’s Relative Power Index. The Nationals have played the next easiest, by the way. That aside, there will be nothing pleasant about the 19 games ahead for Atlanta.

About that stretch of games, which begins with a brief two-game set against the Astros on Tuesday at SunTrust Park:

 

A few more stats and trends heading into this meat grinder of a schedule:

  • The five teams Atlanta will play are a combined 252-162 (.608 winning percentage).
  • The Braves will square off against the clubs with the best record in the NL and AL (Dodgers and Astros), three division leaders (Dodgers, Astros and Nationals), four would-be playoff teams (Dodgers, Astros, Nationals and Diamondbacks) and the defending World Champion Cubs.
  • The Braves are 8-9 versus Division Leaders this season (Nationals, Brewers and Astros).
  • Atlanta is just 11-10 against the three worst teams in the NL (Giants, Padres and Phillies).

For better or worse, the Braves will gain clarity about their season over these next six series. If Atlanta makes it through with a .500 or better mark, then the club could look to add a piece or two at the trade deadline. Conversely, if this stretch of games does not go well, the Braves may field some offers from contenders on a few of their veteran players. Either way, it’s fair to say general manager John Coppolella will likely be conducting business on or before the trade deadline.

Braves have a brand new All-Star representative…

Congratulations to Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte, who was named the All-Star team for the first time in his career. With the injury to Freddie Freeman, Inciarte will likely be Atlanta’s lone representative in Miami next week.  In addition to his gold glove exploits, Inciarte has been making his fair share of contributions at the plate. He has collected 210 hits over the past calendar year, a total good for second most (Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon has 212) in all of Major League Baseball. Inciarte batted .316 and posted a 5.2 fWAR (FanGraphs wins above replacement) over that stretch. That is the best total among all regular NL outfielders. The Cubs’ Kris Bryant owns a 6.9 fWAR over that time, but has played just 77 of his 154 games in the outfield during that 365 day sample.

Freeman on rehab assignment, could return this week…

Braves first baseman turned third baseman Freddie Freeman spent the past week ramping up his work in the cage and joined Triple-A Gwinnett for a rehab assignment over the weekend. He had just two plate appearances on Saturday thanks to rain in Charlotte. Freeman finished 0-for-1 with a walk and a strikeout and handled his only chance in the field at third base cleanly. After taking Sunday off, Freeman will play three consecutive games with Gwinnett before being reevaluated on Wednesday. If all goes according to plan, Freeman could be activated from the disabled list in time for Thursday’s series opener against the Nationals in Washington. He has been out since May 18 after suffering a fractured left wrist. The initial timetable called for Freeman to miss 8-10 weeks, with an expected return on or around August 1. Amazingly, he is at least two full weeks ahead of schedule.

Sean Rodriguez sees his first game action…

In what has been a surprising development for all the right reasons, Braves infielder Sean Rodriguez appears to be well ahead of schedule in his return from a shoulder injury. It was initially feared that he could miss the entire 2017 season, but Rodriguez has increased baseball activities throughout June and traveled to Orlando to join the club’s Gulf Coast League affiliate over the weekend. He underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder in February, the result of a frightening automobile accident for the Rodriguez family. With both he and his loved ones on the mend, it appears that Rodriguez could be ready to make his Braves debut sooner than later. He played second base and went 1-for-3 with the GCL team on Saturday, his first action this season. He followed that up with a start at shortstop on Monday, finishing 0-for-2 at the plate. Atlanta signed the versatile Rodriguez to a two-year, $11.5 million contract over the winter in hopes that he would strengthen the club at all four infield spots and contribute in the outfield as well. Rodriguez appeared at seven position and set numerous career-highs in 2016 while with the Pirates, batting .270/.349/.510 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI in 300 at-bats. An early return for Rodriguez would be yet another boost for the Braves in the second half.

Highly-touted Kevin Maitan makes long-awaited debut…

This is a late entry and one that does not directly affect the big club, but 17-year-old super prospect Kevin Maitan made his professional debut with the GCL Braves on Monday. After signing a $4.25 million deal with Atlanta as the top available international player on the market in 2016, the Venezuela native made his debut exactly one year and one day later. Maitan finished his first game 1-for-1 with a walk while serving as the designated hitter. A shortstop by trade, he had been slowed by a minor hamstring issue which delayed his debut by a week or so. The switch-hitting Maitan could reach Danville this season and be primed for full-season ball by the age of 18 next season.

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.