February 2018

Ruiz hopes revamped swing is ticket to Big League success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just what is that like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Kazmir’s long road leads to opportunity in Atlanta

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

He’s been there before.

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

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

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

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

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

Then the comeback began.

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

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

It’s time for yet another comeback.

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

Here’s my Q&A with Scott Kazmir:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 Braves Positional Preview: Bullpen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Prospects on the 40-man roster:

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

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

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

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

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

Non-roster Invitees:

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

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

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

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

2018 Braves Positional Preview: Rotation

Every team needs pitching to set the foundation for success. The Atlanta Braves became synonymous with strong starting pitching during their heyday in the 1990s, but things have been quite different in recent years. The focus of the team’s rebuild has been drafting and developing young arms, many of which are just now finding their way to the big leagues or will be knocking on the door in the not-to-distant future. Thus, 2018 is an interesting year for the Braves pitching staff. They’ve got some veterans coming to camp as well as some of the brightest young prospects in baseball. These men will likely be counted on to set the course for the franchise this year and beyond, and it could all start this season.

Before we get rolling in this installment of the preview series, here’s an interesting note: 2017 was the first season in franchise history that the Braves pitching staff failed to record at least one complete game. That dates back to 1871. Let that sink in. Not one single starter went the distance. While the game continues to evolve with an emphasis on relief pitching, that is still an unusual distinction. Atlanta was one of three teams that failed to register a complete game last season, a growing trend.

Julio Teheran | RHP | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 2-years, $19 million

It was a strange ride for Julio Teheran in 2017. At no place was that more apparent than in his new home stadium. SunTrust Park did not exactly welcome Teheran with open arms. That or he simply did not find the new ballpark to be all that hospitable for whatever reason.

Regardless, it was nearly an even split in terms of workload, but Teheran posted a disappointing 3-10 record with a 5.86 ERA in 17 home starts as opponents batted .272 with 17 home runs in his 93.2 innings. On the road, he was a completely different pitcher, going 8-3 with a 3.14 ERA in 94.2 innings over 15 starts in opposing ballparks. He allowed 14 homers on the road as well, but his walk rate was nearly a full batter lower per nine innings – 3.0 BB/9 away vs. 3.8 BB/9 at home. To boil it down, he dealt with more base runners at SunTrust Park and that was the root of the problem.

Those numbers might suggest that it may have been a mound issue, but Teheran never placed the blame anywhere other than his stuff, command or execution on any given night. Home runs across baseball have been on the rise over the past few seasons and saw a noticeable spike in 2017. Teheran was one of many pitchers who set career-highs in home runs allowed last season. His 31 homers surrendered tied for second in the National League and was nine more than he allowed in 2016 in almost the exact same amount of innings (188.1 IP).

There were some signs of progress as the year wore on, however. After surrendering 26 home runs in his first 21 starts while posting 5.09 ERA, Teheran was able to close the season with a solid 3.44 ERA and just five home runs allowed over his final 11 starts. That success provides some indication that he was getting back on track. What’s more encouraging is that good work included a tidy 2.81 ERA with just two homers allowed in his final four home starts (25.2 IP). It may not sound like much, but it was a night and day difference from his early returns.

The struggles at SunTrust Park aside, the Braves need Teheran to bring consistency to the front of the rotation. Even as a younger pitcher, he has been looked upon as a No. 1 starter for the last four years, making the All-Star team in 2016. While trade rumors have swirled in recent years, Teheran’s team-friendly contract makes him an attractive asset for Atlanta whether he is stays or goes. Though he may not be a true front of the rotation ace, Teheran has avoided major injury and been a durable and dependable pitcher for the majority of his big league career. A cost-controlled big league starter with the ability to throw 200 innings, Teheran is under contract for two more seasons and has a $12 million team option for 2021 that includes a $1 million buy-out.

Brandon McCarthy | RHP | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $11.5 million

Acquired from the Dodgers in the Matt Kemp trade, Brandon McCarthy is expected to fill the same role as R.A. Dickey in 2016, serving as a veteran to help stabilize the rotation. Injury has limited McCarthy in recent years, but from all accounts he is healthy and ready to contribute in 2018 according to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who saw McCarthy pitch with Los Angeles last season. One would have to question the durability to some extent, as McCarthy has logged just 155.2 IP over the past three seasons combined. He missed substantial time in 2015 and 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

McCarthy dealt with shoulder and knee injuries as well as a blister issue that all cost him time in 2017. He made 16 starts for Los Angeles and returned just before the end of the season, even earning a spot on the Dodgers’ postseason roster. That, at least in part, led Anthopoulos and the Braves to take a chance on the right-hander as part of the five-player trade with L.A. in December. Over the course of a 12-year career, McCarthy has surpassed 10 wins and 200 innings just once, both in the 2014 season.  McCarthy has dealt with a litany of arm injuries that required elbow and shoulder surgeries and is in the final season of his four-year, $48 million contract. He could be a suitable stopgap for the Braves in 2018 as young arms like Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard continue to climb through the system.

Mike Foltynewicz | RHP | Age: 26 | Contract Status: Arbitration-eligible (1st)

The 2017 season was a tale of two halves for Mike Foltynewicz, a hard-throwing right-hander who has serious potential if he can find a way to harnesses his high-octane stuff. Building off a solid 2016 campaign, Foltynewicz got off to a solid start last year. He went 10-6 with a 3.86 ERA through his first 21 starts, striking out 111 batters against 42 walks over 119 innings. He allowed 18 home runs over that stretch, while averaging 3.2 walks and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Track it back over a one-year span that includes 31 starts from August 2, 2016 to August 5, 2017 and Foltynewicz was 15-7 with a 4.06 ERA, 59 walks and 168 strikeouts in 177.1 IP. For a 24-year-old pitcher finding his way in the big leagues, this was encouraging work.

What was not quite as encouraging was the final couple of months, particularly a bad August stretch which once again raised doubts about Foltynewicz’s ability to maintain that level of production over the course of a full season. His good work was tarnished in August and September. Foltynewicz was beset by a slew of base runners as he lost his final seven starts. He allowed 44 hits, 17 walks and hit three batters in just 33 innings while producing a 7.91 ERA over that stretch. Oddly enough, he allowed just one home run in those final seven outings. Left-handed hitters were also an area of concern last season. They slashed .308/.384/.495 against him, walked more often and struck out less than their right-handed counter parts. In order to take the next step, Foltynewicz is going to have to find a way to neutralize lefty hitters so that he may mitigate some of that damage.

The numbers say a variety of things about Foltynewicz, but ultimately it appears the jury is still out. Scouts, talent evaluators, front office executives, coaches and players alike agree that there is a next level to be reached based on arm talent. As you’ll find annually in this preview series, Foltynewicz has electric stuff. His 95.2 average fastball velocity is among the best in the game according to FanGraphs. Only 19 starting pitchers in all of baseball average 95+ mph on their fastball. He’s in the same grouping with Chris Archer and Jacob deGrom, and ahead of the likes of Chris Sale, Yu Darvish and Lance McCullers among others. Obviously, it’s not all about the stuff but rather what a pitcher does with it. Secondary offerings have been a major focus as Foltynewicz and the Braves try to perfect the arsenal that could unlock his full potential.

Sean Newcomb | LHP | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

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

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

Luiz Gohara | LHP | Age: 20 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Yet another young starting pitcher acquired as part of Atlanta’s extensive rebuilding effort, Luiz Gohara arrived with less fanfare than some but quickly opened eyes. The Seattle Mariners parted with the big left-hander, who rocketed through the minor leagues in 2017 and punctuated a breakout campaign with five big league starts. Just 19 years old for the majority of the season, the young lefty made three minor league stops before arriving in Atlanta for a September call-up. Gohara had never thrown more than 70 innings in any of his four seasons in the Seattle system, but combined to go 7-4 with a 2.62 ERA, 44 walks and 147 strikeouts in 123.2 IP before tossing almost 30 more innings with Atlanta in 2017. This is a pitcher who has front of the rotation potential and has already flashed some of that ability in a brief taste of the majors. Braves officials seem unified in their desire to see exactly what Gohara can do over the course of a full season.

One of just five men from Brazil to play in the major leagues, Gohara is a big-bodied strikeout machine at over 260 pounds, and has drawn comparisons to CC Sabathia based on his build and upper-90s fastball. Gohara combines it with a sharp-breaking slider that has proven to be an excellent strikeout pitch. While his changeup is not as refined as his other two offerings, it’s an adequate third pitch that may improve over time. After all, Gohara won’t turn 21 until July, so he’s still very much a work in progress. With that said, his first taste of the majors was tantalizing. Gohara struck out 31 men in 29.1 IP and posted a 4.91 ERA, but that number is somewhat deceptive since his 2.75 fielding independent pitching (FIP) suggests he was much better. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Gohara does not crack the rotation this spring, making him a stealth Rookie of the Year candidate in the National League.

Other candidates

Scott Kazmir, 34, did not pitch in the majors in 2017 because of a hip ailment which affected his velocity. He underwent hip surgery and made a handful of minor league rehab appearances. Though he is not being counted on, Atlanta is hopeful that the comeback-driven lefty will show them something in spring training… Chase Whitley, 28, is another veteran arm getting a crack at the rotation this spring. The righty was claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays in December. Whitley pitched exclusively in relief in 2017, posting a 4.08 ERA in 41 appearances, but came up as a starter with the Yankees in 2014. An Alabama native, Whitley is obviously a bullpen candidate if he’s unable to secure a spot in the rotation… Max Fried, 24, is another highly-touted lefty who can pile up the strike outs. His first taste of the big leagues included four starts and five relief appearances, over which he posted a 3.81 ERA in 26 innings. A blister issue sapped his effectiveness in the minors, but it did not discourage the Braves from taking a look at him in the big leagues. He struck out 22 batters, but had to deal with a lot of base runners in his brief cameo with Atlanta. Fried went to the Arizona Fall League, where he was 3-1 with a 1.73 ERA in six starts and struck out 32 men in 26 innings. His dynamic breaking ball, which is a plus-pitch, is Fried’s biggest weapon. Healthy and motivated heading into 2018, Fried will compete for the fifth starter’s spot this spring… Lucas Sims, 24, has spent six seasons in the Atlanta system and finally advanced to the big leagues in 2017. Well-liked for his competitive nature, Sims’ results were mixed. He was 3-6 with a 5.62 ERA (5.07 FIP), 44 strikeouts and 23 walks in 57.2 big league innings. Like other young Braves pitchers in recent years, too many base runners and the occasional home run ball worked against him. Sims made 10 starts and four relief appearances and could be a useful bullpen arm if pushed out of rotation. He’d like to remain a starter, though, and Triple-A Gwinnett may have to be the place for that given the numbers game in camp this spring… Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are both 25 years old and both men had challenging 2017 seasons. Wisler had a promising rookie year in 2015 but was unable to turn the corner in 2016 and those woes followed him into 2017. He tried his hand as a reliever, but the results were not good – 8.89 ERA with 12.7 H/9 in 19 appearances. Meanwhile, Blair struggled at Triple-A then suffered a torn latissimus dorsi, which he spent the winter rehabbing. Blair has noticeably slimmed down as he tries to impress the club and get back on the right track this spring. Both men realize their window in Atlanta could be closing.

Down on the farm:

Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard will get their first taste of big league camp after advancing to Double-A Mississippi at the age of 19 last season. Both men more than held their own, with Soroka’s progress opening more eyes. That’s something that seems to be an annual event. Soroka appeared in the Futures Game during MLB All-Star Weekend and was named Braves organizational pitcher of the year after going 11-8 with a 2.75 ERA in 26 starts in the Southern League. Meanwhile, Allard turned in a 3.18 ERA across 27 starts. It was a big test for the duo, and they passed with flying colors. Soroka and Allard are ticketed for Triple-A Gwinnett this season and could make their big league debuts before 2018 is over… Kyle Wright, 22, was Atlanta’s top pick in the 2017 draft and also received an invitation to big league spring training. Wright is a Vanderbilt product and was the fifth player taken in last year’s June draft. He pitched sparingly in his pro debut, making nine starts but tossing just 17 innings in total. The Braves wanted to monitor Wright’s workload coming off the college season, but he should begin 2018 with Double-A Mississippi and could catch up with Allard and Soroka before the season ends… Ricardo Sanchez will turn 21 in April and was added to the 40-man roster over the winter. The lefty has shown flashes of potential in his two seasons in the Atlanta system. Acquired from the Angels at just 18 years old, Sanchez averaged a strikeout per inning at High-A Florida last season. He has been a slow starter the past couple of years, but has routinely been one of the younger players in each level he’s competed in. That could mean it just takes a little adjustment period to get rolling. While Sanchez might start the year in Double-A, it’s possible he could get a little more time in the Florida State League before heading to Mississippi.