May 2018

Braves seek long term answer at hot corner

The Atlanta Braves have been one of baseball’s pleasant surprises in 2018. The club seems to have emerged from a rebuild and climbed back to the top of the National League East after a four-year absence.

Despite a roster infused with young talent that is making an impact, Atlanta is still searching for an answer at one critical position.

Third base remains an ever-present question mark.

The Braves have employed 28 different third basemen since Chipper Jones retired in 2012. That revolving door continued in 2018 as four men have received at least half a dozen starts there over the first two months of the season.

Atlanta released veteran slugger Jose Bautista over the weekend. That move ended a two-week trial that was never destined to be a long term solution. Bautista, who had not played third base regularly in a decade, was shoehorned into that role in order to get his bat in the lineup. When Bautista’s bat failed to provide the desired results, Atlanta opted to go with another in-house solution.

While Johan Camargo has seen time at the hot corner before, and will see more over the coming weeks, his opportunity may prove fleeting.

Bautista’s stay in Atlanta was relatively short, but the club’s quest to find an answer at third base is still ongoing. Not only do the Braves have a hot-shot prospect climbing the ranks, but they may be active in trade discussions this summer and could explore the free-agent market for a long-term solution this winter. There are several ways the club could seek to fill its need:

Johan Camargo, everyday third baseman…

With Bautista out of the picture, Camargo is the immediate beneficiary of regular playing time. The switch-hitting infielder is a natural shortstop whose versatility has come in handy over the past two seasons. Many, if not most in the organization view Camargo as a super utility player who can play multiple positions and provide value at each. Third base is just one of those spots.

Camargo, 24, pushed his way onto the 40-man roster following the 2016 season despite being a somewhat unheralded prospect. He displayed improved offensive upside in addition to an 80-grade infield arm during his time in Atlanta. Despite his improvement, the Braves should seek all the power they can get out of the corner infield spots. That’s the reason Bautista got a look to begin with.

Austin Riley, third baseman of the future…

One answer could be just a phone call and short drive away in Gwinnett. That’s where slugging third base prospect Austin Riley is currently continuing his reign of terror on opposing minor league pitchers. Riley’s stock has skyrocketed over the past two seasons and he has given every indication that he may be the long term solution.

Riley, 21, is everything the club could ask for in the power department. He posted consecutive 20-homer campaigns and is well on his way to a third this season. Riley has become more selective at the plate and has evolved into a better all-around hitter through the minors. He has also worked tirelessly to improve his defense and become a complete player with staying power at the hot corner.

Atlanta could choose to hand Riley the keys in a couple of weeks, once the Super Two deadline has passed and clubs can promote players without having to face an early arbitration date. It’s yet another service time consideration of which general manager Alex Anthopoulos will have to decide the best course for the club. Four months of Riley could be a major boost for the Braves. It would also press yet another young player into a potentially prominent role on a hopeful contender.

To trade or not to trade?

Atlanta could explore the trade market over the coming weeks and months. There will be plenty of targets out there. Mike Moustakas of the Royals and Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays seem like obvious candidates, though both are pending free agents. The same can be said for Manny Machado, who moved back to shortstop this season after nearly six years at third base. The Orioles have been abysmal, and it may be in their best interest to drum up interest in Machado before the trade deadline in order to maximize the return. He’s a franchise player and will be paid as such when he hits the open market this winter. Machado figures to be worth even more, if that’s possible, as a shortstop.

Rangers veteran Adrian Beltre may be another trade target for any number of clubs if Texas entertains offers for his services. The Rangers are currently buried in last place in the AL West, however, Beltre could veto any deal as a 10-5 player (10 or more years of Major League service, the last five of which with one club cannot be traded without the player’s consent). He may prefer to stay put if the right deal doesn’t pique his interest. Like the other men in this listing, Beltre is also a free agent at the end of the season, his 21st in the majors. Unlike the others, Beltre has missed significant time thanks to recurring hamstring problems over the past two seasons. He’s on the disabled list now and is still weeks away from returning but would be an interesting name to consider around the trade deadline if healthy. Beltre has spent eight seasons in Arlington and has not indicated if he plans to continue playing in 2019.

Atlanta will have to determine if any of those players is worth the trade price with the likelihood of not retaining their services beyond 2018. In the case of Machado, Donaldson and even Moustakas, they will all seek their pay day in free agency. While the first two seem likely to land a lucrative multi-year deal, Moustakas will be hoping to cash in after a cold and bitter winter on the job market forced him back to Kansas City this season. It’s worth noting that Moustakas has a $15 million mutual option with a $1 million buy-out. He followed up an All-Star campaign last year with a strong start this season and does not turn 30 years old until September. There will be teams seeking the lefty slugger.

Winter is coming…

The Braves don’t have to go outside the organization in order to address their third base needs. They have the opportunity to give Camargo some time to show what he can do with regular at-bats. If that doesn’t get the job done, Atlanta could promote Riley and find out what kind of power he may provide. Then again, Anthopoulos could explore the trade market and go all-in on the chance to make the playoffs this season. There’s really no wrong answer.

As discussed in the trade scenarios for the big name players available, there will be a myriad of names to be had in free agency. The Braves will have a large amount of payroll flexibility this winter, giving them reason to wait and see which players they’d like to target without having to potentially give up pieces of their young core in a trade for what boils down to a rental player.

Make no mistake, that’s what Machado, Donaldson and even Moustakas would be.

The Braves would no doubt like to make the most of their chance this season, whether some view them as ahead of schedule or not. They also have to keep an eye on the future. If Atlanta can fortify the pitching staff while also adding a third baseman, the club could be in prime position to make some noise in October. Though he will try, Anthopoulos may not be able to cross all of those items off his list this summer.

Finding a permanent solutition to their third base quandry would move the Braves one step closer to reestablishing themselves as a perennial powerhouse.

Axe handle bat new weapon of choice for Braves’ Swanson

The Atlanta Braves will welcome starting shortstop Dansby Swanson back to the lineup on Saturday. When he returns, he’ll be swinging some brand new lumber.

Swanson is one of a growing number of players utilizing a bat that features a carved axe handle. He’s hoping it will provide a little relief to his left wrist, added comfort to his swing and perhaps a jolt to his numbers.

Axe handle users make up a small portion of baseball’s general population, but more than 70 players have used one over the past four seasons. Boston’s Mookie Betts and Houston’s George Springer are among those who do so full-time, but players are typically keen to try new things when it comes to equipment. For example, Nationals star Bryce Harper and Cubs slugger Kris Bryant have used an axe bat on occasion this season.

Bats have typically been manufactured in a similar fashion since the late 1800s, using a lathe to form the traditional model with the symmetrical handle we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in players’ hands.

So, just how did this relatively new bat find its way to Swanson?

Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki played a part. He’s been using an axe handle bat since 2016. That break from tradition has coincided with a late-career resurgence.

Swanson first used the new axe-style grip when he resumed hitting last week. He carried it over to regular batting practice and then to a rehab game with Low-A Rome on Thursday.

“It felt good,” said Swanson. “I’m trying to get used to it still just a little bit.

“A lot of it is just getting used to that you can’t just grip the bat anywhere. It’s a set position where you need to hold it. The biggest thing is, ‘Oh, I need to hold it like this.’ Especially going in the box, if you feel like moving your bat around, I need to reset it to where it needs to be. But other than that, as far as the actual hitting, it was cool.”

Unlike a bat with the conventional rounded knob, the axe handle design is molded to the hand. That in turn benefits a player’s swing.

A representative from Axe Bat in Seattle said the main benefit of the design is a more stable grip with less force. That is meant to add speed and power to the swing while allowing the hitter increased control of the bat barrel.

Swanson confirmed those claims when we chatted about his new bat on Friday.

“I noticed the difference as far as when you swing, it almost dynamically fits better, just different than the traditional rounded bat,” said Swanson. “When you grip it, it’s not moving around in your hands as much. You don’t have to grip it as tight to make it stay put.

“If you think about chopping with a baseball bat, chopping actual wood, that’d be kind of difficult because it’s rounded a certain way. With this, it fits in the groove of your hand better.”

It’s not uncommon for players who are recovering from a hand or wrist injury to try the axe handle bat. As Swanson can attest, the shape creates an added level of comfort because the standard bat knob is not pressing into the palm of the bottom hand.

That was a key selling point for Swanson, a right-handed hitter dealing with a left wrist issue.

Between Suzuki’s suggestion and working with Atlanta’s training staff to treat the wrist inflammation, Swanson felt the time was right to stop swinging a bat and start swinging an axe.

“Kurt has always been my ear about it just a little bit,” said Swanson. “He mentioned it a little bit and then once the whole wrist thing came about, the trainers and everybody were like, “Hey, this may not be a bad option for you to try.”

Swanson agreed it was worth exploring. If nothing else, he can always switch back. That said, the subtle change requires some adjustment for a new user to build comfort.

“I’ve been rolling with it and just kind of trying to get used to it, because people that have used it have sworn by it,” said Swanson. “It’s kind of one of those things, to commit to it and just go with it and don’t give up on it after a couple of days, so that’s where we’re at. Just trying different models with certain things and trying to get used to it in BP, hitting with it and that stuff. Each day learning more”

Axe Bat owns the patent to the Axe Handle and has licensed the design to MLB-approved wood bat makers including Victus Sports, Tucci Limited, Chandler Bats and Dove Tail Bats.

Suzuki, meanwhile, is an axe handle convert with no plans of ever switching back. He was swinging a Victus model when he set a career-high with 19 home runs with Atlanta in 2017.

His numbers since the switch in mid-2016 are undeniable. Suzuki averaged a .255/.312/.369 slash line with 12 homers per 162 games from 2007-2015. Since switching to the axe bat, that line jumped to .279/.338/.492 to go along with 31 home runs in his last 181 games.

Suzuki has a relatively simple philosophy about it all.

“It’s just the feel,” he said. “I think with any bat, axe handle or not axe handle, I think just to have the feel of the bat in your hands is really important.

“Baseball is kind of all on feel. If it feels good in your hands, then you’ve got that confidence and you just kind of move forward. I haven’t stopped using it since.”

Time will tell if Swanson becomes the latest player to make the axe handle bat an essential part of his game.

 

Braves Mailbag: Arodys Vizcaino as closer, early trade speculation, Austin Riley’s ETA

The Braves Mailbag is a weekly feature. You can submit your questions to Grant McAuley on Twitter (@grantmcauley).

In this edition of the mailbag, we take a look at Atlanta’s late inning bullpen options, some veterans trying to get back on track and the ETA for yet another hotshot prospect.

Outside of Tuesday night’s angry fan bubble, how much concern is there about Arodys Vizcaíno? If I’m counting right he has faced the minimum in only one of his last 5 outings and seems to be really struggling with walks and command of his slider.

Christjahn (via Twitter)

Games like that always bring with them the discussion of ninth inning responsibilities, at least on teams that don’t have one of the three or four best closers in the game. Vizcaino has served as closer for Atlanta before, but always seemed to be derailed by injury rather that simply ineffectiveness. From a pure talent perspective, Vizcaino fits the profile of closer. The fastball approaches 100 mph and the slider is devastating. Unfortunately, Vizcaino has been unable to establish any real rhythm this season. Command of those pitches is what makes him the best option to close games. In 21 appearances, none more than one inning, he has worked just eight perfect frames. Only one of those 1-2-3 innings occurred in any of his 10 save chances and that one came on Wednesday against the Cubs. Brian Snitker indicated that other relievers may work their way into the late inning equation should Vizcaino’s struggles continue. The obvious candidates are A.J. Minter and Dan Winkler. Both seem equipped to at least lighten the load on Vizcaino, who may benefit from sharing the responsibilities. One thing is for sure, it’s a long season and Vizcaino is still a valuable piece of Atlanta’s bullpen.

Do you see Ender Inciarte on this team long term? Seems that with a center fielder playing at left field and our leadoff hitter at second base, he’s become expendable.

— Jesse (via Twitter)

Expendable? Absolutely not. Ender Inciarte has value regardless of whether or not he’s serving as Atlanta’s leadoff hitter. There are a few different ways to go with this, but let’s start with his calling card. Inciarte’s premium defense paired with Ronald Acuña Jr. makes the Braves outfield better. Though things may change on the corners in the not-too-distant future, Inciarte has established himself as one of the best center fielders in the game, so I am perplexed as to how he’d all of a sudden be deemed expendable. His offense has been up and down some this season, but he’s been one of Atlanta’s most consistent performers despite a bit of a slow start the past two seasons. Heading into 2019, the Braves may shift Acuña to right field or simply find another when Nick Markakis’ time in Atlanta is done. Time will tell, but having two athletic outfielders like Inciarte and Acuña together is in no way a redundancy. Now, could I see other clubs calling about Inciarte’s services? Of course. Things can and will change as Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos puts his stamp on the team and strives to make moves that build the club into a long-term contender.

Do you have a sense for the leash the organization is willing to grant under-performing veterans? How much longer can we expect to see Jose Bautista and Brandon McCarthy play at this level before young talent in Triple-A at their positions forces them out?

Justin (via Twitter

Obviously, we are talking about two distinctly different cases in Bautista and McCarthy. Let’s start with the former, who signed a minor league deal with a chance to get back to the big leagues after a long, cold winter on the free-agent market. Bautista, 37, is not the same player he was a few years ago but has shown flashes of power in his short time with the club. The real issue here is converting a player back to a position he has not played regularly in the better part of a decade. Bautista’s range at third base has been limited and has already proved costly on more than one occasion. That said, he’s hit a couple of key home runs to help mitigate that damage. Ultimately, the club has to give him time to get up to speed before pulling the plug or this entire exercise would essentially be a waste of time. I’d expect at least four full weeks before a decision is made one way or the other. As for McCarthy, he has been a useful starter for the majority of his big league career and most of this season. The Braves are hoping he can provide some stability to a young rotation, but there are several prospects who could work their way into the picture. Mike Soroka appears to be up to stay, but landed on the DL on Wednesday. That right after Luiz Gohara made his return. Max Fried has been up and down as well. And then Kolby Allard may be knocking on the door later this summer. For the time being, it appears McCarthy’s spot is secure, but he needs to string together some quality starts after a couple of rocky outings. Wednesday was a good start, no pun intended.

Do the Braves trade for a marquee arm before the deadline? Also, do you see the Braves as buyers or sellers this year?

Ivan (via Twitter)

While it is still too early to declare the Braves a buyer or seller, there is cautious optimism that the club may finally be looking to make additions that could aid a playoff run. There is a lot of baseball left to be played between now and the trade deadline. To answer your question, that “marquee arm” could qualify as a starter or reliever and I happen to think they may be in the market for both. The starting rotation is an interesting group and there are several top young arms looking to carve out spots. Soroka, Gohara, Allard and Kyle Wright could all be in the 2019 plans. However, the club would undoubtedly like to add a proven starter if the right deal presents itself. The same could be said for adding an experienced and effective late-inning reliever. The Kansas City Royals intrigue me. I don’t rule out a run at third baseman Mike Moustakas, but I do not expect him to be Atlanta’s preferred target. There are two other names I think could provide both short and long term value. The Royals have a solid lefty starter in Danny Duffy, who should attract interest this summer despite his slow start this season. Closer Kelvin Herrera has been outstanding thus far and is a free-agent at the end of the season. It would behoove the Kansas City to explore the trade market with Herrera, who will probably interest no less than a dozen clubs. Duffy has three years and roughly $46 million remaining on his deal, which carries him through his age 32 season. While he is not the ace-type starter many if not most fans dream of, he could be a quality addition to a club looking to make a run toward October. Those two have experience on that stage as well. A package deal could bring Atlanta the kind reinforcements it needs, but is simply pure speculation on my part at this time.

Who is the next prospect Braves fans will see with the big club?

Seth  (via Twitter)

Well, Seth, I am glad you asked that, because it gives me a chance to talk more about Austin Riley. With both Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Soroka currently in the big leagues, Riley has inherited the mantle of “next big thing.” Of course, all of these young players have plenty to prove as they reach the majors and attempt to establish themselves. Back to your question, Riley is the most eagerly anticipated young player in the system right now. The 21-year-old has slugged his way from High-A to Triple-A in just over a year and has been terrorizing opposing pitchers all the while. Riley slashed .321/.389/.570 with 19 doubles, 14 homers, 47 RBI and 45 runs scored in 75 games with Mississippi over the past two seasons. He’s worked hard to improve both at the plate and at third base, giving the franchise increased confidence that Riley could make an impact sooner than later. Following a three-homer game with Gwinnett, it’s fair to wonder if Riley’s ETA may coincide with the Super Two cut-off early next month. Be sure to check out my chat with Riley following his promotion to Triple-A. If you’re looking for the next arm to get the call, left-hander Kolby Allard has been tremendous with Gwinnett despite being the youngest pitcher in the International League this season. Allard, 20, was Atlanta’s first round pick in 2015 and has posted 1.71 ERA in seven starts this season. His career-high eight shut-out innings on May 13 signaled that the young lefty is handling Triple-A competition just fine.

Resurgent Nick Markakis powering Braves lineup

The Atlanta Braves offense has been one of the biggest surprises in baseball in 2018. The coming-out party for Ozzie Albies and usual exploits of Freddie Freeman jump off the page, but right fielder Nick Markakis may just be outplaying both of those men.

That’s right, the soft-spoken, unassuming veteran presence in the Braves lineup is carrying a big stick.

Markakis, 34, is enjoying his best season in Atlanta and it comes in the final year of the four-year, $44 million free-agent contract he signed prior to 2015. Markakis’ name is sprawled all over the league leaderboard. In Atlanta’s season of surprises, his renaissance may just be the most pleasant of them all.

In fact, Markakis may very well be having the best season of his career.

Over the first three years of that deal, Markakis proved to be a solid if not unspectacular player. Though not what he was during his early years with Baltimore, Markakis was a steady contributor in the Atlanta lineup while being asked to hit just about everywhere between leadoff and sixth.

That bouncing around in the order has all but stopped this season.

Serving as Atlanta’s primary cleanup hitter, Markakis is slashing .340/.418/.549 with seven home runs and 28 RBI through 36 games. He’s second in the National League in hitting, fourth in on-base percentage and 10th in slugging. His .967 on-base plus slugging (OPS) ranks sixth best in the NL.

It’s not just some two-week hot streak that is pumping up his traditional numbers either. Markakis has been a consistent source of run production in the Atlanta lineup from Day 1 this year.

Even the advanced metrics suggest that Markakis is enjoying a career renaissance of sorts. His numbers project to be on par or even better than any early career success he enjoyed in Baltimore almost a decade ago.

When he first came up, Markakis was a consistent middle of the order threat for the Orioles. He batted close to .300 and averaged roughly 60 extra-base hits, 90 RBI and 90 runs scored over his first three seasons. He topped the 100-RBI plateau twice in his first four years in the league. That’s exactly the kind of production you expect from a corner outfielder.

Those numbers changed quite a bit over the eight seasons that followed. He settled into a different set of career norms which made him a useful player, but not an impact bat. From 2010-2017, Markakis averaged a .283/.353/.399 line with 11 homers, 64 RBI and 74 runs scored.

If Markakis’ early returns are any indication, 2018 will be a different kind of season altogether.

Markakis currently ranks second in the NL with 1.8 wins above replacement as measured by FanGraphs, trailing only Arizona’s A.J. Pollock (2.1 WAR). While there are 10 additional American League players who have posted a better Wins Above Replacement, the fact that Markakis appears on a list with the best players in the game is truly astounding.

There are a couple of ways to put that number in perspective for Markakis. The 1.8 mark is already his best WAR in a Braves uniform and nearly matches the 1.9 WAR in 318 games over the past two seasons combined. It also has Markakis on pace to top his career-best 6.0 WAR of 2008, his age-24 season.

Adding another layer to his success is the fact that Markakis is making things difficult on opposing pitchers in just about every way a hitter can. He is the hardest player to strike out in the NL, doing so just 13 times in 165 plate appearances. That’s a career-best 7.9 percent strikeout rate, cutting last season’s career-worst K-rate of 16.4 percent by more than half.

Markakis is putting the pressure on opposing pitchers seemingly every time he steps to the plate. He has seen 644 pitches in those 165 plate appearances this season. That’s the most of any Braves hitter and the 11th most of any player in the NL.

As if the offensive explosion wasn’t enough, Markakis is also posting his best defensive numbers in years. The two-time gold glover has always had a reputation for making the routine plays, but now he finds himself in the right place at the right time far more often.

Scrolling through FanGraphs fielding data, Markakis owns a much-improved 2.7 ultimate zone rating (UZR) through 36 games. His 15.4 UZR/150, a stat which determines how many runs above average a fielder is per 150 games played, is also career-best number. His defensive runs saved (DRS) and outfield assists are also up this season.

Atlanta’s new front office, fronted by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, has committed to improving every facet of the game when it comes to advanced stats and analytics. It’s not that every piece of information has to be implemented, but Anthopoulos wants the coaches and players alike to have access to the material and decide how best to use it.

That forward-thinking approach is becoming increasingly common across baseball but has been particularly eye-opening for the Braves. And they’ve taken to it like the proverbial duck to water.

The Braves are employing more defensive shifts than ever before. Markakis and the other Atlanta outfielders now utilize printed cards with necessary info on the opposing hitters’ tendencies and defensive alignments. That information has, at least in part, aided Markakis in being better positioned and prepared to make more plays.

Pretty useful stuff to have quite literally in one’s back pocket.

Things are seemingly coming together for the Braves, who sit in first place in the NL East heading into mid-May. The re-emergence of Markakis has provided an unexpected boost and helped make the Atlanta the most potent offense in baseball to this point.

Time will tell if they can keep up the pace.

 

Braves Prospect Profile: Austin Riley

Austin Riley may not grab all the headlines, but he is steadily building a reputation as one of the best power-hitting prospects in the game. The slugging third baseman may even be carving out a place for himself at the hot corner for the Atlanta Braves in the not-too-distant future.

Riley, 20, was promoted to Gwinnett this week on the heels of another torrid stretch in Double-A. Now he is just one call away from joning the big league club.

That’s a call that could come sooner than later.

He slashed .321/.389/.570 with 19 doubles, 14 home runs, 47 RBI and 45 runs scored in 75 games with Mississippi over the last two seasons. That production gave the Braves little reason to wonder if he was prepared to take the next step and even less cause to put off that decision.

With half a dozen home runs and a 1.071 OPS (on-base plus slugging) through 27 games, Riley earned an early season promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. If he continues to hit, the next stop could be SunTrust Park.

I wrote extensively about Riley’s spring with the big league club. That opportunity afforded him the chance to work with infield guru Ron Washington and get some hitting instruction from Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.

Riley continues to hone his skills at the plate and in the field, realizing the value that both carry toward becoming the kind of well-rounded player who could be come a fixture in the Atlanta lineup for years to come.

That, of course, is the goal.

Atlanta is not throwing up many stop signs or putting many roadblocks in his way. General manaer Alex Anthopoulos has praised the power-hitting prospect as a potential difference-maker and a big piece of the future.

I caught up with Riley this week to discuss his arrival in Gwinnett and what he’s hoping to accomplish over the coming weeks and months.

Grant McAuley: This is obviously a fun time for you, making the jump from Double-A to Triple-A here as we open the month of May. What were your initial thoughts upon embarking on this new chapter?

Austin Riley: I was actually pretty surprised. I wasn’t really expecting it at all. Chris Maloney [Mississippi manager> called me into his office and told me I was going up and I was ecstatic. This is one step closer to my goal, my dream and I’m just happy to be here an thankful to the Braves for giving me the opportunity.

GM: You’re a Mississippi kid, so playing for the Double-A club had to be pretty fun. Your family wasn’t that far away. Being there a little bit last year and again to start this year, what did you take out of that experience playing kind of in your backyard and also against that level of competition?

AR: It was awesome. The family was there every night; family and friends. The performance there was top notch It’s a good league to be in. I was just very fortunate to do well and able to do well in front of family and friends. Now, like I said, I’m just one step closer and glad to be here in Gwinnett.

GM: Let’s talk about the evolution of Austin Riley. We met in Rome a couple of years ago and that 2016 team was stocked. Some of those guys are doing well not too far from Gwinnett these days. For you, that season in Rome seemed to be where you made that first really big set of adjustments to put yourself on the track you’re on now. What has changed in your game over the last couple of years? Your swing, your preparation, whatever it may be.

AR: You know, it’s actually a lot to be honest. Defensive-wise, I’ve had a lot adjustments there. I was moving slow there, so working with Ron Washington during spring training was awesome. That helped me a lot, from little things to make my first step quicker and better on the glove. Hitting-wise, I was told that I couldn’t catch up to the fastball, which a lot of it was timing and trying to figure out my swing. It’s come a long way, but there’s always a lot to improve.

GM: What has been the biggest change or most substantial change to your swing to get that timing right and really lock-in to the grove you’ve been in for a little while now?

AR: Really, I had a problem sliding. My body was kind of sliding forward when I was loading as the pitch was coming. You watch any big leaguer and they don’t do that. So, that was the biggest adjustment; eliminating that. I was able to get my hands through the zone and being able to catch up to those fastballs.

GM: Well, the last couple of years have been good for you, twenty bombs in each of those years and making those defensive impreovements. Then you get an invitation to big league camp this spring. I got to talk to you a little bit then, but looking back on it now, how valuable was that experience?

AR: Very valuable for me. I think the biggest thing was just going up there, being with all those veteran guys, playing and having some success and knowing that my talent is good enough to play here. Just trusting my ability. I think that was the biggest thing. Knowing that I belong here and trusting myself, not trying to do too much and just going out there and playing every day.

GM: This organization is chocked full of minor league talent and I know we in the media talk a lot  about the pitching, but the position player prospects are making a name for themselves as well. We know about what Ronald Acuña has been doing and what Ozzie Albies is doing, but yourself and some others are rising through the ranks. It really appears to be a pretty well-rounded minor league system.

AR: Yeah, we’re definitely stacked top to bottom. Alex Jackson in Double-A still, he’s something. They say light tower power, he’s got it. I’ve seen it plenty of times. Brett Cumberland is doing good stuff in Florida right now behind the plate. A bunch of guys. Cristian Pache at the futures game, he hit two bombs and that just goes to show what’s coming in the future.

GM: A lot of hitters have told me that the jump from High-A to Double-A is the hardest transition to make. Your numbers seem to tell a different story. Did you find that to be the case at all?

AR: Where I struggled the most is probably High-A. The pitching there, the guys that have what I consider the Double-A stuff, but maybe not the command. There are guys that are kind of all over the zone. They might get you 2-0 with a ball at your face and then they paint and paint and then you’re 2-2. That was probably the biggest adjustment was High-A.

GM: What are you looking to improve upon or build on in Triple-A. Is about keeping those numbers up and replicating what you’ve been doing?

AR: Definitely both. Always trying to get better. I’ve still got a lot of work defensive-wise and hitting-wise. At the same time, I’m trying to keep those numbers up.

Are Braves ready to follow Astros’, Cubs’ ascension to glory?

The Atlanta Braves stormed into first place with a three-game sweep of the New York Mets this week. For three long years it’s been all about the rebuild, but now the club appears to be emerging from the fog.

Yes, it appears that the future could very well be now.

Ronald Acuña Jr.’s arrival signaled a seismic shift in the franchise’s trajectory. The fact that Mike Soroka was hot on his heels only strengthened the idea that this team may not be that far away from a return to glory.

The offense has been potent; the pitching capable.

Young and old alike, these Braves appear to be transforming from perennial also-ran into possible contender in the early stages of the season.

Three consecutive 90-plus loss seasons tested the resolve of the club, the players and the fans alike. There were lows on and off the field that seemed at times to consume much of the goodwill the team had built in nearly two decades of consistent winning.

Atlanta’s offseason started with a bombshell that changed the front office altogether. Alex Anthopoulos stepped into a team in turmoil and worked quickly to right the ship.

Fortunately, the sanctions from the club’s international scandal under the previous regime affected neither the big league roster nor the high levels of the minor league system.

Anthopoulos did some addition by subtraction, turned the focus to improving in areas that could have an immediate and quantifiable impact – things like defense and base running – and placed a higher value on analytics and advanced scouting.

The new general manager also took an inventory of the bevy of prospects knocking on the door of SunTrust Park.

When Acuña and Soroka were promoted, they joined Ozzie Albies as the three youngest players in Major League Baseball. Don’t let their age fool you though, because the talent speaks volumes.

Albies has been among the National League’s most fearsome hitters over the first month, while Acuña wasted little time establishing himself as one of the most exciting young players in the game. He is a five-tool phenom that may quickly become one of the best players in the game period. No qualifiers need.

Soroka’s pure stuff and pitching acumen make him one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, truly wise beyond his years.

It’s an exciting time to be a Braves fan.

It should only get better from here.

In recent years, both the Cubs and Astros completed rebuilds that led to World Series championships. Constructing a young core through the amateur draft and international scouting along with making the right trades and signing the right free agents has put both clubs in position to contend for years to come.

To get there, however, the growing pains were acute.

Chicago averaged 93 losses per season from 2010-2014 before returning to the playoffs in 2015. Houston had it even rougher, losing an average of 104 games per season from 2011-2014 before earning its Wild Card berth in 2015 as well.

The Braves have lost an average of 93 games over the past three years, the first time they’d suffered consecutive losing seasons in nearly three decades.

Atlanta’s current roster has an average age of 28 years old. The Astros found their way back to the postseason with average age of 28.6 in 2015. The Cubs won the World Series with average age of 28.8 in 2016.

Acuña, who is just 20 years old, is the youngest player in the big leagues. He plays the role of Carlos Correa on that 2015 Astros club. The top prospect in baseball, bursting onto the scene with the talent and energy that provides a lift to the club. The effect of knowing their most highly touted young player has arrived cannot be understated. While Acuña should not be counted on to put the team on his back just yet, there will be times where he most certainly can do so.

Who could have expected the offensive explosion from Albies?

The 21-year-old second baseman is putting up big-time slugging numbers regardless of position and has carved out a spot at the top of the order. While Albies drew comparisons to Jose Altuve before his hot start, the two now seem to share a similar offensive profile in addition to their shared height and build.

With Freddie Freeman playing an MVP level and other veteran hitters making regular contributions, the newest crop of Braves hitters have added to the mix and formed perhaps the best offense in baseball.

That may be as much by surprise as it is by design. Time will tell if it’s sustainable.

The Braves’ collection of young pitchers is unsurpassed. The rotation is still coming into its own, as evidenced by the early season success of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb. The arrival of Soroka only strengthens the starting five, which is anchored by veterans Julio Teheran and Brandon McCarthy.

Both Chicago and Houston put together young, talented, hungry teams complemented by the right veterans. Atlanta is hoping to follow that blueprint.

If history is any indicator, Atlanta could simply take a look back in order to catch a glimpse of what may lay ahead.

Just like this year’s squad, the 1991 Braves got their first taste of first place in May. Though fleeting, it was a sign of things to come. That Atlanta team initially spent roughly a week in first place and wouldn’t get back to the top of the division race until late August. Ultimately, the Braves outdueled the Dodgers to win the NL West crown.

A couple of crazy stats about that team: It spent just 25 days in first place and never led by more than two games. Their path eventually led from worst to first and all the way to the World Series.

What does this year hold?

Atlanta is eagar to find out. The fan base seems re-energized by the fresh young faces who are grabbing headlines on a near nightly basis.

There is a lot of baseball left to be played the season, but the Braves have to like both the direction they are headed and how they’ve gone about getting there.

Braves Prospect Profile: Mike Soroka

The Atlanta Braves already welcomed one top prospect to the big leagues this season. Now another is making his way to The Show.

Right-hander Mike Soroka has opened eyes at every stop in the minor league system and on Tuesday he was promoted to the major leagues, where he will make his debut against the New York Mets at Citi Field.

It’s not often the Braves have a pitcher this young take the ball. At 20 years, 270 days of age, Soroka will become the youngest Braves pitcher to make his major league debut since Julio Teheran on May 7, 2011, when he was 20 years, 100 days old.

Soroka was a first round selection by the Braves in 2015. The Calgary, Canada, native has shown an uncanny pitching acumen while developing into a physical presence on the mound. The numbers bear out exactly how talented this young righty has become in a short amount of time.

He has already blitzed through Atlanta’s minor league system.

Soroka went 9-9 with a 3.02 ERA and 32BB/125K in 143 innings as a 18-year-old with Low-A Rome. More than just those results, his mound presence that season led the club to have Soroka skip High-A altogether. Instead, he advanced directly to the Double-A Southern League in 2017. All he did there was post a 2.75 ERA in 153.2 IP across 26 starts.

He wasn’t the only 19-year-old year old hurler who started last season in Mississippi. Fellow 2015 draftee Kolby Allard was a big part of that rotation as well, and also proved up to the challenge. It’s almost impossible to mention one without bringing up the other. Soroka is just nine days older than Allard, who was taken just 14 picks ahead of Soroka in the draft three years ago. The righty-lefty duo represented the two youngest players in the International League prior to Soroka’s promotion.

Age hasn’t stopped those two from being among the best pitchers in Triple-A thus far.

Soroka and Allard became fast friends and have shared their experiences on the mound to further their development. That kinship has helped drive both men to succeed at each level along the way. Soroka has emerged as one of the top prospects in the game, with Allard also appearing on the various Top 100 lists. Pretty impressive work for a pair of kids fresh out of high school and routinely among the youngest players in every league they’ve played.

This season, Soroka is 2-0 with a 1.99 ERA in four starts. He has struck out 24 batters against just five walks across 22.2 IP and has yet to surrender a home run.

Yes, Soroka has all the tools that a young pitcher could ask for to be successful. It’s what he does from the preparation and mental side of the game that truly sets him apart.

I had a chance to catch up with Soroka during the spring to get his thoughts on what will be a very eventful year. This should provide you with a sufficient glimpse into the mind of one of the brighest young pitchers in the game today.

GM: Flashing back to 2017, it was a big challenge that the organization handed you guys at 19 years old, yourself and Kolby, heading to Double-A and having good seasons and good showings for yourselves. Another challenge awaits, but what did you take out of 2017, at that age against the competition, as you climb through the ranks toward the big leagues?

MS: Really, it’s a big confidence booster when you can go out there and compete every single day. I think we both noticed that right off the bat. You make good pitches and then you attack and you’re going to get outs. This year’s a little more command over control oriented. It’s not so much about, maybe 3-1 to the three-hole hitter, you’re not trying to put one in the zone just to not walk him. You want to make your pitch. You always want to make your pitch. You know, don’t give in. You’re going to have games where it’s not quite there, but it’s a lot better to battle through that then just start trying to lay them in the middle of the zone. That’s how you get hurt and that’s how quick runs happen. I think that’s definitely one thing I came away with. You know, just dominating every single pitch. You start taking pitches off and that’s how big innings start, so I think it’s a lot easier once you get up there to do that, because you know that and it’s a lot more evident in lower levels. You can take innings off, pitches off and your stuff might be good enough where you don’t get hurt, but I think now Double-A and up, I think really you gotta be on every single pitch, because 1-9 there’s a reason that they’re there. Most of them have the same kind of aspirations you do.

GM: Physically and mechanically, those are big components, but it sounds like for you it continues to be as you go through, sharpening the mental game and figuring out ways to attack hitters to get the results you want…

MS: Yeah, I mean, attacking and having intentions of being dominant is the only way that you develop physically and mechanically. You’re only going to learn when something goes wrong and when you make a mistake. We’ve both talked about this. We’d much rather make a mistake on our pitch and a pitch we thought was the right pitch to throw rather than make a mistake on something we weren’t convicted with. So, physical game is going to come. We’re both still getting older, still growing, so I have good trust in that. Also, I think it helps being from the north a little bit. I hadn’t thrown quite as much when I was younger and I’m definitely feeling every spring come up, there’s a little more life, a little more action. Things are just a little easier as it goes on. I hope to keep that upward trend going physically and also mentally.

GM: It’s your third full season of pro-ball and Triple-A presents a new set of challenges. What have you been thinking as far as getting your mindset ready for what comes in 2018? Because once you get to Gwinnett, there’s only one phone call to go before you could be up doing some big things in Atlanta…

MS: Obviously, you think about it. You’d be lying if you said you weren’t thinking about it. Because that’s the dream, right? There’s I don’t know, I think it’s about 17,000 ever to play in the big leagues, so to consider yourself one of that group, it’s pretty hard to not think about it. I think it’s just about keeping it positive, keeping things simple and realizing that if you do your job, it’s out of your control when you get that call. Just having the confidence that if you do your job the way you can, it will come. As far as Triple-A goes too, you talk to a lot of pitching coaches. I got a chance to talk to (Mississippi pitching coach) Dennis Llewellyn a ton at the end of the year about Triple-A. Pitching to some of the older teams in Double-A, you get a good sense of what that might be like. Just a little bit different approaches and that’s mainly it. There’s a ton inside that obviously, but it’s still the same game. Guys just get a little better, a little more experienced. Like I said, if you make your pitch, you’re going to get guys out on a consistent basis. So, I think that’s a pretty simple goal to have.