June 2018

Acuña’s return could provide big impact to Braves lineup

The first place Atlanta Braves are embarking on a critical 10-game road trip. It’s easily the club’s most challenging stretch away from home and it may go a long way toward setting the tone for the second half.

After a disappointing home stand that saw Atlanta lose consecutive series at SunTrust Park for the first time this season, the Braves will be tested against a trio of playoff hopefuls. They’ll have to match firepower with the Cardinals, Yankees and Brewers.

That’s the bad news.

The good news? Ronald Acuña Jr. returns to the Atlanta lineup on Friday in St. Louis.

The rookie phenom has been absent for a month after suffering a mild sprain of the ACL in his left knee in a scary fall behind the first base bag at Fenway Park on May 27. Now he’ll have a chance to bring his considerable power potential to a run-producing spot in the Atlanta lineup.

Acuña took the minor leagues by storm as a 19-year-old in 2017, belting 21 home runs in 139 games across three levels and then adding seven more in 23 games in the Arizona Fall League. His power rated a 60 on the scout’s 20-80 scale. Along with an equal or better hit tool and top of the charts speed, Acuña can impact that game in a variety of ways.

Regardless of where he hits, Acuña makes this lineup better and gives the Braves a potential impact bat at a critical juncture in the schedule.

Freddie Freeman has been the club’s MVP. He may well be the National League MVP for that matter. Nick Markakis has been hot on his heels all season. But now Atlanta’s offense has a chance to get back to full strength as their schedule gets challenging.

Even though they lost back-to-back series to Baltimore and Cincinnati, this is not a team that is falling apart at the seams. There are pitching questions, but the Braves have typically scored enough runs to at least keep themselves in most games.

However, the lineup has taken a step back after a hot start.

The intriguing part about Acuña’s return is that he won’t simply be slotting back into his familiar No. 2 spot in the order. Instead, manager Brian Snitker plans to utilize Acuña’s power to complement the middle of the order.

“There were different circumstances when he was here before,” Snitker said this week. “We’ll just wait and see when he gets here, but right now just looking at it, I’d probably say that he’ll hit down more in the middle than up top because I kind of like what we got up there right now.”

Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies currently occupy the first two spots in the lineup, just as they were prior to Acuña’s initial arrival in late April.

Inciarte and Albies add an exhilarating dimension to the Atlanta offense that simply was not present in recent years. Their combination speed and instincts on the base paths has routinely caught other teams by surprise and left them scrambling to make a play.

“You put a lot of pressure on teams, and they know that,” said Snitker. “These guys are taking the extra base and coming out of the box looking for two… We’ve talked about since spring training our base running being a weapon.”

Want some proof? Inciarte and Albies combined to score 16 runs in the last six games.

With that duo’s production suddenly trending in the right direction, the Braves will get a chance to audition Acuña in the heart of the order. It’s a place that could use a little help at the moment.

For the first time all season, Freeman finds himself in a bit of a funk at the plate. He went 4-for-25 with 10 strikeouts during the recent home stand and is batting just .184 with one homer and 6 RBI in his last 12 games. This comes after Freeman hit safely in 26 of 27 games.

“As much as Nick (Markakis) and I want to be good, 162 games is not going to happen,” said Freeman.

“We’re all going to go through our little stretches of not doing what we want to do,” he added. “But when you’ve got guys like Charlie Culberson, Ozzie’s come back, Ender is starting to hit, Kurt (Suzuki) has been fantastic all year, Johan’s big hits, that’s how you win ballgames and how you get to the playoffs.

“You can’t count on the same guys every single day. That’s what good teams do, find ways to win. That’s what we’re doing right now.”

While Freeman is a candidate to break out at any time, he would certainly benefit from a little bit of table-setting from the top of the order. That’s something that’s been problematic this season.

Despite the good play of Inciarte and Albies lately, Braves lead-off men rank 29th in MLB with a .286 on-base percentage and their two-hitters have a composite .305 OBP which ranks 27th.

Simply put, Atlanta needs Inciarte and Albies to get hot and stay hot for a while.

“As the top of the lineup goes, you go, and that’s the case for us,” said Freeman. “Ender’s been fantastic the last couple of weeks. Obviously Ozzie’s last couple of games is what we’ve been used to. Hopefully, Nick and I can get going again and hopefully we can start scoring some more runs.”

Snitker has been forced to mix and match, moving his top two hitters around more than he anticipated when the season began. That’s been done to both counteract some struggles and create consistency in front of Freeman and Markakis.

But unlike years past, the Braves offense is not wholly dependent on Freeman’s bat to carry it.

Atlanta tops the NL in total bases and runs scored, ranks second in extra-base hits, third in on-base percentage and is next-to-last in strikeouts. All of those are positive trends and underscore the fact that it’s not just Freeman doing all the work.

This lineup has teeth.

“We still compete and put ourselves in positon to win games,” said Snitker. “It’s not just about (Freeman) and it hasn’t been all year. We’ve talked about that all year that everybody has contributed in their own way.”

Albies has been the most surprising of Atlanta’s starting nine. The switch-hitting second baseman has shattered offensive expectations and is in line to earn All-Star honors in his first full season in the majors.

Though he hasn’t been immune to ups and downs, Albies is back on the upswing. He has 14 hits in his last 26 at-bats and posted five consecutive multi-hit contests. That boosted his average from .249 to .271 in a span five days.

He’s belted 17 homers and leads the NL with 45 extra-base hits, 26 doubles, 61 runs scored and 173 total bases. That’s quite a season for a 5-foot-8 middle infielder who began the season as the youngest player in the major leagues.

“He’s been doing it all year,” Markakis said of Albies. “Everybody is going to have their ups and downs, but he’s positive. Every day he comes in, he works and he’s constantly making adjustments.

“Once you play in the league a little bit, guys get a better understanding of what you’re up there trying to do. It’s all about making adjustments back. He slumped there for a little while. Everybody does, but he’s been tremendous for us all year and it seems like he’s getting back on track now.”

Markakis should know a little bit about that whole adjustment thing. He’s been around the league for 13 years now, but is on track to make his first All-Star game. Markakis is batting .326 and became the first NL player to reach the 100-hit plateau during the recent home stand.

All of this offense has given the Braves a chance to win. Putting Acuña back in the mix on a nightly basis could be just the thing to kickstart the order again.

Though the pitching is another discussion entirely, Atlanta’s unexpectedly prolific run-scoring is one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season.

“We walk into these doors every single day with the chance to win,” said Freeman. “Can’t say that the last few years and that’s the big difference.

“When you have 25 guys with confidence going into every single night, this is what happens. No matter what the score is, we still know we can come back and win games.”

That optimism is a shared quality and extends to the final out each night. It comes with what their manager describes as a “quiet confidence” in the dugout.

“We went from I used to come in and hope we won to expecting to now,” said Snitker. “You start a game and you expect to win, which is a big difference in what we used to do.

“We’re a better team… I think it’s shown that these guys will fight and grind and try and find a way to win if you give them the opportunity.”

Braves Mailbag: When will Atlanta start making trades?

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

Let’s dive into this week’s installment, which takes a look at when the Braves could start making some trades as well as the status and ETA’s of several young players who could help out in the second half.

Seems like the Nationals got the jump on everybody to trade for a closer. With Kelvin Herrera gone, who will the Braves target to improve the bullpen?

— Keith (via email)

There’s no doubt about that. Washington got out in front of its bullpen problem by adding Herrera to the mix. Some view the three-player return for Kansas City as a bit on the light side, but time will tell in that regard. Herrera and Sean Doolittle will give the Nationals a formidable late-inning duo while allowing former closers Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler to work in other high-leverage situations. The fact that Washington filled a need well before the July trade deadline speaks directly to how seriously they view their situation in the NL East. Both the Braves and Phillies have turned up the heat and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. Washington could ill-afford to simply stand pat and wait for regression to set in for division rivals. The real question will be what kind of deals Atlanta and Philadelphia will pursue in the coming weeks and months. Given limited payroll flexibility this season, I’d expect the Braves to assess their needs closer to the trade deadline. They need all the bang for their buck they can get. Additionally, Atlanta may have to shift gears if an injury affects the roster over the next month and a half. The Braves would certainly like to add a piece, perhaps more, to the bullpen. Despite Herrera being off the board, there will be clubs with attractive relief options to sell. The Padres and Orioles are both prime trading partners and have multiple pieces worth pursuing. Baltimore holds Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens, while San Diego may count Brad Hand, Craig Stammen, Kirby Yates and Adam Cimber among their trade chips.

How much does Austin Riley’s injury affect the Braves possible pursuit of a third baseman via trade this year?

— Chase (via Twitter)

The jury is still out on short term answers at third base for the Braves. Johan Camargo has shown flashes of the potential he demonstrated last season, but is still widely regarded as a versatile back-up who is most valuable when deployed as a super-utility player. That said, he has the keys at the hot corner for now. Atlanta did not seem to be sold on giving Riley an aggressively early big league promotion and now the sprained PCL he suffered in his right knee has tabled that possibility altogether. I still expect Riley to be a candidate for a September call-up, but until he gets back on the field and begins producing again there’s no reason to speculate any further. As for the trade targets, there are several names that should be available. Ultimately, we’re talking about rentals, so it all depends on the trade price tag. Mike Moustakas of the Royals probably makes the most sense and may provide the most impact. He’s a proven power-hitter with postseason experience. Sounds like a natural fit. He’s also making just $5.5 million (plus a $1 million buy-out of a mutual option). Toronto’s Josh Donaldson is obviously someone that GM Alex Anthopoulos could be interested in, but Donaldson has been plagued by injuries this season and that has to be factored into the equation as well. I do not expect the Braves to sell the farm for a short term arrangement with Baltimore’s Manny Machado. If Atlanta’s funds remain limited at the trade deadline, that deal just doesn’t seem feasible for a multitude of reasons.

Is Nick Markakis batting behind Freddie Freeman worth the lack of production from the leadoff spot? Why not just move Nick to the top and roll with Ronald Acuña Jr. at cleanup for a little bit?

— Zach (via Twitter)

I actually addressed this very subject last week in a deep dive into the Braves leadoff woes. There’s no way around it, Atlanta’s lead-off men have simply not provided even league average production this season. They’ve posted a meager .279 on-base percentage, the lowest in all of baseball. As I pointed out in that piece (linked here), I still don’t think it would be in Atlanta’s best interest to essentially unplug their clean-up hitter and move Markakis to the top of the order. The best case scenario is that either Ender Inciarte or Ozzie Albies gets on track and provides a steady lead-off option. If that does not happen, I’d explore using Dansby Swanson or even Johan Camargo at the top of the order before considering a move with Markakis. I just don’t think Brian Snitker wants to change the roles and mindsets of various hitters, not to mention risk altering the overall dynamics of the lineup. However, if Atlanta were to add another power-hitter via trade in the not-too-distant future, then giving Markakis a run at the top may not be out of the question.

After Kolby Allard, which minor leaguers do you think will make their MLB debut in 2018?

— Bill (via Twitter)

While I do expect Allard to make his debut at some point this summer, it’s really hard to tell who else could be on that list. Mike Soroka is already up and various other Braves starting pitching prospects already debuted in 2017. Other than Austin Riley, it’s hard to predict the next big time prospect who could reach Atlanta this year. Though I think Allard is an intriguing arm to watch for the remainder of the season, there’s currently not a clear place for him to pitch at the moment. The Braves have six viable arms contending for spots in the rotation and both Max Fried and Luiz Gohara at Triple-A alongside Allard. Still, to be just 20 years old and posting a 2.28 ERA through a dozen Triple-A starts is a sign that Allard is close.

I’ve been seeing a lot of Twitter chatter about Touki Toussaint coming up to join the pen in the second half of the season? Do you think we see him?

— Chad (via Twitter)

While I won’t rule it out altogether, Toussaint’s development as a starter seems to be the current priority. He’s putting together an excellent season at Double-A Mississippi, where he has posted a 3.41 ERA in 14 starts with 92 strikeouts across 74 innings. About a month ago, the Braves seemed open to the idea of utilizing some of their young starting pitching prospects in the bullpen. We’ve seen it sparingly, mostly with Luiz Gohara, Lucas Sims and Matt Wisler. Of course, all of those men already had previous big league time and starting experience. We’ve yet to see a true young stud starter be called up to help out exclusively in a relief role. With a great fastball-curveball combination, Toussaint might be the best equipped to turn himself into a middle or late-inning weapon. However, the Braves would be well served to prepare for that possibility by getting him accustomed to pitching in relief before simply throwing him out there for the first time in the big leagues. Toussaint should reach Triple-A in the second half and that could be the best time to start that process. If you see him working out of the bullpen in Gwinnett, then we’ll have some clarity on the club’s intentions. That is, if it happens at all.

Braves need more production from leadoff spot

The Atlanta Braves have surprisingly been one of baseball’s best offenses this season. However, their hot start has shown signs of slowing down. Outside of the occasional outburst, the Braves have found runs a bit harder to come by over the past six weeks.

Struggles at the top of the order are a big reason why.

Atlanta’s leadoff men have been among the least productive in baseball over the first two and a half months. Despite that, the Braves remain the National League’s most potent offense.

Braves leadoff hitters MLB ranks:

  • 19th –  40 runs
  • 19th – .245 AVG
  • 29th – .292 OBP
  • 24th – .673 OPS

Despite less than ideal production at the top of the order, Atlanta leads the National League with 322 runs scored through 65 games. There are only three clubs with a .500 or better record that have gotten fewer runs scored from the leadoff spot, Milwaukee (38 runs), San Francisco (35 runs) and Arizona (34 runs). All three of those clubs are in the middle to bottom half of MLB in runs scored this season. That trend is not surprising, and it’s what makes Atlanta’s ability to pile up runs all the more surprising.

The Braves’ issues began when All-Star center fielder Ender Inciarte got off to a slow start. That’s been the case in each of the prior two seasons, but he always seemed to find his way out of that early slump in relatively short order.

That has not been the case this season.

Inciarte is batting .240 with a .556 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and has scored just 16 runs in his 33 games in the leadoff spot. That is a far cry from the player who hit .305 and posted a .351 on-base percentage during a 200-hit season in 2017.

Brian Snitker’s early solution was to move the hot-hitting Ozzie Albies from second in the order to the lead-off spot. While Albies brought some power, it did not solve the problem of finding someone to get on base regularly in front of Freddie Freeman and the heart of the order.

Albies has batted .250 with a .795 OPS and 24 runs scored in 32 games at the top, but has posted just a .303 on-base percentage. Though the home runs and extra-base hits are always welcome, Atlanta’s top of the order hitters simply haven’t been setting the table consistently.

Those lead-off woes are compounded by the current lack of a regular second place hitter.

Four men have batted second for Atlanta this season and they’ve combined for a .299 OBP. That paltry number ranks 28th in the majors. With Ronald Acuña Jr. injured and Albies bumped up a spot, the Braves are searching for a more permanent answer there as well.

Braves offense by month:

  • March/April (27 games): 5.6 runs per game – .268 AVG
  • May (29 games): 4.5 runs per game – .259 AVG
  • June (9 games): 4.4 runs per game – .242 AVG

It’s been a tough season for the men at the top of the order. Inciarte faltered, and the move up hasn’t really benefited Albies all that much either. It’s not an indictment of either man, because one of the two most likely remains the best option going forward.

Though Atlanta is likely ride out the storm with Albies, who is mired in a 5-for-40 slump this month, there are some short-term fixes available should Snitker feel like tinkering with the order.

Dansby Swanson might just be the name to pencil in at the top for a while.

Though he was fighting through his own slump of sorts after coming off the disabled list last month, Swanson has swung the bat better of late. He is batting .286 with a .970 OPS over his last 12 games. He’s already bumped up to the two-hole and will be looked upon to help out regardless. Swanson certainly has some of the other tangible skills that a leadoff man typically possesses. He runs the bases well and handles the bat capably. The only knock would be his strikeout rate, which is sitting at career-worst 28.8%. In today’s more strikeout-friendly game, most teams are willing to sacrifice the punch-outs for any and all added punch that a hitter can bring to the lineup. So, Swanson could be worth a look.

Johan Camargo might be a guy to consider as well.

His case is a little more nuanced than Swanson’s, but the fact is Camargo is a different hitter than he was year ago. Camargo elevated his walk rate from a pitiful 4.7% in 2017 to a respectable 15.5% this year. Despite a 90-point drop in batting average, from .299 to .209, those walks have helped Camargo up his on-base percentage slightly. His .342 mark is serviceable and will probably see an uptick when his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) normalizes. It’s a subpar .219 now after sitting at .364 a year ago. Camargo has been the beneficiary of regular playing time at third base and does not appear to be in jeopardy of losing it. If he continues to put together good at bats and the hits begin falling, Camargo could be a useful hitter at or near the top of the order.

Nick Markakis has done the job before and could do it again.

Granted, moving Markakis from the middle to the top feels not only counterproductive, but also like a move that reeks of desperation were it to happen. His work in the cleanup spot has provided bona fide protection for Freddie Freeman. Whether one believes in that concept or not, Freeman certainly benefits from feeling that he has a productive hitter behind him who can share the load. Markakis and Freeman are tied for the NL lead with 85 hits this season. Both men have been at or near the top of the league leader board in batting average, doubles, runs scored, RBI and numerous other categories. Unlike utilizing Swanson or Camargo at the top, Snitker would have to weigh the possible negative effect messing with the middle of the order equation could yield. Again, it’s not a move I’d necessarily expect to be high on the current list of possibilities.

While Atlanta’s success has been refreshing and built largely on its offense, the bottom line is, someone needs to produce in that leadoff spot. And he needs to do it sooner than later.

Braves boast 6 players worthy of All-Star honors

The Atlanta Braves have been a first place club for much of the 2018 season. Though it’s easily Atlanta’s most talented roster in years, much of the success can be tracked to half a dozen players who are putting up career-best numbers.

While it’s no surprise to see Freddie Freeman putting on an MVP pace, he’s got quite the supporting cast this season.

With the All-Star game just over a month away, the Braves have six players who are making a case to earn a spot on the National League roster for the Midsummer Classic. Freeman has earned the honor before, but the over five deserving Braves players could be chosen to play in their first All-Star Game.

The Candidates:

Freddie Freeman

All-Star Stock: An MVP caliber season makes Freddie Freeman a shoo-in for his third All-Star appearance, but he may just earn his first starting assignment. Of course, that all comes down to the fan vote, but Freeman’s credentials are unmatched at first base. He sits atop the NL leaderboard in countless categories and may very well have the inside track on the MVP award were the season to end today.

All-Star Stats: Freeman leads all major league first basemen with a .338 batting average, 43 RBI, 39 runs scored, a .432 on-base percentage and .993 on-base plus slugging. That’s just a handful of over a dozen offensive stats that Freeman is at or near the top of the pack. One stat that really stands out is Freeman’s 3.0 wins above replacement, which is tops in the National League. Again, if the MVP votes were tallied today, Freeman should be the last man standing among NL position players.

Ozzie Albies

All-Star Stock: A torrid start thrust Ozzie Albies’ name into the national spotlight. He’s been leading the National League in extra-base hits and total bases all season, even though his home run rate has slowed. The switch-hitting second baseman will have to contend with the Reds’ Scooter Gennett for the starting job on the NL Squad. Gennett is in the midst of quite the encore to his 2017 breakout season. Albies should make the team, whether he wins the fan vote or is picked as a reserve. That’s quite an accomplishment for a player who opened the season as the youngest man in baseball.

All-Star Stats: Albies leads the NL with 35 extra-base hits and 135 total bases, both of which are eye-popping numbers for a slight of stature second baseman who was never projected to have much power in the minors. Instead, Albies has shattered that perception and swatted 14 home runs in his first 62 games. He leads all NL second basemen with 14 homers, 19 doubles and 51 runs scored. He’s second to Gennett with 70 hits and third among NL second sackers with a .503 slugging percentage. Add that all together and Albies has an undeniable case to head to Washington as an NL All-Star.

Nick Markakis

All-Star Stock: Nick Markakis would certainly qualify as an unlikely All-Star inclusion if we’d run a poll back in spring training, but he’s quietly putting together his best offensive season to date. Markakis has been at or near the top of the league in hitting, while providing steady run production in the heart of the Atlanta lineup. Even his defense has taken a step up this season. A trip to the All-Star game would be his first in a 13-year career.

All-Star Stats: Affixed in the cleanup spot of the Atlanta order, Markakis has been the most productive right fielder in the National League. You’d expect Bryce Harper, but you get Nick Markakis. He’s been top five in the league in hitting and is currently pacing the NL with 81 hits, just one ahead of Freeman. Additionally, Markakis leads all NL right fielders with a .328 AVG, .392 OBP, .890 OPS, 18 doubles, 42 RBI, 39 runs scored and a 2.1 WAR – which is seventh best in the league. Any way you slice it, Markakis has been the best all-around player at his position and that merits a trip to the All-Star game.

Sean Newcomb

All-Star Stock: Every staff needs a number one starter and Sean Newcomb has been that for the Braves. While the club hoped his big strikeout stuff would eventually help him mature into a successful major league starter, Newcomb has exceeded all expectations over the first two months. He has utilized a changeup to round out an arsenal that already featured one of the best curveballs in the game. The Braves rotation may have entered the spring with a few questions to answer, but Newcomb’s name no longer appears on that list.

All-Star Stats: Newcomb has compiled a 7-1 record to go along with a 2.49 ERA which ranks ninth in the NL. He’s striking out nearly a better per inning and has lowered both his walk and hit rates from his rookie season. Opponents are batting just .201 against Newcomb, the fourth best mark in the league. Additionally, he is the second hardest pitcher in the NL to hit a home run against, allowing just 0.39 HR per 9 innings pitched. Newcomb has surrendered just three home runs through 12 starts, which is tied for the fewest among all qualified starters in baseball. He enters the weekend with a 42 inning homerless streak.

Mike Foltynewicz

All-Star Stock: Speaking of big strikeout stuff, Mike Foltynewicz has been trying to put it all together since 2015. That’s when he made his Atlanta debut as a hard-throwing but unproven prospect. In the three seasons that have followed, Foltynewicz has seen his fair share of ups and downs, but that all seems to have led him to a breakout season in 2018.

All-Star Stats: His complete game shut-out against the Nationals on June 1 seemed to be a turning point in the general perception of what Foltynewicz is and can be going forward. That dominant performance included a career-high 11 strikeouts. His 2.31 ERA and 88 strikeouts are both fifth best in the NL heading into the second week in June. Foltynewicz is averaging 10.7 K/9 IP, which is likewise the fifth best mark by any National League starter. Opponents are hitting just .204 against him, which is sixth in the NL. One more encouraging stat is home run rate, which he’s cut in half from a year ago. The scary thing is, Foltynewicz just now seems to be fully tapping into his potential, so the best could be yet to come.

Dan Winkler

All-Star Stock: A longshot for this midseason honor, Dan Winkler has been Atlanta’s most effective reliever. An amazing story of perseverance, he’s piling up strikeouts and leaving opponents to shake their heads. Winkler has been one of the best relievers in the National League but may fall short in this quest due to the fact he’s not a closer and those roster spots are at a premium. Regardless of his potential All-Star status, the rest of the league has taken notice.

All-Star Stats: Just how good has Dan Winkler been? I’m glad you asked. Among NL relievers with at least 20 innings pitched, Winkler’s 1.07 ERA ranks fifth and his 1.30 fielding independent pitching (FIP) is second. He’s one of just three NL relievers with at least 25 innings pitched who has yet to allow a home run. Winkler’s 12.63 K/9 IP rank 10th in the league. Add it all up and Winkler has compiled a 1.0 WAR to this point. That is the fifth best in the National League. He may not have the saves and the glory that comes with closing games, but Winkler has been a big reason for Atlanta’s success over the first few months.

Braves select Carter Stewart with first round pick

The Atlanta Braves got their portion of the 2018 Major League Baseball Draft started by selecting Florida high school right-hander Carter Stewart.

Stewart, 18, is a 6-foot-6 hurler out of Eau Gallie High School. He was committed to Mississippi State, but will instead begin his pro career with Atlanta.

He has power pitcher’s arsenal, boasting a fastball that climb into the high-90s and features a classic 12-6 curve ball that has been missing bats with great regularity in his high school career.

Now he joins perhaps the most talented collection of arms in baseball and an organization that has been known for its outstanding pitching over the years.

His journey truly began on draft night in Secaucus, New Jersey.

“For about a week or so now, I’ve felt like the Braves were definitely a high possibility,” said Stewart. “Whenever they called my name it was definitely a surreal feeling. It was really exciting.”

Braves scouting director Brian Bridges and company were pleased to add another high-end arm to the stable, which has grown by leaps and bounds over the past three years. Bridges believes the addition of Stewart continues Atlanta’s dedication to rebuilding the franchise on pitching and defense.

“To me, he definitely has the best curveball in the draft,” said Bridges. “He came along as far as development-wise from August and the East Coast Showcase. The curveball was always there, but the fastball was 88-92, so the average of the fastball was on the rise as the kid really did some filling out, maturity-wise with his body.”

Stewart is a somewhat rare pitcher who relies on the old-fashioned curveball over the slider.  He said that is by design and a choice made for all the right reasons.

“I thought it was a better pitch,” Stewart said of the curve. “I threw a slider when I was younger, and I just thought that the curveball broke more and was more comfortable to throw. It worked really well, and I just stuck with it.”

A power pitcher with a dynamic breaking ball, Stewart has patterned himself after one of the best in this generation. When asked what pitcher has influenced his style, he had a quick and easy answer.

“I like to model myself after Justin Verlander a little bit, with his intensity and his ability to pitch,” said Stewart. “I’ve watched him for a long time and I feel like that’s one guy I can definitely model myself after.”

Even before this pick, the Braves boast one of the deepest groups of pitching prospects in the majors and have leaned heavily on pitching with their first round selections in recent years.

This marks the fourth consecutive year that Atlanta has gone pitching first in the draft. Vanderbilt righty Kyle Wright was the No. 5 overall pick in 2017, but that was a pick that followed two years of high school arms.

Atlanta selected righty Ian Anderson with the No. 3 overall pick in 2016 and supplemented him with fellow prep arms Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller. Those three men came just one year after the Braves took lefty Kolby Allard at No. 14 and righty Mike Soroka at No. 28 in 2015.

The Braves hope that Stewart will slot into that group as he begins his trek to the majors.

“He’s probably right in the middle of those guys,” said Bridges. “You know, it’s kind of hard to tell. We’ve been fortunate as an organization and scouting department to select Braves-type pitchers, Braves-type players, Braves-type kids.”

“We feel he fits right into that spectrum at some point. He definitely as an out-pitch, but they’re all different in their own way. Kolby had the plus-curveball, Soroka is Soroka and Ian had the good curveball. So, we feel like this is a power pitcher and we’ve added another one to the group we already have.”

Redrafting this millennium’s Braves’ first round picks

The June draft is a rite of passage in Major League Baseball. It literally ushers in the next wave of talent, with many destined to become the future stars of the game. But for many others, their careers will be just a blip on the radar, a flash in the pan or any of a number of other sporting clichés.

When it comes to the draft, every single club can ask itself, “What if?”

What if they’d selected this player? What if they’d taken that player? It’s a game that executives and fans alike can find themselves caught up in, though ultimately it’s an exercise in futility.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to revisit the recent draft history of the Atlanta Braves and ask ourselves, “What if?”

Let’s throw out the 90s and set aside the last three years of the rebuilding process. What I’m proposing is a redrafting the first round from 2000-2014. It’s a 15-year window that saw the Braves’ streak of division titles come to an end, the sale of the team and the inevitable changing of the guard.

That same 15-year period has seen the rise and fall of stars, many of whom were first-round picks in the annual amateur draft. Still others will be second-guessed as their stars never took their rightful place. When it comes to the draft, even the best work is guesswork and subject to change due to the volitility of the MLB draft and the minor league journey that follows.

So, let’s get in our virtual time-traveling Delorean, scroll through the hundreds of players drafted in the last 15 years and revisit baseball drafts past.

Here are the rules:

  • I’ll give the Braves’ selection from each year and a brief synopsis.
  • Then I’ll reveal the player the club should have taken in hindsight.
  • Any player who was off the board in a given year is not available for the hindsight pick.
  • I limited the picks to the first 10 rounds. Anything beyond that was truly a shot in the dark.
  • Keep in mind, this is done completely for fun and can apply to any of the 30 clubs.

With that said, let’s redraft Atlanta’s first 15 picks of the millennium.

2000

Selected No. 29 – Adam Wainwright, RHP (Glynn Academy HS – Brunswick, GA)

I’m going to say they got this one right, they just didn’t keep him, but Atlanta had back-to-back picks in 2000 and was not so fortunate with the one that followed.

Selected No. 30 – Scott Thorman, 3B (Cambridge HS – Ontario, Canada)

Like many of the picks you’ll find getting the redraft treatment, Thorman failed to mature into a power-hitting corner infielder. He eventually moved to first base where he lost his job to Mark Teixeira.

Hindsight Selection – Grady Sizemore, OF (Cascade HS – Everett, WA)

Sizemore was taken by the Expos in the third round and later traded to the Indians for Bartolo Colon. He became an All-Star center fielder for Cleveland until injuries ultimately derailed his career before he could really get going. Sizemore was a dynamic talent and perfect blend of power, speed and defense.

2001

Selected No. 24 – Macay McBride, LHP (Screven County HS – Sylvania, GA)

A lefty who saw brief time in the majors from 2005-2007, McBride was nothing more than a situational lefty, and not a particularly effective one.

Hindsight Selection – David Wright, 3B (Hickory HS – Chesapeake, VA)

Wright was taken by the Mets No. 38 overall in the first round. It worked out well for New York. Though his career has been derailed by a back injury in his 30s, Wright became the Mets marquee player for more than a decade.

2002

Selected No. 23 – Jeff Francoeur, OF (Parkview HS – Lilburn, GA)

No Braves fan will forget the torrid start to Francoeur’s career, nor the fall from grace that led to a trade to the Mets some four years later.

Hindsight Selection – Joey Votto, C (Richview Collegiate Institute – Toronto, ON)

A high school catcher who has become one of the most selective hitters of this generation, Votto was selected by the Reds in the second round (No. 44 overall). Honorable mention to Jon Lester, who went to the Red Sox at No. 57 and Atlanta’s own Brian McCann, who was selected in the second round (No. 64) as well.

2003

Selected No.  35 – Luis Atilano, RHP (Gabriela Mistral HS – San Juan, Puerto Rico)

Though he would eventually reach the majors in 2010 and make 16 starts for the Nationals, Luis Atilano was traded away in 2006 for pinch-hitter Daryle Ward. Atilano never pitched in the big leagues again after that one stint in Washington and has been playing in the Puerto Rican league since 2012.

Hindsight Selection – Adam Jones, SS (Samuel F. B. Morse HS – San Diego, CA)

Jones was taken 37th overall by the Mariners and later traded to the Orioles where he blossomed into a star center fielder and a big reason for Baltimore’s best years over the last decade.

2004

Selected No.  71 (2nd round) – Eric Campbell, 3B (Gibson Southern HS – Fort Branch, IN)

Atlanta did not make a first round selection but had the final pick in the second round. They used it on Campbell, who stalled out in Double-A and never made it to the majors.

Hindsight Selection – Ben Zobrist, 2B (Dallas Baptist University – Dallas, TX)

Plenty of clubs missed on Zobrist. He was selected in the sixth round, 184th overall. He’s gone to a standout career as a versatile pieces of some very good clubs. The Astros may have drafted him, but they traded him away to Tampa Bay, where he became a two-time All-Star.

2005

Selected No.  27 – Joey Devine, RHP (North Carolina State University – Raleigh, NC)

While Devine would have a limited amount of big league success, arm injuries ultimately cut his career short. Rushed to the majors, Devine’s time in Atlanta was forever tainted by giving up grand slams in each of his first two major league outings. He also surrendered a game-winning homer to Chris Burke in the 18th inning of Game 5 of the 2005 NLDS.

Hindsight Selection – Brett Gardner, OF (College of Charleston – Charleston, SC)

A speedy outfielder who’s spent a decade in pinstripes, Gardner was selected by the Yankees in the third round, 109th overall. Gardner has been a fixture in the New York outfield while the cast around him has continually changed.

2006

Selected No. 24 – Cody Johnson, OF (A. Crawford Mosley HS – Lynn Haven, FL)

There are plenty of bad picks to go around, but the selection of Cody Johnson is among the worst. A raw power prospect, his strikeout totals were a deterrent to consistent success and he was out of the organization some four years after being selected by Atlanta.

Hindsight Selection – Chris Archer, RHP (Clayton HS – Clayton, NC)

How different Atlanta’s current situation could be if it was Archer who’d been taken as a high school pitcher in that 2006 draft. Cleveland spent a fifth round pick on Archer, but he was traded to the Cubs not two full seasons into his minor league career. Archer was dealt to Tampa Bay in 2011 and has enjoyed some fine seasons as the No. 1 starter for the Rays

2007

Selected No.  33 – Jon Gilmore, 3B (Iowa City HS – Iowa City, IA)

Forgive me for burying the lead here, but 2007 was a mixed bag in the first round. The Braves stayed close to home when they drafted the talented Heyward at No. 14. He grew up just south of Atlanta and was a solid first round selection. Heyward had his moments with the Braves but was ultimately traded away before he reached free agency. Though he found a big pay day in Chicago, Heyward has never truly become the star player that so many thought he was destined to be. I’m actually going to give this selection a pass.

Hindsight Selection – Josh Donaldson, C (Auburn University – Auburn, AL)

Though the Heyward pick can be debated, the pick that can’t for Atlanta was taking third baseman Jon Gilmore at No. 33. Not only did the Reds immediately follow that pick by taking Todd Frazier, but it only gets worse from there. Josh Donaldson slipped to the supplemental picks where he was selected by the Cubs at No. 48 overall. Two trades and one major position switch later, Donaldson became an MVP-caliber slugger with Toronto. You know, the kind of third baseman any club would love to have. Gilmore

2008

Selected No.  40 – Brett DeVall, LHP (Niceville HS – Niceville, FL)

Atlanta surrendered the No. 18 pick in the draft to the Mets as compensation for re-signing Tom Glavine, who’d bolted for New York after the 2002 season. Thus, the Braves waited out 22 more picks and went with a high school lefty in DeVall, who was beset by injuries and out of the organization by 2010.

Hindsight Selection – Charlie Blackmon, OF (Georgia Institute of Technology – Atlanta, GA)

Blackmon was right in Atlanta’s backyard at Georgia Tech, but lasted until the 72nd-overall pick, late in the second round. Blackmon has evolved into one of the better outfielders in the National League with the Rockies. Atlanta was able to recoup in 2008 and grab Craig Kimbrel in the third round.

2009

Selected No.  7 – Mike Minor, LHP (Vanderbilt University – Nashville, TN)

The Braves drafted a Mike in the first round of the 2009 draft. Unfortunately, it was not the right one. Minor was a polished college arm who made it to the majors quickly and became a contributor in the Atlanta rotation. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury robbed him and the Braves of the chance to see Minor find consistent success for a prolonged period of time.

Hindsight Selection – Mike Trout, OF (Millville Senior HS – Millville, NJ)

To be fair, 21 teams passed on Mike Trout. The Nationals and Diamondbacks passed not once, but twice. Even the Angels selected Randal Grichuk with the 24th selections before tabbing Trout with pick No. 25. Reliving the first round of the 2009 draft is an annual exercise, and the Angels always end up looking like quite a few million bucks for getting Trout in the latter stages.

2010

Selected No. 35 – Matt Lipka, SS (McKinney HS – McKinney, TX)

Another pick that has been scrutinized in recent years, Lipka offered a speed dynamic that Atlanta very much coveted but little else. He did not stick at short, moved to the outfield and ultimately failed to develop as a hitter. Lipka elected free agency after 2016 and has played for two other organizations. The Braves didn’t exactly manage their first round assets too well in 2010.

Hindsight Selection – J.T. Realmuto, SS (Carl Albert HS – Midwest City, OK)

What if I told you the Braves had an outside chance at drafting both Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto? It was one of a myriad of possibilities. Atlanta sacrificed the No. 20 pick to Boston as compensation for signing free agent Billy Wagner. That precluded the team from taking Yelich, who went No. 23 to Miami. Realmuto, a shortstop who’d move to catcher, went much later. The Marlins nabbed him in the third round (104th overall). In the wake of the Marlins’ latest teardown, it’s even more fascinating to think what Yelich and Realmuto would look like in a Braves uniform.

2011

Selected No.  28 – Sean Gilmartin, LHP (Florida State University – Tallahassee, FL)

The Braves took another college arm, hoping Gilmartin could reach the big leagues expeditiously and contribute to the rotation. Of course, that did not happen. Gilmartin stalled out in Triple-A and was a Rule 5 pick by the Twins in the winter of 2013. He’s pitched in three organizations since and reached the big leagues as a reliever with the Mets.

Hindsight Selection – Mookie Betts, SS (John Overton HS – Brentwood, TN)

Considering Betts lasted until Boston’s fifth-round selection (172nd overall), many clubs missed time and again on adding one of the game’s true young superstars. Betts moved to the outfield and has become one of the best all-around talents in baseball. That’s some serious fifth round value for the Red Sox.

2012

Selected No.  21 – Lucas Sims, RHP (Brookwood HS – Snellville, GA)

Sims reached the majors last season, but has yet to carve out a fulltime spot in the rotation or the bullpen. He has a good fastball, but has not be able to find the consistency

Hindsight Selection – Marcus Stroman, RHP (Duke University – Durham, NC)

Toronto took Stroman immediately after the Braves selected Sims. The college righty joined the big league rotation in 2014 and has been Toronto’s most reliable pitcher over the past few seasons. Though he’s hit some rough sledding in 2018, Stroman was an excellent draft choice by the Jays.

2013

Selected No.  31 – Jason Hursh, RHP (Oklahoma State University – Stillwater, OK)

This may well be the pick that inspired this entire retrospective. Jason Hursh was another college arm, which the Braves dabbled in quite a few times with their early picks during the Frank Wren administration. Hursh, while still on the 40-man roster as of this writing, transitioned to reliever and has yet to find any major league success to speak of.

Hindsight Selection – Aaron Judge, OF (California State University Fresno – Fresno, CA)

There’s no way around the hindsight that’s built into the Hursh pick when you consider who the Yankees selected immediately afterward. New York took slugging outfielder Aaron Judge with the 32nd overall pick in the draft. College bats have never been Atlanta’s preference, so there’s virtually no chance that Judge was on Atlanta’s short list, but the fact that he’s gone on to post MVP level production as one of the biggest sluggers both literally and figuratively in the game makes Judge the one that got away.

2014

Selected No. 32 – Braxton Davidson, OF (T. C. Roberson HS – Asheville, NC)

The Braves were hoping they’d found a selective prep hitter who’d grow into some power as he developed in the minor leagues. Unfortunately, Davidson’s development has stalled as he spends a third season in High-A and his strikeout rate continues to climb. Davidson’s days in the organization appear numbered if he’s unable to turn things around soon.

Hindsight Selection – Rhys Hoskins, 1B (California State University Sacramento – Sacramento, CA)

The majority of the 2014 draft class is still in the minor leagues, but Hoskins exploded onto the scene with a historic home run barrage for the Phillies last season. He was a fifth round selection (142nd overall), but advanced through the minors quickly to become a force in the Philadelphia lineup.