McAuley: Midseason Top 30 Braves Prospects (21-30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Braves By The Numbers Through 81 Games

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

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

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

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

Some statistical trends through 81 games:

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

“Business is about to pick up…”

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

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

 

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

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

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

Braves have a brand new All-Star representative…

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

Freeman on rehab assignment, could return this week…

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

Sean Rodriguez sees his first game action…

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

Highly-touted Kevin Maitan makes long-awaited debut…

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

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

Could Braves Move Freddie Freeman to Third Base?

ATLANTA — With Matt Adams slugging in the absence of Freddie Freeman, the Atlanta Braves are apparently mulling a major change on the infield. The team is considering trying Freeman at third base upon his return from a broken wrist in order to keep both he and Adams in the lineup.

It’s a move that Freeman himself initiated.

“A couple weeks ago I mentioned it and said I’d be willing to move over to third base to accommodate Matt,” said Freeman following an early afternoon fielding session at third base with Ron Washington on Wednesday. “I’m completely on board with it. I want to do it. We’ve got to keep Matt’s bat in the lineup and I’ll do anything to win.”

The initial reaction to this concept is varied, but Atlanta is apparently willing to put everything on the table in an attempt to keep Adams’ power bat in the lineup when Freeman returns. Just how far this experiment goes remains to be seen, but the fact the wheels are already in motion seems to speak volumes about how much better the club believes it can be by finding a way to put both sluggers in the lineup every day.

While it’s commonplace for players to switch positions over the course of a career, it’s the timing which sticks out in this case. It seems a curious path to take with an established first baseman of Freeman’s stature, especially given that he will be coming back from a significant injury in the middle of the season.

Manager Brian Snitker did not expect this turn of events, but you can count him among those impressed with the selflessness of  Freeman’s offer.

“Says a lot about him, that your best player wants to do anything he can to help make this club better. I think it’s pretty cool,” said Snitker. “He’s way into this too. That’s the thing. He was talking about doing it and he even mentioned it before I think it really became serious. When Matt came over and what he’s doing, [Freeman] sees what that can do to this club, what it does to our lineup if he does this.”

Freeman is a two-time All-Star and was among the top three hitters in baseball prior to his injury on May 17. The initial timetable called for an 8-10 week recovery from the fractured left wrist he suffered when he was hit by a pitch from Toronto’s Aaron Loup. That would put him back on or around Aug. 1.

After having his wrist in a cast for four weeks, Freeman had it removed on schedule last week and began throwing on Monday. The first order of business will be recovering both strength and range of motion in the wrist. He is set for a CT scan on Friday and could be cleared to hit if that comes back clean. Freeman will be ramping up baseball activities over the coming weeks and was already taking grounders at third on Wednesday at SunTrust Park.

At the time of the injury, Freeman was slashing .341/.461/.748 and leading the National League with 14 home runs. General manager John Coppolella acted quickly to snag Adams from the Cardinals, where the five-year veteran had been relegated to pinch-hit duty. Adams did not cost the the Braves much in the prospect department and is under team control for 2018 as well.

It would be an understatement to say that Adams has far exceeded expectations in his time with the Braves. He’s slashing .296/.349/.635 with 10 home runs in 29 games. After slimming down some 30 pounds over the winter, it appears Adams may be in the midst of a career renaissance at age 28. At the very least, his hot streak has opened eyes in Atlanta.

Despite an improved physique, Adams did not take well to left field in a brief trial with St. Louis. Granted, he was not given much time to get acclimated with the new position, which he only started playing toward the end of spring training. The Braves could revisit the idea, but with corner outfielders Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis already entrenched it presents its own set of problems.

While both Freeman and Adams are better suited playing first base, Adams’ limited versatility led the Braves to do some serious outside-the-box thinking with their franchise player. Freeman appears to have been the impetus for this possible change.

“I’m going to travel with the team to San Diego and Oakland to work with Wash every single day,” said Freeman. “Everybody knows me, so do the rehab people. They’re going to try to force me to go slow, but I’ve been getting cleared of things the last few days that weren’t supposed to be cleared for a couple weeks. So, I’m pretty much ahead of schedule right now. I feel good. My bone doesn’t hurt at all, so it’s just getting the okay from the doctor on Friday.”

If things go well, Freeman is confident that his timetable could be sped up and include a return well ahead of schedule.

“I’m going to push the envelope like I always do,” joked Freeman. “With the All-Star break in a couple of weeks, everybody is talking about the first game, July 14, being my first game back, but I’m going to everything I can to get back for that Washington series (July 7-9).”

It’s worth noting a potential move across the diamond for Freeman would be an unorthodox position switch. Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera did so in 2012, but he had previous experience at the hot corner during the early part of his career. Chipper Jones moved to third base upon reaching the big leagues full time with Atlanta in 1995, but his shortstop background made it a much more natural conversion. Jones moved to left field in 2002, but that was viewed as something done out of necessity. He willingly swapped positions to allow the club to install Vinny Castilla at third base. However, that was a move that proved challenging and ultimately led Jones back to third base midway through 2004.

Jones has already voiced his support of Freeman’s willingness to give third base a try:

Freeman’s desire to put the team first and try a new position is certainly refreshing. He and Jones have already discussed the challenges ahead when it comes to learning the ins and outs of a new position.

“He just told me it’s going to be tough to do, ” Freeman said of his talk with Jones about moving to third. “I understand that. I haven’t played there in 10 years, but when you want to win you’ll do anything to win. Obviously Chipper was that kind of guy too. I’ve never put myself first. This is another thing for me. I want to win and get back to the playoffs. It’s been since 2013, so if me moving to third base to keep a bat like Matt Adams in the lineup is the best choice then I’m going to do it.”

Atlanta will have to monitor Freeman’s progress as it debates the merits of this potential switch. Freeman played some third base in his high school career and appeared in five games there with the GCL Braves in 2007, committing three errors in 14 chances. While those stats mean next to nothing at this point, it’s fair to question the likelihood of a smooth transition to third base after a decade-long break from the position.

That fact and the questions that come with it are not lost on Freeman.

“I think if I can do the little things correctly then everything else will fall in,” said Freeman of the value of the extra work he’ll put in with Washington over the next few week. “I’m obviously not going to go out there and make the spectacular plays. I don’t expect that. Maybe I’ll surprise some people, but I just want to be comfortable and confident over there going into the first game… I feel confident in myself that I can be able to handle it.”

Whether or not he should be handling the transition at this time is an interesting question, given that he is attempting to return from a significant injury in the middle of the season. It’s apparent that Freeman believes this is the best course of action for the team.

“My mindset is coming back as a third baseman,” said Freeman. “First base mitt is getting tucked away in the back of my locker. I’ve got an infielder’s glove and getting more sent to me. My mind is 100 percent on third base.”

Adams has been a tremendous boost to a Braves lineup that was in need of all the help it could get when Freeman went down. That one month of production appears to have warranted moving the franchise cornerstone from one corner to the other, though there is still ample time for the team to decide the best course of action.

For now, the Braves will wait and watch as Freeman goes through the process of becoming perhaps the most unlikely third baseman in franchise history.

 

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

Braves Select Kyle Wright, Drew Waters in Draft

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves added another big time arm to their stable on Monday, selecting Vanderbilt right-hander Kyle Wright with the No. 5 overall pick in the first round of the 2017 Major League Baseball draft.

The team followed that up with the selection of switch-hitting, high school outfielder Drew Waters, a local product, with the 41st pick.

Wright, 21, is a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder out of Huntsville, Ala. He was a first team All-SEC selection after turning in a 5-6 record with a 3.40 ERA in 103.1 IP as a junior for the Commodores. He finished his college career 19-11 with a 2.79 ERA with 86 walks and 290 strikeouts and just nine home runs allowed in 255 IP.

As far as the scouring report, Wright boasts a low-to-mid-90s fastball that has touched 97 mph and backs that up with a curveball that has received high marks along with a slider and a changeup he continues to develop. Atlanta sees Wright as an arm who could ride a faster track that some of the recent prep picks. It’s worth noting, however, that some of those younger arms have been aggressively promoted and seen success of late, including Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, who are both just 19 years old and already pitching at Double-A this season.

The Braves have gone pitching heavy at the top of the draft in recent years. Scouting director Brian Bridges said the selection of Wright not only gave the club the player they wanted, but the best player available in the entire draft class.

“We are very fortunate to get Kyle Wright from Vanderbilt,” said Bridges. “He’s a horse and features four pitches, plus-fastball, plus-curveball, plus-slider, has feel for a changeup and great command.”

Wright was seen a potential No. 1 overall pick and rated the No. 2 prospect by Baseball America and the No. 3 draft prospect according to MLB.com.

“We had heard a little talk… that we had a chance of getting him,” said Bridges, who was skeptical up and until the time they selected Wright. “It’s far-fetched when you get the guy who’s still on the board, but shouldn’t be on the board. He’s advanced for his age and he brings everything we want to see. You know, there’s 29 other clubs and dependent upon which way they wanted to go, we felt like he was definitely up there, No. 1 on our board at the time, so we feel really good about where we are.”

Like many draftees before him, Wright admitted his affinity for the Braves growing up, which is not surprising given his Alabama roots.

“Me and my brothers grew up being the biggest fans of the Braves so it really could not be any more of a special or prouder moment for me right now,” said Wright. “I’m just very thankful for everyone who believed in me and proud to be a part of this great organization.”

Before Atlanta’s picked Wright, the Twins opened the night by selecting high school outfielder Royce Lewis with the No. 1 overall pick. The Reds followed by selecting fellow prep star Hunter Greene, a two-way star who will begin his professional career on the mound. The Padres then took prep left-hander MacKenzie Gore at No. 3, setting the Rays up to select Louisville first baseman Brendan McKay with the fourth overall pick.

The first day of the draft was not over for the Braves, who selected Waters out of nearby Etowah HS in Woodstock, Ga. with the No. 41 pick. A switch-hitter with speed, Waters impressed team officials during two private workouts at SunTrust Park, where he flashed some power that piqued the club’s interest.

Waters, 18, is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound switch hitter who batted .510 with 15 home runs in 104 AB for Etowah in his senior season. Those exploits helped the Eagles capture the first 7-A state title in school history. He was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Georgia and had committed to the University of Georgia.

“He played on our scout ball team in Jupiter [Fla.] and Fred McGriff had a chance to manage him and really said this kid has some intangibles that some other kids don’t,” said Bridges. “He really believes in his ability, really believes in who he is. He wants to be at the plate in big situations. He has a lot of confidence in himself and a lot of confidence in his ability.”

Bridges added that there was some discussion that Waters could’ve been an option with the No. 5 overall pick. As it turns out, the club got two players it coveted in Wright and Waters.

With its first two selections made, Atlanta has 38 more rounds to complete its 2017 draft class. There has been a focus on arms in the early going over the past few years, but Waters represents a quality position player making an early entry onto the Braves draft board. Rather than simply drafting for perceived needs going forward, the club will stick with the same strategy it has in recent years when it comes to deciding between arms and bats.

“We’re not scripting it out,” said Bridges. “We’re just trying to go with the best available player from here on out.”

The 2017 First-Year Player Draft continues on Tuesday with Rounds 3-10, then concludes on Wednesday with Rounds 11-40.

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

Newcomb Shines in Debut, What’s Next for Braves Rookie?

The Atlanta Braves turned to a young gun to help fill a gap in their starting rotation. Highly-touted left-hander Sean Newcomb took the ball in Game 1 of Saturday’s double header against the New York Mets and made his much anticipated major league debut.

The results did not disappoint.

Newcomb turned in a strong line: 6 1/3 innings pitched, 4 hits , 1 run, 0 earned runs, 2 walks, 7 strikeouts  (96 pitches/70 strikes).

He opened his career in fine fashion, using his breaking ball to great effect to notch his first strikeout in short order.

Newcomb, who turns 24 years old on Monday, became the first Braves player to make his major league debut at SunTrust Park and continued the success that he’s enjoyed at the Triple-A level so far this season. Fan expectation ranged from pure euphoria to cautiously optimistic, but there weren’t too many complaints to be had with the southpaw’s outing. He pounded the strike zone to great results, issuing just one unintentional walk. Outside of a throwing error that led to an unearned run in the second inning, Newcomb enjoyed just about everything about his first day on the job at SunTrust Park.

A big, projectable lefty with electric stuff, Newcomb has carved up minor league batters for a career mark of 10.7 K/9, but that comes with a hefty 4.8 BB/9. On the plus side, opponents have managed to hit just .215 with only 14 home runs against Newcomb in 348 innings over his 71 career starts.

And he entered his major league debut on a serious roll. One that dated back to last season.

Coming into the season, Newcomb ranked No. 4 on my Top 30 Braves Prospects for 2017. The ability to pile up strikeouts is his calling card and his arsenal includes a mid-90s fastball to go along with a dynamic curveball that generates plenty of swings and misses.

Take a look at that hook.

In his 11 starts in the International League, Newcomb picked up where he left off in Double-A during the second half of 2016. He is 3-3 with a 2.97 ERA with 33BB and 74K in 57.2 IP –  good for a career-best 11.5 K/9, but a career-high 5.2 BB/9. He’s done all of that while allowing just three homers and limiting opponents to a .215 batting average. It’s front of the rotation stuff with room to grow and a few rough edges to smooth out.

Here’s the complete scouting report from my aforementioned Top 30 Braves Prospects List:

As the big return for shipping the popular Andrelton Simmons to Los Angeles, Sean Newcomb has faced high expectations since the day he joined the Atlanta system. The big left-hander has front of the rotation stuff, but refining his command is the big hurdle. The Angels took Newcomb with the 15th overall selection in the 2014 draft out of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. At 6’5” and 255 lbs., Newcomb has drawn comparison to Cubs ace Jon Lester throughout his minor league career. A glance at the size, stuff and throwing motion confirm that observation. After just one full season in the Los Angeles system and a trip the Futures Game in 2015, Newcomb switched organizations. He finished his first season with the Braves with an 8-7 record to go along with a 3.86 ERA and led the Southern League (and all Double-A pitchers) with 152 strikeouts, a total that tied him for second in the organization. Newcomb’s fastball is typically in the low-mid 90s, but he can easily push it to 97 mph, with reports he has touched triple digits over the past two seasons. His curveball is a plus pitch and generates plenty of swings and misses. The changeup is adequate and provides the necessary variety to be a useful third pitch.

The organization was encouraged with the way Newcomb finished his 2016 campaign with Mississippi, where he posted a 2.70 ERA with 23BB/69K and a .497 opponents’ OPS in 56.2 IP over his final 10 starts. When the Braves traded for Newcomb, he was at the forefront of the rebuilding effort and the first of many top arms added to the system. Now 23, he is the oldest of Atlanta’s top pitching prospects, but is still a work in progress in some respects. That’s not to say he is old by any stretch of the imagination. Though he will get a cursory look this spring as the Braves evaluate all their in-house rotation options for 2017, Newcomb appears bound for Gwinnett to open the season. If he picks up where he left off in 2016, he could be pitching in Atlanta before the summer is over.

With the double header coinciding with an injury to the struggling Bartolo Colon, the Braves will get their first look at an arm they hope will be a big part of their rotation in the future. Now with one stellar start under his belt, the club will have to decide if  this is a temporary promotion for Newcomb or if he’ll be given the opportunity to stick around and pitch his way into its plans for the remainder of the season. It’s worth noting that he was added to the 25-man roster, while Matt Wisler was utilized as Atlanta’s 26th man for the twin bill. That seems to be an indication that Newcomb is in line for an encore after a successful debut.

If he lives up to the scouting report, Newcomb will miss plenty of bats, but will also issue his fair share of free passes. His ability to strike a balance between those categories will be the key to his success, both immediate and long term. He did just that on Saturday, his first step into a larger world.

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

Colon Placed on DL, Spot in Braves Rotation in Question

It’s safe to say that the Atlanta Braves have a big decision to make in their starting rotation. Any resolution was put on hold on Tuesday as the club placed veteran right-hander Bartolo Colon on the 10-day disabled list with the left oblique strain. A move that felt oddly more like a stay of execution than respite for an ailing, struggling player.

“I kind of feel there’s something going on that’s not allowing him to perform the way he’s capable of,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “We figure it’s good to back off the stress and try to get him right. We’ll take 10 days and hopefully everything clears up to where he can start doing what he’s capable of doing.”

At the very least, this DL stint is an unusual development in a situation that has been trending in the wrong direction for the better part of two months.

After an inauspicious April, Colon suffered through a dismal May. But it was his first start in the month of June which left many wondering when and not if the team will remove him from the starting five. The tipping point I speak of may have arrived in the wake of Colon’s Monday outing, when the Phillies tallied eight earned runs and chased the veteran right-hander in the fourth inning. Colon found himself on the disabled list the following day with Snitker hoping that the break will help the 20-year vet both physically and mentally.

“He’s been getting treatment for a while,” said Snitker. “But I think at some point sometimes you have to make a decision to protect a player from himself a little bit to get back healthy and back off the throttle a little bit. Hopefully the plan is to skip a start or two and try to get right, just get back healthy. Sometimes those guys that have been around longer, you know they’re such warriors that they have little things going on and they don’t want to  back off.”

The Braves invested $12.5 million in Colon this season and appear to have already reached the point of diminishing returns just 12 starts into the deal. With an ERA approaching 8.00 through 12 starts, Colon has proven largely ineffective with Atlanta. Following six innings of one-run ball against the New York Mets in his Braves debut, Colon has turned in just one other quality start in his last 11 assignments. That one came way back on April 16 against the Padres.

Colon, who turned 44 last month, has allowed 24 runs (17 earned) over his last 11 innings, culminating in his third consecutive losing decision on Monday. Following the game, manager Brian Snitker would not indicate whether or not Colon will make his next start, which is scheduled to come on Saturday as part of a double header against the Mets. The fact the club needs two starting pitchers that day may be the only thing that affords the veteran righty another chance.

With several young arms in the minors at their disposal, the Braves will have to choose a replacement for Colon and will be in need of at least two arms to pitch in Saturday’s twin bill against New York. As previously mentioned, both Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair remain on the 40-man roster and have big league time, while Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims represent the next wave of higher ceiling arms yet to crack the majors. All four men are currently pitching in Triple-A Gwinnett. Calling on Newcomb or Sims carries more weight, given the developmental needs of both pitchers and the fact that they will likely have some struggles when they are called upon.

Snitker added that Atlanta will not accelerate the timetable for right-hander Kris Medlen, who returned to the organization over the winter and is trying to work his way back to the major leagues after suffering a shoulder injury last season while with Kansas City. Medlen, 31, debuted in mid-May, but has made just four minor league starts and has yet to throw 100 pitches in any of those. General manager John Coppolella indicated at the time of the signing that the team was eyeing the All-Star break as an initial timetable for Medlen’s return if all goes well.

“I think Med would’ve been a good option, but he’s not there yet,” said Snitker. “I don’t think it would be fair to him until his workload gets a little more substantial. He would be a guy you’d be real comfortable with because he knows how to navigate around a lineup and all, but I don’t think at this point in time, as far as he’s come and as good as he’s doing, we really don’t want to do that to him yet. I think three weeks from now would probably be a different story, but right now it’s just a little too early in his workload that he’s had so far to think that [Medlen] would be an option.”

Despite the dreadful results, the team seems committed to giving Colon another opportunity once healthy. It was unlikely the team would simply cut ties with Colon, hoping to avoid paying Colon to pitch for another team should he find a way to turn things around.

Whether or not Colon finds a way to remain in the Braves rotation upon his return remains to be seen.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can hear his show, “Around The Big Leagues” on Saturday mornings from 9-11 a.m. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

Thoughts on Bartolo’s bad night in Anaheim

The Atlanta Braves had an inning of embarrassing proportions on Tuesday night. It included three errors and a handful of other mistakes that paved the way for the Los Angeles Angels to score nine runs off veteran right-hander Bartolo Colon en route to a 9-3 victory.

On this particular night, the finger can’t simply be pointed at Colon’s struggles. While he has been the culprit on several occasions this season, the defense most definitely let him down against the Angels. That aside, for whatever reason, Colon simply has not pitched up to expectation so far this season. His 6.99 ERA is the worst among all qualified starters baseball. He leads the majors in runs allowed (52), earned runs (43) and opponents’ batting average (.325) all while averaging his most walks per 9 innings (2.4) and home runs per 9 innings (2.4) since 2009.

There is some obvious frustration built into Colon’s woes. At 44 years old, it was reasonable to expect some degree of regression every season for a while now. Somehow, he’d managed to reinvent himself as an ageless wonder of sorts, one that survived primarily on his fastball location. While Colon has always allowed his fair share of hits, his control and command have both been lacking this season. That has led to an average of just five innings per start (4.1 IP on average in his six May assignments) for a pitcher who was expected to provide durability, consistency and quality starts to the Atlanta rotation.

While Tuesday’s outing was hard to watch for a number of reasons, it’s unfair to pin it all on Colon when playing the blame game. After all, he could have been out of that third inning unscathed on just seven pitches had Jace Peterson been able to start a double play on Kole Calhoun’s ground ball to second. That miscue triggered a landslide on a night it appeared Colon may be trending in the right direction. Now, it’s harder to tell exactly what can be gathered in the wake of that disastrous nine-run frame.

Manager Brian Snitker indicated that Colon will make his next scheduled start, but the club may find itself reaching a tipping point over the next few weeks when it comes to that spot in rotation. A short term move to the bullpen or perhaps something more drastic could be discussed. The Braves still feel that they’re not there yet.

“So, just how long is the leash?”

That’s question people have been asking.

With two months’ worth of results to draw on, perhaps the big righty is finally hitting the proverbial wall that all pitchers do in the twilight of their careers. Atlanta made a $12.5 million investment in Colon, who has made just 11 starts in a Braves uniform. The results have not been pretty and the days of citing a small sample size will soon be at an end. It’s the crossroads between projections and indications.

If Colon is done, then where to from here?

Atlanta has two young starters with big league experience and two viable prospect options at the Triple-A level as well. Matt Wisler, who is currently operating as the long man in the Atlanta pen, could be pressed into action as a starter. Aaron Blair remains on the 40-man roster and would probably be in line for an opportunity as well if he can string together some good outings for Gwinnett.

The two prospects who have increased their stock in 2017 are right-hander Lucas Sims (4-3, 3.54 ERA) and left-hander Sean Newcomb (3-2, 2.96 ERA). Both have been among the International League leaders in strikeouts and ERA through 10 starts this season and both could be ready to take the next step. As the calendar turns to June,  Sims and/or Newcomb should garner consideration to join the big league rotation for the first time.

The emergence of new blood in Atlanta’s starting five appears for now tied to the future of Colon. While there’s also been a fan trend of reflexively lumping Colon and fellow over-40-starter R.A. Dickey together, it’s fair to say that the knuckleballer has more or less been what was expected. Despite a couple of bad starts, Dickey has filled the role of innings-eater and provided a necessary veteran influence that had been lacking in recent years.

Is that X factor enough to maintain a place in rotation if his production does not warrant it?

See the above dissection of Colon, Bartolo.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can hear his show, “Around The Big Leagues” on Saturday mornings from 9-11 a.m. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Braves’ Addition of Matt Adams Could Be Crucial

ATLANTA — There is no contingency plan to replace a superstar. But that’s exactly what the Atlanta Braves have been tasked with after losing All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman to a broken wrist on May 17.

Enter Matt Adams.

Acting quickly, Atlanta general manager John Coppolella found a trade partner and brokered a deal to acquire a lefty-hitting slugger to help offset the loss of Freeman, who is expected to miss 10 weeks. And he did it at very little cost within 48 hours of his club’s biggest setback of the season.

While no one is expecting Adams to post the kind of gaudy numbers that were beginning to make Freeman a household name in baseball circles, the early returns have been encouraging.

“We had a chance to get a player like Matt Adams and we feel like that’s a way to help make us a better club for right now,” Coppolella said. “He’s somebody who can play first base. He’s also played left field. He’s a good bat off the bench and he will help us even when Freddie Freeman comes back.”

Adams, who turns 29 later this summer, slugged a pair of home runs and also provided a game-winning hit in a pair of wins over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The home runs, both moonshots, were a reminder of the prodigious power Adams possesses. That could come in handy over the next two months.

While it will not be easy for Atlanta to go without its star slugger in Freeman, adding a power source like Adams could lessen the burden on middle-of-the-lineup bats like Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis. In addition to the loss of production in the lineup, the mental toll on a team that loses its best player cannot go overlooked.

That’s where Adams’ arrival is already paying immediate dividends.

“It does a lot for that clubhouse in there and it didn’t take long either,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “They pulled that off and my hat’s off to [the front office] because that sends a really good message to those guys in there that we’re serious about what we’re doing. Getting Matt, I don’t know how we could’ve done any better.”

The Cardinals had relegated Adams to a bench role, limiting him to just 48 at-bats over 31 games this season. Given his age and a .272/.316/.458 career slash line that includes 58 home runs among his 147 extra-base hits in 1,442 at-bats, it would appear the Braves found a useful piece essentially going unused by his former team.

“It’s a change, but it’s a great place to come be a part of,” Adams said of the trade that brought him to Atlanta. “Great organization, great players and a lot of guys who want to go out there and win. I’m happy to be a part of it for sure.”

Replacing Freeman will be no easy task. He was third in all of MLB behind Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in wins above replacement and ranked at or near the top in most offensive categories.

“They know I’m not trying to come in here and be Freddie,” Adams added. “That’s not who I am. I’ve just got to be myself and just out there and play. I’m just excited to have the opportunity and I’m just going to try to run with it.”

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can hear his show, “Around The Big Leagues” on Saturday mornings from 9-11 a.m. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

Braves’ Swanson Unfazed By Slow Start

ATLANTA —  After two years of waiting, the Atlanta Braves began a new chapter in franchise history by moving into a new home on Friday. While they have added countless shiny things in and around SunTrust Park, the club hopes it has already installed one permanent fixture in the lineup.

Rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson was promoted from Double-A last August and embarks on his first full season in the big leagues. As the team faltered on a long road trip to open the season, Swanson found hits few and far between in the early going. He was not alone.

“It was tough,” said Swanson. “I mean you really think about the pitchers we were facing and some of the travel accommodations. We were getting in late and having to play early games. It was a tough start to the year, but we were in every game”

Indeed, the Braves had their chances. They dropped a pair of one-run games in Pittsburgh, which proved to be the difference in a Pirates’ sweep and denied Atlanta a chance to come home off a .500 road trip. Instead, the team stumbled to a 2-6 start.

“When you look at wins and losses, that doesn’t really sum it up,” Swanson said of the eight-game swing through three cities. “There were plenty of games where we were one play away from winning a game, or we were one swing of the bat away from being back in a game or tying the game up or taking a lead. So, we feel confident with where we’re at and warm weather definitely helps us get into that routine a little bit.”

The team is finally home and ready to discover if its new park will be more hitter-friendly than Turner Field. Swanson, who grew up in nearby Marietta, could certainly use a little home cooking right now.

While he has hit safely in six of the team’s first nine contests, Swanson has yet to enjoy a multi-hit game and finds himself batting just .150 over 40 plate appearances. His ground ball rate has fallen, while his fly ball rate has risen sharply from his 2016 totals. Swanson’s strikeout percentage remains on par with what it was last season (23%), but his walk rate (4.8%) is half what it was in 2016. While all of this could be dismissed as a small sample size, which it most certainly is, these numbers are worth monitoring to assess what could be new trends.

Casting all of those rate-based stats aside, Swanson hasn’t had much luck as defined by his batting average on balls put in play. After posting a healthy .383 BABIP in his 129 at-bats last year, it’s a paltry .172 so far this year. That will begin to rise and normalize as he continues to gain plate appearances and make regular contact. That’s just something else to keep in mind about the course corrections that typically occur during a 162 game season. Sometimes it’s actually better to be lucky than good.

Despite the struggles, Swanson remains steadfast in his everyday routine and the work that comes with it to get him where he needs to be. He maintains a cool, confident demeanor as he goes about his daily activities.

“I actually feel really good and I’m actually in a really good place mentally,” said Swanson said of his approach at the plate. “It’s just baseball right now and I’m just fine-tuning some things. Also, I’m just trying to make sure I’m doing what I do best and that’s to go up there with a confident mindset each time. [Results] haven’t happened yet, but I definitely have faith it’s going to.”

Both Swanson and Ender Inciarte were having some trouble setting the table over the first half dozen games. To make matters worse, the team had to place red-hot clean-up man Matt Kemp on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. Inciarte has heated up of late and Kemp is nearing a return. Add those developments to a productive Freddie Freeman and you may see the Atlanta lineup start clicking next week.

As for the new ballpark, Swanson is already enjoying how close it is to the place he grew up and the people he’s known for most of his life. With a more intimate fan experience trumpeted as an integral part of the design of SunTrust Park, Swanson believes it will allow the fans to help fuel the team on a daily basis.

“This place is great,” he said. “Just having the support of the city, you can feel the vibe. That’s the thing that I feel like I’ve said the most, but it’s so true. You just feel the atmosphere and the vibe that’s going on. It’s pretty neat.”

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can hear his show, “Around The Big Leagues” on Saturday mornings from 9-11 a.m. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

Braves Set 2017 Opening Day Roster

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves announced their 25-man roster to open the 2017 season on Sunday.

Catchers (3) – Tyler Flowers, Anthony Recker, Kurt Suzuki

Infielders (6) – Chase d’Arnaud, Freddie Freeman, Adonis Garcia, Jace Peterson, Brandon Phillips, Dansby Swanson,

Outfielders (4) – Emilio Bonifacio, Ender Inciarte, Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis

Pitchers (12) – Josh Collmenter, Bartolo Colón, R.A. Dickey, Mike Foltynewicz, Jaime García, Jim Johnson, Ian Krol, Eric O’Flaherty, Jose Ramirez, Chaz Roe, Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaíno

In addition, Atlanta has placed pitchers Mauricio Cabrera, Armando Rivero and Dan Winkler along with infielder Micah Johnson on the 10-day disabled list to start the season, all retroactive to March 30. Infielder Sean Rodriguez and pitcher Jacob Lindgren were placed on the 60-day disabled list.

After a long spring in which they toyed with the idea of an eight-man bullpen, the Braves eventually decided to carry three catchers and have the extra bat on the bench. That opened the door for Anthony Recker to make the team after being optioned to Triple-A two weeks ago.

Two veterans who came to camp as long shots both made the team. Infielder Emilio Bonifacio won a reserve spot with a solid showing, while lefty reliever Eric O’Flaherty appears to have turned back the clock following an elbow procedure over the winter. His effective spring won him a place in the Atlanta bullpen.

Rounding out those seven men, Chaz Roe got the nod over recent signee David Hernandez, who will begin the season with Gwinnett. Atlanta has three off days over the first two weeks of the season, after which time the Braves could revisit the idea of adding an eighth reliever. The team will continue to monitor available options and explore trades that could help strengthen this group.

Dansby Swanson is the lone rookie on the Opening Day roster. Third baseman Rio Ruiz was among the final cuts and was optioned to Triple-A, but he has impressed the organization with his work ethic and improved conditioning each of the last two springs. Ruiz stands to be among the first young players who could reach Atlanta this summer.

The Braves will meet the New York Mets for a three-game series at Citi Field to begin the season. Julio Teheran will face Noah Syndergaard on Monday afternoon (1:10 p.m.).

Following an off day, Bartolo Colon will face Jacob deGrom on Wednesday (7:10 p.m.) and then Jaime Garcia will oppose Matt Harvey in the series finale on Thursday (7:10 p.m.). Atlanta will play three games against the Pittsburgh Pirates and two against the Miami Marlins before returning home to officially open SunTrust Park against the San Diego Padres on Friday, April 14, at 7:35 p.m.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can hear his show, “Around The Big Leagues” on Saturday mornings from 9-11 a.m. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.