Why The Braves Shouldn’t Promote Their Top Prospects

With the 2016 Braves continuing to struggle, the fans are looking towards the future. They await the new season, they await the new SunTrust Park, and, more eagerly (or should I say impatiently), they await the arrival of the Braves’ two top prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies.

The argument for promoting these two ballplayers is based on sound logic. The current team is historically bad. The two players appear to almost be major league ready. Why not let the fans get a sneak peak at what all this struggling is leading towards and improve the current team at the same time?

I can understand why many fans feel this way, and the side of me that is a fan is fully onboard with them. Dansby Swanson is currently batting .313 with 4 homers, 21 RBIs, and 9 stolen bases down in the minors so far, and meanwhile Ozzie Albies is already in Triple-A Gwinnett as a 19 year old (over 5 years younger than the average player at that level ) and is batting .312 with 3 homers and 2 triples across two levels this season. They certainly are not far away from being able to produce at the big league level.

So why shouldn’t the Atlanta Braves’ front office promote their top prospects?

The answer is actually rather simple…

Service time

Major league service time is a tricky, frustrating, confusing part of professional baseball that should be adjusted in the future. But for now, I can best explain the concept as so: when a player is called up it begins their service time clock and once a player has elapsed 6 years of major league service time, they then qualify for free agency.

You’ll see front offices manipulating the service time rules in their favor every season, delaying prospects who are likely prepared for the big leagues and waiting to call them up so that will extend their time with the club.

The current system is not fair to the players and casts a negative light on baseball front offices, even though it’s a necessary evil that they must cope with and use to their advantage as best they can (under the current rules).

Waiting until midway through the 2017 season will allow the Atlanta Braves to control their top prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies until after the 2023 season, instead of controlling them just through the 2022 season.

The difference of just one season may not seem like much on paper, but when you consider the Braves window to compete, it could be all the difference they need to make the delay worthwhile.

The 2017 Atlanta Braves will not be serious competitors with or without these two top prospects on the opening day roster. In fact, the Braves likely won’t be competing for the World Series again until at least 2019 or later, with most of their top prospects being several years away, including the potential arrival of this year’s upcoming international signings and draft picks, something that we profiled in much greater detail and depth here: “When Will The Atlanta Braves Compete Again?

So this extra time tacked onto their window of opportunity could prove to be the difference in the Braves winning it all in 2023…or potentially having Dansby Swanson and/or Ozzie Albies leave the team in free agency after the 2022 season.

The Braves front office will likely say that they are not going to hold the players back from making the jump to the big leagues, and that is exactly what they should say. However, the fans should not expect to see their much awaited middle infield tandem until midway through the 2017 season.

I understand this may cause slightly more pain in the now, Braves fans, but it will all be worth it when you have an entire extra season of watching these two future stars up the middle.

Have patience.

Early Season Observations: Atlanta Braves

The season is still young, but a lot has been going on within and around the Braves organization. This will be a quick rundown and update of what’s been going on at each level from Low-A Rome to the club in Atlanta, including personal observations and opinions on individual players and personnel. (Warning: a few small sample size hot takes incoming)

Atlanta Braves

The team is currently on a four game winning streak after painfully dropping their first nine. Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup appears to be taking shape and producing, while the defense is slowly making less mistakes as the players knock off some of the rust that may have still been there at the start of the season.

Nick Markakis has reached base in 26 straight games dating back to last season, and while he still has no home runs, the strength he lost (due to his neck surgery he underwent for a herniated disk in December of 2014) appears to have returned as he leads the majors with 9 doubles . I’d be shocked if Markakis was still a Brave come season’s end, and if he continues to produce as effectively as he has thus far, his stock will never be higher.

Freddie Freeman’s starting to heat up after a miserable start to the season (excluding the home run in his first at-bat). He is currently hitting .156, but is batting .250 over his last 7 games and looks to be feeling more and more comfortable at the plate.

Even though he has made some standard rookie errors and his batting average might not be pretty to look at, Mallex Smith has been putting some decent at-bats together since his call up, and I fully expect him to continue to learn and grow on the job. Hopefully when Ender Inciarte returns from his hamstring injury, Fredi Gonzalez will shift Mallex over to left field and let him play there. I am optimistic and excited about watching an outfield trio of Mallex Smith/Ender Inciarte/Nick Markakis for the majority of the season.

Gwinnett Braves

The Gwinnett Braves have, arguably, one of the weaker rosters across the organization. They lack top end offensive potential and do not have the wealth of exciting, young prospects on their roster that the other levels possess. The offense, in particular, took a big hit with the quick promotion of the speedy Mallex Smith , however that hasn’t stopped them from winning 10 of their first 13 games.

At third base, Gwinnett has Rio Ruiz, who arrived from Houston last offseason along with Mike Foltynewicz in exchange for Evan Gattis. Ruiz underwhelmed last season, but came into spring training in fantastic shape and with a re-tuned swing. The Braves rewarded his hard work by assigning Ruiz to Triple-A. So far, Ruiz has been crushing the ball, hitting .346 with 3 doubles, a triple, and a home run . If he continues his current run of form, I would not be surprised to see Rio get a late call up in September and potentially be on Atlanta’s Opening Day roster in 2017.

At the top of Gwinnett’s rotation are Aaron Blair, Mike Foltynewicz, and Tyrell Jenkins, three exciting arms who could be seeing time in Atlanta very soon. Blair has started the season on fire, posting a 1.42 ERA, with 3 wins, 22 strikeouts and 5 walks . Blair’s entire arsenal was working last night as he dominated the Durham Bulls to the tune of 7 innings of no hit ball, including 10 strikeouts and only a single walk on 87 pitches.

Mike Foltynewicz has also flashed some good signs for Braves fans early on. Over the course of his three starts, his pitches have shown the great life and velocity that have long made Folty one of the more intriguing arms in the system. He still lacks the control necessary to match his stuff as a potential top of the line starter, and until that shows up, Foltynewicz will never reach his full potential. I would expect to see starts from both Aaron Blair and Mike Foltynewicz for Atlanta here in the coming months.

Next up is Tyrell Jenkins. I’m actually currently watching Tyrell pitch against the Durham Bulls and he’s not having his best night. While Jenkins has tremendous apparent athleticism and good, not great, stuff, his lack of control is also seems to be his biggest weakness right now. While I am certainly no expert, it looks like Jenkins does not repeat his motion as well as one would like (at least he wasn’t tonight), causing him to occasionally miss his spots (this could be partially due to the new, lower leg kick the Braves have him trying out). The good news here is that, as I mentioned, Tyrell is a fantastic athlete and can continue to mold himself into the potential mid rotation starter the Braves hope he can be.

Mississippi Braves

The Double-A Mississippi squad for the Braves has not been getting the results they had been hoping for early on, they currently stand at 4-10 and lost 6-2 earlier today against the Chattanooga Lookouts.

The catalyst of this Mississippi team is star shortstop and Braves top 5 prospect Ozzie Albies. Albies’ promotion to Double-A shocked many experts who thought that he would benefit from some time at High-A Carolina. Instead, the Braves decided to send Albies (the youngest player in Double-A ) straight to Mississippi, and he has done nothing but deliver. After going 0-4 in the first game of the season, Ozzie has reached base in all thirteen games since and currently has a six game hitting streak. For the season, he is batting .357 with 2 doubles and 2 triples out of the leadoff spot. Quickly proving that maybe even Mississippi wasn’t aggressive enough, Braves fans should look for Albies to move to Gwinnett at some point during this season, positioning himself well for a 2017 call up to Atlanta.

The rotation for Mississippi contains two of my very favorite arms in the Braves system, Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims. I, unfortunately, have not had time to sit down and watch an entire Newcomb start from this season (I plan on doing so very soon) but from the stat lines and breakdowns online, Sean appears to have gotten off to a good start this season. He has had three starts and his ERA is sitting at 2.40 across 15 innings with 16 strikeouts . Like so many others in the Braves system, Newcomb’s control is the main thing that is holding him back, walking 10 batters thus far. He has a repeatable, easy motion that produces a great velocity, so the answer to his control woes is hard to decipher. Nevertheless, he currently is considered a top 3 prospect in the Braves system and all signs show him having a very bright future. Continuing to get his walks under control and missing bats will be the key for Newcomb to see some time in Gwinnett at some point in the season.

Lucas Sims, the former first round pick and Top 100 prospect, has really been ticking so far this season. Over his first three starts, Sims has produced an ERA of 1.84 over 14.2 innings with a whopping 26 strikeouts . I was able to watch Lucas Sims’ last start and in it, he looked incredibly promising, striking out 10, no earned runs, and walking only 3 over 5.2 innings. Sims curveball is the pitch that stood out the most to me, it has great movement and, more importantly, Sims can throw it for a strike. While Sims may not move as quickly as Newcomb through the system, a string of performances like this one should help move Sims back into the national spotlight.

Carolina Mudcats

The High-A Carolina Mudcats currently stand at 6-8, 3rd in the Southern Carolina League. The key players for Carolina are star shortstop Dansby Swanson, starting pitcher Max Povse, and former first round pick and outfielder Braxton Davidson.

The talents of the top prospect in the Braves system, Dansby Swanson, have been on full display so far for Carolina. Swanson is batting .333 with 8(!) doubles so far in the Carolina League , and the Kennesaw native is showing the the assignment may have been a little under aggressive for the 2015 first overall draft choice. I would predict that we will see Dansby move up to Mississippi at the same time Ozzie Albies moves up to Gwinnett. However, another possible scenario is for Dansby to skip over Mississippi completely and go straight to Gwinnett (an idea not so crazy given the Braves history of aggressive promotions). Either way, I would expect both Swanson and Albies to eventually team up with Ruiz in Gwinnett’s infield this season, or at the latest the start of the 2017 season. (Who will play shortstop and who will play second base is a different discussion).

Braxton Davidson has a very patient approach at the plate and has an advanced batting eye, however those skills have yet to translate to in-game success for Davidson this season, slashing a poor .185/.246/.241 . I do not expect to see Davidson move out of High-A Carolina this season, as he is still just 19 years old and it may take him a good chunk of the season to really catch up to the speed of the level.

Carolina’s standout performer, however, has been unheralded hurler Max Povse. After starting last season at Rome, Povse was promoted to Carolina where he struggled mightily, throwing 18 innings and allowing 19 earned runs . Understandably, the Braves felt he should repeat the level this season, and so far…wow. Povse has been dominate across his first two starts, throwing 13 innings and allowing no earned runs, earning him the honor of being on the season’s first MiLB.com Prospect of the Week Team . As I have yet to sit down and watch all of Povse starts (and some are not online due to playing in a stadium without MiLB cameras) I cannot add any personal notes on Max, besides the obvious “if he keeps this up, expect a call up to Mississippi in his not-so-distant future.”

Rome Braves

Last, but certainly not least, on our early season rundown is the Rome Braves. This team is my personal favorite amongst the Braves organization and I have been watching every game I can online, and plan to be in attendance this coming Saturday when Mike Soroka takes the mound. The Rome Braves are loaded on prospects. Loaded. From pitching to hitting, this team has no lack of representation on top prospect lists.

Ronald Acuna, profiled here , has been off to a decent start, hitting the ball well and showing off his strong wrists and lightning fast bat (.288 batting average so far through 13 games ). He has been playing a solid centerfield and batting leadoff for Rome, personally I would like to see him bat in the two hole, as I feel that’s his ideal lineup location, but I certainly won’t argue with the amount of at-bats the leadoff spot is getting him. Acuna, being one of the younger players in Low-A, will likely stick the entire year out in Rome, hopefully maturing and grooming his game for a potential promotion to Carolina next season.

Next up on Rome’s lineup is power-hitting third baseman Austin Riley. Riley has been off to an up and down start to his full season ball debut, hitting .231 with 7 doubles and a one homer (a deep blast pulled to left field). Riley appears to be manning the hot corner well defensively and definitely has a strong enough arm for the position. My concerns with Riley stem from his lack of contact, Riley already has struck out 21 times over his first 52 at-bats. In order to gain more faith in Austin and his obvious power potential, I will need to see him begin to make contact more regularly. Hopefully as the season wears on he will make the necessary adjustments.

A standout to me so far this season has been the play of catching prospect Lucas Herbert. Coming into the season, I didn’t know much about Herbert besides that which was written on him about his above-average defense and below-average bat. Lucas has surpassed my expectations, and then some. His bat has been better than I imagined, even though it is still a very, very long way away from being major league ready and I am not convinced it ever will be. I was watching the Rome game Lucas caught the other day, and his work behind the plate was impeccable. He was calm and poised behind the plate (something that particularly stood out in this game as he was catching the incredibly wild Touki Toussaint) with a great arm and pop time, a moment that stuck in my mind is, early in the game, when he made a great play: snapping a throw back to first and picking off the runner (he also, later, threw out another runner trying to steal second). I expect Herbert’s outstanding defending to move him throughout the minors (likely staying this entire season in Rome), hopefully the bat can improve enough to one day be playable at the major league level.

The Rome pitching staff has some of the highest upside in the entire system. Pitchers Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, and Mike Soroka have each notched a couple starts this season.

Touki Toussaint, the electrifying right hander who was drafted in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamond backs. Touki has started 2 games for Rome this season, the first was an average start for Toussaint, giving up 3 earned runs over 4 innings pitched with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts . However, in his second start, the wheels fell off, Touki walked 4 over 1.2 innings and gave up 5 earned runs, including a home run. Touki is a top prospect for one reason: potential. Touki easily throws a mid-90s fastball with a devastating curveball and also brings a decent change to the mound. Unfortunately for Touki and Braves fans is that he has yet to be able to keep his pitches in the strike zone. Watching Touki’s last start, there are moments where the top of the rotation potential is inescapable, because at times he pounds the zone and dominates a hitter, but other times a fastball can sail past the catcher to the backstop. Touki will spend all of 2016 in Rome where hopefully he can begin to control his pitches with more consistency.

Max Fried is a 6’4″ left handed pitcher who was taken seventh overall by the San Diego Padres in 2012. He arrived to the Braves as a part of the package for Justin Upton last offseason, however, he was recovering from Tommy John surgery and is now in the beginning of his first season in a Braves uniform. Fried’s first two starts were lights out as he tossed 5 innings, giving up 2 earned runs and striking out 4 in the first game, and throwing 6 scoreless with 7 strikeouts in his second outing . He ran into some trouble in his third start, giving up 5 runs over 5 innings. I expect him to bounce back strong in his next start. These are all great signs for Braves fans as Fried is one of the higher upside arms in the system, and he has good control to match his stuff. I’m excited to watch Fried throughout his first full season in a Braves uniform and, if he stays healthy, I expect him to move quickly through the system.

Our last early season player evaluation is Mike Soroka, the 6’4″ right hander out of Alberta, Canada. Even though he was drafted in the first round of the 2015 draft by the Braves, Soroka is a player still flying under the radar in one of the deepest systems in baseball. I was able to catch Soroka’s start on April 12th where Soroka put together 6 frames with 5 strikeouts, no runs, and only 1 hit . He was baffling opposing hitters all night and probably could have continued on deeper into the game. Soroka’s stuff looked outstanding in this game and I expect him to continue his fine form as his season ERA sits at 2.40 across 3 starts. Soroka sits at #7 on my personal Braves top 25 prospects list, and I expect him to rise up experts’ lists and possibly find himself around, if not on, the Top 100 Prospects List come season’s end.

The future is bright for Atlanta.