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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Touki's Turning the Corner

Jeff Morris - Follow on Twitter
All season, there have been two competing observations when it comes to Touki Toussaint.

On one side, you had people looking at his ERA, which has been above 5 for most of the season, which prompted people to lose some of their patience in the young kid with the electric arm. They saw a 2-9 record and grew tired of waiting for Toussaint to live up to the hype. After all, he wasn't all that great last year, right? With other Baby Braves pitchers not struggling, Toussaint seemed lost in the shuffle.

The flip side to that argument had fans ignore all of those bad numbers and look for improvement - or, to use a more accurate word, progression. What they saw was a better strikeout rate than he had last season. They saw a walk rate cut by 3%. They saw a groundball rate that was up 7%. They saw the lowest FIP of Toussaint's young career. What they saw was a guy who was pitching better than his numbers may have suggested.

I don't want to frame this as a traditional fan vs. statnerd debate. That said, the second group is starting to look like the one that was on the right side after all. Last night, Toussaint mowed down the St. Lucie Mets as he pitched the Fire Frogs to a 4-1 victory. Facing a Mets lineup with four players currently in the MLB.com Mets Top 30, Toussaint gave up just three hits - including a two-out home run in the eighth inning. He settled to strike out Michael Paez, ranked as the #30th best Mets prospect according to MLB Pipeline. By the way, those four prospects that are considered some of the best prospects in the Mets' system collectively went 0-for-12 against Toussaint with six strikeouts.

Paez's swinging K came on Toussaint's 105th and final pitch. He threw 72 strikes and struck out eleven batters while walking none. Of the eight innings he tossed, each frame had at least one strikeout in it, including three in the fifth inning. Oh, and that Tim Tebow guy? He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against Toussaint. In fact, Toussaint struck out every Met except John Mora during the game. Always a solid teammate, Adam McCreery got Mora swinging in his sketchy one inning to secure the save.

The game merely built on two previous solid starts and together, he has lowered his ERA from 5.90 to 5.11. Over his last three starts, he's thrown 21 innings, walked six, and struck out 28 batters. I am told by reliable sources that those are good numbers.

I'm a guy who looks for one thing in minor league stats over anything else. Progression. The reason why I believed Brian McCann would be a better major league hitter than Jeff Francoeur is because the former showed progression during his brief minor league career while the other stagnated. In Toussaint, the Braves have seen progression despite what his ERA and win-loss record said. Here are some numbers that have me excited:
  • Two years ago, Toussaint struck out 18% of opposing hitters. Last year, he K'd 22%. This year, it's up to 26%. 
  • Two years ago, Toussaint walked 13% of opposing hitters. Last year, he walked 12%. This year, it's down to 9%. 
  • Two years ago, Toussaint had a groundball rate of 38.4%. Last year, it was nearly the same at 38.3%. This year, it's up to 45%. 
Toussaint turned 21 a month ago. While he didn't figure it out enough to be an All-Star at Double-A by the age of 19 like Mike Soroka, that doesn't mean Toussaint's not a top prospect. The high-end potential has always been there, but he needed experience and plenty of hard work with Dan Meyer, Chuck Hernandez, and current Florida pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn to tweak his delivery. If Friday night is any indication, the work put in by those three, other coaches and players, and - of course - Toussaint is beginning to help the kid turn the corner in a big way.

Gvedak, via Reddit
It's hard not to love Toussaint. He possesses a solid low-to-mid 90's fastball and has learned to pitch low in the zone with it. When he trusts his stuff, his fastball becomes a plus pitch - capable of getting strikes and putting away hitters with its movement. His changeup will decide whether or not he stays as a starter and it's seemingly improved each year as he gets a better handle on it with improved mechanics. It's still not a great pitch - it may never be one - but I think it's good enough to keep the starting pitcher option available. His best delivery is the curve, which can be baseball pornography when you watch it. It has a traditional 12-6 break, but what makes it so special is how much it drops. Either the hitter swings over it believing it's a hanger or they recognize it, buckle their knees, and pray the umpire doesn't ring them up. In each case, Toussaint has shown progression with learning how to pitch with his three options rather than continue to try to throw them perfectly.

There's been a good deal of prospect fatigue when it comes to Toussaint. This happens when you continue to hear about what a player can be despite the results not being there. It pushes people to forget that the hype surrounding the prospect is often based on real scouting reports and sometimes, if you dig deeper, the numbers do support the belief that the player is performing better than their baseball card stats may suggest. In Toussaint's case, he most certainly had been and on Friday, he put an exclamation point on it. Don't get down on him because his ERA is closer to 6 than it is to 3. He's been much better than you think he's been all season. His efforts against Tebow and Company only made that a bit more clear.

Friday, July 21, 2017

One Thing to Watch with Mike Soroka

The Atlanta Braves have hitched their rebuild to starting pitching. Whatever you think of that strategy, that's what they've done and they've littered their farm system with the best collection of arms in baseball. And in a system that’s stacked with so much pitching talent, there may be none more talented than RH Mike Soroka.

Soroka was taken in the 1st round (28th pick) of the 2015 draft and almost immediately made it known that his talent takes a back seat to no one. After signing, he started with Danville and went on to post a 2.10 FIP while striking out 25% of the batters he faced in his first season. That impressive performance earned him a spot in Rome for the 2016 season and all Soroka did was follow up his impressive debut with 143 innings and a 2.78 FIP in A ball despite just being 18. While other kids were graduating high school, Mike Soroka was dominating a pro baseball league.

These performances were so absolute and so dominant, that the Braves' front office decided to do something a bit unusual and very aggressive. They decided to jump Soroka directly to AA to start the 2017 season, completely skipping High A ball, and make a very clear statement that their belief in the right-hander was as real as his talent.

He hasn’t disappointed. Unbelievably at 19, Mike has a 2.38 ERA and a 3.08 FIP in 105 innings at Mississippi this year and his still striking out almost 22% of batters faced. Wednesday night against Biloxi, Soroka arguably had his best start of the year throwing 7 innings with 2 hits 2 runs and 12 strikeouts. At 19, he truly is one of the best prospects in the Braves' system and really, in all of baseball.

But there is one thing I think it’s going to prudent to watch as Mike progress up the minor league ladder and eventually to the majors. Mike has a three-quarter arm slot in his delivery and that comes with some challenges. The principal challenge, as is with any pitcher is health but that’s not the point of this post. What we’re going to need to watch with Soroka are his platoon splits.

Every pitching prospect in baseball, at some point, has to solve the mystery of getting opposite handed hitters out, and it’s not always easy. Guys like Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz still struggle with it to this day so success certainly doesn’t always come quick. Or at all.

But the reason it’s such a big deal for Soroka is because of that three-quarter arm slot. Historically there is a correlation between guys who throw with a lower arm slot and guys who have more severe platoon splits. The reason is simple enough to explain. Generally speaking batters hit pitches moving towards them more effectively than they do pitches moving away from them. This is the entire reason why platoon splits exist. Most of the pitches a RH pitcher throws move towards a left-handed hitter and vice-versa. The one exception is typically a change-up.

The way the physics of a change-up work is the more you can get on top of it as you throw it, the more horizontal movement it’s going to have arm side. This is the most prominent weapon pitchers have used against opposite handed hitters because typically it’s the only pitch they have that’s moving away from the hitter. But because getting on top of the pitch helps so much, it’s not hard to understand why lower arm slot guys have trouble throwing it and why historically, they have higher platoon splits.

Really I guess you could say what we need to be paying attention to is the development of his change-up. Fangraphs put a 45 on it. (20-80 scouting scale) MLBPipeline has it at a 55. Who knows where it ends up but where we’re going to see the fruits of that development most is against LHB. Looking at his minor league numbers, you can start to see it a little. In 2015 his OPS against vs RHB was .303. Against LHB it was .864. That split improved considerably in 2016 with a .603 OPS against vs RHB and .648 OPS against vs LHB.

Honestly though, it’s going to be in the upper minors and his first couple years in the majors where we’re going to see how severe this problem is. His splits in AA this year are a .471 OPS against RHB and a .747 OPS against vs LHB. So there is something there. Again, this isn't a problem as much as it is just something to watch.

Every pitcher has to solve platoon splits. There's plenty of guys in the majors still trying to figure this stuff out. But the arm slot correlations are real and the explanations behind them make perfect sense. Soroka is a first class pitching prospect and his minor league career numbers speak for themselves. But how he develops that change-up and consequently how he handles LHB will ultimately decide how great he can be. Because the talent is there.

Danville Braves Observations From a Dramatic Double Header

On Wednesday evening, I got out of the house for a change and drove the 50 or so minutes to get to American Legion Post 325 Field for a doubleheader between the Greenville Astros and Danville Braves. The Braves won the first game - an exciting affair that ended with a runner gunned down at the plate and a near-fight. The nightcap was lost 2-1 in extra innings. I had some thoughts.

Danville's WOW Midseason Top 50 Prospects 
Like most of Atlanta's minor league teams, you first want to see them for their star power. Each team with the exception of the DSL squad has seen one of our Top 10 prospects play for them. Danville currently has six in our Top 50 and five of them played Wednesday.

Maitan | Tommy Poe, Walkoffwalk.net
4. Kevin Maitan
It was Maitan's third game with Danville following his promotion. He got the start at shortstop and hit fifth. As part of Danville's big six-run fourth, Maitan laced a ball the opposite way and later scored in the inning. It was his only hit in four trips to the plate and he also struck out. At the plate, Maitan has a quick swing after hiking up his leg to drop his weight back. There's a lot of bad intentions when he brings all of his strength forward. Like most 17-year-olds, the pitch recognition and selection simply isn't there - yet. Maitan also corked a ball right off his shin, which he walked off to stay in the game. He wears a guard, but it looked as if he hit right between the guard and his knee. No worries as Maitan was back in the lineup last night. Defensively, I don't think he'll stick at shortstop. The Braves will let him stay there as long as he can, but his instincts and range probably will force the already-anticipated move to third base. Currently, he does have some decent speed. During the big rally, he looked like he might score on a base hit, but with Danville down big, they played it conservatively. Maitan got the night cap off.

16. Kyle Muller
Didn't play as he was scheduled to pitch Thursday's game. He did catch a ball from a local dentist as the ceremonial first pitch of the game.

Waters | Tommy Poe, Walkoffwalk.net
22. Drew Waters
First, let me talk about the good because there isn't much of it. Waters looks comfortable in center field and shows good range and solid instincts. He had a few hard-hit balls his way that were difficult to immediately read, but he did very well getting to them. And that's the good. The bad was Greenville had his number. Of their eight strikeouts during the first game, half were of Waters. There are some who call that the Golden Sombrero. He was swing-happy and was struggling with Kit Keller Syndrome, named after a character in film history who couldn't hit the the high fastball, yet couldn't lay off of it. Unlike Keller, Waters didn't prove the scouting report wrong at any point. Twice in the same at-bat, he swung at a pitch and lost his bat. The first time, it actually went up the tunnel in the D-Braves' dugout. The second time went high into the stands. This was Waters' worst professional game. He'll bounce back, though. Like Maitan, he sat out the night game.

27. Derian Cruz
Of his first 47 games played this year - including 29 at Rome - Cruz has played shortstop all but three times and that trio of appearances came as a DH or PH. When Maitan joined Danville, Cruz moved to second base. Even though Cruz played the night game without Maitan in the lineup, he stayed at second base. He had a nice sequence in the second inning. The first batter of the frame hit a squibber that Cruz had to range both in and to his right on to field it. With no time to settle himself, he threw to first to get the runner with Hagen Owenby making a nice stretch. After a walk, a flyball to right field was misplayed by Gary Schwartz. Alertly, Cruz retrieved the ball and got the runner at second for the force. He just seems more comfortable and confident at second base. I still wonder if he has soft enough hands to play the infield, but I do like him better at second base. At the plate, Cruz went 0-for-4 with a good deal of weak contact.

Lugbauer | Tommy Poe, Walkoffwalk.net
44. Drew Lugbauer
The former Wolverine started the first game behind the plate. Defensively, I'm just not seeing it. Not that he can't play the position better moving forward, but he just doesn't look like a natural behind the plate. Perhaps he can do a passable enough job to be a backup option behind the plate with the versatility to play elsewhere. I will say that the Braves got a good deal of called strikes with him behind the plate that the Astros batters definitely disagreed with. That could suggest some good framing or a minor league umpire doing a minor league umpiring bit. At the plate, he has an open-stance without a lot of wasted movement. Quickly, he pushes back with a brief leg kick before pushing forward. There does appear to be a bit of an uppercut in his swing. His big swing led to his one hit during the game. The CF immediately went back and couldn't recover in time to get to the ball.

50. William Contreras
Every time I see Contreras, I come away more and more impressed. I ranked him #46th in the midseason rank, but he could reach Top 30 in my book by the end of the season. He has a cannon for a right arm and he knows it, too. He doesn't like to lolly-pop a throw when he can come up firing. After strikeouts, he would throw the ball to third with a pop as if he was trying to throw out a fictional runner. He also likes to throw down to first to keep runners honest, though he bluffed more than threw partly because of the first baseman, Owenby, is a catcher learning the position and wasn't thinking along with Contreras. He did "give up" a steal, but I don't see how. The throw was there with plenty of time for Cruz to tag the runner. Either his tag was late or the ump missed the call. Contreras's throw, though, was right on the money. He's smooth behind the plate and looks to be decent at framing. Can you tell that I like him a lot? He had two of Danville's three hits in the night cap and was the only hitter who really looked good during the evening for the D-Braves. His swing gets through the zone quickly and makes a lot of solid contact for liners into the outfield.

Other notables
Starters: Jasseel De La Cruz and Odalvi Javier
De La Cruz | Tommy Poe, Walkoffwalk.net
-De La Cruz was wonderful before the promotion from the GCL, but he didn't look good in game one of the twin-bill. He worked around a double in the first and walked two in the second before getting a talking-to by Kanekoa Texeira, the first-year Danville pitching coach. He struck out the final batter in the inning to strand a pair in scoring position before breezing through the third with two strikeouts. That inning was easily his most impressive frame and gave me some hope for a strong finish for his Danville debut, but he went to pieces in the fourth. An error to open the inning didn't help, but De La Cruz wasn't able to retire one batter in the inning. He left with the bases loaded and five runs in. Sidearmer Cutter Dyals did him a solid by getting a double-play, which helped to shorten the inning.

Conversely, Javier looked wonderful. I saw him pitch a couple of weeks ago and he struggled with his control that game. Not so much in Wednesday's start. He doesn't have great stuff, but he comes at hitters and isn't afraid to pitch inside. In fact, many times, he had Astros' players moving out-of-the-way. Javier kept them uncomfortable throughout his five innings. The only run he allowed probably shouldn't have been allowed at all as came after the "steal" on Contreras I already mentioned. The next batter doubled in a run. Other than that, Javier was wonderful and even got a pair of strikeouts looking.

Dyals | Tommy Poe, Walkoffwalk.net
Relievers: I mentioned Dyals already and the job he did to save De La Cruz from even worse damage - though he allowed one of the two runners he inherited to score while inducing an inning-shortening double play. He was replaced by Jesus Heredia, who made his fourth consecutive shutout outing. Heredia is a guy with some iffy mechanics. The ball seems to drag behind him and he's always trying to get his release point just right. He did get a pickoff after throwing over three consecutive times. Good move to first and good velocity otherwise. Landon Hughes picked up a save, but his outing was rocky and he was bailed out by two big defensive plays (I'll get to that in a second).

In the second game, John Curtis entered to throw two really impressive innings. An 8th rounder last month, Curtis does a wonderful job hiding the ball and is very deceptive in his delivery. He throws a low-90's fastball, but it appears to jump at hitters because they pick it up late. He also threw what I believe was a curveball that got a batter looking. In fact, all three of his strikeouts were of the backward K variety. Of the Danville pitchers I saw during the evening, Curtis was the most impressive. Finally, there was Kelvin Rodriguez. Time to talk about why you don't make things harder on your pitcher. Rodriguez had runners on second-and-third and two outs. The Braves intentionally walked a batter to load them. I get the strategy side - create a situation where there is an out at every base. The problem is you give your pitcher no margin for error. Predictably, Rodriguez walked in a run next. The inning could have been worse, but he got a liner back to him to end the inning. Greenville set the D-Braves down in order next to win the game. Would have liked Nestor Perez to let his pitcher at least get a chance to get the hitter out before giving the Astros first base.

Special Focus: Shean Michel...Only three Danville players were in both games and Michel did quite a lot with his playing time. In the first game, he walked and stole a base. He also put the D-Braves on top in the sixth. He lined one the other way and it landed in fair territory. He never stopped running and reached third for his second triple of the year. A wild pitch scored him for the go-ahead run. Like I said, he also played the second game.

But before that, let's talk about the seventh inning of the first game. I mentioned Hughes a second ago. I've seen him twice this year and the first time I did, he was uber-impressive. He threw the ball with confidence and overpowered his opponent that day, the Princeton Rays. This time, he seemed to let the idea of getting a save get the best of him. He overthrew quite a few pitches and only got strikes on 9-of-19 pitches. After a leadoff walk and a K, he gave up a double to Patrick Mathis. Leudys Baez, playing right field, retrieved the ball and - with his momentum taking him toward foul territory - made a tremendous throw from the warning track to Griffin Benson, who turned and gunned down the runner at home for the second out. The next batter, Ruben Castro, hit a hard single to left field. Michel charged and unloaded to the plate, beating Mathis. Lugbauer blocked the plate and tagged the runner out - who also tried to go for the glove. Lugbauer pushed him and with the game over, both benches emptied and a few words and shoves were exchanged, but nothing too bad.

Michel also had one of Danville's three hits in the night cap. After Derian Cruz was retired next, Contreras singled to center field. Michel cut the second base bag and hustled to third. The CF considered a throw to third but ultimately threw it into second. However, the throw was at the cut-off man's feet and got by him. It then skipped past the catcher, allowing Michel to score. It was the only way the D-Braves could plate a run in that game. Michel also got an outfield assist in the night cap to match his first-game one (though much less dramatic). Playing center field, Michel backed up on a diving attempt by Justin Smith, who was playing left. Smith missed, but Michel got the ball and threw it into the infield, picking up the cut-off-man Riley Delgado, who threw to third to get the guy who had originally hit the ball to begin with.

This is Michel's third season since signing out of Curacao. He spent a year-and-half in the DSL before earning a promotion mid-summer last year. Strangely, he's struggled the most in the GCL, hitting close to .200. He was pushed up the ladder to Danville to replace the former NFL player, Sanders Commings, a few weeks ago and has done nothing but hit .390/.444/.512 over his first 45 PA. He won't keep up that level of success, but he's worth continued coverage.

Other notable players...Nick Shumpert is fast and scores highly in baseball instincts. As part of the game one comeback, Shumpert was dancing up the line at third base. Facing Lugbauer, Ian Hardman threw a hard breaking ball in the dirt. The ball squirted away less than ten feet, but Shumpert rushed home and beat both the pitcher and the ball as the catcher tried to make a play. He doesn't score without taking a big lead off the bag. Shumpert probably doesn't have the profile to be a starter in the major leagues and is a little stretched at third base - Danville really lacks a natural third baseman (well, there's Maitan...) - but Shumpert does have a lot of little tools that could get him to the bigs in a reserve role. He's fun to watch regardless

Hagen Owenby made a lot of people's sleeper list coming out of the draft among those selected by the Braves for some plus power and skills behind the plate. I have yet to see him catch, but the ball does jump off his bat. In an earlier game this year, he hit a long fly ball to right field that could have been an out had the outfielder not crashed into the wall so hard that it dislodged the ball. The outfielder later had to be removed and the opposite-field smash turned into an inside-the-parker and not because Owenby has any wheels to speak of. Owenby joined Michel and Delgado as the only players to play both games and like both of them, Owenby played a pair of positions - DH and 1B. He looks uncomfortable at first base for the most part but with so many young catchers, except him to keep getting starts elsewhere.

Luis Mejia played third base in the second game. In his third year, Mejia can play all over the infield but didn't really shine on defense. He looks like a strong character/strong leadership player. The physical skills really aren't there, but you can tell the team respects him and follows his lead. He had one fun moment in the game. On a stolen base attempt, he was beat clearly by the throw, but slid past the bag without getting tagged and then reached back to get the bag before the fielder could get him. Ultimately, the next player walked which made the whole thing unnecessary, but it received a good ovation from a rapidly decreasing crowd.

Ballpark Thoughts
Maitan with Nestor Perez | Tommy Poe, Walkoffwalk.net
Considering a game in Danville? Here are some overall thoughts about the park. It's right off Highway 29, which makes it very convenient. It's also in a recreation park with other fields and even a skateboard park - along with trails - so on a nice day, you could spend a day at the park and catch a game in the evening.

They run deals throughout the week (dollar menu Monday, $2 tickets/hot dogs/drinks Tuesday, Kids Free Wednesday, etc.). I was actually rather lucky as it was a Danville Dental Associates night at the ballpark and a guy was handing out unused vouchers for tickets. The prices for tickets are cheap, but it's even cheaper when you are handed a free ticket as you go up to purchase one. A free ticket to a double header? Like I needed any more reasons to be happy to be at the ballpark.

If you go a dollar or two extra, you can get a reserved seat. That puts you under the roof and gives you a chair with a back. Most of the seating is bleacher-style seating going up both the first-base and third-base lines. The sun sets behind third base. Netting extends from the ends of one dugout to the other so if you are hoping for a foul ball, you have to sit beyond the dugout - or just do as I did as a kid and stay in the parking lot. Eight-to-ten feet tall fencing extends from the dugout all the way to the bullpens, further limiting chances at foul balls. Sight lines can be bad in places a few places, but as you can tell by the pictures I took from a crappy cell phone camera, you're right on top of the action and can get a good seat on less-busy nights fairly easy.

The PA system is used frequently. Beyond just the walk-up music and names of players, they'll use sound effects and other clips of music to go along with what is happening during the game. You get the typical minor league ballpark staples like "Sweet Caroline," "YMCA," and "Cotton Eye Joe" between innings along with more current selections. The PA announcer will occasionally point out big things in the game such as "that diving catch was made by Justin Smith" or "and your Danville Braves take the lead!" They also let a kid do player introductions for a half-inning each game. Oh, and if you're into the racist hand thingy, Danville will implore fans to do the chop. The speaker down the third base line sounded like it had a short in it, which added to the rookie league feel, to be honest.

There are your usual between-inning games for fans - dizzy bat race, steal a base in 20 seconds, race the mascot. They also do a "Let's Make a Deal" where a fan gets a choice between receiving something for sure or taking their chance on the treasure box. Wednesday evening, Megan could have had a Kevin Maitan-autographed ball but chose the treasure box. She got a hot dog. Megan is dumb.

Speaking of concessions, they are pretty standard and overpriced, but to a lesser degree than you might see at other minor league parks. There are some BBQ sandwiches and Chic-Fil-A along with a Braves minor league staple, the bologna burger. The lines can get pretty bogged down - especially for random minor league games during the week. There's only one true concession area, though there is another one for ice-cold snacks and another drinks-only area that carries bottled-drinks and beer. There's a small gift area where you can purchase hats and so on and a bouncy house area that also has a place to throw a baseball at a batter/catcher cut-out, but be aware - it costs $5 per child. I had my kids with me last time and shelling out $10 for them to bounce for 20 minutes before the game was a bit much.

The crowd was weird. I don't know if many knew there was a double header, but the crowd was sparse at 5:00 when the first game began. The park started to fill up by the fourth inning for a good-sized crowd - in no small part because of the Dental Associates event. By the fourth inning of the second game, the crowd began to get smaller and smaller.

All told, it was a fun night for baseball even though the heat was nearly unbearable for much of the first game.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Transaction Tuesday: What a Week It Was!

It was a very eventful week for the Atlanta Braves' system so no dilly-dallying. Let's dive in.

*The moves covered in this edition of Transaction Tuesday cover July 10 to July 17. A number in parenthesis represents the player's ranking in the midseason WOW Top 50.

Jeff Morris - Follow on Twitter
Atlanta
Activated: Sean Rodriguez...From a possibility to miss the season to making his Braves debut on July 17. Say what you will about the Braves, but their players don't seem to miss as much time as other teams. Much has been made about Sean-Rod's brief and ultimately unproductive rehab stint for the Braves as he went 3-for-39 with 12 Ks. But don't get caught i[ in the stats too much when it comes to rehab stints. It's all about timing and the Braves likely felt his timing was back - plus he didn't have much time left available to rehab. Moving on, where does Rodriguez fit in? When originally signed, Rodriguez looked like a possibility to share time at second base and third base - along with filling in elsewhere as needed. The Braves now have Brandon Phillips at second base and either Freddie Freeman or Johan Camargo available to play third base. Regardless, Rodriguez should be used frequently when a left-hander is on the mound (.332 wOBA, 111 wRC+ against LHP the last three years). That could mean playing third base like he did yesterday evening or spelling Nick Markakis, who hasn't hit lefties much at all over the last two-and-a-half seasons. Rodriguez is a great player to have on your bench for what he brings to the team and fortunately, this version of the Braves can use him properly as previous year's teams would have overexposed him from playing him too often.

Activated: Danny Santana...During his three-game rehab stint, Santana enjoyed his stay with Gwinnett. In the second game, he went a spectacular 5-for-5 with a double and a steal. He added two more hits the next day before returning to the Braves. Santana has been better with the Braves than he was with the Twins, but much of that is due to Santana being awful with Minnesota to open the season. Santana is a decent enough fit for the Braves, though. He's a switch-hit bat who can play a number of positions and provides a little bit of a speed factor off the bench. Plus, for fans of the Braves, it helps that his name isn't Emilio Bonifacio.

Transferred from 10-day DL to 60-day DL: Armando Rivero (strained right shoulder)...We haven't heard from the hard-throwing righty all year. Some of this may be gamesmanship, but Rivero has been stuck on the DL since early this spring and there has been almost nothing written about it. No ramping up for a rehab stint. No updates on progress. Nothing. Don't plan on seeing Rivero this season.

DL: Jason Motte (back strain)...The Braves have been fortunate this year with a number of players who've had results that were much more favorable than their metrics. Motte is one of those players. With a 3.76 ERA over 31 games, one might say he's been serviceable. When you add in his 18% strikeout rate, 9% walk rate, 17% HR/FB rate, and 30% hard-hit ball rate...you start to get concerned when you see him get the call from Brian Snitker. And to be honest, Motte has been this guy ever since Tommy John surgery took him out of commission in 2013 while with the Cardinals. In the three years before 2017, spent with three different teams, Motte had an 18% strikeout rate, a 7% walk rate, a 12% HR/FB rate, and a 35% hard-hit ball rate. His ERA during that time was 60 points higher. The smart money is on Motte's ERA getting that high again.

Gwinnett
Jeff Morris - Follow on Twitter
Promoted from Mississippi: Ronald Acuna (#1)...This one was a biggy. Acuna began the year in Florida and after a month of doing well (but not overwhelming awesome), he received a bit of a surprising promotion. He followed that up by destroying the Southern League to the tune of .326/.374/.520. At the ripe old age of 19, he was a Double-A All-Star and if you weren't already paying attention, he put a show on in batting practice at the Futures Game and in the field during the game. Acuna only played 40 games in Low-A last year and now, he could be an injury away from being called up to start in the Show. Not one to rest on his laurels, Acuna went 6-for-21 over his first five games at Triple-A with two doubles and a pair of home runs. It's easy to overhype prospects, but Acuna keeps reminding us that occasionally, the prospect deserves the hype.

Rehab: Arodys Vizcaino...Placed on the DL last week with an index finger strain, Vizcaino's rehab assignment is not planned to last long. He threw a perfect inning to start Monday's game and struck out one. Returning to Atlanta healthy and productive won't just help the Braves, but also revisit some early July rumors about Vizcaino being a target for contending teams. Vizcaino has closer experience, the ability to reach triple digits on the gun, and has great composure on the mound. Surely someone will be interested in him provided he's good to go. Of course, Atlanta might not be anxious to trade him depending on how the next week goes.

Activated: Caleb Dirks (#40)...Dirks hasn't been as lights-out as he was before this season. His 3.59 FIP would be a new full-season high and he's already surrendered four homers this season after giving up just seven over three seasons. That said, he's still carrying a 29% strikeout rate and a 8% walk rate and that's very impressive. His activation ends a nearly month-long stay on the DL. It was just his second trip to the DL since joining the organization following the 2014 draft. Dirks has routinely posted very solid numbers in the past and could be in line for a shot at the bigs very soon.

Recalled and Optioned: Jason Hursh (#42)...Five times. That's how many times Hursh has been optioned to the minors this season. His latest call-up of three days wasn't even the shortest one of 2017 for the righty. All the while, he's thrown 5.2 innings while allowing one run, two unintentional walks, and four Ks while a member of the Braves bullpen. He also appeared in 23 games between Gwinnett and Mississippi with five saves and is flowing with a 3.11 ERA and a similar FIP as well. Personally, I would like a much longer look for Hursh. It's difficult to know which of these borderline prospects are keepers with so little time to impress before being passed over for higher-rated prospects. They need to get their chance and show something very quickly. Hursh has done well when called upon, but can't seem to stay in the majors long enough to establish himself. The longer this continues, the more likely it is for Hursh to get lost in the shuffle.

Optioned: Micah Johnson...With Johnson healthy, but no spot for him in the majors, he was optioned to Gwinnett. Acquired in a trade in mid-January with the Dodgers, Johnson was on his way to make the roster this spring before a fractured left wrist on a dive took him out of the competition. He's appeared nine times since beginning his rehab stint and has looked fairly good (11-for-31, 2B, 3 BB, 8 K, 5 SB). A former second baseman, Johnson has only played the outfield this season. As the Braves cycle Acuna all over the outfield, Johnson will likely be the guy playing center when Acuna isn't.

Optioned: Jace Peterson...For the third time this season, the Braves option Peterson to the minors. He's been tremendous with Gwinnett so they are happy to have him back. His most recent appearance in the majors includes three games as a pinch-hitter. He made the final one a memorable one, smacking a ball into the Chop House for his first homer since last August 21. That one was pretty memorable, too, as it was a walk-off bomb off Shawn Kelley to beat the Nationals. Despite his mammoth homer on Saturday, he just hasn't done enough to justify a spot in the majors. He's a useful player when an injury opens a spot as he can play all over, but he's earned an AAAA label right now.

Outrighted and traded: Chaz Roe...It's bad enough to be waived and have no teams claim you. But Roe's frustrations grew Monday night as he was charged with three runs as the Braves wasted an excellent Lucas Sims non-start (6 ING, 3 ER, 11 Ks in relief of Vizcaino). Roe broke camp with the team this spring largely because he was out-of-options. After a trio of ugly appearances, he landed on the DL with a lat strain. He made four appearances in the minors over two rehab stints (a flare-up stopped his rehab once), but the Braves passed on bringing back to Atlanta. (Update...today saw Roe traded to Tampa for cash.)

Mississippi
Promoted from Florida: Tyler Neslony (#46)...A ninth rounder drafted largely because the Braves needed to cut some corners to sign higher-rated prospects, Neslony was a surprising force at the plate for the Fire Frogs. He slashed .309/.378/.442. Included was an attempt to teach the former Texas Tech star first base. That didn't go so hot (9 errors in less than 200 innings), but Neslony will continue to move up the ladder. To this point, Neslony has shown a knack for hitting righties (.310/.377/.457) and could develop into a platoon bat who can play the outfield corners and the occasional first base. He's off to a 4-for-16 start in Double-A with a double, a walk, and two strikeouts since the promotion. He's played only outfield so far.

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Promoted from Florida: Austin Riley (#13)...A lot of the high-profile promotions last week made sense, but Riley's was a bit confusing. He wasn't exactly lighting it up at Florida and, at 20-years-old, was still young for the level. Nevertheless, Atlanta promoted the strong third baseman for a trial-by-fire in the Southern League. With Florida, Riley was hitting .252/.310/.408 with a dozen homers. He's yet to show improved plate discipline, though he did shave off 5% off his strikeout rate from last season. His ISO was also down 50 points so there's that. Honestly, this is the one promotion I absolutely don't understand. Riley's first five games included four hits, including a home run last night, and two walks along with five K's.

Promoted from Florida: Jacob Webb...Needing a new challenge, Webb heads up to the Southern League. In 22 games with Florida this year, Webb K'd 48 in 41.1 innings with a 1.74 ERA. For Webb, he's making up for lost time. After being plucked in the 18th round all the way back in 2014, Webb was solid in 33.2 innings in the GCL. He was a rising prospect before feeling a pop in his elbow on the first day of minor league spring training in 2015. After the dreaded TJS, Webb returned in 2016 to throw 13 innings before being unleashed this season. For more on Webb, check out my Random Prospect Sunday column from early March.

Demoted from Gwinnett: Enrique Burgos...Gwinnett has a blog that regularly gives updates on the team. Last week, they profiled Burgos. Acquired the same day the Braves picked up Matt Adams, Burgos was struggling in the Arizona system. However, he's been nothing but great with Gwinnett. In 13 games, he's allowed a single run in 14 innings. For that matter, he's only allowed three hits. Add in the seven walks and 17 strikeouts and you have a reliever who is flourishing. So why the demotion? The Gwinnett bullpen is getting quite full with veterans.

Demoted from Gwinnett: Stephen Gaylor...This is the eleventh Transaction Tuesday I've done this season and Gaylor has shown up four times. Such is the life of organizational depth. Gaylor has split 30 games between Double-A and Triple-A and actually has slightly better numbers in Triple-A. His value to the Braves is in his defense, speed, and the fact the Braves trust him to just do his job no matter how much they jerk him around. These guys don't get a lot of love in prospect rankings, but they serve a purpose for the organization.

DL: Jesse Biddle (#47)...The former top Phillies prospect has been quietly solid for the M-Braves. Over 27 games, all out of the pen, Biddle has struck out a quarter of all batters while displaying the best control of his career. No word on what pushed him to the DL. He did reach 49.2 innings in fairly quick order. If he doesn't miss much time - or isn't on too restrictive of an innings limit - Biddle could be in line for a promotion if the Braves are so inclined.

DL: Bradley Roney...On-and-off the DL. That's been Roney's season. The good news is that he's striking out a ton of batters for Mississippi. And I mean a ton. 35.3%. Of course, with Roney, it always comes down to the but. In this case, it's a "but, he's also walked 17%." Now 24-years-old, Roney has logged just 18 total games this year - 15 in Double-A. He has yet to show any significant advancement. You can't strike out everyone and you certainly can't get by walking every fifth batter.

Florida
Promoted from Rome: Justin Ellison...A toolsy 12th rounder back in 2015, Ellison was easy to forget about heading into 2017. Last year, his first above rookie-level, the outfielder batted .247/.304/.370 while showing decent range and good speed (18 steals). However, the triple slash and presence of guys higher on the depth chart kept him in Rome to open this season. His 45-game run in Rome was hardly noteworthy and he was in the midst of some struggles at the time of his promotion, but in his defense, he did flash some strong overall numbers against righties (.271/.321/.481) and was humming before the All-Star Break stopped his mojo. Ellison has worked to cut down on his swing, but it's still long and with a pronounced uppercut. There are some qualities here that deserve second and third looks, though. He's a project, but with plus athletism already in his toolbag.

Promoted from Rome: Brandon White...With back-to-back picks, the Braves selected a pair of Brandon White's. This particular one is the 12th-round variation. The 13th-round one was cut and last played for Southern Illinois in the Frontier League. A righty out of Lander University in South Carolina, Brandon Steven White was solid for Danville last year and so far this season, he's built on that success while serving as Rome's closer. His ten saves is five more than second place in the organization. He also struck out nearly a batter an inning and showed solid control. In his first outing with Florida, he surrendered a solo home run and struck out two over a pair of frames.

Demoted from Mississippi: Andrew Daniel...Signed near the end of June, Daniel went 2-for-21 with Mississippi, but his demotion was about the guy he effectively replaces in the Florida lineup - Austin Riley. After a good debut in the Pioneer League back in 2014, Daniel hasn't shown much offense since. He'll try to change that with Florida.

Promoted to Mississippi and Demoted Back: Junior Rincon...Speaking of recent signees, Rincon was part of this column last week. He made one appearance during a stay in the Southern League and allowed a run in one inning. His only outing with Florida, which came before the promotion, saw Rincon surrendered three runs over 1.2 ING.

Rome
Promoted from Danville: Ryan Schlosser...Ryan Thomas Schlosser is the oldest-looking 21-year-old I have ever seen. A 32nd rounder a year ago, Schlosser was used as a closer with the GCL squad before a late-season promotion to Danville. He started this year with the APPY club and looked decent enough in six games before this promotion. Schlosser is a sinker baller we are still trying to get a good handle on because we haven't seen much out of the big kid from the small college. I will say this - he's a fun guy. Danville recently did a fidget spinner giveaway and he traded a bat to a kid for one of them.

Promoted from Danville: Izzy Wilson (#41)...Is there a faster outfield in the minors than Cristian Pache, Randy Ventura, and Izzy Wilson? Possibly, but these guys are flyers. Izzy came onto the scene with a big GCL campaign in 2015 where he belted ten homers in just 48 games. He also walked a bunch - along with striking out a whole lot. A lot was hoped for when the 2016 season opened for Danville, but Wilson was marred in a season-long slump that ended with a .591 OPS and just two homers. A return assignment was given to Wilson and he did not disappoint. He continued to strike out a lot but got on base at a .338 clip with a nearly .300 ISO over 17 games. The Braves took pity on the Appalachian League pitchers and brought Wilson to Rome. Four games in, he's struck out seven times. He's also doubled and swiped a pair of bases. Wilson is a fun prospect because there is a lot here to like. Can he put it together enough to be a Top-30 or Top-20 prospect for the Braves? He'll have to clean up his game (career .215 hitter so far with 129 K's in 107 games), but the power and speed combination - along with good defense - should keep Wilson in the discussion.

Danville
Promoted from GCL: Walter Borkovich...Undrafted out of Michigan State, Borkovich was a four-year performer for the Spartans. He was a control artist who didn't get many strikeouts while in school, which predictably didn't grab much draft attention. Signing with the Braves after the draft, Borkovich appeared twice in the GCL and tossed four scoreless innings. His first outing in Danville resulted in his first professional win as he went 2.2 scoreless innings with 4 Ks. He's not a big prospect by any means, but Borkovich was clocked in the mid-90's in college so he's not just throwing junk up there. He didn't do enough to get drafted, but the Braves have a knack for finding undrafted kids and turning them into something useful.

Promoted from GCL: Jasseel De La Cruz...A late addition to the 2014-15 signing class, Cruz struggled in 2015 before shaving off three-and-a-half runs off his ERA last year in a second stint in the DSL. His success warranted a promotion to the Gulf Coast League to finish 2016 and he was dominant with 15 scoreless innings, four hits allowed, a walk, and 12 Ks. It's a bit surprising he returned to GCL to open this season, but there was a method to Atlanta's madness. They wanted to change him over to a starter and over four starts, Cruz had a 1.89 ERA. Atlanta ran out of reasons to keep him in the GCL and he heads to Danville. Cruz could be a guy who climbs up the prospect ladder with some strong numbers in Danville.

Promoted from GCL: Kevin Maitan (#4)...Well, that was quick. After just nine games in the GCL, the Braves send the 17-year-old switch-hitter to Danville to continue his professional career. Did we learn anything in the GCL? Well, Maitan did strike out ten times in 37 PA. That's not great. He also reached base 13 times, which is pretty good for the first nine games of your career. Through two games in Danville, Maitan is 2-for-8 with 3 Ks. He's also mercifully moved Derian Cruz over to second base, which might be a better spot for the 2015-16 top signee. Between the two, the Braves have spent $6.25M. They'll gladly spend more if they progress to the majors - especially with Maitan, who is one of those "the sky is the limit" players.

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Promoted from GCL: Drew Waters (#22)...Maitan got nine games in the GCL - Waters received 14. Regardless, the do-everything outfielder was explosive, hitting .347/.448/.571 with three doubles, a triple, and two home runs. He stole a pair of bases and walked seven times. Not too shabby for the switch-hitting prospect. He added three more hits, including a double, in his two-game run with the D-Braves so far. Our own Stephen Tolbert is convinced Waters will soon be the Braves' best outfield prospect once Acuna graduates to the majors. So far, he looks right on.

GCL
Demoted from Danville: Gilbert Suarez...Roster spots were needed and Suarez returns to the GCL, where he's spent the two last two years following his 18th round selection back in 2015. Suarez was excellent for GCL a year ago with only two earned runs in 23.2 ING but was absolutely lit up in six games with Danville. As a team, the D-Braves have allowed 15 home runs. Four have come on pitches from Suarez. His ERA was 12.60 in 10 innings. So, this wasn't just a roster numbers thing in regards to Suarez. The righty came into professional baseball with a low-90's fastball, a good-looking curve, and what may have been a changeup. But in his third year, his inability to figure out the APPY League is troubling. Worse, his first game back in the GCL didn't go so hot as he was saddled with two earned runs in an inning and a third - tying the amount of ER he gave up in 23.2 innings last year.

Demoted from Danville: Ramon Taveras...Just promoted, Tavarez returns to the GCL without toeing the mound for the D-Braves. This is his fourth year of professional ball and he's yet to appear in a game for Atlanta's top rookie-league team - let alone progress into A-ball. Nothing really stands out about his numbers. He's been mostly a reliever and not a very successful one. At this rate, it would be shocking to see Taveras in 2018 for the Braves unless he starts to build some momentum quick.

DSL
All quiet on the Dominican front.

So Let's Talk About Dansby Swanson

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Baseball is hard. I flamed out around T-ball so I really can't imagine how hard major league baseball is. I know far more players fail at it than succeed so players struggling shouldn't ever really surprise us, especially young players. It should be obvious but Aaron Judge is an outlier. The problem is we've had guys like Judge and Bellinger and Correa and Seager come up recently and light the world on fire so our expectations have gotten skewed. Most guys aren't them.

I say all that to say Dansby Swanson is having a rough rookie year. To put it nicely, he's really struggled. To put it more directly, he's been the worst SS in the National League. You can parse up different endpoints and find patches where he's been decent or even good at times but overall he's just been bad.

Here's his full stat line so far in 2017: 


Ouch. 

Now early on in the year, Swanson's poor offensive numbers could be heavily attributed to some bad luck. For first 6 weeks of the season or so he was running about a .150 BABIP and led the team in lineouts. He was doing his part, hitting the ball hard, he just wasn't seeing the results. And that happens. Baseball can be cruel. But as of today his BABIP sits at .272. Still a decent amount of poor luck but not enough to excuse the overall numbers. And the hard hit balls have been replaced with pop ups and rolled-over grounders to SS. 

So why has it been such a struggle for Swanson this year? For that we look a little deeper into the numbers. Looking at his peripherals one thing jumps out; his strikeout to power numbers are way off.

Follow along:

- Swanson's contact rate is 76%. For context, other players right around a 76% contact rate include George Springer, Adam Duvall, Paul Goldschmidt, Corey Seager, and Bryce Harper

- Swanson's strikeout rate is almost 23%. Other players right around a 23% strikeout rate include Giancarlo Stanton, Corey Seager, Edwin Encarnacion, Marcel Ozuna, and Jose Bautista

You should notice a theme. 

Now here's ISO. Swanson's ISO is .102 Guys around a .102 ISO include Byron Buxton, Jose Iglesias, Alex Gordon, Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis. (Braves have a bit of a power problem)

Here's that same concept in graph form:


This is every qualified hitter in major league baseball by ISO/K Rate. Where you don't want to be on this graph is the bottom-third. Where you really don't want to be is bottom right. See the yellow dot in the bottom right - that's Swanson. Just for context the dot in the upper left with a .300 ISO and an 11% K rate is Joey Votto. The one in the upper right with a .360 ISO and 30% K rate is Judge.

Swanson is making contact and striking out at the rate of an elite power hitter but producing the power of a singles slap hitter. Power is how you make up for strikeouts. It's why striking out isn't as bad for a hitter as getting a strikeout is good for a pitcher. Because hitters can offset their strikeouts with plus power output. Aaron Judge has a 30% K rate but a 187 wRC+. How? He successfully trades off quantity of contact for quality of contact. Swanson doesn't. At least not yet.

The "why" can be a long answer. It's been well documented he struggles with off speed stuff, especially sliders so that obviously plays a big role. But his batted ball profile shows he's probably never going to be a big power hitter so it seems the quickest way to offensive improvement is focusing on making more contact. And then as he gets older, a little bigger, start trading off some of that contact for power.

With Sean Rodriguez coming back yesterday the question of whether to send him down started making the rounds again. I've gone on the record before saying I would send him down but I understand the argument the other way. I also don't see it as the dramatic event others do. 

For one, your contact rate is absolutely something you can work on in AAA. People say "you wont see big league sliders in AAA" but that's missing the forest for the trees. Dansby looks like a guy who went from seeing AA off-speed for a couple months straight to seeing the best breaking balls in the world. Maybe the step in between the two is exactly what he needs to feel more comfortable and make more contact. His profile never matched that of a guy who should've completely skipped AAA and it's very difficult to work on your game in the majors.

Two, people forget last year was Swanson's first full year in pro ball. He got hit in the face after being drafted in 2015 which basically washed that whole year. And even with 2016 being his first full year, he was in the majors by August. He's had an incredibly short amount of time to work on his game in the minors. It would be less a demotion and more giving him the time he never had. 

Whatever they decide to do, I hope in involves the option where he plays everyday. The idea that he's magically going to get better sitting on the bench seems silly to me. You also hope the PR variable isn't considered in this decision. Atlanta has obviously made Dansby a huge part of their 2017 marketing campaign with merchandise, commercials, promos, etc. and sending him down wouldn't make them look the best. But you make those calls around a young, unproven player knowing the risk and you can't compound one mistake with another. 

Dansby seems like a really good kid with a mature outlook on all this and my guess is that professional attitude is what makes this decision so difficult for the people around him everyday. You can tell how much his coaches and teammates think of him. But players get demoted. It happens. Ozzie Albies was demoted back to AA last year and it hasn't affected his career one bit. Sometimes a step back is required in order to move forward.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Thoughts on my Braves #13 Prospect

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When asked to do a Braves top-50 prospect list, I thought I’d find it overwhelming as 50 is a chunk of dudes to rank. I felt like it’d be a stretch to find that many guys that I’d believe in that could become useful Major Leaguers. I was very wrong on the latter point as I found it hard to narrow my selection down to 50 as empathy struck me hard when some didn’t make the list.

But the one thing I really enjoyed about the process was how different 3 lists could be as our top-10s were pretty close, the rest almost seemed drawn from a hat. There was one guy that I ranked higher than both Tommy and Stephen, so high in fact that he came in higher than other pitching prospects such as Lucas Sims, Kyle Muller, and Touki Toussaint. My number 13 Braves prospect, and number 17 on Walk-Off Walk’s list and the subject of today’s piece is Bryse Wilson.

It’s no secret that I have a favorite prospect site as I discuss it with regularity. John Sickels and his crew over at MinorLeagueBall have been doing their thing for years and while it’s not as well-known as many of the other sites, I’ve come to trust their reports as a place to get a non-biased look at players. So when Wayne Cavadi produced a scouting report on Bryse and ended it with “Stay tuned Braves fans, Wilson is definitely one to keep tabs on”, that was all I needed.

Bryse was drafted in the 2016 draft in the 4th round and reports had him clocking up to 96 on his fastball with fairly poor secondary pitches from there (but in high school, if you can throw mid-90s with a fastball, there’s not much else needed). With Braves depth in young pitching combined with the lack of secondaries, most experts agreed Bryse was destined to the bullpen.

Apparently Bryse didn’t like that projection.

Background...I don’t know Bryse personally, but the dude is a heck of an athlete and a 2-sport star in high school playing football and baseball. In football, he played a plethora of positions and naturally he was a gifted thrower (although QB wasn’t his primary position), but if you watch this you’ll see him bulldozing defenses, headhunting quarterbacks, and using his extreme athleticism to block an insane amount of punts. But the athletics was only a part of Bryse’s intrigue as he also received awards for classroom achievement (4.5 GPA, 1610 SAT, 26 ACT).

95 MPH fastball...check.
Athletically gifted...check.
Hard worker...check.
Intelligent....check.

Barely a year removed from graduating high school, Bryse is putting up great numbers, developing a slider and changeup to go with his 2 & 4-seam fastball, and is getting better as the season progresses. His fastball is reported to have staying power as in his shoutout he was still ramping it up to 95 in the last 2 innings.  What he’s doing on the field is awesome, but combine that with a thick frame that one could easily see throwing 200+ innings a year, above average intelligence, and the ability to think in terms of an athlete and not just a 1-dimensional  baseball player, and Bryse could be a backbone to the Braves rotation by 2019.

Monday Recap: Sweep, Buying/Selling, Early Freeman at 3B Metrics

Welcome to this week's quick Monday Recap. With just three games to review because of the All-Star Break, we won't have to spend too much time on them. Want to point out a few things before we look back at the week that just concluded. We posted our Midseason Top 50 Prospects last week with contributors Ryan Cothran and Stephen Tolbert pitching in. Ryan's been with WOW for awhile now, but Tolbert recently joined. He's already posted two columns - one on the prospect of trading Ozzie Albies and the other on comparing Sean Newcomb and Rich Hill's respective spin rates on their curveballs. Both are worthy of your consideration.

And with that said, it's on with the show.

July 10-13, Idle
All-Star Break

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July 14, 4-3 WIN vs. Diamondbacks
Atlanta twice gave up single-run leads, but Freddie Freeman put the Braves ahead for good with a two-run single in the 8th. Ender Inciarte led off the inning with a single before Brandon Phillips doubled to set the stage for Freeman's heroics. Freeman also broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth with a deep home run. Atlanta got their other run in the first when Inciarte doubled and came around later in the inning on a Matt Kemp two-out single. R.A. Dickey continued his solid work, throwing six innings and allowing just one on eight hits and two walks. He also struck out four. Sam Freeman allowed a home run to Paul Goldschmidt while Jose Ramirez wasn't helped by a bad thow by Tyler Flowers on a stolen base attempt. His throw went into center field and allowed a runner to reach third. A wild pitch briefly put the D'Backs on top. Jim Johnson worked a perfect ninth with a strikeout of Goldschmidt to end the game.

July 15, 8-5 WIN vs. Diamondbacks
The Braves used 14 hits and two home runs from each of their last two opening day second basemen to score eight runs and win Saturday's night affair. Phillips got the Braves on the board with a game-tying home run in the third, his eighth. He then put the Braves on top in the fifth with a RBI double. The lead was short lived as a pair of runs, charged to Mike Foltynewicz put Arizona ahead in the sixth. The Braves would fight back in the bottom half of the inning. With old friend Randall Delgado on the mound, Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis led off the inning with singles. Delgado got the next two, but Dansby Swanson worked a walk. Lane Adams followed with a bases-clearing pinch-hit double. Andrew Chafin replaced Delgado and his first pitch was hit by Ender Inciarte for a RBI single to score Adams and put the Braves up 6-3. Kurt Suzuki picked up a RBI in the 7th and after the Diamondbacks scored twice in the 8th to pull closer, Jace Peterson led off the 8th with a pinch-hit home run that still hasn't landed. Johnson cruised through the ninth for another save. It was an average night for Folty, who struggled with his control over his 5.1 innings.

July 16, 7-1 WIN vs. Diamondbacks
Atlanta gets to .500 with an efficient offensive attack. They would leave just four runners on base while scoring seven runs. In the third, Matt Kemp bashed a three-run bomb and Matt Adams smacked his 15th later in the frame. That was the game-changing frame for the Braves, who scored in each of the first four innings. Brandon Phillips doubled three times and drove in tow runs while Ender Inciarte singled twice. Jaime Garcia pitched well, allowing just one run in seven innings. He scattered four singles, walked three, and struck out seven. Luke Jackson and Akeel Morris worked perfect frames with Morris striking out a pair. The sweep at home was the Braves' first sweep at SunTrust since the four-game set to open the park against the Padres in mid-April.

This week's Record: 3-0
Season Record: 45-45, 2nd Place in the NL East, 9.5 GB

Minor League Week in Review
Gwinnett: 3-1...40-52, 2nd Place in the North, 9.5 GB
Mississippi: 2-5...6-17 (2nd Half), 5th Place in the Southern, 6 GB
Florida: 2-3...9-13 (2nd Half), 5th Place in the North, 4.5 GB
Rome: 1-4...8-12 (2nd Half), 6th Place in the Southern, 7.5 GB
Danville: 2-4...11-13, 3rd Place in the West, 7 GB
GCL: 3-3...9-9, 2nd Place in Northeast, 1.5 GB
DSL: 1-4...11-24, 7th Place in Northwest, 13 GB

Upcoming Schedule: The Braves stay at home for three more games with the Cubs coming for a visit for two nights games before a matinee on Wednesday. It's the first time the Braves have faced the Cubs this season and they'll return the favor at the end of August by visiting Wrigley. After Wednesday's game, the Braves head on a cross-country trip to visit the Dodgers for four games to finish the week. The first three will be late night games for Braves fans while Sunday's will be a mid-afternoon start at 4:10 EST.

Three Last Things
1) Buying Or Selling?

It's hard not to have this debate. After sweeping Arizona, the Braves have reached .500 for the first time since early April. They are midway through a tough part of their schedule that included games with the Astros, Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers, and a second series with Arizona in addition to the one that just completed. They've held their own so far, winning 5-of-9.

The Braves General Manager, John Coppolella, has been attached to Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, Justin Verlander, and Michael Fulmer. Atlanta is also said to have an interest in Jurickson Profar. What the Braves ultimately may do may be decided by July 26. At that point, the Braves will have finished a 10-game stretch against the Cubs, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks. If they are still at .500 or higher, the Braves might be an aggressive buyer. If they slip, they could sell.

Regardless, Braves fans universally agree about one thing - it feels good to care again.

2) Roster Issues

For the first time in a long time, the Braves might be sending down productive players because of a roster crunch. With Danny Santana and Sean Rodriguez likely to return tomorrow, Lane Adams might be sent back to Gwinnett. Adams has been one of the few guys able to come off the bench and get a pinch hit here-and-there for the Braves. His six pinch-hits not only lead the team, but count for a quarter of all of Atlanta's pinch-hits this season. He's also belted a homer and added a double. But with Santana fresh off a five-hit game on a rehab assignment and super utility player Rodriguez ready to contribute, Adams seems pushed out for now. Jace Peterson, who joined Adams and Santana as the only Braves to have a pinch-hit homerun this season on Sunday, will likely head down as well.

Further roster decisions will have to be made in regards to a pitcher. Dan Winkler began his rehab assignment a month ago and is only given 30 days before the Braves have to make a decision. He's struck out nine over as many minor league innings, but also gave up eight runs. His rehab appears either halted, though. He hasn't pitched in ten days.

Something similar happened to Chaz Roe. His rehab assignment was halted after the Braves designated him for assignment. It didn't make much news, but on Thursday, he was outrighted to Gwinnett. I have seen reports that Winkler's rehab received a rare 30-day extension. Over the coming days, we'll see if that was accurate or if Winkler went through a similar fate as Roe. (Edit: According to Mark Bowman, it was accurate as the Braves have extended Winkler's rehab 30 days. H/t to Dan Keetz for this.)

3) Early Defensive Metrics Unkind to FF3B

It takes a long time for defensive metrics to really even out to the point that they tell us anything valuable. Often, we don't want to put too much importance in them without a career baseline to compare numbers to.

So...don't take this seriously.

Freddie Freeman's defensive metrics are HORRIBLE at third base! -89.3 UZR/10! Wow! He's handled ten plays and committed an error. Of the three plays in his zone, he's made two successful plays. In addition, Freeman is 9-of-10 on routine plays according to Inside Edge Fielding. He's 0-for-2 on remote plays (expected rate is between 1 and 10%) To be fair, he hasn't made a remote play at first base since 2014.

Well, what did you expect from a first baseman playing third base anyway? Of course, the Braves have also won a number of those games so they are getting exactly what they hoped for.