Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Rome Braves 2016 Preview

Not only was yesterday opening day for the Atlanta Braves, but minor league rosters for 2016 were finally released.. Let's start with Rome and work our way up the ladder.

Staff - Randy Ingle (Manager), Jose Yepez (Coach), Bobby Moore (Hitting), Dan Meyer (Pitching)
...Ingle is a fixture in Rome and this year marks the tenth consecutive here for him and 25th overall year as a manager in the Braves' system. Yepez is getting his feet wet after retiring following a dozen years in the minors, including the last four with Gwinnett. Moore has been with Ingle for much of the latter's run. As for Meyer, it's back to coaching for the former JMU product who spent last year as the Rehab Coordinator for minor leaguers, especially pitchers. Before that, he was a pitching coach with Danville.

(L) - Left-handed Pitcher/Hitter
(B) - Switch-Hitter
(#number) - Where player ranked in my preseason Top 50 if applicable

Pitchers - Caleb Beech (#41), Trevor Belicek (L), Matthew Custred, Max Fried (L, #8)
-A 13th rounder in 2014, Beech is a slight surprise because he did so well at Rome last year (2.87 ERA, 1.17 WHIP). However, the Braves are likely going slow with him after his season came to a close half-way in. Belicek was a 16th rounder last June out of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. He had a nice debut with Danville and already has four starts at Rome, though he's more filler than prospect at this point. Also a college pick out of the state of Texas, Custred was selected in the 31st round out of Texas Tech last year and dominated the APPY League out of the pen. The Braves are aggressive with their relievers so a strong start with Rome could see Custred move up the ladder. Fried will be babied as he returns from Tommy John surgery that ended his 2014 season after five starts. Keep a close eye on him. When his curve is on, he's going to embarrass a lot of SALLY hitters.

Pitchers (cont'd) - Dalton Geekie, Grayson Jones, Taylor Lewis, Bladimir Matos
-Another 2015 draftee, Geekie played for both rookie teams and logged a game in Rome last year. He finished the season with a 2.89 K/BB in 17 games out of the pen. Picked out of Georgia Highlands College, Geekie is a bit of a hometown guy so he'll likely have his share of fan support this season. Hopefully, that puts him in position for success. Sticking with the 2015 draft, Jones was an 11th rounder who struggled at times with bis control in 32.2 innings with Danville. Lewis was picked two rounds ahead of Jones and the University of Florida alumnae showed good control and not much else in 15 games out of the pen between Danville and Rome. Matos skipped the DSL and pitched in the GCL last year. He's got a lively arm, but will need to spot better to stick around for long. He's already 22.

Pitchers (cont'd) - Ricardo Sanchez (L, #17), Chad Sobotka (#42), Mike Soroka (#19), Touki Toussaint (#6), Patrick Weigel
-A year after being the youngest player when the 2015 year opened for the South Atlantic League, Sanchez gets a return trip to bounce back after a troublesome year that ended in July with injury. He's got the stuff to be a star, but can he control it? Sobotka was drafted in the 4th round of 2014 with 2015 and beyond in mind. The Braves are hopeful the former South Carolina-Upstate pitcher has a better time of it in 2016 after giving up 45 hits and 21 walks in 32 innings with Rome last year. The 28th pick of last year's draft, Soroka is a bit of a surprise since he's just 18 years-old, but he pitched well at both rookie league stops and showed unreal control (1.3 BB/9, 7.4 K/BB). Not many people talk about him with the other well-known prospects of this system, but how he pitches at Rome could change that. Toussaint showed the good, the bad, and the ugly after he was acquired from the D'Backs. Now, he'll try to give the Braves an extended look at the "good." Nobody doubts that he has top flight potential. Weigel was picked in the 7th round last June out of Houston. He didn't look good in Danville last year, but did flash some strikeout ability.

Catchers - Lucas Herbert (#7), Jonathan Morales (#43), Wigberto Nevarez
-Atlanta's top catching prospect is Herbert, who played just three games because of injury last year. The belief is that he has the defense to stay behind the plate and do a good job. Will he hit? His swing has a little too much going on, but it has worked. So far. A 25th rounder last year, Morales is skipping by Danville to join Herbert in Rome. He slashed .304/.377/.511 over 152 PA in the Gulf Coast League. I suspect he'll get plenty of at-bats at DH and maybe first. Nevarez, who really should just have "Wigberto" on his jersey, was a 20th round pick 2014. Hit .177 with Rome last year and played a lot of 1B.

Infielders - Ray-Patrick Didder, Luke Dykstra (#45), Erison Mendez, Austin Riley (#11), Alejandro Salazar, Matt Tellor (B)
-An interesting international signing with some capable defense, Didder does a decent job at getting on base, but doesn't give you much else. Though he's labeled an infielder in Rome's roster, he moved to center field last year. Dykstra had a big 2015 campaign. He lacks his daddy's speed, but did hit .318/.353/.422 over 58 games last year with the final 26 coming with Rome. He'll try to show it wasn't a fluke in 2016. Mendez is a swiss army knife guy who played all four infield positions and center field last year for Rome. He hit just .233/.291/.272, though. Nobody deserves your attention in the lineup more than Riley. Rome hit just 40 homeruns last year. Riley could hit 20 of his own this year. So far, so good for Salazar. The projected starting shortstop has slashed .294/.353/.361 over two years in rookie ball. The 19 year-old is, like Morales, skipping Danville. Teller is already 24 so he's ancient for this roster. Drafted in the 10th round two years ago, Teller has been pretty horrible at the plate so far.

Outfielders - Ronald Acuna (#34), Justin Ellison (L), Stephen Gaylor (L, #44)
-The 2014 international class started with Juan Yepez and was boosted big time by the signings of Isranel Wilson and Acuna, who was incredibly impressive as a 17 year-old playing two different rookie stops while skipping the DSL last year. He on-based .380 with 16 steals in 20 attempts. He also has some extra-base ability (.169 ISO) and seems capable of playing center field. After an uneven debut season, the 2015 12th rounder Ellison will look for consistency in 2016. He showed decent pop last year (.169 ISO) with six steals and a 9% walk rate. He just didn't get enough hits to give his on-base percentage a chance. The former Western Oklahoma State College outfielder could provide a quiet, but impressive, bat in 2016. Probably a disappointment for Gaylor to repeat Rome after slashing .285/.373/.345 last year, though at least he gets to stay home. An undrafted free agent out of Berry College and a graduate of Rome High School, Gaylor has a penchant for getting on base and could swipe 20 or so bases. His high-end projection is a #4th outfielder.

Pay to see: Fried, Sanchez, Soroka, Toussaint, Riley, Acuna.

Keep an eye on: Beech, Custred, Sobokta, Herbert, Morales, Ellison.

The Rome Braves are packed with potential this season and if you are able to see them - even if you're not a Braves fan - you ought to go especially if one of their ballyhooed starters is getting the ball. Offensively, much like the Braves system in general, pickings are slim for impact talent, but guys like Acuna and especially Riley bring major league potential to the ballpark. Rome looks like a team that could content in the SALLY. The Braves often are a little conservative with their Rome players - especially those making their debut at full-season ball - so guys like Soroka, Riley, and Acuna might stick around for awhile.

Next up, I look at the Dansby Swanson-led Carolina Mudcats. Stay tuned for that and thanks for reading.

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