Thursday, September 7, 2017

2017 Danville Braves Review

2017 Minor League Recaps

Kevin Maitan and manager Nestor Perez | Tommy Poe, Walkoffwalk.net
Last week marked the end of the Danville Braves' 2017 season. They finished 36-32, matching their expected win-loss record. It wasn't enough for Danville to return to the playoffs as they finished well behind Pulaski for the second East Division postseason spot, but it was the third time in four years Danville has finished with a .500 or better record. The season was noteworthy for its many promotions with guys like Isranel Wilson and Leudys Baez leaving the team to test their talents in the South Atlantic League while hotshot prospects like Kevin Maitan, Drew Waters, Jeffrey Ramos, and Juan Carlos Encarnacion joined the team a month or so after the season began.

The biggest moment this season for the D-Braves came on August 8. In Game 1 of a doubleheader, Bruce Zimmermann walked the second batter he faced. He would retire the next five in order. Jake Belinda set down a dozen straight hitters before John Curtis got two strikeouts and a flyout to end the doubleheader shortened game with a 5-0 win. Oh, it was also the team's first no-hitter since 2009.

Speaking of the Danville pitching staff, with an ERA of 3.71, the Braves took home the Team ERA title in a league where the average ERA was 4.48. Danville also surrendered 32 home runs, nine fewer than second place. The D-Braves were hurt by a defense that committed the second-most errors (111) and caught just 23% of potential base stealers.

Offensively, Danville was essentially the league average as they finished in the middle of the pack in a variety of categories. Drew Lugbauer nearly took home to APPY League home run title, which would have been quite an accomplishment considering he was with Danville for only half of the season before a promotion to Rome. He finished one homer short of the league-lead.

Let's focus in on some of the Danville standouts. I'll skip over some of Danville's prospects who received more playing time with a different minor league squad.

Danville Pitcher of the Year - Dilmer Mejia
It wasn't a good start to the 2017 campaign for Mejia, whose prospect status has waned over a few injury-shortened seasons, but Mejia turned it around in August. He was used more as a piggyback reliever, only starting one of the five games he pitched that month, but he still tossed 22.2 innings and more than anything, the hits stopped falling, giving him an ERA of well under 2.00 for the final month of action. It dropped his season ERA a shade under 4 at 3.91. All season long, Mejia flashed tremendous control (just ten walks in 50.2 innings) and finished with a career-high 9.2 K/9. It's not enough to get him back into the discussion as one of the top pitching prospects in the system, but Mejia only turned 20 in July so his season might keep him in the Braves' good graces moving forward as the now four-year veteran finally gets a shot in Rome.

Danville Player of the Year - William Contreras
Jeff Morris - Follow on Twitter
While many Danville stars moved up the ladder to play with Rome, Contreras remained - in no small part because the catching situation is packed ahead of him. The only D-Brave to be named a postseason All-Star, Contreras slashed .290/.379/.432 over 198 PA this season with ten doubles, a triple, and four home-runs. And while questions might continue to remain about his bat, the skills behind the plate continue to blossom. Contreras only caught 23% of base stealers this year, though Danville pitchers rarely did him any favors. He'll continue to clean up his footwork, but the arm strength and accuracy is not in question. I'm not a scout, but if I had to attach a grade to his arm, it'd be at least a 70-grade. Contreras also shows good athleticism behind the plate, which gives me some degree of confidence to suggest that his glove will probably be good enough to get him to the majors. Again, people remain split on his offensive potential, but this year opened some eyes. He showed very good plate discipline and pitch recognition while flashing impressive power for a 19-year-old. He's going to be a guy to watch in 2018 as he makes the jump to full-season ball and if my opinion means anything (it doesn't), I wouldn't be shocked to see Contreras soar up the prospect rankings into the Top 20 or even Top 15 by this time next year.

Other Names to Remember
Kyle Muller, LHP - I saw a number of D-Braves games this season, but sadly, none of the games I saw included Muller. Drafted with Joey Wentz, Ian Anderson, and Bryse Wilson last year, Muller hasn't been on the same trajectory as that trio. While they were serving as the backbone of the Rome staff, Muller was struggling through an uneven season in Danville. The strikeouts were solid, but he rarely had a really nice outing. He also was shut down for a few weeks in early August. Like I said, I didn't get to see him pitch and I'm not down on him, but he's clearly behind the other three top prep arms selected last June. He'll try to get his prospect status humming again in the right direction next spring in Rome. To put a bow on his season, the Danville defense had issues for most of the year - especially early on - and that likely played some role in limiting Muller's effectiveness.

Kevin Maitan, SS - Let's just throw out his triple slash of .220/.273/.323. Seriously, toss it in the trash. We're talking about a 17-year-old hitter in a league where the average pitcher was 20.7 years-old. Also, Maitan did start to figure it out some toward the end of the season, slashing .259/.318/.414 over his final 15 G (66 PA). I watched Maitan a few times during the season and you can definitely see a guy who is in a heavier weight class than he should be right now. At the same time, you also see glimpses of the player that was ranked #77 in the Baseball America preseason Top 100 before he had even swung a bat professionally. He's bulked up noticeably compared to the lean kid that signed last year and contrary to what really smart people on twitter might say, it appears to be all muscle. He whiffed a lot as he was catching up to professional speed fastballs, but when he connects, he hits the ball as hard as anyone I saw this year in the Appalachian League. So, with Maitan right now, you kind of have to throw most of the numbers in the trash and look for those glimpses to see when he starts to figure it out. As the season progressed, those glimpses became more common. Defensively, Maitan seems destined to outgrow shortstop. I feel the instincts are there, but the range isn't. He does flash a good arm, though. The Braves are aggressive with promotions and despite the fact Maitan won't turn 18 until February, you have to imagine he's penciled in right now to begin 2018 in Rome. Again, that might be a bit too much for him, but when the light switch gets turned on for Maitan, watch out!

Drew Waters, OF - Similar story to Maitan. Waters had a bit more success with a .255/.331/.383 line and I saw him smash a homer the other way in a park that isn't so easy to hit homers. But I also saw the bad. In the first game I saw him play, he struck out four consecutive times on a hot July day. He looked absolutely befuddled at the plate and even lost grip on his bat twice in the same plate appearance. Again, he was looking better late in August than in mid-July when he joined Danville, hitting .266/.329/.453 over his final 15 games (70 PA). Waters looks very comfortable in center field and I think the range is solid enough for him to stick in center moving forward. He's going to have to make a lot more contact in the future, but that 5-tool talent is something to be excited about. A lot of smart people are convinced that by midseason next year, Waters will be the top Braves outfield prospect left in the minors.

Cruz | Jeff Morris - Follow on Twitter
Derian Cruz, 2B - The Braves moved Cruz away from shortstop and he responded with better defense. Unfortunately, the bat just never showed up this season for Cruz, who began the year struggling in Rome before joining Danville. Nobody played in more games this year for the Braves than Cruz, but he only slashed .235/.281/.315 as a D-Brave. Cruz was initially rated higher coming out of the 2015 J2 class than Cristian Pache, but it's safe to say that right now, Cruz's stock is falling while Pache's is rising. All of that said, Cruz won't turn 19 until October 3 so while he has a bit more experience than Maitan and Waters, he's still very young. The Braves will likely give Cruz a chance to bounce back with Rome to open 2018 as other infielders push their way into the mix in Danville. I'm not convinced he'll ever live up to his pre-signing hype, but it's way too early to write him off.

Justin Smith, OF - One of my favorite players that the Braves drafted after the top three picks in June, Smith is a former Miami Hurricane who found himself at junior college level. He's got good size, athleticism, and some pop that, unfortunately, we didn't see enough of while in Danville. That said, eight of his 28 hits went for extra bases, including three homers, and I think Smith has sleeper written all over him heading into 2018. The at-bats for Rome in the outfield could be tough to come by with Waters and Jeffrey Ramos heading there along with a couple of players I haven't mentioned yet in this recap, but if Smith spends the winter training wisely for the 2018 season, he could surprise some onlookers. Not me, though. I'm already on the bus.

Gary Schwartz, OF - As Bradley Keller and Lugbauer moved on to Rome, Schwartz received more playing time, becoming the regular right fielder, and bashed five homers and seven doubles in 73 PA in August. He walked 13 times to 11 strikeouts and OPS'd over a thousand, which made his full-season numbers jump to .281/.398/.531. In a three-game run after a promotion to Florida, he went 1-for-9 with 5 K's, but I imagine an assignment with Rome is more likely next year. Drafted a few months ago in the 16th round, Schwartz is an alum of Grand Canyon University, the same school that once produced Tim Salmon. So, there's that. I like Schwartz if only because his name invites scores of Spaceballs commentary.

Michel | Jeff Morris - Follow on Twitter
Shean Michel, OF - Also referred to as Raysheandall or simply "Ray," Michel was one of the pop-up prospects that literally seemed to come out of nowhere. Michel has actually been in the organization for three years, but didn't impress much in a 26-game run in the GCL last year or his start at that level this season over five games. But when the former NFL player Sanders Commings basically gave up on his baseball dream, it opened up some playing time in Danville for Michel and he took off. Over 145 PA, he hit .326/.378/.424 with nine doubles, two triples, and seven steals. He also showed good range all over the outfield with a nice arm. Grade-wise, Michel won't stand out - especially at the plate. That said, I've seen this guy smack the ball the other way so he's not all dink-and-dunk in the batter's box. Like Smith, Michel is one of my guys that I probably like more than others. Also like Smith, I can't wait to see what he does at Rome next spring.

Bradley Keller, OF - It took him three years, but we finally saw some of the reasons the Braves made Keller their 15th-round selection back in 2015. Over 33 games in Danville, the right-hand hitting outfielder slashed .306/.360/.597 with six home runs. With Keller already having experience both in Rome and Danville before this season, the Braves had reason to believe that Keller's production would be sustainable following a promotion back to Rome to end the season. That hope ultimately wasn't realized. His OPS fell nearly .400 points over 25 games in the South Atlantic League. That's probably not so promising. That said, there's a good deal to like about Keller as a sleeper-type outfielder, but outside of this year's 33-game run with Danville, we just haven't seen it enough. He'll likely return to Rome to open 2018 and try to improve on the .169/.219/.312 triple slash he's put up in the SALLY over the last two years (78 G).

Odalvi Javier, RHP - I saw more of Javier than any other pitcher this season and came away impressed - especially with his bulldog nature on the mound. He's not going to reach the majors on his stuff, but on his pitchability. He has a good fastball and some decent secondary pitches, but I wouldn't attach a plus 50-grade to any of them and also don't see a lot of projection for the pitches as he ages. That said, Javier knows what he's doing on the mound and is stubborn and tenacious. He hit a league-high 11 batters this year despite solid control and that's largely due to the fact that he understands he'll have to pitch inside to get out the opposition. He was also a workhouse for Danville, throwing the fourth-most innings in the league. I don't like doing comps, but something about Javier reminds me of Luis Avilan, though the latter was left-handed. Regardless, both pitched themselves into promotions without the kind of skill set top prospects have because they were confident hurlers with a chip on their shoulder. I can tell you that Javier is a guy I'll be watching next year.

Bruce Zimmermann, LHP - Though he made eleven starts, Zimmermann is a reliever and was treated as such (23.1 innings). He responded with great strikeout numbers and good enough control moving forward. A fifth rounder out of Mount Olive College (Go Pickles?), Zimmermann is the type of player the Braves have had good success at developing over the last few years: Small college relievers with big-time stuff. Zimmermann has that and it'll be interesting to see what kind of push he gets. The Braves are aggressive with college picks so I wouldn't be shocked to see Zimmermann jump Rome if there's room in Florida next spring.

Jaret Hellinger, LHP - Similar to Javier, Hellinger gets by on pitchability. He's not as aggressive as Javier, but the Braves have long liked his arm. I'm wondering if he's one of the guys who gets moved to the pen next year as the Braves try to find enough starting spots for all of their pitchers next spring. Hellinger puts up decent numbers across the board, but nothing really stands out.

Huascar Ynoa, RHP - Acquired in the Jaime Garcia trade, Ynoa matched his pre-trade ERA with a 5.26 run, but I think the Braves have a nice piece here just the same. The Twins worked with Ynoa to limit his pitch offerings to aid his control. It worked but also took away from of his specialness. The Braves opened him up more to use more pitches and his cutter was especially difficult on hitters. Ynoa's results aren't where anyone wants them, but I like his pitches a good deal and wouldn't be shocked to see him take a big step forward next year.

Jasseel De La Cruz, RHP - Speaking of guys whose results didn't match their stuff - compared to guys like Javier where the opposite is true - De La Cruz came up from the GCL level and had a few decent outings, but mostly struggled with the Braves. His mechanics can come out of whack, but he's another one of those lottery tickets that could turn into a useful pitcher.

Zach Rice, LHP - One of the few holdovers from the 2016 roster, Rice made a huge jump in control. After walking a batter an inning last year, he cut it down by more than half and, unsurprisingly, threw more innings as a result. His one saving grace from last year, a strikeout rate of 10.2 per nine, only improved with better control as well. An 18th-rounder in 2016 out of UNC, Rice looks primed to take on the challenge of Rome next year.

John Curtis, LHP - There were times this year where the D-Braves would use four pitchers in a game and all of them were left-handed. Curtis screams LOOGY. Great deception on the mound and a heavy fastball that can be difficult to barrel up. Another one of the 69 left-handers the Braves drafted back in June, Curtis was a guy that I would have liked to see in Rome before the season ended. He had the feel of a pitcher stuck at a level below him.

Dyals | Tommy Poe, Walkoffwalk.net
Cutter Dyals, RHP - Looking for the future Peter Moylan? It could be Dyals. He drops down and throws a fastball with plenty of life. I believe he also has a slider, but am not positive. Whatever it was, it got a good deal of late movement on it. I'm not sure he'll be good enough against left-hand batters as he progresses, but he's fun to watch.

Landon Hughes, RHP - Picked in the seventh round out of Georgia Southern, Hughes is hard to miss with his curly blonde hair. On the mound, though, he was one of the APPY League's top relievers. Over 15 games, 10 of which he finished with 5 saves, Hughes logged 21.1 innings and gave up just four runs. That's something you're capable of doing when you only walk five. He also struck out 27. Hughes throws quality strikes with a purpose and has enough natural stuff to possibly be a relief arm that makes quick work of the Braves' minor league system. He did appear once in Rome and was uncharacteristically wild, walking three over 1.1 ING. Despite that, I wouldn't be shocked if Hughes is in Florida to open 2018.

Quick Stats
36-32, 6th-most in RS, 2nd-fewest runs given up

RS - Derian Cruz, 32
H - Cruz, 50
2B - Bradley Keller, 14
3B - Isranel Wilson, 3
HR - Drew Lugbauer, 10
RBI - Lugbauer, 27
SB - Cruz, 11
AVG - Ray Michel, .326
OBP - Garrison Schwartz, .398
SLG - Keller, .597
ISO - Lugbauer, .330
wOBA - Keller, .445
wRC+ - Keller, 144

(min. 30 ING for rate stats)
W - Jacob Belinda, 6
G - Kelvin Rodriguez, 19
GS - Odalvi Javier, 13
SV - Landon Hughes, 5
IP - Javier, 63
BB - Javier, 22
BB% - Dilmer Mejia, 4.7% (lowest)
K - Mejia, 52
K% - Mejia, 24.4%
ERA - Javier, 3.14
FIP - Mejia, 2.87

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