Notes on 755 Hank Aaron Dr

Monday, May 22, 2017

Not really a recap this time

It's certainly not a weekly recap, since it's been two weeks since the last one.  I apologize to any readers out there for missing the week, but I was done in by allergies, so any "free" time I had was used trying to recover.  I didn't really want this to just be weekly recaps anyway, so breaking the pattern isn't all bad.

I should go ahead and point out that the past week was excellent, as far as results on the field go.  Part of that is probably just the vagaries of the season - even the worst teams in baseball tend to have some good weeks, and the Braves are not really a terrible team.  They're a team with significant weaknesses, and so when those weaknesses are exposed for whatever reason, they look awful.  But when the weaknesses aren't exposed, they look pretty good.

Of course, the real news was Freddie Freeman's injury, which exposed one of the Braves' big weaknesses.  There's almost no depth on this team, or even in the minors - at least when discussing talent ready for the majors.  Before Adonis Garcia and Freddie Freeman went on the DL, there were only four position players on the 40 man roster who weren't either on the 25 man roster or on the DL. Now there are two.  Of course, part of this is strategic; there are position prospects in the minors who don't need to be on the 40 man roster yet (Ozzie Albies, for example).  But still, the Braves felt the need to trade for a new 1B (Matt Adams), as well as signing James Loney as another insurance policy.  And while the Braves have done well since Freeman's injury, I don't expect that to continue all summer.  There's still almost ten weeks until he's expected back, and wrist injuries are notorious for lingering for quite a while.  His season may not be over, but his MVP chances are.

So, let's talk a little bit about the minor leagues.  Is there reason to hope?  This week, let's just look at the top of the minors.

Gwinnett is currently at 21-21.  There's not a lot of bright spots there so far.  The aforementioned Albies is off to a slow start, which is to be expected coming back from an injury.  Dustin Peterson has only just started playing.  Right now, the best hitter on the roster is a 28 year old career minor league catcher named David Freitas.  Catchers have weird career arcs, and last year was his best offensive year so far, so it's possible he could give the Braves a year or two of cheap and reasonable production, at least as a backup.  The "name" pitchers - Newcomb, Sims, Blair, Wisler - aren't exactly setting the world on fire.  Newcomb's got the best stats of the bunch, but even he's only averaging a bit over five innings a start, and has given up a lot of hits and walks.  He's doing better as the season goes on with the latter, but still not getting that deep into games regularly...  None of them are making a case yet for replacing the old men in Atlanta.

Mississippi is sitting at 22-22.  I'm noticing a pattern here?  There's a bit more promising offense down in AA, but of course that means it's that much less of a sure thing.  For instance, take Carlos Franco.  He's a 3B who had been knocking the ball around in Mississippi, slugging .560 with a .358 OBP.  Nice.  He's in AAA now, and struggled in his first weekend there.  Obviously, a single weekend means nothing, but then again, neither does a hot month prove he's for real.  His career numbers (8 seasons) are .330 OBP and .354 SLG.  Did he suddenly figure things out at 25, or was it just a fluke month?  Anyway, if you want someone to be excited about, look to Ronald Acuna.  He's only 19 and has put up solid numbers the last two years.  This year, they started him at High-A, and he did so well that he's already been promoted.  His numbers in Mississippi are even better than his numbers in Florida were.  I wouldn't expect the Braves to rush him, but if there's an opportunity to trade Kemp or Markakis this summer, you could see Acuna in Smyrna.

There's been good pitching at AA as well, including one guy on the 40 man roster.  Akeel Morris was the closer in Mississippi, and was lights out.  He's been promoted to AAA, where he's given up more hits, but also struck out 15 in just 10 innings.  I'd take it as a given that he'll be in the majors at some point this year.  The other two 40 man guys are Jesse Biddle and Max Fried.  Biddle looks like he's being used as a long man, and not doing much.  He could end up in the pen anyway.  Fried started off alternating awful and good starts, and has now just settled into blah.  He's averaging less than five innings a start, just over a hit per inning, and just under a strikeout per inning.  This is his first year at AA, so it's not a disaster, but he's one of the pitchers that need to step forward.

And really, that's a bit of a concern.  There's a ton of pitching prospects in the Braves system; it's the stated plan for rebuilding the team - pitching pitching pitching.  But so far, there's not a lot to show for all the arms that have been acquired.  It's early in the season, but right now only one of them seems to be taking any step forward.  The Mets are right now showing the dangers of trying to build on young pitchers.  Pitchers get hurt, because pitching is an incredibly unnatural activity.  Pitchers flame out, because prospects don't always turn into major league players.  When the Braves made a big deal about building this team the way they built the 1990s dynasty, I worried, because they 1990s team was in many ways lucky.  Part of that was injury luck, and part of it was in finding a path to success that wasn't being heavily used at that time.  They also had deep pockets at the time; Ted Turner was a very different owner than Liberty Media.  But also, free agency at that time was different than today.  Players like Greg Maddux almost never reach free agency now; teams have learned how to ensure that they get a return when a player is going to leave.  The path that the Braves took to the top in 1991 isn't really there now.  Now, if it turns out that all of this is just rhetoric to get the fans to buy into a rebuild, and not a real blueprint, then that's fine.  But when I see mock drafts that show the tea drafting a college pitcher with their high draft choice, I worry....

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