Youth Movement Week culmination of Braves' aggressive minor-league promotions
In the busiest week of the season for the Atlanta Braves’ front office, at least from the outside looking in, the organization kicked its youth movement into overdrive following a quiet trade deadline. In the meantime, the team snapped its run of suboptimal play by pushing the Dodgers and securing a series win over the Marlins. Here are three observation from the week:
Youth Movement Week underscores franchise’s aggressive approach with prospects in 2017
The first days of August have been a time of upheaval for the Braves roster in recent years, and this month did not deviate from tradition.
The front office took a different approach this time, though. Instead of the major deadline deal — past years included names like Alex Wood, Hector Olivera and Matt Kemp — the organization decided it was time to flex its prospect muscle. In a five-day span, the team called up high-end prospects Ozzie Albies and Max Fried and inserted former first-round pick Lucas Sims into the big-league rotation.
The promotions triggered a domino effect.
To make room for Albies, one of baseball’s top-rated prospects over the past two years after dominating the upper levels of the minors before his 21st birthday, the team shifted 36-year-old veteran Brandon Phillips to third base, a position he had not played since he was a minor-leaguer in the Montreal Expos system. (Yes, it had been that long.) With Phillips moving to the hot corner, manager Brian Snitker announced the Freddie Freeman Experiment at third was suspended indefinitely. As the team’s best player moved back to his original position full-time, the organization shifted Matt Adams to left field — a short-lived experiment itself in St. Louis — in place of the injured Kemp. And even with that overhaul the team still faced an infield logjam and traded super-utility option Sean Rodriguez back to Pittsburgh.
Aside from Sims, who had earned his chance at the major-league level in the wake of the Bartolo Colon and Jaime Garcia moves and the struggles of Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair, the Albies and Fried call-ups could easily be described as aggressive.
Albies, 20, is a switch-hitter still working through his swing mechanics from the left side of the plate (where he will hit most often) despite his excellent numbers at the Triple-A level. Fried, in particular, was a shocking addition to Atlanta’s bullpen. The left-hander, who still projects as a long-term starter, opened the season on the 40-man roster due in part to Rule 5 protections, but his season never quite built off the promise of an excellent spring training. Blister issues led to a DL stint and contributed to a 5.92 ERA with command problems, but this is clearly a situation where the scouting department saw more than the numbers, especially after 10 straight scoreless frames to conclude his time with Mississippi.
“You think back to that first day we brought him into that spring training game against Detroit and he faced the heart of that lineup and did OK for himself,” Snitker said of the Fried promotion, referencing his encouraging strikeout of Miguel Cabrera. The organizaton still views Fried as a starter. “It’ll be good. We can just kinda get him in every now and then and let him get a taste of this and see what it’s all about. Because we think he’s a guy for us going down the road.”
This week’s movement highlights a trickle-up effect of the organization’s standard operating procedure with its farm system this season. Perhaps no other franchise has promoted top prospects as aggressively as Atlanta, casually sending promising 19-year-olds to the Double-A and Triple-A levels.
Following the Albies model, Atlanta opened the campaign with former first-round picks and potential frontline starters Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka at Double-A Mississippi less than two years removed from their high-school graduations. (They have posted gaudy numbers and continued to climb prospect rankings.) The system’s new No. 1 overall prospect, Ronald Acuna, has made an Andruw Jones-esque climb from High-A to Triple-A in his age-19 season — raking the entire way. The team has pushed the likes of Luiz Gohara, A.J. Minter and Austin Riley. More promotions could be on the horizon.
September call-ups could be interesting for the Braves. The Acuna situation alone remains one of the most compelling storylines facing the franchise heading into the fall and winter, but the expanded roster could see the likes of 40-man roster arms Jesse Biddle, Enrique Burgos and perhaps even rehabbing Daniel Winkler join the team.
Then again, at this rate, John Coppolella and John Hart could have a few more surprises in store.
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Mike Foltynewicz is addressing his reputation for inconsistency head-on
Mike Foltynewicz keeps ascending, reaching a point where talent and results are starting to lineup on a regular basis.
The one-off gems were always lurking. In his fifth appearance in a Braves uniform, at 23 years old, Foltynewicz dazzled the Brewers for 7 2/3 innings allowing just one run and one walk with seven strike outs. He followed the effort up with a solid start against the Giants … then gave up a combined 14 earned runs over his next three outings before getting demoted. At 24, he enjoyed standout performances against the Royals, White Sox and Giants, but the valleys were always right around the corner.
If his efforts over the past two-plus months are any indication, however, those valleys are fewer and farther between.
“I make it a goal of mine after, you know, every rough outing to come back out and be better than ever the next time,” Foltynewicz said after his latest start. “I take pride (in) that, just coming out and being consistent. It’s very cool to see that — all your hard work pay off.”
After setting a career high with 11 strikeouts against the Marlins over the weekend, Foltynewicz has clearly established himself as Atlanta’s best starter boasting a league- and park-adjusted ERA that is 17 percent better than league average (83 ERA-) since June 1. He’s striking out 24.2 percent of opposing batters in that span and while command concerns still bubble up from time to time with walks and home-run balls, he’s starting to climb the ladder.
His statistical profile over this recent stretch can be compared to the likes of Gio Gonzalez and Jeff Samardzija.
This is not to say the Braves have “found their ace” by any means. That mantle has too casually been passed around from Mike Minor to Julio Teheran in recent years even though a Braves pitcher has not finished top-10 in wins above replacement in a decade (2007 John Smoltz, per FanGraphs). At the very least, he appears to have carved out a central role in what is shaping up to be an intriguing 2018 rotation conversation.
Even if all breaks right with this current arms-focused rebuild, Atlanta will probably not know the cream of the crop for a couple years. Mike Foltynewicz looks like a frontrunner, though.
Mark J. Rebilas
Various ways to utilize financial gains from recent trades
By trading Jaime Garcia for a lower-level prospect, the Braves saved approximately $4.75 million on his remaining 2016 salary. By moving Sean Rodriguez through waivers and trading him back to the Pirates for another low-ceiling prospect, the Braves saved approximately $7.5 million. Huascar Ynoa and Connor Joe could prove valuable in time, but the financial returns for Atlanta’s front office understandably stole the headlines.
So how does an MLB franchise utilize $12.25 million in savings?
The immediate backlash to any cost-cutting measure, especially one coming at the apparent expense of prospect capital, is negative. Consider, however, that the Braves started the campaign with the highest Opening Day payroll in franchise history. For a team fading fast in the playoff race, recouping cash that could be used for later moves is not cheap for the sake of being cheap. (This is also setting aside the bypassed signing bonuses totaling over $2 million for Ynoa and Joe.) Instead, the moves simply raise questions — notably if, how and when. Here are a few options:
1. Use money to help absorb salary for high-level player through trade: The subsequent chatter around the Garcia trade was that the extra cash would help the Braves land a young, controllable starting pitcher either at the trade deadline or this winter. That could still be the case. However, this notion that the Braves needed help paying for the likes of Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana or Chris Archer always seemed a little off to me. Even if the team exercises R.A. Dickey’s 2018 option, subtracting Garcia and Colon from the rotation frees up $24.5 million alone. If Dickey does not return, that’s $31 million. Throw in savings from the likes of Emilio Bonifacio, Eric O’Flaherty and Josh Collmenter and the team would have more than enough to absorb a top-line young starter regardless.
2. Use money in free agency: Perhaps the least likely option, particularly in terms of securing a top-end arm. Coppolella and Hart have expressed their unwillingness to bid for pitching on the open market on countless occasions. Plus, the offensive star power does not arrive on the free-agent market until 2019.
3. Use money to help facilitate trade of expensive contract: The Braves did well to extricate past exorbitant deals (Melvin Upton Jr., Chris Johnson) during the previous portion of the rebuild, and heading into 2018 only three players on the roster are set to make eight figures: Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp. Freeman is not going anywhere, but it takes very little digging to note that the Braves face a pending decision regarding their outfield. In terms of surplus value, Markakis and Kemp have been net negatives this season and could continue to regress with age … all while one of the 10 best prospects in baseball waits in Triple-A Gwinnett’s outfield. In terms of utilizing extra capital, this would be my guess.