Three Cuts: Spring debuts provide learning experiences for Braves’ young arms
The Atlanta Braves opened their youth-dominated early spring schedule with a 1-4 record, averaging 6.5 runs per game as the pitching staff tried to find its rhythm. Here are three observations from the first week of spring action:
This is not going to be an immediate coronation. Even as the franchise’s No. 1 asset collectively inches closer and closer to the majors, growing pains are inevitable. Eight of the franchise’s 12 best long-term options for the rotation have yet to make their major-league debuts, and three others (Matt Wisler, Mike Foltynewicz and Manny Banuelos) have just 222 combined innings under their belts.
The spring debuts of top pitching prospects Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair and Lucas Sims offered another reminder that this is a long process.
The three potential top-of-the-rotation arms allowed 12 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings pitched this past week — striking out just one batter and allowing seven walks.
Command was a major issue for Newcomb against the Detroit Tigers, an ongoing trend for the franchise’s highest-rated pitching prospect. A few months removed from allowing six walks per nine innings at the Double-A level, Newcomb’s control was spotty as he took the mound against the Tigers’ approximate Opening Day lineup. The free passes began with two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera and continued with three of the final five batters he faced before getting pulled in the second inning. To make matters worse: Zero strikeouts for the power lefty.
Sims, who ran into similar problems at Double-A Mississippi last season, followed suit. The former first-round pick walked three batters against the Phillies, allowing five earned runs.
Blair’s results were more encouraging, albeit slightly. The 6-foot-5 righty logged an impressive 1-2-3 first inning in the spring opener against the Orioles, but the likes of Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Matt Wieters and Jonathan Schoop punished him through the middle of the order — highlighted by two solo shots from Davis and Schoop.
The early returns were more encouraging from the likes of veteran Bud Norris, but the young arms should receive a few more opportunities in the coming weeks. It’s unlikely this will influence the franchise’s Opening Day rotation choices — Fredi Gonzalez & Co. seem to be favoring experienced options out of camp anyways — but judging by the post-game comments from Newcomb and Sims, these hiccups can provide learning experiences moving forward.
Two major question marks hung over the middle of the Braves lineup entering spring training: Freddie Freeman’s wrist and Hector Olivera’s offseason adjustments. So far, so good.
The Braves were cautious with Freeman’s wrist early in camp after it cost him 44 games in 2015, but his recovery seems to be on track. Freeman looks the part of the franchise’s top offensive contributor through three appearances. In six plate appearances, he’s logged a home run, a double and two walks — a comically small sample size that has regardless provided encouraging results and, more importantly, zero setbacks.
Olivera is producing like the middle-of-the-order option the Braves gave up Alex Wood and Jose Peraza for last summer. While his ongoing transition to left field will steal headlines throughout the campaign, the 30-year-old’s bat will play a pivotal role in improving the lowest-scoring offense in baseball. As a recent ESPN feature on Olivera pointed out, his absolute prime may be behind him, but anywhere close would provide an enormous boost:
Olivera is hovering around that mark through four spring games. He’s opened the schedule hitting .462/.429/.462 with six hits and three RBI. This is the exact kind of start the franchise was hoping for. After a tumultuous 2015 campaign, the Braves want Olivera to be as comfortable as possible come Opening Day: He’s tied with outfielder Jeff Francoeur for the most at-bats on the team thus far.
Freeman looks healthy. Olivera looks better.
That’s an early win for Gonzalez & Co.
It’s unfair to mention the struggles of Newcomb, Blair and Sims without noting the highlight-filled contributions of position prospects like Mallex Smith and Ozhaino Albies, both of whom took turns dominating the first week’s news cycle.
Not only did Smith, the organization’s top speedster, post arguably the best single-game stat line baseball will see this spring (two triples, one home run, one double), but he’s made it readily apparent that he’ll be knocking on the MLB door from Day 1 at Triple-A Gwinnett. He trails only Freeman and Kelly Johnson in OPS with far more plate appearances, slashing a ridiculous .455/.500/1.182 through five games while playing in center and left.
Albies has also moved around positions — as expected, switching between shortstop and second base to give the organization options for a future pairing with top prospect Dansby Swanson — but his bat has not disappointed. While matching Smith’s early power numbers proved difficult, Albies has arguably been more consistent with a .667 on-base percentage to go along with a home run.
There’s more and more talk of the diminutive infielder making the MLB jump as a 19-year-old (though those odds still seem slim for a variety of reasons).
Smith and Albies are not alone, either. Third base prospect Rio Ruiz’s newfound aggressive approach has led to four strikeouts, but his .444 on-base percentage is noteworthy following a difficult season in Double-A.
Atlanta’s rebuilding effort is built upon a foundation of pitching, but, up to this point, the franchise’s position prospects have stolen the limelight in camp.