The Rome Braves had yet another strong showing in 2017. Though it didn’t end with a South Atlantic League Championship like 2016, there was plenty of promise. The team finished 74-65 and four or five of baseball’s best prospects chipped in to the winning season.
The past three years have seen some of baseball’s finest make a stop in Rome. Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña, Mike Soroka, Austin Riley, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, Cristian Pache... the list goes on and on. Most teams would love to have two or three of those guys, and Rome has had them all.
Kevin Karel, the voice of the Rome Braves, has got to see them on a regular basis. He has gotten to know them, seen them grow, and amazingly enough, has watched three of them make their big league debuts this season. Kevin took time off his hectic schedule (he’s also the voice of the Shorter Hawks football team on 99.5 The Jock) to talk some chop about the Rome Braves 2017.
Minor League Ball: If you had to say there was a breakthrough prospect this season in Rome, who would it be?
Kevin Karel: The breakthrough prospect, or guy who really improved his stock to me, would be Bryse Wilson. He was on the radar and was already considered a prospect at the start of the season but enhanced his stock in 2017. Bryse checked many of the same boxes that Mike Soroka did in 2016. He was the opening day starter, a mid-season All Star and dominated wire-to-wire as a teenager in the South Atlantic League. Bryse remains underrated as a prospect in my opinion. Compared to Soroka last year, Wilson had a better K-rate, slightly higher BB-rate and only six fewer innings pitched. They're different types of pitchers in some ways but did similar things at a similar age in the same league.
MLBall: Who was the most improved prospect you saw this season?
Karel: One guy who really improved from last year in my opinion was Anfernee Seymour. He spent the first month of 2017 with Rome and the conversion from 2B/SS to OF was a success. He told me the move set him free mentally from the rigors of playing middle infield and allowed him to focus on his offense. He has elite speed and the arm to stick in CF or RF. I'm interested to see how he does in the Arizona Fall League. He's a prospect in my eyes.
MLBall: You've been spoiled by some nice pitching the past two seasons. Do you see any similarities in the development of this rotation compared to last season?
Karel: The pitching staffs Rome has had the last two years were both dominant. Interestingly enough, the 2017 Rome pitching staff had a team ERA of 3.19. The championship pitching staff in 2016, as talented as any in league history, had a 3.69 team ERA. I was surprised at the difference since 0.50 in ERA over a full year is a lot, but it underscores how dominant the rotation was this past year.
Wilson and Wentz were two of the three best starters in the league. Walker got better as the season went on. Anderson was excellent before he hit his innings limit and Davidson made himself a prospect by dominating as both a lefty reliever and starter. Both years were a blast to cover and the pitching gave Rome a chance in nearly every game they played. In fact, in 2017 Rome lost only twice in the second half in games in which they scored at least five runs. Producing league average offense basically guaranteed a win in the second half.
MLBall: One prospect people always ask about is Lucas Herbert. Looked like he turned a corner in July, but has since cooled off. What do you make of Herbert after watching him for some time now?
Karel: Herbert made great strides offensively from 2016 to 2017. His numbers improved across the board in terms of average, power and wRC+ and he reduced his K-rate while increasing his BB-rate. And he was still young for the league at 20 years of age. If he can maintain a hitting profile like he had in 2017 as he climbs the organizational ladder and retains his above average defense at catcher he will have a bright future.
MLBall: Along with the Rome Braves, you have seen a ton of excellent opposing prospects come through the SAL, the past two seasons in particular. Who is one, or maybe some, of the most impressive prospect(s) you saw?
Karel: Three of the most impressive prospects I've seen in the SAL during my time were all members of the Greenville Drive in 2015. Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers were all studs. Moncada and Ronald Acuna are the two best position player prospects that I've seen. Each seemed to barrel the baseball on almost every pitch. Consistent hard contact. I was also very impressed with Mitch Keller in 2016 and Juan Soto this past season. Keller is probably the best non-Rome pitcher I've seen in the SAL.
MLBall: Cristian Pache is the most high-profile prospect on the squad. He had an exciting season, but still lacks the power. Do you see the power developing?
Karel: Pache had an impressive season. He did not hit a homer but every scout I spoke to this year believed that his power would develop in the future. In my opinion Pache is a lock to be a big league outfielder. His floor is as a 4th outfielder due to his elite defense and speed. If the power comes around he projects as a major league starter at a premium position.
CAUTION!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!
MLBall: One thing we learned about you, is that along with Braves baseball, you are an avid Game of Thrones fan. The ice dragon just destroyed a wall that lasted thousands of years. How does Jon Snow win this one?
Karel: I believe Drogon can overcome the ice dragon. Dani and Jon Snow will each ride a dragon and overcome the Night King and his army. I'd also be THRILLED to see Arya be the one to kill the Night King and/or Cersei.
MLBall: Lastly, this is a question I ask all the Rome guys I talk to, so I think it works for you "on the other side" as well. You get to work for the farm system that many consider the best in baseball. Albies, Acuna, Soroka, Allard, Fried, Touki, Wentz, Wilson, Anderson, other team's media have to be envious of you. What has it been like to be part of the Braves organization and see what you have seen?
Karel: Being part of the Rome Braves and Atlanta Braves has been deeply rewarding for me. I'm lucky to have a job that I love and to work with and for people whom I respect and admire. There have been numerous highlights including winning the SAL Championship in 2016, the 11-game winning streak in 2017, seeing Randy Ingle win his 1,500th career game as a manager and countless others. There are many days where I'm standing at the batting cage and look around and think to myself "I'm so fortunate to get to do this for a living." I try my best to never take it for granted. Something that's been a new experience this year is for the first time guys I've covered in Rome, like Ozzie and Max, have reached the big leagues. I'm very proud of the players they've become and of the people they've always been. Others will follow in the coming years. The future in Atlanta in bright.