As Ozzie Albies left the park in the Atlanta Braves Opening Day comeback, a questioned was posed to me. Ronald Acuña, Jr. is roughly 328 hours away from his highly-anticipated big league debut (but who is counting?). But are there more of the young Braves ready for a 2018 trial run.
It is a tough question to answer. There is a new regime. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos told 92.9 The Game earlier this week that he would likely have not moved Acuña, Jr. as quickly through the minors as the previous front office had done. Clearly there are different agendas, but the simple fact is that some of the top prospects are ready for a big league showcase at the very least.
(Note: A.J. Minter and Luiz Gohara are not on this list. Minter is a big-leaguer as of now and Gohara will likely jump right back into the rotation after a few rehab starts. That said, they are both exciting pitchers and should make their impact felt in 2018.)
Mike Soroka, RHP
After an impressive run in the rotation for the 2016 South Atlantic League champion Rome Braves, Soroka skipped right over High-A and headed to Mississippi. As the second youngest player in the league, Soroka dominated and was even better than his breakthrough 2016 campaign.
When people have asked me about Soroka, I have made lofty Greg Maddux comparisons. That does not necessarily mean I think he is going to win four-straight Cy Young awards and 355 games, however. The comparison hails from his command and the way he can dictate a game with secondary offerings nearly, if not better, than his primary offering.
Soroka has four pitches he can locate, and he throws his fastball as both a two-seamer and a four-seamer to keep lefties at bay. Thanks to nice sinking action, the ball rarely leaves the yard despite a big increase last season. Soroka has always been a ground ball first pitcher and combined with his advanced command of the strike zone, he can be nearly untouchable at times.
Soroka posted juicy numbers in 2017. He finished with the second-best ERA in the Southern League at 2.75 (and his 3.19 FIP shows it is for real) behind a career-best 1.09 WHIP. Soroka may never be a dominant strikeout artist despite mid-90s stuff, but he also won’t allow many free passes, giving up less than two-per-game last season. Combined this with a smooth delivery and little mechanical adjustments on his climb, he is a perfect candidate for a midseason call.
The reason Soroka doesn’t have much left to prove in the minors is not that his stuff is overwhelming, like a Kyle Wright or Luiz Gohara. It is because the things that pitching prospects with elite stuff have to work on are already at an elite level for Soroka.
Max Fried, LHP
We got a taste of what Fried can do last season in his 26-inning big-league debut, but that was just touching the surface. Plagued by a career of injury — both major and minor — and inconsistencies, Fried could use a little extra seasoning in Triple-A. But that does not mean he won’t return for a second trial run in 2018.
Fried joined Soroka in that 2016 championship rotation. He started slowly in his return from Tommy John surgery and then spent some more time on the DL after a hot June. He was unreal in the playoffs, finally back to full health, tossing seven innings of one-run ball and striking out 13 in the title-clinching game.
Last season was more of the same. He started off slowly in Mississippi, dinged up by some minor injuries, but then looked more like Fried. He tossed just six innings in Triple-A before getting his call to the bigs. He looked good enough as an overmatched rookie, posting a 3.81 ERA and striking out 22, despite walking 12 batters over the same span.
And that’s Fried’s biggest issue. His fastball can touch the upper-90s and is a true strikeout pitch. His curve is his best offering and truly flusters both lefties and righties, while his change is vastly improved to help with righties. Fried will likely begin the season in the rotation for the Stripers, but with his lethal two-pitch combo, he could be destined for the bullpen.
The Braves kept Fried on the 40-man roster for a reason. He is likely a few Triple-A outings away from his return to Atlanta.
Kolby Allard, LHP
There is nothing set in stone about the Braves 2018 starting rotation. What is set in stone is that the future hinges on the success of the Braves young guns. Allard and Soroka have climbed the ladder together, and that should continue into this season.
Like Soroka, Allard was challenged by advanced hitting as a 20-year-old in the Southern League. Soroka’s big success seems like it overshadowed Allard’s very impressive season, but it was impressive nonetheless. He simply had a few more bumps along the way.
Allard started off strong and struggled with consistency at the end of the season. That said, he pitched through the fifth inning in all but two of his 27 starts. Allard can pitch, and he can do it well into games.
He doesn’t possess electric stuff, but he knows how to move it which is his biggest asset. His fastball can sometimes linger in the high-80s, but he is fearless to both lefties and righties with it and can attack in different spots. That makes his changeup all the more effective and combined with a plus-curve, he has three pitches to manipulate the zone.
Allard once had the highest ceiling in the Braves minors, but that may not be the case anymore. That does not mean that Allard isn’t ready for the next step, and he will likely get his shot sooner than later.
Late season options:
Austin Riley, 3B
I have been extremely high on Riley since his 2016 Rome Braves season. He has shown the same pattern over the past two seasons since then. He struggles a bit, tweaks a few things and finishes the season as one of the best hitters in the league. All that as a 20-year-old.
There is no denying that the Braves have a hole at third base, especially with an injured Johan Camargo. That said, it is still wise for Riley to get plenty of seasoning in Gwinnett. His defense at the hot corner is vastly improved (and he has a rifle as a former pitcher) but is still progressing. Despite some of the more exciting power in the system, he still has some swing-and-miss but has shown improvements along the way.
The Braves may be forced to give Riley an earlier debut than they would like, but it is wise to keep him down as long as they can.
Kyle Wright, RHP
Most feel Wright is not MLB-bound until 2019, but there have certainly been whispers of a fast move and 2018 debut. There is no denying Wright’s stuff. He has four plus-pitches with an electric fastball, two breaking balls, and a nasty change. He has just 17 pro innings under his belt, however. The old regime may have pushed him to the top this season, but he is a wild card with AA at the helm. Still, to see him in Triple-A in his first full season would not be a surprise.