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The 2016 Rome Braves: A retrospect

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The 2016 Rome Braves were special team. Now the big league Braves are starting to see why.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Rome Braves club was a special team. One of the youngest in all of full-season ball, the Atlanta Braves youth rebellion began with a second-half rampage to the South Atlantic League Crown.

Just two short years later, with the likes of A.J. Minter, Max Fried, Mike Soroka, and this Ronald Acuña, Jr. fellow you may have heard about, the Atlanta Braves are exceeding all expectations.

The 2016 Rome Braves actually started out looking like a disaster. A collection of teenagers, though highly touted, finished the first half just three games off of the worst record in the entire league, both divisions combined. But this was somewhat expected. Their lineup had an average age of 20.5, by far the youngest in the league, while the pitching staff averaged out at just 20.8 years of age, also the youngest. Almost all of that seniority was in the bullpen as starters Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard and Ricardo Sanchez were all teenagers.

But in the second half, that’s when you knew these highly-rated prospects were special. Austin Riley became the league’s most dangerous offensive weapon. Fried was healthy once again, and Touki started showing that his changeup may be just as dangerous than that patented curve. The Rome Braves went 43-27 to win the second half crown, ousting a Charleston RiverDogs team full of elite prospects and then the Lakewood BlueClaws full of some of the Phillies best young weapons for the championship.

The rest, as they say, is history. But that history is being rewritten every day. Here’s a look back at the 2016 Rome Braves

The position players:

C: Jonathan Morales, Lucas Herbert

1B: Carlos Castro

2B: Luke Dykstra

SS: Alejandro Salazar

3B: Austin Riley

OF: Ray Patrick Didder

OF: Ronald Acuña, Jr.

OF: Justin Ellison

Key reserves: INF Anfernee Seymour, Tyler Neslony, OF Jared James

Obviously, the big name here is Acuña, Jr. His meteoric rise was well-highlighted right here at Minor League Ball as well as every outlet in the industry. Our own John Sickels had him ranked as the top prospect in the game entering 2017 (in fact he had FIVE everyday starters from the 2016 squad in his Top 100) and his start to his big league career has been exciting. That said, his 2016 was limited, missing nearly three months with injury. When he played though, all eyes were always on him. After a much-publicized “slow start” in 2018, Acuña, Jr. is the starting left fielder for the team with the best record in the National League.

Riley’s 2016 second half (.289/.348/.581, 21 doubles and 17 home runs) was a sight to see. It was when I first referred to him as the GOAT and got teased a bit (of course, this was at the same time Josh Brown of Knockahoma Nation began to preach about the glory of Nick Markakis in the Rome press box, so luckily, I flew more under the radar). Riley reached Double-A last season at the age of 20, and is coming off a three-home run game in Triple-A, where he continues to rake. With the Jose Bautista experiment looking more like a failure every day, the GOAT is close.

Ray-Patrick Didder was the breakout star on that team, but unfortunately, hasn’t gotten back to that level in Florida, now there for the second-straight season. Lucas Herbert’s bat will always be a conundrum, but still young and nice defensively, Braves fans hold hope he will one day get it. Jared James was drafted in the 34th round that year and when he joined Rome, he became known for game-winning home runs. Some guys, like Ellison and Castro are no longer on the team, while others, like the oft-injured Dykstra, were used as trade bait. Perhaps the most disappointing was the release of Seymour. So much speed and potential, he just never got it.

The rotation:

Mike Soroka

Kolby Allard

Max Fried

Patrick Weigel then Ricardo Sanchez

Touki Toussaint

The rotation was where all the attention was. Pick your poison, any day of the week was a bad one for opposing hitters.

Soroka is currently in the big league rotation. At the age of 20. He skipped over High-A completely in 2017 and dominated in Mississippi. His first few starts in Gwinnett showed that he was advanced beyond his years and he had nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.

Allard is right behind him, and on a recent hot run, he may join his partner in crime by season’s end. They climbed the ladder together, at the same unbelievable pace, and have been successful the entire way. There has been a lot of talk about Allard’s decrease in velocity and his sometimes wavering control, but as a 20-year old at the highest level of the minor leagues, he is pitching some of his best baseball. Throw aside his first game of the year, again in Triple-A as a 20-year-old, Allard has thrown 37.3 innings and allowed just five runs. Allard is learning how to pitch without that big velocity and he is still as dangerous as the Braves hoped he could be when they took him in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft.

Toussaint has some of the most exciting stuff in the system. His problem has simply been consistently pounding the strike zone, and that still follows him. That said, he’s been at his best since reaching Mississippi last year, and is probably Gwinnett-bound soon.

Fried has already pitched in the bigs, and will continue to be a work in progress, perhaps most suited in the bullpen. Still, Fried’s best days are so exciting and dominant that it’s fair to hold faith that he one day sticks as a starter. Weigel was the breakout star in the Braves system in 2016, earning pitcher of the year honors. He was likely MLB-bound in 2017 until the dreaded Tommy John caught up with him.

Notable bullpen arms:

Devon Watts

Matt Custred

Corbin Clouse

A.J. Minter

Chase Johnson-Mullins

Watts was deadly in Rome after being drafted out of DII Tusculum in the 17th round of that 2016 MLB Draft. He went 3-1 with eight saves and a microscopic 0.92 ERA. He still shows promise bouncing up and down between Florida and Mississippi. Minter didn’t last very long in Rome after the Braves snagged him at the end of the second round of the 2015 MLB Draft, but he left his mark. He didn’t allow an earned run and recorded two saves before starting his quick rise to Cobb Parkway, where he now is becoming one of the better set-up men in the NL.

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This team was fun, and it was infectious. You didn’t just watch good baseball, you saw high-character, high-baseball IQ kids having fun. I remember standing in the clubhouse after a postseason win, five or six reporters chatting with Soroka, this freshly-turned 19-year-old with audio recorders of every kind in his face, and he wasn’t even nervous or at a loss for words. He handled it like a pro. Even when Riley came strutting over in dance-like fashion and kind of stole the spotlight, the two just fed off each other. That’s when Blake Silvers said something I’ll never forget.

“You know how you watch those old World Series videos and they are celebrating and partying in the clubhouse? It’s like that in here every game.”

Maybe that’s what made these guys so special and successful at the same time. The child-like view of the game, having fun getting to play the game they love. The rest of it, all the velocity, nasty breaking balls and sweet swings, that all just seemed to come naturally for them. And let me tell you, they were really good at it. You better believe they were disciplined because Randy Ingle was one tough cookie as the skipper.

Whatever the case was, everyone took notice. Baseball America named them the Minor League Team of the Year. Pretty soon, they’ll have the Atlanta Braves looking like the Major League Team of the Year.