ROME, GA – It sounds odd, doesn’t it? Judging a Major League Baseball team by how its lowest full-season team performed. But, with the Braves, Low-A is just a quick stop away from SunTrust Park.
Ozzie Albies. Mike Soroka. Kolby Allard. Bryse Wilson. Touki Toussaint. Even guys like AJ Minter. Of course there’s Ronald Acuña, Jr. who seems to be hitting the ball pretty well. And fielding. And running.
Every one of those names was in Rome within the last three years. To have a star or two is one thing. The Washington Nationals have their Juan Soto, but the Braves are a playoff contender and it is in large part thanks to the contributions of the Rome Braves of yesteryear.
In 2018, Rome cruised to a 40-29 first-half record, securing their spot in the SL playoffs. It was a much different feel at State Mutual than it has been the past few seasons, but that’s not a bad thing. Rocket Wheeler returned to the dugout and a new front office had different plans for its young stars. Let’s take a look at the year that was.
There’s actually some offense on the pipeline
The Rome teams of 2016 and 2017 were highlighted by some of baseball’s best pitching prospects (take a look back at that special 2016 team right here). While some interesting pitching came through Rome in 2018, this season was more about the bats.
Drew Waters has some of the loudest tools in the system. He has some work to do from the right-hand side, but he proved to be a near-complete player at a young age. Greyson Jenista was intriguing. The bat was for real during his stop in Rome, but the power was a question mark. There was a lot of first-pitch, ground ball at bats I saw, but when he laid into one his left-hand swing is too nice to ignore, with an advanced feel at the plate. Riley Delgado was a pleasant surprise this year as well. You’re likely never going to see much in the power department, but he makes consistent contact, doesn’t strikeout, and really flashed the leather with some nice range before heading to Florida.
William Contreras may have been my personal favorite in his time in Rome. He really showed flashes of skills in every department, with over-the-fence and gap power as well as a cannon behind the plate. He’s not the perfect catching prospect just yet, he has a nice arm, but needs to improve his framing and range, but the skills were clearly there to do so.
“You look at the first half, a lot of guys stood out,” Rome skipper Rocket Wheeler said. “Waters, [Isranel Wilson]. Everybody got a big hit in that first hit, all the guys who started. It wasn’t just one guy, it was the whole team. If you go back to look, everybody contributed, that’s how we won 40 games. It was good, and a lot of those guys got moved up. Jenista came in the draft, got here and was doing well, and then they moved him up. We did our job, and that’s what we’re here for.”
How about that pitching?
The 2016 rotation was full of big-league talent, and 2017 wasn’t far behind. Nearly every pitcher in those rotations flashed big-league stuff, some filthier than others. This season, there was nice pitching, but nobody looked like that sure-fire bet to be the next Wilson or Soroka.
Kyle Muller finally made his full-season debut in 2018, making a quick few starts at Rome before jumping two levels where he put up impressive numbers in Mississippi. He still seems like a bit of a project, trying to get the velocity and breaking balls back to where they were when he was so highly drafted. With his mustache and all-star first half, Bruce Zimmermann quickly became a fan favorite, however, he was used as a trade piece to land Kevin Gausman.
Alan Rangel, Freddy Tarnok and Walter Borkovich were three arms that played almost the whole season in Rome. All three show potential, but all three could very well end up as bullpen arms when it’s all said and done. Rangel is a curious one that I am personally a big fan of. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he does something right (here was my latest of many looks at him). Tarnok is young and raw. When his fastball is in the zone, it’s pretty. When his change is on it’s exciting. When his breaking ball breaks, it’s special. The thing is, he is still transitioning to a full-time pitcher, and he’s not always on. Borkovich also enjoyed an all-star season. He began the year in the pen and was sent to Florida for three starts, where he didn’t allow a run before heading back to Rome for the playoff push. He doesn’t miss many bats, and does allow quite a bit of contact, albeit pretty weak, but he knows how to get hitters out. I would love to see Jasseel De La Cruz stay healthy and show what he can do over a full season, because when he pitched, he looked exciting.
In 2016 and 2017, you knew you were watching the future rotation for the Atlanta Braves. This season wasn’t the same, but it doesn’t mean there weren’t valuable pieces.
Movin’ on up!
Alex Anthopoulos certainly put his stamp on the system quickly in 2018. The past two seasons in Rome saw many of their young, elite prospects start and finish the season playing at State Mutual. Hardly any where traded, but this is a new era. The raw prospects are ripening into trade chips and getting their chances quickly to show if they can handle the next level.
While it’s exciting to see Bryse Wilson on the bump in SunTrust Park, the quick movement does have an effect. Watch a Braves game on TV or follow on Twitter, and you will see the Atlanta Braves have something special going on, not just on the field, but in the dugout. The Acuña and Albies combo has been stealing the spotlight since they once again became teammates, and now that Touki and the others joined The Show, there is just a lot of fun going on, whether they are throwing sunflower seeds or standing on the top row of the dugout with ear-to-ear grins from another Charlie Clutch big hit. Just wait until Austin Riley gets there and adds his child-like love of the game.
That isn’t natural. That was cultivated on the farm. The 2016 and 2017 Rome Braves were very much the cliched family. When you interviewed one, another would walk over and join the fun. They didn’t seem to let losses affect them, still smiling and joking around because they knew tomorrow was another day to get that win right back. Don’t get me wrong, they all had bad days, but you look at a fiery player like Waters who visibly hates making outs, and I just don’t think that flies for very long on the other teams.
It’s not a negative to move the talent up so quickly, but it’s certainly different. We’ll see how it plays out on the field and with this unique Braves chemistry probably much sooner than later.