One of the best parts of the annual rite of Spring Training is the opportunity to see some of the Braves' top talent down on the farm play against high-caliber competition in March games. This year is no exception, as a good portion of the Braves' most intriguing young prospects have gotten the opportunity to attend camp with the big league team and put their talents on display.
Many of the prospects in Braves camp this year will likely have the chance to make an impact with the big league club in the not-too-distant future. Prospects such as Tommy La Stella, Christian Bethancourt, Ryan Buchter, and David Hale are on the cusp of having important roles in Atlanta, and their performances in Spring Training have given us an idea of what they could potentially bring to the table in the future as members of the team. I've chosen to specifically focus on these two pitchers and two hitters who could have an impact in the fairly short term with the Braves, mostly because the majority of the prospects at camp are of the older variety and the Braves are a team looking to win now and in the near future rather than a few years down the road. So, without further ado, here's a look at how the aforementioned four players have performed this spring, and how their performances have helped demonstrate their potential value to the Braves.
Tommy La Stella, second base
2014 Spring Training statistics: 47 PA, .293/.383/.390, 4 doubles, 6 walks, 6 strikeouts
The 25-year-old La Stella is an en vogue name with many Braves fans because of his stellar 2013 performance at double-A Mississippi, combined with the fact that he plays the same position as current whipping boy Dan Uggla. This isn't to say that La Stella doesn't deserve much of the adulation that he receives, as his fantastic 163 wRC+ in the Southern League in 2013, combined with his ability to avoid the strikeout and provide an offensive shot in the arm from the left side of the plate (something that the Braves don't have much of with a lineup dominated by right-handed hitters), shows that he is almost certain to be, if nothing else, an interesting player in the big leagues. His gap-to-gap power and overall offensive game is something that most talent evaluators agree will play (at least to some extent) in the big leagues, so the only real question that lingers about La Stella's ability lies mostly in his fringy defense, although reports seem to suggest that this facet of his game may be improving.
La Stella's performance in the spring this year has done nothing but add fuel to the fire of the arguments of those who would prefer to see him man the second base position in lieu of Uggla in 2014. La Stella narrowly missed hitting an opposite field home run yesterday off of Masahiro Tanaka at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, as the ball caromed off of the top of the fence. It ended up being a double, La Stella's fourth of the spring, and nicely showcased his ability to use all fields. That double, as well as one hit off of Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon (to the right-center field gap), is embedded below.
La Stella's offensive ability is firmly established; I believe that La Stella would likely be an above-average hitter for the Braves, posting a wRC+ in the general range of 110. La Stella isn't a guy who will hit more than a few mistake pitches over the fence, and a lot of his high batting average will be derived from slapping the ball around the outfield and into the gaps, a la Chris Johnson. He should be a high BABIP hitter with consistency and post a nice OBP, as La Stella's patience at the plate is also impressive. It's also notable that, despite being a left-handed hitter, La Stella's minor league numbers do not show any significant platoon splits, as he hits right-handed and left-handed pitching almost equally well. His defense can be rough at times, and this could be a detriment to his overall value as a player. La Stella is an okay athlete, but he sometimes just simply misplays balls and displays poor footwork. I don't think his defense would be any worse than Uggla's, so this isn't something I'd fret over if I were a member of the organization.
Ultimately, despite his strengths, I do not believe that La Stella will break camp as a member of the Braves' 25-man roster in 2014. Dan Uggla is going to be the starter this season until he begins to fall off of the rails (and this isn't necessarily something that will assuredly happen), but I do believe that La Stella would be next in line to usurp Uggla were he to struggle in 2014. I expect to see La Stella playing in Gwinnett for much of 2014, but his potential for impacting the big league club in 2014 is more tied to Dan Uggla's performance than his own. Were he to have the opportunity to become Atlanta's starting second baseman in 2014, I think that his offensive performance would likely entrench him as the starter heading into 2015 (the last year of Uggla's contract).
Major League ETA: mid-to-late 2014
Christian Bethancourt, catcher
2014 Spring Training statistics: 17 PA, .176/.176/.176, 3 singles, 3 strikeouts
I won't spend much time on describing Christian Bethancourt, because we essentially know what he brings to the table. Bethancourt is an all-world defensive catcher with fantastic pop times, arm strength, and a still-developing, but good, set of receiving skills behind the plate. The 22-year-old Panamanian's offensive game continues to be a question mark, despite the leap forward he took offensively at Mississippi. He began to display some of the dormant power that many believed existed in his skill set, as he improved his load at the plate and began to convert his raw strength into home runs, hitting 12 home runs in 388 plate appearances (good for a .159 ISO) in 2013. Bethancourt is still allergic to walks, posting a 4.1% walk rate, and doesn't show much discretion in swinging. However, his 112 wRC+ during his second go-around in the Southern League was an encouraging sign after his paltry 56 wRC+ in 2012 as one of the youngest players in the league.
Bethancourt hasn't gotten a ton of run this spring, as most of the catching duties have been handled by Evan Gattis and Ryan Doumit. He hasn't been impressive offensively, as you can see in his statistics above, but that's not something to be concerned about in such a small sample size. The improvements made in his swing have been apparent to me in what I've seen from Bethancourt at the plate this spring, and I think he will produce at least passable offensive numbers down the road. It's especially easy to live with fairly pedestrian offensive numbers when one considers Bethacourt's potential to challenge Yadier Molina as the best defensive catcher in the bigs somewhere down the line, so any added offensive production would likely be a bonus.
Below is a video of Bethancourt putting a charge into a pitch against the Cardinals to the opposite field from last week. Although his drive was cruelly robbed by Randal Grichuk, it does demonstrate some of the improvements in his swing. He has an efficient load, a short, simple stride, and evident raw power.
I do not expect Bethancourt to make a substantial impact with the big league club in 2014. I think it'd be wise to let Bethancourt continue to refine his offensive game and receiving in Gwinnett this season, as the Braves have good Major League catching depth, with Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird, and Ryan Doumit likely to catch the vast majority of innings behind the plate in 2014. Unless another rash of injuries befalls the Braves, I think that Bethancourt will likely remain down on the farm until roster expansion occurs at the beginning of September. I expect Bethancourt to arrive in the big leagues in 2015, although it's tough to gauge in what capacity. Gerald Laird will be gone, as will Ryan Doumit (provided that neither of these players re-up with Atlanta), so it seems almost certain that Bethancourt should arrive in the big leagues in a permanent capacity by the start of 2015.
ETA: possibly late 2014, likely Opening Day 2015
Ryan Buchter, left-handed relief pitcher
2014 Spring Training statistics: 7 games, 7 IP, 5.14 ERA, 9 K, 5 BB
Buchter isn't a showy name or a hot prospect, but his performance in Spring Training (and the Braves' lack of left-handed relief pitching options), have made him a player to keep an eye on as we draw closer to the beginning of the regular season. Buchter is no spring chicken, as he'll play the 2014 season as a 27-year-old, but he could play a significant role in Atlanta's bullpen in 2014. Buchter bounced from the Nationals' organization after three seasons to the Cubs' organization in 2009, and was acquired by the Braves after two years in the Cubs' organization. Buchter has consistently posted impressive strikeout rates as a reliever in his various stops in the Minor Leagues, but has always struggled mightily with walks, which has greatly hurt his overall effectiveness in the past. Buchter posted a stellar 37.6% strikeout rate as a member of Gwinnett's bullpen in 2013, but that number is less impressive when you consider that he posted an unsightly 18.6% walk rate. He did post a 2.76 ERA with a 3.59 FIP, however, showing that his pure stuff and ability to punch out batters can make him a somewhat effective weapon off of the mound despite his struggles with control. Take a look at these GIFs of Buchter's mid-90's fastball and deceptive slider from last season, courtesy of The Hardball Times.
Buchter's Spring Training performance thus far in 2014 has been a microcosm of what he's always done in the minors: strike a ton of batters out, but struggle with walks. Buchter has made 7 appearances, each consisting of 1 inning of work, and initially struggled. He allowed at least one earned run in his first three appearances this spring, but has come on strong in the past 10 days or so, allowing zero runs over 4 appearances, along with a 6:1 K:BB ratio. Of course, it would be silly to put too much stock into these numbers, as it's the epitome of a small sample size. However, I feel confident that Roger McDowell and the Braves' staff will be able to refine Buchter's control to some degree, and he's likely learning as he goes throughout the spring and harnessing his stuff more effectively.
Unless Frank Wren makes a move for a left-handed reliever on the cheap, as he's been known to do (see: O'Flaherty, Eric), I foresee Buchter being added to the 25-man roster and beginning the season with the Braves. Buchter's delivery and stuff from the left side make him difficult to pick up for left-handed hitters, and the statistics clearly show that he's a tough nut to crack for lefties, as they managed a paltry .124/.286/.180 line and whiffed 42.1% of the time against Buchter last season in AAA. Therefore, I see Buchter fulfilling the beloved LOOGY role for the Braves in 2014, although he may be sent back down to the minors if and when Jonny Venters recovers from Tommy John surgery. I am excited to see what Buchter is able to do for Atlanta in 2014, and I expect him to fill a hole and make an immediate impact on the team this season.
ETA: Opening Day 2014
David Hale, right-handed starting pitcher
2014 Spring Training statistics: 3 games, 8 IP, 4.50 ERA, 7 K, 2 BB
Another seasoned Braves prospect pitcher who's likely to break camp with the team as the season begins is David Hale. Hale, a 26-year old right-handed Princeton graduate, performed admirably during two Major League starts last September for the Braves, notching two strong starts and striking out 14 batters in 11 innings of work while flashing a hard, sinking, low-to-mid 90's fastball as well as an average to above-average slider and a fringy-to-average changeup. For me, it was a bit surprising to see the velocity that Hale flashed at times, and I was pleasantly surprised overall with the stuff that he flashed during his time in Atlanta in 2014. Below is some video from his debut against San Diego, in which he struck out nine Padres in only five innings of work.
I'd be remiss not to point out Hale's much more pedestrian AAA numbers, however, as he posted a 3.22 ERA with a 3.59 FIP in 114.2 innings of work for Gwinnett, and didn't strike out many batters, posting a middling 15.6% strikeout rate. Hale's calling card isn't his ability to overwhelm hitters, however, as he is more of a ground-ball pitcher with good control who seems to be the definition of a decent back-end starting pitching option. Our very own Ethan Purser wrote an excellent post detailing Hale's repertoire, abilities, and potential 2014 impact in this piece from last week, so be sure to check that out if you haven't already read it.
Hale hasn't done anything this spring to alter my opinion as to his future big league role or ability. Hale has done about what you'd expect him to do so far: induce ground balls, pick up a few strikeouts, and limit free passes to opposing hitters. He's made three starts, against Houston, Washington, and Tampa, totaling 8 innings of work. Hale only really had one poor outing, in Viera against the Nationals on March 8th, but has performed strongly in his other two appearances this spring. Hale hasn't given up any home runs, and has continued to pound the zone and induce ground balls. I don't expect Hale to magically start dominating hitters or make any significant improvements this spring, as he's a fairly experienced player who's found his calling card as a fairly boring, but safe, option as a starter for Atlanta.
Considering the almost incredible rash of injuries that the Braves have incurred in their starting rotation this spring, including Mike Minor's shoulder soreness and Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy's UCL injuries, as well as Ervin Santana's delayed preparation for the beginning of the season, it's a near certainty that David Hale will make the Braves' 25-man roster at the end of Spring Training. He, along with Julio Teherán, Alex Wood, and Freddy García, will likely be the members of a patchwork four-man rotation that will eventually be filled out by the aforementioned Minor and Santana. Hale (as well as García) should still have plenty of opportunities to pitch for the Braves in 2014, due to injuries, Gavin Floyd's recovery from Tommy John surgery, and Alex Wood's possible innings cap. I expect Hale to spend most, if not all, of 2014 as a member of Atlanta's 25-man roster, functioning as a back-end starter and swingman making long relief appearances. It's impossible to know exactly how things will play out in Atlanta's rotation in 2014, but look for David Hale to be a key member of that rotation as an unexciting, but fairly competent, member of the back end of the rotation.
ETA: Opening Day 2014