The Rome Braves may only play in the Sally League(South Atlantic League) in the Low A classification- which is the furthest classification from the big leagues to start play in the spring, but year in and year out they seem to put a fun team filled with prospects on the field. The 2018 season appears no different upon a first look at the roster, which was just released.
This year Rome is again loaded with intriguing young prospects, both in the lineup and on the pitching staff. In fact this may be the farm team I am most excited to watch this year. That’s even after one of the most anticipated full season debuts wasn’t found on the roster.
Who Isn’t Here?
In a move that will surely surprise some readers, young 20 year old Venezuelan catcher Wiliam Contreras is not on the roster. The brother of the Cubs catcher was widely expected to open in Rome among the fan base as it seemed like the next logical step for a kid who spent all of 2017 in Danville, hitting a very solid .290/.379/.432.
Contreras isn’t on any of the four rosters in full season ball, so he is clearly opening in extended spring training. There is no official reason given, and the most likely reasons are either some minor injury, or the team holding him back to avoid putting him through the grind of the entire season in the heat behind the plate. This one should be watched going forward as it would surprise no one if he was in Rome within a few weeks.
Jasseel De La Cruz
Lets start with the biggest surprise. No one expected Freddy Tarnok to be here to open 2018. This isn’t related to his talent- because based on talent he belongs. Rather that expectation came from a combination of things: being new to pitching, still building up his arm and getting ready for a full season workload, and the way the Braves didn’t want to press him hard in the GCL last year. His combination of upside and rawness make him arguably the most intriguing player on the roster right now.
Kyle Muller has been all over the place, from overslot high draft choice to dropping down the prospect rankings thanks to diminished velocity. That velocity is back into the mid 90s and he could really shut any one who has doubted him up this year.
Jasseel De La Cruz is a young but promising power pitcher with a ways to go in his development. This year will give him a chance to make a name for himself by pitching on a bigger stage with his stuff, but will his command and inability to hold velocity deep into games come back to hurt him?
Huascar Ynoa was the return in the Jaime Garcia deal, and the brother of former top dollar bonus baby Michael Ynoa has shown real flashes since coming from Minnesota. Ynoa’s flashes with Danville were just that, but adding some consistency would go a long way.
Alan Rangel is back after making 13 starts here last year, the only spot he pitched in 2017. Rangel pitched to a decent 4.71 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, and is likely to see some improvement in his repeat of the league. Despite repeating in Rome the Mexican right hander will be just 20 years old basically the entire season.
Basically this rotation has four guys who have made the list of Top 30 Braves prospects somewhere this winter. While there’s no Soroka/Allard, or even Wentz/Wilson, this group is deep and promising. Even Rangel as the fifth guy isn’t a guy I’m ready to label as organizational depth.
As surprising as the decision to leave William Contreras off the opening roster was, it was even more baffling to see Thomas Burrows on the Rome roster. Burrows was a dominant closer at Alabama- and the SEC isn’t too far behind the Sally League in terms of competition, who was then drafted in the fourth round by the Mariners and later traded to the Braves along with Luiz Gohara. With that in mind it was surprising to see Burrows on Rome’s roster last year, and even more surprising that he spent the entire year here despite a 2.16 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 66.2 innings. Then throw in the fact that he’s already 23 and will be 24 before the end of the MLB season, and it’s easy to see why it’s baffling for him to still be here.
If it wasn’t for Burrows then Brandon White would be the surprise inclusion. The Braves 12th round pick out of Lander University in 2016 was great here last year, pitching to a 1.82 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 39.2 innings. He then went to High A Florida and was solid with a 4.32 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 16.2 innings. Where Burrows has failed to get a promotion, White is actually demoted.
Odalvi Javier is likely to be the main guy to be a sixth starter or help piggyback with a guy like Tarnok to help control his innings this year. The 21 year old Dominican had a strong year as a starter with Danville in 2017- 3.14 ERA in 13 starts, but he has less upside than the others likely leaving him as the reliever/6th starter.
Bruce Zimmermann, Tanner Allison, and Jacob Belinda were all 2017 Braves draftees, with Walter Borkovich signing as an undrafted free agent. Zimmermann was a senior sign and college starter, and he could likely help make up some of the starts/innings should the Braves try to protect Tarnok’s arm. Allison barely pitched last year after being a two way college prospect, but the lefty with promising stuff and troubles with his command has some potential. Belinda is the nephew of former big leaguer Stan Belinda.
The pen can best be described in two different manners. The first is that it’s a surprising group as already mentioned. The second being that it’s a solid group with Burrows a proven closer, White capable of pitching late innings, Allison being the lefty, and guys like Zimmermann and Belinda able to go multiple innings.
3B-Jean Carlos Encarnacion
Drew Lugbauer has true plus plus raw power and will always be worth watching for that reason. With him being likely to spend the bulk of his time behind the plate this year, and his defense being a work in progress, seeing him open up where he ended the 2017 season doesn’t seem so bad. Lugbauer’s need for some defensive work is likely the main reason he doesn’t start in Florida and if he keeps hitting like he did in 2017 it’s just a matter of time before he earns that promotion.
Jean Carlos Encarnacion is a guy I’ve talked about a lot, but he’s the hitter I’m most excited to watch in Rome this summer. His potential is through the roof, and it will be interesting to see how his tools translate to full season ball.
Derian Cruz is back after starting in Rome last year and struggling enough to be demoted to Danville. He’s been through a lot, but lets not forget that Cruz was a big bonus guy who was regarded as the prize of the Braves 2015 international class by some. I’m very interested to see if Cruz’s tools let him bounce back in 2018. I have him listed at short, but don’t be surprised to see him play plenty of second as well.
Arguably one of the best bats in the low minors in this system is Jefrey Ramos. Ramos may be limited to left defensively, but he makes hard contact. He went on a tear in the GCL last year right around the time of our trip, and stayed hot long enough to be promoted to Danville. Ramos wasn’t able to remain as hot in Danville, but he was still making hard contact- a great sign that he could handle the Sally League at the age of 19.
Drew Waters is one of the highest upside hitters in the system, and the 2017 2nd round draft pick has the potential to become a four or five tool player depending on the development of the hit tool. Waters was great in the GCL, but up and down after he was challenged with a promotion to Danville last year. He’s going to need to make some adjustments to succeed, but he’s a hard working kid with a good baseball IQ, so it’s expected that he can take a step forward this year.
Isranel Wilson is a very high upside prospect with loud tools and some minor league success- remember he won the GCL home run title at the age of 17. However he hasn’t yet taken that next step forward in the last two seasons, keeping him on the list of potential breakouts for yet another season.
Griffin Benson is the only true first baseman on the roster, but both Kurt Hoekstra and Lugbauer have the ability to play there.
Garrison Schwartz, OF
Carlos Martinez, C
Alan Crowley, C- DL
Riley Delgado, SS
Luis Mejia, INF
Garrison Schwartz is the guy likely to see the most time, between being a fourth outfielder as well as a designated hitter. The Grand Canyon University product doesn’t really stand out anywhere, but his tools are solid across the board and he could be a productive player in Rome.
Backup catchers Carlos Martinez and Alan Crowley(after his DL stint) return to Rome. Also back is glove first shortstop Riley Delgado, who spent the last few games of 2017 here. Luis Mejia adds some defensive versatility and the ability to get on base.
Predicted Record: 71-69 overall
Team MVP: Drew Lugbauer, C
Team Pitching MVP: Kyle Muller, SP
First Player to Be Promoted: Thomas Burrows, RP. Note I would pick Lugbauer, but I think he spends longer here to work on his catching.
First Player to Reach Atlanta: Thomas Burrows, RP
Breakout Player: Jean Carlos Encarnacion, 3B
First Player to Join Team Midseason: William Contreras, C