Week 9 MiLB Preview: Cristian Pache and Gwinnett are due, while Augusta is lone affiliate to host series this week 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

-Clint Manry

It’s another week for Braves minor league baseball…

Gwinnett Stripers (22-25 / 4th)

@ Durham Bulls (TBR)

The Stripers just finished what was probably the worst week of its season so far in Week 8, losing five of six versus Norfolk to fall nine games back in its division. Today Gwinnett begins its new series with Durham, who at 31-16, is first in the Southeast division and owns the third-best record in the league. At least the Stripers won’t have to try and contain all-world prospect Wander Franco as he’s now in the majors with the Rays. Though Franco wasn’t the only top-tier prospect playing with the Bulls; this team also features recently-promoted — and last week’s Pitcher of the Week — Shane Baz, as well as righty Drew Strotman and outfielder Josh Lowe. In a nutshell, this is a pretty loaded Durham team.

Gwinnett player to watch: Last week I was anxious to see what prospect Drew Waters would do since he was finally healthy from a recent thumb ailment that forced him to miss several games, but he didn’t really contribute last week and ended up going just 1 for 21 in the series. It may take him some time to get going again, so my focus now turns to the system’s top prospect, outfielder Cristian Pache. The 22-year-old Pache has essentially been nonexistent at both the MLB and minor league level in 2021 (though some of that is due to an injury). With Gwinnett this year he owns just a .211 AVG and has six XBH in 17 games. Hopefully THIS is the week that Pache starts heating up at the plate. 

Today’s starter: as of Tuesday morning… who knows? I could see Kyle Wright or Tanner Roark getting the nod today in Game 1, given both were optioned to Gwinnett late last week and probably should continue receiving some innings. For the life of me, I can’t understand why Roark hasn’t been making at least semi-regular starts for the Stripers this season as I thought using him as a potential spot-starter was the whole reason the Braves grabbed him to begin with. The 34-year-old righty hasn’t logged an inning with Atlanta yet and has pitched 17 ⅔ frames in Triple-A, all as a reliever. 

Mississippi Braves (29-19 / 1st)

@ Montgomery Biscuits (TBR)

I was so thrilled to finally see the M-Braves in person this past weekend as they won four of six against Tennessee at home to become the best team in Double-A’s East League. From starting pitching, to the bullpen, to the lineup, this is the most fun Braves affiliate to watch this season, and I had a blast at a VERY hot and humid Trustmark Park on both Friday and Saturday.

Mississippi player to watch: Spencer Strider debuted for the M-Braves last Thursday, coming up from High-A Rome, and boy did he impress. Even at his second promotion this season, the 22-year-old Strider continued his wrath of punch outs as he struck out eight batters and allowed only three hits in 4 ⅔ innings. I can’t wait to see what he does in his next start. 

I’ll also add Greyson Jenista here. Watching lineup-mate Braden Shewmake start to turn things around lately, including barreling several balls this past weekend, I’m hoping maybe Jenista starts squaring some pitches up as well. Until I saw him in person, I didn’t realize just how big this dude really is, but he mostly struggled at the plate last week, going just 2 for 13 in the series. 

Today’s starter: as of early this morning, no starter has been announced for the series opener (per MiLB.com), though if the rotation continues as it has recently, it should be Nolan Kingham’s turn on the bump. The 24-year-old Kingham is having perhaps the best stretch of his pro career as last Wednesday gave him his third-straight shutout outing (as part of 25 consecutive scoreless innings). As a right-handed pitcher, the former 12th round pick out of the University of Texas has been hell on opposing batters this season, especially lefties, shown by just two XBH allowed in 89 PA versus that particular handedness. Let’s see if Kingham can keep the momentum going.

Rome Braves (24-22 / 3rd)

@ Wilmington Blue Rocks (WAS)

After a hot start, Rome cooled off in June but wrapped up its series in Week 8 with an impressive comeback win over Aberdeen on Sunday. At two games over .500 this season, the R-Braves are seven games behind the leader in the division and are set to take on Wilmington (22-24) for the first time in 2021. 

Rome player to watch: prospect Michael Harris had another strong series in Week 8, hitting .292 with three XBH and a pair of stolen bases in six games versus Aberdeen. The 20-year-old enters today’s series opener with both the third-best AVG (.321) and third-highest line drive rate (29.8%) in High-A’s East League as Rome’s most consistent performer at the plate so far this season. And though the Braves really have no reason to rush him, I keep thinking that any day now could be Harris’ last in High-A. There are several exciting players in this R-Braves lineup, but Harris is a nightly must-watch. 

Today’s starter: righty Freddy Tarnok will pitch Game 1 for Rome, making just his second start of the season after being assigned to the R-Braves from extended spring training just earlier this month. The 22-year-old prospect understandably wasn’t allowed to go too far in his outing last week, leaving with two outs in the 4th inning at 69 pitches, but Tarnok threw the ball well nonetheless as he struck out eight and allowed just one hit. I don’t imagine his pitch-count will be too awfully high tonight either, but we could see him go a little further. 

Augusta GreenJackets (20-27 / last)

vs. Columbia Fireflies (NYM)

Augusta had a tough matchup with the league’s best team — Charleston — last week and managed to win just one of six, falling 11 ½ games back from first-place in the division’s cellar. However, the GreenJackets should enjoy this week’s slate of games if for no other reason than that they’re the only Braves affiliate to play at home in Week 9, which given the upcoming 4th of July weekend, is a pretty big deal for minor league teams. Augusta is extremely familiar with Columbia this season, having already faced the Fireflies 17 times in 2021; although of those matchups, the Jackets have only won seven. 

Augusta player to watch: look, Cade Bunnell wasn’t a well-known player coming out of college, sporting a career .200 AVG and just four XBH in 84 games spanning three seasons with both Kansas State and Indiana, which is why he wasn’t selected by the Braves until the 40th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. And it didn’t really help his stock when, as a 22-year-old that year, he hit only .141 with the GCL team. However, as Augusta’s primary lead-off hitter, Bunnell currently trails only Willie Carter for the highest wRC+ on the team, at 140, as he’s getting on base at a .398 clip and slugging .498 in 45 games this season. Obviously I’m not claiming Bunnell is a potential prospect or anything, but the kid went from displaying absolutely no power over the last five seasons (including college ball) to now having 19 XBH (six HR) in just his first 191 PA in full-season ball. It’s at least a cool story to follow. 

Today’s starter: Jake McSteen will start today’s series opener versus Columbia. This will be McSteen’s third start in Single-A, after he posted a 4.66 ERA in his first 9 ⅔ innings with Rome to start the season. So far the Nebraska product has enjoyed his time with the GreenJackets. In his pair of outings, the 25-year-old has struck out 11 in 9 ⅔ frames to go with just two earned runs (1.86 ERA). 

FCL Braves (1-0)

Tue, June 29 – @ Red Sox

Thu, July 1 – @ Orioles (Black)

Fri, July 2 – @ Rays

Sat, July 3 – vs. Rays

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