Week 14 Organizational Preview: All but Gwinnett hit the road

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

-Clint Manry

It’s getting difficult to keep count, but we’ve now made it to Week 14 of the 2021 minor league season. With football games cranking up this coming weekend, it feels as if baseball season has flown by; just goes to show how much work the Braves have ahead of them if they want to make the postseason.

But as usual on Tuesdays, I’ve looked at this week’s slate of games, this time also including the big league team given just how critical the final two-month stretch is for Atlanta. I spend a lot of time following the minor leagues and the organization’s prospects, but at this point in the season, everyone’s attention should be pointed towards the Braves playoff chase. So let’s get to it…

Atlanta Braves (52-54 / 3rd place)

@ Cardinals / vs. Nationals

Tue, August 3 – @ STL (8:15 PM)

Wed, August 4 – @ STL (8:15 PM)

Thu, August 5 – @ STL (8:15 PM)

Fri, August 6 – vs. WAS (7:20 PM)

Sat, August 7 – vs. WAS (7:20 PM)

Sun, August 8 – vs. WAS (1:20 PM)

Can the Braves ever get out of its win-loss-win-loss funk? We’ll see as the team plays three games apiece against both the Cardinals and Nationals this week, a six-game stretch that should be favorable. Fortunately, Atlanta’s next 18 games consist of just one opponent currently sporting a winning record, which will be the Reds next week, so there’s a path for them to get over the .500 hump in the next 7-10 days.

I’m excited to see the Braves newly-built outfield for a full week’s worth of games, not to mention the several injured players set to come off the IL soon. August will be an extremely crucial month for Atlanta, and it all starts with this week’s slate. Hopefully it’s a productive next few days. Today, though, Max Fried will face Washington’s Jon Lester in what should be a helluva pitching matchup. Drew Smyly and Touki Toussaint should wrap up the Nationals series and handle Game 2 and 3, respectively.

Gwinnett Stripers (41-37 / 4th place)

vs. Charlotte (CHW)

Tue, August 3 – 7:05 PM

Wed, August 4 – 7:05 PM

Thu, August 5 – 7:05 PM

Fri, August 6 – 7:05 PM

Sat, August 7 – 6:05 PM

Sun, August 8 – 1:05 PM

Among all minor leaguer hitters with at least 150 PA this season, Gwinnett’s Travis Demeritte currently sports the second-best wRC+ with a 188. And he’s not the only Striper that’s destroying Triple-A pitching — seemingly the entire Gwinnett lineup is scorching-hot at the plate, hence the team’s present three-game winning streak and recent series win over Memphis last week. Johan Camargo (150 wRC+), Orlando Arcia (144), Alex Jackson before he was traded last week (167), Jason Kipnis (121) and Drew Waters (106) are all producing at an above-average rate with the bat as the Stripers head into Week 14 four games above .500.

On the pitching side, it’s essentially Kyle Wright… and no one else in Gwinnett’s starting rotation. The 25-year-old Wright seemed like a prime candidate to be traded at last week’s deadline, especially given how well he’s performed lately. The former first-round pick currently boasts Triple-A’s eighth-highest strikeout-rate (23.7%) and each of his last three starts has featured two earned-runs or less, including 21 punch outs in that 20-innings span. Guys like Dylan Lee (2.01 ERA), Chasen Bradford (3.96 ERA) and Tanner Roark (3.03 ERA) have mostly led the way so far in the Stripers’ bullpen. Hopefully starters, and no. 30 and no. 9 prospects on my Braves Top 30 list, respectively, Nolan Kingham and Jasseel De La Cruz, can start turning their seasons around. Kingham has gotten knocked around ever since coming up from Double-A, shown by his 8.44 ERA in five starts, and Cruz is still sitting at a 5.89 ERA in his 12 outings. The latter’s improvement is especially important to the Braves.

Mississippi Braves (44-34 / 1st place)

@ Birmingham Barons (CHW)

Tue, August 3 – 8:05 PM

Wed, August 4 – 8:05 PM

Thu, August 5 – 8:05 PM

Fri, August 6 – 8:05 PM

Sat, August 7 – 7:30 PM

Sun, August 8 – 5:00 PM

If you’ve even remotely kept up with the Braves minor league system in 2021 than I’m sure you have already seen what the M-Braves have done this season on offense. Last weekend the team already matched its team record for home runs in a single season by slugging homer no. 98 in Saturday’s 8-1 win versus Pensacola. The outbreak from the lineup has resulted in a battle for first-place practically all year for Mississippi, although its 4-2 series win over the Blue Wahoos last week gave them some separation as the M-Braves now pace its division by one game, and they currently sport the best overall record in the eight-team Double-A South league.

We already know how great prospect catcher Shea Langeliers has been this year, but even more exciting is the complete transformation first baseman Drew Lugbauer has gone through at the plate. Lugbauer is currently a top-25 player in all of Double-A in terms of his 142 wRC+, which is incredible when you consider he posted just an 82 wRC+ in 127 games at the High-A level back in 2019. The strikeout-rate is still far from ideal as Lugbauer is punching out at a 35.2% clip at the moment, however all of those whiffs has also come with twice as many walks than he managed two seasons ago. I’m seriously considering including Lugbauer in my next Top 30 list coming soon.

Prospect righty Bryce Elder (tenth on my Top 30) is listed as the M-Braves probable for Tuesday’s matchup with the Barons, and he’s a good one to mention in today’s preview. I’ve been super impressed with Elder’s performance at the Double-A level as he currently owns a 3.41 ERA in 37 innings (six starts) with Mississippi so far. Remember, he started the year in Rome, so at 22-years-old he’s developing nicely within the Braves system. Really, the entire M-Braves rotation has performed well in 2021. Guys like Odalvi Javier (3.23 ERA), Hayden Deal (3.82) and currently in Rome, A.J. Puckett (3.15), have been solid on the mound; and though prospect Victor Vodnik (7.30) has regressed some since returning from his injury, he’ll likely get back to his dominant self. Reliever Matt Withrow (2.32 ERA) and Brooks Wilson (1.99) have both been beasts out of the bullpen. Withrow currently leads the Mississippi ‘pen in innings and Wilson is striking out 13.9 batters per nine. Also, watch out for former Rome reliever Indigo Diaz, who recently earned a deserved promotion to Mississippi after he made High-A batters look like little league players.

Rome Braves (37-41 / 4th place)

@ Greenville Drive (BOS)

Tue, August 3 – 7:05 PM

Wed, August 4 – 7:05 PM

Thu, August 5 – 7:05 PM

Fri, August 6 – 7:05 PM

Sat, August 7 – 7:05 PM

Sun, August 8 – 3:05 PM

Rome split it’s six-game series against Asheville last week as the team continues to play roughly .500 ball this season. The offense has been led by Jesse Franklin V and Michael Harris II, although the latter has had a bit of a rough stretch recently. Franklin, who currently boasts the second-most homers (19) in the High-A East, leads the R-Braves in not only long balls but also in wRC+ (124). The former University of Michigan star has evolved from a guy who looked like he’d require a platoon-mate, to an all-around dangerous professional hitter. Harris is still among the league’s top-10 in line drive rate (27.2%), while also ranking among the best in both doubles (16) and triples (3). Keep an eye on 22-year-old Cody Milligan as well, for he’s hitting a solid .278 with 12 XBH in 54 games this season.

Alan Rangel has been the dominant starter for Rome so far. Rangel leads the East in strikeouts (95) and is second with 12.1 strikeouts per nine. He also paces the team with 14 starts and has been a consistent workhorse each and every week. Darius Vines, who won Pitcher of the Week for High-A last week, is also a leader within the R-Braves rotation. Vines began 2021 in Augusta but rose quickly. The former seventh-round pick is big riser this season and could wind up within the Top 30 in my update. Coleman Huntley and Zach Daniels are Rome’s main relievers, with Kasey Kalich now gone.

Augusta GreenJackets (34-44 / last place)

@ Charleston RiverDogs (TBR)

Tue, August 3 – 7:05 PM

Wed, August 4 – 7:05 PM

Thu, August 5 – 7:05 PM

Fri, August 6 – 7:05 PM

Sat, August 7 – 6:05 PM

Sun, August 8 – 5:05 PM

Augusta split its series against Myrtle Beach last week and head into this week’s slate with a well-oiled machine on offense as the GreenJackets averaged six runs per game in its matchup with the Pelicans. A quartet of batters have led the way essentially all season for Augusta: Vaughn Grissom (138), Cade Bunnell (128), Willie Carter (118) and Landon Stephens (114) rank nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the lineup, respectively, in wRC+, with Bunnell and Stephens leading the way with 11 home runs apiece (tied for third-most in the league). Those last two are interesting, as the former was a 40th-round pick and the latter was signed by the Braves as an UDFA last June.

The starting pitching in Augusta is still all about prospect Joey Estes (ranked 23rd on my Braves Top 30), who leads Single-A’s South league in strikeouts (94) and currently sports the second-best ERA (2.58). The bullpen has really been a sore spot for the GreenJackets, though. The relievers who lead the team in innings so far – Alec Barger (4.68 ERA), Estarlin Rodriguez (6.88), Ben Thompson (5.40) and Miguel Pena (6.55) – have all dealt with run-prevention issues. Roddery Munoz and James Acuna are two young arms that we should pay attention to. Munoz was all over Twitter to begin the year as he was hitting the high-90s MPH, and Acuna (no relation to Ronald Acuna) is a guy that earned a deserved promotion after pitching well in the DSL back in 2019 and the FCL this season.

FCL Braves (10-13)

Tue, August 3 – *doubleheader vs. Pirates Gold postponed

Wed, August 4 – OFF

Thu, August 5 – doubleheader vs. Pirates Gold

Fri, August 6 – vs. Rays

Sat, August 7 – @ Rays

Sun, August 8 – OFF

I’m so excited about several of the FCL Braves current hitters. Brandol Mezquita and Kadon Morton are the two hit leaders right now down in Florida, though Mezquita is on an entirely different level as he’s at a .950 OPS with nine XBH and seven stolen bases in 22 games. The kid is only 19, folks. Outfielder Charles Reyes is also having a strong start to the year, hitting .293 with five XBH in 12 games so far. The most well-known player on the Florida Coast team, Mahki Backstrom, is in the midst of a slow start. Backstrom is hitting just .179 and striking out nearly 33% of the time right now.

Rainiery Rodríguez was by far the top arm on the FCL team as the 20-year-old turned in a sparkling 1.42 ERA in 19 innings before earning a promotion to Augusta. With Rodríguez now up with the full-season club, it appears the starter to watch could now be 19-year-old righty Reibyn Corona, who, through 17 innings with the FCL Braves, has struck out 18 batters. Lefty Corbin Clouse is also down in Florida trying to get himself back to top form, having made three outings so far. If you recall, Clouse underwent shoulder surgery last year, an unfortunately timed ailment given how dominant he was in 2018.

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