Tuesday, September 28, 2021
I’ve covered perhaps the two most noteworthy end-of-year awards for the Braves minor league system, awarding righty Bryce Elder this season’s Cy Young winner and catcher Shea Langeliers MVP. Today it’s time to look at another Braves minor league award: Reliever of the Year.
Braves 2021 Minor League Team Awards: Reliever of the Year
You may not remember him as a prospect, but Craig Kimbrel’s career in the Braves minor league system was unlike anything we’d seen at the time. From 2008 until late-2010, the hard-throwing right-hander was nearly unhittable, and in 2009 – spanning four different levels – Kimbrel averaged 15.5 strikeouts per nine to go with a 2.85 ERA in 60 innings of relief. There was no doubt about it – this kid was the Braves future closer. And we all know what happened next. Kimbrel ended up spending five seasons in Atlanta (2010-14), tallying 186 total saves and 476 strikeouts. As a reliever with the Braves, the Alabama native accrued 11 fWAR, running out to Welcome to the Jungle on an almost nightly basis.
The Braves have rostered some pretty sharp closers since then. But never as incredibly dominant as Kimbrel.
It’s impossible to predict the next Craig Kimbrel, as potential Hall of Fame closers don’t usually come around very often. But in Indigo Diaz, the Braves may have their next homegrown star.
Diaz – drafted in the 27th round by Atlanta in 2019 – wasn’t a very sought-after prospect. He only pitched one season at a major college (Michigan State), and his numbers were far from inspiring (5.73 ERA / 5.9 walks per nine). However, Diaz’s time as a pro has been much different.
Going from nowhere to currently 19th on my latest Braves Top 30, Diaz is now a bonafide prospect within the organization. And although it was only at the rookie level, Diaz actually began showing signs of stardom during his draft year in 2019. With the Gulf Coast League Braves, the then-20-year-old only pitched 10.1 innings that season, but his ability to rack up strikeouts was obvious as he averaged 13.1 punch outs per nine. Admittedly, High-A Rome to start 2021 seemed a little aggressive, but it didn’t take long for Diaz to master that assignment either. In 27 innings there, the righty struck out an incredible 54 batters, which went nicely with his just-as-impressive 1.00 ERA. At nearly three years younger than the average player in Double-A, Diaz continued to mow down the opposition with the M-Braves. Tallying his final 18 frames of the 2021 campaign with Mississippi, the 22-year-old struck out 29 batters – good for an average of 14.5 K/9.
Add it all up and the numbers were video game-like this season. A whopping 83 of the 175 batters Diaz faced in 2021 (or 47.4%) went down on strikes. The kid allowed one home run this year, and amazingly that lone long ball came in Diaz’s very last appearance of the year on September 16 — part of an outing in which he allowed two runs in one inning of work (his one and only appearance in 2021 in which he surrendered more than one run).
So who knows if Diaz has a Kimbrel-like future ahead of him. But either way, this is a slam dunk of a prospect; and at this rate, it won’t be long before he’s contributing in an Atlanta uniform.