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Week 4 Farm Preview: Gwinnett to face a loaded Norfolk team while M-Braves head to Montgomery

Week 4 Farm Preview: Gwinnett to face a loaded Norfolk team while M-Braves head to Montgomery

It’s been a fun three weeks so far, as today we begin the final series of April for all four Atlanta affiliates. As always, let’s look at what’s on tap for the upcoming week down on the Braves farm.

AAA – Gwinnett Stripers (6-12)

vs. Norfolk Tides (BAL)

The Stripers are coming off a rough road trip down in Florida versus Jacksonville (its first trip ever to the Sunshine state), losing four of five against the Jumbo Shrimp last week. Gwinnett has now lost nine of its last 11 games, going back to its home series against Nashville in Week 2, as the team’s starting pitching has consistently lacked this season.

Unfortunately, that negative trend regarding its pitching may continue, at least to kick off Week 4, as struggling starter Jasseel De La Cruz is slated to take the rubber for the Stripers series opener versus the Tides on Tuesday. Cruz enters the outing with a bloated 8.22 ERA in three starts so far, and as I’ve said numerous times already, I honestly have no idea why the Braves are still running him out there every week. Opposing JDLC for Norfolk today will be the Orioles second-ranked prospect (per FanGraphs), righty Grayson Rodriguez. The 22-year-old Rodriguez was taken 11th-overall by Baltimore in the 2018 draft, and so far he has certainly lived up to the high pick as he’s dominated minor league batters over the last three years. The Tides pitcher enters Tuesday’s matchup with a sparkling 1.26 ERA in three starts so far, to go with 23 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings (14.4 K/9). Gwinnett’s offense will definitely have its hands full.

And it’s not just Rodriguez that could give the Stripers fits this week. The Tides also wield a pair of other prospect arms in righty Kyle Bradish (#7 on BAL’s prospect list) and southpaw Kevin Smith (#43). Among qualified Norfolk pitchers, Bradish leads the team in ERA (1.20), and Smith isn’t too far behind (1.23 ERA). Both of these guys are 25-year-olds that have been pitching well in the Orioles system for a few years now, and they, along with Rodriguez, help make up what’s a rather loaded Tides starting rotation.

On offense, Gwinnett’s pitchers must also face a Norfolk offense that rosters plenty of talent, currently ranking second in Triple-A’s International League in team OPS (.813). Guys like 1B/OF Tyler Nevin (#42) and infielder Rylan Bannon (#22) are each ranked prospects within the Baltimore system, and both are having strong seasons so far, as the former leads the team in AVG (.382) and the latter ranks second in wRC+ (154). Then there’s also outfielder Johnny Rizer, who already has five home runs in 2022 (which is tied for second in the INT League). This Tides lineup has no problems hitting the ball, which, along with a dominant starting staff, is probably why the team enters Week 4 tied for first-place in the East division at 11-7 overall.

*RAJ UPDATE: The situation regarding Ronald Acuña Jr. has only improved lately. Last week, reports indicated that May 6 was the official targeted return date for the Braves outfielder. Although, with the recent news about Eddie Rosario, and that he’ll miss a decent amount of time due to a laser procedure to correct blurred vision, the potential for RAJ to return before the original target date has likely increased. Before the Rosario news, I was expecting another series in Gwinnett for Acuña, but now I wouldn’t be surprised if winds up back in Atlanta before the end of this week.

AA – Mississippi Braves (4-11)

@ Montgomery Biscuits (TBR)

Mississippi managed just two wins in its series with Chattanooga last week, giving the Braves Double-A affiliate the worst record in the system so far this season. The Southern League is a loaded group of teams in a very talented minor league classification, so I wouldn’t get too hung up on Mississippi’s wins and losses. The development of guys like outfielders Michael Harris II and Jesse Franklin V, and pitchers Jared Shuster, Darius Vines and Indigo Diaz are the most important priorities in 2022.

Either way, though, on Tuesday the M-Braves will begin a road series versus a rather average Montgomery team; in the eight-team Southern League, so far this season the Biscuits rank fourth in team ERA (3.88) and sixth in OPS (.699). It looks like 26-year-old A.J. Puckett will earn the series-opening start today against Montgomery, and though he once was considered a fringy prospect in the Braves system a few years ago, the righty has perhaps aged out of that title. Puckett hasn’t been able to go very deep in any of his three outings so far this season, and as a result, his not-so-bad run prevention has still led to a 6.23 ERA entering Week 4, mostly stemming from a poor outing two starts ago in which he allowed three earned runs in just three innings.

Puckett will face a Montgomery lineup that might not be dangerous, but at least appears pretty deep. Third baseman Austin Shenton, second baseman Brett Wisely and outfielder Kameron Misner are all ranked prospects in the Rays system (with the latter of those three ranked 11th, per FG), and all are currently at least 30% above average on offense this season, with a wRC+ of 155, 154 and 131, respectively. Misner was a first-round pick by the Marlins back in 2019, and while he doesn’t have much power, he has definitely been a high-contact guy so far as a pro. Although in 2022 the kid is only hitting .189, despite 13 walks in 50 PA (26 BB%).

Ninth-ranked Rays prospect Taj Bradley is the pitcher to watch for with the Biscuits, and back in Week 1’s series between the M-Braves and Montgomery, he was sharp – only allowing a solo home run in an outing in which he struck out five in four innings. Look for Bradley to go much deeper this week, and he’s only improved over his last two starts, compiling 13 punch outs in his last 10 frames, to go with just one earned run in that span. He’ll enter the series with a team-best 1.29 ERA in 2022. Righty Jayden Murray is another Tampa Bay prospect (#23) in the Montgomery starting rotation. Murray was a latter-rounds pick back in 2019 (RD 23), but he has flourished as a pro pitcher. This is his second taste of Double-A baseball and he’s currently sporting a 3.09 ERA in three starts so far, despite a middling average of 6.1 strikeouts per nine.

A+ – Rome Braves (9-6)

vs. Greensboro Grasshoppers (PIT)

Perhaps the most exciting Braves affiliate so far in 2022, Rome split its road series against a damn good Bowling Green team in Week 3 and enters this week with system’s best record. Along with some strong starting pitching, this R-Braves offense – featuring guys like Tyler Tolve, Justyn-Henry Malloy, Landon Stephens and Cody Milligan (and more) – has been about as good as it gets so far, and they aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

Rome’s lineup should continue raking this week against Greensboro, as the Grasshoppers currently wield one of the worst pitching groups in High-A’s South Atlantic League, with a 5.39 collective ERA (ranks 11th of 12 teams). Opposing batters have hit .248 versus Greensboro’s pitchers, which isn’t the worst AVG-against in the league, but pretty dang bad when you consider it’s the average. The only arm that’s keeping this Grasshoppers starting staff afloat seems to be Pirates ninth-ranked prospect Jared Jones, who owns a respectable 3.97 ERA in three starts so far this season. However, the 20-year-old Jones was roughed up in his most-recent outing, allowing a pair of homers as part of four earned runs from five hits in three innings. Regardless, though, this is a kid that racks up the punch outs, as he’s averaged 13.5 per nine in 2022.

It’s pretty evident that Greensboro’s decent 6-9 record this season has been because of its offense. The Grasshoppers have been led by a prospect-filled lineup that includes last year’s top pick in the draft, catcher Henry Davis (.354 AVG / 185 wRC+) as well as outfielders Matt Gorski (4 HR / 152 wRC+) and Sammy Siani (3 HR / 145 wRC+). Maikol Escotto is another power-bat for the offense, as he has four homers already, despite a 42.9% K rate so far (and zero walks). Escotto – ranked 18th in PIT’s system – was part of the Jameson Taillon trade back last January between the Pirates and Yankees that sent him and three other minor leaguers to Pittsburgh. So Tuesday’s Rome starter Dylan Dodd should have his hands full. The 23-year-old Dodd has held his own so far in 2022 and is coming off a pretty good outing in Week 3 when he struck out six in 5 1/3 innings, while allowing two runs from four hits. The former third-round pick will enter today’s game with a 6.59 ERA overall.

A – Augusta GreenJackets (7-8)

vs. Delmarva Shoebirds (BAL)

The GreenJackets split its series with Fayetteville last week, coming within one game of .500 ball for the 2022 season. A lot like Rome, this team has been a rather balanced group thus far, featuring strong pitching (particularly its bullpen) to go along with a prolific offense. A five-man crew including Caleb Durbin, Brandol Mezquita, Adam Zebrowski, Geraldo Quintero and Mahki Backstrom are all currently sporting an above average wRC+, with Durbin leading not only Augusta but the entire Braves minor league system with a 172 wRC+ in 55 PA in 2022.

Those dangerous GreenJackets bats should keep up the good work in Week 4, as the offense will face a lacking Delmarva team and a Shoebirds pitching group that has allowed a 5.18 ERA this season. It looks like Augusta will be going up against 22-year-old righty Shane Davis for the series opener on Tuesday – a kid that seems to have pitched a bit better than his 5.06 ERA illustrates. Other than Davis, though, the only Delmarva starter that should give the GreenJackets any problems in this series could be 19-year-old Juan De Los Santos, who through three starts so far, owns a sparkling 1.38 ERA (albeit combined with a 4.74 xFIP). Los Santos isn’t much of a strikeout artist (8.3 K/9) and he has had some control issues (4.8 BB/9) – so along with him being a teenager, hopefully the Augusta bats can get to him when they face him in Week 4.

Perhaps the GreenJackets best starter so far in 2022, righty Royber Salinas will oppose the Shoebirds Davis today. Salinas pitched his worst outing of the year last time out (2 ER / 4 BB), but his 1.84 ERA overall still stands as the third best mark in the Braves minor league system right now. His 31 strikeouts this season is nearly two times more than Augusta’s next highest total, 15 punch outs more than Landon Leach’s 16 thus far. This is certainly a kid to watch. Salinas will face a Delmarva offense that’s easily led by Orioles 19th-ranked prospect, shortstop Darell Hernaiz, who’s already up to four home runs for the year, to go with a .333 AVG and a 170 wRC+ (all team highs). Hernaiz is followed on the leaderboard by infielder Noelberth Romero and outfielder Davis Tavarez – two guys that are also having solid seasons for the Shoebirds. Romero is hitting .316 with five XBH, while Tavarez is at a .264 AVG but is tied for the team lead with three doubles.

Be sure to check back daily for recaps from down on the Braves farm!

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