Monthly Archives: February 2016

Who’s ready to take the “leap?” OF Mallex Smith

Players change organizations all the time. Some struggle in new surroundings, taking time to adjust and translate prior success to new uniforms. The 2015 season was the furthest thing from a struggle for outfielder Mallex Smith, who shined in his first year in the Braves system. He earned his second straight All-Star selection, this time at Double-A Mississippi, reached Triple-A for the first time and was recognized as the Atlanta Braves’ Hark Aaron Minor League Player of the Year. How’s that for a system debut?

Smith got off to a fast start by hitting .322 in April at Mississippi, but his next two months were even better. He was the M-Braves’ Player of the Month in both May and June, batting a combined .347 (51-for-147) with 23 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. Smith earned a trip to the Southern League All-Star Game on June 23, where he started in center field and batted leadoff, going 1-for-3.

At the Southern League’s All-Star break, Smith ranked second in the circuit in on-base percentage (.418) and tied for second in steals (23). Those impressive numbers earned him a promotion to Gwinnett for the second half of the season.

Despite seeing a drop-off of about sixty points in his batting average (.340 with Mississippi, .281 with Gwinnett) over the season’s final three months, Smith continued to be a weapon on the basepaths, stealing 34 bases in 41 tries (82.9 percent) as a G-Brave. In only 69 games in the International League, his 34 steals ranked third in the league, and his six triples ranked tied for seventh.

Smith was the IL’s Player of the Month in August, when he batted .336 with league highs in hits (41), triples (3), runs (24) and steals (13). Following the season, he earned the Braves’ organization’s top minor league honor for a position player, and along with teammate Tyrell Jenkins – the Braves’ 2015 Minor League Pitcher of the Year – showed that offseason trades can pay immediate dividends, even in the minors.

Across both levels in 2015, Smith led all Braves’ farmhands and ranked fifth in minor league baseball with 57 stolen bases (57-for-70). As impressive of a year as that is, it wasn’t even the highest single-season total in his career.

While playing for Class-A Fort Wayne and Advanced-A Lake Elsinore in San Diego’s system in 2014, Smith swiped a minor-league best 88 bases (88-for-114, 77.2 percent). He has 226 steals in 285 tries (79.2 percent) in his four-year professional career.

If Smith can continue to prove he’s as capable with his bat as he is with his legs, he could provide Atlanta with its first true leadoff hitter and base-stealing threat since Michael Bourn was at the top of his game in 2012. It was in that year when Bourn stole 42 bases and led off for the Braves 151 times, helping lead Atlanta to a Wild Card berth while playing solid defense.

With the recent signing of Jeff Francoeur, the Atlanta outfield picture has become more crowded. Ender Inciarte – acquired from Arizona with top-prospect Dansby Swansonand righty Aaron Blair in December – Nick Markakis and Hector Olivera are slated for starting positions come Opening Day, leaving Francoeur, Bourn and Nick Swisher as outfield options off the bench. Having that veteran group in the fold increases the likelihood of Smith beginning the 2016 campaign with Gwinnett.

But if a 69-game sample size was any sign of what’s to come, Smith is ready to join the big club sooner than later. A late-summer call-up appears in the cards for Smith, which would provide the final “leap” necessary in his career. With his plus-grade wheels (Baseball America ranks him as the fastest baserunner and best athlete in the Braves system) a solid year in Gwinnett should lead Smith to a permanent place in Atlanta’s outfield going forward.

Who’s ready to take the “leap?” RHP Ryan Kelly

Things could not have gone much better in the minor leagues in 2015 for right-hander Ryan Kelly. Handed the closing duties in both Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett, he was nearly perfect, saving 23 of 24 games while allowing just four earned runs across 41 games and 47.0 innings.

After dominating minor league hitters from April through June, the 28-year-old wore out I-85 between Coolray Field and Turner Field from July through September. But each time Kelly was promoted to Atlanta for his first cracks at Major Leaguers, he struggled mightily, posting a 7.02 ERA (13 ER in 16.2 IP) while allowing opponents to bat .313.

He produced strong numbers for Mississippi to open the season, allowing one earned run in 18.2 innings, saving 10 of 11 games and recording three times more strikeouts than walks (18 K / 6 BB). Southern League batters managed just a .197 average against Kelly, with left-handed hitters managing only two hits in 20 at-bats. That effort led him to his first trip to the Triple-A level since 2013 with Tucson in the San Diego system.

Kelly fired 9.2 scoreless innings upon his arrival in Gwinnett, picking up four saves in four tries and earning a victory on June 3 at Norfolk. He was tagged for three runs on three hits on June 20 against Pawtucket, but instead of letting one bad outing snowball, he returned to the mound four days later and mowed down Indianapolis over a scoreless inning. His first promotion to the Majors soon followed on June 28.

In his MLB debut on June 30 against Washington, Kelly yielded a run on two hits in a 6-1 Braves’ loss before returning back to the minors three days later.

Over his next five appearances for Gwinnett, Kelly worked 7.0 innings, allowing one hit and one walk, while registering 10 strikeouts and holding opponents scoreless. He earned two wins and one save in that stretch and was recalled by Atlanta on July 17.

He got into games on back-to-back days against the Chicago Cubs, totaling 1.2 innings during which he allowed two hits and two runs (one earned) without picking up a strikeout.

After earning the save for Gwinnett on August 1 at Durham, Kelly was summoned back to the Majors for a week-long stint over which he made four appearances and allowed four earned runs on seven hits in 3.2 innings.

In his final stretch with the G-Braves in 2015, Kelly tossed 5.2 scoreless innings, converting five saves in as many chances and yielding only one hit through August 29. But when he went back to Atlanta in September, he tallied a 6.30 ERA in nine outings (10.0 innings), allowing two runs on three separate instances to close the season.

The Atlanta bullpen struggled as a whole in 2015, ranking 29th in MLB with a 4.29 ERA, allowing the third-most runs in the league (253) and earning the 25th-most strikeouts (430). Outside of Arodys Vizcaino (nine saves, 1.60 ERA), who appears to have a hold on the ninth inning, and veterans Jason Grilli (24 saves before tearing his left Achilles in July) and Jim Johnson (2.25 ERA for Atlanta) returning to the mix, there’s not a lot of proven right-handers currently in the Braves’ pen. As a non-roster invitee to Spring Training, Kelly will have an opportunity to battle for one of the remaining spots.

For Kelly to take that next “leap” and become a reliable mid-to-late-inning reliever for the Braves, he simply needs to prove he’s capable of getting Major League hitters out. He showed in 2015 that he shouldn’t need more seasoning in the minors, but he will need to carry those results over into the big leagues to avoid going back-and-forth on I-85 again this season.

Who’s ready to take the “leap?” INF Daniel Castro

The 2015 season for infielder Daniel Castro started and ended with a bang. The 23-year-old opened the year by bashing Southern League pitching to the tune of a .389 average in 23 games for Double-A Mississippi, and ended it with his third trip to Atlanta and a 3-for-5 game with his second career MLB home run on October 2 against St. Louis.

In between the two highs, Castro reached the top two levels of the Braves’ organization for the first time in his professional career, also spending an 89-game stint with Triple-A Gwinnett for the better part of the summer.

Castro started hot, reaching base safely in 20 of 23 games for the M-Braves. He posted a 13-game hit streak from April 9-25 – the 12th-longest streak in the Southern League all year long – and hammered left-handed pitching (11-for-18) before being promoted to the G-Braves on May 8.

Upon his arrival in Gwinnett, Castro batted .276 (34-for-123) in 35 games, leading into his Major League debut on June 17 vs. Boston. In that game, he picked up a pinch-hit single off of Junichi Tazawa, helping kick-start a two-run rally that pushed the Braves past the Red Sox for a 5-2 victory.

Following the one-game cameo, Castro returned to Gwinnett and hit .241 (26-for-108) over 32 games between June 19-July 24. But as the season wore on, he played his best baseball, hitting .301 (31-for-103) with 15 RBIs and 12 runs scored in 29 games in August between Gwinnett and Atlanta.

Castro took New York’s Steven Matz deep for his first MLB home run on September 11 at Turner Field, a high point of his extended look in the Braves’ lineup over the season’s final five weeks. He hit just .212 with only two other extra-base hits (one being the October 2 homer off Jaime Garcia) in that span, but for someone who had only played in 147 games in the United States prior to 2015, his 33 games in the big leagues marked a significant career advancement.

The Mexico native bolstered his Major League potential by displaying defensive versatility, flashing his glove at second base, shortstop and third base with the Braves.

Castro has played the majority of his defense at shortstop since coming to the United States in August 2013, with 240 of his 279 games played coming at the position (86 percent). But while playing second base over each of the three levels last year, he did not commit an error in 14 games (12 with Atlanta) and 79 total chances. He was also perfect in 35 chances over 10 games at third base for the Braves.

After the offseason trade of former Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels, no longer does the best defensive player in baseball reside at the shortstop position in Atlanta’s infield. The November 12 deal potentially nudged the door open for Castro if Erick Aybar – acquired along with pitching prospects Sean Newcomband Chris Ellis – does not improve upon career-worst numbers from 2015.

Aybar is also in the final year of his current contract, and two potential long-term shortstop candidates for the Braves, last year’s No. 1 overall draft choice Dansby Swanson and 19-year-old Ozzie Albies, may be more than a year away from reaching the big leagues.

With uncertainty on the left side of Atlanta’s infield leading into 2016, Castro has an opportunity to seize one of those roles, battling for playing time with Adonis Garcia,Kelly Johnson, Hector Olivera and the aforementioned Aybar. Johnson has played plenty of outfield in his career, and Olivera is making a transition to left field, further strengthening Castro’s case as a utility infielder for the Braves this year.

A “leap” for Castro in 2016 means a much longer look in Atlanta, improvement at the plate and a continued steady glove at multiple infield positions.

Who’s ready to take the “leap?” RHP Tyrell Jenkins

Once the 2014 season ended and the Atlanta Braves made changes at the top of its front office, one of the first moves was to begin restocking a barren farm system with top-end talent. In the first move by John Hart and John Coppolella, a 6-foot, 4-inch right-hander named Tyrell Jenkins was the secondary piece of the November 2014 trade that sent homegrown superstar Jason Heyward to St. Louis. Though right-hander Shelby Millerwas the clear centerpiece, Jenkins proved he was more than just a throw-in to the swap as he dominated the top two levels of the minors in 2015 and racked up awards along the way.

Since coming to the organization, Jenkins has flourished, posting a 3.19 ERA in 25 starts between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett. He earned his second career All-Star nod at Mississippi, and following the season he was named the Braves’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

Jenkins produced a 3.00 ERA and had three complete-game efforts in 16 starts for the M-Braves to begin the year. He allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of his outings for Mississippi and surrendered only three home runs over 93.0 innings. After being knocked around for nine earned runs in 5.2 innings on May 1, he rebounded to yield only three earned runs over 27.0 innings in his next four starts. Jenkins was Mississippi’s Pitcher of the Month in May despite the hiccup on the month’s first day.

With a wave of success mounting as the season reached the mid-way point, Jenkins was promoted to Gwinnett on July 8 and made his debut the next night against Norfolk. In that game, he reached 100.0 innings on the year in a sterling 7.0-inning shutout of the Tides, registering six strikeouts and allowing seven hits with just one walk.

Following his dominance of Norfolk in his G-Braves debut, Jenkins registered a 2.16 ERA in four July starts before allowing 12 earned runs in 18.2 innings in four outings in August (5.79 ERA) and spending time on the disabled list with arm fatigue. He made just one appearance after August 16, a 1.2-inning start on September 4 at Norfolk.

Coming into 2015, Jenkins hadn’t pitched 100.0 innings in any of his first five professional seasons as the result of multiple injuries. But despite the stint on the G-Braves’ disabled list in August, he finished last season with a career-high 138.1 innings pitched, 5.0 more than he had thrown in the previous two seasons combined.

After such an impressive debut in the Atlanta system, he’ll head to Major League Spring Training later this month looking to break camp with the big club.

Making Atlanta’s Opening Day roster would be considered a big leap, even for the fast-rising Jenkins. The time he’s missed due to injury could lead the Braves to give him more seasoning in Gwinnett, though it’s clear his time is fast approaching. Of the 25 pitchers picked ahead of Jenkins in the 2010 Draft, 13 of them have made their MLB debuts. Of those 13 that have reached the big leagues, the average amount of minor league appearances was 79.7; Jenkins enters the 2016 season having made 83 minor league starts.

The numbers might suggest that 2016 would be the year for Jenkins to become the 14th member of his first round draft class to reach the Majors, but he’ll have to stay healthy and continue to build on his award-winning 2015 season. He’ll also have to outshine some established veterans.

Atlanta has signed experienced arms like Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Kendrick and Bud Norris, which could present a block to Jenkins’ immediate path to the big leagues. Based on those signings further strengthening Braves’ starting pitching depth, it appears that Jenkins is destined for a call-up at some point later this summer. The longer the Braves stay competitive, like in 2015 when they were just five games under the .500 mark at the All-Star break, the longer Jenkins could pitch at Coolray Field instead of Turner Field. But a “leap” in 2016 means nothing less than his Major League debut.