The following story appears in the second edition of “Tomahawk Talk,” the official gameday publication of the Gwinnett Braves. Pick up a FREE copy at Coolray Field from April 29-May 20.
When the Atlanta Braves traded away right-hander Shelby Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks in December, they got back three potential building blocks to accelerate the rebuilding effort heading into the opening of SunTrust Park in 2017.
One – outfielder Ender Inciarte – was set to help the major league club immediately and another – 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick, shortstop Dansby Swanson – has the makings of the next face of the franchise. But the third member of the package acquired at the Winter Meetings in Nashville was hardly considered a throw-in to the biggest trade of the offseason.
Aaron Blair was Arizona’s 2015 Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 13-5 with a 2.92 ERA between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno and found himself ranked among baseball’s top prospects entering this season.
As a 23-year-old, he navigated through the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, going 7-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 13 games with the Aces and allowing just five home runs in 77.0 innings. Many of his starts came at elevation, and he routinely faced older, more experienced hitters.
“You always heard about the Pacific Coast League and how it’s such a hitters’ league and I had good success there,” Blair said. “Coming to the International League, it’s more a pitchers’ league and I’m just trying to go out there and build off of each start and build off of last year.”
Atlanta’s No. 4 prospect, according to MLB.com, Blair has already shown Braves fans what the future may hold. Blair went 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA over his first three starts for Triple-A Gwinnett this season, including a nearly historic performance in his third start on April 19.
Blair flirted with perfection that night at Coolray Field, keeping the Durham Bulls off the bases into the sixth inning and out of the hit column through the seventh inning. He allowed no hits, walked one and struck out 10 before being pulled with 87 pitches over 7.0 innings in Gwinnett’s eventual 7-2 win.
In each of his outings, Blair has displayed the mound-presence and maturity needed to be successful in the big leagues, whenever that call does come.
“There’s some guys you do talk to [about the big leagues] but with him, just go out and do what you do. What he does here is what they’re going to want in the big leagues,” Gwinnett catcher Blake Lalli said. “He knows how to pitch to the pace of the game and that’s why he’s been so successful.”
Lalli, who has Major League experience with the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, played with Blair at Reno last year and caught three of his starts. Lalli said he knew about the 6-foot 5-inch workhorse before Blair even arrived in Triple-A for the first time.
“I had heard nothing but good things about him before he got to Reno and honestly, he was just good from start to finish out there,” Lalli said. “He’s a gamer and he’s going to be out there in the seventh inning and he’s going to keep you in the game and you’re going to be ahead when he’s pitching.”
Once the shock of the trade that brought him to Atlanta finally wore off – Blair said it took him about a week to fully realize he would be pitching for a new organization in 2016 – the righty’s attention shifted towards the future and helping a new team get back to winning ways.
“Coming to the Braves, it was a good opportunity; they’re in a rebuild mode and they brought me in so hopefully I can help them out soon,” Blair said.
Atlanta has reloaded its farm system since the 2014 season ended, adding Blair, lefty Sean Newcomb (the club’s No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com), and right-handers Touki Toussaint (No. 6) and Tyrell Jenkins (No. 8) in trades aimed towards getting itself back to the pennant-winning days when the Braves’ starting rotation was the focal point of success.
Lalli has noticed that Blair won’t get rattled with more attention paid to each of his minor league starts this season, pointing to the fact that he’s “always been a big deal” as to why little seems to unnerve his battery-mate.
“He’s a guy that isn’t affected by the lights in the stadium. You can put 40,000 people in the stands and he’s just calm and cool and collected,” Lalli said. “I don’t think the hype of being a top prospect, that won’t affect him. He doesn’t think about stuff like that.”
Blair got to be a “big deal” – both literally and figuratively – between the sophomore and junior years in both high school, saying he shot up four inches and started to throw harder and be more noticeable on the mound.
His biggest leap forward, however, came during the summer of 2012, prior to his final collegiate season at Marshall University. Blair found himself nearly 3,000 miles away from his Las Vegas home, playing in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. In the Cape League, players live with “host families” and are forced to grow up on the job, while many of their friends and college teammates enjoy their summer vacations.
“Going to the Cape Cod League was huge; I was living really far from home and kind of doing things on my own and growing up,” Blair said. “I got drafted out of high school but wasn’t mature enough, physically or mentally, to go play pro ball, so three years in school, being so far away from home was huge for me.”
Blair shined on Cape League stage, going 8-0 with a 1.08 ERA over 50.1 innings, starting the All-Star Game and guiding his squad to within one game of the title. It was there that Blair put scouts and fans on notice. A year later he became the highest-drafted player in Marshall baseball history when the D-backs took him with the 36th overall choice in the first round of the 2013 Draft.
Three stellar minor league seasons followed in which Blair went 23-13 with a 3.22 ERA in 64 games, 63 starts. He begins season four with Gwinnett, refusing to get complacent with prior achievements and instead focusing on honing his craft and remaining sharp
“There’s always stuff you can work on, whether you’re in short-season, Triple-A or even the big leagues,” he said. “You can’t go out there and throw everything perfectly. Right now, I’m trying to just control my changeup and get my fastball down more.”
As he continues to work on the command of his pitching arsenal, Blair’s star keeps rising. But the weight on his broad shoulders coming from being both a top prospect and a member of a blockbuster trade isn’t going to faze him.
“The recognition [being ranked highly on all major prospect rankings] is awesome,” Blair said. “It’s cool to be recognized as a key part of such a big trade, but there’s always things to be worked on and it’s still a work in progress for me.”