Bill Shanks

Braves’ minor leaguers are off to strong start

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Sean Newcomb pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies in a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla.
Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Sean Newcomb pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies in a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. AP

Let’s take a look at who did well and who did not in Atlanta’s minor league system during the month of April.

First, Alex Jackson was undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the first month. Three years ago, Jackson was considered the best high school bat in the 2014 draft. He sputtered with the Mariners, but if the first month is any indication Jackson may be on track to realize his potential.

Jackson hit .301 in April with seven home runs and 17 RBI in 93 at bats. Jackson has walked only twice, so he must improve his patience at the plate. But it’s good to see him hitting the ball well. Jackson hit .233 in his first three seasons with the Seattle organization.

Top prospect Ronald Acuna is off to a solid start, hitting .287 with two home runs, 12 RBI and 11 stolen bases. The Braves are watching the 19-year-old Acuna closely.

Austin Riley’s batting average (.242) needs to be better, but Riley is again showing the power and production the Braves hope he will have at some point in Atlanta. Riley has four home runs and 14 RBI.

Rome outfielder Randy Ventura may be doing a good imitation of Ozzie Albies. The 19-year-old Ventura is only 5-9, 165, but he’s a speedster who is off to a great start with the bat. There is no power to Ventura’s game, but it’s the bat and speed that grab your attention. Ventura is hitting .359, third-best in the Sally League, with a league-leading 13 stolen bases.

The list of pitchers who were impressive in April is a long one. There was curiosity about whether Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, two 19-year-olds, could handle Double-A. Well, they’ve been outstanding in the first month with Mississippi.

Allard leads all Braves minor league starters with a 1.67 ERA. He’s allowed just 22 hits in 27 innings. Soroka finally had a so-so outing last week after dominating his first three starts. Soroka has a 2.61 ERA with only 14 hits allowed in 20.2 innings pitched.

Patrick Weigel (2.73 ERA) and Matt Withrow (2.08 ERA) have also been great in their first five starts of 2017. Withrow is really getting on the radar, as we can no longer ignore how well he’s pitched since being drafted two years ago.

In Triple-A, the story has been Lucas Sims, who may be finally showing the consistency the Braves have been looking for. Sims has an ERA of 2.66 in his first four starts, with only 11 hits allowed in 23.2 innings. He’s also walked only six while striking out 21.

Sean Newcomb finished April with an outstanding outing Sunday (one hit allowed in seven scoreless innings, two walks and 11 strikeouts). Newcomb has a 3.08 ERA in his first five starts, with 35 strikeouts in 26.1 innings and only 21 hits allowed. Newcomb or Sims could be first in line if help is needed in the Atlanta rotation.

The opening night starter for the Florida Fire Frogs has been good from the outset. Luiz Gohara has an ERA of 1.73 in his first five starts, with only five walks and 27 strikeouts in 26 innings pitched. Gohara is quickly rising up the prospect list with his strong start to his Braves career.

Tyler Pike may be the biggest surprise so far of all the minor league starting pitchers. Pike, who was acquired with Gohara in the Mallex Smith trade, has a 2.63 ERA in five starts for Florida. He’s allowed just 20 hits in 27.1 innings, with 29 strikeouts.

Drew Harrington, last year’s third-round pick out of Louisville, had a 2.54 ERA in his five starts for the Fire Frogs.

Three of the five starters for Rome were three of the first six draft picks last June. Ian Anderson (1.93 ERA), Joey Wentz (2.70) and Bryse Wilson (2.38) have all been great.

Twelve of the 20 minor league starting pitchers for the Braves have ERA’s below 3.00. That is incredible.

One minor league reliever to mention is Akeel Morris. Now with Triple-A Gwinnett, Morris has an ERA of 0.84 in his seven games, with two walks and 11 strikeouts in 10.2 innings. Morris may be on the radar to get a promotion when a reliever is needed in Atlanta.

And Jason Hursh was already in Atlanta for a few days, and if he continues pitching well Hursh could be back soon. Like Morris, Hursh has improved his control with only two walks in 13.1 innings. He’s struck out 16 batters and has an ERA of 3.38 for Gwinnett.

As for the players who struggled in April, we start with 2014 first round pick Braxton Davidson. He’s hitting just .197 with 35 strikeouts in 77 at bats for High-A Florida.

Brett Cumberland (.170) and Lucas Herbert (.189), two catchers with Rome, have been a big disappointment with the bat. Cumberland was drafted last June as a catcher with a bat, but he’s shown nothing thus far.

Ozzie Albies is hitting only .255 in Gwinnett. He’s got eight stolen bases, but Albies needs to do better to be considered for a promotion to Atlanta, especially with Brandon Phillips doing well.

Aaron Blair’s struggles have continued in Triple-A, as he’s posted a 8.82 ERA in his first four starts for Gwinnett. What are the Braves going to do with Blair, who has been a huge disappointment since coming over from Arizona in the Shelby Miller trade. Maybe they just make him a reliever and see what he can do out of the bullpen.

Max Fried’s overall April ERA was high (4.58), but he had a great outing last week to get back on track. Fried allowed just one run over seven shutout innings, with one walk and six strikeouts.

The Braves need Touki Toussaint to be more consistent. The Fire Frogs’ starter has an ERA of 7.20 in his first four starts, but his peripherals are solid. Toussaint has allowed 18 hits in 20 innings, with only six walks and a solid 23 strikeouts.

Here are the records for Atlanta’s four minor league affiliates:

Triple-A Gwinnett – 14-9

Double-A Mississippi – 11-12

High-A Florida – 10-14

Low-A Rome – 16-8

Listen to "The Bill Shanks Show" from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on "Middle Georgia’s ESPN" – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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