Bill Shanks

Pitching is again key for Braves

There was a time when following the Atlanta Braves’ minor leaguers was almost as fun as watching the big league team, at least for some. There were enough legitimate prospects that you wanted to at least occasionally see how well they were doing and how close they might be to getting to Atlanta.

That changed the past few years as the assembly line of talent dried up. The Braves were just not as successful with the draft the past five years. They had a couple of high-priced international signings flop. A once-proud farm system was ranked in the bottom five by many analysts after last season.

That had to scare the new Braves front office executives when they took over in October. John Hart and John Coppolella, the two new men in charge, knew the team had hit a wall in developing talent, which is the exact way the franchise first became successful decades ago. If it was to rebound, a commitment to getting the Braves back to what they once were was critical.

So every time the Braves made a trade this past offseason, they got a pitcher back in return. Well, they made a lot of trades, and there are now a lot of prospects. Pitching is what made the Braves great back in the day, and if they are to get back to an elite level, pitching will be the key once again.

Each of the four Braves minor league affiliates has at least one pitching prospect who was acquired from another team in a deal. The biggest story is at Triple-A Gwinnett, where four of the five starting pitchers are legitimate prospects.

On Sunday, the newest acquisition made his Braves debut. Matt Wisler came from San Diego in the Craig Kimbrel trade. Wisler is a tall right-handed pitcher thought to be about a half-season away from being ready. Wisler was the Padres’ top prospect before the trade, and now he’s Atlanta’s top pitching prospect.

Wisler was impressive in his first game. He pitched five scoreless innings, with two walks and five strikeouts. Wisler hit 94 mph with his fastball, but he sat between 91-93 mph most of the game. He also features a slider and changeup.

He’s not going to blow batters away, but he’s a pitcher. Wisler was aggressive in his approach and went right after hitters. There’s a good chance Wisler could be ready for Atlanta late this season.

Mike Foltynewicz started opening night for Gwinnett in Thursday. He came over from Houston in the Evan Gattis deal, which looks better and better each time Gattis strikes out for the Astros. Foltynewicz has a great fastball, hitting consistently in the mid-90s. He too could be ready later this season for the Atlanta rotation.

Manny Banuelos is a lefty the Braves got from the New York Yankees. He’s just 24 years old and two years out from having Tommy John elbow surgery. The Braves believe he’ll regain his top prospect status and be a candidate maybe sometime next season.

Williams Perez did not come over in a trade, but he’s still a good prospect. Perez has been in the Atlanta system since 2009. He has thrown 481 minor league innings, so he’s not too far away. Some coaches believe Perez can be a No. 3 or 4 starter in the big leagues.

It has been a long time since Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate had that many real starting pitching prospects.

There are more. Tyrell Jenkins (from the Cardinals) is in Double-A Mississippi. Yean Carlos Gil, Lucas Sims, Andrew Thurman (from the Astros) and Steve Janas are in High Single-A Carolina. The rotation in Low-Single A Rome is full of legitimate prospects, with 18-year-old Ricardo Sanchez being new from a trade with the Los Angeles Angels.

Now, are there any future pitchers like Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in this bunch? You can’t predict that. Even if you loved their potential 25 years ago, no one knew they’d be Hall of Famers. And you can’t expect every Braves pitching prospect to live up to that standard.

But if some of these pitchers turn out to be productive big league starters, then this effort will be well worth it.

MLB.com now has 14 players in Atlanta’s top 30 prospects that are brand new to the organization. So the effort is there already. We just have to be patient to wait on the results in the coming years.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com

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