SURPRISE, Ariz. – A season that formally began in Rookie-level action at the Braves’ complex in North Port, Fla., and found Darius Vines ascending all the way to the Major League level – twice – has taken its latest pivot out west for the Arizona Fall League.
Vines, the club’s No. 10 prospect, made his debut for Salt River on Tuesday night at Surprise Stadium and struck out nine over 5 2/3 frames of one-run ball in a 5-1 win. After working out in Atlanta during the National League Division Series as a member of the team’s taxi squad, the 25-year-old is ready to take on his latest career challenge: baseball’s premier prospect circuit.
Toeing the rubber in a game setting for the first time in 20 days, Vines utilized his four-pitch mix to dice through the Surprise lineup. Deftly changing speeds and keeping batters off balance, he yielded just four hits and the only run he allowed came on a double-steal. His nine punchouts ranked as the second-most in the Fall League through two-and-a-half weeks of game action.
“I felt like I was getting ahead, throwing a lot of first-pitch strikes,” Vines said. “When I was behind in the count, just making these guys swing, throwing a lot of good strikes, a lot of swings-and-misses.”
Vines got that vibe because he was both peppering first-pitch strikes (15 of 21 batters) and racking up 20 swings-and-misses while throwing 54 of his 75 pitches for strikes.
While his stuff won’t light up a radar gun, the 25-year-old sports a plus low-80s mph changeup he can throw in any count and a low-90s four-seam fastball that big league hitters found difficult to square up, hitting just .130 against the offering across five appearances. Mix in his distinct cutter and slider and making consistent hard contact vs. the California native proves difficult.
In his first start amidst a sea of new names and talents, Vines got to have a familiar face behind the catcher’s mask in the form of fellow Braves prospect Tyler Tolve, whom he last worked with during Spring Training.
“He knew automatically what pitch I wanted next,” Vines said. “Just being in sync out there. He called a really good game. And, you know, I would put some of the success on him.”
After he was protected ahead of last year’s Rule 5 Draft, right shoulder inflammation pushed Vines’ season debut until late June. Having climbed to Triple-A Gwinnett in 2022, he returned to the level this July and impressed enough in a five-start stint that when an opening came up in the Braves’ rotation in late August – to pitch at Coors Field, of all places – Vines got the call that he was headed to The Show.
“It's been surreal,” he said. “Especially making my debut this year after being [in Florida] for the first two months of the year and, you know, it's hard. [Rehabbing,] you see a lot of guys get the chance and you're not mad or jealous, you just wanna be there with them and just really try to do everything and anything in your willpower to get there.”
Both of Vines’ starting opportunities with Atlanta resulted in quality starts. He also worked in a bulk relief role during September, showcasing his pitchability amidst a pennant chase, finishing with a 3.98 ERA across 20 1/3 Major League innings.
While a call to join the big league club during its NLDS matchup with Philadelphia never came to fruition, Vines knew he had more in the tank in 2023. The Braves wanted to keep him ready for as long as their playoff run lasted, but upon elimination, Vines was desert-bound.
Now the club’s seventh-round selection from the 2019 Draft has been given the opportunity to continue building toward what he hopes is a permanent spot among Atlanta’s pitching corps. Kyle Wright is expected to miss the entire 2024 season after undergoing right shoulder surgery last week and Charlie Morton has a $20 million club option for next year that the Braves need to make a determination on.
In short: Impress against many of baseball’s top prospects and again in the spring, and Vines will be hard to ignore. He’s bringing a simple mantra to the hill for the extent of his tenure with Salt River:
“After [the ball] leaves your hands, [it’s out of your control]. Let's see what happens.”