The Braves' instructional league camp officially began last Monday, but there was a group of young players who were deservedly given a few extra days to report to Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Members of the Rome Braves saw their season extend until Sept. 16, but the extra work did not go unrewarded. The club took home the Class A South Atlantic League title, defeating the Lakewood BlueClaws in four games. So the organization allowed them to enjoy the feat and catch their collective breath. Those on the R-Braves had their first workout on Friday, getting the chance to revel in their championship in camp for the first time.
"This is such a tight-knit group of players," Braves assistant director of player development Jonathan Schuerholz said. "There's a reason why you saw the improvement from the first half to the second half, behind the skills. They have great makeup. They probably do feel like kings of the castle. And they should be proud of themselves. But they also understand they're not a finished product and they have work to do."
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Rome went 27-42 in the first half and then turned it around to win its divisional second-half crown with a 43-27 record. Many hitters upped their game, with third baseman Austin Riley perhaps the most notable (.929 OPS in the second half vs. .671 in the first). Outfielder Ronald Acuna returned in late August and provided a huge boost as well.
Braves Top 30 Prospects at instructs
But no one questions that it was the pitching that really made this engine run. The staff had a 1.16 ERA in the postseason, an exclamation point to a tremendous second half nearly across the board. Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka are at instructs, but Max Fried is not, with the Braves feeling Fried had earned a full offseason after spending nearly two straight years at the Walt Disney World complex coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Each member of this trio was dominant whenever on the mound during Rome's playoff run. And while Schuerholz noted it's far too soon to anoint anyone, how they fed off of each other reminded him of a Braves big three of yesteryear.
"I probably shouldn't compare it to this, but if you take what we had in Atlanta with Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine, how they pushed and challenged each other in a good way, how they didn't want to be outdone by their teammate," Schuerholz said. "That's almost how it was for this group down the stretch. They all wanted to be the big-game pitcher. Every day, they pushed each other."
They'll continue to do so for the next few weeks at instructs, putting the work in necessary to hopefully develop into the Braves' next big three.
"I hope as they move forward together, we hope it becomes something special," Schuerholz said. "We know they were in the South Atlantic League, there's a lot of growing to do. But watching the personality that staff took on, it was cool to watch."
Maitan looks like he belongs
Perhaps one of the biggest storylines at instructs for the Braves is the arrival of international signee Kevin Maitan. The top player on MLBPipeline.com's Top 30 International Prospects list, Maitan signed with the Braves for $4.25 million in July. The 16-year-old shortstop phenom is joined by others from this past signing period as playing in the United States for the first time.
"You look at these guys and they're basically sophomores in high school," Scheuerholz said. "They're big, physical, they are baseball rats."
Maitan stands out more than most. Schuerholz saw Maitan work out in the Dominican last year and wanted to withhold judgment until seeing him, not wanting the advanced buzz to color his evaluation. What he saw surpassed whatever expectations he was trying to hold back.
"You have your guard up, you don't know the actual truth until you lay eyes on him," Schuerholz said. "When I did, he could've fit right into a Double- or Triple-A batting practice. It's now power, this guy is going to be a special player. He's already gained weight in a good way, he's gotten stronger, but it hasn't hurt his agility and footwork. We'll give him every opportunity to stay at short."
The group of teenagers had been getting hundreds of reps in the Dominican prior to coming to Florida for instructs to help prepare them on the field. The month they are in Lake Buena Vista will help them acclimate to their surroundings so when they come for their first Spring Training, they won't be too overwhelmed. They'll also get to play in games -- the instructional league schedule starts on Monday -- something they are itching to do after a long time on the showcase circuit and in workout mode.
"They're champing at the bit to play in games," Schuerholz said. "That's how guys get better, getting them that game experience. You can't replicate that in practice. The sooner we can do that with them, the better."
Newcomb, Sims relative vets at instructs
Instructional league play is typically reserved for those at the lower level of a system, just getting their career started. Sometimes there are exceptions. One of those exceptions in Braves camp is lefty Sean Newcomb.
Newcomb and right-hander Lucas Sims are the elder statesmen at Disney, both in terms of age and experience level. Both spent the bulk of their season in Double-A (Sims also saw considerable time in Triple-A), and Newcomb is 23 years old, while Sims is 22. Neither need more innings, but they are at instructs in the hopes they can put some finishing touches on their development.
Newcomb, especially, pitched very well down the stretch for Mississippi, posting a 2.08 ERA over his final six regular-season starts before finishing with a pair of solid postseason outings.
"This is more along the lines of how instructs used to be, like a finishing school," Schuerholz said. "There are a couple of things we want him to work on at instructs to help him finish off a great year he had, so he's ready to go next year and hopefully be ready to crack that staff next year."
It's a bit of an old-school concept, Schuerholz explained. Back in the day, instructs used to have Double-A and Triple-A players and there would be 50 or more games. The Braves opted for this setting rather than the Arizona Fall League because innings aren't needed and the organization can control the environment completely.