After the completion of the regular season and alternate training sites, most player development staffs have turned their attention to instructional league play. In the past, instructional leagues have been populated by new draftees, recent international signings and players at the bottom rungs of their organizational ladder. This year, in an attempt to make up for lost time due to the pandemic, it’s been expanded to include many more players. MLB Pipeline will be providing position-by-position reports from instructional league camps in Florida and Arizona.
Unlike most Major League teams, the Braves held a much smaller instructs on the heels of their alternate training site work. It featured a much smaller roster and was held in Gwinnett, Ga., from Sept. 23 through Oct. 9.
Ricky DeVito, RHP; Bryce Elder, RHP (No. 15 prospect); Joey Estes, RHP; Daysbel Hernandez, RHP (No. 16); Jared Johnson, RHP; Tyler Owens, RHP (No. 24); Gabby Rodriguez, LHP; Andy Samuelson, LHP; Jared Shuster, LHP (No. 9); Spencer Strider, RHP; Victor Vodnik, RHP (No. 17) and William Woods, RHP
Vodnik started his pro career with a rare profile: a high school pitcher who looked like a reliever. While he’s undersized, more and more people believe he has the traits needed to start. Arriving in Gwinnett in early August, the player development staff got a good two and a half months with the right-hander and saw him continue to make very impressive strides.
“It was really productive,” Braves farm director Ben Sestanovich said. “A lost year is hard for everybody, but these guys getting a prolonged period of time gave us some valuable development time. It’s three real pitches. It’s a four-seamer with big velocity, he was up to 98 [mph] last year and over the course of this time, we saw some strides with both the changeup and the slider. Six-foot righties are always in this world of ‘Can they start?’ But from a delivery and stuff standpoint, I think we feel he has the ingredients to start.”
A trio of pitchers who went from the alternate training site and rolled into instructs who stood out are 2020 first-rounder Shuster, fourth-rounder Strider and 2018 draftee Woods. Shuster continued to show an advanced feel for pitching, and he already has one of the better changeups in the system. Strider had Tommy John surgery and missed his sophomore year at Clemson, but he showed some good velocity during his brief return as a junior before the shutdown. He’s thrown even harder since the Braves took him in the fourth round in this year’s Draft, touching 99 mph during instructs with his four-seamer to go along with the makings of a breaking ball and changeup.
Then there’s Woods, a junior college product taken in the 23rd round in 2018. He had a solid full season debut at age 20 in the South Atlantic League in '19, mostly in relief, but the Braves think that he has starting pitcher ingredients as well.
“He was mid-to-upper 90s with a slider that’s gotten harder,” Sestanovich said. “He worked his tail off during the shutdown. He was pretty interesting.”
Antonio Barranca, Rusber Estrada and Ricardo Rodriguez.
Barranca was a rare high schooler to sign for $20,000 as a non-drafted free agent this year. His father, Germán, saw time in the big leagues for four years, so Barranca has a sense of what pro ball is about, but to go from not playing in high school to catching the elite stuff mentioned above was certainly a learning experience.
Mahki Backstrom, 1B; Vaughn Grissom, SS (No. 22); Cody Milligan, 2B; Carlos Paraguate, SS; Beau Philip, SS and Cam Shepherd, SS.
Grissom and Philip are two middle infielders the Braves took in the 2019 Draft, Grissom a Florida high schooler and Philip from Oregon State. Grissom participated for most of the time at the alternate training site and carried over his solid performance from there to instructs.
“He continued to impress with very mature at-bats,” Sestanovich said. “He has a very good sense of the strike zone for a young kid. Early on, looks like he has the knack to make contact and find the barrel.”
Philip is working to put an uneven pro debut he had in the Appalachian League in 2019 (.577 OPS) while also looking to improve on both sides of the ball.
“He put in a lot of work and is in very good shape,” Sestanovich said. “He’s a college bat with some strength and he worked a lot on his defense and made some real strides. He probably has to end up playing all infield positions, but he’s a shortstop for the foreseeable future.”
Keep an eye on Backstrom. The big first baseman showed some raw power during his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League a year ago after being an 18th-rounder as a California high schooler. He just turned 19 in early October and can hit the ball a long way.
“He’s very strong,” Sestanovich said. “He’s a tremendous worker who has worked a ton on his agility and his footwork, making strides on his defense. The potential for a power, left-handed bat is intriguing.”
Franklin, the club’s third-round Draft pick in 2020, had missed the shortened junior year because of a broken collar bone, so he got as many reps as he can find, first at the alternate training site and then at instructs.
“He worked hard with our hitting guys and left with a real sense of what he needs to work on offensively,” Sestanovich said. “He hits the ball very hard. For a guy who missed a bunch of time to come in and face guys like Kyle Muller and Tucker Davidson at the alternate site and the big stuff guys of this younger group, he did a nice job.”
Sestanovich is excited to see what the group of high schoolers at instructs does in the future, with Beckstrom in the infield and Harris and Paolini in the outfield. Harris’ defense, plus arm and athleticism stood out, while Paolini’s all-around tools stood out, particularly his power and speed.