LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Ronald Acuna has provided every indication he'll be ready whenever the Braves provide him with his much-anticipated Major League debut, Mike Soroka and Austin Riley have enhanced confidence that they, too, might be ready to make an impact for Atlanta at some point this
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Ronald Acuna has provided every indication he'll be ready whenever the Braves provide him with his much-anticipated Major League debut, Mike Soroka and Austin Riley have enhanced confidence that they, too, might be ready to make an impact for Atlanta at some point this year.
There is certainly a different feel as the Braves progress toward the fourth season of their rebuilding process. The top prospects, who might have seemingly been worlds away just a year or two ago, are now knocking on the door and forming what might be the most influential wave of the organization's future.
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Acuna's situation really hasn't changed, even as he has recorded 10 hits in his past 15 at-bats. If the Braves wait until April 13 or later to promote him, they secure an extra year of contractual control. So it seems wise to project Acuna's big league debut to come either that very day at Wrigley Field or possibly on April 16, when Atlanta begins a seven-game homestand.
Soroka's ETA isn't as projectable, but it's noteworthy to mention that earlier this week, one American League scout said the Canadian hurler "is ready now" and would likely immediately be considered one of the top three starters in Atlanta's rotation.
The Braves have known they've had something special in Soroka since taking him with their second selection (28th overall pick) in the 2015 MLB Draft. Blessed with sound mechanics and an advanced pitching IQ, the 20-year-old right-hander has been light-heartedly likened to a machine. He has recorded five strikeouts through five innings this year, and the lone run he surrendered came courtesy of a hanging slider that Yuli Gurriel deposited over the left-field wall on Feb. 24.
MLB Pipeline ranks Soroka as the Braves' second-best pitching prospect and the game's 31st-best prospect. He rests directly behind last year's fifth overall pick Kyle Wright, a Braves farmhand who has spent the past couple weeks justifying his ranking as the game's 30th-best prospect.
Armed with the ability to throw 95 mph-plus heaters and create a rising fastball effect like Craig Kimbrel, Wright will be given a chance to get used to the five-day rotation schedule that he didn't encounter until ending his Vanderbilt career last year. The 22-year-old right-hander stands as a strong candidate to open the 2019 season in Atlanta's rotation.
This will also be a big year of development for a pair of left-handed pitching prospects -- Kolby Allard and Max Fried. Allard might be just a few months of physical maturity away from being deemed ready. Fried's curveball makes him an intriguing prospect, but once he sticks at the Major League level, he projects to be either a back-end starter or reliever.
Riley seems to have physically matured as much as any Braves prospects over the past year. The 20-year-old third baseman replaced some lingering baby fat with man muscles. He's homered in two of his first 19 at-bats and has shown enhanced mobility, which has reduced concerns about his defensive potential at the hot corner.
There's a chance the Braves could introduce Riley to the Majors during the latter half of the upcoming season. But there's certainly no reason to rush him.
Effect of early off-days
With the placement of the two offdays scheduled within the first eight days of the regular season, the Braves will not need to carry five starters in their rotation until April 10 -- the team's 11th game. This will give lefty starter Luiz Gohara an opportunity to make up for the time he lost because of a left groin strain. It will also give Atlanta some flexibility when it comes time to form the Opening Day roster.
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Assuming the Braves will open the season with four starters, they will have the option to carry either an additional bench player or a reliever. It might not make much sense to go with a nine-man bullpen, as the first six games are played in Atlanta, but manager Brian Snitker will likely lobby to carry an extra reliever when his team plays a three-game series at Coors Field from April 6-8.
Peter Moylan has done nothing to alter the expectation that his contract will be guaranteed by the end of camp, and Rule 5 Draft pick Anyelo Gomez stands as a favorite to claim one of the other available bullpen spots.
The early off-days might lead the Braves to carry nine relievers during a portion of the season's first two weeks. But for a majority of the season, they plan to carry eight relievers, one of which will be a long-relief option.
It seems safe to project that the long-relief role will be manned by quite a few pitchers over the season. The top candidates are Chase Whitely, Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair and Lucas Sims. Because each of these pitchers has Minor League options remaining, the Braves can freely transfer them between Atlanta and Triple-A Gwinnett throughout the season.
Fried could also be deemed a candidate for the long-relief role. But the team may opt to provide him a chance to further the development that was cut short when he was unexpectedly fast-tracked from Double-A Mississippi to Atlanta's bullpen last August.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.