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Braves taking old-school approach to instructs

September 23, 2018

Instructional League play has traditionally been largely for players just starting their pro careers. Most instructs rosters are dotted with the most recent Draft class and internationally signed players, those who are newer to the organization and have yet to get beyond A ball, at the most. It's long been

Instructional League play has traditionally been largely for players just starting their pro careers. Most instructs rosters are dotted with the most recent Draft class and internationally signed players, those who are newer to the organization and have yet to get beyond A ball, at the most. It's long been a way for player development staffs to get more time with players, work on specific skills and make offseason conditioning plans and programs each fall.
Instructional league rosters
Instructs haven't always been like that, though, and back in the day it was a fall program that Minor Leaguers from all levels would participate in, especially if there was something they, or the organization, wanted to work on.

The Braves have gone toward that old school approach. While there are plenty of players from their rookie-level Gulf Coast and Appalachian League teams, there are also 15 players who reached Double- or Triple-A in 2018.
That includes elite-level prospects like right-hander Ian Anderson and third baseman Austin Riley, ranked third and fourth, respectively, on the Braves' Top 30 Prospects list. The 20-year-old Anderson, ranked No. 39 on the Top 100 list, pitched his way to Double-A in just his second full season of pro ball, yet is in Orlando to get more work in. Riley, No. 43 on the Top 100, hit his way to Triple-A at age 21, putting together another strong offensive season. Yet he was eager to come to Florida and continue to hone his craft with hitting coordinator Mike Brumley, with whom he has forged a very good relationship.

"We're turning instructs into a much more individualized program," assistant farm director Jonathan Schuerholz said. "[Riley] wants to work with Mike Brumley. He's investing in his career. and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. We're not taking the approach where it's just newly drafted or signed players. It used to be that instructs were a thing to help finish off the development process."
There are a number of "older" players in camp as a result, beyond guys who are rehabbing from injuries. Upper-level players, some in their mid-20s are participating in the entire program from start to finish, with games against other organizations beginning on Monday.
Braves instructional league roster and schedule
Case in point is 26-year-old left-handed reliever Phil Pfeifer. Many thought he'd be in Atlanta by now helping out the big league bullpen, especially after a 2017 season that saw him reach Triple-A. But the southpaw struggled at the start of 2018 and had to go back down to Double-A to straighten himself out. To his credit, he did just that and got back to pitching well in Triple-A at season's end. He wanted to take those lessons learned and continue working on them this fall.
"We have things that not only they want to work on, but we want them to work on," Schuerholz said. "Pfeifer is the most senior of that group. He's down here full go. He knows what he wants to work on. It was an up-and-down year for him. He has the ability to pitch in the big leagues and he wants to take that final step. Why not let him come down here and work with our instructors and really focus on that?"
The Braves will play a dozen instructional league games as well as have several camp days, with the program concluding on Oct. 12. The Braves have one of the youngest Major League rosters in baseball, one that many feel is ahead of schedule in winning the National League East. That affords the player development staff some time to produce additional waves, but they certainly aren't sitting back and resting on their 2018 laurels, with instructs just another chance to build that system.
"We are charged with providing the big league team with the pieces necessary to do whatever it needs to do," Schuerholz said. "That never stops. If we sit back and say, 'Well we pushed these guys to the big leagues,' that won't go well.
"How do we give GM Alex Anthopoulos X amount of players, then how do we give him X+1, X+2 or X+3? We'd love to get them all to Atlanta, but we know that's not likely to happen. Many might make it to the big leagues, but it might be with another team. We're never going to stop. It's our job to continue that process and never accept a downturn for what we want to accomplish in terms of developing young players."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.