The first thing that Braves pitching prospect John Cornely learned in the Arizona Fall League, even before discovering he couldn’t blow first-pitch fastballs past every hitter, was that sunblock wasn’t optional for noon games in the desert. Especially not for someone of his fair complexion.
“Oh yeah, especially on my lips,” he said, smiling and recalling his initial workouts with the Scottsdale Scorpions last month. “After the first day I woke up and I was like, ‘Dang, my lips are sunburned.’”
After learning that lesson, and also that he couldn’t throw solely first-pitch fastballs, Cornely had a rewarding experience in the AFL, as did most of seven other Braves prospects who played for Scottsdale. The league completed its season Thursday.
The headliner of the Braves group was second baseman Tommy La Stella, who hit .290 with eight extra-base hits, a .436 on-base percentage and four strikeouts in 79 plate appearances. But Scottsdale also got solid work out of slick-fielding shortstop Elmer Reyes (.347 on-base percentage), third baseman Kyle Kubitza (.305 average, .431 OBP) and a quartet of hard-throwing right-handers.
They don’t show up on lists of the Braves’ top 10 prospects, most of which include a handful of starters led by Lucas Sims, the first-round draft pick out of Snellville in 2012. But the four in the fall league — relievers Cornely, Shae Simmons and Juan Jaime and starter Aaron Northcraft — all feature fastballs at least in the mid- to upper-90 mph range.
“Our depth (of power pitchers) is improving, but you never have enough,” said Bruce Manno, Braves assistant general manager and director of player development. “We’ve been able to add to it each year from the draft. You never have enough pitching, but we’re excited with what we have.”
There’s no argument among them regarding who throws hardest: Jaime’s fastball lights up radar guns at 98-102 mph.
“He’s at 99 to 100 almost every game,” Cornely said.
But it was Simmons, 23, who had a 0.90 ERA in nine AFL appearances and was the only Braves prospect selected for the league All-Star game. He allowed six hits, one run and seven walks with 13 strikeouts in 10 innings in Arizona, following a dominant season at low Class-A Rome.
“He’s 94-96 mph with a good (split-finger fastball) and good slider,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “He has really good stuff.”
Simmons had 24 saves and a 1.49 ERA in 39 appearances at Rome, with 66 strikeouts and 15 walks in 42 1/3 innings.
“I still need work, mostly with fastball command,” said Simmons, who had a 2.45 ERA in 11 appearances after a promotion to Double-A Mississippi, with 16 strikeouts and seven walks.
Taken in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft out of Southeast Missouri State, he has a 1.62 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 78 minor league innings without allowing a home run.
“He was dominating at Rome as closer,” Manno said. “Another with a well-above-average fastball. Just needs to develop.”
Jaime, 26, is a former Nationals prospect claimed off waivers by Arizona three years ago. He missed the 2010-11 seasons because of injuries and Tommy John surgery, and was released by Washington despite a 2.42 ERA in and 146 strikeouts in 111 2/3 minor league innings.
He was claimed by the Diamondbacks, but waived in August 2011 when they needed to open a 40-man roster spot for Lyle Overbay. The Braves claimed him, and in 2012 he had a 3.16 ERA with 18 saves, 73 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings at high-A Lynchburg.
This year at Mississippi, the big Dominican’s ERA climbed to 4.07, but Jaime had 70 strikeouts and 28 walks in 42 innings and allowed just one homer.
“When we signed him in 2011, he wasn’t ready to pitch yet,” Manno said. “Then last year he really came on, pitched well, threw hard and we put him on the 40-man (roster). His fastball has got tremendous life. We’re excited about him. We could see him sometime next year (in Atlanta).”
While Jaime had an inflated 6.10 ERA in 10 AFL appearances, he collected 11 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings over his last eight games while working to hone a new split-finger fastball.
“He was a fastball-slider guy,” Manno said, “and (Double-A pitching coach) Dennis Lewallyen started working with him on a splitter. Power arm, power reliever. He’s really come a long way since we signed him. Big man. We’ve gotten him in good shape, good pitching shape, and he’s working on this third pitch.”
Of the quartet in Arizona, only Northcraft was a starter recently, and the Braves will keep him in that role for now. He was 8-8 with a 3.42 ERA in 26 starts in Double-A in 2013 and has 281 strikeouts in 288 2/3 innings over two seasons at Lynchburg and Mississippi.
“Terrific natural movement to his fastball,” Manno said of Northcraft, a 10th-round draft pick (2009) out of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.
Northcraft was 1-5 with an 8.00 ERA in seven starts against the higher-level hitters he faced in the AFL. He had 19 strikeouts in 18 innings, but 15 walks undermined his performance.
“The biggest thing with Norty is, like a lot of young pitchers, fastball command and consistency,” Manno said. “That’s why we sent him out (to Arizona); he needs to pitch.”
Cornely has made 100 relief appearances in 2 1/2 seasons with a 2.97 ERA and 214 strikeouts in 142 1/3 innings. He had an appendectomy that caused him to miss most of spring training and the first month of his second season in high-A and finished with a 3.38 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings.
“He was a driving force in Lynchburg winning that pennant in 2012,” Wren said. “Then he had an appendectomy at spring training, and he was really slow to recover, and it took a long time during the season for him to get back to form.”
After giving up four runs and five hits in 2 1/3 innings of his first three AFL games, Cornely allowed two hits while striking out 12 batters in 7 1/3 scoreless innings over his next six appearances.