Five months ago the Braves brought most of their top prospects to Atlanta for a semi-annual January rookie camp designed to get them a little acclimated with the big-league ballpark and surroundings they’ll experience if and when they get their first callup. I had a chance to talk with several of them including center fielder Kyle Wren.
When the Braves made the son of GM Frank Wren an eighth-round pick in the June 2013 draft, it raised some eyebrows among folks who hadn’t seen Kyle play at Georgia Tech or read the scouting reports. But he quickly silenced most skeptics by batting .335 with 21 extra-base hits (five triples, two homers), a .391 OBP and 35 stolen bases (in 42 attempts) in 53 games last season, including 47 games and 195 at-bats at low-Single A Rome.
I wanted to know what it was like for Wren being the son of the GM, if he got heckled on the road at least initially, if he felt pressure, that kind of thing. And I also wanted to know about infielder Jose Peraza, who hit .288 with a .341 OBP and whopping 64 stolen bases (in 79 attempts) in 114 games for Rome last season.
Knowing what the likely answer would be, I asked Kyle Wren if there was anyone in the organization that he thought was as fast as he (Wren) was.
“Jose Peraza,” he replied. “I’m sure (Jordan) Schafer is. Me and Jose, we were back-to-back in the order, we took so many double-steals it was almost funny. I mean, he’s as good as or better base runner as I am. He’s as fast or faster. People joked around in Rome, they wanted me and him to race in spring training. I don’t even know if I want to race him; he might beat me. But I’m sure Schafer, B.J. (Upton) – guys like that can fly.”
Beginning last year I was already hearing people in the organization talk about Peraza as the Braves’ long-term answer at leadoff. He was a shortstop, but Peraza would eventually be moved because of the obvious reason – Andrelton Simmons.
I asked Kyle Wren if Peraza was a special player.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I mean, the kid has amazing range at shortstop. It was amazing how many times a ball would get hit up the middle and I’m in center field thinking for sure it’s coming through, and he just gets over there. There’s Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, who’s incomparable defensively. But he (Peraza) is really good, too.
“He’s got so much range, he gets to everything. Even if he’s not throwing out the guy at first, he’s stopping the ball. So if a guy is on second base, he’s stopping a run from scoring getting to those balls. He’s really good.”
Flash forward six months. Peraza has played primarily second base this season. He could stay there or eventually move to third base, depending upon whether the Braves keep Tommy La Stella at second base or eventually move him, perhaps to left field. But that’s all down-the-line decisions stuff. For now, Peraza is at second and his stock continues to soar.
Peraza was hitting a Carolina League-leading .342 (97-for-284) with 22 extra-base hits (eight triples, one homer) and 35 steals in 66 games for high-A Lynchburg before his June 19 promotion to Double-A Mississippi, where he made an auspicious debut with three hits including a triple.
All he’s done in 10 games at Mississippi is bat .400 (18-for-45) with a homer, seven RBIs, 13 runs and four steals.
Oh, and he just turned 20 in April.
Yes, this kid is special. Generally regarded as the Braves’ second-best position-player prospect behind catcher Christhian Bethancourt, Peraza’s name will undoubtedly shoot up the Top-100 prospects lists that come out this fall and winter.
And for now, Braves fans can start to wonder what the lineup might look like someday with a high-average, high-OBP, big-time steals guy at the top in Peraza, and perhaps a couple of 50-60 steals guys in Peraza and Wren.
Just over a week after Peraza was promoted from Lynchburg to Mississippi, so was Wren on Saturday. Before getting bumped up, Wren hit .296 with a .359 OBP at Lynchburg, with 14 extra-base hits (four triples) and 33 steals in 42 attempts. He struck out just 39 times in 341 plate appearances this season, and 63 times in 583 PAs in two years of minor-league ball.
While Wren, 23, isn’t the elite-level prospect that Peraza is, the GM’s son is a legit major league prospect who’s a solid defensive outfielder, a gap-to-gap line-drive hitter, a proficient bunter and a burner on the bases who emphasizes base-stealing and has made swiping third base look easy in the minor leagues.
“In college it was more a controlled running game, so I wasn’t really let loose,” Wren said. “When I got to pro ball, they were just like, ‘We want you to be aggressive; just go.’ And baserunning is a lot like hitting – you have to be in that groove when you’re hitting good. And baserunning is the same way. When you’re in a good groove baserunning, you’re getting great jumps, it’s almost like you know the pitcher is about to lift up his leg before he does it. So when I started in Danville I was pretty good, and when I got to Rome I started to be really aggressive the first couple of series, and it really clicked with me.”
If anything, it now looks as if Wren should have been selected higher than the eighth round, not lower.
As for being the son of the GM, here’s what he said about that when I asked in January.
“I try to control what I can control,” he said. “You can crush the ball 10 times, but if it goes right back to the fielder you’re 0-for-10. I was kind of lucky that way because I started out pretty good, and everywhere I went – I started in Danville – and everyone in (the clubhouse) is good friends. But when you’re the GM’s kid, you come in and the first thing you thing is, ‘Alright, this kid is here maybe because of his dad.’ So when you walk into a new clubhouse, like when I came to Rome, not that anybody was mean to me; everybody was real welcoming. But there is that tension in the room, like, ‘Can we say things around him?’Once you just acclimate with the team – I was lucky, because I started out hot in Danville and in Rome. I’m glad it went that way.
“I just tried to keep the same approach I had at Tech, and I kind of tweaked a couple of things with things I learned from Braves minor league coordinators, and it went really well. I just tried to adapt, keep changing my approach because they wanted me to kind of be a little bit more patient at the plate because I tend to be a little more aggressive, especially for a leadoff hitter. So I tried to do that from the middle of the (2013) season for the rest of the season. And it worked out really well. I was walking a lot, getting on base, stealing.”
And about hearing it from fans, I asked if he got heckled on the road last year, at least initially, from fans who noticed the “Wren” on his back and put 2 and 2 together.
“Oh yeah,” he said, smiling. “It really wasn’t that bad, though. You can’t say much to the GM’s kid when he’s doing well. But I got a little bit of that. Guys on the team give you a little more crap than I got from fans, but it was all fun, nothing serious. I’ve grown up with that, every since I’ve been in high school I’ve gotten that. So I’m used to it. I know how to deal with it. It’s understandable.”
BRAVES LINEUP Monday vs. Philly
- BUpton cf
- Simmons ss
- Freeman 1b
- JUpton lf
- Heyward rf
- Johnson 3b
- La Stella 2b
- Bethancourt c
- Wood p
• Mining the indies: Speaking of Braves scouts, few teams do a better job of combing the bushes including independent leagues and finding talent that other teams have either overlooked or undervalued. You might recall, Brandon Beachy was signed by the Braves from an indie league (unaffiliated with major league baseball).
Their latest such pitching find is Cody Scarpetta, who on Friday pitched the first seven innings of Lynchburg’s second consecutive no-hitter. Benino Pruneda pitched the last two innings of that game, after Braves top pitching prospect Lucas Sims and reliever Alex Wilson combined on a no-no the night before.
Scarpetta retired the first 17 batters before issuing a two-out walk in the sixth. He threw 99 pitches, stuck out seven and walked one in his seven no-hit innings.
A former 11th-round draft pick by the Brewers in 2007, Scarpetta will turn 26 in August. After starting out the season with Lancaster of the independent Atlantic League, he signed with the Braves on June 12 and has gone 2-1 with a 1.89 ERA in three starts, with 15 strikeouts and five walks in 19 innings.
He got as high as Double-A with the Brewers before having Tommy John surgery that kept him out of the entire 2012 season. Scarpetta was released in December and signed with the indie-league team after getting no offers from MLB clubs over the winter.
• Meet the Mets: Freddie Freeman has gotten to know them well over the past few years. Entering tonight’s series opener against the Mets, the Braves first baseman has a .320 career average against them with 13 homers and 50 RBIs in 59 games.
That includes 22-for-51 (.431) with five doubles, four homers and 15 RBIs during Freeman’s current 12-game hitting streak against the Mets that began July 25.
Freeman enters the series on a good roll since ending his long slump. He’s 23-for-62 (.371) with nine extra-base hits (two homers) in his past 15 games.
• Heyward’s lefty woes: Jason Heyward is 1-for-24 in his past nine games, although he does have nine walks in that span. While that slump isn’t long enough to warrant concern, what Heyward has done against lefties in the first half of the season is a bit alarming. He has a majors-worst .138 average (11-for-80) against them.
He's hit .281 (65-for-231) against right-handers with 18 extra-base hits (six homers), 37 walks, 37 strikeouts and a .385 OBP and .420 slugging percentage. But against lefties, he’s at .138/.213/.238 with four extra-base hits (two homers), six walks and 22 strikeouts. He’s also been hit by pitches four times, including twice by lefties.
This comes a year after Heyward hit .264/.347/.455 in 110 at-bats against lefties in 2013, which was actually better than his .250/.350/.415 line in 272 at-bats against righties last season.
Of course, it can’t be ignored that Heyward got hit in the face by a fastball from Mets lefty Jon Niese last August, which broke his jaw and required surgery and a month on the DL. He still wears a face guard to protect the right side of his face, but Heyward has said since returning in late September that facing lefties hasn’t been an issue for him, that there’s no fear there.
Since moving to fifth in the order, Heyward is 6-for-34 (.176) with two doubles, a triple, 12 walks, four strikeouts, a .404 OBP and a .294 slugging percentage. He hit .254/.334/.384 in 276 at-bats in the leadoff spot, with 31 walks and 55 strikeouts.
B.J. Upton’s .152 average (10-for-66) against lefties is tied for second-lowest in the NL.
• Braves vs. lefties/righties: Meanwhile, the Braves as a team continue to hit far better against lefties than against righties. Against lefties, they rank third in the NL with a .263 average and .332 OBP. Against righties, the Braves are 11th with a .235 average and 13th with a .296 OBP. They’ll face all right-handed starters in the three-game Mets series.
The only Braves hitting as high as .275 against righties are Freeman (.288/.383/.473) and Heyward (.281/.385/.420), while against left-handers the Braves have six lineup regulars hitting .300 or higher, including five with at least 40 at-bats against lefties: Chris Johnson (.447/..481/.574), Evan Gattis (.375/.405/.750), Justin Upton (.373/.475/.765) Andrelton Simmons (.347/.360/.531) and Freeman (.300/.379/.567).
Because teams bring in lefties so frequently to face Freeman, he has a team-high 90 at-bats (plus nine walks and three HBPs) vs. lefties, while the next-highest Braves AB total vs lefties is Heyward’s 80.
• Road work: The Braves went 8-3 on their just-completed trip to raise their road record to 24-20. The only MLB teams with more road wins are Oakland (27-15), Milwaukee (27-15), the L.A. Dodgers (26-16) and Detroit (25-15).
Now they need to get things turned around at home. Since going 5-0 with 1.37 ERA at home from May 9-20, the Braves are 5-10 with a 4.22 ERA in their past 15 home games.
Justin Upton warmed up on the trip – 9-for-27 with two homers and eight RBIs in his past seven games – and now hopes to regain his torrid home hitting form. After hitting .385 with 10 homers, 26 RBIs, a .467 OBP and .760 slugging percentage in his first 30 home games through June 3, he’s 4-for-28 (.143) with no homers, one RBI and no walks in his past six home games.
• A winning streak: Their four-game sweep at Philly that ended Sunday gave the Braves their first winning streak longer than three games since they had three such streaks in April, including a season-high five-game streak April 11-16. That five-game winning streak gave them a 10-4 record, and the Braves are 34-34 since then.
• First-pitch swingers: Two Braves are among NL’s top five when it comes to highest percentage of swings at first pitches. B.J. Upton’s 45.3 percent rate is second in the league (and the majors), and Freddie Freeman’s 41.5 percent is the fifth-highest in the NL. Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez leads the majors by a huge margin, swinging at 55.6 percent of first pitches.
For those who might be wondering, Martin Prado still swings infrequently at first pitches – 8.5 percent of the time, to be exact, the second-lowest rate in the NL behind St. Louis’ selective Matt Carpenter (8.1 percent).
• Harang keeps plugging away: For all the skepticism that seems to surround Aaron Harang, he keeps getting really good results in about four out of every five starts. Harang allowed 11 hits but only two runs (on a pair of homers) in seven innings Sunday at Philadelphia, the 13th time in 17 starts that he’s allowed two or fewer earned runs in six or more innings.
• Tonight’s matchup: It’s Alex Wood against the pride of Paulding County,Mets rightyZack Wheeler (3-8, 4.45).
Wood pitched seven scoreless innings (three hits) at Houston Wednesday for the win in his return to the rotation. He has a 2.60 ERA in eight starts, though only a 3-5 record due to a lack of run support.
The young lefty has allowed two or fewer earned runs in seven of eight starts, including one or none in five. Wood went 0-1 with a 4.05 ERA in three starts vs. the Mets, all in 2013.
Wheeler is 2-5 with a 4.89 ERA in his past nine starts, allowing four or more earned runs in five of those games and one or no earned runs in three. He’s 3-1 with a 3.94 ERA in five starts vs. the Braves, including 0-1 with a 5.73 ERA in two this season.
Wheeler is 3-4 with a 3.92 ERA in 10 road starts. Lefties have hit .301 with a .384 OBP in 153 at-bats against him; righties have hit .225/.296 in 178 at-bats. And he’s struggled with runners in scoring position, allowing a .363 average (29-for-80).
Against Wheeler, Freeman is 6-for-11 with a homer, Heyward is 5-for-12 with a homer, and Dan Uggla is 3-for-10 with homer. Braves who’ve struggled against him include Justin Upton (0-for-12 with five strikeouts) and Chris Johnson is 2-for-12.
• Let's close with one of the very finest tunes from the mighty Allman Brothers Band, which you can hear by clicking here.
“DREAMS” by The Allman Brothers Band
I had to wake up with the blues
Pulled myself outta bed, yeah
Put on my walkin' shoes,
Went up on the mountain,
To see what I could see,
The whole world was fallin',
right down in front of me.
'Cause I'm hung up on dreams I'll never see, yeah baby.
Ahh help me baby, or this will surely be the end of me, yeah.
Pull myself together, put on a new face,
Climb down off the hilltop, baby,
Get back in the race.
'Cause I'm hung up on dreams I'll never see, yeah baby.
Ahh help me baby, or this will surely be the end of me, yeah.