Had a couple of notes from the recently completely Arizona Fall League that I meant to post in a blog a week or two ago, but trades and things happen when you cover the Braves. Stuff can fall through the cracks, man.
Anyway, here’s some of that material that’s relevant going forward, from up-and-coming starting pittcher Lucas Sims and reliever Daniel Winkler.
First up, Sims.
Sims, a 21-year-old right-hander from Brookwood High in Atlanta’s northern ‘burbs, ended the 2014 season as Baseball America’s top-rated prospect, but saw that status slip after the team acquired multiple pitching prospects in a rash of trades and draft picks and after Sims struggled early in the 2015 season.
But the Braves’ former first-round draft pick (2012) came back strong after a DL stint for a hip injury sustained in the Class-A Carolina Mudcats’ bus crash in May. Sims built on his second-half success at Double-A Mississippi (3.21 ERA in nine starts, 56 strikeouts and one homer allowed in 47 2/3 innings) by taking his performance up another notch in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.
Pitching for the Peoria Javelinas, Sims posted a 2.12 ERA in six games (five starts), fifth-lowest in the AFL among pitchers who made at least four starts. He had 17 strikeouts in 17 innings and issued only three walks, the latter stat particularly encouraging after he walked 54 in 92 2/3 innings during the minor league season.
Sims was selected to start the AFL all-star game, and in his last four games for Peoria he allowed six hits, one run and one walk with 13 strikeouts in 12 innings. I was out there to see his best outing of the fall on Nov. 2, when Sims created a bit of a buzz among many radar-gun-wielding scouts in the stands during a three-inning stint in which he struck out four, allowed no walks or hits, and threw 26 strikes in 36 pitches while sitting at 94-96 mph with his fastball and topping out at 97-98 (at least one scout said he clocked a 98).
That fastball velo was a couple of ticks above Sims’ velocity in the past, and it came in a game in which he he had pinpoint control and also displayed a curveball that’s all but unhittable when he’s throwing it as well as he did that day.
Two days before that outing, I talked to Sims about his season and fall-league experience to that point. I used a lot of that in this story about Sims that I wrote after returning, and some more of it in this story about the harrowing bus crash and how it affected him and others from the Carolina team who also played for Peoria in the AFL.
But there were a few other quotes from Sims that I thought most of you would appreciate, since there’s a good chance we’ll be writing about Sims again during spring training and a reasonable expectation that he could make his major league debut during the 2016 season.
Me: How’s your velocity now compared to when you were drafted, and what have you learned about the relative importance of pitch velocity?
Sims “It’s about right where I want it, anywhere low- to mid-90s. But the biggest thing is executing certain counts. The further you go up, you start seeing that the more white of the plate you hit, the harder it’s probably going to get hit. So the biggest thing really is locating quality pitches, changing speeds and changing eye levels. That’s been the biggest part, trying to learn how to fine-tune that.”
Your performance in the second half, do you think that made a statement, reminded people that you’re still a top prospect even if the Braves added a bunch of others in the past year and you were kind of overshadowed?
“It was a lot of guys, yeah.” (He smiled, left it at that.)
Who’ve you met among the prospects the Braves added?
“I got to know (Max) Fried; I knew him in high school a little bit, we went to some events. He’s pretty good. He’s coming back from his surgery, seems like he’s doing well. I got to meet (Tyrell) Jenkins. He’s a funny guy, great character, great ballplayer, too. And some of the younger guys that I got to see in instructs (instructional league).”
With all the young pitching they’ve added, is it exciting to think you could be part of a deep and strong rotation in the future?
“It’s something that, growing up in Atlanta, you’ve always seen. That’s what Atlanta does; we bring up pitchers. I’m just trying to do my part, learn what I can, put my work in, and try to carry on the long stream of quality pitching that Atlanta’s had.”
What are some of your memories of watching the Braves as a kid from Atlanta?
“Oh, man, I remember a lot of them. I got to really remember it towards the end of Smoltz’s career, middle to end. Watching him, Glavine, Maddux, just watching how they went about their business and just take command of the entire ballgame. It’s fun to watch them. I’ll still pull up YouTube videos, or whatever I can find, to just watch what it was like. You kind of put yourself in that perspective – I can be that guy one day. That’s the dream you have.”
Have the Braves made it clear as an organization that that’s the plan they’re getting back to, pitching as the foundation, and the “Braves Way,” all that?
“Yeah, that’s been a big part of what they’ve been telling us, the Braves Way. There’s a specific way things are done, and it’s something they take a lot of pride in. It’s just something that’s great to be a part of.”
So there is something tangible to the Braves Way?
“Yeah, it’s clear, they really instill it early -- Rookie ball, low-A. And then by the point of where you start getting up a littler higher – Double-A, Triple-A, majors – it’s expected of you to basically just be a professional. That sums it up – be a professional.”
Are you excited about the changes they’re making, going forward with the new ballpark, where the franchise is right now, all that?
“I really am. I think we’ve got a great front office. I think we’ve got unbelievable player development. I wouldn’t be who I am today without a lot of those guys, not just as a baseball player but teaching us what it really is like to be a professional.”
• And here’s some stuff from a conversation I had in Arizona with Winkler, the 25-year-old righty who was a Rule 5 Draft pick by the Braves from the Rockies a year ago. He made his major league debut in September after recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, and Winkler was sent to Arizona to get some innings. He’ll need to spend the first couple of months of the 2015 season on the major league roster or be offered back to the Rockies.
Me: After pitching in the big leagues, are you getting anything out of this experience in AFL?
Winkler: “Yeah, absolutely. I’m kind of starting to find myself a little bit more. I was talking to my wife the other day about how I just want to get back to the mindset that I had before I got hurt. (Winkler had a 1.41 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 70 innings for the Rockies' Double-A affiliate in 2014 before he blew out his elbow). Just the confidence, the mindset. It’s just been different.”
Strange year for you, since you debuted directly in majors after Tommy John surgery as a Rule 5 guy, after the minor league season was completed?
“Absolutely (strange). It’s just getting back to that mindset and knowing that I can compete, do it here and up there in the big leagues.”
This is kind of the step you would have taken first, if not a Rule 5 guy that returned straight to big leagues?
“Yeah. Most of these guys are probably going to be big leaguers. Facing great competition who -- they might be Mike Trouts or Kris Bryants (someday). So it’s great competition. Great thing just to get my feet wet and go into the offseason ready to make the team next year.”
You did it in reverse after your return from rehab, pitching first in the majors and then at this (AFL) level against minor leaguers.
“Yeah. And I’d rather have it no other way.”
What you did in majors, you think you’ll benefit, from knowing what to expect now as you go forward?
“Yeah, absolutely. I kind of feel like I got my feet wet. I feel like I can pitch there. And just the lifestyle – the clubhouse, the coaches, what to expect. The bright lights aren’t as bright if you’ve done it a couple of times.”
You have a house you’re renting in Arizona with (pitchers Lucas) Sims and (Andrew) Thurman and (catcher Joseph) Odom, who were all teammates last year in the minors at Carolina.
“We’ve got a nice little house. North Scottsdale. It’s cool. I’m probably the oldest guy here, but it’s cool, the clubhouse feel, just getting back into baseball.”
So your wife is here with you during the fall league. I guess you’ve at least got the master bedroom at the house?
“Yeah, we’re paying for the majority of (the rent).” (Laughs.)
But you don’t have to buy the minor leaguers dinner every night, I hope?
“No, don’t have to do that. Lucas has got more money than all of us. So does Thurman, so….”
Good point. Lucas was a bonus baby. First-round pick. Speaking of Sims, what do you think after seeing him out here in the AFL?
“I had never really saw him throw before. But he’s a big kid, he’s very mature for his age. I’ve noticed that he learns fast, too. I think he’s going to be the real deal. Comes out throwing 96 (miles per hour), good breaking ball. He’s got a strong lower half. So I think he’s going to be solid.”
• OK, I'll close with this great tune from Otis Gibbs. "If we meet inside a box car may you never see the darker side of me...."
"THE DARKER SIDE OF ME" by Otis Gibbs
As we pulled into Milwaukee
I could feel my head and back begin to sway.
After ridin’ 13 hours I was ready
To get my feet off of the train.
Reminded of what happened in Wichita, St. Paul and Abeline,
Somewhere in the distance I was followed by the darker side of me.
I stumbled through the city, looking for a place that I could lay my head
But first I needed work because it’d been a couple days since I’d been fed.
On the shores of lake Michigan,
I found a spot where I could finally breathe,
I slept next to the water and I dreamt about the darker side of me.
When I woke I found a fishing boat loading up its nets to meet the day,
The captain walked up to me and offered me a job and a place to stay,
He promised he’d feed me and I could sleep inside the boat when the day was done,
I could feel the darkness fading as we sailed off in the early morning sun,
The next two months were filled with the longest days that I had ever seen,
The work was never ending and I barely had the time to eat or sleep.
We all hauled 400 pounds of salmon from the cold and frigid water every day,
After all my days of toiling I forgot about the darker side of me.
When the season finally ended I went and asked the captain for my pay,
When I walked into his office he claimed he didn’t have a dime for me,
He said I owed him money for sleeping inside his boat every night,
When I heard the bogus charges I could feel the darkness churning deep inside,
I closed the door behind me and I offered him a chance to come clean,
I’m here for all my money and I’m not the type of man that walks away.
He laughed and spit at me said ain’t no way in hell I’m getting paid,
But his laughter fell to silence as I introduced him to the darker side of me.
As I pulled out of Milwaukee
I could feel my head and back begin to sway.
I’ll be ridin’ 13 hours and I’m ready
To get my feet off of the train.
Reminded of what happened in Galesburg, Flagstaff and Milwaukee
Somewhere in the distance I keep running from the darker side of me.
If we meet inside a boxcar may you never see the darker side of me.