The Braves’ Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate begins its first season as the Stripers on April 6. The team’s home opener is April 12.
Here are reasons to watch the happenings at Coolray Field this summer, along with the names likely to pass through on the way to the bigs:
1. Duh: You can see Ronald Acuna … at least once
The Braves’ No. 1 outfield prospect is the talk of baseball, especially after a spring in which he destructed opposing pitching but still didn’t make the opening-day roster – likely a manipulation of MLB’s service-time rules.
For the Braves to gain an additional season of contractual control, Acuna must remain in Triple-A until April 13, when he could join the major-league team in Chicago. The Braves return home three days later to face the Phillies, if the organization would rather Acuna debut at SunTrust Park.
That leaves April 12 – the Stripers’ home opener – as potentially the only time locals can see Acuna in the minors. Perhaps the Braves elect to hold him down until April 16 or longer, but Acuna’s 2018 minor league experience is expected to be short-lived.
2. A rotation of aces
By the end of the Stripers’ season, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Luiz Gohara will have likely taken the mound for Gwinnett.
Soroka and Fried almost certainly will be in the initial rotation. Fried will join the major league team when opportunity arises, while Soroka will be pitching to earn a September (if not sooner) promotion.
Allard and Wright aren’t as far along as Soroka, but even at their ripe stages of development they likely will crack Triple-A this season. Gohara is injured and could be demoted so that 1) he can get stretched out and 2) for possible service-time benefits.
Any of those guys could become the ace who Braves fans desire.
3. Who’s visiting?
The Stripers won’t be the only team boasting top prospects. In the International League South, Gwinnett faces Durham, Norfolk and Charlotte regularly.
Highly regarded starter Brent Honeywell (DUR), slugger Jake Bauers (DUR), shortstop Willy Adames (DUR), catcher Chance Sisco (NOR), outfielder Eloy Jimenez (CHA) and starter Michael Kopech are among the best players who’ll face the Stripers.
That doesn’t factor in the plethora of talent throughout the other International League divisions who will visit Coolray. It’s always cool to say you saw player X before he became “Player X.”
4. The Austin Riley intrigue
The Braves were reluctant to add a third baseman in the offseason in part because of Riley, who the team hopes is its long-term answer at a position that’s been a turnstile since Chipper Jones’ retirement.
When Riley runs into one, it’s a home-run-derby audition tape. He doesn’t hit cheapies, as spring training illustrated, and he should get a few served up to him against minor league arms.
That’s not to make Riley sound like the second coming; he has plenty of weak points. He may not even open the season in Gwinnett.
But he’ll work his way there soon, and his performance could determine whether the Braves double-down on their faith in him or dip into the Josh Donaldson market next winter.
5. Damon Berryhill in Year 2
The Braves thought they got a coup when they hired Berryhill before last season, after his contract with the Dodgers organization wasn’t renewed.
Berryhill, a close friend of Braves manager Brian Snitker, has coached several of baseball’s best young players in recent seasons, including Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Ozzie Albies and Acuna.
The Braves’ Triple-A team was 71-71 a season ago, but more important, young players made strides, Berryhill believes. And this season should continue to pump talent into the major leagues.
“That’s our goal down here: to get those guys prepared to get up there and get their opportunity,” Berryhill said. “And I think myself and the staff have done a good job preparing those kids.”