Young players auditioning make these Braves dog days interesting

DENVER – The Braves were a long shot to win a wild-card berth even after getting their record to a high-water mark of 45-45, but 18 losses in the next 24 games pretty much turned those chances from slim to none. Still, that doesn’t mean they have nothing to play for. Quite the contrary.

The Braves are getting an extended look at second-base prospect Ozzie Albies, who's had a couple of three-run homers and some solid defensive plays in his first two weeks in the big leagues. (AP photo)

Falling out of the race probably made it easier for the Braves to make decisions to bring up prospects and give them regular playing time, as they’ve already done for nearly two weeks with second baseman Ozzie Albies and still could do now or in September with at least one other major prospect, outfielder Ronald Acuna.

And for prospects and/or rookies already up with the big-league club, the rest of the season provides an opportunity for them to show they are worthy of being penciled into the plans for next season, either in the lineup, on the bench, in the bullpen or in the starting rotation. It’s an audition of sorts.

“This is a very important time for front-office people to look down and see, okay, we can count on this guy for next year, we can count on that guy, etc.,” veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey said. “Everybody’s pitching for something. We may be out of it on paper a little bit, but everybody in here is pitching for something and that’s important.

“I’m not saying this is a tryout for next year but it’s certainly going to play into and impact the decisions that those guys make for what this club will look like in 2018. This was always looked at, it seems, as a bridge year for the years upcoming for these young guys to get up here. You’ve seen a little of that this year already, for what you have to look forward to, but there’s still a long way to go and it’s important for these young guys to do what people expect of them and to be professional, and to be around guys who are professional and learn what that looks like and how they can be consistent in the roles that they’re called up here to perform in.”

An atmosphere like the Braves have now can create competition and exciting performances, which is why this team might be more enjoyable to watch for the final 47 games of the season than a team that’s 11 games under .500 (52-63) would otherwise be expected to be. This is usually the dog days of a season and teams out of contention can appear to be going through the motions, playing out the schedule.

For many of the Braves, that shouldn’t be the case. Too much could be riding on performances, and surely they know it.

Ronald Acuna is only 19, but the dynamic top-rated Braves outfield prospect could be called up before the end of the season as the team gets a look at some players expected to compete for spots in 2018 spring training. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)

The Braves are getting a look at a top left-handed prospect, Max Fried, who has a terrific curveball and figures to be a big part of their future rotation. But for now is getting big-league experience as a reliever, where the Braves can control his innings the rest of the season and work him into more pressured situations. Fried was called up a week ago and has made two appearances, allowing two hits and three walks (one intentional) with two strikeouts in three scoreless innings.

Fried allowed one walk and no hits with one strikeout in a scoreless inning against the Cardinals on Saturday in his second appearance.

“I think his first outing he was a little amped up, which is to be expected,” veteran reliever Jim Johnson said. “Kind of was overthrowing a little bit. The other thing is, people don’t realize he has never pitched out of the bullpen; he was close to getting in the game early (Saturday) and then sat, and then ended up pitching in the eighth (inning). But there’s that transition from getting hot, getting ready, and then that complete crash (when you don’t get in the game), then have to get back up. It’s not easy to do, especially for a young guy. I thought he’s handled it well.”

Reliever Jose Ramirez isn’t a kid – he’s 27 – but this is his first full season in the majors and he’s made major strides and begun to come into his own as a setup man or possibly even a future closer for this or another team.

“Look at like the transformation that Jose’s gone through this season from last season,” Johnson said. “He’s not just a thrower anymore. Some of it’s trial by fire, these guys get put in situations where they kind of have to learn on the fly.”

Although Acuna’s not on the 40-man roster and doesn’t have to be added this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 draft – not enough time has passed since he first signed to require he be protected – and although the Braves could face a roster crunch in November when they have to add other prospects to the 40-man roster who are Rule 5-eligible, Acuna has been so good and so exciting at every level (now at Triple-A) that the Braves might bring him up this season.

Not just to give Acuna a taste of the big leagues before he competes for a job in spring training, but also to show their fans what awaits and what could be in the lineup next season. Hey, they’re trying to finish the season strong, trying to keep a good vibe going at SunTrust Park to capitalize on larger crowds they’ve gotten lately and to keep those folks coming back on a regular basis next season as season-ticket holders.

Don’t get me wrong -- if Acuna didn’t seem ready or close to it, they wouldn’t bring up a 19-year-old who’s not yet on the 40-man roster just to appease fans. But he does appear ready, at least if you judge by performance against Triple-A players, most of whom are at least 3-4 years older than him and plenty who are 10 or more year older.

The Braves have a couple of rookies in their starting rotation currently, Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims, and they’ve taken their lumps as all rookies do. But they’re learning and team officials see plenty of reason to believe each is going to be better for the experience.

Sims is 0-3 with a 5.71 ERA in his first three big-league starts and gave up 10 hits and five runs (four earned) in 5 1/3 innings Saturday at St. Louis, but even in that rough outing he showed something important when he struck out the last two batters of a three-run fourth inning with two runners on base. Things could have spiraled completely on him with Paul DeJong and Dexter Fowler due up and only one out, the large crowd making a lot of noise and looking for DeJong to blow the game open. But Sims struck both of them out. Damage control.

“You can always look for something positive with these young guys,” manager Brian Snitker said after that 6-5 loss Saturday. “I mean we’re experiencing a lot of things for the first time. The one thing that Lucas does is he never stops competing. He never stops competing, getting after it. He’s had a couple of big innings, and he’ll figure that out. The more we keep running him out there, the more he’ll figure it out.

“The only way to figure it out is to go out there, because you don’t just show up here and all of a sudden everything is golden and you never have to fight through any adversity. I mean, that’s the whole idea of running these kids out there. Young pitchers, until they experience all that and what it’s like, and know how to correct it and how to get better through it – the only thing we can do is give them experience. When you’re a competitive like he is and you take pride in it, he’ll figure it out.”

Rebuilding projects aren’t easy. This is part of the process if you’re going to go all the way through with them. And the next 6-7 weeks could offer plenty of exciting glimpses of the future in addition to the inevitable frustrations as inexperience guys find their way.

• I'll close with this one from the late, great Merle Haggard.

Merle Haggard
There's a place where mother nature's got it all together

She knows just when to let wild flowers bloom

Some-how she always seems to know exactly what she's doin'

And The Lord saw fit to furnish elbow room.Have you ever been down to Colorado

I spend a lot of time there in my mind.

And if God doesn't live in Colorado

I'll bet that's where He spends most of his time.I'd love to be there watching early in the morning

The sun comes up and crowns the mountain king

If by chance you dare to be there high upon the mountain

I swear that you can hear the angels sing.

Have you ever been down to Colorado

I spend a lot of time there in my mind.

And if God doesn't live in Colorado

I'll bet that's where He spends most of his time.

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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.