Damon Berryhill has a lot to work with in his second season as Triple-A Gwinnett’s manager, including a pair of 20-year-olds on whom the Braves’ foundation is being built.
The Stripers, who open the season Friday in Norfolk, boast one of the better minor-league rotations, led by top pitching prospect Mike Soroka. He’ll be joined by friend and fellow 20-year-old Kolby Allard, a highly regarded prospect himself, along with Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair and Lucas Sims.
The latter three each once possessed their own promise. Minor league rotations are fluid, and it’s conceivable each of the starting five will pitch in the majors this season.
“We’re pretty excited,” Berryhill said. “Especially with the additions of Soroka and Allard. ... I’m really excited about our rotation. We’ve got experience and youth.”
Friday will mark Soroka’s first Triple-A start. He was the most talked-about pitching prospect throughout spring training and if all goes well, will join the big-league club later this season.
Soroka knows he’s on the cusp. Playing in an Atlanta suburb is the final minor-league step.
“It’s amazing,” Soroka said of being named Gwinnett’s opening-day starter. “Being able to get out there Day 1, hopefully set a tone for the guys, get out there and attack. It should be fun.”
In addition to the deep rotation, Berryhill will again manage outfielder Ronald Acuna, baseball’s No. 1 prospect, after having him for 54 games in 2017.
Acuna hit .344 in those games, launching nine home runs with 33 RBIs. Berryhill expects more of the same, even if Acuna’s stay in Triple-A is as brief as most expect.
“He needs to stay his course,” Berryhill said. “He’s a young player who still has stuff to work on, as talented as he is. We’ve never had a problem with Ronald working. He wants to get to the big leagues. He loves to play this game.
“We’re hoping to get the same we got from him last year and a little bit more. He had a great fall and a great spring training. It’s only a matter of time for him to get an opportunity and hopefully when he gets that opportunity, he keeps performing the way he’s doing it.”
The earliest date the Braves can promote Acuna and protect a year of contractual control is April 14, two days after the Stripers’ home opener. The Braves’ first home game after that date is April 16.
Expectations will be high: Acuna has been compared with Roberto Clemente, Andruw Jones and other all-time greats at just 20 years old and without a major league game under his belt.
Add Alex Rodriguez to the list.
“The only one I can really think about is kind of an Alex Rodriguez,” Berryhill said when asked if Acuna reminded him of anyone he saw in his 10-year playing career. “That same age, I saw Alex when he came up with Seattle at 19 and the composure he had, the swing, the maturity at that young age. That’s kind of what reminds me of Ronald.”
Berryhill coached with the team throughout spring training, getting a close look at Acuna. Certainly there must be areas for the young man to improve, despite all the admiration.
“It was really hard to improve on what he did last year,” Berryhill said. “But he picked up right where he left off. He’s just one of those special players, for as young as he is, the command of the strike zone, the ability to get the barrel on the ball consistently. … He’s been outstanding. Quality clubhouse kid, loves to work and loves to play this game.”
The Stripers will play Acuna mostly in left field so he can get acclimated there. Acuna said he’s comfortable in every outfield spot.
“My first experience in Triple-A was good,” Acuna said through an interpreter. “It was everything I’d hoped for, everything I’d trained for. So with that behind me, I’m going in ready for the season.”
Gwinnett returns several veterans while adding others, such as infielder Christian Colon and utilityman Danny Santana, and others who could soon join or rejoin the Braves.
The younger position players are on the way. As the Acunas and Sorokas graduate, the next wave might feature a trio of position players.
“Most of our youth position player-wise is in Double-A right now,” Berryhill said. “They’re high on (third baseman Austin) Riley, (catcher Alex) Jackson. Those two guys in particular. And (outfielder Cristian) Pache is right there with them. We’ve got some young talent that could possibly get up here this spring.”