While the Braves and their fans anxiously await word from Major League Baseball on results of an investigation into alleged infractions committed by team officials in areas ranging from international free agency to the domestic draft, some top Braves prospects insist they’re not thinking about it or letting it affect them.
Nine of the organization’s pitching prospects participated in a 10-day rookie development camp at SunTrust Park that ended Tuesday. The scandal, which already cost Braves general manager John Coppolella and a top special assistant their jobs, was not a big topic of conversation among the young pitchers.
“Yeah, we’re just here to play baseball, so that’s what I do,” said right-hander Kyle Wright, the fifth overall pick of the June draft out of Vanderbilt and the oldest pitcher in the rookie camp, having turned 22 in October. “We’re going to try to get as good as possible and help the Braves win.”
The Braves likely will find out soon the investigation results and penalties, which could include heavy fines, restrictions on future free agency, the loss of draft picks, and possibly even the loss of players who were signed as international free agents or selected in the domestic draft, if it’s determined that the Braves broke rules regarding improper contact or signing bonuses with prospects from either or both of those areas of player acquisition.
Bryse Wilson, a 2016 fourth-round draft pick out of Orange High School in Hillsborough, N.C., said it was easy for prospects like him to ignore reading about or discussing details or speculation about the Braves scandal and potential fallout.
“Yeah, yeah, I think so for sure,” the hard-throwing 19-year-old said Tuesday near the conclusion of the camp. “Whatever happens up there (at the major league level), obviously may or may not have an impact on me. But it’s just kind of out of my control, so I just focus on what I have to do and continue to try to be successful.”
Wilson’s prospect status has climbed rapidly and the former high school football star posted 10 wins and a 2.50 ERA in 26 starts at low Single-A Rome in his first full pro season, piling up 139 strikeouts with just 37 walks in 137 innings.
Wilson and other prospects said the camp helped them build camaraderie while also learning from Braves strength coaches, a team psychologist and other staffers who were part of the program.
“We’ve all been working out, pushing each other here,” Wilson said. “Getting after it and having a lot of fun. We all get along great. All good friends, all can go out and have dinner with each other, have fun. Obviously there’s competition there, but we can kind of set that aside off the field.”
Left-hander Joey Wentz, a first-round pick in the Braves’ deep 2016 draft, said he hadn’t let the investigation and potential penalties affect him before or during the development camp.
“No, not at all,” said Wentz, who turned 20 in October and had an 8-3 record and 2.60 ERA in 26 starts at Rome in his first full season, with 152 strikeouts and 46 walks in 131 2/3 innings. “My job is to be ready for spring training. I’m not up here (in the majors) now. I’m not up here now so I’m not too worried about that – I don’t know anything about that situation.”
Asked if it were encouraging to see all the other talent at the camp, Wentz said, “Yeah, absolutely. Not only just pitching, but the amount of good baseball players in this organization in the minor leagues and the major leagues, too. Some incredible players the Braves have, so it’s really cool to see and be around them. At the end of the day it’s really fun to try to get better with everybody.”
The Braves’ minor league system has been ranked as the best in the sport by Baseball America, which could have a record number of Braves in its Top 100 prospects list before the 2018 season -- a majority of them pitchers, as that’s been the focus of the team in an ongoing rebuilding project that’s lasted three years.
“Obviously we see all that kind of (prospect ranking) stuff,” said right-hander Mike Soroka, who turned 20 in August and will be near the top of the Braves prospect list after posting a 2.75 ERA in 26 starts at Double-A Mississippi as one of the youngest at that minor league level. “We try not to put too much into (prospect rankings) but it’s pretty special, especially to be here with these guys – they’re all amazing guys.
“This 10 days was really fun with all of them, getting to know all of them. Even though we’re all mostly at different levels of the organization right now, we’re really close together and hopefully one day we’ll all get the chance to play together.”
Kyle Muller, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound Texan who was one of the nation’s top pitchers and power hitters in high school, said the development camp was a perfect coda to his first full season of pro ball -- a season that saw him struggle for extended periods for the first time in his life before finishing on a positive note in rookie ball.
The campers ate together, hung out together during down time at a hotel the team had them in near SunTrust Park, and a bunch of them even found time to go on a laser tag outing.
“(The camp) was awesome,” said Muller, who turned 20 in October and was a second-round pick in the 2016 draft. “We’re all kind of the same age, 19 or 20; Kyle’s 22, but not that much different. It was nice to compare with them what works at this or that level.”
Soroka said talking to Braves strength coaches and going over mental aspects of performance with a team specialist were especially helpful aspects of the camp.
“That’s all been great, just kind of rounding out some of the more important parts that often get overlooked, especially for starting pitchers,” Soroka said. “It’s cool to see the Braves are taking a lot of resources and time, they put this together for all of us, showed us how much they care about us. It’s nice to know.”
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution