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April’s top performers down on the Braves farm

Wow, we’ve already made it through the first month of the 2022 minor league regular season, as Saturday concluded April’s slate of games. As we enter May today, most affiliates have played anywhere from 20-23 games, with of course Triple-A teams on the higher side due to its opening day coming a few days before the other classifications. But regardless, we now have enough of a sample size to at least determine who’s hot and who’s not.

As I’ll continue to do throughout the 2022 season, today let’s look at the top performers down on the Braves farm so far. First we’ll look at the top hitters and pitchers system-wide, followed by the leaders from each respective affiliate. Let’s get to it…

April’s Top Hitters

Landon Stephens (1B/DH)Rome (A+)1.007 OPS, 7 HR, 19 RBI
Caleb Durbin (3B)Augusta (A).344 AVG, 7 2B, 15 RBI, 12 SB
Drew Lugbauer (1B/DH)Mississippi (AA).934 OPS, 6 HR, 14 RBI
Michael Harris II (OF)Mississippi (AA).333 AVG, .931 OPS, 17 RBI
Tyler Tolve (C)Rome (A+).357 AVG, 1.092 OPS, 10 RBI
April’s Top 5 Hitters (Farm-wide)

I probably should’ve extended this list to 10 players, given the great starts by so many hitters in the Braves farm system. You could essentially list the entire Rome lineup at this point, as, along with Stephens and Tolve, guys like Justyn-Henry Malloy, Christian Robinson, Cody Milligan and Vaughn Grissom are all hitting at, near or above .300 so far in 2022. However, the players above have put together quite an impressive April themselves, of which I’ll discuss in more detail once I get to each minor league affiliate below.

April’s Top Pitchers

Royber Salinas (RHP)Augusta (A)20.7 K/9, 1.45 ERA
Tanner Gordon (RHP)Rome (A+)0 walks, 1.64 ERA, 14.7 K/9
Jared Shuster (LHP)Mississippi (AA)0.83 WHIP, 1.88 ERA
Andrew Hoffmann (RHP)Rome (A+)11 K/9, 2.86 ERA, 1.23 BB/9
Touki Toussaint (RHP)Gwinnett (AAA)11.7 K/9, 0 HR, 2.04 ERA
April’s Top 5 Pitchers (Farm-wide)

Same thing for the pitchers in April: there are several other guys that could’ve made the list above, including Augusta’s Landon Leach (2.75 ERA), Gwinnett’s Kyle Muller (3.66 ERA) and Rome’s Luis De Avila (3.93 ERA), not to mention relievers Dylan Lee, Brad Brach and Austin Smith. But five was the limit, and for different reasons those five in the table above have been the best overall during the season’s first month of play.

April’s top performers by affiliate

Here’s a breakdown of the top performers from last month, from each Braves affiliate. Keep in mind, Gwinnett has played three more games than the other three classes.

AAA – Gwinnett Stripers

This Stripers offense has had its moments, but overall I have to say it has probably been one of the weakest among the four Braves minor league teams. Quad-A, journeymen-type guys like Pat Valaika (.276 AVG) and Phil Gosselin (.274 AVG), have not only been the most consistent in the contact department, but they also lead the way with 14 and eight RBI, respectively. Although recently, prospect shortstop Braden Shewmake and outfielder Delino DeShields have been coming around. Shewmake is up to a .292 AVG and .760 OPS heading into Sunday, and now has four XBH in his last seven games (after just one in his first 10). And DeShields of course doesn’t have as many PA since being signed back on April 9, but he has reached base safely in his last seven games, currently sporting a .280 AVG and .733 OPS.

There hasn’t been much power across the lineup, but Greyson Jenista has done his best to provide at least something in that area. Jenista leads the Stripers with four home runs this season, and his contact is at an all-time best as he’s hitting .278 with a .874 OPS in 17 games so far.

I have Touki Toussaint as a farm-wide top performer for the month of April, and for good reason. Yes, the walk issues are still there (5 BB/9), but given the righty is punching out batters at a career-high rate and has yet to allow a homer so far, it’s pretty simple to see why he’s managed a sub-2.50 ERA through his first four starts. And… it appears the 25-year-old is messing around with a changeup this season – something I don’t think I’ve seen him throw in the majors. It’s a beauty too (in the video below), coming in around the mid-70s MPH with tons of movement. Touki has never lacked in terms of his repertoire – it’s just always been his control that has held him back.

Of the Gwinnett starters, prospect Kyle Muller is really the only other “prospect” arm on the team, with Bryce Elder spending the first month in Atlanta. Muller has pitched well, and he’s definitely getting his strikeouts (punching out a season-high eight in his most-recent outing). But for whatever reason, the southpaw just hasn’t gotten himself into the form we’re used to seeing him in. His breaking ball has been either fantastic or lacking so far, but either way opposing batters are still hitting just .214 versus Muller. He’s better than his 3.66 ERA shows, and he perhaps could’ve improved upon that mark if his start wasn’t skipped this past Saturday. I’m not worried yet. UPDATE: As I’m writing this Muller has officially been announced the Braves starter today against the Rangers.

Gwinnett’s bullpen has been a mess up until recently, but guys like Brad Brach (1.86 ERA), Nolan Kingham (1.15 ERA), Thomas Burrows (3.00 ERA) and Dylan Lee (2.08 ERA) have all been fine when called upon. Either of those are viable depth options for the big league team, and I expect we’ll see one or two in Atlanta by season’s end, due to injury or ineffectiveness. GM Alex Anthopoulos has already rewarded prospect William Woods for his solid work in Triple-A, promoting the righty last week.

AA – Mississippi Braves

Two players stand out among the M-Braves offense, and they’re both listed as farm-wide leaders for April – first baseman/DH Drew Lugbauer and outfielder Michael Harris II (both are featured on my Braves Top 35). The man we call SLUGbauer is doing his usual thing of absolutely crushing baseballs, having already tallied six home runs in just 20 games so far. And as of right now, the 25-year-old has been more than simply an all-or-nothing slugger at the plate, as he just snapped a 10-game on-base streak this past Saturday, helping push his season AVG from .237 to its current .260. Lugbauer deserves a Triple-A assignment come July.

For Harris… well I’m sure you’ve heard, but he is really good at… everything. The prospect outfielder kicked off 2022 with a 10-game hitting streak, and the kid has reached base safely in all 20 games so far, heading into Sunday with a .333 AVG and .931 OPS, to go with 10 XBH (2 HR) and nine stolen bases. I don’t think anyone doubted his talent, but I wasn’t expecting him to hit this well right out of the gate. Harris will likely be Gwinnett’s starting center fielder by the All-Star break, if not sooner. Adam Duvall better start hitting homers in Atlanta.

I’ve written a lot of words on just two players, but it would be a mistake to leave out a few others from Mississippi. Prospect outfielder Jesse Franklin V seemed to just be getting hot before he went down with an undisclosed injury earlier this week, having gone 7 for 25 (.280 AVG) over his last seven games, to go with two homers, a triple, a double and eight RBI. Hopefully he returns from the IL soon. Also, after a 5 for 5 performance on Saturday, utility-infielder Luke Waddell is now 15 for his last 32 (.468 AVG) over his last seven games, raising his season AVG a whopping 84 points in that span (.200 to .284). He doesn’t really hit for much power, but Waddell can friggin hit; that five-hit night gives him four multi-hit games so far in 2022. Third baseman CJ Alexander (.293 AVG) and Riley Delgado (.357 AVG) are both swinging a hot stick as well for the M-Braves.

The Braves must feel real good about its first-overall pick back in 2020, as lefty Jared Shuster is developing nicely in the minors. The 23-year-old Shuster is coming off back to back seven-inning outings entering Sunday – not to mention a 12-strikeout gem back on April 16 – and he hasn’t surrendered more than two runs in a single start so far this season, hence the solid 1.88 ERA and 0.83 WHIP. I’ll admit, when he was selected back in 2020’s draft, I wasn’t too excited, but man has he blossomed as a pro pitcher.

In terms of starting pitchers for Mississippi, after Shuster there are a few talented prospects still trying to get things going in guys like Alan Rangel, Darius Vines and Freddy Tarnok. Neither are necessarily struggling, but haven’t started posting big numbers yet. The M-Braves bullpen has once again been blessed with lefty reliever Hayden Deal, who currently sports a 1.35 ERA in 13 1/3 innings so far. Deal is a multi-inning bulldog that can rack up the strikeouts, and an April 20 appearance in which he allowed two runs is the only blemish on his record heading into May. At 27-years-old, and having accrued over 100 innings in Double-A over the last two seasons, I’m not really sure why Deal isn’t with Gwinnett yet, but maybe soon.

A+ – Rome Braves

As I alluded to above, I may have only Landon Stephens and Tyler Tolve has representatives from Rome’s offense, but you could argue that nearly the entire R-Braves lineup deserves to be listed there. As a team, Rome ranks within the top-five in pretty much every offensive category among South Atlantic League clubs, and a lot of that is because of Stephens and Tolve. The former has provided the power, already swatting seven homers and knocking in 19 runs in just 17 games; while the latter just continues to hit in general, recording a knock in all but one of his 11 games thus far in 2022 (including eight in a row at the moment).

But we must also recognize quite a supporting cast, in Cody Milligan (.303 AVG), Vaughn Grissom (.284 AVG), Beau Philip (.273 AVG), Christian Robinson (.351 AVG) and Justyn-Henry Malloy (.293 AVG). It’s unreal – that’s seven hitters in the R-Braves lineup that’s currently flourishing at the plate, which makes sense given Rome’s 13-7 record is the best among Braves affiliates in 2022.

Here’s a fun fact: prospect Tanner Gordon has not walked or hit a single batter so far this season. It’s not some trick – yes, he has been active and has made four starts in fact. I just realized this while I was researching for this post, but how cool is that? Over 22 innings in 2022, the former sixth-round pick owns a 36/0 K/BB ratio, to go with a beautiful 1.64 ERA. Gordon is also coming off a 10-strikeout outing back on Friday, in which he tossed a four-hit shutout, and two starts before that (April 16) he struck out 14 as part of a two-hit shutout. I mean, damn, the kid was solid in High-A in roughly 50 innings worth of work to end the 2021 campaign, but good grief. Gordon may be a quick riser this season.

Andrew Hoffmann has really gotten going lately as well, striking out 16 over his last 13 innings, spanning two starts. The 22-year-old was just a 12th-round pick last year, but on the mound he looks like a real up-and-coming prospect, and so far High-A batters haven’t been able to do much of anything against him (.238 AVG against). Hoffmann also seems to have plenty of control; he only has three walks in 22 innings overall.

Luis De Avila is another starter having success for Rome, as well as relievers Lisandro Santos (0 ER / 9 IP), Justin Yeager (0 ER / 6 1/3 IP) and Austin Smith (2.84 ERA). De Avila has only went deep in one outing so far (of four), but his results are strong nonetheless, shown by his 1.93 ERA in 14 total innings. Plus, the kid is only 20-years-old and making his first starts at the High-A level, after pitching only 52 1/3 innings above the rookie level over the last two seasons as a pro.

A – Augusta GreenJackets

Battery Power called infielder Caleb Durbin “one of the most interesting prospects drafted by the Braves” back when he was selected in the 14th-round of the 2021 MLB Draft. Well, I think I would agree. The 22-year-old Durbin has not only been the top hitter in the Augusta lineup so far this season, but also one of the best overall hitters in the entire Braves minor league system, as he enters Sunday with a .344 AVG and .956 OPS, to go with a home run, seven doubles, 15 RBI and 12 stolen bases. The kid is literally doing it all at the plate and is capable of playing just about anywhere in the infield.

Braulio Vasquez has also been a solid GreenJackets contributor on offense, especially of late, going 5 for 11 (.454 AVG) with three XBH (1 HR) in his last three games. The Dominican shortstop has been around since 2016, and played in 74 games with Augusta last year, but so far he’s hitting better than ever, sporting a .314 AVG and 1.000 OPS heading into Sunday. There’s also the 20-year-old Brandol Mezquita, who’s currently enjoying a .333 AVG and .819 OPS in his first 17 games of full-season ball. Mezquita has been developing at the rookie level ever since he was signed, but so far appears to be the real deal, already with a pair of XBH and 12 RBI with the GreenJackets this season.

You can’t talk about Augusta without mentioning righty Royber Salinas, who as of right now, is putting up the best numbers by any Braves minor league pitcher. The 21-year-old Venezuelan is posting video game-like stats down in Single-A, as he currently has 43 strikeouts in just 18 2/3 innings of work so far, good for a ridiculous average of 20.7 strikeouts per nine (lol). All but one of his four outings thus far has featured double-digit K totals, including a high of 13 back on April 14. In fact, Salinas is coming off a start from last week in which he struck out a dozen batters in four innings, allowing no hits and no runs, although he walked five. Opposing batters are hitting just .143 versus Salinas entering Sunday. Get this kid some competition!

Landon Leach nearly made April’s top-five pitcher list above, and perhaps he should’ve made it over Toussaint given Touki’s bloated walk rate. But regardless, the 22-year-old Leach has been a fine no. 2 starter for Augusta, behind Salinas, carrying a solid 2.75 ERA in his first four starts so far. Leach may not have quite the strikeout-stuff of his rotation mate (8.6 K/9), but the former second-round pick is still holding the opposition to a .181 AVG this season. Nothing wrong with that. AJ Smith-Shawver (4.50 ERA) is another starter for the GreenJackets, and after a bit of a rough start – six runs allowed in his first 9 IP – the 19-year-old righty is coming off his best outing yet, in which he struck out seven in a season-high five innings, while allowing just one run from four hits. J.J. Niekro – a former UDFA, and the nephew of Braves great, Phil Niekro – has been a consistent arm out Augusta’s bullpen. The 24-year-old worked 11 1/3 scoreless innings (spanning three appearances) to begin 2022, before allowing his first run this past week. Niekro heads into Sunday with a sparkling 0.61 ERA. Luis Vargas is another strong bullpen option, as he has now pitched 11 2/3 scoreless frames this season.

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