Why This Team
You may ask why a club that went just 70-69 on their season would be my all-time favorite and I would answer that my fandom is based on several factors including team effort, individual personalities, the excitement of the pennant race, and a factor for how often I got to see the team. The 2016 R-Braves had all of them in spades. As some of you are aware, I am the full-time caregiver for my disabled twin brother who was unfortunately going blind from the long-term effects of untreated diabetes as 2016 wore on. The two of us therefore determined to see as many games as possible that summer while he could still do so. We would eventually catch games in Rome, Augusta, Columbia, Charleston, Hickory, Greenville, Lexington, Kannapolis and of course Asheville. All totaled, some 55 or 60 games by the conclusion of the playoffs. In this instance familiarity bred love, not contempt.
The team was predicted to be good — indeed, preseason predictions were for a powerhouse, perhaps the “best team in the minors.” Needless to say, the predictions did not come, entirely, to fruition. The problem lay not in the star players — most of whom performed as expected — but rather the fact that the Braves organization has ongoing problems acquiring even modest talents to fill out the bulk of lineups in the lower levels of it’s minor leagues. “Stars and Scrubs” is a workable strategy in fantasy baseball but usually fails in reality. In this instance, when the chips were down the stars came through and the scrubs did just enough. It was glorious.
Who Were They?
Manager: Randy Ingle spent 31 years coaching and managing for the Braves in the minors, eventually winning over 1500 games and being elected to the Sally League Hall of Fame. He moved up to “special projects” for the team after 2017. A fatherly figure, Randy is the nicest person you will ever find to console you after a physical error or bad hop but God help you if you forget which base to throw to. He’s also a good interview.
Pitching coach Dan Meyer was once the centerpiece of the Tim Hudson deal but years of arm woes saw him become a “just” a good coach instead. (That “just” is his own description). He is best known for a tweet directed at an ex Phillies pitcher who beat him out for a bullpen spot before testing positive for PEDS. It read,”Hey Antonio Bastardo, remember when we competed for a job in 2011. Thx a lot. #ahole.” He was a FireFrog last season.
The hitting coach was Bobby Moore who is also a character and is still with the Rome team.
Catching saw a tandem arrangement between 2015 2nd round pick Lucas Herbert and sometime prospect Jonathan Morales. Herbert threw out over 50% of stealing baserunners and had decent pop but just couldn’t make consistent contact. I expect Morales to start getting some emergency MLB playing time this season. Pitchers loved throwing to both guys.
The infield is where the organizational failure to get even average performers was most manifest — 3 of the 4 regulars never really progressed at all. Fortunately for the Rome 9 and the Braves, 3rd baseman Austin Riley turned out OK. After a bad first half with a .650 OPS, Riley came out and put up 17 homers and a .980 OPS after the break.
The outfield started out with tools goof Leudys Baez in left and Junior College older signee Justin Ellison in right. Between them, until his thumb injury, stood Ronald Acuna. The toolsy guys largely failed as the season went on and Junior got hurt, so the end of the season lineup went Tyler Neslony — Ray Patrick Didder — Bradley Keller. Didder has a great arm and is perhaps the smartest ballplayer I have ever met. Though he cannot hit at all he parlayed 50 walks and 39! Hit-by-pitch to post a .381 OBP. Higher level pitching has not been kind to him but you still see him mentioned as a last-guy-on-the-bench candidate because of the defense, baserunning and desire. Given his arm I would try him in relief but what do I know. Neslony and Keller were more filler.
The pitching is where the team shined. Six starters were employed and 5 of them have reached the majors. The 6th, Ricardo Sanchez, is now with the Mariners and still has far better stuff than results. He has got to be infuriating to talent evaluators. Ace of the staff was Patrick Weigel, a slightly older college guy whose stuff was too good for teenagers to hit. He got moved to AA mid-season when Kolby Allard came up from rookie-ball. A young Canadian named Mike Soroka gained confidence as the season went on and was The Man by playoff time. He was ably assisted by Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, and Allard. This is perhaps the best rotation in the history of single-A baseball.
In relief the saves went to a three-headed monster comprised of Josh Graham, Devan Watts, and Corbin Clouse. Injuries have derailed the first 2 while Clouse missed most of 2019 as well. Chad Sobotka arrived in the second half and walked 6 guys per nine and who would ever have expected that?
The first half was dismal with the team slumping right out of the gate to a 9-16 month in April. Other than Acuna the offense was missing and while the pitching kept them in most games, they couldn’t do much about all the shutouts and 1 run performances. On the year the team went 51-16 when scoring 4 or more runs but just 19-53 in the rest (league average was 4.7 runs/game, they averaged 4.1). Then Ronald hurt his thumb sliding into the wall and the season seemed doomed!
Fortunately with the second half the team had a chance to start afresh and while the offense never really got going the pitching was outstanding. In a 3 team race with Augusta and Charleston the Braves never trailed by more than 2.5 games or led by more than 2. They clinched the title with 2 games to go.
Soroka got the playoffs off to a bang with complete domination of the Charleston team who managed but 1 run. Then we all traveled to the Holy City for the conclusion of the 3 game series. Game 2 saw 6 magnificent innings from Allard wasted by the bullpen. Fortunately, Fried needed no help in game 3 and we were on to the championship.
I missed game 1 where Soroka proved human and the offense was MIA with only 1 baserunner all game. We made it for game 2 and the best curveball I have ever seen. Touki gave up a homer on the first pitch of the 2nd inning but was absolutely a beast the rest of the way. in my score-book I have him at 52 swinging strikes in 90 pitches and lord was it impressive. The series then moved up to New Jersey so I didn’t see it, but Allard and Fried completely shut down the Blue Claws to take the title.
Thanks to everybody who has participated in this series. May 2021 see new minor-league memories and bring joy to your life!
If you enjoyed this piece on favorite minor-league teams, the 2016 Rome Braves, please check out our entire stash of Favorite Minor League teams here!