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From Braves camp: Andruw Jones on Cristian Pache, Drew Waters; catchers shine


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From Braves camp: Andruw Jones on Cristian Pache, Drew Waters; catchers shine

By David O'Brien  Feb 24, 2020comment-icon@2x.png 58  save-icon@2x.png

NORTH PORT, Fla. — One can learn a lot from a conversation with 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones on the backfields, a few chats with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, and formal and informal interviews with a variety of players young and old, veterans and prospects and players somewhere in-between, during the first week and a half of Braves spring training.

Here are five things I learned and observed as the Braves got rolling in their spacious new digs at CoolToday Park and the pristine secondary fields and workout facilities at North Port, Fla.

1. Cristian Pache is rated as the top prospect in the Braves’ organization and one of the best in all of baseball for a reason. For multiple reasons, actually. And it’s not just scouts, coaches and prospect gurus who believe Pache could be the next superstar Braves center fielder. The previous one feels that way, too.

Jones, regarded by many as the greatest center fielder of the past half-century, has regular conversations and text exchanges with Pache, who is half his age and might have enough talent to someday at least partly fill his considerable shoes. Jones is pleased to see the Braves have not one, but two 21-year-old elite outfield prospects in Pache and Drew Waters, who are expected to make their major-league debuts at some point in 2020 — perhaps sooner than later with Pache.

“They both can play,” said Jones, who’s now a Braves special assistant and was in uniform at camp the past week as a guest instructor. “Pache’s getting away from that youth body and is filling out. I keep up with him, see he’s working hard, always doing training and hitting.

“Drew Waters, he’s got great talent. He’s intense. He knows what he’s got, and he knows what he wants to do. It’s just a matter of time before he puts everything together. He will be up here soon.”

Pache is rated 12th in Baseball America’s preseason Top 100 prospects list and No. 5 in Keith Law’s Top 100 for The Athletic. Waters is rated 36th by BA and 26th in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 but isn’t among six Braves in Law’s list.

In Monday’s Grapefruit League game against Toronto, the first start of the spring for either prospect, Waters had a two-run, two-out single in the first inning and Pache followed with an RBI single of his own. The two then pulled off a double steal. Waters struck out in his other two plate appearances, underscoring an area of his game that still needs improvement.

“There’s a lot of trade rumors and stuff like that; I’m sure everybody’s asking for Pache and Drew Waters and all those guys,” Jones said. “But I think the front office is holding on to them pretty hard because they believe in them.”

Pache, who has added 20 pounds in the past two years to what was once a skinny frame, said the words of advice and encouragement he gets from Jones have been a “huge support” for him and a reminder to stay focused and keep working toward his goal.

“That’s why I’m here,” Jones said, when told what Pache said about their talks. “I want to pass my knowledge about the game to these young kids. Sometimes it might work for them, sometimes it don’t. But I’m trying to give them as much as I possible for them to use and help them get where they want to be.”

Jones added, “I hear that we have a bunch of good talent in the outfield in the minor leagues, but right now I think that Pache and Drew Waters, they’re knocking on the door.”

2. Thirty-two months after having Tommy John surgery, imposing prospect Patrick Weigel seems poised to finally make his major-league debut in 2020. The 6-foot-6 right-hander pitched a perfect inning of relief Sunday in a Grapefruit League game against Detroit and has impressed with his pitch repertoire and command during early workouts and live batting-practice sessions.

“Good for him just to have a regular offseason, come to camp, no restrictions,” manager Brian Snitker said two hours before Sunday’s game, as he looked forward to Weigel’s scheduled spring debut. “So, it’s good to get him back out there and see. I always say if he hadn’t gotten hurt, he’d probably be a big piece of our bullpen right now. But he’s still kind of working his way back.

“He’s another one I’m anxious to see, just like I was Tucker (Davidson) yesterday. Was kind of curious to see him — he didn’t disappoint, obviously.”

Neither did Weigel. After Snitker’s pregame comments, Weigel faced three batters and got a groundout, strikeout and fly out.

“It was good — really good,” Snitker said of the pitcher’s quick inning. “Secondary stuff was good. He popped his fastball.”

In Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener against Baltimore, Davidson, a rising lefty prospect, worked two perfect innings with one strikeout.

Weigel was 22 when he struck out more than one batter per inning while posting a 2.89 ERA in seven starts at Double-A Mississippi in 2017, earning an early-season promotion to Triple A. But after struggling in the last several of eight starts at Triple A, an MRI revealed two tears in his ulnar collateral ligament, necessitating Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for 1 1/2 seasons.

He had a 2.73 ERA in 28 games (18 starts) combined in Double A and Triple A in 2019, with 71 strikeouts and only 50 hits allowed in 79 innings, albeit with 41 walks. If he can show improvement in his command this spring, Weigel will be in contention for a bullpen spot during the season.

Drew Waters had a two-run, two-out single during the first inning Monday. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

3. If a fight or a basketball game breaks out this spring, the Braves should be favored. They have three 6-foot-6 players in camp, each weighing more than 240 pounds and built more like tight ends or defensive ends than typical ballplayers.

Besides Weigel, there’s power-hitting first baseman Bryce Ball, a 21-year-old prospect who could prove to be a steal for the Braves after slipping to the 24th round of last year’s draft out of Dallas Baptist University, and high-level lefty prospect Kyle Muller, who has added about 30 pounds of muscle since he was drafted in the second round in 2016 out of a Dallas high school.

“It feels like that’s my story in a nutshell — around all these big dudes and just trying to find my way,” joked 5-foot-8 outfielder Trey Harris, a non-roster spring invitee whose 230 pounds aren’t nearly as impressively distributed as the weight of the much larger trio of prospects. “(Ball) flicks a ball over the fence. And (Muller) flicks a ball and throws 99. So I just try to fit in.”

Ball is another non-roster invitee to spring training, and Muller was asked about sharing a clubhouse with someone who’s just about as huge as he is.

“It’s definitely interesting,” Muller said, smiling. “I feel like we both kind of size each other up a little bit. I think he’s got me upper-body wise. I might have an inch (in height). But it’s definitely cool to see someone who takes pride in their body and their appearance like that.”

Muller still is listed at 225 on some rosters and 250 in the Braves’ media guide, but that’s dated info. He said he’s up to about 270 now. He still appears to be in terrific shape and moves well for someone so massive.

A student of pitching, Muller spent parts of two offseasons working out at Driveline Baseball in Washington state, learning to better connect the movement of his large frame in order to throw harder and get better and more consistent movement on his pitches.

Now he just has to harness his command if he’s to take the next step and go from prospect to big-leaguer. Muller, 22, had a 3.14 ERA and only five homers allowed in 22 starts last season in Double A, but along with 120 strikeouts in 111 2/3 innings, he had 68 walks. That’s way too many.

“The walks were disappointing, but for the most part — like, my curveball’s in a good spot,” he said of strides made last year. “I’m comfortable throwing that and my changeup now. So I’m excited to see what happens this year.”

In his spring debut Sunday against Detroit, Muller gave up a single and hit two batters consecutively, then nearly got out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam with consecutive swinging strikeouts before issuing a walk that brought in a run and ended his outing.

“He got locked in,” Snitker said. “Everybody, when I went to the mound, said the ball he walked him on (with the bases loaded) was a strike. I said, ‘Well, that would’ve been a great way to strike the inning out.’ But he kind of just relaxed and started breathing. Relaxed a little bit and turned the ball loose, and you saw what he’s capable of.”

4. The Braves went from having no elite young catching prospects just a few years ago to now having two — Shea Langeliers and William Contreras — who are ranked among the top eight prospects in an organization that’s among the deepest in terms of minor-league talent.

Contreras, 22, the younger brother of Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, might have the higher offensive ceiling among the Braves’ duo and could be ready sooner. But it’s Langeliers, 22, who many believe will be the organization’s long-term answer behind the plate and potentially one of baseball’s top defensive catchers, capable of shutting down opposing running games.

Selected ninth in June’s draft out of Baylor, Langeliers struggled some with the wood bat in his first pro half-season at Low-A Rome. But he swung it a lot better after getting accustomed to his new surroundings, hitting .333 with a .387 OBP in his final 17 games.

Even when the offense was shaky last summer, his work behind the plate was not. Langeliers is a strong defender with good footwork and a top-of-the-scouting-scale throwing arm.

“Oh, he’s got a ******* cannon,” said newcomer Travis d’Arnaud, who’ll split the catching duties with incumbent Tyler Flowers after Brian McCann retired.

Langeliers showed that cannon on a throw to second base in his spring debut Saturday. He bounced the throw and the runner was safe, but the Braves had his “pop time” on the throw at 1.87 seconds — elite by major-league standards.

“Yeah, I think some of that’s the adrenaline rush, with the first guy trying to go,” Langeliers said of that errant toss in the Braves’ Grapefruit League opener. “I was a little nervous in the beginning, but when I went in to catch (his) first inning, the nerves started going away, and you just realize you’re playing baseball out there, having fun.”

D’Arnaud has watched Langeliers for about two weeks since pitchers and catchers reported and said of the prospect’s skills, “Oh, my God — athletic, strong. Even watching him swing the bat, it’s impressive. He’s gonna be good.”

“He has a lot of really good tools at this point in his life,” said catching coach Sal Fasano, a longtime former major-league catcher. “It’s just a matter of us refining it, really. But the arm is special. He’s got a really nice setup; we’re trying to work on that just a little bit more. But he really wants to catch, and to me when you see a guy that really wants to catch, you have something for the future.”

Langeliers won a collegiate Gold Glove at Baylor and threw out runners at an extremely high rate. The pro game and particularly the major-league level are different animals in so many ways, from better players and base-runners to more advanced scouting.

“It still means he takes pride in his defense,” d’Arnaud said of the collegiate Gold Glove. “He’s out there every day working hard. I mean, work ethic is truly something that’s hard to find, and he’s got it.”

Fasano said of Langeliers winning defensive awards in college, “I can see why. He has all the ingredients to make a really great catcher. So with us, JD (Closser) and Eddie (Pérez) and all the coaching staff that we have, hopefully, we can keep refining it. But hopefully, he can learn something here so he can carry it into the season and keep improving.”

Closser, another former major-league catcher, is the Braves’ new minor-league catching coordinator, while Pérez, a former Braves catcher, is a special assistant in player development.

5. Jones knows who the young players and prospects are, and they know who he is, too, even if many of them weren’t born when Jones made his major-league debut in August 1996.

Right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. was born 16 months after Jones’ two-homer, five-RBI outburst in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series at Yankee Stadium, when Jones was only 19.

“Of course,” Acuña said through an interpreter when asked if he was aware of Jones’ accomplishments. “I mean, he’s a super baseball player. Just watching those videos, you’re extremely impressed. Obviously, not a lot of guys have the ability to do the things he did. Just watching him, I’m very impressed. The mentality, the attitude — he’s a superstar.”

When Jones is in uniform in camp with the Braves, Acuña said many of them make it a point to utilize him as a resource.

“Yeah, we take advantage of having him here,” Acuña said. “If he can teach us anything we don’t know in the outfield, it’s obviously helpful. But we always stay in contact.”

Jones said, “They have dreams just like I had to play Major League Baseball and play for a long time. So, you help them, kind of guide them and be helpful. They respect what you did in the game, the way you went about your business; they know about you. So, you tell them something, they listen.”

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15 hours ago, Skott Lee said:

Good long read, but to call Andruw Jones the greatest CF of the last half century is a monumental stretch. 

And when is Acuña gonna learn English? 

He’s already learned some English.

And honestly who cares? The dude is a millionaire and is in his early 20s. He can do what he wants 

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