Don’t look now, but Opening Day is less than three weeks away. You can smell baseball season in the air. Teams are starting to cut down rosters and make some critical decisions now that we have seen a large enough sample size to judge them. Of course, the sample size is still microscopic, and it is always best to take Spring Training statistics with a grain of salt. However, there are a couple of players down on the Braves’ farm that saw catastrophic drops in their stock last season, whose performances this spring have suggested that perhaps they just had a down year.
Remember Chad Sobotka? A former 4th round pick of Atlanta’s back in 2014, Sobotka was a stunning contributor to the big league club’s bullpen at the tail end of 2018. He posted a 2.03 ERA between Florida, Mississippi, and Gwinnett, and became the Braves’ secret weapon down the stretch, giving up just 3 earned runs in 14 outings. Despite the small sample size, the Braves went with the hot hand, and things fell apart for Sobotka against the Dodgers in the NLDS. Things did not bode much better for him when he became a regular in Atlanta’s ‘pen to start the 2019 season either, as he posted a horrid 6.21 ERA in 32 outings.
When looking at Sobotka’s AAA stats after being sent down, they leave much to be desired. However, if you look at the peripheral numbers, Sobotka saw a considerable improvement where he needed it the most… in the bases on balls category. In 29 innings with the big league club last year, Sobotka walked 19 batters. It became such a problem that he was a liability every time he toed the rubber, walking 5.9 opponents per nine innings. Back down in Gwinnett, he issued just four free passes in 20.2 innings of work, which means he walked only 1.7 batters per nine innings.
Sobotka’s career has oddly enough been defined by having a promising season, and then an abysmal one. In 2017, he posted a 6.09 ERA down on the farm, but the year before, he recorded a 3.03 ERA. The guy is a mystery. However, relief pitching is so volatile, and we have seen him be effective at his best.
Unfortunately for Sobotka, the path to the major league bullpen is not nearly as easy as it used to be. On Monday afternoon, he and A.J. Minter, the two relievers who suffered from walk-itis in 2019, were optioned to AAA, and they have their work cut out for them. At this point, Sobotka is far down on a long list of potential bullpen options as the Braves have finally prioritized the unit since last year’s trade deadline. However, he has looked very sharp this Spring Training, allowing just one earned run and striking out four in five outings. It is likely going to take some injuries as well as a super productive season in AAA for the tall righty to land another chance, but if you are a believer in history repeating itself, Sobotka could be a name to watch for in 2020.
Another guy that had a rough 2019 was Greyson Jenista, who was just a second-round pick the year before. An advanced college bat out of Wichita State, Jenista moved up the system quickly, reaching high-A by the end of 2018 after overpowering Rome pitching.
In 2019, Jenista was handed a midseason promotion to AA Mississippi, but I would not say he exactly earned it. Overall, he hit .233 with a .667 OPS and struck out 145 times in just 422 at-bats. He later struggled in the Arizona Fall League as well.
This is not encouraging, but Jenista is still present on many Braves’ prospect lists, and the team thought highly enough of him to offer him an invitation to big league Spring Training. Though he was sent down in the first wave of roster cuts last week, Jenista impressed before returning to minor league camp. In just 12 at-bats, he displayed the power that made him a second-round pick, hitting two homers.
Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come for Jenista. He has been disheartening thus far, especially when considering the importance of the team’s high draft picks with international sanctions currently in place. Jenista needs to find a way to revive his contact bat, and you shouldn’t be fooled by his massive size, he was a contact first hitter at Wichita State who hit .318 over his college career. Here is to hoping his make or break 2020 goes well for him.