One of TTFB’s strengths is having multiple people around the country to break down the biggest stories for you. From the MLB level down to rookie ball, there’s someone on our staff with a well-informed opinion or insider knowledge.
Last season, I wrote a story on Evan Gattis before he became “El Oso Blanco,” TTFB’s Dan Kirby has done interviews with prospects from the 2013 draft and even the 2014 draft, and we have CIA-style features like The Chronicles of Agent Zero.
With that in mind, I want to turn your attention to the Carolina League. The Lynchburg Hillcats are the High-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. In the edition of “Call to the pen”, I’ll be joined by Erik Wilson, Voice of the Lynchburg Hillcats.
But don’t think this is just about the Braves prospects. We cover talent around the Carolina League, discuss what it takes to win a championship and how a Major League club approaches their player development.
So let’s get started!
Mike Viso: Let’s begin with the Hillcats recent surge. What has been the catalyst for the team’s success?
Erik Wilson: Honestly, it’s been a combination of everything: defense, hitting and pitching. Clearly those are the three components for a successful club, and everything is coming together at the right time. We’ve had a lot of guys who struggled early on but who are starting to get red hot. Guys like Josh Elander and Trent Moses — who were two mid-season call ups — struggled to hit .200 in their first few weeks. Now they have (their averages) above .250 heading towards the .300 mark … really everything is rolling on all cylinders right now.
Mike Viso: You’re in your third season with the Hillcats/Braves organization. What’s the balance between development of players and the organization’s desire to have them win?
Erik Wilson: Coming into working with the Braves, all I heard was how they have such a great minor-league approach. But what I realized is that part of their approach to develop their players is getting players that know how to win. So when (the Braves) see a team in a playoff race, they try to help them out. They want to put guys together who are going to make a playoff run, so when they get to the big leagues, they know how to handle those pressure situations.
During the season you’re gonna let guys pitch deeper in the ball game when they’re getting roughed up. When it comes down to August and September, they are going to do whatever they can to make that playoff run.
Mike Viso: Is stress on intangibles a focal point for the organization during player development?
Erik Wilson: A big focus I’ve noticed is they look for quality of people versus just quality of talent on the field. In the nightly report from the coaching staff, it isn’t just the box score; it’s how the guys were able to come through in situations. This year, more than any other, we’ve had more roving instructors come through. Base running has been a huge thing this season. And, like I was saying before, it’s things that don’t show up in the box score, pressure situations and learning how to win games.
Mike Viso: How does this team stack up against the 2012 team that won the Carolina League?
Erik Wilson: The biggest difference between the two teams is the lack of pitching prospects on this year’s club. Last year, pitching was by far the strength of the Hillcats team. We had guys who are now already making splashes at the higher levels: J.R. Graham, Cody Martin, Gus Schlosser, and Aaron Northcraft. Northcraft was actually named to the 40-man roster this past offseason.
This year, the pitching has really struggled. We’ve had some additions come in from the Independent Leagues, like Ryan Hinson. Or we’ve gotten guys who have been called up from Low-A like Williams Perez that have dominated. But, overall, pitching has been the biggest difference.
Offensively, guys were slow to start but are beginning to come around. There are a few prospect guys: Josh Elander, Matt Lipka and David Rohm. Although Rohm hasn’t been on any prospect list I’ve seen, he’s been getting a lot of attention. Last season, we had a ton of prospects with Nick Ahmed — who was a part of the Justin Upton trade — Tommy La Stella and Edward Salcedo leading the way in the infield.
Mike Viso: Who have been some of the biggest surprises this season around the Carolina League?
Erik Wilson: Joe Wendle of the Carolina Mudcats (Cleveland Indians affiliate) has made a huge splash as a powerful, left-handed bat. He’s a smart hitter, a lot of respect from the pitchers I’ve talked to with the Hillcats. Wendle’s a guy who has double-digit home runs and is a real threat to get on base every time he steps to the plate.
A guy who has really stood out to me, because he wasn’t a prospect and because he came from independent baseball, is Dennis Raben of the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Kansas City Royals affiliate). He’s a guy who has killed it this season for Wilmington this season. And that’s always a good story to see. A guy who has stuck it out through independent baseball and has come back to affiliated ball.
Mike Viso: In the league, who do you see making it to the majors first?
Erik Wilson: There’s a lot of talent that can make it. We’ve seen a lot of that talent already leave being that it’s almost September. The names that pop up first in my head are Billy Burns, Francisco Lindor and Kyle Zimmer.
For the Hillcats, Matt Lipka certainly has the tools. He had his first 30-steal season this year. You can see the legs working well after having surgery on the hamstring last season. He’s got to take a few more pitches; that has been the big knock on him.
A guy like David Rohm looks like he’s going to develop more power. Only two home runs this year for a guy who’s supposed to be in a corner outfield position and batting in the middle of the order is clearly not what you’re looking for. But he can hit .300, and he’s a guy who has the frame to develop the power a little later in his career.
Mike Viso: Let’s transition from the Hillcats to the Braves and talk about a guy who has worn both jerseys, Evan Gattis.
Erik Wilson: I can honestly say that, in calling baseball for the Hillcats the last three years, Evan Gattis is the only player who, when he showed up the first day, you already knew he was a big leaguer. Every ball he hit was crushed. Everyone in baseball talks about the sound of the bat, he had that crack of that bat. And when you saw him in game action, it wasn’t just a guy who physically was above his competition seeing success. You knew whenever he got to the majors, whenever that was gonna be, that he was ready. You could tell he wasn’t going to be over powered by a pitcher. We didn’t know if he was going to be successful, but you he had the talent to be on that level. He wasn’t going to be a guy who didn’t belong there.
When you get into his backstory, you knew he was going to be one of those guys you root for because he did leave baseball. He had no business coming back and being successful, especially so quickly, but he was because he’s that talented. He just has that attitude about him. He’s not necessarily comfortable with the spotlight, but his personality can’t help but draw attention to himself. It’s not surprising to see “El Oso Blanco” on t-shirts and national news. He’s a great guy with a great story.
Mike Viso: We’re heading into September; give us your Braves forecast for the rest of the season.
Erik Wilson: The Braves are one of the most dangerous teams right now. I know I work under their umbrella, but I would be saying this if I was calling games for another organization.
They’ve clearly been very frustrated the last two years between the collapse and the infamous infield fly play. But I think they’re young and talented with a chance to make a dynasty type run. You can see they have the win-now mentality because they’ve been around the playoffs the past two seasons. But then you look at their roster and it’s filled with guys with birthdays in the late ’80s. Guys are approaching their prime.
You look at the Upton brothers and B.J. Upton, and he’s a veteran on this team and he isn’t even 30. You know the names like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Julio Teheran. But think about the guys we saw last year like Evan Gattis and Andrelton Simmons. Even guys like Joey Terdoslavich and Todd Cunningham who made their debuts this season.
They have a chance to win a few championships if everyone continues to progress and they can keep them together.
Mike Viso: Erik, great talking to you as always. Good luck in your postseason and thanks for the time.
Erik Wilson: Thanks for having me and talking baseball.