A little good fortune smiled upon me this weekend as the Gwinnett Braves made their way to Durham, North Carolina to take on the Durham Bulls. So, I left my southern Virginia apartment to embark on a visit to my parents’ house which happens to be a short drive from Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The players I came to see may not be big names, but they could see time with Atlanta Braves in the bullpen (or in a spot start) as early as September. Currently, Cody Martin and Aaron Northcraft are both starting in the Gwinnett rotation, so I was able to get a look at Martin Friday night, and Northcraft took the mound on Saturday.
Martin is an interesting player. He was drafted in the 7th round during the 2011 MLB Draft out of Gonzaga. He started his professional career in the bullpen, but in 2012 the Braves opted to transition him to the rotation. He doesn’t wow scouts with his “stuff” or his velocity, but no matter his role he has consistently found success.
Between Mississippi and Gwinnett in 2013 Martin finished with a 3.16 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 136.2 innings pitched. When he is at his best he offers a fastball that lives 85-87 topping out at 90, that featured some late movement. Older scouting reports I’d read on him said his fastball topped out around 92, I don’t know if he has lost velocity since then or if the stadium radar gun was a bit off. He also appeared to feature a changeup in the low 80s, a curveball in the low 70s, and a harder breaking ball in the upper 70s. In the start before the one I attended he was fantastic.
On August 17th against Norfolk Martin went 7.2 innings allowing only one run on six hits, and striking out five. He was much less impressive in the outing I saw. However, I did see glimpses of what makes Martin so successful. Friday night he was fighting his normally pin point command all night. He finished with 5.1 innings pitched, four earned runs on six hits, and eight strikeouts with four walks.
His biggest issue was the lack of command, and a two run homerun he allowed in the fifth inning. During the innings where his command was sharp he did look very good, and I could see why he has had so much success during his minor league career. When he’s on his game he places the ball exactly where he wants it. There were times when the catcher did not have to move his glove an inch. Also, to my surprise batters were swinging through 87 mile per hour fast balls because they were so well placed and moving at that last second.
It was nice to see a player without elite velocity forcing so many swinging strikes. His strikeout rate at Triple-A sits at a solid 20.8 % this season, though it is down a bit from 25.3 % in Double-A last season. Unfortunately, due to the ordinary nature of his “stuff” his margin for error is razor thin. Whenever he missed his spot his offerings were usually hit hard. Three of the six hits were for extra bases, including the homerun.
The outing raised Martin’s ERA to 3.62 which is still very respectable. Eventually Martin could be a fifth starter in the big leagues or more likely maybe the long man in the bullpen. There is much to like about Martin, it is just hard to imagine there being room for him in Atlanta unless an injury occurs. He could even be used as a trade chip down the road. Until then he will continue to hone that command in Gwinnett.
Aaron Northcraft got the start on Saturday night, and had a very similar outing to Martin. This came as no surprise, as Northcraft has been struggling since being called up to Gwinnett. After posting an ERA of 2.88 in 65.2 innings with Mississippi he has more than doubled that to 6.23 in 60.2 innings in Triple-A. His strikeout rate has also dropped from 22.2 % at Double-A to 16.8 % in Triple-A, that kind of dip is certainly worrisome.
On Saturday Northcraft also had with command, particularly in the third inning. This led to a line of 5.1 innings pitched, eight hits, four earned runs, and three walks, but he did strike out nine batters. For the most part Northcraft pitched around trouble, but that four run third inning was enough to ruin his line. The big blow came on a three run homerun to Bulls’ first basemen Vince Belnome.
Even though he was not at his sharpest, I still saw flashes of potential in his outing. Northcraft pitches from a three quarters arm slot which generates sink on his fastball. The fastball lived in the upper 80s and topped out at 92. When he located it well it produced groundball outs and even missed some bats on occasion. He also features a breaking ball in the high 70s and low 80s, and a changeup that seems to be his third best pitch. He used the breaking ball as a strikeout pitch to both left and right-handed batters. When he threw it well it had a sharp break and generated swings and misses outside of the strike zone.
The arm slot has led many to suggest Northcraft at some point will work his way to the bullpen if he ever wants to make a major league roster. Starting has proved to be a challenge for him at the Triple-A level, so a trip to the bullpen may be in order if Northcraft does not turn it around. I could definitely see him as a ground ball specialist in a major league bullpen. Time will tell.
There you have it. I just wanted to provide quick glimpse and my impressions of two fringe major league players in the Braves organization. There is always the chance these guys never reach the big leagues with Atlanta, but that potential still exists thanks to each player’s unique skillset.
Tags: Braves Prospects