While the Atlanta Braves are currently one of the top teams in MLB, things have been a little less positive for the organization’s Triple-A club, the Gwinnett Stripers. So far, in 22 games, Gwinnett sits at 8-14 due to a rather middling offense and a lack of consistency from its starting rotation. With a lineup consisting of just two batters currently sporting an above-average wRC+ (100 or better), the Stripers have struggled during the season’s first month. When your top-hitting regulars include a 27-year-old outfielder (Forrest Wall) and a 31-year-old catcher (Joe Hudson), you’re probably not getting it done on offense.

Gwinnett’s only above-average hitters in 2023

Forrest Wall – 90 PA, .257 AVG, 2 HR, 9 SB, 114 wRC+

Joe Hudson – 56 PA, .267 AVG, 1 HR, 116 wRC+

So, if the offense hasn’t gotten it going yet, and neither has the starting staff – only Alan Winans ranks within the top-25 among International League pitchers, with 25 strikeouts (4th) and a 3.43 ERA (14th) – that really leaves only one other area: the bullpen.

A Trip Back in Time to Tell the Tale

The Braves are an organization that is not busting with prospects at the moment, but Alex Anthopoulos and his front office cronies have been very good at building depth 30 minutes away in the form of veteran relievers. Brad Brach, Jackson Stephens, Michael Tonkin, Dylan Lee, Darren O’Day, Danny Young, Allan Winans, Seth Elledge…this is the list of veteran relievers from 2022, and of this list, only Stephens and Lee pitched significant innings in the big leagues, but both played their part in helping the 2022 team win the division. Fast forward to 2023 and AA and the crew have built that same depth at Gwinnett and several depth pieces are putting up dazzling results.

Gwinnett’s Top Relievers in 2023

Yacksel Ríos – 9 G, 10.2 IP, 0 ER, 16 K / 3 BB

Grant Holmes – 8 G, 11 IP, 1.64 ERA, 18 K / 5 BB

Brian Moran – 6 G, 11 IP, 2.45 ERA, 15 K / 1 BB

Roddery Muñoz – 4 G, 7 IP, 1.29 ERA, 4 K / 4 BB

There’s nowhere to sort only minor league relievers on a team-by-team basis, so it’s an imperfect way to look at it: but if you tally up only Stripers relievers who’ve logged at least 10 innings so far in 2023, Gwinnett’s bullpen has collectively put together a 3.70 ERA, which would rank just outside the top-three among teams in Triple-A’s International League, where Memphis’ 3.40 ERA ranks first. As you can see, the Stripers’ relief core is about all it has had this season. The Braves major league 3.64 bullpen ERA so far in 2023 is perfectly average, with it good for 15th-best, so the big league club could definitely use some help (though the recent return of Collin McHugh, as well as the soon-returning Raisel Iglesias is certainly positive news). So let’s look at a few of Gwinnett’s top bullpen arms so far, and see if any have a shot at contributing in Atlanta in 2023…

Yacksel Ríos, RHP

Rios was signed to a minor league deal by the Braves this past January, and was invited to Spring Training, where he pitched rather well allowing just one run from three hits in 3.2 innings of work (3 appearances). He later pitched for Puerto Rico in the WBC, then from there was assigned to Gwinnett, where he’s been ever since. Entering Thursday, Rios has been the Stripers go-to reliever, leading the team in games pitched (9). And so far, he’s been nearly unhittable while averaging 13.5 strikeouts per nine across 10 scoreless innings. He was part of Gwinnett’s 2-1 win on Wednesday night over Buffalo, in which he and three other bullpen arms combined to toss six shut-out innings, including no walks. 

At 29, Rios has major league experience, 96.2 innings worth in fact, featuring perhaps his best season in 2021 when he posted a 4.28 ERA in 27.1 combined innings with both Seattle and Boston. Other than two years ago, Rios’ tenure as a big league reliever has consisted of below-average production. For his career, he owns a 5.77 ERA to go with 8.47 K/9. Pitch data going back to 2021 shows that Rios has four offerings (sinker, 4-seam, slider, split), with his sinker (.194 BAA) and slider (.174 BAA) being most effective. It was a bit of an outlier year for him in terms of pitch usage, but Rios threw each of his sinker, 4-seam and slider at least 25% of the time in 2021, while using his splitter when he needed a swing-and-miss (29.2 whiff%). He throws hard, with both his fastballs averaging 96+ MPH a couple seasons ago, so there’s definitely something here. Combine his stuff with the great start he’s having and there’s certainly a case for Rios earning a call-up if the Braves suffer anymore injuries to the bullpen.

Grant Holmes, RHP

The Braves signed Holmes to a minor league deal last August, though the righty had time to only appear in two games for High-A Rome. Prior to coming to the Braves system in 2022, the 27-year-old struggled with the A’s Triple-A club, pitching to an 8.27 ERA in 37 innings. And 2021 wasn’t much better as he finished with an 8.01 ERA in 66.1 frames with the same team. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2019, with Oakland’s Double-A club, to find any type of solid production from Holmes. That season he mostly started (16 starts / 6 relief appearances) and tallied a 3.31 ERA in 81.2 total innings. Holmes isn’t a young guy either, but he was a former first-round pick, going 22nd overall in the 2014 MLB Draft, selected by the LA Dodgers. However, after pitching well as a teenager in the Dodgers system, everything started going down hill once he entered his 20s, and since 2021 he has been utilized as primarily a reliever. So far in 2023, Holmes paces the Gwinnett bullpen with 18 strikeouts, and his 1.64 ERA trails only Rios among relievers.

Because he’s never pitched in the majors, there’s not much to go on. But according to a 2021 scouting report by Prospects Live, Holmes has a fastball that sits 94-95 MPH, along with a cutter, slider and changeup. His 55-grade heater is his top-graded offering, with his 82-85 MPH slider suggested as the second-best pitch, thanks to its tight and late break. As a more traditional fastball/slider guy out of the bullpen, continued success with Gwinnett could eventually earn Holmes a low-leverage role in Atlanta’s bullpen this season. However, given he hasn’t pitched well in the last couple of seasons, along with a few injuries, it’ll be interesting to see if he can keep this up very much longer.

Brian Moran, LHP

Moran was a January signing this year, and like Rios, he pitched well in Spring Training, posting a 2.84 ERA in 6.1 innings with the Braves. At 34-years-old, the lefty has been a pro since 2009, the year he was drafted by the Mariners in the second round, though he’s only tallied 11.1 innings in the majors since then, including a horrid small sample with the Angels last year in which he allowed two runs from five hits in an appearance in which he only managed to get one out (his only appearance in the majors in 2022). Other than that, Moran pitched 6.1 innings back in 2019 with Miami (4.26 ERA) and 4.2 combined with the Marlins and Toronto (9.64 ERA overall) in 2020. Since 2021, Moran has worked in both the Rays and Angels systems, and was solid with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A club, finishing with a 2.16 ERA in 50 overall innings, to go with 11.7 K/9.

“Crafty Lefty” or whatever you want to call it, Moran doesn’t throw hard at all, averaging 84.4 MPH with his 4-seam fastball last season, to go with a 69 MPH curveball (the only two pitches in his arsenal). It’s pretty simple for the southpaw: half the time he throws the fastball… and half the time he throws the curve (though back in 2019 he did incorporate a sinker 3.6% of the time). The big league pitch tracking data is pretty rough for Moran, however, we’re talking about a pretty small sample. One positive was his curveball in 2019, as it was an offering that held opposing batters to just a .167 AVG and generated a 41.2% whiff-rate. Although, like I said above, it was only from 49 pitches that season. 

I like his numbers so far in Gwinnett, but I just don’t see much of a path for him to log any innings with the Braves this season. Perhaps his only minor advantage compared to the other minor league relievers on this list is the fact that Moran is a lefty, something a bullpen can always use. However, given his ultra-low velo, I’m not so sure even that helps his case here.

Roddery Munoz, RHP

Those of us that’ve been following the Braves farm system the last few seasons are certainly happy to see Munoz throwing the ball well so far in 2023. The 23-year-old was signed by the org in June of 2018 for $30,000, and since then his stock has drastically risen due to an upper-90s MPH fastball that has a chance to become a special pitch. Last season Munoz pitched well in Rome (4.03 ERA) but was rocked once promoted to Double-A Mississippi (9.82 ERA). This season, he’s definitely enjoying some luck (3.97 FIP / 87.5 LOB%), but regardless his 1.29 ERA is a very welcoming improvement compared to last year’s stint in Pearl.

He’s still a bit too raw to contribute in a major league bullpen, but I really like Munoz as a future high-leverage reliever in Atlanta. His fastball/slider combo generates a ton of swing-and-miss, which has allowed him to average 10.2 K/9 for his pro career entering this season. However, for the time being, working him as a starter will continue to allow him to develop, and perhaps even give him some time to fully hone in a third offering, a changeup. That offspeed pitch may end up being the deciding factor as to whether Munoz is a legit starter in the future. However, even where he’s at right now in terms of pitch-mix, he has a solid shot at becoming a dangerous bullpen arm. Munoz is definitely a guy to keep an eye on. If he can keep this up on into July or so, maybe the Braves give him a look.

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