Prospect roundtable: 2016 Rome rotation
Braves pitching prospects discuss last season's championship run
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida -- If you wanted to find the Minors' most exciting rotation last season, all you needed to do was follow the road to Rome.
The Class A club's starting staff boasted six of the Braves' top 20 prospects at various points during the season: No. 4 Kolby Allard, No. 5 Mike Soroka, No. 9 Max Fried, No. 12 Touki Toussaint, No. 16 Patrick Weigel and No. 20 Ricardo Sanchez. (Keep in mind, these ranks are all within a farm system that MiLB.com recently tabbed as the game's best for pitching.) Unsurprisingly, Rome captured the South Atlantic League title on the strength of a staff that posted a 1.16 ERA over seven playoff games.
On Friday, MiLB.com sat down with five of those starters -- Fried was scheduled to pitch in Atlanta's Grapefruit League game against the Mets -- to discuss what made their 2016 championship run so special and the brotherhood that developed over the course of the season.
MiLB.com: What did the 2016 season mean to you guys? What was it like being part of that staff?
Allard: It was a lot of fun, going out next to all of these guys. They're obviously very good on the mound, so when you go out there every day, we're pushing each other. There's a little competitiveness, all in good fun obviously. It's a lot of fun to see them take the mound day in and day out.
Sanchez [through interpreter Isaac Mendez]: My main goal was to go out there and compete -- give it my best in the best way possible. I know I had some ups and downs. But at the end of the day, I felt good about it all.
Weigel: One of my favorite things about the season was watching guys from the beginning of the year all the way to the end. Every start, every week, guys just kept getting better and better and better. That final product at the end -- I was only there until the middle of August -- the product I saw to that point, we were night and day from where we were. That's what you want out of a staff and as a team.
Soroka: It was most of our first full seasons, except for Touki and Ricardo. Just going out there and not only seeing our own struggles but everyone else's and how we all handled that. We really learned a lot from each other.
Toussaint: It was fun. Everyone's trying to one-up each other every night. Soroka would go out there and go seven. Wiegel would go eight. Ricardo goes seven. Everyone's thinking, 'He went seven. I have to go eight' or 'He went eight. Let me try to go the whole game.' So it's kind of fun. It'd push you. You didn't take any days off.
MiLB.com: At what point did it feel special, like you guys really had something brewing?
Allard: I wasn't there much of the first half, but it felt like we went on a long winning streak, like we won 13 of 15 or something like that. That's when the ball started rolling, and it became a lot of fun.
Toussaint: I'd say it's when we went and swept Asheville [from Aug. 20-22]. That's when we started feeling like, 'Alright, it's go time.'
Weigel: I knew we were really good when, I think it was Touki in the second half against Columbia. He went out there and went eight innings. That was right around the time that Kolby joined our staff as well. Sanchez's velo was creeping up -- 94, 95. We're in second or third place in the standings, and I remember looking at it and thinking, 'Alright, we're making a run at it.' Everyone's at the top of their game, and you could feel a run coming.
Sanchez: In the moment that all the pitching staff stuck together, had each other's backs, supporting everyone in the rotation. In that moment, I felt like something good and special and magical could happen. It was that moment you could feel everyone was together.
MiLB.com: How confident were you guys going into the playoffs, knowing you'd be rolling out a top guy every night?
Soroka: Going out there, like in that last Asheville series like Touki said, when we really started to roll, I think all of us turned to each other and said, 'Yeah, our team -- not just our staff -- our whole team is stacked.' Guy after guy, bullpen, starting rotation, there wasn't a weak link. We knew if went out there and played our game, nobody was going to touch us.
MiLB.com: What does winning a championship, knowing you finished on the top and completed a goal, do for your offseason?
Toussaint: I feel like it just makes you work harder. Everybody has that high standard for you now, so you can't start slacking. You come in the offseason saying, 'Man, I'm trying to win another ring.' You set another standard going into that offseason.
MiLB.com: Speaking of the offseason, how do you guys stay in touch? You go from being around each other every day to separating. How much of a brotherhood is there after what you went through?
Allard: That's one thing I like about our team last year. We seemed pretty tight. I've obviously never been a part of another organization, but from what you hear in the Minor Leagues, you don't necessarily become close with a lot of guys. But hopefully, we can move up place to place and make it to Atlanta with that brotherhood-type mentality.
MiLB.com: During the offseason, was there talk of carrying this forward to Class A Advanced Florida or was it just checking in with each other?
Toussaint: It was mostly checking in. Coming here now, that's when we start saying, 'OK, let's repeat.' I mean, not repeat but be better than last year.
MiLB.com: Moving to something a little different -- if there's one pitch you could steal from somebody else's repertoire, what would it be? In other words, which pitches stood out as elite?
Allard: My strength is as a command guy. Soroka with his sinker. Weigel with, like, everything. Touki's got his stuff. Everyone has their things. Yeah, if you could put us all together, it could be something pretty special.
Soroka: Weigel's fastball.
Allard: Yeah, I could take a lot of things from a lot of people, honestly.
MiLB.com: Why Weigel's fastball?
Soroka: It's kinda one of those things where I'm out there charting...
Allard: Or his frisbee. You'd take his frisbee, too.
Soroka: ... and it'd get to 0-2, and I'd just think, 'OK, let's go.' I don't know, it gets me excited. Something I've tried to do since I was young is throw hard, and it's fun to watch guys throw hard, even though there's a lot of pitching that goes with it. Seeing a big number on the radar gun is always kinda fun.
MiLB.com: Since you guys are all different pitchers with your own strengths, how much are you sharing information, like grips, during the season?
Toussaint: I feel like we're all different pitchers. Like, Weigel's a fastball-curveball-slider guy. Soroka's a sinker-curveball-slider. Kolby's fastball-changeup-curveball. So I pick Fried, for example, to bounce things off and Weigel when I was getting in trouble with my fastball. I'd ask somebody, 'How can you control your fastball throwing it as hard as you do?'
Weigel: For me, I couldn't take as much from Allard, Sancy and Fried because they're all left-handed. It's a different approach. But still, watching their stuff throughout the year, the way they set up hitters -- for us, it's a right-right matchup and for them, left-left -- just the way they set up guys. Soroka, Touki and I have similar stuff. Well, Touki has a better curveball than us. It's easier to bounce ideas off and see how guys go after each other. I think that was the biggest thing for me -- seeing how they attack hitters.
Toussaint: I remember charting with Soroka -- I never charted with Weigel -- and talking, 'What would you throw in this count?' I'd say, 'Fastball.' He'd say, 'Curveball.' Why? We kind of bounced ideas off each other.
Sanchez: I'll ask my coaching staff or other pitchers, 'What kind of pitch should I throw' to a certain hitter or in a certain count. Grabbing from everybody will always help me, when it comes to facing adversity or when innings come in a hard way. So talking to them and asking what they do, that helped me a lot.
MiLB.com: Everyone knows the Braves system is packed with pitching. What's it like entering the Minor League locker room knowing the amount of arms around you?
Allard: It's fun going out there with the cream of the crop, because every day you can't take an easy day. You have to go out there and compete with all of those other guys, and I think it pushes you to be better. I know that sounds cliche.
Toussaint: I'd say it's like a big competitive family. Everyone's trying to get to the steak first.
MiLB.com: Most of you probably are going to start in Florida or play some in Florida this season. It's a new team name. So I gotta ask -- what do you think of the Fire Frogs? What do you think of potentially being a Fire Frog?
Soroka: I think it's great because I know that being a new team with a new name, people are going to go out and remember that. Attaching your name to that, you can always say you were the first to play for the Fire Frogs. It's very unique.
Weigel: It's not the worst one out there. It's better than some that I've heard.
MiLB.com: Going back to Rome, you guys all worked with pitching coach Dan Meyer. What did he teach you guys as a group?
Allard: I think the best thing about Dan is he's not like, 'OK, you all have to be the same guys.' He realizes everyone in this room has great, great stuff, and yet everyone is so different. He was good at adapting and learning strengths and weaknesses and going with an individual approach rather than saying it has to be a certain way.
Sanchez: Meyer helped me a lot on pitching, pitching mechanics and overall. But also, [Rome manager Randy Ingle] worked me with me, too. He helped me a lot in the second half, helping me become a better pitcher.
MiLB.com: How optimistic is everyone in that Minor League room right now?
Allard: It's a lot of fun. The future looks pretty bright, and everyone just wants to end up with a World Series ring at the end of it. So that's what we're shooting for.