GREENSBORO, N.C.—A few years from now, the 7,000 or so schoolchildren who attended Monday’s game between low Class A Greensboro and Rome might look back at the box score and realize just what a treat they saw. Besides being a pleasant way to spend a few hours outdoors, the assembled second-graders from more than 50 Guilford County elementary schools were treated to a matchup of two of the most talented young lefthanders in the game—the Marlins’ Braxton Garrett and the Braves’ Joey Wentz.
Garrett and Wentz were taken at No. 7 and No. 40 overall, respectively, in last year’s draft and were paid a combined nearly $7.2 million in signing bonuses. Garrett, taken out of Cullman (Ala.) High, and Wentz, plucked from Shawnee Mission East High in Kansas, each came with pedigree and track record. And on Monday morning, they both pitched up to their billing.
Because he signed late and hit a few bumps physically in the road, Garrett was making his professional debut on Monday. He didn’t pitch at all last season in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and stayed back in extended spring training for the season’s first month. He arrived in Greensboro in the middle of last week and was eagerly anticipating finally getting to pitch somewhere other than the Marlins’ minor league complex in Jupiter, Fla.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” he said, “and it was worth it. You can ask the players and coaches—I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. Like I said, it was worth it. I had a blast.”
Garrett, who will pitch for most of the season at 19 years old, reached his pitch limit one out shy of qualifying for the win, but that was about the only negative to be taken from his outing.
He allowed just one hit over 4.2 innings while walking three and striking out four and got seven groundouts as compared to just three flyouts. His fastball, which featured explosive cut life in on righthanders, sat between 90-92 and touched 93 often. He complemented the fastball with an 11-to-5 curveball in the 76-79 mph range that Baseball America ranked as the second-best breaking pitch among high schoolers in the 2016 draft class.
While he was in extended spring training, the Marlins had Garrett work to improve his changeup by throwing it more often. He broke it out sparingly on Monday, but the pitch showed sharp bite in the low-to-mid-80s when he did use it.
“I thought he held his composure good,” Greensboro manager Todd Pratt said. “He did a good job today. Threw some good curveballs and spotted some good fastballs, so that’s about it for him. He’s a young lefty who’s a horse. We expect a bright future from him.”
On the other side, Wentz showed an impressive three-pitch mix. The 19-year-old threw a lively fastball in the low-90s and coupled it with a changeup that was devastating at times in the 77-81 mph range and an upper-70s curveball that peaked at 81 and featured late depth. He let up two runs in four innings while walking two and whiffing six.
“I think Joey did a good job today of executing his fastball on the outer half to righthanded hitters,” Rome pitching coach Dan Meyer said. “For me, the stuff’s there. It’s just pitchability now. Learning when to go inside, reading swings, watching the game when you’re not pitching. It’s easy for these kids when they’re in high school and they go out and they go fastball and then breaking ball to end it.
“Now you have to learn to be a student of the game and what a guy can hit and can’t hit, because these kids they’re facing were good in high school and college too. So, see tendencies, understand what their strength is compared to their weakness and always pitch to your strength.”
Though it wasn’t at its best, Wentz’s changeup was particularly impressive.
“It’s a major league plus pitch. When it’s on and he has the arm speed, it’s outstanding,” Meyer said of Wentz’s changeup. “It was OK today, it was up and down. Against Hagerstown, it was outstanding.”
With Wentz and Ian Anderson in the fold, Rome has now had seven first-round picks pass through their rotation over the past two seasons. Two of the arms from the 2016 Rome squad, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, showed a strong enough combination of maturity and stuff to warrant a skip over high Class A directly to Double-A Mississippi.
After years of collecting arms through draft and trade, the Braves have as impressive an array as there is in the game. Their farm system is ranked as the best, and a lot of the early results have matched the hype.
“Between Wentz, Ian, Walker and (Bryse) Wilson, those are four really good arms out of the draft,” Meyer said. “Between that group and last year’s group, you have to be excited about the future. You see these arms and you see how much talent they have at such a young age. At 19, 20 and 21, they’re fun to watch and it’s fun to be a part of. You just want to keep them on a path to getting better and progressing.”
Wentz continued that trend for the Braves on Monday, and Garrett took the first step to putting himself on a similar path.