Braves' Wilson ready to fight for place

No. 13 prospect taking steps to stand out in crowded system

Bryse Wilson has averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings over his first two Minor League seasons. (Chris Robertson/KZONE Images)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | March 9, 2018 4:00 PM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida -- A universe exists in which right-hander Bryse Wilson is one of the top two or three prospects in a Minor League system. A universe exists in which he's a sophomore at the University of North Carolina. And perhaps another in which he signed and was quickly shifted to a bullpen role.

Instead, he's the No. 13 prospect in the Braves system -- a ranking that places him 10th among Atlanta's pitching prospects -- coming off a successful first full season as a starter with Class A Rome. Atlanta may not know what comes next in this universe, but it's excited about the possibilities -- meaning Wilson is right where he needs to be.

"I think we're still learning," said Braves director of player development Dom Chiti. "We're still learning about our guys every day. Right now, we see him as a starting pitcher. Most of the pitchers in the big leagues were starters all the way through the Minor Leagues. To start labeling some of these kids that haven't been shaving that long is probably not a good idea."

Wilson is in the Braves system as part of a conscious effort by the organization to add several high-school arms in the 2016 Draft. The Braves, well into their attempted rebuild, had the largest signing bonus pool of that Draft with $15,516,300 to spend and used it to go after potentially tough signings. Taking right-hander Ian Anderson -- a signable talent by early first-round standards -- at No. 4 and inking him to a bonus of $4 million (more than $2.5 million below slot) was the first big step in that plan. That allowed the Braves to take and sign left-hander Joey Wentz at No. 40 for $3.05 million (almost double the slot value), left-hander Kyle Muller at No. 44 for $2.5 million (more than $1 million above slot) and eventually Wilson at No. 109.

The latter was considered the toughest sign because of his reportedly strong commitment to UNC. The Braves kept tabs, staying in constant touch with Wilson through their area scout and even sent some high-ranking executives to watch his outings at Orange (North Carolina) High School. They liked what they saw -- a bulky right-hander with a low-to-mid-90's sinking fastball and three senior-year no-hitters on his resume -- enough to take a chance at using a fourth-round pick on him, but it came down to one issue. Could they produce the money? Had their intricate plan worked?

"It wasn't so much the Braves saying one thing or another," Wilson said. "My parents and I sat down, along with my agent, and came up with a good number that was enough to get me out of that commitment, and the Braves came up with that number. So that's all it took."

That number was $1.2 million, more than double the $546,800 bonus assigned to the 109th pick. 

Wilson got his money to go pro, but entered a system that had drafted pitchers Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka out of high school in 2015 and added Anderson, Wentz, Muller and himself to the mix a year later. If all six fulfilled their potential as starters, there would still be one too many for a traditional five-man rotation -- to say nothing of fellow prospects Sean Newcomb, Max Fried, Touki Toussaint or Lucas Sims, who were all working their way up as starters as well.

Wilson, with questions about the consistency of his slider and his lack of a serviceable changeup, seemed like a perfect candidate to someday move to the bullpen. An early role change could even hasten his climb through the Minors, despite the crowded system. The Braves refused to pigeonhole the right-hander, however, and placed him alongside Anderson and Wentz in the Class A Rome rotation.

They've had no reason to second-guess the decision.

The North Carolina native threw 137 innings as a starter and finished second in the South Atlantic League with a 2.50 ERA, third with 139 strikeouts and a 1.04 WHIP and fourth with a 3.20 FIP. He was a South Atlantic mid- and post-season All-Star and, despite all the solid right-handed teammates, was a MiLB.com Organization All-Star selection

The biggest reason for the success: he started doing what starting pitchers need to do. He shut down questions about his arsenal by developing a third quality pitch.

"I think definitely developing the changeup [was important]," Wilson said. "I didn't have to throw my slider as much. I was able to have an off-speed pitch that went armside instead of most off-speed pitches going gloveside. Just being able to mix those in helped a lot. ... I went more with a two-seam grip. I throw kind of a two-seam fastball already that has run to it, so I went with the two-seam grip and that helped a lot."

Video: Rome's Wilson notches his first career shutout

The Braves couldn't have been more pleased with the development.

"His commitment to it stood out," Chiti said. "He understands the long-term value. Maybe not the value of it in Rome, but the long-term value of a changeup for the style of pitcher Bryce is is huge. The second half of the season, he did tremendous with it. That'll pay off this year too."

Perhaps most surprising was Wilson's ability to strike out Sally League batters at such a high rate. The overall K number was high not only because he remained healthy all season, but also because he ranked fourth on the circuit with a 25.5 percent strikeout rate. That's not a rate typical of pitchers whose biggest strength is a heavy sinker, but the Braves don't think the right-hander fits that box neatly -- for all the right reasons.

"Bryse is not a true sinkerballer," Chiti said. "He does have enough velocity to drive the ball by you. He can throw up in the strike zone at times, elevate the ball. We don't really consider him just a quote-unquote sinker guy."

Still, Wilson did rank sixth in the Sally League with a 52.1 percent groundball rate, and he's happy to take the outs however he can get them.

"The slider obviously gets me a lot of strikeouts," he said. "Using the fastball more up in the zone toward the end of the season helped. Changeup got me a few too at the end of the season. … But I just want to get the guy out. First-pitch, second-pitch groundball out is always nice."

Wilson is slated to head to Class A Advanced Florida to begin 2018, where he'll likely once again be joined by Anderson and Wentz. That worked out for the threesome last season. Wentz was also dominant statistically with a 2.60 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 131 2/3 innings while Anderson showed enough to become MLB.com's No. 51 overall prospect. Instead of being intimidated by his fellow 2016 draftees, Wilson welcomes the opportunity to grow alongside a future homegrown Braves rotation.

"I think we all fed off each other and talked to each other a lot," he said. "How we approached certain batters. We all have a great relationship. Yeah, there's a competition there, but we're all great friends and we all want each other to do well, so it's everybody pushing each other. We're all able to hang out with each other, fall back on each other after bad outings, lift each other up. It just makes everything a whole lot more comfortable."

The Braves have found their own comfort in Wilson's success as a starter. They got their man in 2016. They were surprised by him in 2017. They're ready for anything in 2018.

"I think he understands what he needs to do," Chiti said. "There have been discussions about [pitching in relief]. But through experience, we've learned they'll tell us who they are. But if we try to tell them who they are, then it doesn't work out. Especially at the lower levels, I don't think anybody knows what they are. We try to move with them and make them the best they can be."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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