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Braves pitching prospect Northcraft surviving recent trials

Aaron Northcraft pitches in a game last season with the Class AA Mississippi Braves (Courtesy of the Mississippi Braves)

Aaron Northcraft pitches in a game last season with the Class AA Mississippi Braves (Courtesy of the Mississippi Braves)

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Aaron Northcraft pitches in a game last season with the Class AA Mississippi Braves (Courtesy of the Mississippi Braves)

From offseason through spring training, it’s been a rough ride for Aaron Northcraft.

About the best news for the right-handed pitcher following his strong year in Class AA Mississippi was his ranking among the top 20 Atlanta Braves minor-league prospects. According to MLB.com, Northcraft ranks 16th in the organization and even that was a drop from last year’s No. 12 ranking.

But first, came his offseason.

After turning in a solid 8-8 record in 26 starts and a 3.42 ERA with Class AA Mississippi, Northcraft headed to Arizona for the annual fall league and the shine of the season faded. Fast.

In seven starts, Northcraft posted an 8.00 ERA and a 1-7 record. He struck out just four more (19) than he walked (15) and in 18 innings allowed a pair of home runs. Compared to seven homers in 137 innings with the M-Braves, that’s more than twice as many homers per inning.

“It was more of a mental thing,” Northcraft said of his Arizona troubles. “The pitching mechanics when I was out in Arizona were a little off.”

Through the winter, Northcraft said he hoped to correct his mechanics and kept working out with his personal trainer, staying in shape and building strength for his sixth professional season. He joined the Atlanta Braves for spring training, hopeful to return to his accustomed success.

Instead he dinged his thumb doing fielding drills so early in camp that he didn’t make a spring appearance on the big-league roster before cuts sent him to the back fields, where his preparation slowly began.

Northcraft, though unhappy, embraced the first real challenges in his career. Giving up 16 runs off 23 hits in 18 innings in the fall didn’t turn Northcraft off to the idea of pitching or even sour his outlook.

“It was fun,” he said about Arizona. “You get to do a lot more. You can set guys up more than the free swingers in low-A. It’s more of a mental game where you are going to get taxed and not want to think after the game. It was an overall good experience.”

And that is the best news for Northcraft. If there’s a time to struggle, it’s in offseason games. If there’s a time for injury it’s during spring training. Even as a member of the Braves’ 40-man roster, the 23-year-old Northcraft was at-best a long shot for the big league club. His highest stop so far is Class AA and admits he needs to keep learning.

“(Arizona) helped me mentally just to be around the guys who are experienced and know what they are doing,” Northcraft said. “Unless you are throwing 102 and just blowing it by guys you are going to have to adjust to the game. People get smarter, they pick up on your tendencies. They have the TV to pick up what you are doing.”

Northcraft relies more on craft than power, his four-seam fastball even sinks and he mixes in a two-seam fastball, a sinker and curveball-slider hybrid. As a young pitcher, he relied mostly on his two fastballs, but began focusing on his slider last season.

“I know I am going to need it for my main goal in the big leagues,” he said.

He also worked on holding runners on base. Stepping up to Class AA in 2013, Northcraft watched more and more runners steal off of him, even as their batting average against him dropped to a career low .241. But for a pitcher relying on his sinking pitches to create groundballs, keeping the runners still matters exponentially more.

“If they see you are stopping going, stopping going, they are going to take off,” Northcraft said was one of his biggest lessons in Mississippi. “I am a sinker guy so I get a lot of double plays but when a guy is not on first base I can’t get double plays.”

Learning, said Northcraft, is the point of the minors, something he’s understood increasingly more since the Braves drafted him in 2009 out of Mater Dei High School in California. And these recent hiccups are just another chance to improve.