Braves 2016 Mid-Season Top-35 Prospects

The Atlanta Braves minor league system is more loaded with prospects right now that at any other time since the early 1990s. While there have been times since then when the system had a better top echelon of prospects close to the majors, the current crop of young high-ceiling prospects runs deeper than I can remember.

dwanson1So much of this high-ceiling depth is in the low minors, or just signed or drafted. And because of that, I’d like to take a moment to explain how I construct my rankings, so you will hopefully better understand why a 16-year-old who hasn’t played a professional baseball game is ahead of someone who has been in the system for years.

I base my rankings on a mixture of many elements, including my own personal observations of these prospects, conversations I have with scouts and evaluators, and scouting reports I read online. I also consider bonus numbers, proximity to the majors and age.

As they always do, these rankings will differ from other rankings, as my interpretation of the elements listed above and my opinion or bias come into play. My goal in the writeups of each player is to not only educate you about the prospect, but to also tell you why he is ranked where he’s ranked.

Another way I hope to help you understand my opinion of these prospects and the potential impact they may have in the majors is to put them in groups based on similar expectations and assign that group a letter grade.

I tell you all this not only to help you understand my process, but to also prepare you for the fact that this list includes a lot of prospects who have not played above Rookie-ball, or who haven’t stepped foot on a professional field yet. So this list is heavy on the projection side of the prospect equation, and not as much on the performance side. I do this in part to set an expectation for these new prospects — one which may take a couple of years to emerge.

In parenthesis is the level they played at so far this year. Graduating from the pre-season list are Aaron Blair and Mallex Smith.

Grade A+: This grade of a prospect is, and should be a rare grade. It represents a prospect who could one day be a superstar and a franchise cornerstone.

1. Dansby Swanson, SS (AA, A+) — Previous rank: 1
The No. 1 overall pick in 2015 by Arizona, and then plundered by the Dread Pirate Coppy in exchange for the carcass of Shelby Miller, in what could go down as the most influential trade for Atlanta since they acquired Fred McGriff (after which then Dread Pirate Schuerholtz decided to set fire to the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium press box). Swanson’s debut in a tomahawk has been stellar, conquering high-A in a month, and showing great plate discipline and power through the ups and downs at double-A. He won the shortstop showdown with Albies, committing only two-thirds the number of errors in 50% more games, while displaying a strong and accurate arm. In addition to what he can do in the field and at the plate, Dansby is a natural leader who players rally around. We could see Dansby in Atlanta this September, if not sooner, and he should be the starting shortstop when the team opens its inaugural season at White Flight Field next year.

Grade A: These are prospects who I believe will be first division players, and occasional All-Stars, while filling valuable roles on the team.

2. Sean Newcomb, LHP (AA) — Previous rank: 2
The 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft, Atlanta acquired him in the Andrelton Simmons trade. Newcomb is a prospect where we must trust the scouts and evaluators. He is also a prospect whose stats don’t always look pretty, but he’s still learning to use all of his pitches, repeat his delivery and maintain his velocity. His fastball is plus in the mid-90s, his curve is plus and his change is solid to above average. He has the potential for three plus pitches as a top of the rotation workhorse in the mold of a Jon Lester. He could be ready as early as next year, just as soon as he can put all the parts of his game together.

3. Kevin Maitan, SS (Has not debuted yet) — Recently signed
The Braves handed Maitan a $4.25 million bonus earlier this month, the largest bonus the team has ever given an amateur player. He’s been on scouts’ radar for years as the jewel of this year’s international class, being called a once-a-decade talent. He’s been compared to a young Miguel Cabrera, a true 5-tool prospect who will eventually slide over to third base as the 16-year-old grows and adds muscle. He won’t step on a professional field until next year, but his debut will be eagerly anticipated and watched. If he is as advertised, then he will be a fixture at the top of prospect lists for years to come. For Braves fans he could be this generation’s Andruw Jones — a top prospect for several years before debuting as a teenager.

4. Ozzie Albies, 2B/SS (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 4oalbies2
Since so much of Albies’ value as a player is tied up in his speed and ability to get on base, and because his high batting averages are a product of a high BABIP, he ranks a bit lower for me than most. This was a large part of my argument for not being as high on Jose Peraza when he was a Braves prospect. In the Albies-Peraza mold of a prospect, I nonetheless like the tools that Albies brings to the plate — better batting eye and patience. That gives him a greater chance to realize his top-of-the-order on-base-and-speed-guy potential.

Grade A-: The next group of prospects I grade as possible first division players who will all play important starting roles in the majors.

5. Lucas Sims, RHP (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 6
The No. 21 overall selection by the Braves in the 2012 draft, Sims generates more debate about how good he can be than just about any other Atlanta pitching prospect. I have long taken the side of Sims having mid-to-top of the rotation stuff, and I’m sticking to it. He’s still only 22-years old, and has had a taste of triple-A. Sims has struggled to find consistency in his mechanics at times, and the Carolina bus crash last year was a huge setback just when he was sorting himself out. The inconsistency of his mechanics can be seen in his elevated walk rates, but the dominance of his raw stuff is apparent in the high strikeout rates and low batting average against he posts year after year. That’s one of the big reasons he stays high on my prospect list. Once he learns how to consistently find the right mechanics start after start and inning after inning to limit the free passes, that raw stuff will take over and help him fulfill his high ceiling.

6. Dustin Peterson, OF (AA) — Previous rank: 20
A 2nd round pick in 2013 out of high school, and acquired by Atlanta as part of the Justin Upton trade. Peterson had a good debut last year in the Braves system, despite not really standing out in the pack. Part of that was due to the bus crash he and his Carolina team were involved in. Peterson was hitting .314/.392/.448 at the time of the crash en route to a breakout year, but hit only .232/.294/.317 after spending three weeks on the DL post-crash. In my pre-season rankings I slid him down the list too far, and perhaps this mid-season ranking is an over correction too high, but my initial take on him was that of a middle-of-the-order power bat, and he’s well on his way to becoming that. He’s only 21-years-old and already mashing at double-A (.276/.340/.421), while facing older pitchers in 366 of his 368 plate appearances.

7. Austin Riley, 3B (Low-A) — Previous rank: 3ariley
The 41st overall pick in last year’s draft, Riley represents the best power-hitting prospect the Braves have drafted in a decade. His breakout inaugural season last year saw him hit .304/.389/.544. He got off to a slow start this year, which is why he’s come down this list just a bit, but in the last month-plus he’s slashed .304/.342/.471. His strikeout rate has also dropped, though he’s a slugger who will strike out a lot. All of this as a 19-year-old hitting against older pitchers in 324 of 331 plate appearances.

8. Touki Toussaint, RHP (Low-A) — Previous rank: 8
The 16th overall selection in the 2014 draft out of high school, Touki was the first major prospect the Braves plundered from Arizona — essentially purchasing him along with a bad-money contract last year. The word raw is used a lot when describing him, and as such the early results on the mound have not always looked pretty. Nonetheless he has premium velocity and a legit curveball, both out-pitches. The transition from raw pitching prospect to refined prospect is slowly occurring as he learns to repeat his delivery, which leads to better control and an ability to maintain velocity deeper into his starts.

9. Max Fried, LHP (Low-A) — Previous rank: 9
The 7th overall pick in the 2012 draft out of high school, he had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and missed most of that year and 2015. His re-debut this year at Rome has been very successful with a strikeout per inning and a low .236 batting average against. According to reports his fastball has come back strong in the mid-90s, and his once-dominating curveball is still there. Because of the lost time he gets knocked down a bit on this list, but his raw stuff and ability still profile him as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter.

10. Kolby Allard, LHP (A-, R+) — Previous rank: 7
I find no prospect on this list harder to rank than Allard. He was the 14th overall pick last year, and by most accounts should have been drafted much higher but for injury concerns. Those concerns were borne out when he had back surgery late last year after signing. The Braves held him back in extended spring training this year for a couple of months before trying him in Rome. They lowered him to Danville when their season started, which by the early results seems more appropriate, though it’s probably too soon in his career to rely on stats as a barometer of his talent. I expect he’ll be back in Rome before the end of the season.

11. Mike Soroka, RHP (Low-A) — Previous rank: 12
msorokaThis is the second-hardest prospect to rank. I keep wanting to put a comp on him as a poor-man’s Greg Maddux. Soroka was the 28th overall pick last year, and has already shown an uncanny ability to limit walks for such a young (18 year old) pitcher. He commands the strike zone with three above-average pitches and does a good job of staying low in the zone. He’s a smart pitcher that gets the most out of his stuff, but none of his pitches grade out as plus. Because of that lack of wow factor, and the wow factor that many of the recently drafted guys below him have, Soroka will probably fall lower on prospect lists as an almost forgotten prospect. As a command/control guy it will also take longer to get an accurate read on what his ultimate ceiling might be.

12. Derian Cruz, SS (R-) — Previous rank: 13
Last year’s top international signing (for $2 million), the switch-hitting Dominican debuted state-side in the GCL this year as a 17-year-old. So far the early returns are good, as he got off to a blistering start, hitting safely in his first seven games. He’s shown much more power than I expected out of him at this point, but it’s way too early to read too much into his stats. If the Braves follow their recent pattern for their top performing young talent in the GCL, we should see Cruz get a promotion to Danville at some point this season. He would then be setup to start 2017 at Rome.

13. Ian Anderson, RHP (R-) — Recently drafted
Starting here the next four prospects are all projection based on scouting reports and draft position. The No. 3 overall pick this year, Anderson is a northern pitcher with mid-90s velocity on his fastball, a curveball with late action and a changeup that already grades as plus. He has a good chance to turn all of those into plus or even plus-plus pitches. With a big strong frame he profiles as a top-of-the-rotation workhorse with ace potential. In most years he would debut among the team’s top-10 prospects, but winds up in this position simply because there are so many talented prospects in the system.

14. Joey Wentz, LHP (R-) — Recently drafted
Ranked here between Anderson and Muller, in the order of which they were drafted. The No. 40 overall pick this year, Wentz has been a tall prospect that scouts have been been dreaming on for years. He has solid-to-plus low-to-mid-90s velocity, a plus curve and future-plus change. Wentz also features advanced control for his age, and profiles as a mid-to-top of the rotation workhorse.

15. Kyle Muller, LHP (R-) — Recently drafted
As if Anderson and Wentz weren’t enough, the Braves used the No. 44 overall pick this year on the talented two-way Muller. He’s shown less on the mound than the two guys ahead of him, but his raw talent is likely equal to them. He’s the tallest of the three at 6-foot-6, and now that his focus will exclusively be on pitching, he has a chance to rise to the top of the class.

16. Abrahan Gutierrez, C (Has not debuted yet) — Recently signed
Considered by many to be the top catching prospect of the 2016 international class, his $3.5 million bonus would have been the largest bonus ever given by Atlanta to an international player, but for Maitan getting a larger bonus this year. He’s only 16, and will likely debut in the GCL next year with Maitan, but as a catching prospect he will move slower through the system. He has displayed good catch-and-throw skills, a strong arm and good contact at the plate, but all of his tools are raw.

Grade B+: These players grade as solid above average players with the potential to be much more.

17. Rio Ruiz, 3B (AAA) — Previous rank: 19
One of the two main prospects acquired in the Evan Gattis trade, Ruiz is a 22-year-old playing at triple-A, and slashing .276/.365/.385. He should probably be higher, though he falls to this rank due to all the other talent in the system that I deem better than him. I rank him a bit lower because I’m bearish on his star potential. I do think he will make the majors soon, this year or next, but right now I don’t see too much more than a Chris Johnson-type player. Light power, a good walk rate, but extremely streaky.

18. Brett Cumberland, C (R+) — Recently drafted
A young now-21-year-old draft-eligible college sophomore, the switch-hitting catcher was drafted for his bat speed and power. His profile reminds me of a catcher the Braves drafted in 2013, Victor Caratini, and later traded to the Cubs at the trade deadline in 2014. Caratini came in as a bat-first catcher, and his development has been slow both at the plate and behind the plate. I expect Cumberland to follow a slow development path overall, however, if his bat starts to show up big, then the Braves may put him at another position to speed him up. They want him at catcher for now, though, and that will take some time.

19. John Gant, RHP (MLB, AAA) — Previous rank: 18
A 21st-round pick by the Mets in 2011, and part of the 2015 Kelly Johnson trade. Just before he was acquired he made a mechanical change, which ended up turning him from a back-of-the-rotation fringe prospect into a mid-rotation prospect. He surprised many people by winning a spot in the Atlanta bullpen coming out of spring training, and has yo-yo’ed between the majors and triple-A, as well as yo-yo’ing between the rotation and bullpen. Gant is the perfect type of prospect to have in a year like the Braves are having, as he can audition for a number of different roles without any pressure. At some point he’ll show us if he can fulfill that mid-rotation projection.

20. A.J. Minter, LHP (AA, A+, A-) — Previous rank: 36
A 2nd-round pick last year out of Texas A&M, Minter served as the school’s closer before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery prior to the draft. The Braves were undeterred by that, and saw in Minter the best closer prospect in the 2015 draft. Once he got on the field this year he set out to prove that, and prove it he has, putting up video game numbers as a pro. In 19.2 innings he’s given up only 6 hits, 1 run, issued just 5 walks, while striking out 24. All of that while zooming from Rome, through Carolina and on to Mississippi. He could reach Atlanta this year, but the Braves may want to keep him in the minors with regular work as he continues his return from TJ. If he keeps putting up these kinds of numbers, then he’ll zoom up prospect lists, and should find his way into an important late innings role in Atlanta next year. His success this year makes Arodys Vizcaino more tradeable.

21. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (MLB, AAA) — Previous rank: 14
tjenkins3The 50th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and part of the Jason Heyward trade that began the rebuild, Tyrell is, in a way, Prospect Zero. He made the big club mid-year, beginning in the bullpen, then making an excellent spot-start prior to the All-Star break. Tyrell has above average projection right now, as a back of the rotation starter or late innings reliever. There’s no one tool that stands out, as Tyrell is more of a pitchability guy who can occasionally run his fastball into the mid-90s. That seems to paint the picture of a bullpen guy, but then Tyrell goes out and pitches like a mid-rotation workhorse last year and won the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year award. Never underestimate #ProspectZero.

22. Chris Ellis, RHP (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 16
The other pitching prospect in the Andrelton Simmons trade, Ellis got off to a better start this year at Mississippi than Sean Newcomb, and earned an early June call-up to Gwinnett. Ellis has a solid three-pitch mix without having a real out-pitch. That puts him in back-of-the-rotation contention with a chance to find an out-pitch and ascend to mid-rotation projection. He could also need to break in as a reliever in the majors (a la Jenkins) in order to find what works.

23. Rob Whalen, RHP (AA) — Previous rank: 31
A 12th round pick by the Mets in 2012, Whalen was part of last year’s Kelly Johnson trade. He came over as more of a pitchability guy with an average three-pitch mix, but this year at Mississippi, he’s put up terrific numbers, specifically a low batting average against and low walk rate. Oh, and he’s leading the Southern League with 94 strikeouts in a workhorse-like 101.1 innings. His good control and deception have been effective against both lefties and righties, and he’s been metronomically consistent from start to start. His previous back-of-the-rotation ceiling is being reconsidered, and he could move further up this list with a good second half.

24. Patrick Weigel, RHP (Low-A) — Previously unranked 
A prospect like Weigel represents the performance side of this list, as he has already massively exceeded his draft position or pedigree. Weigel was an arm-strength draft prospect when Atlanta took him in the 7th round last year, with tons of questions about his control and whether he could throw his slider and curve for effect. The Braves worked with him on repeating his delivery which has helped him control his fastball and command his off-speed pitches, seemingly erasing all of those pre-draft questions. It’s really tempting to rank Weigel much higher, especially since his fastball sits mid-90s and he can reach back for 99mph. His ceiling is that of a Mike Foltynewicz-like pitcher. If his second half performance matches his first half performance, he’ll be moving way up this list.

25. Cristian Pache, OF (R-) — Previous rank: 21
Pache was the other big international signing (after Derian Cruz) by the Braves last year when he got $1.4 million. He also got off to a hot start this year while debuting state-side as a 17-year-old. While it’s early to judge anything from stats, he has nonetheless shown good speed and doubles-power, as well as a low strikeout rate — just 2 Ks in his first 63 plate appearances. Like Cruz, we should expect to see Pache promoted to Danville before the end of the season.

26. Ronald Acuna, OF (Low-A) — Previous rank: 24
An international signing out of Venezuela in 2014 for $100,000, he debuted in the GCL last year, finishing the season at Danville. I’ll probably get more grief for ranking Acuna this low than I will for any other ranking on this list. Some evaluators would put Acuna in the system’s top-10, and some might even put him among the top-150 prospects in the game. His near-five-tool skill set is scintillating, and he will no doubt move up my list if those tools show up on the field, but I just haven’t seen enough to feel confident ranking him ahead of those above him.

Grade B: With these prospects, the potential is there for a higher grade, all they need are experience and reps, but there is less certainty that they will emerge as impact players.

27. Max Povse, RHP (AA, A+) — Previous rank: 39
Povse is one of those guys that’s shown great improvement this year. The 2014 3rd-rounder has a heavy low-90s fastball, and he uses that to get a lot of ground balls. That leads to a lot of hits, but he counterbalances that by hardly walking anyone. So far this year he has a 1.7 BB/9 rate, when 3.1 is the current major league rate. He recently earned a promotion to Mississippi’s talented rotation. If he can match the first half stats he put up in Carolina in the second half in Mississippi, then he will shoot up this list. I probably keep him a bit lower because he’s a pitch-to-contact guy, but he’s just about to jump to a B+ grade with continued good work.

28. Bryse Wilson, RHP (R-) — Recently drafted
This year’s 4th-round selection, he became the 4th high school pitcher this draft to get a million-plus bonus from Atlanta. He received over twice the recommended slot value, but due to his lower draft position than the big three, Wilson could become the forgotten fourth. Reports of his stuff say it is somewhat behind the big three, but he’s still a high-dollar bonus guy, and as such the expectation is that he will be a top prospect. That leads me to rank him here, though he could land anywhere within the Grade B category.

29. Lucas Herbert, C (Low-A) — Previous rank: 33
A 2nd-round pick last year, Herbert tore his meniscus shortly after getting on the field after signing. The Braves started him at Rome this year, and he’s slogged along there without much success at the plate. Behind the plate he’s impressed, throwing out 38% of would-be base-stealers. The long development approach is important with Herbert, but the Braves may have been too eager to get him back on the field, and he probably could have benefited from being held back this spring and starting at Danville. Until he shows something with the stick he’ll stay lower down in these rankings.

30. Manny Banuelos, LHP (AAA) — Previous rank: 15
Remember this guy? He’s still technically a prospect. At 25-years-old he’s about to fall off the list, and unfortunately it’s not really his fault. The injury bug continues to bite ManBan as he can’t quite get his elbow back to full health. Atlanta seems content to take it slow with him, though the clock is ticking. This rank takes into account the injuries and his age, and reflects that at this point he’s probably just a back-of-the-rotation prospect or reliever.

31. Drew Harrington, LHP (Has not debuted yet) — Recently drafted
The team’s 3rd-round pick this year out of Louisville, the junior southpaw is a classic low-90s pitchability lefty. The Braves love guys like this, but I’m glad they at least waited until the 3rd round this year as opposed to making him a first rounder as they have in the past with the likes of Sean Gilmartin and Brett DeVall. Harrington has a chance for three above average pitches, complimenting his fastball with a slider and change. If everything comes together, he has a chance to be a mid-to-back of the rotation regular.

32. Braxton Davidson, OF (High-A) — Previous rank: 11
The No. 32 overall pick in 2013, he may be one of the most disappointing prospects on this list. He came into the organization with a lot of fanfare, but he can’t seem to find any magic at the plate. I’ve seen a lot of his at-bats the past couple of years, and they can be very frustrating to watch. From one at-bat to another he’ll look completely lost at the plate to overly-aggressive to overly-patient. His strikeouts are increasing at an alarming rate, and the power one expects to see with that many strikeouts has not followed. However, patience should be shown here, as he just turned 20 years old, and hasn’t faced a pitcher older than him the last two years. Still, an improved approach (and attitude) are in order.

Grade B-: With these prospects, the potential is there for a higher grade, all they need are experience and reps, but there is even less certainty that they will emerge as impact players.

33. Mauricio Cabrera, RHP (MLB, AA) — Previous rank: 30
The 101 MPH heat of Cabrera was felt in… I’m about to say… prepare yourself… Hot-lanta. Despite a legit fastball, he wasn’t really a big strikeout guy in the minors, and that keeps him down here on the list.

34. Yunio Severino, SS (Has not debuted yet) — Recently signed
Part of the international bonanza this year, Severino signed for $1.9 million. The switch-hitting Dominican would be big news in any other year that didn’t include Kevin Maitan. Severino still has some growing to do, but he should follow Maitan and Abrahan Gutierrez to the GCL next year.

35. Juan Yepez, OF (Low-A) — Previous rank: 17
The Braves top international signing in 2014 out of Venezuela. He debuted state-side last year, putting up good numbers in the GCL and then Danville, but without the hype that accompanied Ronald Acuna. Yepez went on the DL with an injury at the end of May, after starting late at Rome.

The next five:
Isranel Wilson, OF
Ricardo Sanchez, LHP
Ricardo Rodriguez, C
Juan Contrereas, RHP
Yenci Pena, SS

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