It’s Atlanta Braves top prospect time, and boy oh boy is the system loaded with talent… after all it should be loaded with talent, having dealt away all the major league talent to acquire this prospect talent. Of the 35 prospects listed, 15 were acquired from other organizations in the past year, and 8 were added via the draft and international signings.
The system is a little bottom heavy, though there are a handful of players who should become major contributors in Atlanta in 2016. The system is also very deep, which is why I chose to list 35 prospects this year as opposed to the normal 30. The previous prospect list (2015 mid-season) can be found here.
I’m presenting the prospects both ranked in order from 1 to 35, and in groups based on letter grades. Hopefully this will give you a better idea of what I think of a prospect even though they may be ranked higher or lower than you would expect. I also find this helpful in establishing the different levels of talent throughout the system.
Grade A: None of the prospects in the Braves system grade as A+ for me, so we start with the guys I rank with a grade of A. These are prospects who I believe will be first division players, and occasional All-Stars, while filling valuable roles on the team.
1. Sean Newcomb, LHP (AA, A+, A-) — Recently acquired
Acquired as the principle prospect in the Andrelton Simmons trade, Newcomb has the makings of a front of the rotation starting pitcher. He has a big frame that can handle the workload of a power pitcher. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, reaching higher, and is his only offering that grades as plus right now. His breaking ball and change flash plus at times, but they are inconsistent and he has a hard time repeating his delivery with them. The development of those pitches and his ability to consistently throw them effectively will match his ceiling. If he can master those pitches then he’s a one or two in the rotation. If he struggles to command his offspeed stuff, then he ends up a tweener or pushed to the bullpen (like Folty). He probably starts next year back in double-A with an eye towards a quick promotion to triple-A with any sign of success.
2. Austin Riley, 3B (R+, R-) — Previously unranked
I was cautious with Riley in my mid-year rankings after he was drafted. While the draft reports on him were that he was a late comer and a two-way player who many teams liked as a pitcher, the Braves felt strongly enough about his bat to draft him higher than many prospect outlets had him ranked. So far the Braves are looking like geniuses, as Riley had the best pro debut of anyone in their 2015 draft class. His power is said to be legit, and while he will strike out, it’s not because he’s chasing bad pitches but because he’s taking aggressive swings in the zone. That good knowledge of the strike zone should also allow Riley to hit for a good average. Said to have a strong enough arm for the hot corner, his average range may push him to first base. He should start 2016 as part of a stacked Rome team of talented teenagers — which should be the most exciting team for the Braves at that level in nearly a decade.
3. Ozhaino Albies, SS (Low-A) — Previous rank: 2
It’s no secret that one of the biggest reasons the Braves were comfortable trading Andrelton Simmons (and Jose Peraza) was the presence of Ozzie Albies. Like Simba, Albies is from Curacao, and also possesses that natural instinct at shortstop that gives him an extra step on the ball. He has a strong arm and grades as plus on defense across the board (although not as high as Simmons, who is on another plane of existence). At the plate Albies has good bat control and a quick swing, but it is geared towards making contact and line drive power not over-the-fence power. As such, Albies will likely never hit many home runs. His speed on the bases is also a factor, and when coupled with his ability to make solid contact that should make him a table-setter in any major league batting order. He’s slated to start the year at high-A Carolina, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves pushed him to Mississippi with an eye towards taking over in Atlanta mid-year. Albies is one of those players who could make a Furcal-like jump from the low minors to the majors.
Grade A-: The next group of prospects I grade as possible first division players who will all play important starting roles in the majors.
4. Lucas Sims, RHP (AFL, AA, A+) — Previous rank: 9
No other prospect has been reassessed by me in the past year more than Sims. Before the new regime tear-down began Sims was the number-one prospect. It wasn’t until Matt Wisler arrived in the organization that Sims lost the top spot in my eyes. That was changed in the mid-season list, as Sims dropped to ninth after a bad start. All along there have been widely varying scouting reports, with some claiming Sims is a mid-to-top of the rotation arm, while others insist he is merely a back of the rotation prospect. Even now when scouting reports claim that Sims’ fastball was lively, others that have seen him will jump in and claim otherwise. What we do know about Sims is that when he’s on, he’s one of the best, with a mid-90s fastball, an unhittable curve and a respectable change. While he’s lessened his inconsistencies, they still show up, and when he’s off he’s quite hittable. Yet still, I list him here above three other highly valued arms because among this group he’s the closest to ironing out those inconsistencies and being that mid-rotation (or better) force he’s been projected to be. He will likely start the year in Mississippi, eyeing a mid-year promotion to Gwinnett. If things go really well, he might see Atlanta in 2016.
5. Kolby Allard, LHP (R-) — Previous rank: 11
Admittedly I was higher on Allard before news of his recent back surgery came to light (first reported by me). Ranking him here is no slight against his skills, but it does take into account the huge injury risk that is still unresolved. While the Braves dismissed the surgery as a “minor back procedure,” I had more than one scout tell me that there’s no such thing, especially with a young pitcher. But the whole reason Allard was around on the draft when the Braves first picked at 14 was because of the red flags about his back. With that risk also comes significant upside. Allard has a plus curve and plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s. His change needs work, but his command is good across the board. His small sample size in the GCL was tantalizing, though where he will start next season depends on his health. If he’s healthy in the spring, he’ll start at Rome, though there’s every reason for the Braves not to rush him.
6. Touki Toussaint, RHP (Low-A) — Previous rank: 3
Much like how evaluators are split on Sims’ future, they are also split on Touki’s future. Toussaint has battled inconsistency in his outings mainly because of an inability to repeat his delivery — common with young pitchers, especially those with limited experience like him. His raw stuff though is some of the best in the system, with both a curveball and fastball that grade as plus on his good days. His change is far behind his other pitches, as Arizona didn’t allow him to throw the pitch when he was in their system. The Braves began adding it back to his repertoire, and that led to even more inconsistency and poor results at Rome. Because of that pitch in progress it’s best to take his poor stats at Rome with a grain of salt. More than anything he needs innings, so I expect to see him back at Rome next year.
7. Max Fried, LHP (Did not pitch) — Previous rank: 4
The highest overall pick of any prospect on this list, Fried was taken No. 7 overall in 2012 out of high school, where he was a teammate of the No. 16 overall pick, Lucas Giolito, a Nationals prospect and widely considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Even before Fried had to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery in 2014, his star didn’t seem to be burning as bright as his former teammate, as his changeup had not progressed at the same rate. Before the surgery Fried had a plus-plus curve and a plus fastball in the low-90s, with most scouts believing he would grow into more velocity. We’ll have to see how the Braves ease him into the season, and how many innings they let him throw. My guess is that they’ll start him out by letting him pitch out of the bullpen, slowly lengthening his outings, then tapering them off in the second half. He should be a very exciting prospect to watch this year with the raw talent he possesses.
Grade B+: These players grade as solid above average players with the potential to be much more.
8. Mallex Smith, OF (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 10
No prospect acquired since the end of the 2014 season has improved their stock in a Braves uniform more than Mallex. Considered by many to be the fourth-best prospect in the Justin Upton trade, I ranked Mallex No. 20 before last season, then No. 10 at mid-year. Mallex is a late bloomer as a prospect. Always known to have plus-plus speed, some scouts were undecided on Smith’s ability to hit at the higher levels. His 2015 campaign should have put all of those concerns to rest, as he slashed .340/.418/.413 at Mississippi before getting promoted to Gwinnett. He struggled at first to adjust to triple-A, which brought the doubters out for a minute, before Smith silenced them again by slashing .325/.394/.414 in his final 39 games. He has game-changing speed on the bases, and is focused on getting on base via bunts and walks so that he can use that speed. With the trade of Cameron Maybin, Smith is queued up to take over center field in Atlanta at some point in 2016, with Michael Bourn (who had a similar prospect trajectory) serving as his mentor.
9. Braxton Davidson, OF (Low-A) — Previous rank: 8
With perhaps some of the best strike zone judgement in the organization, Davidson tries to make the most of every at-bat, and is considered by many to be a tough out. Of course, other evaluators believe that he gives away too many at-bats by being too selective and not aggressive enough. He seemed to get stuck in one of those ruts of being overly-selective towards the end of the season, these ruts also seem to sap his extra-base power. At some point a coach is going to get in Braxton’s ear and tell him to be more aggressive, and he likely won’t have a breakout season or move up the prospect rankings until that happens. While some may point to his high strikeout rate as a sign that he shouldn’t be more aggressive, his patience and selectivity led to him strikeout looking more than swinging and missing. He should be ticketed for Carolina in 2016.
10. Mike Soroka, RHP (R+, R-) — Previous rank: 17
Because Allard was the team’s first pick (at No. 14 overall) this year, it’s easy to forget that Soroka (at No. 28 overall) would have been the highest first round pick that the Braves have had since they selected Sims at No. 21 in 2012. Soroka was a late bloomer in high school, and is still adding velocity to his fastball. His calling card on the mound has been his command and control of three average pitches that can flash plus at times. That command was on display in his early work in the rookie leagues, as he posted a combined strikeout-to-walk ratio of 37-to-5 in 34 innings between Orlando and Danville. He should start 2016 at Rome, and looks like a mid-rotation workhorse of a starter, with a chance to be more.
11. Derian Cruz, SS (Has not debuted yet) — Previous rank: 12
The Braves biggest international signing in 2015, the Dominican switch-hitter inked a contract worth $2 million, with the Braves trading a number of other prospects for additional cap space (read more). That’s the highest bonus the Braves have ever given an international signing. Cruz is an athlete and a runner, and with near-80 speed (on the 20-80 scouting scale) he has a chance to be better than Mallex or Albies on the base paths. While he hasn’t played a professional game yet, he gets this high a ranking based on scouting reports, signing bonus and the players dealt to create the room to sign him (as well as two more 2015 international signings on this list). We should see Cruz start in the GCL next year, as has been the case with the other high-profile international bats the Braves have signed.
12. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 7
The first new prospect acquired last year at the beginning of the rebuild. Jenkins is still somewhat of an unknown quantity, but he rebounded well last year from shoulder surgery to throw 138 innings between Mississippi and Gwinnett. He put up good numbers at both stops, but gets knocks for not striking out enough batters to be considered top of the rotation material. He still has trouble finding a consistent release point at times, and he could stand to add more velocity to complement his plus curve and solid change. Ultimately he might become a No. 2 starter, but he looks more like a solid mid-rotation workhorse. Jenkins should start the year back at Gwinnett, but should see Atlanta at some point in 2016.
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.
13. Manny Banuelos, LHP (MLB, AAA) — Previous rank: 5
The results for ManBan in 2015 were mixed. Minor league observers had his velocity back into the 90s, though he rarely reached that high during his brief stints in the majors. He encountered some tenderness in his elbow mid-season that caused the Braves to shut him down for most of August. He returned only briefly before being shut down for the season after having a bone spur removed from his elbow in late September. That was likely the cause for the poor velocity. When he was healthy he showed great control and good separation on his fastball and breaking ball — something that should get even better if he can regain more velocity. He’s expected to be ready for spring training and compete for a spot in the Atlanta rotation to open 2016.
14. Chris Ellis, RHP (AA, A+) — Recently acquired
A big-bodied hard-thrower, he was the second of two prospects the Braves received in the Simmons trade. Ellis has the makings of a mid-rotation workhorse. His fastball sits in the low-90s, and he compliments that with a solid change and a decent curve. He’s thrown a slider off and on throughout his career, but it’s unknown if that’s still a part of his repertoire. Ellis reached double-A last year, and will likely start there again. Walks are a cause for concern, and he’ll need to sort out what’s causing those if he is to stay in the rotation. At worst he probably ends up as a setup man out of the bullpen.
15. Juan Yepez, 1B/3B (R+, R-) — Previous rank: 25
Last year’s top international signing for Atlanta, the Venezuelan right-hander received a $1 million bonus. International scouts were mixed on his ability, but Yepez silenced many of their concerns about his bat while slashing .299/.364/.458 (.822 OPS) between both rookie ball leagues. The remaining question though is where he’ll end up in the field. The Braves seemed determined to put him at first base this year, even though he was signed as a third baseman. He struggled defensively which may have led to scouts not being as excited about him, and a move to first puts more pressure on his bat to add over the fence power. Still, as a 17-year-old getting his first taste of professional baseball, he was impressive — and in my book his stats live up to the signing bonus he got last year. Every pitcher he faced was older than him, and that trend should continue next season when he hopefully starts the year at Rome.
16. John Gant, RHP (AA, A+) — Recently acquired
One of the arms the Braves got in a mid-season trade with the Mets, Gant opened a lot of eyes with his great finish at Mississippi after the trade. A mechanical change he made just before the Braves acquired him has led to a steady improvement in velocity into the low-to-mid-90s. He already had good command and a plus changeup, so the added velocity is what led to such good results late in the season. Already considered a mid-to-back of the rotation guy with good command and a consistently low walk rate, he now projects as a mid-rotation arm. I’m still maintaining a bit of skepticism that these new results will last, since it’s hard to believe the Mets would trade a pitcher like that for two rental players. With a good spring training, Gant should find himself starting at triple-A, with an eye towards a mid-year call-up if all continues to go well.
17. Rio Ruiz, 3B (AA) — Previous rank: 15
Here’s a guy who can be found up and down prospect lists. A lot has to do with the day you see him or what you choose to ignore in his stats. The folks that like him will point to his strong finish to the season, saying that he was finally catching up to double-A — an advanced level for a 21-year-old. His detractors will point to his power numbers prior to this year as mediocre for the hitters’ leagues he was playing in, and how that lack of power reared its head in Mississippi. He’ll probably need to repeat double-A to start the season, and from there we’ll have a better idea if the late-season adjustments he made have paid off.
18. Dustin Peterson, OF (High-A) — Previous rank: 13
I was bullish on Peterson when the Braves acquired him last offseason. I still see him as a late bloomer who could improve as he moves up the ladder. He was showing signs of a breakout year, hitting .314/.392/.448 at the time of the Mudcats’ bus crash in mid-May. He missed a few weeks and struggled upon returning to the field. There are some who aren’t sold on Peterson’s hitting ability, but he showed great strides in 2015, lowering his strikeout rate and greatly increasing his walk rate. I’ll give him a mulligan on his decrease in power due to the bus crash, but he does slide down the prospect list some due to his move from third base to the outfield. We’ll see how he handles Mississippi next year, but his improved approach at the plate this year bodes well for his ascent to the high minors.
19. Cristian Pache, OF (Has not debuted yet) — Previous rank: 18
Signed for $1.4 million, he was the team’s second huge international bonus player this year. Like Cruz, Pache is out of the Dominican Republic, and is also a good athlete with plus speed. Pache is considered a plus defender in center field, with great range and a solid arm. At the plate he shows good bat control, albeit with a stroke that’s described as funky. Look for the Braves to keep him and Cruz together to begin their career, with both likely starting their professional careers stateside in the GCL.
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.
20. Ricardo Sanchez, LHP (Low-A) — Previous rank: 16
He’s still a bit of an enigma for me. The Braves folks obviously love him, as they traded a third baseman who was close to the majors for him last year, and he continues to flutter around the top-10 of many lists. He certainly has a terrific curve and a good change, but his fastball is inconsistent in both velocity and location. He’s a smaller pitcher, so unless he grows a little more and bulks up there will be some questions about his ability to stay in the rotation. The Braves pushed him to open the season at Rome, which may have been a bit aggressive. While he didn’t face a batter younger than his 18 years of age, he showed his youth in games, letting his emotions get the better of him a few times. He needs to mature both physically and mentally, and will probably be back at Rome this year, though it wouldn’t surprise me to see them hold him back for Danville.
21. Isranel Wilson, OF (R-) — Previously unranked
A native of St. Thomas, who trained in the Dominican, Wilson was signed for $350,000 in 2014. He sports five tool potential, with power being the standout tool, though some believe he’s more of an all-or-nothing swinger. He’s new to playing the outfield, having moved off shortstop, but has the arm and range to play center field. He got off to a bad start in the GCL this year, but made steady improvement as the season progressed. That progress matches reports that his quick bat and plus athleticism will help him make adjustments and correct the holes in his swing. The Braves moved him slower than some of the other big international signings who made their debuts in 2015, and it will be interesting to see if they start him in Danville or Rome in 2016.
22. Ronald Acuna, OF (R+, R-) — Previously unranked
Another good interntational find out of Venezuela in 2014, Acuna has both plus speed and power, and showed both as he progressed from the GCL to the Appy League. He’s a quick-twitch athlete who at just 17-years-old is likely not done filling out his frame. It’s easy to dream on the well-rounded tools here, and posting a .269/.380/.438 slash line during his first taste of professional ball bodes well for the future. Acuna will probably start with Rome next year.
23. Zach Bird, RHP (AA, A+) — Recently acquired
Acquired from the Dodgers in the Hector Olivera trade, Bird was considered a project when he was selected in the ninth round out of high school. He has a loose arm and has gained velocity over the past two years, and now sits in the mid-90s, while touching 99 mph. His offspeed stuff needs a lot of work, though his slider shows good promise. The lack of refinement in those pitches leads to an extremely high walk rate. He’ll need to show progress with his secondary offerings in order to remain a starter, otherwise he likely ends up being a late-innings reliever where his top-end velocity will play up. The Braves will probably put him back at double-A to start 2016.
24. Juan Morales, SS (Has not debuted yet) — Previously unranked
The less-heralded of this year’s trio of international signings, Morales is less refined than either Cruz or Pache. The Venezuelan shortstop is also less well known than the other two, and while they received million-plus bonuses, Morales received $450,000. That’s still a hefty sum compared to many of the bonuses paid by the Braves in recent years. He’s said to have good hitting ability that should develop some power, as well as a strong arm that has a good chance to stick at shortstop. He too likely starts next year in the GCL.
Grade C+: This group of prospects also has the potential to be more, but are currently just fringe guys based on experience and/or lack of refinement.
25. Jason Hursh, RHP (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 19
No prospect had a more disappointing fall in 2015 than Hursh. The Braves inexplicably had him repeat double-A to start the season, and he didn’t take it well, getting lit up for almost a month. The Braves pushed him to the bullpen in July, and he did well enough there to finally warrant a promotion to triple-A. It’s hard to say if his struggles to start 2015 were mechanical, or mental (after the disappointment of finding himself back in Mississippi). He got beat up some in the Gwinnett bullpen, but he showed increased velocity in one-inning stints, with his fastball sitting in the mid-90s, reaching 99 mph. He may not return to the rotation, but could become a solid force in the bullpen for Atlanta in 2016.
26. Mauricio Cabrera, RHP (AFL, AA, A+) — Previously unranked
No pitcher in the Braves organization throws harder than Cabrera. Unfortunately he struggles mightily to throw it over the plate. His move to the bullpen seems permanent, but if he can clean up his control and get more consistent with his slurve, he could be a strong force at the end of games. His fastball sits in the high-90s, and tantalizingly reaches 104 mph. That’s an exciting number for a prospect, but there have been many before him with that kind of heat who were never able to aim it consistently. He likely starts in Mississippi this year, and if he shows improved control he’ll be in Atlanta.
27. Rob Whalen, RHP (High-A) — Recently acquired
Along with Gant, Whalen was the other member of the mid-season trade with the Mets. Whereas Gant brought some velocity, Whalen is more of a classic control and deception pitcher. He has four pitches that he can command, but his fastball and curve are the best, and feature the most deception. His profile reminds me of Cody Martin, and like Martin I expect Whalen to have trouble getting left-handers out and to eventually be pushed to middle relief in the bullpen. However, that’s likely his floor, and there’s still plenty of opportunity for him to exceed that projection. Especially if, like Gant, he finds some additional velocity. I actually like this approach by both of these guys — work on command and control first, then add velocity later. That’s the approach that Chasen Shreve used with great success. Expect Whalen to start the year at double-A.
28. Andrew Thurman, RHP (AFL, AA, A+) — Previous rank: 20
The third prospect in the Gattis trade, he was a second-rounder in 2013 out of UC Irvine. Since then scouts have thought Thurman would move quickly through the minor leagues, but that just hasn’t happened yet. He has a decent four-pitch mix that lead some to believe he could develop into a mid-to-back of the rotation starter. Since being drafted he’s struggled with his mechanics, which shows up in the inconsistencies from one start to the next. He was another player who lost a lot of time after the Carolina bus crash, as he was showing signs of figuring some things out before that happened. He’ll likely be back at Mississippi to start 2016, though the Braves may shift him to the pen.
Grade C: These prospects have a tool or two that could be useful in the majors, or they need more time in the minors to determine what kind of prospect they will be; a.k.a. the holding tank of talent.
29. Lucas Herbert, C (R-) — Previous rank: 22
This could be a big under-rank of Herbert, who was drafted No. 54 overall this year. He tore his meniscus in his third game after getting drafted, and there are some concerns about catchers with that particular injury. Herbert is athletic enough that he should be able to bounce back. He was considered the best defensive catcher in the 2015 draft class, and some reports indicated that his bat wasn’t a slouch either. We need to see him healthy and on the field next year before we can fully judge his future, but he has a chance to be the best true catcher the Braves have drafted since McCann. If healthy he likely starts the year at Rome.
30. Leudys Baez, OF (A-, R+) — Previously unranked
Another late 2014 international signing, the 19-year-old Dominican signed for $400,000, after his 2013 contract with the Nationals was voided over a reported discrepancy with his age (that actually never was proven). The switch-hitter is said to have a good approach from both sides of the plate, and should hit for both average and power. He started off the season hot in Danville, but fizzled late in the season after a promotion to Rome. He’s good defensively with a plus outfield arm. Because he’s a bit older he doesn’t get as much praise as some of the younger international players on this list, but he still shows some good potential. He should start at Rome, though the organization may be aggressive with him and push him to Carolina.
31. Dan Winkler, RHP (MLB, AFL) — Previous rank: 29
The Braves’ Rule 5 pick last year who spent the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Winkler is a command and control pitcher without overpowering stuff. He adds a ton of deception in his three-quarters delivery which works better against right-handed batters than left-handers, though he’s still highly effective against lefties. His minor league track record indicates that he’s good at limiting hits and getting strikeouts, and as such should be a valuable part of any bullpen. Because he’s a Rule 5 selection who still needs to remain on the active roster to be kept, he’ll spend the season in Atlanta.
32. A.J. Minter, LHP (Has not debuted yet) — Previous rank: 23
Selected No. 75 overall in 2015, the Braves were not scared off by a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery he had in March. In college Minter was a closer with a dominant mid-90s fastball. The Braves selected him because they believe he can be an elite closer once he hopefully makes a successful recovery from surgery. They will likely ease him back into games in 2016 while watching his innings. He probably starts at Rome.
33. Connor Lien, OF (AFL, A+) — Previously unranked
A late-round find in 2012 out of high school, Lien has progressed slowly yet methodically through the Braves system, showing improvement as he’s moved up the ladder. He’s got a nice profile as an athletic outfielder with a chance at five tools. He gets a little long in his swing, and strikes out a lot, but not yet to an excessive degree. He’ll get challenged when he opens 2016 with Mississippi, and if he can swim at that level he should shoot up prospect lists.
34. Wes Parsons, RHP (A+, A-) — Previous rank: 21
The past two seasons have seen Parsons’ promise fall into question as shoulder problems have kept him off the mound. While the nagging injuries are very much a concern, Parsons is still considered by many to be a prospect. He shows good control of both a low-90s fastball and array of breaking balls. When at his best that combination profiles him as a mid-rotation starter. He may eventually slide to the bullpen, where he still has plenty of value.
35. Max Povse, RHP (A+, A-) — Previously unranked
The imposing 6-foot-8 Povse is still more about projection than results. He shows a good low-to-mid-90s fastball and a good complimentary pitch in a mid-80s slider. His control is still a work in progress, but when it’s good he shows a lot of promise. He’ll likely start 2016 back at Carolina, needing to make great strides to stay on the prospect radar.
Other Grade-C prospects considered for the top-35: RHP Steve Janas, OF Randy Ventura, OF Dian Toscano, C Tanner Murphy, RHP Alec Grosser, RHP Josh Graham, C William Contreras, RHP Ryan Weber, C Jonathan Morales.