Braves biggest need for 2016

The Atlanta Braves have spent the past year trading away hitters, dealing nearly an entire lineup — Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Jose Peraza, Kyle Kubitza, Tommy La Stella, Chris Johnson. By far the biggest subtractions the team made have been in the hitting department, and so it figures that the 2015 offense has scored the fewest runs in baseball. Therefore their biggest need must be hitting, right?

While they certainly need another good bat or two (something I wrote about last week), their biggest need is actually in the starting pitching rotation, and this offseason is the perfect time to make a move in that department.

jteheran3The Braves have just three pitchers they can count on for their rotation next year, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran and Matt Wisler — and Wisler might be a “maybe.” Mike Foltynewicz could be an option, but the jury is still out on his ability to go through a batting order more than once. Manny Banuelos is a possibility, but his velocity has not been what was expected, and he looks like he still needs more time to build arm strength and extend himself deep into games. Williams Perez started out hot in the majors, but has regressed harshly, though there weren’t many people outside of the Braves organization who believed the soft-tossing sinkerballer could be an effective major league starter.

There is actually not much immediate help in the Braves pitching-rich minor league system either, with most of their top pitching prospects two or more years away. Tyrell Jenkins is close, but was shut down late this year with a dead arm. He likely needs at least a few more months of triple-A. Lucas Sims has ascended to double-A this year, and will pitch in the Arizona Fall League, but he’s still a year or more away from reaching the majors.

There’s no one else in the Braves system who appears ready to make the jump to the majors and for which we can expect a reasonable amount of success. So that leaves Atlanta with two, maybe three starters, and a few other potential candidates who are uncertain to last in that role. If this year has shown us anything, it’s that uncertainty and inexperience in the rotation can hurt other areas of the team.

The Braves need at least three starters who can go deep into ballgames on a regular basis. Without guys like that in the rotation the bullpen must take on more and more of the workload. While they rank in the middle of the pack this year in innings pitched in relief, the terrific Braves bullpens of the past two seasons had some of the lowest innings totals in the majors — because the starters had some of the highest innings totals in the majors. The added stress and workload on an already depleted bullpen this season is part of what has led to so many losses.

smiller2The easiest way for the Braves to remedy this problem is to add at least one, preferably two, experienced starters who can give the team lots of quality innings. A quick look at the list of free agent starting pitchers this offseason reveals a wide range of options from expensive (Price, Cueto, Zimmerman) to mid-range (Kazmir, Leake, Gallardo) to possible bargains (Kendrick, Anderson, Fister). The Braves should have the money available to make a significant investment in at least one big or mid-range starter, while still being able to afford two or three years of another innings-eater.

Acquiring two more good starting pitchers will take the pressure off their bullpen, and the Atlanta pen should be much better next year as Jason Grilli, Paco Rodriguez, Shae Simmons, and Chris Withrow return from the disabled list. This also highlights the vital importance of lowering the workload for a bullpen with a majority of relievers returning from injury.

The Braves front office has their work cut out for them if they are to put a competitive team on the field next year. They need to get their relief corp healthy, they need to find a catcher and a second baseman and at least one more power hitter, but most of all they need two more quality starting pitchers.

If starting pitching is the genesis of “The Braves Way,” then money will need to be spent. There is no immediate help to be found in their system.

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Over-correcting the strikeout thing

Much of what has driven the rebuilding of the 2015 (and beyond) Atlanta Braves was the shock at how strikeout prone the 2014 team was. But like so much of the recent history of the Braves, this desire to lessen the team’s strikeouts turned into an over-correction in the opposite direction (like the bullpen over-correction after 2006, or the rotation over-correction after 2008).

UpHeyThe strikeouts of the 2014 Braves (and the 2013 Braves) were part of the package that went with an assemblage of players who pretty much all swung for the fences. That team, at its best, was top-5 in the majors in home runs in 2013, and top-5 in strikeouts. Then in 2014, virtually the same team failed to match their home run numbers, but retained their strikeout numbers. The difference turned out to be an 18-game swing in their record.

The idea of power hitters who also strikeout isn’t a bad one — the top two teams this year in strikeouts currently occupy playoff spots. Even with half the lineup swinging and often missing, that formula worked for the Braves in 2013 (just as it’s working for the Cubs and Astros this season). The problem with the 2014 Braves was one of too many individuals having career-worst seasons — not even a disciplined-swinging team can cover up for that.

The culprit though became the strikeout. The cursed-at stat was blamed for all the team’s ills, and the architect who had assembled these strikeout-prone hitters was dismissed. That initiated the complete dismantling of the team and the removal of all those (mostly good) strikeout-prone hitters, replacing them with hitters who don’t strikeout (but weren’t necessarily good). Every other factor seemed to be ignored, especially power. Predictable results followed.

The Braves did remove the strikeouts from their lineup, now ranking in the bottom-5 in the majors in strikeouts. But they also lost all their power — ranking last in home runs and last in slugging percentage.

The new front office (and every other Braves’ fan, broadcaster and writer) should realize by now that they over-corrected and removed too many good hitters and too much power from the lineup. Now comes the arduous task of adding it back, of trying to find good power hitters on the trade market or through free agency. Already they have potentially over-paid for a hitter with power when they sent highly touted prospect Jose Peraza and the reliable rotation arm of Alex Wood to the Dodgers for the untested Hector Olivera.

I expect there will be at least one more move this offseason in which the Braves drastically overpay in one form or another for a hitter with power. And to add power back to their lineup they will have to do that, and they should, and it should be noted that this is the position the new front office regime put the team into.

The 2013 Braves were a good team with a lot of strikeouts, the 2014 Braves were a bad team with a lot of strikeouts and the 2015 Braves are a bad team without a lot of strikeouts. The 2013 team contained a lot of good hitters having great seasons, while 2014’s team contained a lot of good hitters having bad seasons, and the 2015 team doesn’t have many good hitters — and most of them are having bad seasons.

In the roulette wheel of luck that is any baseball season I’d rather have a lot of good hitters — whether they strikeout or not — and hope they have good-to-great seasons, and accept that there will be seasons when they slump, rather than collecting a bunch of average hitters who don’t strikeout and relying on them to produce great seasons. In this regard, the 2016 and beyond Braves have a lot of work to do and a high price to pay.

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Braves trade Chris Johnson to Indians for Bourn and Swisher

mbournThe Atlanta Braves made another big trade in what has been ten months of near-constant player movement. They sent infielder Chris Johnson to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for outfielder Michael Bourn and infielder/outfielder Nick Swisher. Atlanta also received about $15 million from Cleveland to help cover up for most of the differences in salaries.

This is a “change of scenery” trade for all involved. Chris Johnson seemed to wear out his welcome in Atlanta, even when challenging for the batting title in 2013. His anger after bad at-bats was at times uncontrollable and led to many confrontations, some of them in front of cameras in the Braves dugout. Despite that and sub-par defense at third base, the Braves decided to give him a long-term contract that would be guaranteed through the 2017 season.

That contract — at a time when the Braves were giving contracts to many of their young players — was seen by some as unnecessary for a player who didn’t have a long track record of good performances. I viewed it in much the same way, but tolerable in a market that was lean on available third baseman. Last year after the contract was signed Johnson quickly returned to his pre-Atlanta terribleness at the plate, continued to play poor defense, and didn’t seem to make any allies in the clubhouse.

The new Braves front office leadership made no secret of their months-long quest to trade Johnson, and in the lead-up to the July non-waiver trade deadline he made it known that he would be happy to move on. Both sides finally got their wish.

There were rumors of a Swisher for Johnson swap last month, and apparently the teams came really close to making it happen. The Indians decided to instead move two under-performing contracts.

nswisherBoth Bourn and Swisher were signed to big free agent contracts prior to the 2013 season. Despite putting up decent numbers in their first year with The Tribe, each player succumbed to injury and decline in subsequent years. The Indians quickly soured on both guys and sought future payroll flexibility — this is where the money that changed hands comes into play.

Cleveland sent between $10 and $15 million to the Braves this year to cover future contract obligations — money that likely covers both players’ remaining contract obligations for this year. Next year Swisher is owed $15 million and Bourn $14 million. Each player has a vesting option for 2017 ($14M for Swish, $12M for Bourn) if they reach 550 plate appearances in 2016. Chris Johnson is owed $7.5M in 2016 and $9M in 2017 with a team option for 2018. From the Indians perspective they clear Bourn and Swisher off their books this year, and get much lower future payroll obligations. The Braves meanwhile, will pay more in 2016 for the two players they acquired, but as long as their options don’t vest, they will have no payroll obligations for 2017.

While Bourn and Swisher routinely averaged more than 550 plate appearances for most of their careers, injuries have limited them to less than that number the past two years. The Braves will likely make sure that neither guy gets to that number next year, even without the “help” of a DL stint. That will likely be accomplished due to the now-crowded nature of the positions each of them play.

Bourn is currently blocked in center field by Cameron Maybin. Swisher is blocked at first base by Freddie Freeman when he returns from the DL. As the roster currently stands, both players will compete for playing time in left field next year — but of course as we’ve seen for the past ten months the Braves roster will likely continue to change. The presence of Bourn will allow the Braves to sell high on Cameron Maybin. If he is traded, then Bourn serves as a place-holder and mentor for prospect Mallex Smith, currently at triple-A.

I actually really like this trade for Atlanta. They take on a lot of salary for 2016, but they have plenty of room to do so, and they add two great clubhouse guys — something that has been a focus of their recent rebuild. They also rid themselves of a guy they really didn’t want in Chris Johnson — the third Johnson they’ve traded in the past month.

Atlanta also gets two more veterans who they could potentially move at next year’s trade deadline, much like they did with Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe this year. At that point their salaries should not be an obstacle to any trade, and as long as the Braves keep their plate appearances low in the first half of the year, the acquiring team would get a useful rental player.

With the injuries both Bourn and Swisher have experienced the past two years, and the inevitable age-based decline, there’s no telling what kind of offensive production the Braves could get from these guys. It’s also hard to predict what effect a decline in playing time due to positional crowding could have on each player.

In the near term it seems that Bourn and Swisher will be a lot more fun to watch than Johnson has been. These two veterans could also infuse the team with a renewed energy, which seemed to be lost when the team traded Uribe last month.

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Braves trade Alex Wood and Jose Peraza to Dodgers

awood2The Atlanta Braves completed the largest and most surprising trade they have made since the John Hart era started last October. Atlanta sent starting pitcher Alex Wood, infield prospect Jose Peraza, right-handed reliever Jim Johnson, left-handed reliever Luis Avilan and injured right-handed starter Bronson Arroyo to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for infielder Hector Olivera, left-handed reliever Paco Rodriguez, right-handed pitching prospect Zachary Bird and Competitive Balance Round A pick (currently No. 35 overall) in next year’s draft (which the Dodgers acquired from the Marlins as part of a larger three-team deal). There’s a lot to unpack here, in what is the riskiest trade the Braves have made yet.

For the Braves this trade is all about Hector Olivera, a 30-year-old Cuban defector who signed a big 6-year, $62.5 million contract this past offseason. At that time the Braves were heavily rumored to be a favorite to sign him, but the Dodgers threw a lot more money at him, even though they had nowhere for him to play. They still don’t have anywhere for him to play, one of the main reasons he hasn’t made his Major League debut yet.

The Braves front office clearly covets Olivera, and are willing to part with some very good players and prospects to acquire him. He profiles as a third baseman in Atlanta, but the main attraction for the team is his bat — a bat which is repeated described by team sources as an “impact bat.” That likely translates into a hope that he can consistently hit .300+ with 15 home runs year in, year out. That’s if he stays healthy, and there have been some concerns about his ability to stay on the field, which may only get worse with him being on the wrong side of 30-years-old. There are also concerns about whether he has a strong enough arm to play third base, a position he is brand new to.

Paco Rodriguez is another big part of this trade, not to be overlooked. He can be an impact reliever, and even though he’s a lefty, he could serve as a closer. The big red flag with him is that he’s currently on the 60-day disabled list after having arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow on July 2. Nobody knows if he’ll return to his peak form next year.

These are two very high-risk acquisitions for the Braves. They are parting with a young starting pitcher in Alex Wood, who at 24-years-old has likely not yet reached his eventual ceiling of a number-2 starter, and is still under team control for three more years. Parting with Jose Peraza is a bit easier, as he is somewhat blocked at shortstop and second base in Atlanta, and coming fast behind him through the Braves system is Ozzy Albies, who is a better overall prospect. But Peraza still has a ton of value as one of the top-50 prospects in baseball.

The Braves seem to be selling low on both Wood and Peraza, when they should be selling them at peak value. The inclusion of Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan are just sweeteners, but they do add to the overall value of the deal — especially since both are healthy. Getting rid of Bronson Arroyo’s salary ($4 million or so this year, plus $4.5 million buyout for next year) is a nice bonus.

zbirdThe final prospect included in the deal, Zach Bird, is another reach for the Braves. MLB Prospect Watch ranks him as the No. 15 prospect in the Dodgers system. But he’s a prospect only in projection right now, and not necessarily in performance on the field.

So this deal for the Braves is all about scouting. Even with no Major League experience the Braves scouts consider Olivera a first division starter who can step right into the middle of the Atlanta lineup and produce. Even though Rodriguez is injured the Braves scouts believe he can return to closer-like form. Even though Bird has no history of good performance in the minors the Braves scouts believe he is a high-enough value prospect to be a prominent part of this trade. The Competitive Balance draft pick, currently No. 35 with a chance to move higher, will be all about scouting, and while that could have great value next year, the Braves front office may be placing a higher premium on those extra picks than are other teams.

Unlike most of the other trades the Braves have made this past year, this trade will be judged quickly. Olivera should join the team this year, and his performance will be watched and scrutinized more than any other player the Braves have acquired. Rodriguez should be a prominent part of next year’s bullpen, and his performance will be equally scrutinized. Bird and the draft pick will be longer-term outcomes of this trade, but the reactions of this trade will rest on how Olivera, Rodriguez, Wood and Avilan perform over the next few years.

I don’t like this trade. It’s too much to give up — young, healthy, controllable players not yet in their prime — for too many risks and question marks. But it does highlight the lack of impact bats available to be acquired right now, that Atlanta feels they have to pay a premium for Olivera. There is a lot of trust being placed on Braves scouting, and it could pay off, but boy oh boy, this trade could blow up in the Braves face like no other trade since the last swap of the John Schuerholz era — when Atlanta’s farm system was set back years in order to acquire Mark Teixeira. While today’s trade won’t set Atlanta’s farm system back, it does have the potential to saddle the Braves with another unproductive infielder, an injured reliever and prospects who are busts. While some measure of risk is associated with any trade, this one comes with a full cup of risk.

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Braves trade Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to Mets

Last Friday night the Atlanta Braves completed a trade with their division rivals, the New York Mets, that sent veterans Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to Queens in exchange for two right-handed pitching prospects, Rob Whalen and John Gant. I was out of town for the weekend, so this is my belated take on the trade.

jgantUribe was acquired from the Dodgers in late May, as he was scuffling in LA and losing playing time at third base (ironically, to a guy the Mets gave up on two years ago, Justin Turner). Upon his arrival in Atlanta he quickly supplanted Chris Johnson at the hot corner, and posted his highest OPS since 2009. His good work at the plate and on defense increased his trade value. Both he and Kelly will be free agents at the end of the year, so they are rental players for New York.

As for Kelly Johnson, he put up strong numbers all year for Atlanta. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Braves re-sign him again this offseason. (That would also give the Braves an opportunity to trade him again next year, for more prospects.)

On to the prospects… both pitchers were drafted in the later rounds out of high school. The two comps that immediately came to my mind were Jonny Venters and Aaron Northcraft. Both of those players were drafted in the later rounds out of high school, and both guys took a long and deliberate path through the minors. They worked as starters in the minors, but were generally tagged as future bullpen pieces by evaluators. Venters obviously had tremendous success before re-injuring his arm, while Northcraft hasn’t been able to solve triple-A, and was included in the Justin Upton trade last offseason.

Using Venters as a ceiling and Northcraft as a floor for Gant and Whalen should give you a good idea of what we might expect from these pitchers in the future — albeit a pretty wide range of outcomes. While they are currently working as starting pitchers, they project as relievers in the majors.

rwhalenWhalen is considered by evaluators to be the slightly better prospect because of his good command of a four-pitch mix. His best pitches are his sinking fastball, clocked in the low-90s, and a mid-70 curveball. He mixes in a changeup and slider, and adds an extra wrinkle by hiding the ball a little longer than most during his delivery.

Gant is a bit lankier in his physique, and probably still has a little more projection in his arm (especially out of the pen). His fastball might be a bit livelier as well, but his secondary pitches are less refined. His low-to-mid-90s fastball, and mix of other assorted fastballs — split, two-seam sinker — should work well in short relief stints.

The MLB Prospect Watch slotted Whalen at No. 24 and Gant at No. 25 in the Braves top-30. That seems about where I might place them on my top-30 prospect list, though I’ll wait until the offseason to re-rank the list.

This was a solid trade for Atlanta, with an outside chance to be great down the road depending on how these guys progress. If either one turns into a Venters-like reliever, then this was a huge win for the Braves. Even now this should be considered a good trade, as there was no reason to keep Uribe or Johnson in Atlanta this season. They did good to get two decent pitching prospects, a nice haul for a couple of rent-a-players. This trade could also be a template for what to expect from other trades the Braves might make as the deadline approaches.

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Braves 2015 Mid-Season Top-30 Prospects

It’s mid-season Atlanta Braves top prospect time! The Braves system is currently bursting with talent, and several of these prospects are already in the majors, or soon will be.

Players who have not yet surpassed the rookie requirements are still considered eligible for the prospect list. The following players listed on the pre-season prospect list have graduated to the Majors: Mike Foltynewicz (3), Christian Bethancourt (8), Jace Peterson (16), Cody Martin (22).

While I am not a scout, I do see a lot of minor league games and I have seen most of these players. I also use stats to determine where players should be ranked as well as conversations with scouts and other evaluators.

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. Matt Wisler, RHP (MLB, AAA) — Previous rank: 1
The Craig Kimbrel trade is already paying huge dividends. Wisler has handled his first major league assignment with aplomb, and looks to be a rotation stalwart. The pedigree he came to the Braves organization with has been realized, as he has already proven he can be a mid-rotation starter. Now the question is whether or not he can become a rotation ace.

2. Ozhaino Albies, SS (A-) — Previous rank: 17
oalbies2I was cautious before the season in ranking Albies in the middle of the pack. He spent the first half of full-season ball proving that he is a legit hitter with plus speed and good defense, all while being one of the youngest hitters in the league at just 18-years-old — every pitcher he’s faced this year has been older than him. He is better than Peraza in every phase of the game, especially at getting on base.

3. Touki Toussaint, RHP (A-) — Recently acquired
Atlanta spared no expense to essentially buy Touki from the Diamondbacks. Arizona’s public comments indicated that Toussaint wasn’t the pitcher that his draft scouting reports said he was, but he has proven Arizona’s assessment wrong since coming to Atlanta. His velocity has been in the mid-to-high-90s, and he has posted good performances while every batter he has faced is older than him. With top-of-the-rotation stuff that is already excelling in full-season ball at such a young age, Touki rises above so many of the other great young starters on this list.

4. Max Fried, LHP (has not played) — Previous rank: 4
Fried is the highest draft pick on this list, having been selected seventh overall in 2012 (by San Diego). While still recovering from Tommy John surgery he had last August, his potential is nonetheless that of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Until he returns to the mound and proves that assessment wrong, I’ll still consider him to have that high-end pedigree.

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. Manny Banuelos, LHP (MLB, AAA) — Previous rank: 10
mbanuelosManBan has been terrific during his handful of appearances in Atlanta, which was simply a continuation of the great numbers he posted at Gwinnett early in the season. While his fastball velocity doesn’t seem to have fully returned to where it was pre-surgery, that could be a function of the Braves not yet wanting him to throw with full effort. He is looking like another terrific offseason acquisition, and a pitcher who could be a mid-to-top of the rotation stater.

6. Jose Peraza, 2B (AAA) — Previous rank: 5
Don’t mistake my ranking of Peraza lower than most as a sign that I don’t like him as a prospect, because I do like him. However, I have some reservations about his ceiling and some serious holes in his offensive game. After posting an average walk rate in 2013, his walk rates the past two years have been too low for a player who should profile as a top-of-the-order table-setter. This was obscured last year by a high batting average, which was driven by a high BABIP. With the same walk rate this year, but a low batting average (and BABIP) his lack of on-base ability is glaringly obvious, and something that could be massively exploited in the majors.

7. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 7
I ranked Jenkins higher than most before the season, and that confidence in his prospect pedigree is paying off. His walk rate is still a little high, and his K-rate is a bit lower than I’d like to see it, but the Braves felt he had seen enough of double-A to promote him to triple-A. He’s another guy with a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. He’s got some work to do, but the results so far have been heading in the right direction.

8. Braxton Davidson, OF (A-) — Previous rank: 9
bdavidsonDavidson has been pretty much exactly how he was described when he was drafted last year. His advanced batting eye and patience at the plate can be seen in his appearance among the top-5 in the league in walks and on-base percentage. This despite a middling batting average, but one that should rise as he gets more reps against the advanced pitching he’s facing. His power doesn’t stand out, but he’s shown enough to make me think he’ll grow into more power as he grows. Every pitcher he’s faced this year is older than him.

9. Lucas Sims, RHP (A+) — Previous rank: 2
He’s fallen down this list quite a bit as he struggled early in the season while repeating high-A. He was showing signs of figuring things out when the Carolina bus crash happened, so this might be a lost season for him. Even before this season there were some evaluators who were down on Sims, as they didn’t see the explosive fastball or mix of pitches that is associated with a top-end starter. He has plenty of work to do to put himself back into the good graces of scouts.

10. Mallex Smith, OF (AAA, AA) — Previous rank: 20
Smith lit the Southern League on fire in the first half of the year, hitting .340 with a .418 on-base percentage. He is better than Peraza or Albies at taking the walk and getting on base, and has just as much speed to steal the extra bag once he is on. He’s ranked lower than those two because he doesn’t profile with much power and while his range on defense is good, his arm is only average. He gets compared to the Reds’ Billy Hamilton a lot, and while Smith isn’t quite as fast, he’s better at reaching first base than Hamilton.

11. Kolby Allard, LHP (has not played) — Recently drafted
kallardFinally signed after a mild moment of nail-biting, Allard brings with him a similar draft pedigree to that of Max Fried. Allard likely would have gone as early as Fried did had he not had a back injury this spring that scared some clubs away. The Braves saw his upside and were convinced he was healthy. I list him this low because of the injury concerns and lack of playing time this year. We’ll have to see what the Braves have once he gets on the mound, but I expect Allard to move steadily up this prospect list in the years to come.

12. Derian Cruz, SS (has not played) — Recently signed
The 16-year-old Cruz was given the largest bonus the Braves have ever given an international amateur player. Atlanta moved several good prospects and players in trades to get enough international spending cap room to sign him and two other players. Like Albies, Cruz is a plus-plus athlete with potential plus-plus speed. We won’t know what his full skill set can be until he fills out and is finished growing, but I’ve ranked him here based on the bonus the Braves gave him, and how he was ranked among the other international prospects this year.

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

13. Dustin Peterson, OF (A+) — Previous rank: 14
I like Peterson more than most, and he is rewarding my faith in him. His numbers this year aren’t eye-popping, but he has raised his OPS nearly 100 points from last year to this year while moving up a level. He’s also doing this as one of the youngest hitters in the league, having only faced a pitcher younger than him in five of his 260+ plate appearances. Like so many of his fellow teammates at Carolina, he missed time after the bus crash. I’m giving these guys the benefit of the doubt with their second half numbers, as the physical toll that crash took could have lingering effects throughout the rest of the season.

14. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP (MLB) — Previous rank: 12
The 80-game PED suspension behind him, Vizcaino is back in the big league bullpen and likely included on his final prospect list (as he will soon lose his rookie status). Even before Atlanta closer Jason Grilli went down, there was a very real possibility that both him and Jim Johnson would be traded at the deadline. Vizcaino was and still is the most likely internal candidate to get a shot at closing games once Johnson is traded (not if, but when). His mid-to-high-90s velocity and mix of offspeed pitches should make him a good, if not great, setup man or closer.

15. Rio Ruiz, 3B (AA) — Previous rank: 6
rruizRuiz has been perhaps the most disappointing prospect in the first half, with his power outage at the plate being the most alarming. He did play in hitter-friendly leagues the last two years, and is playing in one of the more pitcher-friendly leagues this year. Still, the drop-off is severe from the .430 slugging percentages he posted the last two years to the .280 SLG he’s posting this season. He’s still just 21-years-old, so there’s time for him to continue to develop, but at this point it looks like he’ll need to repeat double-A next year and show a lot more than he’s showing this year.

16. Ricardo Sanchez, LHP (A-) — Previous rank: 18
Another talented young starter, Sanchez has struggled to control his repertoire and his emotions. When I saw him pitch earlier this year his velocity was in the low-90s with little movement and poor location. His change and curve both flashed plus, and he used his curve to get most of his K’s. He’s still just 18-years-old, so there’s plenty of time, but right now I don’t see him as a top-of-the-rotation arm, more of a mid-rotation guy or reliever due to his small 5-foot-11 size.

17. Mike Soroka, RHP (R-) — Recently drafted
The Braves second pick in this year’s draft, he has great size and velocity with good secondary pitches. He’s ranked here based on his draft position, though I’m still being cautious with this ranking since he’s from a cold-weather part of the continent.

18. Christian Pache, OF (has not played) — Recently signed
Like Cruz, Pache is another 16-year-old international signing whom the Braves are very excited about. He’s an athlete and is apparently already a good hitter who uses the whole field. We’ll need to see how he fills out to know what kind of player he might be, but the tools certainly seem to be there.

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.

19. Jason Hursh, RHP (AA) — Previous rank: 11
jhursh2Hursh has completely fallen apart this year. There are some scouts who think he was pissed when he didn’t begin the year at triple-A, after he had a good year at double-A in 2014. Whether or not that’s the case, he got lit up to begin the season. He rebounded and regrouped in mid-May to put together a good run, but even then he hasn’t looked as good as he did last year. There’s still talent here, but with results like this year’s he’s not going to get noticed in the new pitching-rich Braves system.

20. Andrew Thurman, RHP (A+) — Previous rank: 23
The bus crash really put a damper on his season. He looked like a sure thing to get promoted to double-A with another good month of work, but hasn’t made it back to Carolina since the wreck. That lost development time will hurt his prospect status, as he was already a guy that many evaluators were pushing into the pen.

21. Wes Parsons, RHP (A+) — Previous rank: 21
Out all season with an undisclosed injury, Parsons only made it back to the mound in Orlando a couple of weeks ago. He should join a full-season team soon, but this year already looks like a lost year for him developmentally. His 2014 season was also pockmarked by some nagging injuries, which led to unflattering results. I still like the profile of Parsons as a future mid-rotation starter, but the injuries have not allowed him to go deep into games the past year, setting his development back considerably.

22. Lucas Herbert, C (R-) — Recently drafted
lherbertHerbert tore his meniscus after just a few games to start his pro career. He should recover this year and be ready for spring training next year. With a good spring the Braves might be tempted to put him at Rome. He’s ranked here based on his draft pedigree, that of a terrific all-around defensive catcher and up-and-coming hitter.

23. A.J. Minter, LHP (has not played) — Recently drafted
Minter had Tommy John surgery in March of this year, so we won’t see him on the bump until next year. The Braves will probably work Minter as a reliever when he returns, and as such he profiles as a candidate to close games in the majors.

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.

24. Steve Janas, RHP (AA, A+) — Previously unranked
Janas was mostly unimpressive last year in Rome, but was lights-out to start this season for Carolina. Then the bus crash happened and Janas missed almost two months. However, the Braves wasted no time after he returned promoting him to double-A. He missed time in college after Tommy John surgery, and so his ceiling may be higher than his sixth-round selection might indicate.

25. Juan Yepez, 3B/OF (R-) — Previous rank: 27
A 17-year-old kid out of Venezuela, Yepez was the Braves biggest international signing last year. He begins his pro career stateside in Orlando, and projects to have good power with a high average. His ultimate position is likely not yet decided upon, but Atlanta will try to keep him at third as long as they can.

26. Jose Briceno, C (A+) — Previous rank: 13
Briceno has had an atrocious 2015 campaign so far. As a pro he moved very slow throughout the Colorado system before the Braves acquired him in the offseason. His BABIP has dropped nearly 100 points, so there is some bad luck at play here, but there is nothing in the stats to indicate that there are any other bad habits going on. His K-rate and BB-rate have stayed the same, which is a good sign that his approach has not been radically altered. My best guess is that he just takes a long time to catch-up to a new level, much like Christian Bethancourt.

27. Dian Toscano, OF (has not played) — Previous rank: 29
Toscano still hasn’t played due to visa issues. When he does get on the field everyone will be eager to see what he can become. The scouting reports indicate that he’s a good hitter to all fields without much home run power. He’s got good speed and plays good defense in center or left.

28. Alec Grosser, RHP (A-) — Previous rank: 24
agrosserGrosser has gone through some rough patches in his first taste of full-season ball. He’s also missed some time and seems to be transitioning to a relief role in the second half, which might indicate some soreness or fatigue. He’s young, at just 20 years of age, and is still working through struggles with command and consistency. Grosser is one of those project arms for the Braves, possessing loads of talent that just needs to be harnessed.

29. Dan Winkler, LHP (has not played) — Previously unranked
Recovering from Tommy John surgery, Winkler will not be ready until next year. As a Rule 5 player the Braves will need to keep him in the majors all season. He’s a classic control pitcher without overpowering stuff, but he does create deception with his delivery, and led the minors in strikeouts in 2013. Atlanta will likely use him out of the bullpen, at first as a LOOGY, then gradually taking on full-inning assignments.

30. Tanner Murphy, C (A-) — Previous rank: 25
Tanner has had a rough go of it in his first taste of full-season ball at Rome. He seems to be improving as the season moves along, and while his batting average is low, his component ratios haven’t been that bad. He’s still quite young at just 20-years-old, and his bat is likely just taking extra time to catch up to this level of competition. Even if he repeats Rome next year he’s not behind in his development.

Dropped out of top-30: Mauricio Cabrera (15), Dilmer Mejia (19).

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Braves 2015 International Signings and Trades

Major League Baseball sets July 2 as the day when teams can begin to sign eligible international players. This mainly includes players from Latin America and the Caribbean. The Atlanta Braves agreed to sign two top hitting prospects this July 2, but to do that they had to trade away four other prospects to stay under the spending cap imposed by MLB without incurring a penalty. It’s a confusing process with a web of rules that some teams respect and others intentionally break. Here are the main points to understand:

  • Each team has an international bonus pool of money comprised of slots that are assigned monetary values. Full list of pools and slots at Baseball America.
  • Teams can trade their slots, with the money that is assigned to that slot being removed from their total pool and reassigned to the acquiring team’s pool.
  • Players don’t have to be signed for the value of a slot, they can be signed for any amount of money.
  • Teams must stay under their bonus pool or else face current taxes and future restrictions for exceeding their pool.

There are a few more details around those rules, but those are the basics. Here is how the Braves are staying within the rules this year:

  • The Braves signed SS Derian Cruz for a $2 million bonus.
  • The Braves signed OF Christian Pache for a $1.4 million bonus.
  • Atlanta’s bonus pool total as assigned by MLB is $2,458,400. With just Cruz and Pache as the only two players signed so far, the team exceeded their bonus pool by $941,600.

The Braves would need to trade for additional pool space or face penalty, and they did that with these three trades:

  1. RHP Cody Martin traded to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for international bonus slot No. 53, worth $388,400.
  2. RHP Caleb Dirks and OF Jordan Paroubeck traded to the Dodgers in exchange for international bonus slot No. 87, worth $249,000.
  3. RHP Garrett Fulenchek traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for international bonus slots No. 73 (worth $299,000) and No. 103 (worth $195,200).

That means they acquired a total of $1,131,600, which accounts for the total owed to Cruz and Pache, and gives Atlanta an additional $190,000 to spend on other players. The rules allow for teams to trade for an additional 50% of their bonus pool, which for Atlanta comes out to a total of $1,229,200. Atlanta could technically still acquire another $97,600 and be under this rule, but the lowest slot value is $149,700, so if they did want to acquire more space they might have to trade one of their own slots away to make the numbers work. While the Braves are probably done trading, they may seek one more trade to maximize their allowable pool.

cmartinThe easiest way to understand all this is to think of it as Atlanta trading Martin, Dirks, Paroubeck and Fulenchek for the ability to sign both Cruz and Pache. The indications are that the Braves want to stay within the rules this year, but then use next year’s international signing period to blow through their bonus pool.

When a team exceeds their bonus pool they face a 100% tax on the overage. While there are some varying penalties for going 5 or 10 percent over, most teams going over will exceed their limits by 15 percent and incur the full penalty of not being able to sign any international player for more than $300,000 for two consecutive signing periods. Many of the top-spending teams will be in this “penalty box” next year, including the Angels, D-backs, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees, who exceeded last year’s limits, and so far the Giants and Dodgers have exceeded their limits this year.

This should lower the competition to sign the top international talent next year and allow the Braves to spend extravagantly as they compete for the top players.

In many ways all of these bonus slot trades this year are about swapping out lower-ceiling prospects for higher-ceiling prospects. Clearly the Braves feel that Cruz and Pache are better than the players they traded, which is saying something since two of those traded (Fulenchek and Paroubeck) were second-round draft picks not too long ago. Let’s take a look at what Atlanta gave up, then take a look at the players that were signed.

OF Jordan Paroubeck was acquired from San Diego in the Craig Kimbrel trade, and was originally a second-round pick by the Padres in 2013 out of high school. He had not played a game for the Braves’ rookie-level Danville squad yet due to injury, but when he was drafted he was considered a raw five-tool player. I had preliminarily ranked him as the No. 22 prospect in the Braves mid-season top-30 rankings (due to be published during the All-Star break).

RHP Garrett Fulenchek was Atlanta’s second-round pick last year out of a Texas high school. The draft scouting report on him emphasized his size and projectable physicality while noting that he is still pretty raw as a pitcher. As a pro his control has been atrocious. I had him preliminarily ranked as the No. 29 prospect mid-season.

RHP Caleb Dirks was drafted in the 14th-round last year out of college and has a future as a middle reliever. He’s repeatedly posted low contact rates and low ERAs as a pro while registering some high walk totals. He was already at high-A Carolina, but as a middle reliever he would not have made the prospect list.

I ranked RHP Cody Martin as the No. 20 prospect before this season. He had some sporadic success early this season with Atlanta, but the league caught up to him with unflattering results. He could still develop into a very decent middle reliever or swingman, and possibly a back of the rotation starter.

SS Derian Cruz was ranked as the No. 5 prospect in this year’s international class by Baseball America, and No. 24 by MLB — highlighting the disparity in scouting these young international prospects. Just 16-years-old, Cruz is described as the best athlete in this year’s class with explosive speed that could become plus-plus.

OF Christian Pache is also considered a plus athlete with good bat control to all fields. He was ranked No. 21 by Baseball America and No. 10 by MLB. Like Cruz, Pache is also 16 and from the Dominican Republic.

These young international prospects usually have a long development path, however some of them can move quite quickly, like recent successes Ozhaino Albies and Jose Peraza. Albies was signed in 2013, made his pro debut state-side last year at the age of 17, and this year is leading the Sally League in hitting. That’s a high bar for the two new guys to meet, but with the bonuses they received and how they are ranked by the major prospect outlets the hope is that they make an immediate splash in the Braves’ system.

This is a pretty good outcome for the Braves. They get two prospects whom they believe to be high-ceiling game-changers — something the Braves system is thin on — and in return they gave up a couple of role players and a couple of young prospects who have not yet met expectations based on their draft pedigree. Fulenchek and Paroubeck are the two guys who could come back to haunt Atlanta in these trades, but for now these moves look like a step in the right direction for the long-term development pipeline of the Braves’ minor league system.

Consider too that the Braves just nabbed two plus prospects while staying within the rules for 2015. I mentioned earlier that 2016 is when Atlanta might greatly exceed their bonus pool, and their number one target may already be “in the fold.” This interesting nugget is from ESPN:

The huge name for next year’s J2 class is Venezuelan SS Kevin Maitan, a monstrous teenager with an elite body, advanced feel to hit and big-time power projection. He has been on the radar for international scouts for years and is being compared to some generational talents. A scout I talked to whose team has no prayer of signing Maitan said his club has an overall 70 grade on him, the sort of grade that players near the apex of top 100 prospects lists only sometimes garner. And three sources have told ESPN colleague Keith Law that the Atlanta Braves have already locked up Maitan for $4.25 million in advance of the July 2, 2016, signing period. As Keith noted, such deals are “technically prohibited but are de rigueur in that market.”

Maitan is supposed to be special, but we’ll have to wait a whole year before we know if this is really the plan.

Posted in Braves Draft, Braves Trades | Comments Off on Braves 2015 International Signings and Trades

Prospects to watch on Braves short-season teams

The minor league short-season leagues started this week, which includes two teams in the Atlanta Braves organization: the Danville Braves and the Gulf Coast League Braves. Both teams are considered to be “rookie” level, with Danville serving as advanced rookie ball, and the GCL team considered “complex” ball (owing to the fact that they play at the Braves spring training complex).

Every year a few unexpected gems, usually players from Latin America, emerge from these teams. Last year it was SS Ozhaino Albies and RHP Jorge Zavala. This is also the first place we see many of the team’s draft picks make their debuts. Below are some players to keep an eye on, with an emphasis on some of the more unknown Latin players.

Prospects to watch in Danville

jparoubeckLeudys Baez, OF: A switch-hitting center fielder signed this past year out of the Dominican Republic. He makes his pro debut at Danville, and turns 19 tomorrow, so he’s a little older for an international prospect. Still, the Braves gave him a $400,000 bonus last year, and hope his bat and strong arm in center can propel him as a prospect.

Jordan Paroubeck, OF: One of the prospects acquired in the Craig Kimbrel trade from San Diego. Drafted No. 69 overall in 2013 out of the high school ranks in California. He projects to have a good hit tool with power as well as some speed on the bases and in the field.

Garrett Fulenchek, RHP: The team’s second-round pick last year out of high school, he is still just 19-years-old and the youngest pitcher on the team. He suffered through some terrible control problems in his pro debut at complex ball last year, and all eyes will be watching to see if he can iron those out this year.

Others: RHP Josh Graham is the highest draft pick (4th round) from this year playing at Danville. INF Luke Dykstra (son of Lenny) will be an interesting player to keep an eye on. 3B Dylan Manwaring also has baseball bloodlines.

Prospects to watch in GCL

Ronald Acuna, OF: A speedy and toolsy center fielder signed last year, he’s only 17-years-old. His speed should play plus on the basepaths and he has a real chance to hit for moderate power.

jyepezJuan Yepez, 3B: The Braves top international signing last year from the Wren regime, the 17-year-old Venezuelan inked for a reported $1 million. His main asset are said to be his quick hands, which should help him hit for average and power. (Pictured on left)

Isranel Wilson, OF: One of the Braves top international signings last year from the Hart regime, Wilson has good size and athleticism and profiles as a five-tool center fielder who hits to all fields. He’s originally from St. Thomas, but trained in the D.R.

Dilmer Mejia, LHP: While he’s repeating the GCL, he performed well in the league last year as a 16-year-old. He has advanced control for his age, and should just need to time to refine his fastball and offspeed offerings.

Luis Barrios, LHP: The Braves top international signing in the 2013-14 signing period, he received a $600,000 bonus coming out of Columbia. This will be his stateside debut after mixed results in the Dominican summer league last year.

Jhoniel Sepulveda, RHP: An 18-year-old signed by the Hart regime last year out of the Dominican, he already sports a mid-to-high-90s fastball. He’ll need to develop a good offspeed pitch, but he could follow in the footsteps of Zavala as a power relief prospect.

Others: Just about every high school player the Braves selected in the 2015 draft is playing at this level. Early-rounders C Lucas Herbert and 3B Austin Riley as well as late-rounders OF Bradley Keller and LHP Jaret Hellinger are players to keep an eye on. As are some junior college players like OF Justin Ellison and RHP Dalton Geekie.

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Braves acquire Touki Toussaint from Diamondbacks

The Atlanta Braves can’t seem to go a month without making a trade. Three weeks after a trade with another N.L. West team (the Dodgers) the Braves went back to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a familiar-looking trade. Atlanta acquired right-handed pitchers Touki Toussaint and Bronson Arroyo in exchange for infielder Phil Gosselin.

ttoussaintArroyo is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will not be ready to pitch in a major league game until August at the earliest, and may not be able to return to the mound at all this year. Atlanta takes on the $9.5 million left on his contract, which includes a $4.5 million buyout on his 2016 $13 million option year.

But Arroyo is not the main attraction here, merely an expensive sideshow which was the cost for acquiring one of the top-100 prospects in baseball. Drafted No. 16 overall in the 2014 draft, Touki Toussaint was considered by many to be the top right-handed prep arm in the entire draft. He cost the D-Backs $2.7 million in bonus money last year, almost $400,000 over slot.

Toussaint is said to have the ceiling of a true ace. His fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90s, and he spins what scouts describe as a knockout plus-plus curveball that he throws in the mid-70s. This gives him the kind of velocity separation that makes both of those pitches more effective. His changeup is still a work in progress, but flashes plus and could be another future out-pitch.

A future pitching ace with three potential plus or plus-plus pitches… all for only $9.5 million!?!

Considering how much international talent from Cuba or Japan costs to sign, or how much a pitcher costs in the free agent market, paying only $9.5 mil for one of the top talents in the minor leagues is an amazing coup for Atlanta. If money is the only issue here, then this move by the Diamondbacks is a real head-scratcher. If you subtract Toussaint’s bonus last year, then Arizona is only really saving around $6.8 million. For that little bit of salary relief they’re giving up a very valuable arm.

It’s even more of a head-scratcher since they signed Cuban RHP Yoan Lopez this past offseason for about the same amount of money owed to Arroyo, and in the process exceeded their international bonus pool, for which they will be limited in the bonuses they can give international talent for the next two years. That means they will have a hard time restocking their system with high-ceiling prospects from the international ranks, which would make one think they would want to hold onto all of their top young talent. From an Arizona perspective, this trade is utterly confusing and possibly downright stupid.

With that kind of assessment from the Arizona end, it should be no surprise that this trade is a huge win for Atlanta. Phil Gosselin’s versatility and competitiveness will be missed, but he is at best a utility infielder, and not likely to be a productive starter for a first-division team. He was completely expendable after the emergence of Jace Peterson, and with Jose Peraza lurking at triple-A.

Atlanta engineered a similar trade with Arizona during spring training, in which they acquired Trevor Cahill and the $7 million or so left on his contract along with a coveted early-round draft pick in exchange for a couple of low-level minor league outfield prospects. While Cahill didn’t work out for the Braves and has been released, the team used that draft pick, No. 75 overall, on a high-ceiling pitcher who could be a future closer (A.J. Minter). Atlanta was essentially buying that draft pick in exchange for taking most of what was owed to Cahill off Arizona’s books.

barroyoToussaint becomes one of the top-three or four prospects for the Braves, and joins what is possibly the most impressive stable of pitching talent ever assembled in the Atlanta organization.

At some point it might be fun to watch Arroyo’s absurd leg kick toe the mound for the team. And remember, they still hold an option on Arroyo for next season should they choose to keep him and try and flip him this offseason, or sometime next year.

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Atlanta Braves 2015 Draft Picks, Rounds 21-40

Day three of the 2015 MLB First Year Player Draft and this completes the selections made by the Atlanta Braves. Previous selections can be found using these links:

Picks 1-5 (Round 1 & 2)
Picks 6-13 (Round 3-10)
Picks 14-23 (Round 11-20)

21st Round (630): Kurt Hoekstra, 2B @khoek7 — A junior middle infielder from Western Michigan, Hoekstra was named the team MVP this year while hitting .322/.401/.491. He’s got good size at 6-foot-2 for a middle infielder, but he doesn’t project to have too much home run power and only average speed. Since playing in a collegiate summer league last year, he has gradually raised his draft profile, and is yet another late bloomer selected by the Braves.

22nd Round (660): Dalton Geekie, RHP @daltongeekie — A Georgia boy from McEachern high school by way of Georgia Highlands College, where he just finished his sophomore year. He has a large projectable 6-foot-5 frame and works his fastball in the low-90s, but was unranked by any prospect outlet.

23rd Round (690): Taylor Cockrell, RHP @tcock_06 — A two-way player out of State College of Florida Manatee, he is signed to play with the University of Tampa next year and ranked as the No. 85 prospect in Florida by Baseball America. He’s sits in the low-90s with his fastball, and he’s got a big enough frame at 6-foot-3 to retain and/or add-to that velocity.

24th Round (720): Jake Lanning, 3B @jakelanning4 — A senior at Holy Cross College in Indiana, he was a two-way player, leading his team on the mound and in the field. The switch-hitter destroyed his competition with a slash line of .475/.553/.732 as well as a 1.96 ERA and a .197 BAA. This pick follows one of the Braves stated goals in this draft of selecting all-around athletes and two-way players.

25th Round (750): Jonathan Morales, C — A sophomore catcher out of Miami Dade Community College, and a native of Puerto Rico. I can’t find much info on him, and he is unranked in Florida.

26th Round (780): Ben Libuda, LHP — A junior from little-known Worcester State College in Massachusetts, he checks in at a wispy 6-foot-7 with plenty of room to add more strength. He’s a four-pitch pitcher with a low-90s fastball and a potentially plus slider. Looks as if there’s a lot to like with the package that Libuda brings with him.

27th Round (810): Robby Nesovic, 3B — A junior third baseman from UC Santa Barbara, he starred as a pitcher as well, continuing the trend of picking two-way players. He has a big 6-foot-3 frame, but didn’t hit for much power in college.

28th Round (840): Curtiss Pomeroy, RHP — A junior from Georgetown, he is also a two-way player, and only went back to pitching this year after not having thrown off the mound regularly since Little League. While he only made five relief appearances this year, the Braves liked what they saw, and Pomeroy seems convinced that his professional baseball future is as a pitcher.

29th Round (870): Collin Yelich, C @cyelich — Most notably, Collin is the brother of Marlins’ outfielder Christian Yelich. He sounds like a reliable catcher with a good work ethic. The Braves also like the bloodlines.

30th Round (900): Doug Still, LHP — Drafted last year by the Braves in the 33rd round after finishing high school, the team selected him again after he completed his first year of Junior College at Jefferson College in Missouri.

31st Round (930): Matt Custred, RHP @cattmust — The Braves draft the college teammate of their 6th-round pick (Matt Withrow), who are both juniors at Texas Tech. Custred checks in at an imposing 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, and has mostly been a reliever in his college career. He only appeared in three games his sophomore year, which leads me to believe there may have been some sort of injury. He only appeared in 15 games (18 innings) in his junior year, so he doesn’t have a lot of mileage on his arm.

The remaining picks in rounds 32 through 40 are all high school players, who are generally unlikely to sign. Sometimes they are selected by the team so that the player knows the team is tracking them as they enter college. Some of these picks may be backup picks in case some of the high school players drafted in earlier rounds don’t sign, leaving extra money to make a run at one of these guys. If any of them sign, I will write up a review and add it to this list.

An interesting note about the team’s 35th-round selection, catcher Chase Smartt, he is apparently deaf. Here is a good story and video about him.

Posted in Braves Draft | Comments Off on Atlanta Braves 2015 Draft Picks, Rounds 21-40