Braves 2016 Top-35 Prospects

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
snewcombAcquired 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
oalbies2It’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
lsims4No 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
kallardAdmittedly 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
ttoussaint2Much 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
mfried2The 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
msmith2No 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
bdavidsonWith 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
tjenkinsThe 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
mbanuelos2The 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
jgantOne 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
dpeterson2I 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
rsanchezHe’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
zbirdAcquired 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
mcabreraNo 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
athurmanThe 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
lherbertThis 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
dwinklerThe 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
clienA 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.

Other 2016 Braves prospect lists:
Baseball America top-10
Minor League Ball top-20

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Braves trade Cameron Maybin to Tigers

cmaybin2The Atlanta Braves completed the required weekly offseason trade today, as they sent center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Detroit Tigers for left-handed relievers Ian Krol and Gabe Speier. It looks like the Braves will also send about $1.5 million to the Tigers, which means that Atlanta will save around $6.5 million this year.

The money is a large factor for this trade, but there was also a need to move at least one of the Braves many outfielders. Michael Bourn now becomes the presumptive starting center fielder next year, with rookie Mallex Smith likely supplanting him at some point during the season.

Hector Olivera now has a clearer path to play left field, while Nick Swisher will probably find time in left, at first base, and pinch hitting — if Swish isn’t traded before the start of the season.

Ian Krol was once a top-100 prospect in baseball in 2011, but he fell to the bullpen and has strangely gotten worse each year. He started his MLB career in Washington, but was sent to Detroit as part of the Doug Fister trade. There could be something to be said for a bit of misuse in Detroit, or some lack of proper coach to help Krol out. He used to be a pitchability guy, but his velocity has gotten better, though this year his control seemed to suffer because of it. He’s still fairly young and next year will be his age-25 season. There’s a “rose colored glasses” case to be made for Krol improving in 2016, but there’s also a case to be made that pitchers like this can be found all over the waiver wire for nothing.

Gabe Speier is somewhat of a prospect. A late-round find by the Tigers in 2013, Speier had Tommy John surgery later that year. His innings have been limited since then so he’s got a low-mileage arm, though his velocity has been inconsistent from one outing to the next. He’s got some good upside as a reliever. Even though, the Braves may put him back in the rotation for a while to make up for lost time, but he currently isn’t a top-30 prospect, just an arm with a tad bit of promise.

Over on the public relations side, the Braves front office and especially new GM John Coppolella, have some work to do on their interviewing skills. This tweet from the other day sets the stage:

That’s from 11 days ago, and it certainly seems like complete bonk because they clearly just trade Cameron Maybin (and the price seemed… low). Maybe they weren’t “looking” to trade him, but they certainly took whatever middling offer came their way.

The Braves really missed the boat when they failed to trade Maybin at this year’s deadline.

1st Half: .289/.356/.418 — .774 OPS
2nd Half: .240/.289/.311 — .600 OPS

With the great first half that Maybin had, his value was much higher than when the Braves acquired him, but despite some offers, the team failed to move him. Cameron’s second half returned his trade value to what you see today.

Nevertheless, a decent trade by the Braves to save money, clear an outfield spot, and acquire a couple of potentially useful arms. Several things accomplished in one deal. Next.

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Braves trade Andrelton Simmons to Angels

This one hurts. Damn the baseball analysis for a minute… Andrelton Simmons was easily my favorite Atlanta Braves player still left on the team. I first saw him in Danville, Virginia, a month after he was drafted. At the time we weren’t sure whether he would be a pitcher or a shortstop. What first caught my eye, in the midst of a 100+ degree heat wave, was his arm… his cannon. On some throws to first I couldn’t tell what was higher, the temperature or the speed of his throw. At the plate he was a scrapper, but one that could put the bat on the ball with relative ease.

andrelton1The next year I saw him at Lynchburg, that was the year he really burst onto the scene. Then the next year at Mississippi, right before he got called up. My comment to folks who wanted to know who he was and why I thought he was special was that “his defense was worth the price of admission.”

When he arrived in Atlanta that refrain was echoed throughout the Braves universe, and quickly replayed on the highlight reel every night. Watching him play was jaw dropping. What I had only seen flashes of in the minors was illuminated by slow motion replays in the majors that still boggle the mind. This was a pure kind of baseball where people go to the game to watch a guy play defense.

We may never again see a defensive player of his caliber step onto a field wearing a Braves uniform. That’s not hyperbole, that’s a fact.

andrelton-smileI’m going to miss watching Andrelton Simmons play every game. I’m going to miss watching him play for my team. This trade pisses me off because it takes away this generational talent, this guy I watched grow up and rooted for every step of the way in professional baseball, and a guy who you could tell was having fun every time he stepped on the field.

So, anyway, loyalty be damned in baseball. It’s a business, don’t you know.

Speaking of, how did the Braves do on the business end of this trade? The Braves got left-handed pitching prospect Sean Newcomb, right-handed pitching prospect Chris Ellis, and warm body at shortstop Erick Aybar.

snewcombNewcomb is the prize here. He’s considered one of the top-20 prospects in the game, he was a first round pick in 2014, and he made huge strides this year, reaching double-A. He’s not a finished product yet, as his command and delivery apparently need work, but he projects as a top of the rotation workhorse — a strong bet to be a number-2 starter, with a shot at ace. He probably becomes the Braves top prospect, ahead of the guy I had at the top of my provisional (unreleased) 2016 prospect list, Kolby Allard.

In addition to nabbing Newcomb, who was the Angels top prospect, the Braves also picked up another pitcher, largely considered to be the Halo’s second-best prospect. Of course, in the barren wasteland of the Angels farm system, number-2 is not saying much. If you may recall, the Braves traded for the Angels number-2 prospect last year, Ricardo Sanchez — who ended up ranking in the mid-teens on many Braves prospect lists. At that time Newcomb was the number-1 prospect and Chris Ellis was number-4.

Ellis is a big-bodied power pitcher, and still largely considered a work in progress. He spent the second half of this season at double-A, and like Newcomb, needs to work on his control and repeating his delivery. He was a third-round pick in 2014, and currently projects as a mid-rotation starter. He’s a decent gamble on an arm with good upside, but he’s no sure thing, though he still probably has a floor of a late-innings reliever. I’d probably put him somewhere in the teens on the Braves prospect list.

cellisErick Aybar is the 10-year major league veteran who replaces Simmons. He’s in the final year of a five year contract that will pay him $8.5 million. Aybar is a below average defender at shortstop who will have a pretty good year with the bat every once in a while. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Braves dealt him before the season began, but if they don’t, it’s a near certainty that he’ll get traded mid-season.

If Aybar does stay around to start the season, he’s merely a bridge to the shortstop of the future, Ozhaino Albies. Ozzie ranked third on my provisional 2016 prospect list before this trade. He played 2015 at low-A Rome, and was slated to start next year at high-A Carolina, though with this trade the Braves may aggressively promote him to double-A, with an eye towards a mid-season call-up to Atlanta. The presence of Albies, and the esteem with which many in the Braves system hold him, is likely one of the big reasons the team felt comfortable trading Simmons. It would not surprise me to see him make a Furcal-like jump to the majors this season.

Atlanta also sent catcher Jose Briceno to the Angels. He was acquired last offseason from the Rockies in the David Hale trade. Briceno had an awful 2015 campaign at high-A Carolina, and fell off the prospect list entirely.

So now the “why.” Why did the Braves feel they needed to trade Simmons? From reports online it appears that they were talking about trading him since last offseason, and that they may not have acted fast enough on some offers before they were pulled. The front office was apparently not willing to let another strong offer expire, and so they jumped on the first big one that came their way this offseason.

The explanations for why the team would trade Simmons range from poor and inconsistent offense to an expected decline in defense with age. Atlanta clearly thinks that Simmons is likely to decline, while the Halos think otherwise. I’m inclined to agree with the Angles, as Simmons is only 26-years-old and should be entering the prime of his career. Besides, if the Braves were really worried about decline in players as they age, then why did they trade for 30-year-old rookie Hector Olivera this year?

The real explanation is probably that this is just part of the overall strip-down and rebuild of the team, and that Simmons was one of the guys they didn’t get to move last offseason. So in that vein, how did the Braves do in their return for Simmons? Where many of the trades last offseason focused a little more on quantity over quality, or sacrificed health for fragile quality, this trade emphasized a quality return. Newcomb is arguably the best prospect the Braves have received in any of their trades. While he’s probably still a year away from being ready, he’s a well-refined product who should be a good bet to anchor a rotation in a few years. Ellis is a bit more of a reach, but still a quality arm.

So does one elite prospect and one good prospect equal the best defensive shortstop in baseball? That question can only be answered by answering the question of whether or not you believe that Andrelton’s bat has any more in it than he’s shown. Simmons is in the middle of the pack as far as hitting among major league shortstops. I, for one, believe that he will get better, as he’s still maturing as a hitter and finding out what kind of hitter he should be.

From a business of baseball perspective, this was a decent trade for the Braves. Not great, maybe not even good, but decent. Like the Olivera trade, this is another trade with a lot of risk based on the acquisition of unproven talent in exchange for proven talent. From a public relations and fan perspective, this was a horrible trade for Atlanta, as they seemed to unnecessarily give away a fan favorite player.

And that erosion of fan support and loyalty to players may not be done yet, as sources I have close to the Braves tell me that the front office has already talked to other clubs about Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran.

It’s a Brave new world… make sure you buy a program so you’ll know who’s on the team this week.


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Braves promote John Coppolella to General Manager

Last week the Atlanta Braves formalized what many people who follow the organization closely had assumed, that John Coppolella would be the team’s next General Manager. There are plenty of media stories out there about who he is and where he came from, so I’ll just link this one from which you can learn the basics.

What I would prefer to focus on is what we can expect from Coppy, as he’s called. What kind of GM will he be? After all, he served under former GM Frank Wren during virtually his entire tenure. For much of that he was considered one of Wren’s right-hand guys, and specifically his analytics guy.

I’m not quite as ecstatic as some around baseball and the Braves are about Coppy’s ascendancy to the GM’s chair. I wonder if some of the same factors that caused Wren’s relationship with many in the organization to turn sour will similarly affect Coppolella. I don’t dislike the move, but I’m hesitant to praise the move or to believe that he will be any better at his job than his predecessor was.

However, Coppolella will have two huge advantages that Wren never had. First is the rebuild the team went through this year that allowed them to restock the farm and reset the roster. The second, and most important advantage, will be the added payroll space that the new stadium will create.

Wren was never allowed to rebuild the Braves. He was mandated to try and put a winning team on the field every year, without the benefit of tearing down the big club and restocking. Sources within the Braves organization have told me that Wren wanted to rebuild the team several times after he took over, but was told that he could not. That decision not to rebuild, which came from above Wren, caused several necessary reactions by him and his front office and thus defined his tenure as GM:

  • Wren had to start using the draft to select players closer to the majors.
  • He was unable to trade away star players before they left via free agency, and those free agents didn’t net the draft picks they had netted under John Schuerholtz (because of a change in MLB free agent compensation rules).
  • He was forced to sign free agents to fill gaps in order to keep competing.
  • He had to spend more and more on the major league team, which left less for player development, especially internationally.
  • And most destructively, he had to use what farm system he had to make trades to try and remain competitive.

Coppy will have the advantage of eliminating virtually all of those hurdles. With the rebuild, the draft focus on younger talent has been reset — all of those trades last offseason also brought back more draft picks, and the Wood/Peraza trade this year added an extra 2016 draft pick. Clearly star players are now not immune from being traded. Coppy can be more selective in free agency, especially the next two years, with a rebuilding team that has low expectations. He will have more money to spend on the major league club and on player development with the opening of the new stadium and the development of better TV deals. With all of the above factors being more favorable, he will not be forced to deal away so much talent from the Atlanta minor league system.

Wren and Coppy will be judged against each other, just as Wren and Schuerholtz were, but none of them operated in the same environment or with the same advantages (or disadvantages).

While Coppy will start with fewer expectations and fewer disadvantages than Wren did, he nonetheless comes with some warning signs (or caution flags).

Remember that Coppy was involved in many of the decisions, even the unpopular ones, that happened under Wren. The case for signing free agent B.J. Upton was largely an analytical one, with expected future performance the main driver. One of the advocates in the front office for that signing, over other free agents at the time like Hamilton, Victorino or Bourn, was Coppolella. That signing was a huge risk, though it was one that many analytically inclined fans heralded at the time. Of course, it turned out to be too big a risk that didn’t work out in the Braves favor.

As Wren’s anaylitics guy, Coppy ran the numbers on many of the contracts that were handed out before the 2014 season. Most of those contracts seem like good value, though Chris Johnson’s stands out as a poor one in retrospect. How much of a hand did Coppolella have in pushing that contact forward?

Under John Hart, who took over after Wren was fired, Coppy had a huge hand in every trade that was made. Many in and around the organization questioned that all those trades needed to be made. To some it seemed like trades were being made simply to make a trade. Will that inclination (possibly compulsion) to constantly make trades erode trust within the organization?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle that Coppolella will face is the same one that Wren ran into — the necessary expansion of analytics from the front office to the field. One of the chief complaints about Wren was that he was occasionally telling the manager how to make out his lineup, or trying to interfere in how the pitching coach was doing his job. The old school baseball guys in the Braves front office didn’t like that.

Coppy will face the same criticism when he attempts to steer the coaches and the manager in the direction he wants them to go. If he hasn’t already, Coppolella will realize that the modern pitcher is more susceptible to getting hurt if he’s treated like pitchers were 30 years ago — is that why the Braves have had more Tommy John surgeries than any other team since Roger McDowell became pitching coach?

What happens when Coppy tries to explain to Fredi Gonzalez that he should not have gone to his bullpen to go lefty on lefty when the left-handed batter has a reverse platoon split? At least Wren played professional baseball when he was younger. How will coaches react when a guy who never played baseball professionally, who is younger than they are, starts trying to alter or critique their decision making?

For the sake of the team, and of our collective Braves fandom, I hope it all works out, and that Coppy is smart enough to approach these things the right way (if there is a right way), or at least learn from Wren’s mistakes in those endeavors.

I simultaneously worry that Coppy needs someone to vet all of his moves with so that he doesn’t just make trades all the time, and that the old guard will leave him alone and let him chart a more analytically driven course for the team.

I’m going to root for the guy, while also scrutinizing every one of his moves. I’m hoping that he can either build up enough cachet to convince the higher-ups to replace Fredi, or convince Fredi that he needs to vastly improve his handling of pitchers, his in-game match-up skills and decision making.

This Braves team has a long way to go before they are competitive again. How much rope will Coppy be given? What happens if he inadvertently steps on some heretofore unmentioned tenant of “The Braves Way?”

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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.

Posted in Braves Trades | Comments Off on Braves trade Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to Mets

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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