January 7, 2016
Atlanta Braves Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: The big-league team is atrocious, which can have its benefits on the farm. Atlanta's has more pitchers than post-work happy hour.
The Top Ten
1. Dansby Swanson, SS
Swanson gets the “more floor than ceiling” rap, but that should be viewed as a compliment because there’s as little volatility here as with any shortstop prospect in baseball. The swing is simple, and his ability to repeat it with above-average bat speed and line-drive plane allows him to make solid contact to every part of the field. He’s a very assertive hitter, and while he will jump on the first pitch, he also will work counts and draw plenty of walks. The strength limitations keep the power grade down, but because he transfers his weight and recognizes pitches early, he should be a double-digit homer guy with plenty of doubles thanks to his ability to drive the ball into the right-center gap. He’s also a plus runner, and his smarts on the bases give him 30-steal potential.
Though Swanson was a second baseman until his junior season, you wouldn’t know it from watching him play shortstop. He has excellent instincts, an above-average throwing arm, and shows outstanding footwork. Combined with that plus speed, the overall defensive skill set makes him as close to a lock to stick at the position as you can find. You could move him to anywhere else on the diamond, but I’m not sure why you’d want to.
Is he going to be a star? Probably not, but Swanson owns an incredibly high floor, and he’s the prototypical no. 2 hitter who also can provide above-average defense at a premium position.
Fantasy Impact: The combination of Swanson’s ability to hit for a batting average that flirts with .300 and steal upwards of 25 bases should go a long way towards making fantasy owners forget that he probably won’t hit more than 12-15 homers in a season (especially now that he’s out of Arizona). That said, if he hits those achievable numbers, he’s an easy top-10 shortstop even with this new crop that is taking the game by storm.
Major league ETA: 2018
2. Sean Newcomb, LHP
Newcomb was a steal for the Angels in the 2014 draft, and he’s a heck of a coup for the Braves as well. He will consistently touch 97 with his four-seam fastball, sitting 92-94 with downhill plane and some sink. He complements that pitch with a plus curveball that now shows the spin and depth to be a swing-and-miss offering after appearing slurvy and inconsistent in college. The change doesn’t offer the same upside as the fastball or curve, but he has gained feel for the pitch and there is no longer a noticeable difference in arm speed when he delivers it.
If Newcomb’s stuff is close to big-league ready, the command and control are not. He’ll create self-inflicted damage with walks and he falls behind in the count too often—largely because he doesn’t always repeat his delivery and his three-quarters arm slot. The stuff suggests that Newcomb can pitch at the top of a rotation and pile up the strikeouts, but his command issues make it just as likely he pitches in the middle of the rotation, maybe even in the back of it if it doesn’t take a step up soon.
Fantasy Impact: Given fantasy owners’ predilection towards hitters, it shouldn’t be surprising that Newcomb is not the top fantasy prospect in this system. However, with his SP2 upside (despite the considerable WHIP risk for his ceiling), he should be a hot commodity regardless. With his frame and raw stuff, a large innings count (yay wins) and 200-plus strikeouts is achievable, but he’d probably have to get pretty lucky with the BABIP to keep his WHIP below 1.20.
Major league ETA: 2016
3. Ozhaino Albies, SS
You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that does a better job signing major-league shortstops than Atlanta. Albies appears to be the next in a line that has included Yunel Escobar, Elvis Andrus, and Andrelton Simmons, and that’s just in the past decade. Albies makes a ton of contact from both sides of the plate, and despite his small stature it’s not weak contact. There’s above-average bat speed with solid rotation, and his quick wrists allow him to flick the ball the opposite way or fire bullets up the middle. When he does make weak contact, his plus-plus speed makes him a threat to beat out anything to the left side, and once on base he’s a nuisance who can steal 40-plus bags a year. The wheels also help compensate for a complete lack of power—he might thank you for grading it a 20.
Albies is no Simmons with the glove, but there’s enough here to project a future shortstop. Those aforementioned wrists lead to plenty of zip on his throws, and while he is still prone to gaffes on the field (17 errors in 93 games last season), his ability to make the spectacular look routine compensates. This is a future top-of-the order hitter, and one who could move fairly quickly because of his rare skill set.
Fantasy Impact: He’s still a sexy name in some dynasty leagues, leagues, but where Swanson offers just average power production, Albies will be a flat-out value sink. If he’s actually hitting .280-plus with 30-40 steals, you won’t mind, but even the owners who have rostered Elvis Andrus and Alcides Escobar over the last half-decade haven’t been thrilled with their returns.
Major league ETA: 2017
4. Aaron Blair, RHP
A prospect as talented as Blair usually headlines a deal, but then again deals don’t usually include the reigning first-overall pick. Blair isn’t overpowering, but his fastball is extremely heavy with plenty of plane, and at 90-94 mph the velocity is certainly enough to keep hitters from squaring up. There’s no discernable difference in his arm speed when throwing his change, and while it’s not a swing-and-miss pitch, the fade and deception make hard contact a rarity. The curveball has seen improvement in his two-plus years as a professional, with enough depth and spin to call it a solid-average offering.
Blair’s stuff reads more as a no. 4 than a potential no. 2, but his command allows it to play up significantly. His delivery is always balanced and there’s very little effort, allowing him to limit the self-inflicted damage while keeping the ball down consistently. He’s basically a finished product, and he should be helping the Braves rotation at some point this summer.
Fantasy Impact: There’s always a place for players like Blair on a farm team, but with the dreaded mid-rotation ceiling, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of over-investing in them. Blair is going to have to accumulate most of his value in wins and ratios, as we’re really looking at only around 140-150 strikeouts in a full campaign. Still, in the woeful NL East he’s capable of getting those ratios to 3.50 and 1.25—which would make him a viable mixed league starter even in shallow formats.
Major league ETA: 2016
5. Kolby Allard, LHP
You could argue that with the addition of Newcomb and the selection of Allard, the Braves picked up the pitching steals of the last two drafts: one scout called Allard “a Brady Aiken starter kit.” That’s a good thing. Allard would have gone much higher if not for a stress reaction in his back, but he appeared plenty healthy in his limited time in the Gulf Coast League. His four-seam fastball sits 91-93, topping out at 96, but it plays up because of how easy the delivery is. The curveball is another plus offering—the best curveball I saw from a prep last season—and its tight spin and two-plane break make it a put-away pitch. He’s still gaining feel for the change, but he has improved his arm slot and has added deception .thanks to plus arm speed, and the aforementioned repeatable delivey helps him throw strikes with all three offerings.
The only question marks are size and health. Back injuries are a son-of-a-you-know-what, and because he doesn’t have prototypical size, there are already concerns about whether he can handle 180-200 innings. Still, with a chance for three 60 tools, there’s an awful lot to like here, and it shouldn’t shock anyone if he’s a top-50 prospect in 2017.
Fantasy Impact: The upside for Allard is high enough that it’s almost tempting to take him over Blair right now (that said, it may not be long before that’s the “right” move). He should be the first prep pitcher off the board in dynasty league drafts this off-season and makes for a really strong early second round pick (or late first in a deep league).
Major league ETA: 2019
6. Touki Toussaint, RHP
Toussaint’s command, however, may have other ideas about his future role. He struggles to repeat a delivery that consistently appears to be in a rush, and when he isn’t missing the zone entirely, he’s wild within it. If he’s moved to the bullpen he could be Tom Gordon, but if he can stay in the rotation, he could be Tom Gordon.
Fantasy Impact: Pray for content. Settle for free rent. If you’re a Toussaint owner, your fingers are constantly crossed that the light will flip and he’ll step forward to an SP2 ceiling. However, with a high-end relief (and likely closer) floor, there should be some payoff at the end of this journey. He could be a 200-plus strikeout starter with a WHIP in excess of 1.30.
Major league ETA: 2018
7. Mike Soroka, RHP
When the Braves selected Soroka in the bottom of the first round, I thought it was a fairly significant reach. Here’s my mea culpa: I’m an idiot. The Canadian right-hander was very impressive as a pro, with one scout saying he looked like the best pitcher in the Atlanta system in 2015. There’s still some projection left, but his 90-92 mph fastball with good plane is already a plus pitch, and he’ll reach 94. The arm speed and fade also make his change a borderline plus pitch, and he can locate it for strikes or bury it out of the zone. The curveball has taken major strides: A pitch some had as a 40 in high school now routinely flashes average, and there’s just enough depth to keep hitters off the other two offerings. He repeats his arm slot and delivery as well as you can for an 18-year-old, and though the command will never be elite, it’s good enough to start.
The sample size of the curve is small, but there’s a chance Soroka becomes 60-60-50, and that would make him a no. 3 starter.
Fantasy Impact: Pitchers without high ceilings who have yet to pitch in full season ball are just one big collective yawn to most dynasty leaguers. Those in deep leagues could take a shot on him using his strong start as a jumping off point to increased trade value, but given the depth of the 2015 class (from a fantasy sense), he profiles as a late-round pick.
Major league ETA: 2019
8. Austin Riley, 3B
Well, this certainly qualifies as a surprise. Most of the scouts I spoke with before last year’s draft thought Riley profiled best as a pitcher. The Braves saw a hitter, and in a limited sample it appears they may just be on to something. His impressive combination of bat speed and strength give him plus power from the right side, with a chance for more as he fills out his frame. This is not your typical “swing for the fences” hitter either, as Riley commands the strike zone well. The length of the swing creates some contact issues, but he stays through the zone well enough to project a potential above-average hit tool.
Defensively, Riley has more than enough arm strength to handle third base—he was clocked in the mid-90s during his senior season—but the rest of the defensive profile isn’t ideal. He’s a below-average runner, doesn’t have elite range, and his hands are only okay. That could mean a move across the diamond, dropping his value precipitously. If he can stay at third, this is a potential all-star, with as much offensive upside as any prospect in the system.
Fantasy Impact: Now here’s where we have some fun. Riley has tons of potential at the plate—in fact, his fantasy ceiling is probably the highest in this entire system. The glimmer of hope for a .270 hitting third baseman with near 30-homer power is exciting, even if he does come with a very long lead time and some positional risk.
Major league ETA: 2018
9. Max Fried, LHP
Fried missed all of the 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, so this is a somewhat risky ranking—if you believe these things can be risky, anyway.
When healthy, Fried shows impressive stuff, led by two- and four-seam fastballs that will hit 96 mph and sit comfortably in the low 90s with downhill plane. His curveball also flashes plus, with solid spin and hard downward break, but he hasn’t thrown it for strikes as often as he did in high school. The same can be said of his average change. His smooth delivery lacks much effort, which certainly won’t hurt his attempts to avoid future injury. We never know how a guy will recover from Tommy John, but if he comes back looking like the same guy we saw as a prep and for most of 2014, he’ll shoot up this list and contribute to the Braves rotation in the coming seasons.
Fantasy Impact: I’ve long been an advocate for Fried, and how much that continues depends on how the stuff looks when he returns this year. If he carries the same ceiling, it’s an SP2/SP3 peak, not too far off from what Newcomb is capable of with a little more in the ratios and a little less in the whiffs. We’re just in a holding pattern for now.
Major league ETA: 2018
10. Lucas Sims, RHP
You may recall that Sims was listed in my “Say Something I’m Giving Up On You” article to end the 2015 season. He said something: In the Arizona Fall League, I saw a right-hander with two borderline plus-plus pitches. He can get his four-seamer up to 97 with mild run and decent plane. He paired it with a nasty curveball with good depth and spin that made a couple of hitters look silly. His change has quality movement with deception, but it’s so rarely in the strike zone that it’s hard to call it more than an average offering at this point.
As impressive as the stuff is, Sims’ control and command both leave a lot to be desired. It’s not a case of failing to repeat the delivery, but more a question of feel; he creates too much self-inflicted damage to project as more than a back-end starter. If he starts throwing more quality strikes he could become a no. 2, but there’s no evidence he can do that at this point, and the bullpen is very much a realistic landing spot.
Fantasy Impact: If you’re into name recognition and risk, Sims might just be your guy. He has enough still in that arm to profile as a mixed league starter with a step forward or two, but we’re getting close to the point where he’ll be drop-worthy in leagues that roster 250 prospects if that doesn’t happen at some point in 2016.
Major league ETA: 2017
Mallex Smith, OF – Smith is a true 80 runner who is a threat to steal a base—or two—anytime he reaches. The question has always been whether or not he can get on base enough to put that speed to use, but he’s made progress over the past few years, shortening the swing and making more consistent hard contact. His diminutive frame and linear swing path give him no chance for power, and there’s a frustrating amount of swing-and-miss for someone who should be focusing on putting the ball in play to make use of his speed. He also takes questionable routes in the outfield and possesses a below-average throwing arm, so sticking in center field isn’t a lock. But running fast is running fast, and there’s a great chance Smith shows up as a competent fourth outfielder in Atlanta as soon as next year.
John Gant, RHP – Gant was acquired by Atlanta in the trade that sent Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson away, and the former 21st-round pick settled in nicely. The right-hander doesn’t have an overpowering fastball—sitting 89-91, with some sink—but he gets downhill from his 6-foot-5 frame. He gets that same sink on a solid-average change, and he’ll throw both pitches—and an average curveball—for strikes with improving command. The upside is somewhat limited, but Gant is as likely as any name here to be pitching in the rotation this summer.
Mauricio Cabrera, RHP – The Braves made the decision to move Cabrera to the bullpen, and while the stat line illustrates how much work the 21-year-old needs, there are flashes of brilliance that suggest he can become a dominant reliever. His fastball is a double-plus offering that has been clocked in the triple-digits, and he complements it with an above-average slider with enough hard tilt to spin hitters around when they’re sitting on the heater. He’ll also show a fringe-average change, though that pitch might get scrapped as he advances through the system. If he can figure out where his two best pitches are going, Cabrera could become a future closer. If he can’t, he’ll be an up-and-down reliever.
Johan Camargo, SS – Camargo doesn’t have a standout tool, but as a shortstop with a chance for four average tools he does have an outside shot to become a starter someday. He controls the strike zone and uses the whole field from both sides of the plate, and his short swing allows him to make consistent contact. That contact isn’t always the hardest, as Camargo’s frame is slight and the lack of loft to his swing essentially eliminates any chance for power. There’s work to be done defensively, but he has the athleticism to stay in the middle infield and his plus throwing arm gives him a chance to play the majority of his career at shortstop. The upside here is bottom-of-the-order hitter who helps you with the glove; a floor as a quality bench bat with utility is valuable, too.
Zachary Bird, RHP – Bird was acquired from the Dodgers in the Hector Olivera/Alex Wood deal in July, and while he doesn’t have the talent of those names he does have a chance to become a big-league pitcher. The impressive arm strength that made him intriguing as a prep now allows him to consistently hit the high 90s with some sink. He’ll show a solid-average slider with hard tilt, and a softer curveball and change. Neither of the latter pitches grade as average yet, and the control and command are not where they need to be. If the command does take a step forward, there’s back-end starting potential in Bird’s right arm, with high-leverage relief also a possibility.
First, a moment of silence for those lost in the pursuit of the Next Great Braves Team. Since last year’s list went live in November of 2014, Jason Heyward (no. 1 that year), Alex Wood (no. 4), and Andrelton Simmons (no. 5) have been shipped out of town, leading to much ink-and-paper handwringing among the Atlanta commentariat and also to their absence from this list. The only other big-league player on last year’s list not eligible for consideration in 2016 is Freddie Freeman (no. 2), who, despite his many other virtues, turned 26 in September, making him an Old Man and not worthy of further discussion here.
Do you feel appropriately solemn yet? Well, stop it, because there’s an embarrasingly rich collection of talent up for consideration here, headlined by new number one in Inciarte. The industry consensus—which I’m happy to contribute to—is that the Braves fleeced the Diamondbacks good and proper in acquiring Inciarte (alongside Swanson and Blair) in exchange for Shelby Miller and Gabe Speier. That’s partly on the strength of Swanson and Blair’s potential, which you’ve already read about, but also on the back of Inciarte’s actual, honest-to-god performance in 2015, which made him the most valuable Diamondback not named Paul Goldschmidt or A.J. Pollock and one of the very best center fielders in baseball.
The problem with Inciarte, insofar as there is a problem, is the lack of a track record, and the degree to which his performance is driven by a sterling but possibly unsustainable defensive record (he’s at a +27.4 FRAA over the last two years) and a largely power-free offensive profile. If Inciarte puts up another season like his 2015, he’ll be on lists like this until he’s too old to feature. If his knocks find fewer holes in 2016, though, or he loses a step in the outfield, he’ll have to prove himself all over again in 2017. For now, though, I’m impressed enough with a 4.1 WARP season as a 24-year-old position player that I’ll put him just above Teheran, who may never reach his potential but who’s pretty darn good nonetheless.
A quartet of brilliant prospects follow the two big-leaguers, followed by a trio with intriguing upside, moderate present value, and second-half-of-the-alphabet last names (I’m a fan). Peterson I rank behind Blair because Blair, at his best, could be a pretty good big-league starter and Peterson, who appears to be somewhere near his best, is a relatively ok big-league infielder. That’s not a bad thing to be—remember, this is a good list in general—but if I was forced to pick one of the two (for the record: I’m not) I’d take the high-floor mid-rotation starter over the low-ceiling second-division infielder. So I did.
Vizcaino, who’s been racking up Delta SkyMiles shuttling between Atlanta and Chicago for the past few years, is a tantalizing case. He’s always had talent—just take a gander at some of his BP Annual comments over the years—but he’s consistently struggled to put it together when he’s on the mound, which hasn’t been that often over the last few years. He remains on this list because the upside is so darn high, but each passing year he fails to break out is progressively more damaging to his case for inclusion.
Wisler had some previously unknown command issues in the second half last year and likely profiles as no more than a mid-rotation starter. That (and I’ve used this phrase before) is not a bad thing to be at all, and it gets him a place right above Allard, who might one day be what Wisler is now, but doesn’t get him past the hope and dream that is Vizcaino. In a year, though? Braves fans may be happier to have Wisler than Vizcaino on their roster. Heck, they might be at that point right now.
The broader point, though, is that fans should be happy they have both, and those that come after them: talent like Shae Simmons, Paco Rodriguez, and all the prospects you just read about. The Next Great Braves Team has already claimed some victims, sure, but it’s got some victories in its future as well. - Rian Watt
General Manager: John Coppolella
Outside of perhaps the Cardinals, there is no team that has done a better job over the past 25 years with player development than the Braves—particularly with pitching and the middle prospects. Not all of that is due to continuity—there have been plenty of changes in that time frame — but they’ve also promoted from within a great deal, and that has helped keep a consistent process in the organization. Despite rarely spending massive amounts of cash on international free agents, and usually picking in the middle or back of the first round, they find a way to consistently churn out productive players, a reason you don’t see many Braves prospects bust.
I’m slightly biased, but even if i didn’t call Kiley McDaniel a friend, I’d call him a tremendous addition to the front office as the Assistant Director of Baseball Operations. There are few people I’ve spoken with who do a better job scouting the draft, and he’ll be a big help to an already strong scouting department that includes Bridges and Roy Clark. Clarks is recognized as one of the most respected Scouting Directors of the 2000’s, having led the drafts that saw Atlanta procure Brian McCann, Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, and others.