Atlanta Braves Draft: Day One Reactions

The first day of the MLB Draft has come and gone. How did the Atlanta Braves fare? Who did they take and why?

First Round – 3rd Overall Pick

With the third pick in the draft the Braves selected a right handed pitcher named Ian Anderson. Ian Anderson hardly came as a shock to those who had been paying close attention to the draft throughout the day as rumors began a few days ago and were confirmed early yesterday morning that the Braves had a deal in place with Anderson in order to sign him for an “under slot” bonus.

Ian Anderson stands at 6’3″ and throws his fastball in the mid 90’s. He was considered to be the 13th best prospect in the draft, according to MLB.com .

Many were calling for the Braves to take a bat, and with good reason. The current big league club is not hitting very much and there is not an abundance of talented bats rising through their farm system. You could have made a logical argument for drafting either Mercer’s Kyle Lewis or Louisville’s’ Corey Ray with the third pick.

However, the Atlanta Braves agreeing to sign Ian Anderson to an under slot deal would prove to be pivotal as the draft night wore on and shortly you will understand why. I love this pick for the Braves.

Lottery Round A – 40th Overall Pick

When the team’s selection rolled around at 40 it was pretty evident who they were taking. Another rumor had been started a few weeks ago that the Braves could have been speaking with Joey Wentz about possibly being able to take him, a first round talent, all the way down at pick 40. This is exactly how it happened and the pick could not have gone better for the Braves.

Joey Wentz is a 6’5″ left handed pitcher out of a Kansas high school. Last summer he made himself known for his bat, crushing home runs in the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, but he established himself as a mid-first round talent on the mound. Joey throws in the mid-90’s and has two above average alternate offerings in the mix along with his clean and repeatable delivery.

Once again a really great pick for the Braves here. They were able to select MLB.com’s 16th best draft prospect at pick number 40. The Braves would next go on the clock just four picks later at 44th overall.

Second Round – 44th Overall Pick

The depth of the 2016 draft was easily high school pitchers, as there were plenty of high upside arms in this draft to choose from. After seeing the Braves select two high school pitchers with their first two picks, the organization went back to the well again for their third pick, this time selecting Kyle Muller out of a high school in Texas.

Kyle Muller is another high school left hander with a mid-90’s heater. His other offerings and control are not as advanced as the other two players the Braves drafted, but he is 6’5″ and projectable. Making him MLB.com’s 24th best draft prospect .

Atlanta’s agreement with Ian Anderson to sign him for an under slot bonus allowed for them to be able to select two other high upside and highly touted prospects much further down in the draft than where they were expected to go.

The Braves were able to draft the 13th, 16th, and 24th best draft prospects with picks 3, 40, and 44. That’s amazing value and the money they saved selecting Ian Anderson was the difference. John Coppolella has previously stated how he envisions “wave after wave” of talented prospects coming into Atlanta for years to come. This is certainly a nice vision to have and one that could bring sustainable and winning baseball to the organization. However those waves are not possible unless you have as much highly touted talent as you can acquire.

The Braves got max value from their first three picks on draft day. Braves fans should be very excited by the draft so far.

Atlanta’s final pick of the first day was the pick they received in a trade with Baltimore a few weeks back, pick 76.

Lottery Round B – 76th Overall Pick

At pick 76 the Braves finally did what all…eh…we’ll call them “casual fans” were screaming for throughout the night. They selected a position player, or, rather more importantly, they selected a bat.

The pick was the catcher out of California, Brett Cumberland. Cumberland is a draft eligible sophomore and bats from both sides of the plate. He hits extremely will and can hit for a little bit of power, ranking 69th on MLB.com’s top 200 draft prospects list .

Coming into draft night, I was pretty sure that the Braves would target a catcher with their later picks (either 76 or 80) but Cumberland was not on my radar due to his reputation as a bat-first catcher. With the pitching staff the Braves are putting together I would have liked to see them select a catcher with a defensive pedigree and projectable (or more just “a project”) bat, such as Sean Murphy out of Wright State or, even later on in the draft, taken Jake Rogers out of Tulane who has been described as the best defender at any position in this draft.

Nevertheless the pick was Cumberland, and I understand why. The guy can flat out hit and he was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year for his excellent season. Most scouts see him moving out from behind the plate later on, but the Braves will likely put him back there until he proves he can’t handle it, or his bat simply outgrows his defense and he needs to move on from catching in order to make an impact at the major league level.

Brief Day One Reaction Summary

An excellent day for the Braves organization and fans. The team snagged three early to mid-first round talents with their first three picks and added a potent bat with their fourth. Outstanding value and hopefully they will be picks that pan out in the future.

If you take just one thing away from this article let it be this…the great first day of the draft by the Atlanta Braves was built upon the golden rule of drafting…

You Do Not Draft For Need

 

 

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The Atlanta Braves Have Their Closer

When you think of the Atlanta Braves, you think of great pitching. More specifically, each Braves team that has been successful over the past two decades have had a dominant closer at the back end of the bullpen. From John Smoltz to Mark Wohlers to Craig Kimbrel, the closer in Atlanta will always have big shoes to fill.

After the trade of the franchise’s all time leader in saves, Craig Kimbrel, before the 2015 season, the team has been searching for that “lights-out” option at the end of games to help put away now hard-to-come-by victories.

The Braves have appear to have found that next great closer.

-Enter Arodys Vizcaino-

Arodys Vizcaino originally signed with the New York Yankees as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 2007. Following two brief seasons in the Yankees system, Vizcaino was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 2009 as a part of the Javier Vazquez trade.

After being traded to the Chicago Cubs in 2012, he found his way back to the Braves in 2014 when the Braves sent Tommy La Stella to the Cubs in return for Arodys Vizcaino.

So far in the 2016 season, Vizcaino is a vital member of the Braves’ bullpen, and represents one of the few steady options manager Brian Snitker has to call upon game after game out of the pen.

Now that Vizcaino has established himself as the Braves’ closer, it is becoming clear to those watching that Vizcaino is not planning on giving up the role. He currently has six saves in seven opportunities and is striking out batters at a tremendous clip while limiting his walks (30 K’s in 20.2 innings pitched along with only seven walks ).

Vizcaino possesses a fastball that has been clocked north of 100 miles per hour and sits consistently in the upper nineties (getting an average of 96 to 97 miles per hour on all fastballs per FanGraphs ).

While a prospect, Arodys Vizcaino’s curveball was considered one of his better pitches, being touted as the best curve in the entire Yankees’ system by Baseball America. However, he seems to have abandoned the curve as he has not thrown the pitch in the majors, officially, since 2011. Instead, Vizcaino has focused on a two pitch mix of a fastball and a slider. Each season his confidence in the slider has increased as proven by his reliance on the pitch, throwing it nearly 41% of the time thus far in the 2016 season .

When watching the arsenal of Arodys Vizcaino, one cannot help but think of former Braves closer, Craig Kimbrel, who also uses a two pitch mix to attack opposing batters. While Craig uses his fastball much more than Vizcaino, 75% of his pitches have been fastballs in 2016 compared to just 58% of pitches being fastballs for Vizcaino , Kimbrel uses a different breaking ball than Vizcaino. Craig Kimbrel now uses a fastball and curveball arsenal, which would explain the greater distance in terms of break on his breaking ball compared to Vizcaino’s slider. Both closer’s fastballs sit in the upper nineties with the potential to crack the 100 mile per hour barrier, as earlier stated.

Regardless of his similarities to the man he is replacing, Arodys Vizcaino will almost certainly begin to write his own records in Atlanta Braves history books. He has all the tools and potential to be the next dominate closer for the franchise, and will hopefully be the anchor towards the end of games when the team is looking to be a competitor again. If Vizcaino remains a Brave for the foreseeable future, I can see him challenging Kimbrel’s save records and potentially being the man closing out key playoff games for the team.

For Braves fans, they can just hope he stays healthy and is still around for those comings years of competitive play, as his ability and overpowering arsenal show nothing but dominance in Arodys Vizcaino’s future.

 

Why The Braves Shouldn’t Promote Their Top Prospects

With the 2016 Braves continuing to struggle, the fans are looking towards the future. They await the new season, they await the new SunTrust Park, and, more eagerly (or should I say impatiently), they await the arrival of the Braves’ two top prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies.

The argument for promoting these two ballplayers is based on sound logic. The current team is historically bad. The two players appear to almost be major league ready. Why not let the fans get a sneak peak at what all this struggling is leading towards and improve the current team at the same time?

I can understand why many fans feel this way, and the side of me that is a fan is fully onboard with them. Dansby Swanson is currently batting .313 with 4 homers, 21 RBIs, and 9 stolen bases down in the minors so far, and meanwhile Ozzie Albies is already in Triple-A Gwinnett as a 19 year old (over 5 years younger than the average player at that level ) and is batting .312 with 3 homers and 2 triples across two levels this season. They certainly are not far away from being able to produce at the big league level.

So why shouldn’t the Atlanta Braves’ front office promote their top prospects?

The answer is actually rather simple…

Service time

Major league service time is a tricky, frustrating, confusing part of professional baseball that should be adjusted in the future. But for now, I can best explain the concept as so: when a player is called up it begins their service time clock and once a player has elapsed 6 years of major league service time, they then qualify for free agency.

You’ll see front offices manipulating the service time rules in their favor every season, delaying prospects who are likely prepared for the big leagues and waiting to call them up so that will extend their time with the club.

The current system is not fair to the players and casts a negative light on baseball front offices, even though it’s a necessary evil that they must cope with and use to their advantage as best they can (under the current rules).

Waiting until midway through the 2017 season will allow the Atlanta Braves to control their top prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies until after the 2023 season, instead of controlling them just through the 2022 season.

The difference of just one season may not seem like much on paper, but when you consider the Braves window to compete, it could be all the difference they need to make the delay worthwhile.

The 2017 Atlanta Braves will not be serious competitors with or without these two top prospects on the opening day roster. In fact, the Braves likely won’t be competing for the World Series again until at least 2019 or later, with most of their top prospects being several years away, including the potential arrival of this year’s upcoming international signings and draft picks, something that we profiled in much greater detail and depth here: “When Will The Atlanta Braves Compete Again?

So this extra time tacked onto their window of opportunity could prove to be the difference in the Braves winning it all in 2023…or potentially having Dansby Swanson and/or Ozzie Albies leave the team in free agency after the 2022 season.

The Braves front office will likely say that they are not going to hold the players back from making the jump to the big leagues, and that is exactly what they should say. However, the fans should not expect to see their much awaited middle infield tandem until midway through the 2017 season.

I understand this may cause slightly more pain in the now, Braves fans, but it will all be worth it when you have an entire extra season of watching these two future stars up the middle.

Have patience.

2016 MLB Draft Predictions

As the season wears on more and more fans begin to look towards the MLB draft as a beacon of hope for the future of their favorite ball clubs. While it is still too early to know for sure where these players will land and who the teams will select, here’s how I feel the first three picks will go when the draft begins June 9th. Check in later for more draft predictions going further along in the first round.

First Overall

The first pick in the June draft is held by the Philadelphia Phillies, a team with obvious needs throughout the organization but, as a surprise to many, a competent team so far this season.

Many believe the Phillies will select arguably the top talent, high school left hander Jason Groome, with the first pick, however that may not actually be the case. High school players are hardly ever selected with the number one pick unless they are seen as a “can’t miss” prospect with superstar potential. Those players include the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, and Justin Upton.

Selecting a high school arm at 1-1 is even more unlikely for the Phillies, as there have only been two selected first overall since 1990, and one of them (Brady Aiken, 2014) did not even sign with the team that drafted him.

Teams tend draft safer players when they have the first overall pick, so that is why I expect the Phillies to select Florida left hander AJ Puk. Puk will likely be the safest pick at 1-1 because he possesses the best combination of a high floor and the upside needed to be the first overall pick of any player in the draft, basically saying teams feel like they know what they are going to get from Puk, and that is a solid big league starter with the potential for more.

Second Overall

The team that played their way to the honor of the second overall pick of the MLB Draft is the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are not in the same place as the Phillies, as they do not have a top farm system and they don’t appear to have the big league talent necessary to swap for promising young players.

The Reds should look to go with the player they feel is the best available here. The player who could potentially take more time than the Phillies’ AJ Puk to reach the majors, and thus will inherently have more risk attatched.

I would expect the Reds to select either Kyle Lewis or Riley Pint here. Both players offer tremendous upside but have equally concerning risk. Pint is a high school right hander who has touched 100 miles per hour and has been described as having the best arm in the draft. Lewis on the other hand is a college outfielder from Mercer that is crushing opposition pitching, batting .367 with 17 home runs and 56 RBIs so far this season.

I’ll predict for now that the Reds end up going with Riley Pint as his enticing arsenal of top of the line stuff will be too much for an organization desperate for elite talent to pass up.

Third Overall

The 2015 Atlanta Braves finished with just 67 wins, earning them the third pick in the MLB Draft.

Often highly touted here on the site, the Braves have one of the best and deepest farm systems in all of baseball. The only issue with the system is the lack of high upside bats, more specifically the lack of high upside bats closer to the major leagues.

This lack of bats has caused the Braves general manager John Coppolella to speak publicly about the organization’s desire to add a college bat in the upcoming draft, but Coppolella also stated that the team would take the best player available at 1-3.

So who is it for the Braves? Do they take the high upside college bat in Kyle Lewis? Would they rather take the best player available in Jason Groome? Or will they pick the safest player here in Louisville’s Corey Ray?

Lewis, as stated above, is crushing pitching but comes with a lot of risk due to some scouts’ concerns about his swing mechanics, lack of experience, and how he is striking out too much for the level of competition he is currently facing. He also plays centerfield and is viewed as a player who will stick there throughout his professional career.

Groome is considered the top talent in the 2016 draft class. A left handed started out of New Jersey who has already thrown a no hitter this year, across which he racked up 19(!!) strikeouts. He has the upside of a frontline starter at the big league level, but as high school pitchers go, he also presents a big risk. Also, with the Braves bevy of high risk/reward pitchers in the minors, the front office may want to go in a different direction.

Corey Ray leads off and plays centerfield for one of the best college teams in the nation in Louisville. He bats from the left side and provides an intriguing skill set of power and speed. The concerns with Ray stem from teams not feeling he has nearly as much upside as a Lewis and they also feel he will be forced to move over to a corner spot when he reaches the majors.

With the Braves’ history of selecting players in-state and the new front office not being afraid to go after high risk/reward players, I would expect them to select Mercer’s Kyle Lewis. Lewis may be risky, but his upside and athletic profile should be enough to convince the Atlanta brass to select him at third overall.

More MLB draft predictions are set to come your way in the following weeks so stay tuned, and as always, thanks for reading.

Early Season Review: Ronald Acuna

Earlier this season we profiled three players that we expected to have breakout seasons within the Atlanta Braves organization. One of those players was centerfielder Ronald Acuna. Acuna is currently playing in Single-A Rome as an eighteen year old and has been making quite the impression on scouts and fans alike during his first few months of full season ball.

Excerpt from the aforementioned Acuna profile:

Ronald Acuna was a 2014 International Signing out of Venezuela. Standing at 6 foot tall and weighing in at 180 pounds, physically he matches up well with what many could describe as an ideal centerfielder. Throughout his first professional season, Acuna batted .269 with 4 long balls and and 16 stolen bags (per milb.com ), and he was playing his best at season’s end, batting a cool .325 over his final 10 games. In addition to the potential offensively, Acuna mans the valuable position of centerfield, and, by all accounts, scouts view him being able to stick there and as a plus defender. In his recent breakdown of all minor league systems , ESPN’s Keith Law describes his outfield tools as “plus range, with an above-average arm and above-average speed.”

Flashing future signs of all 5 tools so early is without a doubt a good sign for Acuna. Current Special Assistant to Baseball  Operations and Braves Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones spoke quite highly of Acuna at Braves’ Spring Training in an interview with Braves AJC beat writer David O’Brien , saying he’s heard Acuna compared to a “young Andruw Jones.” Certainly high praise and not a comparison loosely thrown around, especially amongst the Braves organization. Personally, I have tremendous faith in Acuna, you can take one look at his Instagram account and it’s clear that this man lives and breathes baseball, hopefully we see that passion translate into future success.

The play from Acuna has been as advertised this season. His defensive work is centerfield appears to be natural for the teenager as he looks increasingly comfortable in the field. His arm strength is without a doubt the described “above-average,” if it’s not stronger (I saw him almost throw out a quick runner from deep right center field in a game a week or so ago).

Acuna has been showing an advanced eye at the plate. He battles deep into counts and stays on most pitches deep into the zone, allowing him to work the ball to all fields. This is a good sign for a player so young as this will help him be able to make adjustments and quickly acclimate himself to new levels as he advances throughout the minor leagues. Also at the plate, Acuna is flashing power to all fields as well, his first home run this season was a blast to the opposite field, along with his triple yesterday which was off the wall in right. Acuna is slashing .299/.382/.402 with 2 homers, a triple, 2 doubles, and 11 walks  so far.

Acuna profiles his game after Pirates outfielder Starling Marte. The two speak through social media, and appear to have developed a friendship (a sign that Marte notices Acuna’s skill level). Watching their games, one can see shades of Marte in Acuna, both players have the same low leg kick load, similar builds, etc. I think you could use Starling Marte as an excellent comparison and potential projection for Ronald Acuna.

starling marte

(Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports)

Marte is a Gold Glove Award winner in left field, an achievement that I feel Acuna could achieve as well if he ever needs to move over from centerfield to left (Marte only did so due to the superstar and MVP Andrew McCutchen’s firm hold on the position in Pittsburgh). Marte’s above-average power at the big league level could be Acuna’s ceiling as well. Along with both men’s plus speed in the field and on the base paths, all together I really like this comparison for Acuna, the resemblance continues to grow on you the more you watch the two play.

The earlier Andruw Jones comp makes one think of the 50 home run seasons and 10 time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones and I don’t feel there is any way Acuna ever reaches that level of power and defensive prowess. Not to mention comparing any player to Andruw this early in their career development feels a bit like sacrilege for me, as Andruw is one of the greatest centerfielders of all time and should be considered for the Hall of Fame, a discussion perhaps for another time. That said, I do think Acuna will rocket up prospect lists after this season, much like Andruw did after his first season in full season ball. 

At his peak defensively, I see Ronald Acuna profiling as an everyday centerfielder who could see the occasional fielding award thrown in the mix. At the plate, I see him as batting around .280 with 15-25 home runs a season and swiping a decent number of bases. Braves fans should be very excited about the potential of Ronald Acuna, I would go as far as saying that outside of the obvious Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, Acuna has the most upside and potential of any position player in the system. At seasons’ end I fully expect Acuna to be a top 5 prospect in the Atlanta Braves deep system. (I think I may be the high man on Acuna…)

The early results in Ronald Acuna’s debut in full season ball have been encouraging for the organization. He is flashing the maturity and baseball acumen that even players much older than him are still lacking, those intangibles along with his natural tools and talent will likely help us see Ronald Acuna land somewhere on the end of season Top 100 prospect list.

Fixing The Atlanta Braves Lack Of Power

By now I am sure you’ve heard, the Atlanta Braves hit just a single home run in their previous 500 plus at-bats, and the team’s total for the season sits at just 4, dead last in the MLB by 9. While it’s easy to place the issue solely on the lack of talent on the current roster, help is not on the way.

The Braves have one of the top 3 farm systems in all of baseball. So naturally, the fans are going revert back to that fact as consolation for many of the team’s current struggles. Unfortunately for those fans, power does not lurk in the minors for the Braves. The closest thing to a near-ready prospect with some power is Gwinnett third baseman, Rio Ruiz, who doesn’t project for anything more than average power at the big league level.

Searching a little deeper (and much further away from being MLB ready), you find prospects Austin Riley, Ronald Acuna, and Braxton Davidson.  All three are currently in A-ball, whether it be Low-A Rome (Riley/Acuna) or High-A Carolina (Davidson), so they certainly will not provide the power surge that is desperately needed any time soon.

So what is Atlanta to do about their lack of power bats?

-Enter Joey Gallo-

Joey Gallo is a consensus top 25 prospect in baseball and currently resides within the Texas Rangers organization. Gallo has legitimate 80 grade power and, perhaps more importantly for the purpose of this article, he’s MLB ready. Gallo already has MLB experience under his belt after a brief call up at the end of the 2015 season, and is crushing his Triple-A opposition this season  with 7 homers, 3 doubles, and a triple across 63 at-bats.

While trading top 10 prospects is not standard procedure amongst MLB general managers, Gallo may be an exception as Gallo’s ideal position will likely be third base in the majors, a spot currently blocked on the Rangers by the newly extended, future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre .

In order for the Braves to even interest the Rangers with a deal for Gallo, it would take a rather healthy package in return. I turned to some of my Braves friends to pick their brains about what they’d consider a fair trade, and we came across a few tricky road blocks.

Most significantly, any major deal involving the Braves in the upcoming months is more than likely to include the Braves current best hitter, Nick Markakis. One problem…the Rangers are stacked in the outfield as far as MLB ready players and prospects go, with the likes of Nomar Mazara and Delino Deshields already making their marks in the majors the season (the former is slashing .365/.426/.519 ). Along with Top 100 prospect Lewis Brinson not being far behind. So the clubs’ fit as trading partners isn’t exactly ideal.

However, the Braves have the luxury of being able to offer a loaded package of promising pitching prospects that the Rangers would find very intriguing. Together, we settled on a possible return package of Braves’ top arm Sean Newcomb (current top 20 prospect), Tyrell Jenkins or Chris Ellis, and possibly another lower level arm.

This is the only scenario we see likely, as the Rangers would be trading their top prospect for a trio of high upside pitching prospects, and the Braves would begin dipping into their wealth of pitching prospects in order to fill necessary holes throughout the organization.

So in conclusion, the trade fit is less than ideal, and the Braves would have to send the Rangers quite the haul, but the return could be substantial for the middle of the Braves’ future lineups.

Obviously this is highly unlikely to happen as the level of risk for both sides could be too large for either one to pull the trigger (if they were to even talk about a trade). However, it’s occasionally fun just to sit back and think about all the moves various teams could be making in the coming months…especially when you are an Atlanta Braves fan and the team is 4-17 with the light at the end of the tunnel appearing to be very far away .

 

Early Season Observations: Atlanta Braves

The season is still young, but a lot has been going on within and around the Braves organization. This will be a quick rundown and update of what’s been going on at each level from Low-A Rome to the club in Atlanta, including personal observations and opinions on individual players and personnel. (Warning: a few small sample size hot takes incoming)

Atlanta Braves

The team is currently on a four game winning streak after painfully dropping their first nine. Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup appears to be taking shape and producing, while the defense is slowly making less mistakes as the players knock off some of the rust that may have still been there at the start of the season.

Nick Markakis has reached base in 26 straight games dating back to last season, and while he still has no home runs, the strength he lost (due to his neck surgery he underwent for a herniated disk in December of 2014) appears to have returned as he leads the majors with 9 doubles . I’d be shocked if Markakis was still a Brave come season’s end, and if he continues to produce as effectively as he has thus far, his stock will never be higher.

Freddie Freeman’s starting to heat up after a miserable start to the season (excluding the home run in his first at-bat). He is currently hitting .156, but is batting .250 over his last 7 games and looks to be feeling more and more comfortable at the plate.

Even though he has made some standard rookie errors and his batting average might not be pretty to look at, Mallex Smith has been putting some decent at-bats together since his call up, and I fully expect him to continue to learn and grow on the job. Hopefully when Ender Inciarte returns from his hamstring injury, Fredi Gonzalez will shift Mallex over to left field and let him play there. I am optimistic and excited about watching an outfield trio of Mallex Smith/Ender Inciarte/Nick Markakis for the majority of the season.

Gwinnett Braves

The Gwinnett Braves have, arguably, one of the weaker rosters across the organization. They lack top end offensive potential and do not have the wealth of exciting, young prospects on their roster that the other levels possess. The offense, in particular, took a big hit with the quick promotion of the speedy Mallex Smith , however that hasn’t stopped them from winning 10 of their first 13 games.

At third base, Gwinnett has Rio Ruiz, who arrived from Houston last offseason along with Mike Foltynewicz in exchange for Evan Gattis. Ruiz underwhelmed last season, but came into spring training in fantastic shape and with a re-tuned swing. The Braves rewarded his hard work by assigning Ruiz to Triple-A. So far, Ruiz has been crushing the ball, hitting .346 with 3 doubles, a triple, and a home run . If he continues his current run of form, I would not be surprised to see Rio get a late call up in September and potentially be on Atlanta’s Opening Day roster in 2017.

At the top of Gwinnett’s rotation are Aaron Blair, Mike Foltynewicz, and Tyrell Jenkins, three exciting arms who could be seeing time in Atlanta very soon. Blair has started the season on fire, posting a 1.42 ERA, with 3 wins, 22 strikeouts and 5 walks . Blair’s entire arsenal was working last night as he dominated the Durham Bulls to the tune of 7 innings of no hit ball, including 10 strikeouts and only a single walk on 87 pitches.

Mike Foltynewicz has also flashed some good signs for Braves fans early on. Over the course of his three starts, his pitches have shown the great life and velocity that have long made Folty one of the more intriguing arms in the system. He still lacks the control necessary to match his stuff as a potential top of the line starter, and until that shows up, Foltynewicz will never reach his full potential. I would expect to see starts from both Aaron Blair and Mike Foltynewicz for Atlanta here in the coming months.

Next up is Tyrell Jenkins. I’m actually currently watching Tyrell pitch against the Durham Bulls and he’s not having his best night. While Jenkins has tremendous apparent athleticism and good, not great, stuff, his lack of control is also seems to be his biggest weakness right now. While I am certainly no expert, it looks like Jenkins does not repeat his motion as well as one would like (at least he wasn’t tonight), causing him to occasionally miss his spots (this could be partially due to the new, lower leg kick the Braves have him trying out). The good news here is that, as I mentioned, Tyrell is a fantastic athlete and can continue to mold himself into the potential mid rotation starter the Braves hope he can be.

Mississippi Braves

The Double-A Mississippi squad for the Braves has not been getting the results they had been hoping for early on, they currently stand at 4-10 and lost 6-2 earlier today against the Chattanooga Lookouts.

The catalyst of this Mississippi team is star shortstop and Braves top 5 prospect Ozzie Albies. Albies’ promotion to Double-A shocked many experts who thought that he would benefit from some time at High-A Carolina. Instead, the Braves decided to send Albies (the youngest player in Double-A ) straight to Mississippi, and he has done nothing but deliver. After going 0-4 in the first game of the season, Ozzie has reached base in all thirteen games since and currently has a six game hitting streak. For the season, he is batting .357 with 2 doubles and 2 triples out of the leadoff spot. Quickly proving that maybe even Mississippi wasn’t aggressive enough, Braves fans should look for Albies to move to Gwinnett at some point during this season, positioning himself well for a 2017 call up to Atlanta.

The rotation for Mississippi contains two of my very favorite arms in the Braves system, Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims. I, unfortunately, have not had time to sit down and watch an entire Newcomb start from this season (I plan on doing so very soon) but from the stat lines and breakdowns online, Sean appears to have gotten off to a good start this season. He has had three starts and his ERA is sitting at 2.40 across 15 innings with 16 strikeouts . Like so many others in the Braves system, Newcomb’s control is the main thing that is holding him back, walking 10 batters thus far. He has a repeatable, easy motion that produces a great velocity, so the answer to his control woes is hard to decipher. Nevertheless, he currently is considered a top 3 prospect in the Braves system and all signs show him having a very bright future. Continuing to get his walks under control and missing bats will be the key for Newcomb to see some time in Gwinnett at some point in the season.

Lucas Sims, the former first round pick and Top 100 prospect, has really been ticking so far this season. Over his first three starts, Sims has produced an ERA of 1.84 over 14.2 innings with a whopping 26 strikeouts . I was able to watch Lucas Sims’ last start and in it, he looked incredibly promising, striking out 10, no earned runs, and walking only 3 over 5.2 innings. Sims curveball is the pitch that stood out the most to me, it has great movement and, more importantly, Sims can throw it for a strike. While Sims may not move as quickly as Newcomb through the system, a string of performances like this one should help move Sims back into the national spotlight.

Carolina Mudcats

The High-A Carolina Mudcats currently stand at 6-8, 3rd in the Southern Carolina League. The key players for Carolina are star shortstop Dansby Swanson, starting pitcher Max Povse, and former first round pick and outfielder Braxton Davidson.

The talents of the top prospect in the Braves system, Dansby Swanson, have been on full display so far for Carolina. Swanson is batting .333 with 8(!) doubles so far in the Carolina League , and the Kennesaw native is showing the the assignment may have been a little under aggressive for the 2015 first overall draft choice. I would predict that we will see Dansby move up to Mississippi at the same time Ozzie Albies moves up to Gwinnett. However, another possible scenario is for Dansby to skip over Mississippi completely and go straight to Gwinnett (an idea not so crazy given the Braves history of aggressive promotions). Either way, I would expect both Swanson and Albies to eventually team up with Ruiz in Gwinnett’s infield this season, or at the latest the start of the 2017 season. (Who will play shortstop and who will play second base is a different discussion).

Braxton Davidson has a very patient approach at the plate and has an advanced batting eye, however those skills have yet to translate to in-game success for Davidson this season, slashing a poor .185/.246/.241 . I do not expect to see Davidson move out of High-A Carolina this season, as he is still just 19 years old and it may take him a good chunk of the season to really catch up to the speed of the level.

Carolina’s standout performer, however, has been unheralded hurler Max Povse. After starting last season at Rome, Povse was promoted to Carolina where he struggled mightily, throwing 18 innings and allowing 19 earned runs . Understandably, the Braves felt he should repeat the level this season, and so far…wow. Povse has been dominate across his first two starts, throwing 13 innings and allowing no earned runs, earning him the honor of being on the season’s first MiLB.com Prospect of the Week Team . As I have yet to sit down and watch all of Povse starts (and some are not online due to playing in a stadium without MiLB cameras) I cannot add any personal notes on Max, besides the obvious “if he keeps this up, expect a call up to Mississippi in his not-so-distant future.”

Rome Braves

Last, but certainly not least, on our early season rundown is the Rome Braves. This team is my personal favorite amongst the Braves organization and I have been watching every game I can online, and plan to be in attendance this coming Saturday when Mike Soroka takes the mound. The Rome Braves are loaded on prospects. Loaded. From pitching to hitting, this team has no lack of representation on top prospect lists.

Ronald Acuna, profiled here , has been off to a decent start, hitting the ball well and showing off his strong wrists and lightning fast bat (.288 batting average so far through 13 games ). He has been playing a solid centerfield and batting leadoff for Rome, personally I would like to see him bat in the two hole, as I feel that’s his ideal lineup location, but I certainly won’t argue with the amount of at-bats the leadoff spot is getting him. Acuna, being one of the younger players in Low-A, will likely stick the entire year out in Rome, hopefully maturing and grooming his game for a potential promotion to Carolina next season.

Next up on Rome’s lineup is power-hitting third baseman Austin Riley. Riley has been off to an up and down start to his full season ball debut, hitting .231 with 7 doubles and a one homer (a deep blast pulled to left field). Riley appears to be manning the hot corner well defensively and definitely has a strong enough arm for the position. My concerns with Riley stem from his lack of contact, Riley already has struck out 21 times over his first 52 at-bats. In order to gain more faith in Austin and his obvious power potential, I will need to see him begin to make contact more regularly. Hopefully as the season wears on he will make the necessary adjustments.

A standout to me so far this season has been the play of catching prospect Lucas Herbert. Coming into the season, I didn’t know much about Herbert besides that which was written on him about his above-average defense and below-average bat. Lucas has surpassed my expectations, and then some. His bat has been better than I imagined, even though it is still a very, very long way away from being major league ready and I am not convinced it ever will be. I was watching the Rome game Lucas caught the other day, and his work behind the plate was impeccable. He was calm and poised behind the plate (something that particularly stood out in this game as he was catching the incredibly wild Touki Toussaint) with a great arm and pop time, a moment that stuck in my mind is, early in the game, when he made a great play: snapping a throw back to first and picking off the runner (he also, later, threw out another runner trying to steal second). I expect Herbert’s outstanding defending to move him throughout the minors (likely staying this entire season in Rome), hopefully the bat can improve enough to one day be playable at the major league level.

The Rome pitching staff has some of the highest upside in the entire system. Pitchers Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, and Mike Soroka have each notched a couple starts this season.

Touki Toussaint, the electrifying right hander who was drafted in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamond backs. Touki has started 2 games for Rome this season, the first was an average start for Toussaint, giving up 3 earned runs over 4 innings pitched with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts . However, in his second start, the wheels fell off, Touki walked 4 over 1.2 innings and gave up 5 earned runs, including a home run. Touki is a top prospect for one reason: potential. Touki easily throws a mid-90s fastball with a devastating curveball and also brings a decent change to the mound. Unfortunately for Touki and Braves fans is that he has yet to be able to keep his pitches in the strike zone. Watching Touki’s last start, there are moments where the top of the rotation potential is inescapable, because at times he pounds the zone and dominates a hitter, but other times a fastball can sail past the catcher to the backstop. Touki will spend all of 2016 in Rome where hopefully he can begin to control his pitches with more consistency.

Max Fried is a 6’4″ left handed pitcher who was taken seventh overall by the San Diego Padres in 2012. He arrived to the Braves as a part of the package for Justin Upton last offseason, however, he was recovering from Tommy John surgery and is now in the beginning of his first season in a Braves uniform. Fried’s first two starts were lights out as he tossed 5 innings, giving up 2 earned runs and striking out 4 in the first game, and throwing 6 scoreless with 7 strikeouts in his second outing . He ran into some trouble in his third start, giving up 5 runs over 5 innings. I expect him to bounce back strong in his next start. These are all great signs for Braves fans as Fried is one of the higher upside arms in the system, and he has good control to match his stuff. I’m excited to watch Fried throughout his first full season in a Braves uniform and, if he stays healthy, I expect him to move quickly through the system.

Our last early season player evaluation is Mike Soroka, the 6’4″ right hander out of Alberta, Canada. Even though he was drafted in the first round of the 2015 draft by the Braves, Soroka is a player still flying under the radar in one of the deepest systems in baseball. I was able to catch Soroka’s start on April 12th where Soroka put together 6 frames with 5 strikeouts, no runs, and only 1 hit . He was baffling opposing hitters all night and probably could have continued on deeper into the game. Soroka’s stuff looked outstanding in this game and I expect him to continue his fine form as his season ERA sits at 2.40 across 3 starts. Soroka sits at #7 on my personal Braves top 25 prospects list, and I expect him to rise up experts’ lists and possibly find himself around, if not on, the Top 100 Prospects List come season’s end.

The future is bright for Atlanta.

 

New Kid On The Block: Mallex Smith

It may have happened a little sooner than most were expecting, but the Braves have officially called up outfield prospect Mallex Smith to replace Ender Inciarte, who went on the 15 day disabled list due to a strained hamstring . Some may be unfamiliar with Smith, so lets delve a little deeper into what he brings to the Braves, on and off the field.

Mallex Smith was drafted in the 5th Round of the 2012 Major League Draft  out of Sante Fe College to the San Diego Padres, where he played his first three seasons of professional ball. Then, in the offseason before the 2015 season, Mallex was traded along with Jace Peterson, Dustin Peterson, and Max Fried to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Justin Upton.

Still just 22 years old, Mallex is ahead of most prospects his age, consistently being below the league average for age at each minor league stop along his road to Atlanta, including being nearly 5 years younger than the average Triple-A player last season in Gwinnett .

The key for Mallex to have success with the big league club is his 80 grade speed, in my earlier piece , I discussed Mallex briefly, stating that I believe he will provide a much needed spark to the Braves offense (he led the minor leagues in stolen bases with 88 in 2014 ). However that doesn’t mean he will rely solely on said speed to be effective offensively.  Throughout his minor league career, Smith has put up a batting average of .295 as well as hitting .303/.371/.378 over 479 at bats in Double-A, Mississippi, and Triple-A, Gwinnett last season.

Not only is Mallex talented on the field, he’s quite the guy off of it.  He brings an electric personality to match his speed and I’m not sure I have ever seen him not smiling.  Early on, one can hope that Mallex will be a leader of future Braves teams in a way that players will enjoy being around him, appreciate his work ethic, and then hopefully follow suit. Just watch this interview of Mallex with MLB.com and try not to fall in love before you have even seen him take the field .

Last night, Mallex made his debut, where Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez batted him in the leadoff spot, an appropriate placement given the state of the current Braves lineup.  Mallex struck out swinging at a Max Scherzer pitch in his first at bat, but then in the second inning recorded his first Major League hit and later came across to score for Atlanta.

Unfortunately for Braves fans, Smith’s debut was short-lived.  After reaching base in the fourth inning, he attempted his first steal and injured himself on the slide. In one of the strangest injuries I have ever witnessed, his helmet fell forward into the bag, bounced back, and hit him square in the forehead, leaving a nasty looking laceration. He will require stitches and is listed as day-to-day. For video and more information on the incident, look here .

As he becomes one of the first of the many Braves’ prospects to be making his debut in the coming seasons, Mallex will battle for one of the now-crowded outfield spots with Hector Olivera, Ender Inciarte, and Nick Markakis. Braves fans will enjoy watching Mallex’s unique blend of speed and personality and I envision him quickly endearing himself to the Atlanta faithful. Above all else, Mallex Smith is an amazing and talented kid who the Braves are very fortunate to have in the organization.

 

When Will The Braves Compete Again?

The Braves have long been one of baseballs premier organizations. However, over the past two seasons and what looks to be this season, the Braves will miss the playoffs. The lineup is abysmal outside of the ever-steady Freddie Freeman, and possibly thirty year old Hector Olivera, and the starting pitching rotation may be even worse over the course of the 2016 major league season.

So, the question must be asked, when exactly will the Atlanta Braves be competitive again? Let’s first set some ground rules for what we will define as “fielding a competitive team.” I feel that simply contending for the division is not enough, the team will need to be a perennial playoff and World Series contender to appropriately fulfill the requirements set forth in this article.

2016

The 2016 Braves team will not likely be very good. This is obvious to most who follow the game, as the Braves have been pegged to finish near the bottom of the table once again, only up ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cincinnati Reds, according to Karl Buscheck , contributor to Bleacher Report.

The current roster only consists of a few regulars which, I feel, can stick with the team in a few seasons time. Those players are: Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Hector Olivera, Arodys Vizcaino, Mike Foltynewicz, and possibly Ender Inciarte. These players will hopefully be able to remain useful and productive big league starters when the influx of youth begins to reach the major leagues.  That is not a lot of major league regulars on the current team, and does not create a positive outlook for the coming season.

However, that does not mean this season comes without intrigue, on the contrary, this season marks one of the more important seasons in recent Braves history. During 2016, Braves fans will likely see the highly anticipated premiers of top prospects Mallex Smith, Aaron Blair, and Tyrell Jenkins.

Also, the organization will see the addition of multiple new top prospects to replace those who have graduated to the big league club. The Braves own the third overall pick in the upcoming draft and will be aiming to add a “college bat” according to General Manager John Coppollela . On the International Market, the Braves look to make it’s biggest splash of the calendar year, it has been well noted that the Braves plan to spend big and spend well through their limit in the upcoming July 2nd International Period. The main target, of course, being the young Venezuelan phenom, Kevin Maitan.

2017

At the start of the 2017 Braves season, the team will be unveiling the new stadium, and a new buzz will be surrounding the team. The starting lineup will look to have more spark with the addition of Mallex Smith (who possesses 80 grade speed, on the 20-80 scale), and the rotation will likely have a couple new arms as well in Aaron Blair and the organization’s 2015 minor league pitcher of the year, Tyrell Jenkins.

I am going to do a little prediction here and say that by this time, right fielder Nick Markakis will no longer be a Brave (I will not speculate on the return), allowing for the opening day outfield to go Olivera, Inciarte, and Smith.

The holes in the opening day lineup will continue to be third base, catcher, shortstop, and second base. However, throughout the season, the Braves may see the middle infield quickly fixed, and fixed for the long haul.

Midway through the 2017, the fans can likely expect to see the arrival of top prospects Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies. The two will man the middle infield positions and form quite the formidable double play team. Both provide above average defense and it is yet to be decided which player will slide over to second base. They will also provide a tremendous boost to the offense, and the team will finally begin to reap the benefits of the deep farm system.

On the mound in 2017, fan’s can potentially expect the emergence of top arm, southpaw Sean Newcomb. So his addition could prove to be a big factor in the team reaching the level of play we are looking for, in terms of World Series contender potential. In addition to Newcomb, Braves fans could finally get their first sightings of 2012 first rounder, Lucas Sims.

I would expect the first season in the new ballpark to also be an underwhelming season for the Braves, but one that I’d look for the team to finish closer to .500 than the team will had seen throughout the last three years at this point. The offense will be improved with the addition of Swanson and Albies, and the pitching staff could finally have the ace it’s been needing in Newcomb. However, they will need time to develop and adapt to the big league level.

2018

The 2018 Braves may be the first team to make the playoffs since the 2014 Braves. This could be when going out to the ballpark becomes fun again for the casual Atlanta fan.

The offense will see the full season debut for stars Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, and the rotation will be aided by an entire season with Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims in the fold.

The opening day lineup holes could still be catcher and third base, depending on what the front office has determined to do when it comes to free agency and trades with the depth of prospects to fill lineup holes. I would expect the 2018 starter at third base to be prospect Rio Ruiz, who could prove to be an average regular at the position, however the current outlook for Ruiz is more of the utility/bench role.

I am going to predict the 2018 Braves shock the baseball world, much like the 2015 Astros, and sneak into the playoffs and give the team they play in the first round a scare with their mixture of youth and hunger.

2019

Finally, the Braves will be ready to take off. This is the year I expect the Braves to be fully embraced by the baseball community as a World Series contender. Led by Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, and Sean Newcomb, the 2019 Atlanta Braves will contend for the NL East division and then, during the playoffs, the World Series.

The teams will be aided by the rapid influx of high upside talent at this point in time (most of which is currently playing in Rome, go watch the future of the Braves!). Third baseman Austin Riley and outfielder Braxton Davidson will provide the power boost the lineup will need. The rotation and bullpen will receive major upgrades in pitchers Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard, and Mike Soroka. Along with the potential debuts of young hitters Ronald Acuna, Juan Yepez, and Isranel Wilson .

In Conclusion

The 2019 season is looking like the season Braves fans are all waiting for, this is the season the team could potentially make the final step in becoming a contender. Properly utilizing free agency and potential future trades by John Coppollela will help fill holes and add necessary depth to the 25 man roster, and the talent he and his crew have already infused within the system will either be big league regulars by this time or will be ready to make their mark.

 

Future Stars For The Atlanta Braves

Under the current Braves’ regime, the farm has gone from one of the worst, to a consensus top-3 system. While the crown jewels of this system are Top 100 prospects: Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb, Ozzie Albies, Aaron Blair, and Kolby Allard, real appreciation of the job the John’s have done can be found in the lower levels of Braves’ organizational prospect lists. As the 2016 Braves season approaches, let’s take a look at some of the lesser-known prospects within one of the league’s top minor league systems.

Ronald Acuna

Ronald Acuna was a 2014 International Signing out of Venezuela. Standing at 6 foot tall and weighing in at 180 pounds, physically he may leave a little to be desired, however Acuna is still just 18 years old and has plenty of time to mature over the coming seasons as he rises through the minor leagues. Throughout his first professional season, Acuna batted .269 with 4 long balls and and 16 stolen bags (per milb.com ), and he was playing his best at season’s end, batting a cool .325 over his final 10 games. In addition to the potential offensively, Acuna mans the valuable position of centerfield, and, by all accounts, scouts view him being able to stick there and as a plus defender. In his recent breakdown of all minor league systems , ESPN’s Keith Law describes his outfield tools as “plus range, with an above-average arm and above-average speed.”

Flashing future signs of all 5 tools so early is without a doubt a good sign for Acuna. Current Special Assistant to Baseball Operations and Braves Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones spoke quite highly of Acuna at Braves’ Spring Training in an interview with Braves AJC beat writer David O’Brien , saying he’s heard Acuna compared to a “young Andruw Jones.” Certainly high praise and not a comparison loosely thrown around, especially amongst the Braves organization. Personally, I have tremendous faith in Acuna, you can take one look at his Instagram account and it’s clear that this man lives and breathes baseball, hopefully we see that passion translate into future success.

Acuna is likely to start off the 2016 season in Single-A Rome, and I’d keep a keen eye on Acuna as a player to shoot up prospect lists come season’s end.

Juan Yepez

As another 2014 International Signing out of Venezuela, third baseman Juan Yepez boasts major upside with his bat. While the outlook on Yepez remains foggy at the moment due to his lack of a position, many see a move to first in his future, his offensive production could very well carry him all the way to Atlanta, sooner rather than later. Like Acuna (and many in the Braves system), Yepez is incredibly young, signing with the organization when he was just 16 years old. Albeit, his lack of experience did not stop him from tearing up his assignment last year, batting .299 over his first 201 professional at-bats and crushing 4 home runs (per milb.com ).

John Sickels, Executive Editor to SB Nation’s Minor League Baseball, recently wrote a piece on the current top 20 prospects for the Braves , where he has Yepez ranked 21st. In his article he states that Yepez is “off to an excellent start” and is “possibly the highest ceiling bat in the system other than Austin Riley.” Given the probable upside in the bat of Riley, that’s high praise for the 18 year old. While some may see this ranking as too high for a kid just coming out of their first season of pro ball, I see this ranking as too low. Just like Acuna, Yepez is a prospect that Braves fans should take the time to get out to the ballpark and see, an exciting and explosive bat who could very well have mashed his way onto the national scene this time next year.

Isranel Wilson

Surprise! Another 18 year old with massive upside here. Isranel Wilson was signed by the Braves out of the Dominican Republic and quickly began playing in the Gulf Coast League as a raw 17 year old. As one could expect, Wilson struggled early on but turned his season around and wound up leading the league in home runs with 10. Early on, it looks like the outfielder could have the most power potential of any prospect in the system, with respect to Austin Riley and Juan Yepez. Standing at 6 foot, 3 inches tall and weighing 185 pounds, Wilson has a frame that’s easily projectable to add weight, and with it, more power.

When he signed with the Braves they viewed him as a player who, like Acuna, could develop 5 above-average or better tools. Recently, Garrett Spain of SB Nation’s Talking Chop sat down with Isranel for an interview , and in it were some interesting quotes that I feel give you an insight into the mind of Wilson. When asked about what he’d been working on over the offseason, Wilson told Spain that it was no secret he had trouble with pitches away and he has been “working on dominating [pitches away].” Dominating. Love the power behind that word. Later on Isranel Wilson directed his attention at the Braves fan base, telling them, “Please be calm, we have plenty of championships coming.”

Wilson possess the drive and mentality of a winner. This interview alone could have excited me for this player, when you tack on his potential and successful first season in the pros, wow. Who knows what Wilson’s ceiling could be, all he knows is he plans on dominating the competition. Let’s enjoy his rise.

The development of these three young players could prove pivotal in the future of the Atlanta Braves. If and when they reach the highest level, they will likely be moving up together through the system, and could take the league by storm. Braves fans should have nothing but optimism about the future of the organization when three players of their caliber have somehow slipped through the cracks. Prepare for Acuna, Yepez, and Wilson to all have big seasons in 2016, and prepare for the future.

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