December 2016

McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (1-10)

The Atlanta Braves returned their focus to young talent following the 2014 season. The results have been astounding. Spending nearly two years stockpiling talent through the draft, trades and international signings, John Coppolella and company have rebuilt this prestigious system into perhaps the best in the game. In the second of this three-part series, I have ranked 10 more of Atlanta’s Top 30 prospects. With the No. 11-20 prospects, we begin finding players who could easily be in the Top 10 for numerous other organizations. And that’s not just lip service. Based on Atlanta’s collection of talent, however, we find these men right in the middle of my Top 30. Keep in mind, this is just my accounting of the Atlanta system, which I hope you will enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed putting it together. A new group of 10 will be released each Thursday between now and the end of the year, counting down from No. 30 to No. 1. Additionally, a new “Around The Big Leagues” podcast will accompany each part.

 

No. 10 – Touki Toussaint (Mills Fitzner/Rome Braves)

10.) Touki Toussaint | RHP | Age: 20 | Acquired: Trade with Arizona, 2015 | ETA: 2019

Atlanta’s rebuild has taken many different forms when it comes to acquiring talent. Some of those have been less traditional than others. Case in point, the Braves essentially purchased Touki Toussaint by providing Arizona with $10 million in salary relief for taking the injured Bronson Arroyo off its hands. And they did it one year to the day that Toussaint was selected by the Diamondbacks with the 16th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Yes, it was a trade and Atlanta also parted with back-up infielder Phil Gosselin, but Arizona’s peculiar decision to prioritize saving money on Arroyo and in turn part with Toussaint after just 19 appearances is truly baffling. On the flip side, this forward-thinking and creative move is just one of the many ways the Braves have bolstered their farm system. After watching Toussaint take some big steps forward in his development in 2016, the club’s foresight appears to be paying dividends.

Toussaint has electric stuff, but grew up playing soccer in Haiti and did not truly begin honing his baseball skills until his teenage years. A raw, hard-thrower, Toussaint was on Atlanta’s radar in the 2014 June draft, but was gone by the time the club picked at No. 31. Credit John Coppolella and company for following up and making the most of a second chance to acquire Toussaint. After adjusting his motion and dropping his release point, Toussaint enjoyed success with those improved mechanics during the second half with Rome in 2016. In addition to mid-90s heat, he owns the best breaking ball in the Atlanta system, a curveball that is as beautiful as it is deadly. Though he still needs to refine his changeup and can struggle with control, Toussaint closed last season strong. After posting a 4.63 ERA and striking out only 56 batters against 39 walks in his first 72 IP, Toussaint posted a 2.98 ERA with 32BB/72K over 60.1 IP in his final 12 appearances – good for 10.7 K/9 during that stretch. He fired a eight innings of one-run ball in his lone playoff start for Rome and also logged a scoreless frame in which he struck out the side in relief. Toussaint will ascend to the Florida State League in 2017, where he will be one of the most intriguing arms to watch in a system that is loaded with pitching talent.

No. 9 – Austin Riley (David Schofield/Rome Braves)

9.) Austin Riley | 3B | Age: 19 | Acquired: 1st Round (41st), 2015 | ETA: 2019

If you aren’t overly familiar with the concept of competitive balance picks, then you aren’t alone. Prior to Atlanta’s wheeling and dealing over the past two years, the average fan was probably not well-versed in just what a valuable commodity these selections could turn out to be. The Braves insisted on getting these draft picks back in many of the early trades in their rebuild, eying the possibilities those draft selections and that pool money would provide them come draft day. The pick that netted Austin Riley was acquired from the San Diego Padres in the Craig Kimbrel trade. In addition to divesting themselves of Melvin Upton Jr.’s bloated contract, Atlanta may have found its third baseman of the future. A big, sturdy kid who stands 6’3” and weighs in at 230 lbs., Riley possess light tower power and settled in at the hot corner after being a two-way star for DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, MS.

It would appear the Braves chose wisely in moving Riley from the mound upon drafting him in 2015. Riley let his bat do the talking and slugged .544 with 12 home runs and 40 RBI in 60 games between the Gulf Coast League and Danville in his pro debut. Getting his first full season action with Rome in 2016, he paced the system with 20 home runs, 61 extra-base hits, 237 total bases and 80 RBI. Those solid numbers were bolstered by a strong second half. Riley batted .289/.348/.581 with 17 home runs and 54 RBI in his final 66 games. He has a somewhat busy swing, but made some necessary adjustments last year. Those allowed him to get to pitches on the inside part of the plate, while taking outside pitches the opposite way. His power to all fields produced more than his fair share of extra-base hits. Riley makes consistent hard contact, but has struck out nearly 30 percent of the time in a season and a half. Couple that with a low walk-rate (just 65 in his 795 plate appearances) and we find a young hitter who is still honing his craft. That walk total is deceptive when it comes to Riley’s overall pitch recognition, which is actually quite good. On the other side, he also has work to do defensively in order to stick at third base. There is no question about the arm, but Riley’s glove work needs attention (46 errors in 175 career games). Given his size, some scouts believe left field may end up being the best place for Riley. There is no rush to make a position change, however, and he’ll head to the Florida State League for his age 20 season.

No. 8 – Mike Soroka (Mills Fitzner/Rome Braves)

8. Mike Soroka | RHP | Age: 19 | Acquired: 1st Round (28th), 2015 | ETA: 2019

There may be other Atlanta pitching prospects that spring to mind more quickly than Mike Soroka, but that could change quickly thanks to the resume he has built in a short amount of time in the system. Part of the vaunted Rome Braves rotation that helped capture a South Atlantic League title, Soroka was a model of efficiency and consistency in 2016. The one takeaway for every talent evaluator I’ve spoken to is that Soroka pitches beyond his years. The Braves jumped at the opportunity to nab him out of Bishop Carroll High School in Calgary, AB, where he also pitched for the Canadian Junior National Team. Atlanta signed him for just under $2 million and limited him to just 34 innings as a 17-year-old in his 2015 debut. Armed with three excellent offerings and exceptional control, Soroka knows how to mix his pitches for maximum results. His sinking fastball sits in the low-90s and lives in the bottom half of the strike zone. Soroka compliments that with a curveball and changeup which both serve to confound opposing hitters.

Like many of Atlanta’s recent draft selections and top prospects on this list, Soroka was one of the younger players in his league last season. That did not stop him from putting up strong numbers, however. Though just 9-9, his 3.02 ERA ranked eighth in the South Atlantic League and he allowed just three home runs in 143 IP. That strikingly low total is a testament to Soroka’s ability to keep the ball down in the zone and generate ground balls. He anchored the Rome rotation all season and in the playoffs as well, allowing just one earned run in 14.2 IP.  All of this was accomplished by a pitcher who did not turn 19 until the final month of the season. It’s easy to see why Soroka has many fans throughout the organization. He displays a calm demeanor and extreme presence on the mound, traits that should serve him well as he moves to High-A with the Fire Frogs in 2017.

No. 7 – Max Fried (David Schofield/Rome Braves)

7.) Max Fried | LHP | Age: 23 | Acquired: Trade with Padres, 2014 | ETA: 2018

The Braves had to take it slow with Max Fried, but their patience was rewarded last season. Fried was acquired from San Diego as part of the Justin Upton trade and was in the midst of his recovery from Tommy John surgery at that time. This was yet another calculated risk for Atlanta, banking on the former top 10 pick to bounce back and cash in on his potential. However, it’s worth noting that a pitching prospect like Fried may not have even been available were it not for that injury. Fried did not throw a pitch in 2015, but was back in a big way last year and is likely to jump back into those Top 100 prospect lists now that he’s healthy for the first time in two years. Fried was 8-7 with a 3.93 ERA and 47BB/112K in 103 IP for Rome last season. He also piled up a ridiculous 10 pickoffs thanks to one of the most deceptive moves in the minors.

While his overall numbers don’t look overwhelming at first glance, he was yet another Atlanta farmhand who showed more in how he finished the season than how it began. Fried was 6-3 with a 2.80 ERA and 11.8 K/9 in his last 11 regular season starts, punching out 10 men in each of his final two outings. He followed that up with a dominant performance in the playoffs, in which he struck out a career-high 11 men over 7.2 IP to send Rome to the South Atlantic League championship series and then topped that with a 13-strikeout performance to clinch the Sally League title. Fried’s velocity was back to its pre-surgery level last season, sitting in the low-mid-90s and jumping up 97 mph at times. A midseason blister issue cost him about a month, but may well have opened the door for his playoff heroics. He throws two curveballs, a sharp breaker that serves as a put-away pitch and a slower version that he can rely on to set hitters up with. Fried’s changeup is also a quality pitch and should improve as he continues to refine his repertoire. Though he could begin next year with High-A Florida, Fried may see an early promotion that allows him to spend the majority of the season with Double-A Mississippi. There are some indications that he may work his way into Atlanta’s plans before 2017 is over.

No. 6 – Ian Anderson (Photo by Jeff Morris)

6.) Ian Anderson | RHP | Age: 18 | Acquired: 1st Round (3rd), 2016 | ETA: 2020

Bonus pools are still a relatively new concept for many fans to grapple with when it comes to the June draft, but anyone who follows the Braves got a crash course in creative allocation of funds in 2016. In fact, teams are still perfecting their strategies when it comes to draft spending. As discussed countless times, it has become clear over the past two years that Atlanta is always looking for ways to remain creative in order to maximize the return on investment. Selecting Ian Anderson, a projectable right-hander, with the third overall pick was the first step in a three-part process that allowed Atlanta to procure three outstanding prep pitchers. Anderson signed for $4 million (slot value for the No. 3 pick was $6.5 million) which made it possible to apply added money to the bonuses of Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller. Thus, the Braves feel they acquired three high ceiling arms to highlight last June’s draft class. Let’s not allow that strategy to overshadow just how talented Anderson is, however.

Atlanta had been on Anderson for quite some time leading up to his eventual selection last June. He was a consensus top 10 pick and Braves scouting director Brian Bridges dropped a Mike Mussina comparison on draft night. Anderson is along the lines of 2015 draftee Mike Soroka, another cerebral pitcher in the system who executes his game plan with precision. Signed away from a commitment to Vanderbilt, Anderson operates in the low-90s with a fastball that can be ramped up a few more ticks when necessary. However, it’s his impressive offspeed combination of a changeup and curveball which gives him the weapons to become an effective big league starter. At just 6’3” and 170 pounds coming out of Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y., Anderson’s physical development will play a role in determining just how high his ceiling may eventually be. Most believe his floor is that of a middle of the rotation starter. After getting his feet wet with the Gulf Coast League and Danville, posting a 2.04 ERA in 10 starts with 12BB/36K in 39.2 IP, Anderson will get his first taste of full season ball with Rome in 2017.

No. 5 – Kevin Maitan (Photo by Jeff Morris)

5.) Kevin Maitan | SS | Age: 16 | Acquired: Free Agent, 2016 | ETA: 2020

Kevin Maitan is perhaps the next great player to come from Venezuela, a country that has produced Miguel Cabrera, Félix Hernández, Jose Altuve and Carlos Gonzalez just to name a few in recent years. The press clippings were many when it came to scouts and prospect experts singing the praises of Maitan, so to say that the Braves were intent on securing his services would be putting it lightly. The switch-hitting shortstop had been on the radar of clubs for nearly three years as he developed into the top international prospect in the 2016 class. Atlanta signed Maitan for $4.25 million, part of a spending spree that netted numerous top talents last summer. Drawing comparisons to Cabrera as well as Braves great Chipper Jones, the expectations are sky high for Maitan, who has been already been tabbed a generational talent by some.

He possesses power from both sides of the plate and already shows an advanced approach to hitting. That’s not something one comes to expect from a 16-year-old, but one of the many reasons Maitan is a special player. The athleticism and baseball smarts are also off the charts. He has the ability to stay at shortstop, but some talent evaluators already believe a move to third base is in Maitan’s future. That does not have to happen anytime soon as there is still plenty of physical development ahead. Just like Cristian Pache and Derian Cruz before him, Maitan is set to make his professional debut roughly one year after signing. While the Gulf Coast League is a possibility, a stint in the Dominican Summer League may be the most likely spot for Maitan to begin his journey.

No. 4 – Sean Newcomb (Photo by Mississippi Braves)

4.) Sean Newcomb | LHP | Age: 23 | Acquired: Trade with Angels, 2015 | ETA: 2017

As the big return for shipping the popular Andrelton Simmons to Los Angeles, Sean Newcomb has faced high expectations since the day he joined the Atlanta system. The big left-hander has front of the rotation stuff, but refining his command is the big hurdle. The Angels took Newcomb with the 15th overall selection in the 2014 draft out of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. At 6’5” and 255 lbs., Newcomb has drawn comparison to Cubs ace Jon Lester throughout his minor league career. A glance at the size, stuff and throwing motion confirm that observation. After just one full season in the Los Angeles system and a trip the Futures Game in 2015, Newcomb switched organizations. He finished his first season with the Braves with an 8-7 record to go along with a 3.86 ERA and led the Southern League (and all Double-A pitchers) with 152 strikeouts, a total that tied him for second in the organization. Newcomb’s fastball is typically in the low-mid 90s, but he can easily push it to 97 mph, with reports he has touched triple digits over the past two seasons. His curveball is a plus pitch and generates plenty of swings and misses. The changeup is adequate and provides the necessary variety to be a useful third pitch.

The organization was encouraged with the way Newcomb finished his 2016 campaign with Mississippi, where he posted a 2.70 ERA with 23BB/69K and a .497 opponents’ OPS in 56.2 IP over his final 10 starts. When the Braves traded for Newcomb, he was at the forefront of the rebuilding effort and the first of many top arms added to the system. Now 23, he is the oldest of Atlanta’s top pitching prospects, but is still a work in progress in some respects. That’s not to say he is old by any stretch of the imagination. Though he will get a cursory look this spring as the Braves evaluate all their in-house rotation options for 2017, Newcomb appears bound for Gwinnett to open the season. If he picks up where he left off in 2016, he could be pitching in Atlanta before the summer is over.

No. 3 – Kolby Allard (Photo by David Schofield/Rome Braves)

3.) Kolby Allard | LHP | Age: 19 | Acquired: 1st Round (14th), 2015 | ETA: 2019

Atlanta landed a potential top overall pick when they selected Kolby Allard with their first selection in the draft two summers ago. Though a back ailment cost Allard much of his senior season at San Clemente High School in California, the Braves ultimately decided that the potential reward simply outweighed risk of passing on the chance to select the talented left-hander. After all, this was an opportunity to get a pitcher midway through the first round who would likely have been drafted in the top three before the injury concerns. Allard fell to Atlanta with the 14th pick in the draft and signed for $3 million. After minor surgery for a stress reaction in his back shortened his pro debut with the GCL last year, Allard’s front of the rotation stuff was on display in 2016.

The Braves held him back in the first half, but he went on to finish 8-3 with a 2.98 ERA and 25BB/95K in 87.2 IP across 16 starts between Danville and Rome. Allard didn’t stop there either, posting 12 shut-out frames in the playoffs as Rome won the South Atlantic League title. Like Soroka, Allard has tremendous mound presence, far beyond that of the average 19-year-old. He has the arsenal to give opposing lineups fits. Allard’s fastball sits in the low-90s and can run up to 94 mph with excellent movement. He pounds the bottom of the strike zone and utilizes a sharp curveball that is one of the best in the entire system. Add a changeup that has potential to become a plus pitch and Allard has all the makings of a front of the rotation starter. After proving himself healthy last season, he will head to the Florida State League in 2017.

No. 2 – Ozzie Albies (Photo by Mississippi Braves)

2.) Ozzie Albies | 2B | Age: 20 | Acquired: Free Agent, 2013 | ETA: 2017

The pitching-rich Braves have a pair of middle infielders sitting atop their prospect hot sheet. Ozzie Albies has been a fast-riser since signing with Atlanta nearly four years ago for $350,000. The speedy Curacao native wasted little time establishing himself as one of the best contact hitters in the minor leagues. Despite being one of the youngest players in his league annually, Albies is a lifetime .310/.377/.419 hitter with 81 stolen bases in 293 games and even flashed some extra-base hit ability last season. He has rocketed through the ranks and accomplished all of this while never facing a pitcher younger than him in his minor league career. With an excellent blend of offensive and defensive skills to go along with a tremendous competitive spirit, it’s no wonder Albies has enjoyed success wherever he’s gone. It has him knocking on the door of the major leagues.

The Braves have not been hesitant to challenge Albies, whose gregarious nature helps him fit right into any clubhouse. He speaks four languages and has tremendous makeup as well, which certainly plays in his favor. Albies was the youngest player in the Double-A Southern League in 2016, where he won the batting title with a .321 average despite a stint in Triple-A in the middle of the season. Though he’s an excellent defensive shortstop, the Braves decided to go ahead and move Albies to second base last season and even paired him with Dansby Swanson upon his return to Mississippi. The club hopes that double play duo will be together for years to come. After an excellent all-around season, Albies suffered a bizarre injury in the Southern League playoffs when he fractured the olecranon bone in his right elbow on a swing. Though it ended his season and scuttled any thoughts of a September call-up, Albies is on schedule to be ready for the start of spring training. He will come to camp to compete for Atlanta’s second base job, but could begin the season with Triple-A Gwinnett, where he showed signs of figuring things out before dropping back down a level to play alongside Swanson. If his past is any indicator, it won’t be long until Albies is ready to make the jump to SunTrust Park.

No. 1 – Dansby Swanson (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

1.) Dansby Swanson | SS | Age: 22 | Acquired: Trade with Arizona, 2015

The centerpiece of one of the best trades in franchise history, Dansby Swanson burst onto the scene in Atlanta last summer and showed why he has a chance to be a franchise fixture for years to come. Blessed with off the charts makeup and a well-rounded tool set, Swanson has drawn rave reviews for his all-around game from Braves executives. The local kid from nearby Marietta handled his call-up with the kind of grace and consistency the team expected, while establishing himself as an asset on a nightly basis. Swanson batted .302/.361/.442 with a 115 OPS+ in 38 games after making the jump from Double-A Mississippi to the majors just over a year after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft by Arizona. He did everything the club asked on the trek to the big leagues, opening the season with Carolina before an early promotion to Mississippi, where he batted .261 with eight homers and 45 RBI in 84 games.

Some were surprised initially that Swanson got the call, given that his minor league numbers don’t jump off the page. He put any concerns to rest relatively quickly, however, as he settled into the everyday shortstop job with Atlanta. Swanson was one of the catalysts for the Braves’ second half surge. After hitting just .236 in his first 15 games, he batted .351/.417/.568 over his final 23 contests and ended the season just two at-bats shy of surpassing rookie status. A contact hitter who can spray line drives all over the ballpark and possesses the ability to work counts, the Braves are likely to move Swanson up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order in 2017. Swanson is a standout player defensively as well. He displayed his quickness, range and arm strength throughout his major league orientation. As Braves president of baseball operations John Hart put it recently, “Swanson is a player whose overall game is better than the sum of the parts.” He does everything well, though he does not possess one stand-out tool. What Atlanta loves about Swanson is that he is a steady contributor with a winning mentality. In other words, the intangibles may be hard to quantify, but they give him a chance to be an All-Star player for years to come. That could begin in 2017 as the Braves move into SunTrust Park.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

Braves Notebook: Wieters, Dozier rumors

Grant McAuley’s Braves Notebook for 12/27…

While many teams have their eye on Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, it does not appear the Braves are among the most aggressive in vying for his services. Trade speculation has swirled around Dozier, 29, who is coming off a career-best season in which he belted 42 home runs for a last place Minnesota club which lost 103 games in 2016. With plenty of power and an affordable contract, Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball provided an update of clubs in pursuit on Monday.

While it is not surprising that Atlanta, or any club for that matter, would place a call to inquire about Dozier, it does not mean any deals have been discussed. The prospect price would likely be rather high to provide an immediate power upgrade at a position where home runs are historically scarce. He was having a normal Brian Dozier season until the second half, when he batted .291/.344/.646 with 28 homers in 72 games. That is a pace that will be next to impossible to keep up. Realistically, interested clubs will be hoping he can at least approach the overall production he has posted the last two seasons.

Under control for two more seasons at just $15 million ($6 million in 2017 and $9 million in 2018), the Twins have a bargain player they can hold on to or a chip to cash in at the July trade deadline. Second basemen with a .278 ISO (second best in MLB last season) don’t grow on trees. In fact, few players of any position possess that kind of power production to be honest. Unfortunately for Minnesota, there are quite a few run producers still out on the free agent market this off-season. That provides clubs the option of laying down the money and retaining their young talent.

There is no question that Atlanta has the pieces to make a trade happen, but this kind of trade feels like a stretch for a team that is simply not one piece away, a fact John Coppolella is cognizant of and even mentioned amidst Atlanta’s rumored pursuit of an ace starting pitcher.  Lest we forget, the last time the Braves traded for a slugging second baseman who was a bit prone to the strikeout, it did not end well. Of course, a multi-year extension ultimately became the real albatross in that case. While that is a cautionary tale, Brian Dozier is not Dan Uggla and should not be viewed or treated as such by any team exploring a trade.

The latest round of Matt Wieters rumors…

Those come courtesy of Jim Bowden over at ESPN, who reported last week that Atlanta remains interested in the longtime Orioles catcher.

Matt Wieters remains a free agent in search of his next home. Baltimore recently signed Welington Castillo and has seemingly turned the page. The eight-year veteran has won a pair of gold glove awards and earned four trips to the All-Star game, but injuries have really taken a toll on his perceived value in the eyes of some. Wieters, 30, batted .243/.302/.409 with 17 home runs in 124 games for Baltimore last season. He has long been linked with the Braves given he played his college ball in Atlanta for Georgia Tech.

While certainly capable behind the plate, Wieters is not known for his pitch framing ability, a skill that has become increasingly popular with clubs over the past few years. Despite any and all shortcomings, however, his agent Scott Boras is known for his ability to market his clients’ services with a high degree of success. He will no doubt be seeking the best deal he can find for Wieters this winter. While a fit still appears unlikely, the Braves are likely to monitor this situation leading up to spring training:

Atlanta’s current catching situation appears to be heading into 2017 with same duo that closed out last season. Tyler Flowers enjoyed his best season offensively, while well-traveled Anthony Recker carved out a niche as a reserve in the second half. Club officials have said repeatedly that they are comfortable going into the season with Flowers and Recker as the catching tandem. Atlanta also added veteran back-up Tuffy Gosewich over the winter. While none of these are exciting names per se, it does not mean that the Braves should or would spend frivolously on Wieters to address their need. Unless the price falls into Atlanta’s proverbial comfort zone, it’s hard to imagine a union of any length with Wieters.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (11-20)

The Atlanta Braves returned their focus to young talent following the 2014 season. The results have been astounding. Spending nearly two years stockpiling talent through the draft, trades and international signings, John Coppolella and company have rebuilt this prestigious system into perhaps the best in the game. In the second of this three-part series, I have ranked 10 more of Atlanta’s Top 30 prospects. With the No. 11-20 prospects, we begin finding players who could easily be in the Top 10 for numerous other organizations. And that’s not just lip service. Based on Atlanta’s collection of talent, however, we find these men right in the middle of my Top 30. Keep in mind, this is just my accounting of the Atlanta system, which I hope you will enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed putting it together. A new group of 10 will be released each Thursday between now and the end of the year, counting down from No. 30 to No. 1. Additionally, a new “Around The Big Leagues” podcast will accompany each part.

 

 

No. 20 – Patrick Weigel (Mills Fitzner/Rome Braves

20.) Patrick Weigel | RHP | Age: 22 | Acquired: 7th Round, 2015 | ETA: 2018

Despite being in a system heavy on pitching prospects, Patrick Weigel did not have to worry about getting lost in the shuffle in 2016. Quite the opposite happened to the lanky, hard-thrower as he went from off the radar to Double-A by season’s end. Weigel was named Atlanta’s organizational pitcher of the year after turning in an 11-6 campaign with a 2.47 ERA and 55BB/152K in 149.2 IP. Standing 6’6” and blessed with mid-90s heat that can approach 100 mph at times, Weigel seemed to put everything together last season after serving as a reliever with the University of Houston, his third collegiate stop. He improved his delivery as the year went on with repeatability being the main focus. He does an excellent job of keeping the ball in the park – 11 HR allowed in 201.1 IP in his career. More to the point, Weigel limits the number of base hits in general, yielding just 101 of those for a paltry .194 opponents average last season.

Winning that pitcher of the year award is high praise in an organization that has as much depth as the Braves do. Weigel finished second in the system in strikeouts and ERA while leading all Atlanta minor leaguers in innings pitched. He was arguably the best pitcher in a Rome rotation that was absolutely loaded with talent. He led the team in wins, ERA and strikeouts prior to skipping High-A and continuing his fine work for the Mississippi club. Command is still a work in progress at times, but Weigel boasts a four-pitch mix that includes an excellent fastball, a slider, a slow curve and a changeup. With that kind of arsenal, it’s no wonder he had South Atlantic League hitters all tied up. Given his age and the fact he got a taste of the Southern League last year, it makes sense for Weigel to skip High-A altogether and begin 2017 with Mississippi.

No. 19 – Cristian Pache (Photo by Jeff Morris)

19.) Cristian Pache | OF | Age: 18 | Acquired: Free Agent, 2015 | ETA: 2020

Highlighting Atlanta’s 2015 signing class, Cristian Pache (along with Derian Cruz) signaled the Braves front office’s intention to be a player in the international market. Making his stateside debut a year after getting one of the largest international signing bonuses handed out by Atlanta ($1.4 million), Pache led the system with a .309 batting average (albeit in just 57 games) as he displayed his natural athleticism. Excellent speed and good instincts both in the outfield and on the bases are plusses for Pache, but like most 17-year-olds getting their first taste of pro ball, he still lacks real polish at the plate.

That said, Pache’s overall skills offer an excellent foundation upon which to build. Refining his swing is the first order of development, because he already has a solid approach at the plate. A native of the Dominican Republic, Pache was challenged with a promotion to Danville after enjoying immediate success in the Gulf Coast League, where he battled .283/.325/.377 with seven steals. He answered with even better results in the Appalachian League, finishing the year batting at a .333/.372/.404 clip in 30 games. While he could see more time with Danville, Pache might get the opportunity to show what he can do with Rome to begin 2017. If so, he would be one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League.

No. 18 – Anfernee Seymour (Photo by Jeff Morris)

18.) Anfernee Seymour | INF | Age: 21 | Acquired: Trade, 2016 | ETA: 2019

The Braves added some much-needed speed to the system when they traded for Marlins farmhand Anfernee Seymour last summer. A middle infielder who could eventually find his way into center field, top of the line wheels are the most exciting aspect of Seymour’s game. Not only does he steal bases, but he does so at a high rate of success – 80 percent in 104 career attempts. That comes thanks in part to some diligent work improving his jumps. Well, that and blazing speed. He batted .257/.296/.303 in 125 games between Greensboro and Rome last season, stealing 43 bases in 55 attempts. That low on-base percentage is the result of just 26 walks in 537 plate appearances and exacerbated by 118 strikeouts.

Seymour is originally from the Bahamas and moved to the states to play his high school ball in South Florida. He got an extra year at a Miami-area baseball academy, so he was nearly 19 when Miami took him in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. Seymour made a pair of significant changes to begin his pro career. First, he switched from the outfield to shortstop. Second, the Marlins chose to develop him as a switch-hitter. Seymour is a natural right-handed hitter, but has made good progress from the left side. He is a slasher-style hitter who lacks any real power, but that shouldn’t negatively affect a player who will make a living with his legs. To do that, however, Seymour will have to find his way on base more, which starts with making more consistent contact and also includes working counts to draw more walks. He’ll get a crack at the Florida State League with the Fire Frogs in 2017.

No. 17 – Rio Ruiz (Atlanta Braves/Getty Images)

17.) Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 22 | Acquired: Trade, 2015 | ETA: 2017

Acquired from Houston in the Evan Gattis trade, Atlanta was hoping to have added a potential third baseman of the future in Rio Ruiz. However, prolonged struggles at the Double-A level were assuaged only slightly by a solid final month of the 2015 season. Following that rocky debut in the organization, the Braves challenged Ruiz heading into last winter. Many, if not most, figured that a return to Mississippi was in order as Ruiz was sent home for the winter with the goal of dropping some weight and improving his approach. The results, however, exceeded expectation. Ruiz went to work and returned this past spring 25 lbs. lighter and ready to tackle what would come next – a somewhat aggressive promotion to Triple-A. Ruiz put some things together in 2016, so much so that he found himself in Atlanta by September.

Though a fast start gave way to some May struggles, Ruiz navigated his way through those to put together a respectable .271/.355/.401 line on the season with 10 homers and a team-high 62 RBI in 133 games for Gwinnett last year. That was a major improvement from the .229/.331/.318 campaign he posted with Mississippi in 2015. The power is there, though it may not necessary result in a high home run total annually. Ruiz is a good judge of the strikezone and that should allow him to work counts and find pitches to hit. He also improved his footwork and general play around the bag at third base last season. Ruiz is an adequate fielder who could develop into a productive hitter, but it is important to keep in mind that he was among the youngest players in Triple-A last season. Ruiz will get a look by the Braves this spring in big league camp, but a return to Gwinnett seems to be the most likely scenario. Heading into his age 22 season, that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

No. 16 – Alex Jackson (Seattle Mariners/Getty Images)

16.) Alex Jackson | OF | Age: 21 | Acquired: Trade, 2016 | ETA: 2019

Adding former first round talents has been a staple of Atlanta’s rebuild, and they found another this winter by trading for former Mariners top pick Alex Jackson. One of the best prep bats available in the 2014 draft and perhaps recent memory, Jackson failed to impress Seattle in parts of three seasons in the system. The Mariners moved Jackson to the outfield upon selecting him sixth overall in 2014, but he was a catcher coming out of high school. The change was made in large part with the belief that his bat would develop faster if they removed the burden of trying to develop behind the plate as well. However, that did not produce the desired effect. Jackson has yet to advance beyond Low-A ball over the past two seasons, showing only modest improvement while dealing with some injury setbacks as well. The Mariners sent him to extended spring training to open 2016. That is a curious place to begin year three of one’s career as a former first round draft pick. After being sent that message, Jackson was eventually back with Clinton in the Midwest League, where he batted .243/.332/.408 with 32 extra-base hits (11 homers) and 34BB/103K in 92 games last season.

Perhaps a change of scenery will do Jackson some good. If he’s able to make continual improvements, he could very well develop into a middle of the order hitter for the Braves. His power is off the charts and is a product of excellent bat speed. Being overly aggressive has gotten Jackson into trouble in the early stages of his career, but the tools that made him such an exciting player in the draft just two years ago are still very much accounted for. Though he has worked diligently to become a solid right fielder, Atlanta may explore the possibility of moving Jackson back behind the plate if he is amenable to changing positions yet again. Some in the organization believe he has the necessary skills to become a power hitting catcher, something that is in relatively short supply in the majors. That move, should it happen, would likely play a part in deciding where Jackson is be assigned to open 2017. If he remains in the outfield, a stop in Rome is not out of the question, though his next challenge as a hitter awaits in the Florida State League.

No. 15 – Kyle Muller (Photo by Jeff Morris)

15.) Kyle Muller | LHP | Age: 19 | Acquired: 2nd Round, 2016 | ETA: 2020

Atlanta selected a trio of prep pitchers with its first three picks of the 2016 draft, capping that group with big left-hander Kyle Muller. An impressive physical specimen, Muller has already filled out his 6’6” frame at 225 lbs. and was a noted slugger in his high school days at Jesuit College Prep in Dallas, TX. His work on the mound is what attracted the Braves, however. Muller set a national high school record by striking out 24 consecutive hitters over two games, including 18 in a row to open a 21-strikeout performance in the second contest. Along with a mid-90s fastball that has excellent movement, Muller also possesses a curveball and changeup, which he is working to refine.

Muller was committed to the University of Texas before signing with Atlanta for an above-slot deal of $2.5 million after being selected 44th overall last summer. Big and projectable, he is sound mechanically and earned his first opportunity as a professional in the Gulf Coast League. All he did there was tear off a string of dominant performances, posting a 0.65 ERA in 27.2 IP with just 14 hits allowed and 12BB/38K. After being touched up for three runs in his second appearance, Muller finished the season with 22 consecutive scoreless innings over his final eight outings. Along with Ian Anderson and Joey Wentz (more on him later), Muller appears ticketed for Rome in his first full season, where that trio could provide an encore for the 2016 rotation which helped capture a Sally League title.

No. 14 – Dustin Peterson (Ed Gardner/Mississippi Braves)

14.) Dustin Peterson | OF | Age:  22 | Acquired: Trade, 2014 | ETA: 2017

Perhaps no hitter in the system did more to improve his stock than Mississippi outfielder Dustin Peterson. Awarded Organizational Player of the Year in 2016, Peterson took a big step forward in his development last season. In fact, he seemed to put it all together. The Braves acquired Peterson as part of the Justin Upton trade with San Diego in December of 2014. Originally a third baseman, Atlanta immediately moved Peterson to left field, a position he has found much more agreeable. After showing modest success despite being injured in the team bus crash with Carolina in 2015, Peterson really excelled in the Southern League last season. Batting .282/.343/.431 with 12 home runs and 38 doubles in 132 games, he led all Atlanta farmhands with 88 RBI and was second in both extra-base hits (52) and total bases (226) while setting career-highs across the board offensively.

One thing that may not be immediately evident when looking at Peterson’s career is that he has been one of the younger players in his league each season. He tallied just 18 plate appearances against pitchers younger than him in 2016, while playing his age 21 season at Double-A. Enjoying a little continuity as he settles into his regular defensive position, Peterson has been able to focus on making strides at the plate. He does not profile as a classic power hitter, but Peterson is quick to the ball and can barrel pitches with regularity. That should provide regular extra-base hit ability as he climbs the ranks. Still prone to the occasional swing and miss (100 strikeouts last season), Peterson has improved his pitch recognition annually. While his good play last season may have culminated in a September call-up some years, Atlanta’s outfield became rather crowded with the addition of Matt Kemp and remains locked down heading into 2017. Peterson will get a chance to test his wares against Triple-A pitching in 2017.

No. 13 Travis Demeritte (Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images)

13.) Travis Demeritte | 2B | Age: 22 | Acquired: Trade, 2016 | ETA: 2018

Just as Anfernee Seymour brought some speed to the system, trading for Travis Demeritte injected some much-needed power into Atlanta’s minor league ranks. One of the more intriguing trades by John Coppolella over the past two years, the Braves sent veteran journeyman starter Lucas Harrell and recent waiver-claim reliever Dario Alvarez to Texas in exchange for Demeritte. A middle infielder with plus power, the righty-hitting Demeritte put together a strong season in 2016 and then followed it up with an encore performance in the Arizona Fall League as he subbed in for an injured Ozzie Albies. Though he may have to change positions at some point on his trek to Atlanta, Demeritte’s power will play anywhere. The Braves were happy to get a Georgia kid who was, you guessed it, a former first round selection in 2013. Demeritte played his high school ball in nearby Winder, GA, and is excited about the chance to play closer to home as he sets his sights on Atlanta in the coming years.

Beginning in the hitter-friendly California League, Demeritte clocked 28 home runs last season while batting .266/.361/.554. The one big concern has been the strikeouts. He had 175 of those in 455 at-bats last season and has struck out 40 percent of the time in his minor league career. That aside, Demeritte is emerging as an excellent defensive second baseman who has experience at both shortstop and third base. He is also an excellent baserunner and stole 17 bases in 21 attempts in 2016. Demeritte’s strong season earned him a spot in the Futures Game during the All-Star festivities in San Diego, where he teamed as one half of a double play combo with Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson for the United States. All has not been grand for Demeritte on his ascent through the minors, however. He was suspended for 80 games in 2015 for a banned substance. Over a year removed from that and with a strong 2016 season under his belt, Demeritte will head to Mississippi this year.

No. 12 – Ronald Acuña (David Schofield/Rome Braves)

12.) Ronald Acuña | OF | Age: 19 | Acquired: Free Agent, 2014 | ETA: 2020

Perhaps no single player in the organization elicits as much excitement as outfielder Ronald Acuña. While the possibilities and potential are truly fascinating, the real shame of 2016 was that he was sidelined for a large portion of the season. Robbed of three months’ worth of playing time thanks to a thumb injury he suffered during a slide in May, Acuña returned to help Rome win the South Atlantic League Championship. He finished a truncated season with a .311/.387/.432 line with four homers, 18 RBI, 14 steals and 27 runs scored in 40 games. Acuña has made up for some of that lost time with a successful stint in the Australian Baseball League this winter. Through 20 games, he has slashed .375/.446/.555 with 13 RBI and 13 SB. Signed out of Venezuela in 2014 for just $100,000, Acuña may be the biggest bargain in the entire Atlanta system. The real fun will be watching him develop and seeing just how quickly it happens.

Acuña has all the tools to be a terrific, well-rounded player. His on-base skills are bolstered by a keen eye that has allowed him to be aggressive when the time is right. In other words, he is looking to hit but knows when to take his walks. That approach lays the foundation for Acuña to become a productive hitter. With a combination of power and speed, he should make an impact in any league. He runs well and will steal his fair share of bases, while using that speed to patrol center field with relative ease. With his body still developing, Acuña’s raw power could eventually allow him to become a home run threat as well. If that happens, the Braves will have a super-prospect on their hands. Throw in his above average work defensively and you have all the makings of a special player.  Acuña could easily jump into my Top 10 in short order. In fact, my respected peers over at Talking Chop ranked him as the No. 2 prospect in the system. While he could rise quickly in the rankings with a big year, Acuña has played just 97 games thus far in his young career. I find myself wanting to see what a full season could do for him. Acuña will head to Florida and the Fire Frogs in 2017, but may have one last stop at Rome prior to that.

No. 11 – Joey Wentz (Photo by Jeff Morris)

11.) Joey Wentz | LHP | Age: 19 | Acquired:  1st Round, 2016 | ETA: 2020

There is a case to be made that Joey Wentz may have been the best prep left-hander available in the draft last summer. The Braves were certainly overjoyed when he fell to them with the 40th pick in last June’s draft. Like Kyle Muller, who was selected a few picks later, Wentz showed promise with the bat, but excelled on the mound. Drawing comparisons to Rangers lefty Cole Hamels, the Braves executed a draft strategy that allowed them sign Wentz away from the University of Virginia with a $3 million bonus, nearly twice the slot value for the 40th selection ($1.6 million). As mentioned earlier, Muller also received an over-slot deal. Atlanta was able to sign this duo by agreeing to an under-slot deal with the No. 3 overall pick, Ian Anderson. Financial components aside, the talent is what generates the most excitement. Before we get to that, though, there’s an interesting side note about Atlanta’s selection of Wentz. That competitive balance pick was acquired in the up to now ill-fated Hector Olivera trade of 2015. It was that three-way deal with the Dodgers and Marlins which netted the Braves the 40th overall selection by way of Miami. That means Wentz may well be the saving grace of a trade in which he was only indirectly involved.

Turning their attention in the draft to the higher risk arena of prep arms, Atlanta believes it has identified ones that will yield a big reward. Wentz took a break from pitching after feeling the effects of a dead arm in his junior year, but through conditioning and a throwing program he returned to the mound even better than before. He flashed all-around plus potential during his senior season at Shawnee Mission East High School in Kansas, where he was 9-0 and did not allow a single run in 51.1 IP while piling up 104 strikeouts. In fact, he opened the season with 26 no-hit innings. Wentz has a fastball with excellent movement that sits in the low-90s and has reached 95. He works off that with a curveball and changeup, a pair of pitches that could be plus offerings as he develops. Already 6’5” and 210 lbs., Wentz is another projectable type who is well-equipped to succeed. Wentz made his pro debut last summer with the Gulf Coast League and later moved up to Danville, turning in a 3.68 ERA in 44 IP across 12 starts. He allowed just 34 hits and no home runs, but walked 25 men while striking out 53. His results in the Appalachian League were a little rougher, but were skewed by a bad start in his Danville debut. Wentz will likely team with Anderson and Muller in a restocked Rome Braves rotation that will be one to watch in 2017.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (21-30)

The Atlanta Braves returned their focus to young talent following the 2014 season. The results have been astounding. Spending nearly two years stockpiling talent through the draft, trades and international signings, John Coppolella and company have rebuilt this prestigious system into perhaps the best in the game. In the first of this three-part series, I have ranked 10 of Atlanta’s Top 30 prospects. A new group of 10 will be released each Thursday between now and the end of the year, counting down from No. 30 to No. 1. Additionally, a new “Around The Big Leagues” podcast will accompany each part. Keep in mind, this is just my accounting of the Atlanta system, which I hope you will enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

 

 

 

 

No. 30 – Braxton Davidson (Photo by Grant McAuley)

30. Braxton Davidson | OF | Age: 20 | Acquired: 1st Round, 2014 | ETA: 2019

Atlanta was hoping Braxton Davidson would be a productive corner outfielder when they selected him with the 32nd pick in the first round back in 2014 out of T.C. Roberson HS in Asheville, NC. That goal remains well within the realm of possibility, but Davidson is still honing his approach as he heads into his third full season in the organization. For the second consecutive season, he led all Braves minor leaguers in walks, but many talent evaluators believe Davidson could actually be taking a few too many pitches. He has posted a .366 on-base percentage through his first 300 games despite batting just .232 thus far.

While he has a patient approach, Davidson has been plagued by contact issues. His 184 strikeouts in 2016 were far and away the most by any player in the system, marking the second straight season that he held that dubious distinction. While his power is evident in batting practice, it has yet to translate regularly into game action. That is something that should start to manifest when and if he adopts a more aggressive approach in order to take advantage of hitter’s counts. Davidson batted just .224/.344/.360 with 10 home runs in 516 plate appearances last season and could find himself back in High-A to start the 2017. That would give him a chance to hone his skills a bit more before thrusting him into the upper levels of the system.

No. 29 – Lucas Herbert (Photo by Kyle Hess)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

29. Lucas Herbert | C | Age: 20 | Acquired: 2nd Round, 2015 | ETA: 2020

Lucas Herbert has a chance to stand out at a position that has been among the thinnest in the organization in recent years. An athletic backstop with good catch-and-throw skills, Herbert has yet to find any real consistency since signing with Atlanta. A torn meniscus limited him to just three games in his rookie league pro debut. Assigned to full season ball with Rome in 2016, Herbert was unable to get going at the plate. He batted just .185/.234/.278 with six home runs while striking out 96 times in 335 at-bats.

The high school teammate of Atlanta’s 2015 1st rounder, Kolby Allard, at San Clemente High School in California, Herbert had committed UCLA before the Braves selected him 54th overall in 2015. Herbert was praised for his ability to frame pitches and work with a staff, earning the opportunity to call his own games as a high school catcher. Working with one of the best young staffs in the minors last season, Herbert was lauded by his batterymates for his all around game, communication and ability to help execute the game plan.  Herbert threw out 34 percent of would-be base stealers last season, so he is efficient against the run. Like any young catcher, he’s still polishing some of his skills behind the plate, however. Injury and inconsistent offense have marked the early days of his pro career, but Herbert has both the skillset and the makeup to overcome those setbacks. He will likely see more time with Rome to begin 2017.

No. 28 – Jeremy Walker (Photo by GWUsports.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28. Jeremy Walker | RHP | Age: 21 | Acquired: 5th Round, 2016 | ETA: 2018

As the Braves loaded up on pitching last summer, it’s easy for Jeremy Walker’s name to get lost in the shuffle. A college arm out of Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina, he was a touch older than the prep arms Atlanta had targeted in the early rounds of the draft. The sheer number of starting pitching prospects could eventually lead to a transition from the rotation to the bullpen, but Walker has the arsenal to compete as a starter. The Braves were attracted to his four-pitch mix that includes a fastball typically clocked in the low-90s, a changeup and both a slider and curveball.

Walker improved his command as he filled out his 6’5″ frame during his three years at Gardner-Webb. And he rolled that right into a successful debut in pro-ball. Making 13 appearances (five starts) with Danville, Walker turned in a 3.18 ERA with 8BB/37K in 39.2 IP. He will need to maintain his mechanics and continue to miss bats in order to have success as he climbs the ladder. That said, Walker’s work ethic and control of the strikezone should both help him.

No. 27 – Akeel Morris (Photo by Ed Gardner/Mississippi Braves)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

27. Akeel Morris | RHP | Age: 24 | Acquired: Trade with Mets, 2016 | ETA: 2017

The Braves have made a regular thing out of trading Kelly Johnson to the New York Mets the past two seasons, a trend that continued with the acquisition of Akeel Morris in 2016. Originally a 10th round pick by New York in 2010, Morris has enjoyed success since moving to the bullpen full-time in 2013. While he has yet to pitch above the Double-A level, the Mets gave him a taste of the big leagues in 2015. The surprise promotion resulted five earned runs over just two-thirds of an inning against the powerful Blue Jays lineup. That speed bump aside, Morris has a unique pitching motion and great stuff, which has translated into big time strikeout ability. He profiles nicely as a potential piece in the Atlanta bullpen.

Morris has averaged over 12 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 338.2 IP in the minors, including 12.7 K/9 in two Double-A stops last season. Overall, he was 5-3 with a 3.25 ERA and 37BB/86K over 61 IP in 2016. A native of the U. S. Virgin Islands, Morris is one of just 14 players from his homeland to make it to the major leagues. Along with a mid-90s fastball and quality changeup, Morris continues to refine his slider. That mix has been extremely effective throughout his minor league career, which will probably include a stop with Triple-A Gwinnett this season.

No. 26 – Bryse Wilson (Photo by Jeff Morris)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

26. Bryse Wilson | RHP | Age: 19 | Acquired: 4th Round, 2016 | ETA: 2020

Another of Atlanta’s high school arms from the 2016 draft class, Bryse Wilson piqued the Braves interest out of Orange High School in Hillsborough, NC, where he was one of the state’s top prep draft prospects. Already filled out at 6’1″ and 225 pounds, Wilson has a fastball that has touched 96 mph. The Braves will now seek to add to and refine his secondary offerings, beginning with a changeup. Wilson’s high school career was impressive, including three no-hitters and a seven inning perfect game. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a standout two-way star in football.

Though originally headed to play baseball at the University of North Carolina, Wilson signed with the Braves instead and sparkled in his professional debut. He posted a 0.67 ERA in 26.2 IP with 8BB/29K and limited opponents to just a .172 batting average for Danville. Arm talent is Wilson’s calling card right now, but if he can improve his slider and add an effective off-speed pitch, he could quickly grow into one of the top arms in the system. Should that not happen, a move to the bullpen could open up another set of doors for him. That, however, is a discussion for much further down the road. It’s also worth noting, if this baseball thing doesn’t work out, Wilson has football to fall back on.

No. 25 Ricardo Sanchez (Photo by Mills Fitzner)

 

25. Ricardo Sanchez | LHP | Age: 19 | Acquired: Trade with Angels | ETA: 2019

An early building block in Atlanta’s rebuild, lefty Ricardo Sanchez was gleaned from the Los Angeles Angels nearly two years ago. Only 17 years old at the time of that trade, the Venezuela native had signed for $580,000 in 2013 and quickly climbed near the top of the Angels’ prospect list. This was one of the first examples of the Braves targeting high-upside talent to replenish a farm system that was in desperate need as recently as 2014. As a young player, he’s had to learn through trial and error when it comes to adjusting to life as a professional ballplayer. Instilling proper conditioning and fostering his work ethic were points of emphasis for Atlanta after Sanchez made just 10 starts in 2015. With a slight build of 5’11″ and 170 lbs, durability is a question that has to be answered as Sanchez progresses.

Along with a low-90s fastball that can reach 94 mph, Sanchez also features a curveball that is a swing and miss pitch. Carrying that velocity into the latter innings of his starts has not always been the case, however. Sanchez has spent all of his time in the organization with Rome, making 33 starts over the past two seasons. He was part of the vaunted rotation that helped lead Rome to a South Atlantic League title in 2016. At first glance, his 2016 numbers don’t impress. Sanchez finished just 7-10 with a 4.75 ERA in 119.1 IP with 54BB/103K, but he seemed to find himself as the year wore on. Beginning with his July 1 start against Lexington in which he struck out a career-high 11 batters and going on a run through the end of the season, Sanchez posted a 3.48 ERA in his final 12 outings. He cut his home runs allowed to just six and struck out 60 batters over 64.2 innings. He should move up to High-A and the more pitcher-friendly Florida State League.

No. 24 – Lucas Sims (Photo by Ed Gardner/Mississippi Braves)

 

24. Lucas Sims | RHP | Age: 22 | Acquired: 1st Round (21st), 2012 | ETA: 2017

No current name has been on the Braves prospect hot sheet longer than Lucas Sims, the local boy from Brookwood High School in Snellville, GA, with a big right arm. Sims was dominant last season at Double-A Mississippi, but did not enjoy the same success upon his promotion to Gwinnett. Once at or near the top of the list when it came to Atlanta’s top prospects for five years, Sims has been joined in the system by countless arms and new talent in general over the past two seasons. Make no mistake, though he has slid precipitously in the rankings on this list and others, he still possesses the potential to be a very special pitcher.

Consistency is key for Sims, especially with his breaking ball. Command is just about the only thing that is holding him back. He has worked on his mechanics, reverting to more of his high school delivery after making some changes upon turning pro. Repeating those mechanics has been the real challenge. When he’s on, Sims utilizes his mid-90s fastball and an excellent curveball to carve up hitters. It’s a great combination, one so good that leaves the bullpen as a possibility down the line. However, if his changeup develops into at least a major league average pitch, he could remain in rotation. He’ll get another taste of Triple-A in 2017, where the inability to limit base runners and control the damage were his undoing in the International League. If he enjoys better results, it will be interesting to see what develops and what it means for his long term role.

No. 23 – Brett Cumberland (Photo by Jeff Morris)

 

23. Brett Cumberland | C | Age: 21 | Acquired: 2nd Round, 2016 | ETA: 2018

After stockpiling arms in the early rounds of the draft last summer, Brett Cumberland was the first bat off the board for Atlanta. A switch-hitting catcher with power out of the University of California, Berkeley, Cumberland had mixed results in his pro debut, but the skillset is tantalizing. He does not jump off the page defensively, but is at least adequate in most respects. Atlanta is confident that he’ll be able to remain behind the plate. That means he’ll have to put in the time to improve everything from his receiving to his footwork to his catch-and-throw skills. If he cannot stick at catcher, left field is certainly a possibility because the bat should play.

Where Cumberland really stands out is at the plate. He displayed the ability to work counts and find pitches to drive at the collegiate level. He flashed some of those qualities with Danville last summer, collecting 14 extra-base hits (three home runs) and driving in 30 runs in just 45 games. His slash line of .216/.317/.340 leaves something to be desired, but the ability to make an impact is easy to see. A middle of the order bat for Cal, Cumberland will likely be tasked with the same responsibilities as he climbs through the system. A winter to rest up and get ready for a full-season ball will probably benefit Cumberland, who is likely to at least begin 2017 with Rome. With some early success, a quick promotion to High-A would probably follow.

No. 22 – Derian Cruz (Photo by Jeff Morris)

 

22. Derian Cruz | SS | Age: 18 | Acquired: Free agent, 2015 | ETA: 2020

One of Atlanta’s big international signings in 2015, Derian Cruz is another intriguing middle infield prospect in the organization. Hailing from the Dominican Republic, Cruz was one of the top prospects available in the 2015 signing class and received $2 million from the Braves. An athletic, switch-hitting shortstop who possesses excellent speed, Cruz began his career with a nice showing in the Gulf Coast League last summer. After enjoying immediate success in the GCL, Cruz found the sledding to be a little bit tougher with Danville. Despite less than stellar numbers there, the overall toolset makes Cruz a player who could rise quickly once he makes adjustments.

It’s worth noting that 2016 was his first taste of pro ball and it came at just 17 years old. Cruz is far from a finished product. While he is a switch-hitter, Cruz struggled left-handed, evidenced by his .164/.176/.274 line against righties in Appalachian League. That sample size is obviously small and should essentially be taken with a grain of salt for a young player making his pro debut. With more work and regular coaching, Cruz should show improvement as he develops. He has the talent and the speed to become an impact player, though questions about his arm strength lead some to wonder if he may end up at second base or in the outfield.

No. 21 – A..J. Minter (Ed Gardner/Mississippi Braves)

 

21. A.J. Minter | LHP | Age: 23 | Acquired: 2nd Round, 2015 | ETA: 2017

Perhaps no other relief prospect since Craig Kimbrel has generated as much buzz in Braves circles as A.J. Minter. The Texas A&M product was back from Tommy John surgery with a vengeance in 2016, wiping out opposing hitters with a nasty fastball-slider combo that had top team executives mentioning his name throughout the summer. Atlanta opted to take Minter with the 75th pick in the June draft two years ago despite the arm injury and he rewarded them for their patience last summer.

Minter sits in the mid-90s and can also rely on a cut fastball a few ticks off that. He backs up that velocity with an excellent slider, a weapon that helped him post 12.2 K/9 in 34.2 IP last season. Minter could have been a first rounder were it not for the arm injury and obviously Atlanta thought enough of him to spend a top pick on him anyway. He was eased back in to action last season, posting a 1.30 ERA across three levels, ending the season in Double-A. The one caveat, however, is that he has yet to throw on consecutive days, something relievers are routinely asked to do. As the Braves remove that restriction this season, it’s possible Minter could begin 2017 with Mississippi and see a relatively quick promotion to Gwinnett. If he has a good showing in the spring, Minter could be ticketed for Atlanta sooner than later.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

McAuley: 2016 Winter Meetings Day 3 Live Blog

Greetings from National Harbor, Maryland, where the 2016 Winter Meetings are underway. Each day, I’ll be keeping this journal of rumors, news and happenings for the Atlanta Braves and the rest of baseball. Check back often for the latest updates.

5:15 PM — The media workroom lit up as the Nationals and White Sox hooked up on a trade that illustrates two teams heading in different directions. Washington picked up outfielder Adam Eaton and paid a tremendous pitching prospect bounty. Chicago gets Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning (three of their top 10 prospects). Adding that haul to the quartet of prospects that came over from Boston in the Chris Sale trade and all of a sudden the White Sox have gone from one of the worst farm systems in baseball to one of the best. Getting Giolito and Yoan Moncada is a big reason why. It’s not often a club can land the position player prospect and the top pitching prospect in the game (though Giolito may have slid a bit after 2016).

The Nats are probably out on Andrew McCutchen, but they pick up an outfielder who was a 6.0 WAR player in 2016. Eaton is also two years younger than McCutchen, who was coming off his worst season. The contracts are also completely different stories. While McCutchen would cost about $29 million over the next two seasons, Washington has Eaton for five-years and $38.4 if they exercise the option years. He may not be six win player every year, but Eaton is one of the more underrated players in the game. With the pressure mounting each year for Washington to finally have some postseason success, he fits into the win-now plan. That’s apparent, considering the pitching that is heading to Chicago.

4:45 PM — The Braves have indeed checked in on Orioles reliever Brad Brach (first reported by Joel Sherman), but adding a soon-to-be 31-year-old coming off two good seasons wasn’t going to come cheap. If the cost is Mallex Smith plus more, then it’s no surprise Atlanta passed on that permutation of the trade. Brach is going into his arbitration years as well, so it’s not like he’s coming over on a team friendly contract in his mid-t0-late 20s.

3:51 PM — Daily media availability with John Coppolella and John Hart just wrapped up. With on a few real hours left on the final full day, all is quiet on the Braves front. Hart did not believe that the Sale trade really opened up a logjam of potential moves, say had it been a big free agent signing and setting the market. Coppolella continued to reinforce that much of the “heavy lifting” when it comes to winter shopping was completed in the days and weeks leading up to this trip.

“It comes down to needs and wants,” said Coppolella. “We don’t have needs in starting pitching. Do we want a number one starter? Is Chris Sale a number one starter? Yes.”

As I mentioned earlier, Jose Quintana is a name that piques the interest of the Braves and other clubs, but Atlanta is weighing its options when it comes to trading away young arms that could essentially become Quintana’s equal over the next few years. While he is a quality starting pitcher who has four years of affordable team control, the strategy of trading away pitchers who could grow into the same kind of finished product is counter-intuitive. Coppolella said that is not something the Braves are interested in.

“Why go out and give up the kids to get Quintana? You know, look, if some deal falls into our laps, we’re always going to look at it because we’re always going to be opportunistic. But I don’t think we feel like we have to make a trade for a pitcher, certainly not after having already acquired three starting pitchers this off-season.”

Hart added that signing one year deals with the veterans like Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey allows for maneuverability. The team is pleased they struck early in the market, and while it’s not some of the top flight trade targets, they have added stable arms that are a big improvement over the 2016 rotation.  And they’ve done all of that without trading away the future.

Atlanta’s bullpen is a strength for the club, one that Hart mentioned is by design. They’ve collected some nice young arms – guys like Arodys Vizcaino and Mauricio Cabrera – with more on the way. That is done with the intent of staying out of the increasingly pricey free-agent market for closers and relief help. “Grow your own,” said Hart. “Go out into the backfield, open up your door. Instead of seeing a fallow field with some dust, you know the Oklahoma dust bowl, you want to see a whole bunch of good arms, power guys coming up through your system. You know, you trot one of those guys back there at some point. To go out there and jump in $80 million, whatever it’s going to be for these guys [Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen], it doesn’t make sense.”

1:39 PM — We just finished up the managers luncheon, which is a Day 3 staple. The media members from each team get to sit and enjoy a pretty good meal with their team’s skipper. There is no social media during that time, hence the blackout for the last couple of hours. Among the highlights, Brian Snitker said he talked to Ozzie Albies and expects him to be ready to go in spring training after suffering a fractured elbow in September. Albies has already begun strengthening exercises and is out of his elbow brace. This is a great sign for a young player who could factor into Atlanta’s plans sooner than later.

Speaking of the future, Snitker said he enjoyed his trip to instructional league and was impressed with Atlanta’s collection of young players. Kevin Maitan and Cristian Pache were two players who really stood out. Both of those men were prizes from the Braves international signings the past two summers. Pache made his debut in the state this past season, playing for both the Gulf Coast league and Danville, batting .309/.349/.391 in 57 games. The working plan is for Maitan to follow a similar track in 2017.

11:09 AM — Talked to some folks close to Tampa Bay that indicated lefty Drew Smyly is the most likely candidate to be traded among the Rays young starters. Chris Archer’s five-years of control are a definite advantage when it comes to demanding what was termed as a “Chris Sale type return.” The Rays have made “quantity” type trades before, perhaps not landing a team’s best prospect, but getting a bunch of good young talent. It doesn’t sound like they’d be willing to do that for Archer, but oddly enough the team landed him in one of those deals when they traded Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs in 2011. It remains to be seen if the Braves will ramp up talks, or if the Rays are interested in building a potential trade around somebody other than Dansby Swanson.

Meanwhile, the Braves could also target another White Sox left-hander. With Chris Sale on his way to Boston, Jose Quintana is drawing interest from several clubs. Quintana, 27, was an All-Star in 2016 and has posted a 3.41 ERA (3.47 FIP) over five seasons with Chicago. He is under contract for the next four seasons for just under $28 million. Though Quintana is not the same caliber of pitcher as Sale or Archer, he has quietly built a reputation as one of the most dependable left-handers in the game. The Nationals, Astros and Dodgers are other clubs that could make a run at Quintana.

10:12 AM — It’s the final full day of the Winter Meetings, so we’re settled into the media work room for a busy day. Braves manager Brian Snitker had his press availability this morning. You can tell that he’s excited to see the pieces that have been added and ready to combine them with a team that finished 2016 on a high note and playing its best baseball. Innings from the rotation were a major concern that has been addressed with the acquisitions of Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia. Atlanta also signed one of the most versatile players available in Sean Rodriguez. From all accounts, Snitker is anxious to put together some lineups and see the team come together. Snitker said that to a man, his team’s goal is to come to spring training ready to compete for a division title.

As we’ve progressed through the winter, much was made about Atlanta’s pursuit of an ace starting pitcher – something I wrote about at length yesterday (John Hart discusses Braves pursuit of an ace). Throughout those talks, Dansby Swanson’s name was thrown around as the reported asking price, but Atlanta called that request a “non-starter.” Swanson is a key piece of the future for this franchise and one the organization and fans alike are looking forward to seeing grow in 2017. In his first taste of the big leagues, Swanson spent most of his time toward the bottom of the lineup, something most expect to change next season. In fact, Snitker addressed the distinct possibility that his young shortstop could be hitting up at the top of the order.

I’ll have more with Brian Snitker on today’s Around The Big Leagues Podcast. Be sure you check those out. Interviews with John Coppolella and John Hart over the past couple of days. Lots of good stuff about what the front office feels they’ve accomplished thus far and, of course, what’s left to do this winter.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

Braves President John Hart Discusses Pursuit of Ace Starter

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The air has been rife with speculation for weeks that the Atlanta Braves could be in the market to trade for an ace starting pitcher. Then the club went out and added three veterans to fortify what was the shakiest rotation in baseball last season. Now, the team is looking for the right deal at the right price if it is to add a number one starter.

The landscape changed dramatically on Tuesday afternoon as the Chicago White Sox dealt left-hander Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for a package headlined by Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. That takes one ace off the market, while reinforcing the belief that any trade for young, controllable, top flight starting pitchers is going to be expensive.

Even before the Sale trade, Atlanta had eased back on the throttle from all accounts, preferring to let things cook perhaps. This more cautious strategy is more in line with a club that has spent the last two years building one of the best minor systems in baseball, at great cost to its major league product.

Now equipped with the kind of pieces that should be able to help broker a trade, the Braves front office led by general manager John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart is taking a pragmatic approach to making any major upgrade. With Sale gone, Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer and Oakland’s Sonny Gray are the other targets that Atlanta has made calls on. Neither man comes with the pedigree or the track record of Sale, but both would offer an upgrade. The questions center around the price either man could command on the trade market.

“When it comes down to it and you have a chance to buy a guy who is already under contract, that you can afford, that you’re going to have some level of control over and you don’t have to go out into the free agent market and pay, if you will, sort of the number one starter price, there is an appeal there,” said Hart.

“There is absolutely no doubt. Don’t think for a minute we haven’t discussed and talked to these guys as we’ve gone along.”

Atlanta was one of the clubs that pursued Sale in recent weeks, but it was Boston that stepped up and delivered the prospect bounty to Chicago that got the deal done. The price was most definitely in the vicinity of what most expected. Moncada could star for the White Sox for years, while Kopech has the kind of arm that could eventually replace Chris Sale. The Braves, however, did not want to part with numerous pieces of their their prized young talent.

Hart specifically mentioned that talks centered around Dansby Swanson were a “non-starter” for Atlanta, but admitted they don’t have a player the ilk of Moncada, who was rated the top prospect in the game by every major outlet and evaluator. The strength of Atlanta’s farm includes a stable of top pitching prospects, guys like Sean Newcomb, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson and numerous others. Dealing away the future for the present is part of a delicate balancing act, especially for a team that maintains it does not want a window to compete, but rather wants the talent coming in waves for years to come.

“The problem is the payment is going to come in the young players,” said Hart. “We think some of these guys are going to have a chance to be that number one starter or that number two starter coming down the line that we’re going to have to give up to acquire these guys [in trades]. I’m just not certain that is what it is we’re about at this stage right now. I don’t see us coming out and quote ‘unloading the farm system’ to go out and acquire that front-line guy at this particular stage.”

While the tone could quickly and easily be translated as pessimistic when it comes to Atlanta’s chances of adding a Sale, or an Archer, or a Gray, it’s important to remember that maintaining a realistic outlook on the cost of doing business in trades should always be part of the decision making process. As Hart points out, the Braves aren’t simply one piece away from contending.

Will that stop the Braves from making and fielding the calls that could lead to substantial trades? Not by a long shot.

“Will we talk to them? Will we continue to have discussions? Sure, we will. But the price, as it should be, for a guy [like Sale] is going to be very painful, especially for a club like ours that has worked so hard over the last two years,” said Hart.

“We’ve traded for draft picks. We’ve bought number one picks like Touki Toussaint. We’ve made creative trades to get these guys. We’ve hit so many young players that we like that to start coming in now, before these guys have a chance to really get their feet under them, it’s just not the right thing to do right now.”

Toussaint is just another example of the pure breadth and scope of Atlanta’s young pitching. He was part of a Rome Braves rotation that included three other first rounders, in Allard, Max Fried and Mike Soroka by year’s end. With Anderson, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, Bryse Wilson and other arms from the 2016 draft all highly-touted additions, Atlanta has created the waves of sustainable talent it set out for.

Expect that trend to continue.

“We’re vested in these youngsters and we realize all of them aren’t going to hit, but some of them are,” said Hart. “We’re just not at that spot. The Red Sox are just in a little different stage of where they are in their development and they pushed their chips in.”

As we saw on Tuesday, the Braves sat by and watched Boston pay what is universally viewed as a justifiable king’s ransom for Sale. It gives Boston three years of perhaps the best starting pitcher in the American League. It gives Chicago big building blocks for the future. Atlanta was content to hold onto its assets, hoping to play those cards at a later date. Hart and Coppolella feel as though they may have an ace or two up their sleeves, in more ways than one.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

McAuley: 2016 Winter Meetings Day 2 Live Blog

Greetings from National Harbor, Maryland, where the 2016 Winter Meetings are underway. Each day, I’ll be keeping this journal of rumors, news and happenings for the Atlanta Braves and the rest of baseball. Check back often for the latest updates.

7:36 PM — Just finished up my latest piece on the Braves’ pursuit of an ace starting pitcher. President of baseball operations John Hart shared the team’s philosophy of putting high value on the farm system and what it could provide long term. Give that article a read here.

4:01 PM — We’ve wrapped up the media session with John Coppolella and John Hart, who each saw the Chris Sale trade as a deal that accomplished exactly what both sides wanted. Boston got better in order to win immediately, while Chicago got the exact kind of pieces that could become franchise fixtures in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. That said, Hart reiterated that trading Dansby Swanson has never been something Atlanta was interested in doing. I’ll have lots of other notes and quotes in my new podcast, which I’ll be recording here shortly. But here are a few things:

  1. Hart said Braves are very high on lefty reliever A.J. Minter, who could reach big leagues this year.
  2. Mallex Smith could be the team’s fourth outfielder or see more at-bats at AAA after missing so much time to injury in 2016.
  3. The team supports starter Julio Teheran pitching in the WBC for Colombia, but obviously wants him to be healthy and ready to go for the regular season. There has been no decision on Freddie Freeman’s status for Team Canada.

1:11 PM — Chris Sale has a new home. And that home is Boston. The lobby and media workroom are abuzz with the first big deal of the Winter Meetings. Ken Rosenthal broke the news that the Red Sox have sent a package headlined by Cuban prodigy Yoan Moncada to the White Sox in exchange for Sale.

Obviously, the Red Sox have an incredible young core in place with Mookie Betts, Xander Boegarts and others. After dipping into the free agent market to sign David Price last winter, Boston has made adding an ace an annual thing. Sale, 27, is a five-time All-Star who has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting in each of the last four seasons. He may well be the best pitcher in the American League and now the Red Sox have him for the next three seasons at $38 million. This is the latest case of the ultra-aggressive Dave Dombrowski getting his man and paying the steep prospect price to do so.

On the other side, Chicago adds Moncada, 21, was not only rated the Red Sox No. 1 prospect, but the top prospect in the game according to Baseball America. This is a franchise building block for the White Sox. Boston spent $63 million (including $31.5 million in MLB penalties) to sign Moncada in 2015. He has shown all of the tools that make him one of the most exciting young players in the game as he reached the big leagues in 2016. Moncada batted .294/.407/.511 in 491 PA in the minors with 52 extra-base hits (15 HR) and 45 stolen bases.

Michael Kopech, 20, was a top pick by the Red Sox in 2014 and has a big time arm capable of hitting 100 mph. He gives Chicago a high-ceiling pitching prospect that could step into the rotation at some point in the next two seasons. The rest of the White Sox prospect haul for this deal includes outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe (another top 10 prospect type) and right-hander Victor Diaz.

11:53 AM — Made a sweep through the lobby, where the mix includes baseball people from every walk of life. Former Braves first baseman Fred McGriff is in town. He’s been working with the club in recent years. Oddly enough, MLB Network’s Brian Kenny is doing a book signing not far from McGriff, who is Hall of Fame candidate who has never gotten his due in my opinion. Kenny is known as a guy who is seeking to retrain or simply toss out traditional thinking as baseball is in the midst of an analytics revolution. That kind of thing could give a fresh perspective on the Hall case for McGriff among others.

10:35 AM — It’s a rainy day as we begin Day 2 here at the Gaylord, with the biggest news of the day being generated in the form of the Under Armour uniform announcement and the Yankees, with somewhat amusing timing, announcing they will retire Derek Jeter’s number shortly thereafter. Regardless, the biggest change seems to be the inclusion of the UA logo on the front of the jerseys.

That’s an addition that is somewhat jarring, but no doubt a lucrative part of MLB’s agreement with Under Armour. Like the New Era side logo that will be affixed to the team caps, it will take some getting used to for fans of cleaners, more classic, or simply less cluttered design elements.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

McAuley: 2016 Winter Meetings Day 1 Live Blog

Greetings from National Harbor, Maryland, where the 2016 Winter Meetings are underway. Each day, I’ll be keeping this journal of rumors, news and happenings for the Atlanta Braves and the rest of baseball. Check back often for the latest updates.

6:19 PM — As Day 1 comes to a close, we had our daily meeting with John Coppolella and John Hart up in the “War Room.” Talks have been ongoing throughout the day, but both men mentioned it is nice to be coming to these meetings without feeling like they have to do something. That said, they have already accomplished so much with the litany of moves they’ve made this winter. Could the Braves still add a top of the line starting pitcher to their rotation? That’s the question surrounding the team as rumors persist that Atlanta has inquired about White Sox ace Chris Sale, Rays righty Chris Archer and Oakland’s Sonny Gray. It is still a possibility. That led me to ask Coppolella: Where do you feel the line is between the needs entering the off-season and the wants for this club right now if the right deals present themselves?

“I think we’re there right now. I think the needs have been filled. The wants? Yeah, we all want Chris Sale. We have to explore Chris Sale. If we didn’t then we’re not doing our jobs. I mean, he’s arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Archer, Gray, both very solid pitchers and you’d love to have them. Little bit different animals than Chris Sale. So, yeah, I think on all three if they have a chance to help you then you’ve got to explore it, but they’re wants and not needs. We’ve filled our needs. We needed innings and we feel like we got 550 innings, hopefully, out of the three guys that we’ve [acquired].”

It sounds as though the prospect price could be, in both my words and Coppolella’s, “cost prohibitive” when it comes to trading for any of those top starters we’ve mentioned. That’s not to say the right deal couldn’t materialize, but Atlanta remains hesitant to do anything that would undo a large chunk of the work they’ve done to build a farm system that is stocked with young, controllable talent that could star for the club for years to come. Coppolella added they aren’t hoping to just open up a window to be competitive, but rather they want that talent to keep coming in waves in order to make a sustainable impact on a big league contender. So, regardless of the years of control on the pitcher, the Braves aren’t looking to pay the price for a finite amount of time to contend. Trading away key pieces, most notably Dansby Swanson, is not something the club is considering in order to bring over a top starting pitcher.

Another point of emphasis for the Braves when it comes to rounding out their rotation after Julio Teheran, Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia is to see exactly what young starter will get that opportunity. The smart money is on Mike Foltynewicz, who made definite strides to close 2016. Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair and others remain as “protection” in case of injury and attrition in the starting five. They’ll all be asked to come into spring training and compete, which Hart said is a natural and healthy part of any team. One thing is for sure, the days of handing out opportunities have passed. With veterans in house, it allows for some of these younger arms to get some much needed polish and finishing touches as they work at the Triple-A level rather than being force fed in the majors. As far as the notion that the crop of incumbent young pitchers might feel pushed aside with the trio of veteran starters now locked in rotation, Coppolella doesn’t feel that’s the case. He added it could also provide some valuable motivation, should it be needed.

“There’s been a lot of opportunities handed out here [the past two years]… If you feel like you’ve been slighted, or you haven’t gotten a chance, or you’re mad that we brought somebody better in, pitch better. Get better. We don’t owe anybody anything. The best pitchers are going to pitch for us. And you if you don’t like it, get better.”

While any sense of entitlement would be misplaced in the larger scope of Atlanta’s plan, the young starters will be asked to prove themselves in a different fashion in 2017 than we’ve seen the past two seasons. Some have enjoyed more success than others, but the level of expectation is certainly evolving as the team heads into SunTrust Park.

4:25 PM — Just spent about an hour chatting with former Braves reliever David Carpenter, who is in town to speak with prospective teams to get back to the big leagues in 2017. It’s always fun to share stories in the lobby and we also got to trade old minor league tales. Carpenter, 31, came to camp with Atlanta last spring, but was let go early. He ended up with the Rays to finish the spring, but also pitched in Triple-A for the Angels and in the independent AtlanticLeague. He told me the velocity is back in the mid-90s, so now he’s just looking for an opportunity. They don’t make them much better than Carp, so hopefully he’ll find the right landing spot.

2:10 PM — Braves ace Julio Teheran will pitch for his home country of Colombia in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Major League Baseball announced a group of 24 All-Stars who have been confirmed for WBC. Former Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons will once again play for the Kingdom of  the Netherlands.

1:45 PM — I have been keeping an ear open regarding the Sonny Gray report from this morning. The Braves have been rumored to be interested in the A’s ace. While it doesn’t sound like talks went very far, it is not surprising that Atlanta continues to check in on viable top starters who could be had in trade. After adding a trio of veterans who fill “needs,” John Coppolella appears to have turned his attention to “wants,” in the event Atlanta can add an impact arm. Chris Sale and Chris Archer have generated the most buzz, but it stands to reason that the Athletics could look to trade Gray as they have done with so many young talents over the years. Given the shallow free agent market, they could still get a good return despite his injury-riddled 2016.  The initial report from Joel Sherman mentioned that Oakland has not asked for Dansby Swanson, unlike the White Sox in the Sale talks. That’s good, because the Braves aren’t interested in trading Swanson, even for a fellow Vanderbilt product. However, the two sides still have work to do for any potential deal. As I tweeted this morning, Gray is coming off a season that was derailed by arm trouble and is much more buyer-beware than Sale or Archer. When healthy, Gray was on the fast track to becoming one of the better pitchers in the American League. He is under control for three seasons, but is entering his arbitration years.

More reading – My full write-up on Gray as well as Chris Sale and Chris Archer.

12:44 PM — First big news of the day, and it comes on the closers market. And it also benefits the Braves as the division rival Nationals appear to have lost a major piece from 2016. Mark Melancon will be working the late inning by the Bay for the next few years.

It’s going to be a record deal for a closer as well. And it may not stay a record for long once Kenley Jansen signs.

Washington wants to address its needs and possibly make a splash in their backyard during the Winter Meetings, with rumors swirling that Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen could both be targets. Losing Melancon means they’ll have to address the ninth inning. That could get rather pricey.

12:03 PM — We just wrapped up our media session with John Schuerholz, which has taken much of the last hour. Fascinating insight into a five decade career. I’ll have a 1-on-1 interview as part of tonight’s podcast as well, so expect links to that later. During our Atlanta-only media session, I asked Mr. Schuerholz what he wanted to get out of the game of baseball when he first walked into the Baltimore Orioles front office in 1966. The answer was fascinating and multipronged, as you might imagine. He decided to give it five years. The early days spent in the offices beneath Memorial Stadium, studying countless files to learn any and everything that would supply the knowledge needed to succeed in the game as a top level executive. The dream was clear. The climb was a measured and steady ascent to reach the summit of his profession. From Baltimore to Kansas City to Atlanta, his accomplishments, championships won and the relationships built have ultimately led him to Cooperstown, where he takes his place among baseball’s elite.

10:40 AM — All set up and one sweep through the lobby is complete. The media work room is starting to fill up as we await the Hall of Fame press conference which begins in just a few minutes. Braves president John Schuerholz was unanimously selected by the Today’s Game Era committee on Sunday. Former commissioner Bud Selig will join him, so it should be quite a morning. As many have noted, the election of Selig may give a fresh perspective to the question of PED users in the Hall, because that controversy was central to Selig’s tenure. Whether or not it tips the scales definitively in favor of breaking down the voter-imposed barrier against known or even suspected users is yet to be seen, and remains unlikely in my opinion.

I wrote extensively on the Braves rumors from Sunday in case you missed that or wanted to get caught up [Read it here]. It includes a more in depth look at Atlanta’s pursuit of Chris Sale and Chris Archer as well as interest in free-agent catcher Welington Castillo. The Braves also added a former Yankees top pick in Jacob Lindgren, who could be an intriguing bullpen possibility in the future.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Gran

Braves Notebook | Schuerholz HOF, 2016 Winter Meetings

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — As the Winter Meetings begin this week, the Atlanta Braves continued to make news on Sunday. Team President  John Schuerholz was elected to the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, Atlanta added a high-upside arm that had been cast off by the Yankees and continue to monitor the trade and free-agent markets for upgrades to the rotation and catching situation.

John Schuerholz elected to Hall of Fame…

After a career that has spanned five decades, longtime Braves executive John Schuerholz received the game’s most prestigious honor as he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Today’s Game Era committee. He joins former commissioner Bud Selig as the only men selected by this newly formed committee. Schuerholz was a unanimous selection, while Selig received 15 of the possible 16 votes.

Schuerholz, 76, began his career with the Baltimore Orioles in 1966 before joining the expansion Kansas City Royals front office in 1969. He was eventually elevated to general manager in 1981 and helped the club capture its first World Series title in 1985. Schuerholz left Kansas City after the 1990 season to accept the challenge of turning around a troubled Atlanta franchise. And turn it around he did. The Braves went from worst to first in 1991, embarking on a string of 14-consecutive division titles, five trips to the World Series and a championship in 1995. After 17 years as GM, Schuerholz transitioned to team president, a post he has held since 2008.

Both Schuerholz and Selig will be inducted into Cooperstown next summer. The rest of the class will be announced when the results of the BBWAA voting are revealed on January 19, 2017.

Braves sign former Yankees top pick Jacob Lindgren…

Atlanta continued its trend of collecting one-time highly touted prospects as they signed recently non-tendered lefty Jacob Lindgren on Sunday. The Yankees were hoping to hold on to their top pick from the 2014 draft, but could not find the space on the 40-man roster to make it happen. Thus, Atlanta scooped Lindgren up and will stash him in hopes he can deliver on the promise he flashed to begin his pro career.

Lindgren, 23, blazed a trail to the majors that earned him the nickname “The Strikeout Factory” after averaging 14.7 K/9 in the minors. He reached New York on May 25, 2015, less than a year after being selected in the second round out of Mississippi State. Lindgren had elbow surgery to remove bone chips in 2015 and threw just seven innings last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August. While he will not pitch at all in 2017, the Braves added a lefty with a premium fastball-slider combo that could feature prominently into their bullpen plans down the line. It wasn’t a big move, but it could be one that pays off.

Atlanta remains in the mix for both Chris Sale and Chris Archer…

Despite adding three veteran starting pitchers to the rotation already, the Braves continue to discuss an even bigger potential addition. Atlanta is one of several clubs in the mix for White Sox lefty Chris Sale and Rays righty Chris Archer, both of whom are drawing significant trade interest. Of course, the price remains the sticking point for any team aiming to acquire the Chicago ace.

While Sale is perhaps the best pitcher in the American League, Archer could be the better fit for Atlanta. This is not a question of talent, so I’ll spare you another statistical analysis (which I previously covered). Sale is a perennial Cy Young contender while Archer struggled through 2016, but is one of the game’s premier strikeout pitchers. However, acquiring either man is a question of trade price and having the years of control to open up a window wherein the Braves could become and remain competitive. Including team options, Sale is under contract for three years at $38 million. Archer is under contract for $39 million, but for the next five seasons including his options. Those extra two years for Archer is the kind of value could play a part in Atlanta’s –  or any club for that matter – decision making process.

Given the early indications, Sale’s price may end up being cost prohibitive. The White Sox have set their sights on a deal built around Dansby Swanson. That requirement and all the speculation in the world is not going to change the fact that the Braves will not trade away their prized shortstop. If players like Ender Inciarte, Julio Teheran or Mike Foltynewicz are prerequisites for any deal with Chicago, then it’s fair to ask: What is the point of upgrading at the potential cost of multiple pieces of the 25-man roster?

As for Archer, he will not come cheap either. He is the biggest and perhaps best trade chip that Tampa Bay holds should the club look to cash in this winter. Mark Bowman of MLB.com also mentioned the potential of a trade with the Rays, but noted that nothing is imminent.

Welington Castillo could offer upgrade to Braves catching corps…

One of the surprise additions to the free-agent market following the non-tender deadline, Diamondbacks catcher Welington Castillo figures to be a popular name this week. With this year’s thin free-agent class representative of the positional scarcity when it comes to productive catchers, Castillo will be a sought after commodity. MLB Trade Rumors predicted Castillo would earn $5.9 million in his final year of arbitration, a price Arizona deemed too high. Given the 3-year $24 million deal Jason Castro signed with the Twins, Castillo could find a nice pay day.

Castillo, 29, has averaged a .252/.310/.437 line with 16 HR over the last two seasons, mostly for Arizona. The man known as “Beef” appears to have plenty of tread left on the tire, as opposed to the injury-risk associated with both Matt Wieters and Wilson Ramos. While Castillo may not rate along with Castro as a catcher with excellent framing skills, he is certainly adequate and also threw out 38 percent of would-be base stealers last season. Atlanta’s ideal fit would be a left-hand hitting catcher to pair with Tyler Flowers, but taking a long look at Castillo would be worth the time and falls right in line with John Coppolella’s strategy of exploring all the options.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

Braves Trade For Cardinals Lefty Jaime Garcia

The Atlanta Braves continue to add veteran arms to the rotation, acquiring left-hander Jaime Garcia from the St. Louis Cardinals in four-player trade on Thursday. In exchange, Atlanta sent right-handers John Gant and Chris Ellis as well as minor league infielder Luke Dykstra to St. Louis.

Garcia, 30, is set to make $12 million in 2017 after the Cardinals exercised his option last month. With this trade, the Braves continue their trend of bringing on veteran starters on short-term contracts. Garcia joins Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey in Atlanta’s revamped rotation, one that has added 916 starts worth of experience to its ranks over the last three weeks. These moves were designed to create some much-needed stability in 2017, while leaving the door open for the numerous pitching prospects lining up in the Braves system. Additionally, it leaves the Braves open to explore their options for future acquisitions, whether that be in the coming weeks or months or sometime later next year.

Though Garcia has battled arm injuries over the course of his eight-year big league career, he has displayed plenty of promise as well. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2008, Garcia returned to finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, when he went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA. He followed that up with a 13-7 season as St. Louis won the World Series in 2011, but shoulder injuries cost him time over each of the next three seasons. He underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in 2013 and again to correct thoracic outlet syndrome in 2014.

After making just 36 starts from 2013-2015, Garcia was 10-13 with a 4.67 ERA in 32 games (30 starts) for the Cardinals last season and turned in a career-best 7.9 K/9, but also allowed a career-worst 1.4 HR/9. His fastball velocities sat just above his career norm, while some of his secondary pitches seemed to drop a tick in 2016 (per FanGraphs). Garcia adds a left-handed presence to a rotation that has been without for much of the last two seasons and did not receive a single start from a lefty in 2016.

Atlanta parted ways with another pair of pitching prospects in this deal, after sending two to Seattle to acquire Alex Jackson on Tuesday. John Gant entered my pre-season Braves Prospects list at No. 14, while Chris Ellis checked in at No. 16. Luke Dykstra was not on my previous list or the upcoming end of season update. All three men were mid-level (Gant and Ellis) or lower prospects for most outlets.

Gant, 24, saw some big league time in 2016, going 1-4 with a 4.86 ERA and 21BB/49K in 50 IP, including seven starts. He was originally acquired in the Kelly Johnson trade of 2015. He holds the distinction of having one of the most unusual pitching deliveries in baseball.

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Ellis, who is also 24, split 2016 between Mississippi and Gwinnett and finished 12-9 with a 4.49 ERA and 87BB/126K in 146.1 innings. His early success in Double-A did not translate to Triple-A, where he was 4-7 with a 6.15 ERA in 15 starts. This was due in large part to control problems that plagued him throughout the season. Ellis came over as part of the Andrelton Simmons trade with the Angels in November of 2015.

Dykstra, 21, is the son of former All-Star outfielder Lenny Dykstra. He batted .304/.332/.363 in 81 games for Low-A Rome in 2016.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.