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.

 

 

 

 

Grant McAuley Braves Top Prospects Part 1

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

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

30. Braxton Davidson | OF | Age: 20 | Acquired: 1st Round (32nd), 2014 | ETA: 2019

Atlanta was hoping Braxton Davidson would be a productive corner outfielder when they selected him 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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

No. 25 Ricardo Sanchez (Photo by Mills Fitzner)

25. Ricardo Sanchez | LHP | Age: 19 | Acquired: Trade with Angels (2015) | 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)

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)

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)

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)

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.

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