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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.

 

 

Grant McAuley Braves Top Prospects Part 2

No. 20 - Patrick Weigel (Mills Fitzner/Rome Braves)

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 (Jeff Morris)

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 (Jeff Morris)

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

18.) Anfernee Seymour | INF | Age:  21 | Acquired: Trade with Marlins, 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 (Getty Images)

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

17.) Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 22 | Acquired: Trade with Astros, 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 (Getty Images)

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

16.) Alex Jackson | OF | Age: 21 | Acquired: Trade with Mariners, 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)

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 McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (11 20)

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

14.) Dustin Peterson | OF | Age:  22 | Acquired: Trade with Padres, 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)

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

13.) Travis Demeritte | 2B | Age: 22 | Acquired: Trade with Rangers, 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 acuna david schofield1 McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (11 20)

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)

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.

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