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 finale of this three-part series, I present the very finest of Atlanta’s Top 30 prospects. With the No. 1-10 prospects, we see the crown jewels of this rebuild. The group is led by Dansby Swanson, who burst on the scene in 2016 and gave Braves fans a glimpse of the future. 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. Additionally, a new “Around The Big Leagues” podcast accompanies each part of this series. The next episode (Top Prospects Chat – Part 3) will be released just after the New Year.

 

top prospects part 32 McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (1 10)

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

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)

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)

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)

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 (Jeff Morris)

No. 6 – Ian Anderson (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 jeff morris McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (1 10)

No. 5 – Kevin Maitan (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 mississippi braves McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (1 10)

No. 4 – Sean Newcomb (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 david schofield McAuley: 2017 Braves Top 30 Prospects (1 10)

No. 3 – Kolby Allard (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 (Mississippi Braves)

No. 2 – Ozzie Albies (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.

Dansby Swanson (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

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.

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