Here it is, the fourth and final installment of our series grading the Atlanta Braves’ organization’s top 30 prospects based solely on their play in 2016. These are the A students; the players who have excelled all season.
The number before each player’s name was his prospect ranking by MLB.com before the June draft, and they’re listed in ascending order of worst grades to best. We’ve given 11, more than a third, top marks, but, oddly, nine of them were essentially in the bottom third of the list. What that means for their and the Braves’ future remains to be seen, though two – John Gant (no relation to Ron) and Rob Whalen – have already provided desperately needed help in the big-league rotation. So far, however, the only talents considered elite who have performed like it are Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka, while players thought to have more limited ceilings have dominated in the minors.
Other trends have emerged from the mountain of youth brought in to revive baseball’s worst team, and not all of it is positive outside of not one, not two, but three pitchers given A’s who came from the Mets for Kelly Johnson in two different trades. Most notably, Atlanta general manager John Coppolella has focused almost exclusively on hoarding pitchers, but while there are lots of potential major leaguers at this point few, if any, sport front-line ability and none are ready to help any time soon as evidenced by a major league staff so bare that 35-year-old journeyman Roberto Hernandez was called up from Gwinnett to make an emergency start Saturday night. Despite Copolella’s efforts, only three of the organization’s pitchers made it onto MLBPipeline.com’s midseason Top 100 prospects list: Sean Newcomb (60th), Kolby Allard (75th) and 2016 first-round pick Ian Anderson (94th). Allard’s stock is rising, but not as much as Newcomb’s has fallen (he was 21st to start the season).
In fact, though the system is denigrated for its lack of offense there’s little question the young players most likely to make an impact for the Braves first will be in the batters box and not on the mound. Dansby Swanson (fifth on top-100 list) and Albies (19th) should be knocking on the door by summer, while the surprising Dustin Peterson has been the best hitter in the organization. That’s not how it was supposed to happen.
Good stats: 36 hits allowed in 47 Double-A innings. Impressive 12.4 strikeout rate. Holding batters to .209 average.
Bad stats: 1.45 WHIP thanks to terrible 6.1 walk rate.
Summary: A 10th-round draft pick in 2010, Morris became a Brave in early June when the Mets traded him for Kelly Johnson. Exclusively a reliever since 2013, Morris has racked up some very impressive career numbers and was even called up to pitch 2/3 of an inning with the Mets last season. In 324.2 innings, he has only allowed 193 hits while striking out 434 and holding batters to a remarkable .170 average. Despite a 5.1 walk rate, his ERA (2.91) and WHIP (1.16) are both sparkling. There are doubts the unusual blooper changeup, which can be as slow as 75 mph, he uses to get so many swings and misses will be quite so effective in the big leagues, but if Morris keeps putting up these numbers we’ll find out.
Good stats: 2.55 ERA with Atlanta, with 16 strikeouts in 17.2 innings and two saves. 1.02 WHIP is best of career at any level. At 100.7 mph, his average fastball is the fastest in the majors.
Bad stats: 5.9 walk rate at Double-A. Mississippi before joining the major league team on June 27. Career 5.0 walk rate. 7.8 career strikeout rate is inexplicably low for someone who throws so hard.
Summary: Cabrera is the only person in the world who can rival Aroldis Chapman in terms of pure heat. Unfortunately, he’s a world away in terms of performance, but maybe just maybe he has started to figure things out. The Braves called Cabrera up after he posted the best numbers of his six-year career in Mississippi, and he’s pitched even better on the biggest stage. Perhaps most inexplicably is Cabrera has never thrown more strikes at any level. He’s still not the dominant closer you’d hope for with that stuff, but at least now it seems somewhat possible for the first time.
Good stats: 31 strikeouts in 30.1 innings for Atlanta and 3.3 walk rate. 48 strikeouts in 43 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett, with a 3.56 ERA and 1.23 WHIP.
Bad stats: Pedestrian 4.45 ERA and 1.39 WHIP for major league team. Batters hitting .272 against him.
Summary: Also acquired from the Mets in a Kelly Johnson trade, only a different Kelly Johnson trade in 2015, Gant pitched so well for Double-A Mississippi he was invited to the big-league camp in spring training and has spent the season bouncing back and forth between Gwinnett and Atlanta before landing on the DL with an oblique strain. He was solid in four starts with the Braves and has been good in seven with Gwinnett. A strikeout pitcher at every level, Gant has the makings of a No. 4 or even No. 3 starter in the bigs, especially until some of the younger talent is ready.
Good stats: 1.32 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 47.2 innings pitched in relief for Double-A Tulsa and Mississippi. 9.4 strikeout rate and 2.3 walk rate. Holding hitters to .216 average.
Bad stats: None.
Summary: Dirks has had a weird journey with the Braves to say the least. Originally at 15th-round pick out of Dallas Baptist by Atlanta in 2014, he was traded to the Dodgers in July of 2015 for an international bonus slot worth $249,000 and then traded back to the Braves on June 30 as part of the Bud Norris deal. Though he’s always been considered a fringe prospect, a career strikeout rate of 10.5 coupled with excellent control as reliever makes him an intriguing potential power arm in the bullpen, and while the details are complicated the bonus slot money he helped bring from Los Angeles went a long way toward allowing Atlanta to sign talented shortstop Derian Crux and outfielder Christian Pache last year and potential five-tool stud Kevin Maitan this year, whom some have called a once-in-a-generation talent. If those other guys approach expectations, Dirks could end up being the most valuable prospect on this list without ever throwing a pitch in the majors.
Good stats: .300 batting average for Single-A Rome. .389 OBP and .780 OPS. Tremendous walk-to-strikeout ratio (15-20). 12 stolen bases in 30 games.
Bad stats: None.
Summary: Entered the season as the third-youngest player in the South Atlantic League, and it’s already hard to see why he’s only 22nd on this list. A thumb injury has limited the center fielder to 110 at bats, but he has hit for average and power while showing exceptional patience and strike-zone command for someone of any age. It’s a small sample size, but with a lifetime .280 average, .383 OBP and .804 OPS and 28 stolen bases in just 85 pro games Acuna is clearly an exciting talent.
Good stats: 3.17 ERA at Single-A Rome. 1.18 WHIP. 2.1 walk rate.
Bad stats: None.
Summary: Yes, another first-round pick by the Braves, 28th overall in 2015, who is performing well despite being pushed hard to compete against older players. Soroka was 18 until Aug. 4 and was the fourth-youngest player to start the season in the South Atlantic League, but that hasn’t prevented him from being a model of consistency in his first full pro season. His ability to throw strikes without being hit hard has been particularly impressive, and while Soroka may not have No. 1 or No. 2 starter stuff he has the early makings of a big-league innings eater.
Good stats: 1.12 WHIP in first full pro season at Single-A Rome. Only 87 hits allowed in 116 innings with 119 strikeouts. Holding hitters to .211 average
Bad stats: None.
Summary: Drafted after his senior season at the University of Houston, Weigel was and remains the least-heralded of the prospect-laden starting rotation in Rome. Early on, however, he has also been the best of the bunch, absolutely throttling South Atlantic League hitters. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Weigel is 22 and the others are barely out of high school, so expect him to be pushed quickly to see if he’s the real deal.
Good stats: 3.52 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 20 games, all starts, with Advanced-A Carolina and Double-A Mississippi. Nearly as many strikeouts (114) as hits allowed (116), and 1.5 walk rate is outstanding.
Bad stats: 211 strikeouts in 243 career innings isn’t bad but leaves little margin for error.
Summary: A 6-8, 185-pound string bean drafted in the third round in 2014 by the Braves out of UNC-Greensboro, Povse has rewarded the organization for believing in his ability over his uneven college performance. He pounds the strike zone and has, if anything, been even better in Mississippi after being promoted in early July.
Good stats: .295 average for Double-A Mississippi, with a. 798 OPS. Leads Southern League with 34 doubles. Excellent walk-to-strikeout ratio (36-74).
Bad stats: 8 home runs isn’t bad, but it needs to be higher for a corner outfielder.
Summary: Though he was a second-round draft pick out of high school, not a whole lot was expected of Peterson when he was one of four minor leagues included in the Justin Upton trade to the Padres. Two seasons later, however, and Peterson is arguably the best hitter in the system outside of Ozzie Albies. He has risen a level in each of his four pro seasons – and gotten better every year. Against the toughest competition he’s faced yet and in a terrible park for hitters, Peterson is turning in his finest performance, posting career bests in average, OBP (.354), slugging (.444) and OPS. For a guy with a career OPS of a paltry .692, that improvement is particularly startling, and the fact that it has come against many future big league arms in conjunction with a huge reduction in strikeouts is strong evidence Peterson may be the real deal. As a corner outfielder without a lot of speed, his power must continue to progress (Peterson still has only 26 home runs in 1,544 at bats), but right now he is in the running to be the first position player on the 2016 prospect list to reach Atlanta. Nobody would have said that last year.
Good stats: Excellent average (.293) and even more excellent OBP (.363) posted while playing 54 games for Double-A Mississippi and 56 for Triple-A Gwinnett. 20 stolen bases. Seven triples. Good walk-to-strikeout ratio (43-71).
Bad stats: A night-and-day difference in Double-A production compared to Triple-A. Double-A? One of the best players in the minors with a .341 average and .888 OPS. Triple-A? Paltry .248 average and .659 OPS.
Summary: The move down to Mississippi coincided somewhat with Swason’s promotion there, and the organization has made the decision to leave Swanson at short and move Albies from short to second to set up what it hopes will be an impressive middle infield for years. Albies is barely 19, but he already has an amazing amount of professional experience, and with a lifetime .313 average over a thousand at bats there’s little reason to doubt the switch-hitter’s stick at this point despite his struggles in Gwinnett. Albies was the youngest player in the league by two years (he’s also the youngest player in the Southern League by more than a year), and a strong case can be made he’s the brightest star in the system. Albies is only 5-9, 160 and hasn’t shown a lot of pop (five career home runs), but he has 71 stolen bases in 265 games is an on-base machine with all the makings of being the lead-off batter Atlanta has lacked for years.
Good stats: Sterling 2.40 ERA and 1.19 WHIP over 21 starts for Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett to earn Aug. 3 promotion to the majors. Walk rate of 3.3 is very good, as is 8.4 strikeout rate. Held hitters to .226 average
Bad stats: Walked four and gave up four earned runs in five innings in Braves debut – but still got win.
Summary: Who would have thought the Mets’ weird Kelly Johnson obsession would have led to two pitchers who would make starts for Atlanta in 2016? But that’s exactly what has happened. Whalen is a 12th-round pick who has defied his low draft status to force his way up the minor league ladder by posting a 2.45 ERA and 1.12 WHIP over 359.2 innings. This was the supposed to be the year his lack of pure stuff was exposed, but instead Whalen has joined Tyrell Jenkins and John Gant as the next wave of young starters tasked with turning the team around.