Yesterday, I talked about the decision Wednesday to designate Jonny Venters and Ramiro Pena for assignment. That decision was made, at least in part, so that the Braves could free up room on their 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft. For a quick primer on the upcoming Rule 5, check out Fangraphs’ explanation. Protecting young talent from the opportunistic general managers of other organizations is hugely important, though many who are protected one winter don’t last all that long on the 40-man roster. Last year, the Braves protected Elmer Reyes, Carlos Perez, and Luis Vasquez. Perez was outrighted last September and is eligible for this year’s draft while Vasquez was cut at the end of July. Reyes remains and with Pena moving on, his opportunity to make the 2015 roster improves.
It is currently unknown how many of those players added to the 40 man roster this year will play a role either in 2015 or the years after. A couple of them are true major prospects while a few others are interesting projects.
RHP Mauricio Cabrera – Though the 21 year-old righty has never pitched above A-ball, the Braves are well aware of his potential and moved to protect him. He has a little bit of violence in his delivery, but can touch 99 mph with his heater, though it sits more comfortably in the 95 mph range. A forearm strain took away months of his first season at A+ last year and I’m not sure if the Braves are willing to go with him in AA to open 2015. Also not sure if they see him as a starter or reliever. Similar to Arodys Vizcaino when the latter was moving north in the system. He’ll get here faster as a reliever, but would have more value as a starter. His plus slider and improving change-up give the Braves reason to move him back to the rotation in 2015, but we’ll know more on how they see him in the spring. Even though he appears to be a few years away, the Braves were smart to act now because a team with no hope of competing would have taken a chance on Cabrera to be a reliever in 2015.
RHP Brandon Cunniff – Probably the most intriguing choice of the group that joined the 40-man on Wednesday. Cunniff was a 27th round selection by the Marlins in 2010 out of Cal State-San Bernardino. The righty was solid in his only year in the Marlins’ organization, but like many late round selections that don’t wow, Cunniff was cut because his velocity was down over when the Marlins drafted him, plus they probably were committed to higher drafted or hyped players. He became a member of the Frontier League, an independent organization operating in the mid-west. Pitching for River City and Southern Illinois, Cunniff kept his dream alive until the Braves called during the 2013 season. He finished the year with 20 games in Lynchburg before a return trip to open 2014. The stay in the ‘Burg didn’t last long as he dominated Carolina League hitters, prompting a quick promotion to Mississippi where he posted a 2.98 FIP and 8.54 K/9. Although he probably won’t be another fireballer with ridiculous K numbers, he’s a smart and determined pitcher with velocity in the early 90’s who is also close to competing in the majors. His age of 26 limits some of the hype, but all that matters is performance. In an Atlanta Braves’ bullpen that is far from certain, Cunniff could have a shot to make the jump this spring.
LHP Yean Carlos Gil – While Cunniff is probably the most intriguing, Gil is probably the most confusing choice. Gil was a pretty notable international prospect when the Braves inked the southpaw, but had seemed to fallen out of prospect circles following his 2012 TJ Surgery. The soon-to-be 24 year-old was able to post a full season last year for Rome and does have tremendous control (1.9 BB/9) and was only burned for three homers in 126.1 ING. On a bad Rome Braves team last year, Gil was one of the few highlights. He limited left-handed hitters last season to a .220/.251/.286 clip, which might lead one to think he could have a future as a specialist out of the pen. That said, he’s pretty far away and other pitchers were closer.
RHP Tyrell Jenkins – Not much else remains to be said about Jenkins after last week’s trade from the Cardinals. Clearly, the Braves were going to protect him because he is one of their top prospects immediately following the trade.
3B Kyle Kubitza – I’m most definitely on the Kubitza bandwagon and have been for over a year now. The bandwagon’s gotten a good deal more crowded after Kubitza’s 2014 season (.295/.405/.470) and with the struggles of Chris Johnson in the majors. And with reports that the Braves are seeking out a potential platoon partner for Johnson, one question remains. Why not Kubitza? Probably because the Braves see him as needing more time to develop, but Kubitza could push Johnson to the bench by 2016 with his combination of athleticism (21 steals), medium grade power, and on-base skills. Reports on his defense are mixed and often with fringy guys, that’s what we come to expect, but chances are good that he won’t be any worse than Johnson. That’s not to say that there aren’t question marks and those question marks are why Kubitza is a good organizational prospect, but won’t land on anybody’s Top 100 prospects. His contact rate is sub-standard, which leads to a lot of strikeouts in the 25% range. Kubitza doesn’t hit for much power (.170ish ISO) and his BABIP of .401 last season isn’t sustainable meaning his batting average is sure to drop. Also, he’s already 24. The prevailing wisdom is that if Kubitza was going to be much of a prospect, he would already be one. As is, he’s still the Braves best option at third from their minor league system and considering what they already have at third, that’s meaningful.
2B Jose Peraza – Adding him to the 40-man was a mere formality at this point. The bigger question is will the Braves seek out a quality stopgap to hold up Peraza or will they settle on an option that Peraza could easily surpass by midseason, if not sooner. I’m looking at you, Mark Ellis. At this point, we don’t know, but if Peraza’s skillset plays up in the majors, as many of us believe, he will quickly settle into the first “traditional leadoff” guy the Braves have had stick around for a few years since Rafael Furcal. Like most players, Peraza does lack a few skills. He doesn’t walk and has no pop in his bat. His value comes in hitting .300, stealing a lot of bases, and playing tremendous defense. He has done that in the minors and there is enough reason to believe he will do just that in the majors. Peraza is defensively sound enough to play shortstop for almost every team in the league, but the Braves have the best guy in the game already doing that. As is, Peraza could provide the Braves with a Gold Glove counterpart and the best 4-6 combination on defense in the game.
RHP Williams Perez – This, like Gil’s selection, is probably most interesting to me because of who it meant the Braves didn’t keep. Unlike Gil, Perez wasn’t a big international pick-up, but he’s continued to progress in his short time in the system, reaching AA for 133 innings in his second season above rookie ball. This certain burst followed three years state-side in rookie ball, but a change to throwing his sinker as his primary pitch put Perez on the right track. He’ll never amaze you with his pitching, but will impress you with his pitchability. Still, his ceiling is projected as a fifth starter or Kevin Gryboski type who comes in to try to get a inning-ending groundball (or at least, that’s what Bobby Cox thought Gryboski was doing).
Like I said, Gil and Perez were kept over other notable players. Cody Martin stands out, but the Braves probably thought both of the keepers had more potential than just being a fifth starter as Martin has. Gil and Perez could easily be seen as potential relievers. Some have pondered why a guy who had trade rumors attached to him around the deadline would be kept unprotected, but I didn’t buy that the interest in Martin was very high. J.R. Graham is also a noteworthy omission. It seems like the Braves have soured on Graham as the latter has lost velocity and stagnated in AA.
Edward Salcedo might also be an interesting un-protected player. Obviously, Salcedo has yet to even come close to becoming the guy that was supposed to be the next great Braves international prospect. He’s OPS’d just .684 in 586 minor league games and has lost positional importance, going from short-to-third-to-right field last season. He’s still an intriguing player because anyone who was that hyped must have had a reason. Of course, production matters and that’s where Salcedo has failed to this point. At his age and level, there is little reason to think he’ll suddenly get it and start to produce, but stranger things have happened. I guess.