(A little note on this series. On Sundays throughout the season, a player will be chosen at random using the helpful website, random.org. The goal of this series is to talk about both big prospects and organizational filler rather than focus completely on the Top 20 prospects in the system. I alternate pitchers and hitters and this week, I focus on a pitcher with a high ceiling. Here’s the rest of this series.)
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How altered is the Braves system in just over 12 months? When I did my first Top 30 Prospects last March, I ranked today’s spotlight player Lucas Sims second, sandwiched between Jose Peraza and Max Fried. A year later, he was ranked seventh and the amazing thing was that 2015 wasn’t even considered a bad season because of how it ended. I still graded him as a B+ player, but the talent got so much better and dropped him back. He still has a great chance, however, of being an excellent starter in the majors.
Born in Lawrenceville, Georgia on May 10, 1994, Sims’ parents were probably a little too busy to notice that the Braves had outslugged the Phillies 9-8 on the back of a seven-run ninth to tie the score. The big knocks of the inning came from a three-run shot by Mike Mordecai and an RBI single by Javy Lopez to tie the game. In the 15th – and this is true – Deion Sanders doubled and stole third. He would score on a suicide squeeze off the bat of Mike Stanton. What a fun day in Braves’ history to be born.
A fixture at Turner Field during the Streak, Sims grew to fame with Brookwood High School out of Snellville, Georgia, even besting Parkview High School at times. You might remember Parkview because it produced Jeff Francoeur. He came into the draft with four pitches and mid-90’s velocity. A commit to Clemson, Sims was selected by the Braves as the 21st pick of the 2012 draft. Shortly thereafter, they signed him with a bonus of $1.65M – which was actually less than the suggested bonus for that slot. Sims was one of the prime jewels of the Frank Wren era. Like Jason Heyward before him, the Braves had put aside their tendency to select high floor rather than high ceiling. The fact that both Heyward and Sims were Georgia prep stars may have played a role in that.
Sims started briefly in the Gulf Coast League, but the Braves felt the kid was mature enough for a promotion after just three starts so they sent him to Danville. He was not quite as successful over eight starts like he was with the GCL Braves, but Sims remained difficult to hit (9.7 K/9) and his biggest issues were self-inflicted (4 BB/9). In 2013, the Braves kept the training wheels on for another season – even moving Sims to the bullpen to limit his innings thrown. Yet, even with their efforts to suppress his performance, he showed the potential that made him such a high pick. In 116.2 innings, he struck out 134 and allowed just three homeruns despite dealing with hitters who were typically more physically mature and more experienced. With the Braves’ farm system drying up due to trades and a host of graduations to the majors (including Alex Wood, selected a round after Sims), the young righty became one of the premier prospects left on the farm.
Ranked as a Top 60 prospect by Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, and MLB.com entering 2014, Sims was a marked man with a host of expectations. Those hopes for Sims led to him pressing as a member of the Lynchburg Hillcats. “Some of my weaknesses got exposed,” Sims said. The few negative grades related to his 2013 season (15 HBP, 14 WP) followed him in ’14, but he surrendered a slightly higher rate of homeruns and saw his strikeout rate plummet from 10.3 K/9 to 6.2. The only thing positive stat from the tough go-of-it was that he pitched 156.1 innings. And let’s not forget that he was, at 20, the youngest player in the Carolina League.
The Braves brought him to camp the next spring – after all, he was their best pitching prospect at the time – and Sims even got into a couple of games. In the eighth inning of a game against the Astros, Sims pitched a hitless frame. Atlanta would go on to no-hit the Astros, but as was their M.O. in 2015, Atlanta found a way to not win (they ultimately tied the game 2-2 in ten innings). Sims returned to the Carolina League after spring camp – this time with Carolina – and struggled out the gate. Over a three-game stretch, which included a visit to Lynchburg, Sims surrendered 14 runs (12 ER) over just 8.2 innings. He would regroup when the calendar switched to May and over his next two starts, he went 13 innings with just two earned runs allowed. On the day that he would have made his seventh start of the year, the Carolina Mudcats’ bus crashed in route to Myrtle Beach. Sims was one of several players injured in the crash and would not play in a game again until June 25. He was roughed up in a two-start rehab stint in the Gulf Coast League before returning to start Carolina’s game against, ironically enough, Myrtle Beach the day after Independence Day. The Pelicans put up a six spot against him. Five days later, he took the mound in Myrtle Beach and tossed three scoreless inning, but a high-pitch count ended his day prematurely. Finally, on July 16th, he threw six great innings against Winston-Salem in which he struck out eight. It would be his final Single-A start.
He would finish the season with nine starts with Mississippi. His control was shaky, but he pitched at least 5.1 innings in 7 of his starts and only surrendered more than two runs twice. His final three starts were especially dominating as he went 19.1 innings with 22 strikeouts, five walks, and 11 hits allowed. His season would have ended on a high note if that’s how it closed, but it continued with a six-game showing with Peoria in the Arizona Fall League. On a much stricter pitch count, Sims was impressive in a hitter’s league, allowing just five runs (four earned) in 17 innings with a K/BB rate of 17/3. Below is some footage from his AFL run courtesy of Fangraphs.
So far in 2016, Sims has made a pair of starts and leads the system with 16 K’s over 9 innings. His control has been quite suspect so far this year with 7 walks, but that should fall back in line.
The book on Sims is that he throws a fastball with great velocity in the mid 90’s and while it has been hittable when not controlled, it can also be difficult to square up when it’s down in the zone. He sprinkles in a changeup, which Sims continues to improve, and a plus curveball that is right at home in a Braves’ system that is stocked with elite curveballs. Outside of the bus crash, Sims has been quite durable with a pitcher’s body built to be a workhorse. Sims is still working on the finer things like consistent arm slot, especially when working deep into games, but he’s a hard worker who is very easy to like. He has projections that are a tick below Matt Wisler in that Wisler’s realistic projection was a middle-of-the-rotation fixture who could start playoff games for a team. Sims high-end potential could take him in that territory. The lower end could see Sims fill out the bottom of the staff or move to the bullpen, where his fastball/curve combination could make him a dynamite reliever. He has been clocked with velocity in the 98-99 mph range, though that’s unsustainable as a starter.
Despite the many prospects that the Braves have acquired since 2014, it’s important to not forget about guys like Sims. He has the capability to be an excellent major league pitcher if he cleans up some of his issues and with his work ethic, I expect that if he can find a way, he’ll do it.