Let’s be honest. Yesterday’s first two rounds of the 2016 MLB draft were weird.
For all of the talk about the Braves’ interest in outfielders Kyle Lewis and Corey Ray, along with pitchers Jason Groome and Riley Pint, the Braves played the long game instead. The slot bonus era has its advantages, but one of its disadvantages is that it rewards teams going “cheaper” with their top pick to spread out funds elsewhere. The Braves played that to the tee with the pick of right-hander Ian Anderson.
A Vanderbilt recruit, Anderson was picked in large part because of a pre-draft deal in place which would allow the Braves to apply their strategy. Even so, let’s not ignore that Anderson is a great talent in his own right. Just 170 pounds, he has room to grow into his 6’3″ frame and shore up his strength. His fastball has seen a peak in the 97 mph range, but at this point, he sticks in the low 90’s. That said, more physical maturation could increase his average velocity a few ticks. His breaking stuff needs refinement (which applies to all 18 year-old pitchers), but it has plus potential especially with his curveball. The sluve/slider needs tightening. He also has a change-up that he has a great handle on. If that’s the framework the Braves are working with, they are already ahead of the game.
His delivery is smooth to the plate and quick. He falls off toward the first base a bit, which might be an area the Braves work on to try to make him a better fielding pitching. That said, I think the bigger concern is trying to make sure he doesn’t rush his delivery. With that in mind, that’s nit-picking what was a solid choice. Granted, according to multiple publications, he doesn’t Pint or Groome’s higher-end projection, but he brings a great combination of current skills and projection. While many experts had him in the 12-18 overall range, the difference between Anderson and the ones that were projected ahead of him is unlikely to be significant in this draft. All probably have a similar Future Value grade when scouts grade them and there are whispers that the Braves ranked Anderson as the best overall pitcher in the 2016 draft.
The Anderson choice, however, made it more possible to select top talent with their next two selections. First up was Shawness Mission East left-hander, Joey Wentz. Already 6’5″ and 220, Wentz throws a low 90’s fastball with movement and a great curveball that will be difficult for lefthanders to get a handle on. His change-up needs more consistency, but the good news is that Wentz might have the cleanest and easiest delivery of any pitcher in the draft – especially with his height. Wentz has a profile worthy of a Top 15 grade, but scouts wanted to see him pitch at a big time college program first before advocating their team take him that high. He has been committed to UVA for some time and will take a lot of effort to sign him, but if the money saved from the third pick helps the Braves add Wentz, it works out perfectly.
Wentz did fall because of another reason – he suffered from dead arm in high school, prompting his team to play him at first base to keep him in the lineup. For what it’s worth, he’s got serious power as a hitter, though he projects as an even better pitcher.
Another good hitter and left-handed pitching option, Kyle Muller was the Braves selection with the #44 overall pick. There are a lot of similarities here to Wentz. Muller might have a bit higher average velocity, though his secondary pitches need more refinement. His regular delivery is consistent and he is deliberate throughout the motion without much unneeded movement. His motion from the stretch needs work as he flies open way too much as he tries to get on top of his pitches. Muller probably would be a Top 5 pick if he continues on his current trajectory and heads to Texas (and stays healthy), but if the Braves are able to sign him, they have another first round talent on their hands.
The final player the Braves took on Thursday was catcher Brett Cumberland. Outfield Fly Rule‘s Brent Blackwell commented in their facebook group, “If we could somehow combine Cumberland and Lucas Herbert, we’d have the best catcher prospect in the game.” He’s not wrong. As highly as Herbert’s defense is thought of, Cumberland’s bat is just as good – if not better. A switch-hitter with discipline and the ability to hit for average and power, Cumberland belted 16 homers in the Pac-12 last year as a sophomore. But…will he stay at catcher?
It depends on who you ask and also, at least to me, what the bigger concern is. If Cumberland shows a knack for pitch receiving and framing, I can deal with a below-average arm. If both are a problem, it will all boil down to how good his bat becomes. He could certainly be shifted to first base or left field, which could even help his already impressive offensive game.
The draft continues today and the Atlanta Braves could satisfy their fans unreasonable expectations by selecting more bats, but what we saw in the first two rounds was the exactly right way to approach the major league draft. You never reach for current need as it might not be a need when the player you draft reaches the majors. You take what the draft gives you and this draft was big on prep high school arms. The Braves also tried to be creative and hedge their bets with three first-round talents rather than just one. Now, they have to sign those players, but if they do, Atlanta has added a trio of high-reward pitchers to their farm system already bursting at the seems with them. Such moves open up the discussion all the more for trading pitchers. The Braves can better afford to trade Julio Teheran or Matt Wisler and withstand a loss to the system by trading Touki Toussaint or Sean Newcomb.
Also…let’s not forget that in addition to the 2016 draft, the Braves will be big players on the international free agent market. Their top target, Kevin Maitan, has higher upside than any player in the draft and the Braves already have a handshake agreement.
Recently, I went over the Best 5 and Worst 5 drafts since 2000. One common theme for the drafts, especially under Frank Wren, was an insistence on drafting for need – specifically guys who were safe bets to get to the bigs. Atlanta acquired so many college arms and bats, but saw many of them max out as AAAA filler. The current Braves braintrust values future overall value versus playing it safe. The Braves will certainly see their fair share of busts from this approach, but their chances of developing an All-Star are much higher this way. While it’s impossible to grade the first two rounds a day after they were selected, the approach is a clear A++.