Braves Top 50 Prospects, 2017 Preseason: #30-#21

Braves Top 50 Prospects, 2017 Preseason: #30-#21

Today, I continue my Top 50 prospects with the middle ten ranging from the #21st prospect to the #30th. Many of these prospects would be in the Top 20 of other systems, but the incredible depth of Atlanta’s farm system has them just outside my Top 20. I want to thank all of you for reading. At the bottom, you’ll find a running countdown with links to previous versions of this list. Feel free to share as well to other Braves fans.

30. Akeel Morris, RHP, 24 years-old, Grade: C+

Judging by this winter’s moves that sent both Robert Whalen and John Gant packing, Morris could be moved sometime next winter. Like the two aforementioned righties, Morris was acquired from the Mets for Kelly Johnson (though a year later). He has appeared once in the majors – and it was pretty ugly. Facing the Blue Jays in June of 2015, Morris walked the first two batters he faced before getting a groundout. A pair of singles followed, scoring two runs before Danny Valencia hit a three-run bomb off Morris. He retired the next batter before walking yet another, which finally got him the boot. It turned a 3-0 game into an 8-0 blowout. Morris’ final line – 0.2 ING, 3 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 67.50 ERA.

Outside of that, Morris has been quite effective in the minor leagues as he slowly made his climb up the ladder. In 2014, his first season at full-season ball after three years at the short-season/rookie level, Morris had some video game stats in the South Atlantic League (57 innings, 1.90 FIP, 14 K/9, 3.5 BB.9, 16 saves). The season cemented his prospect status and while his 2015 wasn’t quite as dominant, it was still a solid campaign split between High-A and Double-A. Surprisingly – to me – he was left in Double-A to open 2016 and perhaps the lack of a promotion messed with him because his numbers took a climb in the wrong direction before a midseason trade to the Braves. His control was still a bit iffy, but he cut his FIP by two runs.

Morris works off a mid-90’s fastball and a plus-changeup. He can get by on those two pitches, but his slider could be the difference maker in getting him into higher-leverage situations as it changes the batter’s eye. For Morris, it’s all about his mechanics. There’s a good deal of herky-jerky movement in his delivery that can lead to some mechanical problems. Plus, he drags his arm through on his follow-through, which demands great strength and depends on Morris having the rest of his mechanics down to be effective. He has a talented right arm and could be in the majors to stay very soon if he can find consistency in his delivery and release point.


29. Matt Withrow, RHP, 23 years-old, Grade: C+

Former Brave Chris‘s little brother had a pretty impressive campaign last year in Carolina. The Texas Tech alum finished second in the Carolina League in strikeouts and even in a stacked system, he still had the fifth most strikeouts with 131.

The only real criticism of his season comes down to walks. That is to say, there were too many of them. Sixty-eight in total – all unintentional – for a walk rate of about five per nine innings. He also uncorked eight wild pitches and hit nine batters. These are things that will have to be cleaned up if Withrow is going to remain a prospect as a starting pitcher.

Withrow possesses a heavy fastball that sinks as it reaches the plate. When he can effectively throw the heater for strikes both low and high in the zone and hit his corners, it can be a difficult pitch to properly read. He can hit 96 or so with heater, though typically sits a few ticks slower. He pairs the fastball with a slider that has swing-and-miss potential at the major league level. About 10-15 mph slower than his fastball, the break on the breaking pitch is solid and is difficult to solidly connect on. He also either has a curve or takes something off his slider to give it more of a curve feel. What might decide his future is his changeup. He gets good movement on it and if he can locate it, he’ll have the collection of pitches needed to be a starter. Withrow, who skipped Rome last year, will get his shot to prove that he belongs among the top Braves prospects with Mississippi in 2017.


28. Michael Mader, LHP, 22 years-old, Grade: C+

Mader is the kind of quiet and good pitcher the Braves seem to trade for in bunches over the last few years. He’s good enough to deserve Top 30 consideration and might be even better than that. We just don’t know yet – but results so far are impressive. Acquired, along with #47 Anfernee Seymour, last summer in the Hunter Cervenka deal, Mader was a third round pick in 2014 out of Chipola College.

Mader struggled with control and consistency in 2015 in the South Atlantic League but had turned it around in the Florida State League last year prior to the trade. In 103 innings, his strikeout rate was 4.7% higher, his walk rate was 1.5% lower, and his FIP had dropped a run. After the trade, Mader got a taste of Double-A and in five starts, Mader was unbeatable. Well, not really because he was saddled with three losses to no wins, but all the previous rates that looked better in the FSL looked even better in the Southern league.

Mader’s fastball has a high-end velocity in the mid-90’s, though it’s more likely to sit in the low-90’s. It’s a good pitch that Mader fools hitters with routinely. He also throws a slow looping curve with 12-6 movement and a harder curve. He adds a change-of-pace that looks like his fastball right up until it’s right on the hitter. I look at Mader as a guy with high-leverage inning potential as a reliever, but he’s still a starter option. He’ll likely join Withrow to help lead the Mississippi rotation.

27. Juan Yepez, 1B, 19 years-old, Grade: C+

After a strong debut season in which he slashed .299/.364/.458 over two rookie-league stops, a lot was hoped for with Yepez entering 2016. Unfortunately, injuries played a major role in a big letdown. He homered just once with Rome and had a sub-.100 ISO over 26 games total.

Frank Wren’s last big international signing, the hope was that Yepez would help solidify third base. However, the addition of Austin Riley and Yepez’s defensive limitations at the Hot Corner have led Yepez to be moved across the infield to first. Armed with quick hands and a strong hit tool, Yepez should add more power to his game as he matures.

The big question for Yepez is his plate discipline. Like many young players, Yepez tends to think that just because he can put wood on the ball means that he should swing. That leads to a lot of weak contact, though in his defense, his quick bat leads to a lot of “out-of-the-zone” hits. Nevertheless, you’d like to see him show more maturity in 2017 as he repeats Rome.

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26. Cristian Pache, OF, 18 years-old, Grade: C+
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in July of 2015, Pache made his professional debut in 2016 and in doing so, set himself up to be the next IT prospect for the Braves. In 27 games as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, Pache slashed .283/.325/.377. He’d look even better in 30 games to finish the season with Danville. Overall, Pache hit .309/.349/.391 with 4 doubles, 7 triples, and 11 steals. Oh, and he faced just one pitcher all year younger than he was.
The Braves under The Holy John Trinity have shown a willingness to aggressively push young prospects and Pache experienced that last year. I believe he won’t be pushed like that this year, but mainly because the Braves like to let their prospects spend a whole year at Rome to get used to full-season ball. Regardless, if the 6’2″ right-handed hitter adds some bulk without sacrificing his ability to play center field, he could make a Ronald Acuna-like jump. 
25. Brett Cumberland, C, 21 years-old, Grade: B-
Drafted with the 76th pick last June, Cumberland was just a sophomore when the Braves grabbed him out of Cal. He headed to Danville after signing and struggled down the stretch – especially with contact. He struck out 49 times in just 189 PA – or a quarter of the time. He flashed limited power (.123).
I still like his potential, though, and if his defense can improve to an acceptable level, I believe he has a future as a hitting catcher. Far more concerning than his defense to me is his contact rate. Cumberland’s hit tool has too much potential to be squandered by a 25%+ strikeout rate. The Braves could opt to shield Cumberland from a potential worrisome assignment at Rome to begin 2017, though I doubt it. Like Tanner Murphy before him, he’ll be given the sink-or-swim scenario. It didn’t work for Murphy, but Cumberland’s bat is much better.

24. Luke Jackson, RHP, 25 years-old, Grade: B-

One of the oldest prospects on this list, Jackson was acquired from the Rangers in the Tyrell Jenkins deal last month. Originally a first rounder out of Fort Lauderdale in 2010, Jackson had a strong beginning to his career as he quickly climbed to Triple-A by the end of 2014. That’s where the stagnation began. In 128.1 innings, Jackson has an ERA near 6.00 at the minor league’s highest level. The walks (5.5 per nine) are particularly alarming and he’s been prone to serve up homers.

Originally a starter until moving to the pen in 2015, Jackson sits in the high-90’s that will make-or-break any particular appearance based on whether or not he shows feel for his heater. Also, he has enough giddy-up on the pitch to reach triple digits. His other pitch is an inconsistent curveball which has strikeout ability, but is dependent on Jackson’s mechanics being tight – and that’s not always the case. Finally, Jackson has a changeup from his starter days, though you could go a week or two without seeing it.

From a stuff/movement perspective, there’s a lot to love about Jackson. He gives the batter something to think about with a little skip in his delivery and when he’s on, Jackson has a pair of plus-pitches that compliment one another coming out of the pen. The problem is that I have to condition it “when he’s on” because he has some mechanical issues that can lead to him missing his spots badly. The Braves took a bet on his arm and their ability to get him to use it better. If they are successful, they have a high-leverage reliever with closer potential.

23. Derian Cruz, SS, 18 years-old, Grade: B-

After inking a $2 million signing bonus in 2015, Cruz made his professional debut last summer. It was a bit of a mixed bag. Similar to the other big member of that signing period (Pache), Cruz handled the Gulf Coast League with ease before spending the final month or so with Danville. However, unlike Pache, Cruz struggled with his new assignment both at the plate (.183/.204/.279) and in the field (12 errors in 24 games). Again, just like Pache, he faced just one pitcher all year younger than he was.

Cruz entered the international signing period in 2015 as the #5th best prospect according to Baseball America. Lauded for his athleticism and potential 80-grade speed, Cruz doesn’t have quite as much current ability as Pache and his performance made that clear. Nevertheless, Cruz is a switch-hitter with explosive natural gifts who should be capable of staying at shortstop. If his bat comes along as the Braves obviously believed it would when they signed him, he’ll be the next in a long line of strong prospects the Braves have developed at shortstop.



22. Braxton Davidson, OF, 21 years-old (6/18), Grade: B-

I’ve been waiting for two years to see the Brax Show break out and while there have been some good signs, it’s only made it clearer where Davidson hasn’t shined yet. Could 2017 change that? I really hope so because if Davidson puts his game together and lives up to the hype he had entering the 2014 draft, he’ll give the Braves some monster raw power that they simply have struggled to develop over the last number of years.

A native of Asheville, NC, Davidson has hit just .232 as a professional. That’s despite strong BABIP numbers (.337 in 2015, .360 last year). To put it bluntly, Davidson is not making enough contact as his 30% strikeout rate indicates. He does walk a lot to the tune of 16% of the time. Add those percentages together and Davidson is only putting the ball in play a little more than half of the time he steps into the batter’s box. There’s patience and then there’s Davidson.

The challenge for the Braves is getting Davidson to be more aggressive. At that point, we’ll know more about his actual batting eye versus being fickle as he waits for his pitch. To take that next step, Davidson is going to have to show he can put the bat on the ball more frequently while accessing more of the raw power he was lauded for entering the draft three years ago. If he does that, even if his hit tool is never great, he’s got the capability of posting strong OBP/SLG marks in the majors if his batting eye is true. He likely needs another year in High-A ball before pushing him up to Double-A so I hope Atlanta is patient with him.


21. Alex Jackson, Catcher/Outfield, 21 years-old, Grade: B-
I was quite tempted to boost Jackson up the rankings by the confirmation that the former sixth overall pick was going to be moved back to catcher, but I will stick with this ranking for now and wait for Jackson to earn a Top-20 slot rather than be gifted it because of his position. Good news there is I do expect Jackson to climb this list by midseason.
We know the story about Jackson so far. Picked sixth overall, he struggled with injuries and a nagging reputation of having maturity issues. Last year, his Age-20 season, he played in 92 games with Clinton in the Midwest League and hit .243/.332/.408. The bad news here, beyond the slash, is that he K’d 27% of the time. The good news is that he posted a .165 ISO against mostly older pitchers and slashed .274/.358/.430 over his last 300 PA. He also had a .346 wOBA so the talk about how disappointing his season was is tremendously overblown.
Jackson was the best prep hitter heading into the 2014 draft for a reason. He was selected sixth overall for a reason. He was ranked among the Top 100 prospects heading into 2016 for a reason. On the other hand, I rank him outside my Top 20 also for a reason. I want to be impressed because right now, I see both the good and the bad, but with 2.5 years of professional experience, I have yet to have my socks blown off. I think Jackson can do that, though. The raw power he possesses immediately rivals Austin Riley, though the latter is higher ranked because he has done a better job taking his raw power and turning it into game power.
It’s incredibly difficult to spotlight one prospect in this system because it’s so rich in them. That said, it’s hard not to be intrigued by Jackson. If he can turn the corner, even if it’s repeating Low-A, and shows the ability to catch, he’s got All-Star potential. I wouldn’t be surprised, nor disappointed, to see the Braves start Jackson in Rome. With the position switch, change in scenery, and so on, it could be a good location for him. The opportunity to work with Ian Anderson and company wouldn’t be the worst idea, either. 

2017 Walk-Off Walk Top 50 Prospects*
5 Looking In (Honorable Mentions)
#52-43
#42-31


The Walk-Off Walk Top 52 Prospects (to recap)
52. Jon Kennedy
51. Isranel Wilson
50. Yoeli Lopez
49. Carlos Castro
48. Dilmer Mejia
47. Anfernee Seymour
46. Bryse Wilson
45. Kade Scivicque
44. Yunior Severino
43. Abrahan Gutierrez
42. Jonathan Morales
41. Steve Janas
40. Chad Sobotka
39. William Contreras
38. Bradley Roney
37. Thomas Burrows
36. Connor Lien
35. Jesse Biddle
34. Caleb Dirks
33. Ricardo Sanchez
32. Lucas Herbert
31. Ray-Patrick Didder
30. Akeel Morris
29. Matt Withrow
28. Michael Mader
27. Juan Yepez
26. Christian Pache
25. Brett Cumberland
24. Luke Jackson
23. Derian Cruz
22. Braxton Davidson
21. Alex Jackson

*Top 50 was increased to Top 52 after a trade.

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