The Braves have a corner outfield problem. How do I know this? Our Stephen Tolbert said so. Only the Giants finished with a worse fWAR than the Braves in 2017. The Braves had an outfield fWAR of 2.6, which is pretty amazing since Ender Inciarte finished the season with 3 wins all to himself. The other nine outfielders combined for a -0.4 fWAR. Woof.
The Braves move into the offseason with a hope to deal either Nick Markakis or Matt Kemp to help reshape the problematic outfield situation. If successful, it’ll make room for the #1 outfield prospect, who happens to also be their best prospect and probably the best prospect in baseball. They may bring him up even if they can’t find a taker for Markakis/Kemp. Regardless, the Braves seem destined to look to their minor leagues for help with their outfield in 2018.
Here are 15 of those outfielders the Braves will be keeping a watchful eye on next season. Here’s how we arrived at our list. – each of the three writers at Walk-Off Walk voted on their Top 5 prospects (plus one extra) and we took the composite rank. Ties are broken by the individual’s highest ranking among the voters. Positions are determined by which position a person played the most at (with a few exceptions). Special shoutout to Jeff Morris, who took all of the pictures used in this post. Follow him on Twitter – @JeffMorrisAB
1. Ronald Acuna
Tommy: Honestly, what more needs to be said? In Ronald Acuna, the Braves have arguably the most exciting prospect in baseball and possibly the most exciting Braves prospect since Andruw Jones. Let that sink in for a second. There have been some extremely compelling prospects come through the system since Andruw arrived back in 1996. It’s not like it was all Ryan Langerhans and Kyle Davies over the years – no offense meant to those guys. Acuna is on another level, though. There are plenty of stats to be excited about when it comes to 2017, but one of my favorites is that the expected K% for a 19-year-old rocketing from A-ball to Triple-A didn’t hold true. You’d expect such an inexperienced player to strike out more as he saw more refined pitchers with better control on their secondary pitches. For Acuna, it went the other way. His K% started at 32% with Florida, fell to 23% in Mississippi, and then down to 20% in Gwinnett. I do caution patience as soon-to-be 20-year-old kids are not finished products. He will likely struggle as he moves to the majors in 2018. Let that caution affect your expectations. It’s better that way. It’ll be much easier for him to shatter those expectations in 2018.
Ryan: It’s my opinion that Acuna will be the number one prospect in all of baseball when the 2018 rankings come out, and rightfully so. Across 3 levels of the minors as a 19-year-old, Acuna put up an .896 OPS in 612 plate appearances. Now in the Arizona Fall League, Acuna is putting the cherry on top as his OPS is over 1.000 facing some of the best young competition in the world. It might be the “wise” decision to hold Acuna down for a month to gain an extra year of control, but we’re past wise right now and Braves fans need something to hold onto amidst a world of front office chaos. Acuna will be in the Opening Day lineup and I haven’t been this excited to see a player regularly since Jason Heyward.
Stephen: Watching a prospect produced at a greater level every time he gets promoted is a rare feat but watching a 19-year-old dominate AA and AAA in the same year is something else entirely. Acuña is the best prospect in baseball and if he’s not the opening day RF, I’ll be as surprised as I am disappointed. It’s unfair to put this on such young player but a substantial part of Atlanta’s rebuild will be decided by how good Acuña is. A reasonable projection for 2018 is probably a 2-3 WAR player but he certainly has the talent to exceed. It’s not an exaggeration to say the biggest storyline for the Braves next year is how his debut goes. Can’t wait to watch it.
2. Drew Waters
Tommy: Acuna deserves all the headlines, but the next two players are Top 20 organizational prospects in their own right. While we all picked Acuna #1 – shocking as that may be – Ryan and I went with Waters next while Stephen went in a different direction. If we were ranking center field prospects, I wouldn’t have gone with Waters, but since we are going with general outfielders, I like the potential for Waters’ bat a bit more than the guy who ultimately ranked #3. He struggled to put the ball in play after a quick promotion from the Gulf Coast League to Danville, but I love the raw tools. While I hate making comps too often, I see a lot of A.J. Pollock in Waters. Maybe not the 6.5 fWAR we saw from Polluck’s one truly healthy season and the jury is still out about Waters’ ability to stay in center, but the potential for a .350/.475 OBP/SLG with 20 homers and just as many – if not more – steals exists in my mind.
Ryan: Hopefully Waters is still in the Braves org when this article goes public as there have been whispers that he got a new car under the table from the Braves to “make up the difference” in his signing bonus when drafted. Waters showed his capabilities as a 19 y/o in Rookie League with good numbers across the board. A tooled-out switch-hitter, Waters has great potential to follow in Acuna’s footsteps as a 5-tool OFer of the Braves future. There have been reports, albeit unconfirmed, of a poor attitude in high school and a bit of an “I’m better than you are” mentality. I don’t know this, nor do I claim any of the above as true, but it’s something to keep in the ol’ back pocket for the future.
Stephen: Acuña is obviously the consensus number one but number two can go a couple ways. Tommy and Ryan went Waters here while I went with Pache. The biggest difference for me is the amount of pro success each has had. Waters is a tooled up, switch-hitting OF who certainly looks the part but struggled a little after his promotion. He also may no longer be a part of Atlanta ‘s organization if their misdeeds in the domestic draft extend to him. For now, all we can do is assume he will be and rank him accordingly. I’ll be interested to see where they assign him in 2018 if they get the chance to assign him anywhere. My guess is Rome. Everything won’t quite be so new in 2018 so we should get a better idea just how good this kid can be.
Tommy: Pache could be a top-five prospect in the system by midseason if the bat starts to live up to the hype. For the moment, it’s difficult for me to rank him too high because we are past the 700 PA point of his career and he’s still homerless. He did do a much better job getting the ball in the air than he did in 2016, but far too many of them were popped up on the infield. That’s not to say I don’t love the kid – I do. Defensively, he’s an absolute gem and the walk rate of 7.6% was pretty stellar for an 18-year-old in the South Atlantic League. Like I said, by next summer, he could be the talk of the system. If he’s not, that’s okay, too. He’s got plenty of time.
Ryan: Another 5-tooler in the making, Pache’s been praised for his speed on both sides of the ball. He’s still looking for his 1st professional home run, but many reports see him developing at least league average power within the next few years. I could see him start in High-A next year where the expectation will be to sharpen up his all-around game all the while adding some power. Keep an eye on him if he does add that power as he’ll be a big jumper in the prospect rankings.
Stephen: I went with Pache at number 2 mainly because he has the highest floor outside Acuna. He’s an elite defensive CF, and even if the power never really comes and he’s just an average hitter, he can still be a 3 WAR player. That’s basically what Ender Inciarte is. And the idea that he won’t hit isn’t something scouts who watch him believe. Many see power in there – just waiting to be tapped into – as he physically matures which turns his ceiling into an elite, 5-tool type player. My guess is he’s a FireFrog to start the year but if the bat starts really showing up, he could move quickly. Pache is another name Braves’ fans are worried about relative to MLB’s investigation but again, until we know anything for sure, it’s best just to project them like we would any other prospect.
Tommy: I’m split. On one hand, we should probably accept that 2017 was just a lost year for Peterson, who hit just .248/.318/.318 over 346 PA. His struggles began with a broken hamate bone in spring training. After that, he never rebounded to hit the ball with authority. A full offseason to recover both the body and mind should help Peterson bounce back in 2018, but what will he bounce back as? The .313 wOBA-hitting Peterson from 2015 or the .356 wOBA-hitting Peterson from 2016? Or somewhere in between? Probably a little closer to the 2016 version, I would wager.
Ryan: Yes, D-Pete’s injury he suffered 2017’s spring training is an injury that takes a while to heal fully and is said to zap power from a hitter, but what have we seen out of D-Pete? Sandwiched between 2 catastrophes was the one good year Braves fans can hang their hat on and even that year wasn’t “great”. I want to believe he can be a Major Leaguer as he seems to be a guy that is easy to root for, but 2018 is going to have to really go well to confirm his prospect status. As a guy that doesn’t have the speed to be a CFer, he’s destined to the corners and even the slash line that he had at Mississippi in 2016 won’t be enough to be average there.
Stephen: It’s pretty easy with Dustin Peterson. He’s a LF for a major league team which means the standard for hitting, and hitting with power, is very high. And it’s that last part that really will decide Dustin’s career path. In 2016, he showed us all power was in his swing and did it at a ballpark the size of Yellowstone. But the broken hamate bone in 2017 basically zapped all his power from him. That’s not terribly surprising but he will need a bounce-back year in 2018 to reclaim his prospect status. If he does, there’s a very good chance we see him in Atlanta next year.
Tommy: I’ve been on the Izzy Hype Train for awhile and it’s great to see him starting to put it all back together. He’s worked hard to level his swing out a bit so that he could make more consistent contact after a tough 2016. The result was a lowered K%, more hits, and some glimpses into the power that originally made Wilson such a pop-up prospect back in 2015. Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen described him last February as a “tools goof” and it’s pretty accurate. He’s not on Pache’s level in center, but can play the position. The speed is there, the power is there, and for a raw athlete, he’s got some good pitch recognition. All we need now is a season where he puts it all together. Could be a big climber in 2018.
Ryan: I think 2018 will be Isranel’s year. Not enough words are spilled about the adjustments these young men have to make outside of baseball, and Isranel’s had some maturity lapses that has set his career back. Dude looks like a specimen, but also those maturity lapses show up in-game. As a 20 y/o, Isranel will be entering his 4th year in the Braves organization, will likely be re-assigned to Rome where Braves prospects learn a whole lot about baseball, but more importantly, life. Big jumper if he comes together and is my sleeper prospect of the entire system.
Stephen: Wilson is another tooled up athlete in the Braves system. You should be noticing a trend. After a rough 2016, it was encouraging to see Wilson make adjustments last year. There’s never a bad time to reduce your K rate, especially if it doesn’t affect your power output. He showed in 2017 that he’s not all tools and no feel. Wilson has an idea what he’s doing at the plate and while doesn’t have defensive chops of some of the guys higher than him on this list, he’s solid enough out there. He just needs more consistency. It’s either going to be Rome or Florida for him to start out 2018 so he’s reaching the stage where he can move fast if he shows growth and maturity, as well as production.
6. Leudys Baez
Tommy: Similar story with Izzy Wilson, Baez has been toiling around rookie ball for awhile now, trying to find his footing. A scary knee injury in 2016 didn’t help much, but he came back this year with a hot bat. In 25 games in Danville, he bashed a .340/.415/.585 clip, earning a promotion to Rome. In 31 games there, the switch-hitter hit .268/.302/.431 with a .330 wOBA. Baez has always had tools on top of tools, but the jury remained out as far as his bat went. If he can build on his 2017, Baez could be a prospect on the rise.
Tommy: In full disclosure, I did my rankings roughly a month-and-a-half ago and had Seymour #6, his highest rank among the blog crew. I probably would have dropped him a spot or two after he was suspended for a “violation of team rules,” which sent him home before the Arizona Fall League was due to begin. It was a sad ending to what had been a promising season. After blitzing the South Atlantic League over 28 games, Seymour headed to Florida where he ended the year with a .280/.341/.358 slash. He will have to learn how to read pitchers better (50% SB rate in Florida), but he displayed a nice hit tool and the ability to get on base. These will serve him well as a possible leadoff hitter in the future. I’m not positive he sticks in center field, but he should be able to play it well enough to at least give him defensive flexibility even if he’s more of a fit in left field.
8. Jared James
Ryan: James is another guy that’s going to profile as a corner OFer and it’s going to be really difficult to break through at the MLB level where his stats currently lie. The best way that I can describe James is a poor man’s Nick Markakis. He hits pretty well, gets on base pretty well, has some power, and will likely be above average defensively…in the minors. We have no idea what he’ll do when he moves up and let’s not forget that Kakes was crushing the minors at a much younger age. He’ll need to show a little bit more of everything to grab any attention, but he could very well be at AAA in 2018 where he might be one Lane Adams injury away from a call-up.
Ryan: When Didder (RP Diddy, if I may be so bold) did his thing in 2016, he received a whole lot of attention from the prospect rankings…and rightfully so. He had a very healthy slash-line, showed plus speed, and played an exceptional outfield by all accounts of scouts that I trust their opinions. However, there needs to be an asterisk beside his overall line as it was heavily complemented by 39 hit by pitches. Obviously, that’s going to shrink as he faces better competition, and it did in 2017. His line dropped so far that he put up a minute .661 OPS. There wasn’t much that changed about his numbers with the exception being his K-rate increased and the HBP decreased. However, he went through a significant change on defense spending time in the OF and also picking up games at shortstop. In my opinion, that means that the Braves see something in Didder and want to groom him to be a super-utility guy that fills in off the bench in the Majors. While that might hurt his prospect status in the eyes of many, the fact that he’s showing the athleticism to play 2 top-tiers defensive positions above average speaks volumes to his value. This is the sole reason for me to rank Didder higher than others in the organization. If he can master the infield and the outfield, keep respectable offensive numbers (and I think his power will increase), and maintain above-average speed, he could be a serious bench force.
10. Tyler Neslony
Ryan: Prototypical 1B/LF type player that’s really going to have to hit a ton to get attention. During the first half of 2017, Neslony did just that as he feasted on younger competition at High-A and collected an .820 OPS through 241 plate appearances, albeit with an unsustainable BABIP of .317. When he was promoted to AA Mississippi, all the good feels dissipated as Neslony finally was getting a taste of competition around his age. Many hitters struggle in the Southern League, so he’s not being sent to the guillotine, but Neslony’s going to have to turn on the burners in his age 24 season, and will likely have to overcome Mississippi’s vast park whether he likes it or not. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel though because as lucky as his BABIP run was at High A, it was equally unlucky in AA (.229).
11. Braxton Davidson
Tommy: Four years, including the last two in High-A, and all we have seen out of Davidson is a .226/.359/.345 slash. That last number is particularly glaring because Davidson looks the part as a big and impressive physical presence, but the raw power that has always been hyped continues to be missing. He often rolls over the ball, hitting weak grounders to second and first, while striking out a third of the time. He continues to walk, but until we see some degree of pop from him in games, it’s hard to get excited about Davidson at this point.
12. Jeffrey Ramos
Stephen: Ramos started the year with the GCL Braves and put up the best numbers of his career. A 159 wRC+ and a .231 ISO as an 18-year-old are fantastic numbers. And the batted ball profile he put together was a big reason why. He posted a fly ball % over 46% while drastically reducing his infield pop ups. All this good work earned him a promotion to Danville where he struggled to repeat his success. Some of that was BABIP related as his .368 from the GCL was always going to regress. But even in Danville he posted a .328 BABIP so he obviously makes solid contact on a regular basis. He just needs to keep the ball off the ground. That 46% fly ball rate dropped to 33% after his promotion so we’ll see how he adjust he 2018.
13. Justin Smith
Stephen: Justin was a 20th round pick for Atlanta in the 2017 draft and spent all of his first year in Danville. He was a Junior-College selection so he’s already 21 years old and will be 22 before the 2018 season starts. The big red flag for Smith is that he put up a 37% K rate against competition that was likely on average, a couple years younger than him. That won’t work. He’s got to make more contact if he wants to make any noise in this system.
14. Shean Michel
Tommy: It’s amazing that it took the former NFL player Sanders Commings quickly giving up on his dream of baseball for Michel to join Danville this year, but once he did, he took off. He slashed his way to .326/.378/.424 while playing all over the outfield. He has a good arm and I’ve seen the occasional pop out of his bat, but if he wants to do more with that, he’s going to have to put the ball in the air more. Could develop into a solid bench player if he matures just right.
15. Gary Schwartz
Stephen: Schwartz was selected by Atlanta in the 16th round of the 2017 draft out of Grand Canyon University. He spent just about all of his first year with Danville where he put up some serious production. In 31 games there he posted a .930 OPS with almost a .400 OBP. Those numbers will work. Braves were impressed enough to promote him all the way to A+ ball right before the season ended so I’m guessing he goes back to the FireFrogs to start 2018. He keeps producing like this, you’re going to start hearing this name more.