John Coppolella’s lasting legacy might be rooted in the controversy that was revealed in the aftermath of his resignation. Before that, though, the legacy he was building was related to the farm system – specifically pitching prospects. The Braves under Coppolella left no rock unturned in their quest to build waves of pitching talent to stock the major league club with. In 2017, a number of arms Coppolella traded for reached the bigs – mostly left-handed starters. The right-handed group has never been quite as star-studded, but certainly has a number of intriguing options.
Here are 15 of those right-handed starting prospects the Braves will be keeping a watchful eye on next season. How did we choose our list? Each of the three writers at Walk-Off Walk voted on their Top 15 prospects (plus one extra) and we took the composite rank. Ties are broken by the individual’s highest ranking among the voters if possible. 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.
Also receiving votes: Alan Rangel
1. Kyle Wright
Tommy: The Braves entered the 2017 draft with a few targets in mind to use their #1 pick on, but held out hope Kyle Wright would fall to them. They felt that hope was a dream – Wright was #1 on their board. Yet, four other players went before Wright. He didn’t get much of a chance to throw many innings after being drafted, tossing just 17 frames, but was impressive when he did throw. I love a high-floor guy with projection. You rarely see them, but Wright has that ability. He could be in the majors before the end of next year and has a solid four-pitch mix that will be tough on opposing hitters. His ceiling may not match some other pitchers in the system, but he has the best chance of reaching that ceiling.
Ryan: I’m with Tommy on this one. Wright is the first guy in our system since Julio Teheran whose floor sits as a mid-rotation starter. With a 4-pitch mix and all 4 having plus potential, Wright is someone to build around. There was a tweet recently that Wright sent a text out to the Braves prospect camp to remember socks on their bowling excursion and since then the crew has called him “Dad”. He seems like the kind of guy people rally around and that can carry a guy a long way.
Stephen: Tommy and Ryan laid it out pretty well so I’m just going to add the scouting grades. Pipeline grades Wright’s fastball at a 60, and his curveball, changeup, and slider all at a 55 (on the 20-80 scouting scale). Four pitches all at 55 or better aren’t exactly common and it is the main reason Wright sits number one on this list. It’s a special arm. I’ll be interested in seeing where the start Wright next year. As an experienced college guy, AA Mississippi is a possibility which means a September call-up isn’t out of the question if the production is there.
2. Mike Soroka
Tommy: You just don’t see 20-year-old pitchers at Double-A all that often. You especially don’t see them at that level when they don’t have a world-class arm capable of monster strikeout numbers. Yet, there Soroka was – quietly posting a 2.75 ERA and 3.19 FIP. Soroka doesn’t have Touki’s curveball or Weigel’s top-end velocity, but Soroka is a better prospect because he knows how to use what he does have and throw strikes. He’s still growing into his 6’4″ frame but looks like a durable workhorse who has a shot to put up very good numbers. He’s not going to get the groundball totals, but he could put up lines similar to Marcus Stroman. Not too bad of an idea to impress the new boss by reminding him of one of his best draft choices.
Ryan: Soroka is the kind of guy that always seems to get past over by other guys as his stuff isn’t as electric as others. However, he cannot be ignored any further. Soroka, like Wright, also has a 4-pitch mix that all 4 pitches could grade out as plus. But that’s not what set Soroka apart from other 20-year-olds, rather it’s his control. Skipping High-A completely, Soroka pitched in Mississippi at AA and carried a 2.75 ERA through 153 innings, including an insane 2.0 BB/9. His FB sits in the mid-90s and relies on sink to be effective. With pinpoint accuracy and 4 pitches in-tow, Soroka could be in the Majors sooner than later and has real sticking power to be a mid-rotation workhorse in a very good rotation.
Stephen: You don’t need one more person, in one more write-up, telling you how good Mike Soroka is so I’m going to use this blurb to talk about what I’m watching for in 2018. Mike has 3/4 arm slot and typically guys with lower arm slots have larger platoon splits. He started to show it a bit in 2017 with a .556 OPS allowed vs RH and a .716 OPS allowed vs LH. Now a .716 OPS against LH isn’t a bad number and Mike had a terrific year in 2017 so this is something more just to monitor at this point. If Soroka can avoid the typical pitfalls other guys who pitch like him experience, he absolutely has the talent to dominate.
3. Ian Anderson
Tommy: I ranked Ian a bit lower than the other guys, but that’s not because I am down on him so much as I’m higher on the next two that follow. Anderson suffered from a bit of arm troubles this season, which limited his teenage arm to just 83 innings with Rome. He was highly impressive, no doubt, striking out 29% and mixing in a 47% ground-ball rate. Last July, Fangraphs projection system KATOH+ projected a six-year fWAR of 6.4 for Anderson, good for 48th and higher than Sean Newcomb and every other pitcher in the system not named Mike Soroka. I still like a few names more, but Anderson is a dynamic prospect regardless.
Ryan: I think Braves country are having a bit of prospect fatigue when it comes to Ian as it seems his name is thrown out in many trade scenarios on Twitter, but we need to step back a bit from this idea. He has every bit of the ceiling that Kyle Wright has and that’s remarkable. As a 19-year-old, Ian put up a 3.14 ERA, but even that could’ve been a bit unlucky as the BABIP against him was .341. Sounds like a few more groundballs snuck through the infield than what is common. I think the Braves continue to push their prospects and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ian is put on the Soroka track and either start in Mississippi next year or get promoted there very quickly.
Stephen: Anderson pitched 83 innings last year and gave up exactly the same number of HRs as I did. I didn’t give up any HRs. Now that kind of home-run suppression isn’t exactly sustainable but Anderson clearly has the talent for striking people out or getting them to hit the ball on the ground. Both make it difficult to hit a homerun. He needs to get healthy and the walks need to come down but he has the build, the stuff, and the profile to be a front-of-the-rotation starter. There are guys with higher floors in Atlanta’s system but very few, if any, with higher ceilings.
4. Bryse Wilson
Tommy: I was a bit slower to the Bryse Wilson Hype Train, but now that I’m here, I’m driving this thing. He fits the same approach the Braves were looking for under their previous GM – high ceiling guys who get strikeouts in bunches and maybe even induce some big groundout numbers. We’ll see if that last number sustains itself – guys in the lower minors put the ball on the ground more anyway. There are still those that believe Wilson’s future might be better in the bullpen, but until the Braves are forced to make that move – if it ever happens – all they need to be is excited about what they have with Wilson.
Stephen: The best production of any pitcher in the system last year arguably goes to Bryse. He posted a 25% K-rate, a 6% walk rate, and a 52% ground-ball rate in 2017. Simply put, that’s an elite profile. Wilson also threw 137 innings last year which is a big number for a 19-year-old. Pipeline puts a 60 on his fastball so he’s not just out there trying to trick people. There’s really nothing to improve here. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing against better and better competition.
Ryan: Frickin’ love Bryse and wrote about him early this year. I tend to favor athletic pitchers and he’s that in a nutshell. A bulldog looking dude that has the makeup to be better than anyone thought he’d ever be. Like Medlen in the past and Gattis in the present, those are the guys that I love and Bryse is my dude!
Tommy: No player can be as frustrating as Touki Toussaint. One night, he might throw a no-hitter. The next start, he’ll get lit up for six runs in the first inning. He’ll follow that up with a 10-K start. With Touki, it’s all been about that ceiling and it remains sky-high. Last July, I looked at Touki and said he was starting to turn the corner. I still do believe that because like I said then, I am a big proponent of progression in the numbers. He struck out more batters this year, walked fewer, and increased his groundball rate. He’s still maddeningly inconsistent, but I think we are getting closer to seeing if Touki can stay a starter prospect or might be better off following Arodys Vizcaino‘s example and moving to the pen. Hopefully, if that happens, Touki avoids the injuries that stalled Vizzy’s career.
Stephen: Every time I look at Touki’s player page, I just stop and stare at his fastball and curveball grades. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Fangraphs puts a 60 on his fastball and future 70 grade on his curveball. If you’ve ever seen Touki pitch, especially when he’s “on”, you’ll understand why. It’s a soul-stealing hook that he can pair with a mid 90s fastball. The problem for Toussaint is consistency. Well, consistency and walks. Figure out how to have fewer blow-ups and throw the ball over the plate more frequently and that insane ceiling of his just might start becoming a reality.
Ryan: Raw as an oyster out of the bay and as ferocious as a bull shark out of the gulf, Touki could be GREAT…or he could fizzle out. He likely has the best pitch in the entire system, a poop-your-pants bender, yet he just seems to lose his composure on the mound. Touki would rate higher for me if I didn’t think he’s going to end up in the pen, but in my opinion, that’s his future…and oh what a future it could be!
Ryan: I really, really like Weigel. Before his injury which required Tommy John, I believed he was on the fast track to the Majors, with a chance to debut late 2017. But late June, it was apparent that something was wrong as Weigel, once clocked at 98-101, was topping out in the upper-80s. A big setback for a big arm. If the Braves continue this extra cautious path back to the bigs, Weigel will likely sit out the entire 2018 season and could see action in the Winter Leagues. Weigel features a 4-pitch mix but is known for his big fastball and wipeout slider. The other 2 pitches aren’t considered plus pitches which begs the question whether he’s destined to the bullpen or not. I think a lot of that has to do with the progress of young starters next year. If there’s no spot available for Weigel, I could see the Braves transitioning him to relief where he can really show off that arm.
7. Matt Withrow
Ryan: Matt Withrow makes me think a whole lot of Matt Wisler and from a prospect perspective, that’s a compliment. Withrow sits in the mid-90s (93-96) with his fastball and adds a few ticks out of the bullpen. He features 4 pitches but only one is a real force right now and that’s his slider. I don’t foresee Withrow breaking through in the Braves organization as a starting pitcher as there are 10+ guys with better stuff. However, Withrow could very well become a force out of the bullpen should he focus on his 2 best pitches and use those in short work. For now, he’ll stay as a starter and that’s good for his development.
Stephen: Kevin Maitan headlined Atlanta’s 2016 International FA class but that group wasn’t a one-man show. The Braves added serious talent after Maitan too and Contreras was part of that. Atlanta signed him for $1.2M mainly for his power stuff. Contreras is a tall, projectable fastball/slider guy who’s already reaching 95 as an 18-year-old. His debut season in the states didn’t go as planned but like all these July signings, this is going to be a marathon. Contreras has big-time talent and he’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to show it.
Stephen: John Coppolella’s last draft with Atlanta was full of low-ceiling, senior signs in rounds 5-10. The reason for that was so they could grab Wright in the first round and still get a guy like Tarnok in the third round for more than twice his slot value. Tarnok is 18 and already 6-3 so projection is the name of the game for him. He saw limited innings last year after being drafted in June but he did have success, especially with his control. Ideally, you’d like to see more strikeouts and fewer fly balls but, just like with Contreras, Tarnok is just 18. This will be a 4-5 year process.
10. Huascar Ynoa
Ryan: Ynoa was acquired from the Twins in exchange for Jaime Garcia and Anthony Recker. He was placed the back-end of their top-25 according to MLB Pipeline and doesn’t make the Braves list. Despite that, he’s still someone to keep an eye on. Was topping out at 98 in Braves Minor League action last year. Ynoa’s said to have a good fastball and a curveball to build on. However, from there it’s up in the wind. He’s most definitely a Touki-esque project to keep an eye on, especially if that 98 MPH reading was real and not a hot gun. (For more, here is our scouting report from last summer.)
T-11. Yefri Del Rosario
Stephen: Del Rosario was another member of Atlanta’s famed 2016 international signing class. He’s a tall, lanky kid with the prototypical big fastball and little command. He had an encouraging start to his career last year, generating decent strikeout rates and an impressive ground-ball rate. Stop me if you’ve heard this before but Del Rosario is 18 and is already 6-2 with a projectable frame. Braves have a type.
T-11. Jeremy Walker
Tommy: In the fifth round of the ’16 draft, after Anderson, Wilson, Kyle Muller, and Joey Wentz already headlined a bumper crop of prep pitchers, the Braves grabbed Walker out of Gardner-Webb. Most analysts seem to agree that a move to the pen is most likely, but Walker does have a pair of possible plus breaking pitches with a mid-to-late 80’s slider and a curveball with bite. Not only does he have those pitches, but he is smart with them and avoids walks. I’m not sure if he’ll stay in the rotation, but he did make some nice adjustments last season after a tough early stretch of games and that gives me hope. Over his last 78 innings (14 starts), he had a 2.42 ERA and gave up one homer with a 55% groundball rate. Considering his .323 BABIP, it can’t be called smoke-and-mirrors either.
13. Odalvi Javier
Tommy: Having watched Javier a few times last year with Danville, the one thing that stood out to me was his approach on the mound. He’s a bulldog who goes right after batters – hitting eleven of them in 63 innings. He doesn’t have the best stuff, but he still makes hitters uncomfortable and that serves him well. Javier reminds me a bit of Kris Medlen, though he doesn’t have Medlen’s pinpoint control. Nevertheless, that bulldog nature on the mound has my attention and he could be a surprising arm in Rome next year.
14. Enderson Franco
Tommy: Twice selected in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, Franco joined the Braves after the 2015 season. Before that, he was an Astro and a Ray. He didn’t really make any headlines pitching in Carolina in 2016 but pitched solidly this season while mostly playing in Florida. He’s a longshot, but if that curveball ever develops into average territory, he might be a guy capable of holding down a fifth spot in the rotation.
Tommy: It’s been a slow climb for De La Cruz, who made his debut in 2015. He should have been in Danville to open this year after a pretty good 2016 between the DSL and GCL squads, but the numbers game seemed to limit him. De La Cruz then dominated the GCL out of the box and earned his call-up to the APPY League. He had a couple of bad starts, which inflates his numbers a good deal. De La Cruz also missed some a bit of time in late August. Having watched him, it’s easy to be impressed by his pitches and velocity. He’s another one of those light-switch players. If he flips the switch, he could be a surprising prospect moving forward.