.Today, we finish our collection of the best prospects in the minors. It’s been a long road to this point with over 75 prospects ranked as part of this exercise. We hope these lists have helped you understand what positions are deep and what positions need some added talent. That last part has proved especially important after penalties thinned positions such as second base and shortstop. Our last list is focused on the bullpen. While you could add some current starters to the mix, the Braves have a number of very exciting relievers moving through the system right now. Expect this list to also be thinned out – by graduations as players start to post bigger numbers in the majors.
Interestingly, we landed on a tie so this list will actually be eleven pitchers large rather than ten. How did we choose our list? Each of the three writers at Walk-Off Walk voted on their Top 10 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 many of the pictures used in this post. Follow him on Twitter – @JeffMorrisAB.
1. A.J. Minter
Tommy: In a 15-inning run after joining the big league team in late August, A.J. Minter struck out 26, walked just two, and a 0.96 FIP. I guess that’s good. Nobody doubts his lethal combination of an upper 90’s fastball with sick movement and a slider that has entered the nightmares of its victims. It’s a combo that will make Minter a rich man…if he stays healthy. The Braves drafted him while he was injured and he’s only logged 74 innings over the last two years. If he can stay on the mound, he’ll be a star.
Ryan: With a lot of our top-tier bullpen guys, if they stay healthy, they’re going to make the Braves very good in the 7th-9th innings, and Minter is leading this brigade of bada**ery. In 15 innings pitched, Minter was worth 0.6 fWAR last year. Now imagine that production across 60 healthy innings. That’s an Andrew Miller type force and will be here for the next 6 years.
Stephen: Minter is a 6-foot LHP who throws a 97-99 mph fastball with a 90 mph slider. Striking out 43% of the batters you face is already ridiculous production but only walking 3% makes it unreal. It’s not realistic to expect those numbers going forward but no one would be surprised if he’s the best RP in the organization by the end of the year.
Ryan: A fastball sitting in the mid-90s with a slider that’s scary good, the Braves could be ready to see a O’Flaherty/Venters type run with Lindgren and Minter if they can just stay healthy. It’s worth noting that Lindgren had bone spurs before he had Tommy John surgery so there could be mechanical adjustments that detour his 2018 season a bit.
Stephen: Lindgren is another LH reliever, who when healthy, is as electric as there is in baseball. But between the Tommy John surgery, the bone spurs, and just the general volatility that comes with being a pitcher, it’s probably best to temper our excitement. Just a full, healthy season from Jacob would be a huge success regardless of the results.
3. Akeel Morris
Tommy: Like roughly half of the current system, the Braves acquired Morris in a Kelly Johnson trade back in 2016 and he surprisingly languished in the minors despite some intriguing stats last season. He opened the year in Mississippi, but quickly finally got a promotion to Gwinnett. He posted a 3.09 ERA/3.44 FIP there. Morris also had a small run in the minors. Small meaning 7.1 innings. The numbers aren’t worth repeating, but they certainly were good enough to deserve more of a look. Instead, the Braves passed on bringing Morris back last September. Morris is a flyball pitcher who relies primarily on a low 90’s fastball with movement and an upper 70’s changeup that is to die for. There are questions whether he can control his pitches. Also, as an extreme flyball pitcher, situational pitching when a flyball could kill you might hurt him badly. Nevertheless, he still possesses an exciting right arm and should be in the mix next spring.
Ryan: While Akeel has more than 2 pitches, the others aren’t worth discussing. His fastball and changeup are both really good pitches but his control is his Achilles’ heel. I’m not as high on Akeel as Tommy and Stephen but it’s likely more to do with the Braves bringing up these guys for test runs in the MLB without mastering control in MiLB. Akeel seemed to harness control a little bit more in the 2nd half of the season so it’s likely worth giving him a real shot in 2018, or trade him so he can get it elsewhere.
Stephen: In general, I think Fastball/Changeup guys get underrated by scouts and fans who are looking for the big velocity plus a wipeout curveball or slider. I like them because they tend to not suffer from platoon splits as badly as others. Akeel showed this last year, only giving up a .230 wOBA to LHB. Morris has to refine his command like most young pitchers do but he has talent and should get an opportunity to show it in Atlanta in 2018.
Tommy: A 27th-round find in 2016, Clouse has already pitched 22 innings in Double-A. He also logged eleven innings in the Arizona Fall League and while his ERA didn’t look pretty, he struck out 15 in 11 innings and I’ll take that in an atmosphere that benefits the hitters. He only started to pitch full-time as a senior in college and gets sick movement with a sinker/slider combo. The Braves have yet another lefty who could be capable of more than just being a left-hand specialist. (see scouting report for more)
Ryan: Clouse is a young pitcher and could use some seasoning to get his control down, but he’s got just as much of a chance as Lindgren to be a force in the bullpen. Like O’Flaherty, Clouse is known more for offspeed which racks up the strikeouts, but also racks up the walks. For Clouse to rise to the next level, he’ll likely have to realize that he cannot strike out the world and will have to work on keeping the walks down, which will naturally pull his strikeouts down as well…and that’s ok.
Stephen: Clouse is 2/3 of the way to the pitching holy trinity. Lots of strikeout, lots of groundballs, and few walks. It’s the walks part he still doesn’t quite have down yet. Like so many young pitchers before him, his future is directly tied to how well he can improve his command. Throw more strikes, and he’s a major league reliever.
5. Devan Watts
Tommy: One thing about Coppy’s run that should not go unnoticed – the dude found some gems after the 15th-round. Almost all of them were college relievers who had one plus pitch and a massive chip on their shoulder. Watts is no different with a slider to die for. Unlike a lot of the arms on this list, he didn’t languish at a level because of the numbers game and so many arms vying for innings. After spending the first half of the season in Florida, he finished in Mississippi with Clouse forming a tough southpaw/righty combo for the Southern League to deal with. A flyball guy, hitters rarely square up his pitches and I am willing to be that continues moving forward.
Ryan: For some reason, I really like relievers that choose to stay with 2 pitches and master said pitches. That’s what Watts has done in his professional career. He works off a fastball/slider combo and has had great results. Beginnings of his career saw the former sitting low 90s but new reports state he’s in the mid-90s regularly with a minority pushing uppers. His slider is used up and down the velo chart causing many to use the word cutter when thrown with more velo. I like him better than Clouse and Akeel and think he is an impact guy by late 2018. Has a real Shae Simmons type vibe without the arm injury history.
Stephen: Watts has the distinction of the strangest statistical anomaly on this list. In over 80 innings of professional ball, Watts has allowed exactly 1 HR. And I don’t really know why. He’s not a sinker guy and he doesn’t induce a particularly high amount of grounders. He just hasn’t given up HRs yet. We’ll see if he can continue the magic act.
Tommy: The former Alabama closer, Burrows was left at Rome last season despite a 2.16 ERA/2.49 FIP while striking out nearly a third of all hitters. Methinks he’s ready for a bit more of a push this season. Burrows is another sinker/slider left-hander – a theme for this list. He could be a fast riser and provide serious depth to the bullpen at some point in 2019.
Ryan: The arm-angle is key for Burrows as he’s slightly below 3/4 arm slot making it really difficult for left-handed hitters to pick him up. While he’s been successful against both types of hitters, I’d expect him to be more of a specialist in the bigs. Like many minor leaguers, there’s contradicting reports on his fastball velocity as some say he’s up a tick or 2 since his college days. If he advances more and his velo is in mid-90s, he could be more than just a specialist. I agree with Tommy that he’ll move fast in 2018 if successful.
7. Kyle Kinman
Tommy: Oh, my lanta, Atlanta has got some amazing left-hand relievers. Kinman missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery (thanks #AskCoppy session). Before that, Kinman had a mini-Lindgren run going after being picked 700 or so selections after Lindgren. In 2015, he struck out 65 batters in 51.2 innings and walked just 26 during that time. Hitters just couldn’t make solid contact with his offerings. It could take him awhile to get going after rehabbing. Don’t be shocked to see Kinman toe the mound at SunTrust this year , though.
8. Phil Pfeifer
Stephen: Pfeifer is never going to see a big league field if he doesn’t learn how to stop walking people. A 13.9% BB rate, with an equally terrible 13.9% K rate, in AAA last year is a first class ticket to being a career minor leaguer. His overall numbers survived on .217 BABIP in 2017 but that won’t continue in 2018.
Ryan: In a shocking move, the Braves chose to protect McCreery from the upcoming Rule-5 Draft over the likes of Dustin Peterson and Travis Demeritte. At first, I couldn’t wrap my head around it, then I started looking at what Alex Anthopoulos was doing and I got it: he’s hoarding big left-handed arms, and that’s what McCreery is. Coming in at a whopping 6’8 and estimated 250 pounds, McCreery looks like he belongs more in the WCW than MLB. While there’s not much out there, I do know that McCreery pitches on a downward plane that buries his opponents in the box. His fastball comes in around 93-96, but can push upper-90s. Like a lot of the guys above, he can strike out the house, but also walks his fair share. Braves really like something about him, there’s another team that likes something about him and Braves protected him to trade him later. If he’s with the club come April, I’d expect him to move quickly through the system.
T-10. Caleb Dirks
Stephen: Dirks is a big RHP (6-3/220) who misses bats and throws strikes. These two facts alone will get him a shot in a major league bullpen, it’s just going to be up to him how he handles it. One area of his game he’s going to need to work on is keeping the ball in the yard. My guess is he starts in Gwinnett’s bullpen and it’s possible he’s a guy who could shuttle back and forth to Atlanta all year assuming he’s getting the results. It’s not out of the question he could make the team out of spring training but it’ll take a superb effort given the competition.
T-10. Jacob Webb
Tommy: What did Jacob Webb do last year? Oh, just throw 65.1 innings of tremendous ball with an ERA near 2.00. To be fair, the walks were a bit on the high side. Even so, Webb has looked great during his short, injury-interrupted career. Healthy for the first time, he looked like another late-round find capable of one day helping the Braves. Rule 5-eligible this year, Webb has only 24 innings at Double-A but might interest a team into taking him. If someone takes a chance, they’ll get a kid who has shown that while he doesn’t have the big velocity common with dirty relievers in today’s game, he’s got the right mix of stuff and confidence to get the job done.