Here it is – our final five prospects in our preseason Top 50. Amazingly, as if we planned it, today is also the day pitchers and catchers report – including most of this list.
You know who #1 is. Surprisingly, we all had the same exact start to our Top 50’s with the same player #1 and the same player #2. No matter how you slice, these five players are elite, blue-chip prospects. They are not only the best in the Braves system but among the best in baseball. And there is a chance that all five could wear an Atlanta uniform in 2018. That should excite you, guys and gals. Thanks for reading along and we’ll see you again for a midseason Top 50 sometime this summer.
Methodology – each member of Walk-Off Walk submitted a Top 50. We then averaged the rankings together to give us a composite ranking. If a player was unranked on any one member’s submission, he was assigned a ranking of #55 for averaging purposes. Ties were broken by the highest individual rank by a member of Walk-Off Walk. In one case, a second tiebreaker that used the second highest individual rank was utilized. All rankings are displayed along with the preseason and midseason ranks from 2017. It should be noted that the 2017 preseason Top 50 was done entirely by Tommy Poe.
5. Max Fried
Tommy: #7, Stephen: #5, Ryan: #6
2017 Preseason: #11, Midseason: #21
When the Braves acquired Max Fried during the fire sale winter of 2014-15, it was a tad bittersweet. The Braves weren’t acquiring many game-changing prospects at the time and Fried was the best of the lot. However, he was also hurt and would miss the entire 2015 season. By the time he did return, the Braves had loaded up on elite prospects and Fried was falling in the system rankings. And then, he found his curveball.
Babied on a pitch count, Fried effectively repeated low-A. He had already pitched well for the Padres as a 19-year-old back in 2013 at the level. That could have made his accomplishments in 2016 a bit underwhelming, but the fact that he stayed healthy and struck out 26.4% of batters was a great sign. While his ERA finished near 4.00, that was the cause of a few early stinkers. In his final 14 games and 70.2 innings, Fried had a 3.06 ERA and struck out 84 batters.
Like much of the famed 2016 Rome rotation, Fried jumped Florida and opened 2017 with Mississippi. He struggled greatly, battling blisters nearly as much as he battled Southern League hitters. After missing nearly a month of action in July, the Braves put him on a strict pitch count and he seemed to respond. After three short starts, none of which lasted beyond the fourth inning, Fried was surprisingly brought to the majors for a four-game cameo. He would later be brought back in September for five games, including four starts. His last start only went 4.1 innings, but he flashed his skills with 7 strikeouts. He then dominated the Arizona Fall League over 19 innings, giving Fried a career-high 137.2 innings.
Fried gets a lot of natural sink on his four-seamer, which gives the pitch an almost two-seam feel with four-seam giddy-up. His changeup also has some sink to it, but the pitch that is worth the price of admission is his mid-70’s curveball. It’s one of the better curveballs you’ll see in 2018 and is a potential 70-grade pitch. When he’s able to control it, hitters have no chance.
At 24, Fried is a bit older than some of the other elite arms the Braves have. Don’t sleep on him, though. He’s got as much ability as anyone. It just comes down to refining his pitches. (Tommy Poe)
4. Mike Soroka
Tommy: #4, Stephen: #4, Ryan: #3
2017 Preseason: #6, Midseason: #6
The Braves drafted Soroka with the 28th overall pick in 2015, which was a bit a surprise for some, but almost right away he showed it was the right move. In his first 34 innings in 2015, he posted a 2.06 FIP with exceptional command of the baseball when he was just a teenager. He followed that up with an impressive 2016 season at Rome, with a 3.02 ERA, 2.78 FIP, and 51% ground-ball rate. Dominating the way he did in his first couple seasons led Atlanta to go super-aggressive in 2017 and have Soroka skip high-A and go straight to AA.
All he did there, as a 19-year-old, was post a 2.75 ERA, 3.19 FIP, and a 46% ground-ball rate. Soroka is a big kid at 6’5 225 and has the perfect frame as a workhorse starter. He’s a 3-pitch guy, with a sinking fastball that sits 90-94, a two-plane slider that sits around 84, and a developing change-up that will really be a huge part of his major-league success. Soroka is 3/4 delivery guy which means he struggles sometimes to get on top of that change-up and can lead to problems against lefties. 3/4 arm slot pitchers have a history of higher platoon splits because of that reason so that will be a thing to watch for him. That and maintaining above average ground-ball rates is really the recipe for success in Mike’s career.
He’s 20-years-old in 2018 so pitching a full year in AAA would be huge accomplishment based on his age but there may be bigger things in store for Soroka this year. He could absolutely see time in the major-league rotation if there’s an injury or really, if he continues showing pitch-ability above his years. It might be a September call-up for Mike but I don’t see any reason, barring injury, he isn’t competing for a rotation spot in 2019. (Stephen Tolbert)
3. Kyle Wright
Tommy: #3, Stephen: #3, Ryan: #4
2017 Preseason: UR, Midseason: #3
With the 5th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, Braves selected New Market, Alabama native Kyle Wright out of Vanderbilt University. Coming in as Baseball America’s #2 overall prospect in the draft, it was a bit of a surprise that Wright dropped to the Braves at #5 but his year at Vanderbilt had a bit more ups and downs that apparently couldn’t be overlooked by the top 4 teams. Braves considered themselves lucky as a rooster in a henhouse that Wright lasted til 5, and I think Wright returned that feeling as he grew up a fan of the Braves.
What Wright lacks velocity on his fastball (only coming in the mid-90s rather than the upper-90s that’s so coveted in current market), he’s matched with stuff as he’s got 4 pitches that could rate as plus with the 4th, the changeup, being deemed by Wright himself as his “most important pitch” (translation: it needs to develop and be disguised more) . This means that he has more of a defined floor as at least a back-end starter with a ceiling as a #2 in a good rotation. This might not be what many want to hear, but it’s more secure than the likes of someone like Touki Toussaint who’s all ceiling right now with a floor that could reach the depths of…well, I’ll just leave it there. Truthfully, there’s only 1, maybe 2, guys a year that get pegged with “ace” stuff and most of those guys aren’t in the Braves system (don’t fret, Braves fans…five number 2-3 starters is a dynamite rotation…we all can’t be Clayton Kershaw).
Coming from a powerhouse like Vandy, Wright likely has as much, or more, polish than anyone in the Braves MiLB system outside of Mike Soroka. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were to begin his 2018 season at Double-A Mississippi where he’ll look to add innings to his professional resume. If he stays healthy and productive, he’ll likely move up to Triple-A at some point and who knows from there. If the Braves just so happen to surprise everyone and compete for a Wild Card and Kyle Wright is sitting ’em down in Gwinnett, there could be just enough madness mixed to create a perfect storm for late-season magic. One can dream. (Ryan Cothran)
2. Luiz Gohara
Tommy: #2, Stephen: #2, Ryan: #2
2017 Preseason: #7, Midseason: #8
When the Mariners traded Gohara to the Braves last winter, Ken Rosenthal penned an article about the reasons why. Scouts hated the deal. I mean, they absolutely hated the deal. The Mariners were worried about Gohara’s shoulder, they said. Of course, they also acquired Shae Simmons in the deal so apparently, health concerns really didn’t bother them.
In the end, one team’s loss was another team’s amazing gain. The Atlanta Braves acquired one of the top lefthand prospects in all of baseball for a player they felt was talented, but far too injury-prone (Simmons) and another they worried was a fourth outfielder (Mallex Smith). Not too shabby of a deal. That’s before you get into the season that Gohara had after being acquired. Like our #1 player, Gohara was a consensus pick among the guys. Each of us had him #2. After his 2017, that only makes the #1 prospect all the more impressive. More on that guy a little later.
Gohara opened the year in Florida. For three seasons, Gohara was the talented, but raw kid. He started to put it together in 2016 (seriously, that’s when you trade him, Seattle?), and only found his footing last year. In seven starts in Florida, Gohara had a 1.98 ERA and 1.99 FIP. Not too bad and the Florida State League felt their prayers were answered when the Braves brought him to Mississippi. Over 12 appearances with the M-Braves, Gohara again had a freakishly similar ERA/FIP of 2.60/2.52. All the while, he was striking out about 27-28% with a close to 8% walk rate. I hear that’s good.
At just 20 years-old, he made his Gwinnett debut and started seven games with the former Braves. Roughed up a little in two of his first three starts at the level, Gohara caught fire. Over his final four starts, he sported a 1.83 ERA and 30 K’s in 19.2 innings. Now 21, he made his major league debut last September and in five starts, he showed the oh, so good (7 ING, 1 ER 2 BB, 9 K) and the meh (4 ING, 6 ER, 4 BB, 6 K). But considering he started the year facing Daytona and finished it facing Miami, that’s not too shabby at all.
The story with Gohara is pretty well known by this point. He throws a 96-97 mph fastball with plus movement and triple-digit max velocity. When you key in on that pitch, he’ll throw a tight slider right past you for the strikeout. The two pitches are so good that Gohara didn’t bother with his changeup against lefthanders. It’s more of a pitch he’ll use against righties to keep them off-balanced. It’s his poorest pitch by far and its development will decide just what kind of starter Gohara becomes. He didn’t use it often the first time through the order, choosing instead to go to it the second time through the order as another pitch to mess with his hitters.
Of all the pitchers the Braves have acquired, drafted, and signed over the last few years, Luiz Gohara has the best chance to be a legit “ace.” By that, I mean, he’s got the potential to be one of the best 20 or 30 pitchers in baseball. He just might be that in 2018. Everything is there. Now, can he put it all together? (Poe)
1. Ronald Acuna
Tommy: #1, Stephen: #1, Ryan: #1
2017 Preseason: #9, Midseason: #1
Who else? The number one prospect in all of baseball was always going to be at the top of our list. Braves haven’t had a prospect this good or this hyped since Jason Heyward and it’s probably accurate to say his debut is the best thing going about the 2018 season.
Acuna started in High-A-ball last year and while he didn’t dominate, he did enough to show the old Braves’ front office that he was ready for a promotion. He got that promotion and made his way to Double-A where he would start one of the greatest minor league seasons in Braves history. He posted an absurd 159 wRC+ at AA Mississippi while also cutting his K rate by 8%. All At 19 years-old. Had he stopped there, that alone was probably enough to warrant being the number one prospect in baseball. But he wasn’t done.
In a hyper-aggressive move, Atlanta then promoted our teenage phenom to AAA where he was younger than the average player by 4 or 5 years. How did he respond? By posting an even more absurd 162 wRC+ and again, lowering his K rate by another 4%. This isn’t supposed to happen. Teenagers just don’t do that. Not at AA. Much less AAA. He capped his 2017 season by setting the Arizona Fall league on fire and again showing the world he was just better than his peers.
From a scouting perspective, what sets Acuna apart is he has an extremely high floor given his speed and defense prowess. Even if for some reason, he struggles to hit big league pitching, the way he can run and play defense means he could basically be a 2 WAR player without really trying. Add to that a 70-grade arm, and his non-offensive arsenal is as impressive as there is in minor-league baseball, with his fellow Braves’ teammate Cristian Pache possibly being the only exception.
But he’s not expected to struggle to hit. Cause he’s hit everywhere. And amazingly, as the competition has gotten better, so has his production. His fast hands and incredible raw power generate tremendous bat and ball speed and leads to big-time damage. I would expect that to continue in the majors.
The only question for Acuna will be when will he get that call. Atlanta could be aggressive and let him play opening day or, the more likely path, is they could play service time games and delay his call-up in 2018. Whenever he’s up, enjoy him Braves’ fans. These kinds of players just don’t come along that often. And Atlanta needs him. (Tolbert)
Preseason Top 50 Prospects
1. Ronald Acuna
2. Luiz Gohara
3. Kyle Wright
4. Mike Soroka
5. Max Fried
6. Kolby Allard
7. Austin Riley
8. Ian Anderson
9. Joey Wentz
10. Cristian Pache
11. Alex Jackson
12. Bryse Wilson
13. A.J. Minter
14. Drew Waters
15. Touki Toussaint
16. William Contreras
17. Patrick Weigel
18. Jacob Lindgren
19. Kyle Muller
20. Travis Demeritte
21. Jean Carlos Encarnacion
22. Dustin Peterson
23. Akeel Morris
24. Freddy Tarnok
25. Anyelo Gomez
26. Isranel Wilson
27. Tyler Pike
28. Derian Cruz
29. Drew Lugbauer
30. Matt Withrow
31. Brett Cumberland
32. Devan Watts
33. Corbin Clouse
34. Tucker Davidson
35. Ricardo Sanchez
36. Lucas Herbert
37. Thomas Burrows
38. Anfernee Seymour
39. Drew Harrington
40. Huascar Ynoa
41. Ray-Patrick Didder
42. Adam McCreery
43. Tyler Neslony
44. Jared James
45. Braulio Vasquez
46. Dylan Moore
47. Leudys Baez
48. Jefrey Ramos
49. Jacob Webb
50. Braxton Davidson
—On The Outside