I used to have help with this whole prospect mess.
As we look toward the 2020 season, a lot has been said about the Braves farm system which, while still very good, has seen what happens when you produce tremendous talent that graduates to the majors every season. Eventually, things start to thin out. Add in the international signing penalities courtesy of former general manager, John Coppolella, and it’s not shocking to see Atlanta fall down a little when we talk about the best farm systems in baseball.
But Coppy’s replacement, Alex Anthopoulos, has kept many of the prospects that haven’t graduated to the majors by refusing to destroy the farm system via costly trades. Will that continue? Maybe not, but Anthopoulos’s team has also done a great job trying to rebuild the lower rungs of the farm through the draft. Even the failure to sign Carter Stewart in 2018 was turned into a plus for the 2019 draft.
The end result is a system that is high in depth and tools, but no longer overfilling with elite prospects. But the toolsy prospects have the ability to explode at any point into more elite prospects and with Atlanta’s focus in player development, it wouldn’t be shocking to see more “light-switch” prospects who go from good-to-great in the span of a season.
In preparation for my yearly Top 50, I wanted to start with some brief positional looks at things in the system. Today, I’m going to cover catchers and corner infielders before moving on to middle infielders and the outfield. Finally, I’ll look at the guys on the mound.
1. William Contreras
2. Shea Langeliers
3. Alex Jackson
4. Jonathan Morales
5. Logan Brown
Comments: Most publications will go with Langeliers first and I have no problem with that. But I’m sticking with Contreras because, while I think Langeliers has a higher floor and more likely road to a major league assignment, I still believe Contreras’ potential is higher.
Contreras, who just turned 22 on Christmas Eve, logged 60 games in Mississippi last year. Some have suggested that one reason Dom Chiti was sacked after the season was promotions to players like Contreras despite only hitting .260/.316/.359 over 73 games with Florida, split between two years. The Contreras who raked in Danville and Rome hasn’t shown up since arriving with the Fire Frogs and certainly didn’t do much in Mississippi. That said, I’m banking on his potential a little longer. All that said, the difference between 1 & 2 on this list is very small – especially compared to the difference between 2 & 3.
Drafted ninth overall out of Baylor, Langeliers skipped the rookie leagues and finished the summer in Rome, hitting .255/.310/.343. Defensively, there are few complaints about his game. Offensively, it’s more of a mystery what he will do. It’s important to remember that Langeliers did break his hamate bone last February and despite rushing back to smack ten homers before heading to the Braves, it’s likely he will show even more pop a year removed from the injury.
The three-year experiment to turn Jackson from an outfielder back into the catcher he was as a prep star has been successful. He looks comfortable behind the plate, is a better receiver than expected, and cut down 50% of the baserunners who challenged him last year. But he is now a lifetime .233 hitter who strikes out a whole bunch. Using the MLB ball, he bashed a career-best 28 homers last year. Now, can he make any consistent contact? It’s why Jackson is in line for a second trip to Gwinnett and/or a trade.
Neither Morales nor Brown are notable prospects – though the latter is getting some hype. Morales is a talented catcher, but lacks a hit tool and hits too many harmless grounders. Brown, a 35th-round pick in 2018, split the year between Rome and Florida. He looked great in Rome, riding a .373 BABIP to the .301/.351/.383 slash. He crashed to Earth after a promotion to Florida, which is difficult for most hitters to excel at. Like Morales, Brown is a plus defender. He’s got a bit better hit tool than Morales, though I give Morales a bit higher placement based on being closer to the majors. That said, just like the top of the list, the two guys at the bottom are close together in my mind and there is gap separating #3 and #4.
1. CJ Alexander
2. Bryce Ball
3. Mahki Backstrom
4. Braxton Davidson
5. Griffin Benson
Comments: The best news for Alexander is 2019 is mercifully over in two days. A right elbow injury limited him early on before surgery was ultimately decided upon to clean up everything. Once he finally returned in July, there wasn’t much to write about when it came to his offense before another trip to the IL ended his season in mid-August.
Alexander will likely head back to Mississippi to try to get going again. Remember that this kid set the world on fire back in 2018 after he was drafted. Time is not really on his side as a 23-year-old who turns 24 next July. But if he can re-connect with his line-drive swing – maybe even add a touch of power – he becomes an attractive bench option who can provide depth at the infield corners and potentially the outfield corners.
Similar to Alexander, Ball was picked deep in the draft and absolutely raked once he started his professional career. The Mason City, Iowa behemoth destroyed Appalachian League pitching with 13 jacks in just 41 games. He finished with four weeks in Rome where he added four more homers – which gave him 17 and nearly matched the 18 he smacked at Dallas Baptist University before the draft. What really impresses you, though, is that Ball made a lot of contact along the way despite his 6’6″ frame.
Like Alexander, Ball has to prove he can do it a second time. Hopefully, he has a bit more luck than Alexander did in 2019, though. One thing is clear – the Braves have already gotten more out of Ball than they did Austin Bush, another monster of a man who struck out a ton before during his 91-game run with the Braves 2017-18.
Adding Backstrom to the 2019 draft class was the cherry on top for a group of players that could form the nucleus of future Top Prospect rankings for the system. Signed just before the deadline as the Braves persuaded the Fresno State commit to take the money, Backstrom crushed the ball in 82 plate appearances in the Gulf Coast League. He’s incredibly young (just 18 for the 2020 season), has tools for days, and, if I graded completely on potential, he would soar to the top of this list. It’s going to probably take a little time, but if you want to put some money down on the next franchise first baseman for the Braves, Backstrom should garner most of your interest.
Like with catcher, we have reached a big divide as we move to the bottom two players on the list.
Braxton Davidson was Frank Wren’s last #1 pick with the Braves, which should tell you just how long he has been trying to figure out things. He has shown glimpses – moments, where you remember that few prospects in the 2014 had a better power grade than Davidson and that draft included first-rounders Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto, and Matt Chapman. But then Davidson would fall into a strikeout binge and just look lost at the plate. In three seasons at Advanced-A ball, Davidson struck out 552 times with a .669 OPS. But we still wanted to believe as he crushed balls in the Arizona Fall League in 2018. The final ball that he crushed was a walk-off homer to bring home the AFL title. He fractured his foot as he rounded third base and never played during 2019.
Now 23, Davidson has no time to waste. With his power and ability to draw walks, Davidson could easily be productive provided he simply hit .250. He had never done that. He’s running out of time to show the Braves – not to mention the rest of the league – that he can be a potential major leaguer someday.
Benson makes this list because I do like to give players a little shoutout when they finally perform a little. Benson has always had the profile of a guy who should hit for more power but never showed it. Finally, left to play first base most nights in Rome, Benson delivered 22 doubles and 13 homers. He struck out a ton and only hit .208, but baby steps. Benson takes his walks, can switch-hit, and does have decent pull power.