For the first part covering catchers and corner infielders, click here.
In the second of a three-part series, I focus on middle infield prospects along with the outfield – which is far deeper than the two you keep hearing about.
Oh, something I forgot to mention last time and it kind of goes into what I wanted the intro for today’s article to be about – my methodology. When I talked about the top corner infielder prospects, I didn’t mention Austin Riley. Nor will he be mentioned in reference to the outfield prospects. It’s because, to me, he’s no longer a prospect. Oh, in spirit, he kind of is still one. But not in the way I define a true prospect.
How do I define prospects? Glad you asked.
To be a prospect for the upcoming season, you have to satisfy one of two criteria for me. One, you can’t be entering your Age-26 season. Just to clarify, that means you won’t be older than 25 for the majority of the upcoming campaign. Second, you have to retain your MLB rookie status. And that’s where Riley, who received nearly 300 plate appearances last year, falls off the rankings for me.
Now, my methodology is simple and kind of gets me in trouble. More specifically – I don’t really have a consistent one. I have some guidelines, but sometimes that makes it too slow for a prospect to grow on me or too slow for me to move on from a declining prospect. Basically, though, I look for a few things.
- What kind of potential does the player reasonably have?
- What about his floor? Is it high with some projection left? Low with a lot of projection?
- What level did he last play at? Was he old or young for that level?
- What position does he play? If a premium one, does it seem likely he’ll stay there?
- If now a starting pitcher, is it likely he remains one as he progresses?
- Where did I rank him last?
- And finally, what does my gut say?
While most (if not all) of these questions is the way people generally look at ranking prospects, the last one is the least consistent both from blogger-to-blogger and, in my case, from year-to-year. And further, though it probably should have no impact, where I rank a player in the past does matter to me. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. I’m not an expert. You probably already knew that, but it’s worth mentioning. I’m just a dude with a blog.
And with all of that said, let’s get on with the show and my expert analysis.
Laugh. It’s a joke.
1. Braden Shewmake
2. Vaughn Grissom
3. AJ Graffanino
4. Cody Milligan
5. Beau Philip
The first two drafts of the Alex Anthopoulos era are very represented with my picks for the top five middle infielders in the system. Only Graffanino was picked in 2018, too.
Selected with the 21st overall pick, Shewmake followed up three impressive seasons at Texas A&M by cruising through the South Atlantic League over 51 games, slashing .318/.389/.473 with eleven steals. He then skipped Florida and finished up the year with 52 fairly underwhelming plate appearances with Mississippi. That withstanding, it couldn’t have gone much better for Shewmake, who also swiped 13 bases along the way. And he only turned 22 in November.
As a prospect, Shewmake reminds me a lot of a left-handed version of Dansby Swanson with a bit less potential. Like Swanson, Shewmake doesn’t have one standout skill, but he makes up for that by not having a real weakness. He hits line drives to all parts of the field and I think he’ll develop more power. Defensively, Shewmake probably won’t win any awards, but he won’t embarrass you, either. On the low-end, I think he’ll settle into a super-utility role. On the higher projection, think of what you wish to see out of Swanson in 2020. That’s about what I think Shewmake can do if things go right.
Truth be told, Grissom probably won’t stay at shortstop long term. But the almost 19-year-old could become a fantastic third baseman and might be the prospect that rockets up rankings by next year. Grissom has a plus arm and he’s got the athleticism to stay at shortstop right now, but his frame tells me he’ll land at third base or maybe the outfield. Wherever he does play, he has the bat potential you’re looking for. He’s got a much lower floor than Shewmake, but his ceiling is a bit higher because Grissom has more raw power potential.
A strange thing happened on Graffanino’s way to Top 30 prospect status in the system – he basically missed the whole 2019 season due to some injury issues, including a gastro-intestinal problem. He should be good-to-go for 2020 and is another high-floor, moderate-ceiling type with a good hit tool. Defensively, he can handle shortstop with little problem. His future is probably more tied into becoming the utility player his dad was.
Cody Milligan came onto the scene with a solid Summer League run in 2018 before transferring to Cowley College from Oklahoma State and excelling with the increased playing time. A catcher in college, he moved to second base after the Braves selected him in the 9th round last June and flashed great plate discipline with 44 walks, leading to a .384 OBP. He has good speed and an intriguing hit tool. I don’t think the chances he becomes a starter in the majors are high, but I like him as a high-energy, high-work ethic option off the bench who can play all over the field.
As for Philip, you could easily go with Greg Cullen or Riley Delgado here, but I am putting my trust in the Braves, who “reached” for Philip. He did hit a solid .311/.369/.486 with Oregon State before he was drafted but struggled with a hamstring issue after the draft. Defensively, he is a major-league quality option today. Speedy with some hidden pop, Philip is still raw but could be another plus option in the future.
1. Cristian Pache
2. Drew Waters
3. Trey Harris
4. Greyson Jenista
5. Michael Harris
6. Jefrey Ramos
7. Justin Dean
9. Brandol Mezquita
10. Deivi Estrada
I’ve been back-and-forth between Pache and Waters for much of the last couple of years. On one side, Waters is, without a doubt, the better hitter right now. More of his doubles will become homers as he gets stronger and adds lift to his swing. That will improve his average in-game power numbers – especially important if he becomes a corner outfielder.
But my ranking methodology – which I explained earlier – left me to go with Pache first. In potential, Pache has the edge and not only because he’s a 70+ grade defensive player. One thing I search for is progression in a player. With Pache, we saw a good deal of it last season. His strikeout rate was actually down over a 26-game sample in Gwinnett. Meanwhile, his walk rate – which fell in half during 2018 – returned in force. He also flashed more raw power than he had in recent years.
That’s not to say there isn’t progression to be found in Waters’ game during 2019. Only that I see more with Pache and his defense makes this a no-brainer. I do believe that Waters has a higher floor and, if I was making a fantasy baseball decision, I’d take Waters over Pache every time. But in terms of progression and potential, Pache gets the nod.
If you don’t know who Trey Harris is yet, you haven’t been paying attention. After giving South Atlantic Leaguer pitchers nightmares, he kept up his positive momentum in the Florida State League – which is difficult to do – before landing a final stop in Mississippi. Not a bad first full season in professional baseball. A 32nd rounder, Harris is undersized but is a smart hitter with easy power to all parts of the field. I’d like to see him put the ball in the air a bit more and make no mistake – Harris is not on the level of Pache or Waters. But there’s zero reason to think the sneakily athletic outfielder won’t be a major league option sooner rather than later at this stage.
In a word, 2019 was just forgettable for Jenista. After quickly moving from Danville-to-Rome-to-Florida following the draft in 2018, Jenista struggled first in a return trip to Florida and then with Mississippi. In context to the leagues he played in, Jenista wasn’t that bad (103 wRC+ with the Fire Frogs and 95 wRC+ following the promotion). Still, it never felt like Jenista really got going in 2019. He did log a couple of games at first, but also played a little center so maybe the Braves think higher of his defensive skills than draft watchers did in 2018. He’ll probably return to Mississippi to open 2020 and hopefully, we see more of the guy who had one of the better offensive profiles coming into the draft.
The Braves once gave Andrelton Simmons a chance to stay in the field rather than put him on the mound. They did something similar to Michael Harris and the early returns are sparkling. Known more for his arm than his bat as a prep star, Harris destroyed the Gulf Coast League before a rushed promotion to Rome to help the latter out for the playoff push. He struggled there, which should surprise no one for an 18-year-old in his first summer as a professional. A switch-hitter, Harris shows a good deal more power from the left-side than the right-side and, interestingly, it says he’s no longer a switch-hitter on MILB.com. That might be an oversight. Either way, Harris has the profile to be special.
To this point, Ramos’ career has not gone the way we definitely hoped it would. No one doubts that he has serious power, but the free-swinger too often settles for weak contact just to put the ball in play. Ramos needs his bat to lead the way because he’s unlikely to be even average in the field. 2020 might be a make-or-break year for him to stay with the organization.
Dean is yet another later-in-the-draft pick-up who has already paid off with some prospect status. After splitting 2018 with Rome and Danville, he stuck out in Rome throughout last season and slashed .284/.386/.431 with an organizational-high 47 steals. Essentially, you got the full Justin Dean experience. He combines a quick bat and good awareness at the plate with plus-plus speed on the bases. He also has a bit more pop than advertised, which turns keeps his average from being empty. I’d like to see him strikeout less as a leadoff type, though. Overall, he has a fourth outfielder profile.
Paolini was another surprise pick by the Braves as there wasn’t a ton of information about him prior to Atlanta selecting him in the fifth round. Plucked from the cold weather northeast, Paolini is a toolsy outfielder who carries the five-tool moniker. Last summer, he looked very raw, striking out 37 times in 143 PA with only 23 hits (.192 average). He also added only six extra-base hits, all doubles, and stole only two bases. Paolini will probably be a slow burn if he develops into the player the Braves envision.
Speaking of slow burns, Mezquita is going to take some time, but he’s a super intriguing option who once was released as part of the John Coppolella scandal, but re-signed. The numbers – outside of his OBP – are nothing to get crazy about, but he’s great athleticism and the potential to do some big things.
For the last spot, I considered a number of options. Kadon Morton is a fun one as a two-way player who signed to attend Oklahoma, then balked at being a Sooner to sign with the Braves. He was just as known for his arm as anything. Then there is Jeremy Fernandez, who certainly has the raw power to do some good things. Even thought of the Cuban-born Christian Zamora, who looks like a ballplayer even if two years in the GCL haven’t shown much of that. But I settled on Estrada to give the DSL a little love. Estrada struggled badly in 2018 as a 17-year-old but found his footing last summer with a .307/.433/.366 run. He has speed for days, though DSL guys like Estrada often find the transition to America a bit more challenging.
Next time, I’ll focus in on the pitchers in the organization, which remain a strength despite trades and graduations.