The more I go over this year's farm system the more I like our depth in the position prospects. Sure we still don't have a lot of impact bats, but it is better than it was last year this time and the outfield prospects are a testament to that. Last season Cory Harrilchak, Todd Cunningham and Adam Milligan were 1-2-3 on this list. Now those three are reversed and sitting at the bottom and they are all essentially the same players they were a year ago. Those three were all leap-frogged by two guys moving from the infield to center. There are a few other guys worth mentioning like Kurt Fleming, David Rohm and Chase Larsson who could all surprise next season.
1. Mycal Jones - B/T: R/R, Born: 05/30/1987, HT: 5' 10", WT: 170
The Braves drafted Jones in the fourth round in the 2009 draft with the understanding that he was an older but 'toolsy' JUCO guy whose athleticism they could turn into baseball skills before his prospect clock ran out. His athleticism has been evident in his time in the Atlanta organization after ranking second on Talking Chop's shortstop list in 2009, first among second basemen last season and now first among Braves' outfield prospects in 2011. While he appears to have found a home in center field for the foreseeable future (all reports on his defense were very positive) but questions still remain about his bat after an erratic year at the plate.
A quick glance at Myke's month-by-month plate discipline is an exercise in confusion. His first month and a half saw him post a 32/25 BB/K rate, a huge improvement over previous seasons and reason enough to get excited even with a low batting average (.196 in June). But July saw his rates do a 180 with a 7/35 BB/K but he still posted a .741 OPS due to increased power production. August saw him find a happy median as he his for average and power along with showing patience (.309/.411/.427) that resulted in his best month of the season before he finished the year on a terrible cold streak during September.
Jones' tools flash often enough to tantalize the fans and they are good enough to profile as an everyday player at the big league level, but he has yet to find the consistency that we look for in an everyday player. Despite the offensive rollercoaster 2011 was still a success for Myke because he showed that he could improve his plate discipline while adjusting to a new position and level of play. If his power returns in 2012 and the plate discipline remains he could put himself perfectly in line to fill Michael Bourn's shoes in 2013.
Jones got himself a MiLBy nomination for this superb defensive play:
The rest of the list after the jump...
2. Matt Lipka - B/T: R/R, Born: 04/15/1992, HT: 6' 1", WT: 195
The Braves first round draft pick in 2010 (35th overall), Matt Lipka was drafted as a shortstop and played all of 2011 there but the Braves made the decision after the season ended to move him to center field (where many draft experts projected he profiled best). Lipka played all of 2011 as a 19 year old in the Sally League after a solid season in the GCL in 2010. His 2011 season was essentially a throw away. The promotion to the Sally League was aggressive but most everyone thought it was appropriate given how well he hit in the GCL. Offensively he never could sustain a hot streak and failed to drive the ball with authority (it took him over 100 AB to collect his first extra base hit). His best full month came in August when he posted a .642 OPS, though in 22 September at bats he did have a near 1.100 OPS. Defensively he wasn't much better but I don't expect many 19 year athletic shortstops to be completely smooth with the glove.
There weren't many positives for Lipka in 2011: his plate discipline wasn't terrible, his speed was good though unrefined at times and he finished the year hitting better than he had all season. Lipka is well enough regarded and athletic enough that, while he may have lost some luster, his stock could rebound quickly with a good yet in 2012. The question is where will he start? Will the Braves send him back to Rome to get his feet under him or continue to challenge him by sending him to Lynchburg?
3. Adam Milligan - B/T: L/R, Born: 03/14/1988, HT: 6' 3", WT: 210
I have no doubt that if Adam Milligan had not gotten injured - twice - he would have been at the top of this list. Unfortunately for Milligan his injuries have severely hampered his development over the course of his career. His on the field performance has been phenomenal when he has been on the field and completely healthy but that has only been about half the time in his career. He missed all of 2010 with a shoulder surgery and this year he went on the DL in late June with a knee injury before returning for fives game in July and reaggravating it which got him shut down for for the year.
When he was on the field Milligan was a hitting machine with a .902 for the year backed by a .557 SLG. His plate discipline actually wasn't terrible after the first month and his .345 OBP is serviceable with his power output. Over half of his hits went for extra bases. His K rate was actually down from his last two stints in the Carolina League, but at 29.5% it is still scary high and needs to be monitored. Some people will try to compare him to for Braves first round pick Cody Johnson, but Johnson only dropped below 34% once for a season and never posted an OPS above .900 in a full season league. Milligan has some major questions to be answered, but the offensive presence he has is hard to ignore. If he is recovered in time for 2012 I will look for the Braves to bump him to AA after he has spent parts of three season in the Carolina League.
4. Cory Harrilchak - B/T: L/L, Born: 10/27/1987, HT: 5' 10", WT: 170
At first glance Cory Harrilchak's 2011 season doesn't jump out at you statistically, but a closer look especially at the end of the season shows a guy who made the adjustments to be a dangerous hitter by year's end. He finished 2011 with a .266/.338/.399 line but he had a .675 OPS in the first half and a .797 number after the all star break. He bottomed out in Mat with a lowly .468 OPS, then .694 in June followed by .801 in July, .772 in August and a short hot streak in September finishing him at 1.411.
At his best Harrilchak isn't going to offer many plus skills aside from good outfield defense with a nice arm in right. He has the ability to hit for average, but he doesn't take walks like you would expect and his speed on the basepaths is mediocre. He can play either corner outfield position and center in a pinch though his range would get overexposed in extended time there. Harrilchak profiles as a prototypical fourth outfielder and I imagine he will get some time in Atlanta within the next two years. He might be the next lightening in a bottle catch for the Braves but at the least he will be a serviceable backup. Look for him in Gwinnett to start 2012.
5. Todd Cunningham - B/T: S/R, Born: 03/20/1989, HT: 6' 0", WT: 200
The Braves 2010 second round pick has yet to wow us but so far has delivered steady play in the field and at the dish. His final OPS of .701 was right at league average though his terrible April (.250 wOBA) brought down his overall season stats. He got hot in May and June and looked like he had turned a corner until an injury sidelined him for most of June and all of July. He returned in August and his performance fell in between his April and May runs.
Cunningham offers good contact ability and solid plate discipline with very little pop. He is athletic enough that he could play several positions on the field but the Braves have never tried him anywhere other than the outfield. He doesn't have a cannon for an arm or amazing speed or range but he is solid in all aspects of the game. He is guy who needs to hit .300 to have real value and he has the ability to do just that. If he can take his plate discipline to the next level he could profile as an every day major leaguer. I feel that Cunningham has yet to show us everything he brings to the table and 2012 could be a breakout year for him. Look for him in Mississippi to start 2012.