Even though he'll enter 2012 at just 22 years old, Tyler Pastornicky is on the cusp of becoming a productive Major Leaguer.
You would expect any group of top middle infield prospects to be full of shortstops, and this list is no exception, as four of the Braves top five middle infield prospects are shortstops. What makes the group impressive is that every player on the list has a chance to become a Major League regular, and that's after the team's top two middle infield prospects from last season, Matt Lipka and Edward Salcedo, were moved to centerfield and third base respectively.
1. Tyler Pastornicky, SS - B/T: R/R, Born: 12/13/1989, Ht: 5'11", Wt: 170 - When the Braves traded Yunel Escobar to the Blue Jays in July of 2010, everyone focused on the Major Leaguer they were getting in return, Alex Gonzalez, and very little attention was paid to Pastornicky, who was aggressively promoted to AA Mississippi as a 20 year old after the trade, where he held his own. Pastornicky returned to AA in 2011 and earned an All-Star appearance, hitting .299 with a .345 OBP, .759 OPS, 6 triples, and 20 stolen bases in 295 plate appearances. He was promoted to AAA Gwinnett in the middle of July and got off to a hot start, hitting for the cycle in the midst of a 12 game hitting streak as part of a 117 plate appearances that saw him hit .365 with a .407 OBP, a .821 OPS, and 7 stolen bases. An ankle injury near the end of August abruptly ended his AAA season, though he did heal enough to join Atlanta for the very last game of the Major League season.
Pastornicky is an outstanding athlete with above average speed, which allows him quickness both on the basepaths and in the field, where his range is superb. He's a slick fielder with soft hands, but his arm is at best average, and probably a little below average, leading to some trouble when he has to make plays from deep in the hole at shortstop. He'll likely be able to hold his own defensively as a Major League shortstop, though he would profile best defensively at second base, where he could develop into a Gold Glover. A the plate, Pastornicky is a high contact hitter who helps himself by knowing his limits and staying inside his game. He doesn't have much power, but he's adept at putting the ball in play and is a fine situational hitter, which could make him an ideal two hole hitter. He does need to work on getting on base more, as he walked in just 6% of his at bats this season, an unfortunate side effect of his aggressive approach.
While Pastornicky may not have as high a ceiling as some of the other players on this list, he'll only be 22 years old next season and is on the cusp of being a productive Major Leaguer. At worst, he'll have a nice career as a backup infielder, though if he reaches his peak he could be a league average regular at shortstop with solid defense, or a slightly above average second baseman. The Braves don't currently have a shortstop, so there's a chance Pastornicky could be given a shot to earn Atlanta's shortstop job out of Spring Training in 2012. It's more likely the team bring in a veteran on a short term deal and he'll head back to Gwinnett to start the year. Either way, he should join Atlanta at some point in the year and is likely to be a starter by 2013.
2. Andrelton Simmons, SS - B/T: R/R, Born: 09/04/1989, Ht: 6'2", Wt" 170 - When the Braves drafted Simmons in the 2nd round in 2010, they were excited about getting another high octane pitching arm, as the Curacao native can thrown 95mph off the mound, but Simmons wouldn't sign with the team unless they allowed him to try playing shortstop first. So far, Simmons is putting his bat where his mouth is, following up a solid debut year with Rookie level Danville by winning a batting title for High A Lynchburg, hitting .311 with a .759 OPS, 35 doubles, 52 RBI, and 26 stolen bases.
The Braves wanted Simmons as a pitcher because they weren't convinced he could hit, but so far he's shown himself to be fantastic at making contact, with a .300 batting average over 839 professional plate appearances, while only striking out in 8% of his at bats. The down side of this high contact approach is that he doesn't walk much, walking in just 5% of his plate appearances. He doesn't have much pop, hitting just 1 home run this season, though he did smack out 35 doubles, an incredibly encouraging sign for his future. Still, Simmons is very skinny, and doesn't have a ton of body strength, which leads to doubts about his ability to drive the ball at the higher levels. He's a quick baserunner, though he needs to get better at knowing when to swipe a bag, getting caught in 18 of his 44 attempts. Defensively, he is one of the best shortstops in the game, with phenomenal range, unreal reflexes, and an absolute cannon for an arm. He did make 28 errors this season, but many of those were made on balls that other shortstops couldn't even get to.
Simmons will move up to AA Mississippi as a 22 year old in 2012, and it will be his biggest challenge yet. As encouraging as his work to this point has been, the doubts about his bat won't be fully quelled until he proves himself against experience, upper level pitching. At worst, Simmons can develop into a Rey Ordonez like player, who wins Gold Glove after Gold Glove but looks atrocious at the plate. His defense will always make him valuable asset, and if his bat can be remotely league average he'll be an every day Major League shortstop for 15 seasons. And, if worst comes to worst, he could always take that big arm to the mound and become a dominating reliever. 2012 will be a big year for Simmons, if he can have another offensive season like 2011 he could become Atlanta's top prospect.
The rest of the list after the jump:
3. Tommy La Stella, 2B - B/T: L/R, Born: 01/31/1989, Ht: 5'11", Wt: 185 - The Braves drafted La Stella out of Coastal Carolina University in the 8th round this year and he turned in the best season of any of the team's draftees, hitting .328 with a .944 OPS, 13 doubles, 5 triples, 9 homers, and 40 RBI in 270 plate appearances for Low A Rome. He crushed the ball in August, hitting .377 with a 1.330 OPS, 8 doubles, 5 homers, and 24 RBI in 106 at bats. When the Braves drafted him they knew they were getting a potent bat, but there were questions about his defense. He committed 11 errors in just 60 games at second base, so he didn't really put any of those questions to rest. There's a chance he could wind up at a corner outfield position, but because his bat would be such a plus at second the Braves will give him every chance to prove himself at the position. He's a shorter, thicker player who's built very strongly, so while there isn't much room for projection in his body, he really doesn't need much. He's an advanced hitter who should be able to move quickly, and because he's already going to be 23 at the start of next season the Braves will be aggressive with him. He's likely to start 2012 at High A Lynchburg, but a good Spring Training could land him in AA Mississippi. His bat could lead him to become a solid Major Leaguer, but he's going to have to find a defensive position.
4. Jose Peraza SS, - B/T: R/R, Born: 04/30/1994, Ht: 5'11", Wt: 167 - Playing the season at just 17 years old, Peraza had a fine debut season in the Dominican Summer League, leading his team in batting average (.281), games played (66), at bats (235), runs scored (29), hits (66), total bases (80), and stolen bases (28). He posted a .346 OBP and a .686 OPS for the season, but he really shined in July, hitting .360 with a .396 OBP, a .812 OPS, 8 RBI and 9 stolen bases in 89 at bats. Like any young player, he struggled with getting on base, walking in just 6% of his plate appearances, but he's incredibly young and it was his debut season. The same caveat can be applied to his team leading 16 errors in 58 games. The Venezuelan native hasn't played in the US yet, so the Braves can't be positive in what they have in him, but the early returns are very encouraging and there's plenty of indicators that he'll develop into a fine player. He'll come over to America for the first time in 2012, and will play in the Gulf Coast League as an 18 year old.
5. Nick Ahmed, SS - B/T: R/R, Born: 03/15/1990, Ht: 6'3", Wt: 205 - The Braves selected Ahmed out of the University of Connecticut in the 2nd round this year and he turned in a decent debut, hitting .262 with a .725 OPS, 13 doubles, 4 homers, 24 RBI, and 18 stolen bases in 284 plate appearances for Rookie level Danville. He is a big bodied, strong shortstop, who is an above average defender with great range and a top notch throwing arm. Despite his size, he's a well above average runner, though he was caught in a quarter of his stealing attempts with Danville, so he's going to have to get better at knowing when to swipe bags and how to do it with more success. At the plate, he's going to have to improve both his contact rate and his ability to drive the ball, though he showed some success at working the count, walking in 10% of his plate appearances. Ahmed isn't the kind of player that's likely to create a lot of buzz, but he does have the skills that should make him at least an adequate Major League regular, and at worst he can become a fine backup infielder. He'll be 22 entering next season, and because he's a more advance college player there's a good likelihood he start the year with High A Lynchburg.