The Braves are currently set up the middle of their infield, with a phenomenal fielder and rapidly developing hitter in Andrelton Simmons, and an average on his best days defender who is maddeningly inconsistent at the plate in Dan Uggla. Nobody wants Simmons to go anywhere, and if Uggla can't regain his old form at the plate, he won't be going anywhere given his massive contract. It might be a good thing that the Braves don't have any middle infielders in their farm system who are knocking on Atlanta's door, though that's not to say they don't have some solid prospects waiting in the wings.
1. Jose Peraza: SS, B: R, T: R, Ht: 5'11", Wt: 167, DOB: 4-30-94
There was little excitement when the Braves signed Peraza out of his native Venezuela, but he quickly showed he was capable of providing his own excitement, as he was the top performer on the 2011 DSL Braves team, hitting .281 with a .686 OPS, 5 doubles, 3 triples, a homer, 22 RBI, 28 steals, and 29 runs scored in 269 plate appearances. He made his US debut this season, beginning his year by hitting .318 with a .772 OPS, 3 doubles, 3 triples, 10 steals, and 17 runs scored in 92 plate appearances for the GCL team, before moving up to Rookie level Danville where he fueled a playoff run by hitting .281 with a .690 OPS, 4 doubles, a homer, 18 RBI, 15 steals, and 21 runs scored in 136 plate appearances as the team's leadoff hitter. His total 2012 stats, a .296 average, a .350 OBP, a .724 OPS, 7 doubles, 3 triples, a homer, 28 RBI, 25 steals, and 38 runs scored in 228 plate appearances, give a great indication of the kind of dynamic, top of the order hitter Peraza can become.
More than anything, Peraza is an outstanding athlete, both quick and fast, with a great natural feel for the game. He showed off his natural speed and instincts by being caught on just 5 of his 30 stolen base attempts this season. He only walked in 6% of his plate appearances this season, but given his natural ability and coachability, and the fact that he struck out in a very reasonable 12% of his at bats, he should greatly improve in pitch recognition as he gets older. Peraza isn't likely to be much of a slugger down the line, but 18% of his hits this year went for extra bases, so he should be able to provide some great sneaky pop with his line drive approach and his speed. He is an excellent defender with well above average range and a solid arm, and he projects to be a very good Major League shortstop. And, given his athleticism, he would have no trouble shifting over to second base if Andrelton Simmons, a superior defender, is blocking him at short.
Peraza won't turn 19 until a month into the 2013 season, so he'll spend the year at Low A Rome as a very young player. He's an exciting player who could develop into a dynamic, top of the order, middle of the infield, every day Major Leaguer. At worst, he could become a useful bench player, capable of providing good defense and speed. He'll take some time to develop, though the Braves showed this year they're willing to challenge Peraza. Look for him to have an up and down year with Rome as he adjusts to the rigors of playing a full season of Minor League baseball.
2. Nick Ahmed: SS, B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'3", Wt: 205, DOB: 3-15-90
The Braves drafted Ahmed in the 2nd round in 2011, and he rewarded them with a solid debut for Danville, hitting .262 with a .725 OPS, 13 doubles, 2 triples, 4 homers, 18 steals, and 46 runs scored in 284 plate appearances. He followed that up by jumping up to High A Lynchburg and turning in an equally solid year, hitting .269 with a .728 OPS, 4 triples, 6 homers, 49 RBI, and leading the league with 36 doubles, 40 steals, and 84 runs scored in 571 plate appearances. He was named both a mid-season and post season Carolina League All-Star, and was also named the MVP of the Carolina League Championship Series, collecting 4 hits in the final game of the series to help the Hillcats win the championship.
Ahmed consistently hit near the top of the order with the Hillcats, but there are some facets of his game he's going to have to refine if he hopes to become a top of the order hitter in the Majors. Namely, he's going to have to cut down on his strikeouts, after fanning in 20% of his at bats this season. He did manage to walk in 8% of his plate appearances, which is a good sign for the future. He doesn't project to have much over the wall power, but he definitely has great gap power, hitting 36 doubles this year and rapping out 34% of his hits for extra bases. Despite his size, Ahmed has above average speed, and he makes the most of it by utilizing his great instincts. Those instincts allow him to get the most out of his talents on defense, and projects to be an average shortstop at the Major League level. He has a good, but not special, arm, and his range is acceptable. He will likely be able to play short at the Major League level, though he'd likely be much better if he moved to second base, or even to center field.
The Braves were accused of drafting a player with a low ceiling when they took Ahmed, and while there is some merit to that, he doesn't project to be a star in any way, they also took a player who's almost certain to play in the Majors. Ahmed is likely to put up almost identical numbers at every stop of the Minor League ladder, playing well but likely never wowing anyone. His greatest asset is his makeup, which is off the charts. He's a natural born leader with phenomenal baseball instincts, and he's likely to always get more out of his ability than he rightfully should. Ahmed will move up to AA Mississippi in 2013 as a 23 year old, where he'll continue to refine his game. Depending on Atlanta's needs, he could contribute in the Majors Leagues as soon as next season.
3. Tommy La Stella: 2B, B: L, T: R, Ht: 5'11", Wt: 185, DOB: 1-31-89
The Braves selected La Stella out of Coastal Carolina University in the 8th round in 2011, and he turned in the best debut of and Braves draftee that year, hitting .328 with a .944 OPS, 13 doubles, 5 triples, 9 homers, and 40 RBI in 270 plate appearances with Rome. He moved up to Lynchburg in 2012, and started out on fire, hitting .361 with a 1.059 OPS in April before a back injury slowed him in May and June and a leg injury forced him to miss most of July and August. His overall numbers were still impressive, as he finished with a .302 average, a .846 OPS, 22 doubles, 5 triples, 5 homers, 56 RBI, and 13 steals in 358 plate appearances.
La Stella is a powerful line drive hitter who gets maximum torque out of his body, clubbing out 36% of his hits for extra bases this season. He's able to produce power without giving up contact, striking out in just 8% of his at bats, and walking more than he struck out, 36 walks to 24 strikeouts. This is a controlled, powerful approach that bodes well for La Stella's future as a hitter. If the grading was done on offense alone, he would be considered a much better prospect, but his defense is well below average. There was some talk that a move to left field could be in his future, but his skill set wouldn't adapt well to the outfield, and the Braves feel they can work with La Stella enough to make him an adequate fielder at second base. Still, his defensive limitations will be the key to how far he's able to develop as a player.
La Stella will move up to AA Mississippi in 2013 as a 24 year old and look to improve his defensive shortcoming and continue to refine his potent offense. Ironically, he could become a very similar player to the man he may one day replace, Dan Uggla.