The Braves are set in right field for the foreseeable future after young star Jason Heyward's stellar 2012 campaign that culminated with him earning a Gold Glove this week, but the rest of the outfield is in flux. Center fielder Michael Bourn is a free agent and another team is likely to give him a much larger contract than Atlanta is willing to hand out, particularly after watching him fade in the second half of the season. Left fielder Martin Prado is a vital part of Atlanta's team, but they may move him to third base to fill the void left after Chipper Jones' retirement, meaning the Braves could have two holes to fill in their outfield. While none of the outfielders currently in the farm system are sure things, they do have a few internal options who may be able to contribute in 2013, as well as a bevy of raw players full of potential who could help down the line.
1. Evan Gattis: LF/C, B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'4", Wt: 230, DOB: 8-18-86
After the Braves drafted him in the 23rd round in 2010, Gattis had a nice debut with Rookie level Danville, hitting .288 with a .726 OPS, 10 doubles, 4 homers, and 29 RBI in 242 plate appearances, but it wasn't until his stellar 2011 with Low A Rome, where he hit .322 with a .986 OPS, 24 doubles, 22 homers, and 71 RBI in 377 plate appearances, that people started to wonder just where this hulking slugger came from. Gattis has no problems sharing the story of his post-high school odyssey, a four year trek that saw him abandon the game, spend time in a drug rehab program, and travel all over the western United States, where he ended up living out of a pickup truck. After his 2011 dominance, the Braves were hoping the 25 year old would provide another great year in 2012, and he didn't disappoint, dominating for High A Lynchburg to start the year, hitting .385 with a 1.289 OPS, 7 doubles, 9 homers, and 29 RBI in 94 plate appearances before moving up to AA Mississippi, where he hit .258 with a .865 OPS, 13 doubles, 4 triples, 9 homers, and 37 RBI in 207 plate appearances despite missing nearly two months with a broken hand and dealing with a mid-season positional change from catcher to left field.
The Braves believe that Gattis' future is in the outfield, but that isn't to say he was a bad catcher. Pitchers lovethrowing to him because of the huge target he presents, and he has a strong, accurate arm, but some of the finer points of his game, blocking and receiving especially, are lacking, likely due to his years away from the game. Gattis is eminently coachable, so there's little doubt he could have turned himself into a capable catcher given enough time, but the team felt that moving him to a less demanding position would allow him to focus more on offense, where the bulk of his value as a player will come from. Despite his size, he's a surprisingly athletic player, and his work ethic and hustle are unparalleled, so he didn't have much trouble adjusting to left field. His strong, accurate arm is a plus and makes up for his slightly below average range in the outfield.
At the plate, Gattis is a one-man wrecking crew, bashing balls all over the field, clubbing out 51% of his hits this season for extra bases while striking out in a very reasonable 16% of his at bats and taking a walk in 10% of his plate appearances. Despite his years away from the game, he's a smart, accomplished hitter, capable of sitting back and driving the ball when the count calls for it, but also willing to choke up and protect the plate when he needs to. Gattis' makeup is off the charts, and while his four years away from the game may have hurt him in some aspects, it made him truly appreciative of his chance to play baseball, making him the rare player who goes all out on every single play.
Gattis has already turned 26 years old, so he's hardly a typical prospect, but is bat is essentially Major League ready. Rather than sending him to play in the Arizona Fall League, the Braves asked him to play Winter Ball in Venezuela, where he would face more experienced pitchers, and through his first 61 at bats he's hitting .311 with a .978 OPS, 6 doubles, 4 homers, and 14 RBI. While the Braves might choose to send him to AAA Gwinnett to begin 2013, it's just as likely they'll give him every opportunity to win a spot on Atlanta's roster out of Spring Training. He could provide value as a left fielder, catcher, and even as a first basemen, and he's the kind of power bat the team has been trying to find for years.
2. Todd Cunningham: CF, B: S, T: R, Ht: 6'0", Wt: 200, DOB: 3-20-89
The Braves drafted Cunningham in the 2nd round in 2010 and he turned in an adequate debut with Rome, hitting .260 with a .341 OBP, a .679 OPS, 9 doubles, 3 triples, 1 homer, 20 RBI, and 7 steals in 263 plate appearances. His sophomore campaign in 2011 with Lynchburg was waylaid by injuries, and he turned in another adequate, but unimpressive season, hitting .257 with a .348 OBP, a .701 OPS, 12 doubles, 4 triples, 4 homers, 20 RBI, and 14 steals in 386 plate appearances. He finally had a relatively healthy season in 2012, and was able to show of his skills and potential,as he just missed winning a batting title, hitting .309 with a .364 OBP, a .767 OPS, 23 doubles, 6 triples, 3 homers, 51 RBI, and 24 steals in 519 plate appearances with AA Mississippi.
At the plate, Cunningham is a spray hitter with occasional line drive pop. He has the skill set of a top of the order hitter, and could create a lot of value as a 2 hole hitter due to his propensity to put the ball in play. He was able to cut down on his strikeouts in 2012, fanning in 11% of his at bats this year compared to 14% last season, though that coincided with fewer walks this season, as he walked in 7% of his plate appearances after walking in 9% of his plate appearances in 2011. He doesn't walk much or strike out much, and his slugging is only ordinary, rapping out 22% of his hit for extra bases, so Cunningham's value as a hitter is wrapped up in how many hits he can get to drop. He passed the test of AA with flying colors, so there's a good chance he'll be able to get those hits as he climbs the ladder. He has above average speed, but that hasn't translated into a ton of steals, as he was successful in 75% of his attempts last season. Defensively, Cunningham is a solid centerfielder with good range and an average arm. He's more than capable of playing the position as a Major Leaguer, though his best position would likely be left field.
Depending on how the offseason plays out, Cunningham could be given a chance to win Atlanta's center field job in Spring Training, but it's much more likely he goes to AAA Gwinnett and spends the year refining his game. He'll be 24 when the season starts, and he's essentially the player he's going to be, one who is average to slightly above average in most areas, aside from power, but not well above average in any, so there's no reason to believe he couldn't contribute to Atlanta's outfield in some capacity at some point during the 2013 season.
3. Matt Lipka: CF, B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'1", Wt: 195, DOB: 4-15-92
The Braves selected Lipka in the supplemental 1st round with their first pick in the 2010 draft, and the young shortstop rewarded them with a great debut season, hitting .302 with a .758 OPS, 8 doubles, 4 triples, a homer, 24 RBI, 20 steals, and 33 runs scored in 210 plate appearances with the GCL. He struggled in his first full season of play, hitting .247 with a .608 OPS, 21 doubles, 3 triples, 1 homer, 37 RBI, 28 steals, and 78 runs scored in 585 plate appearances with Rome. He also shifted positions for the first time, playing 94 games at his natural shortstop and 33 games at second base. The Braves moved him again in 2012, determining that his athleticism would suit him best for center field, which is where he played in 50 games with Lynchburg, hitting 271 with a .672 OPS, 5 doubles, 1 triple, 2 homers, 13 RBI, 12 steals, and 32 runs scored in 199 at bats before missing the second half of the season with a torn hamstring.
Lipka's biggest problem as a hitter is that he tends to hit off his front foot, which prevents him from getting any torque and being able to drive the ball. This is why just 15% of his hits in 2012 and 19% of his hits in 2011 went for extra bases. His hands first approach means he needs to make a lot of contact to make up for a lack of pop, and while he's not striking out too much, fanning in 16% of his at bats this season, he's not making enough consistent contact. If he can adjust his approach and stay on his back foot deep in his swing, he'll be able to hit the ball with more authority, get on base more consistently, and make better use of his overall athleticism to pester pitchers and defenses. If he can solve these mechanical issues, there's no reason he can't become a dynamic top of the order hitter. Lipka was a capable infielder, and probably could have developed nicely as either a shortstop or a second baseman, but the Braves believed the best use of his natural speed was in center field, and he had no trouble adapting to the position. He has good range and great baseball instincts that help him as an outfielder, though his arm is only average.
Lipka will turn 21 a few weeks into the 2013 season, so he's still young enough that a return to Lynchburg won't hurt his development. What he needs more than anything is a full, healthy, productive season to build his own confidence.
4. Four Way Tie
Justin Black: CF, B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'0", Wt: 190, DOB: 5-20-93
The Braves selected Black out of a Montana high school this year in the 4th round and he struggled in his professional debut, hitting .182 with a .550 OPS, 2 doubles, a triple, 2 homers, 7 RBI, 3 steals, and 54 strikeouts in 157 plate appearances in the GCL. Coming out of a state that isn't known for baseball, the Braves were aware they were drafting a project when they selected Black, but they love his athleticism and speed, as well as his power potential, and believe he can develop in a well above average player.
It may be several seasons before he's able to turn potential into production, but the Braves are willing to be patient and let him develop at his own pace. Black will enter Spring Training in 2013 looking to win a job with Rome, though he may end up spending a few months in Extended Spring Training before Danville's season starts in June.
Blake Brown: CF/RF, B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'0", Wt: 185: DOB 6-30-91
The Braves selected Brown one round after Black, taking him out of the University of Missouri Columbia in the 5th round, and he's a very similar player, a well above average athlete with a great power-speed combo who is still incredibly raw, the major difference being that Brown is 2 years older. He also had a disappointing debut, hitting .201 with a .625 OPS, 6 doubles, a triple, 4 homers, 20 RBI, and 10 steals in 210 plate appearances with Danville. While there were positives in his season, walking in 12% of his plate appearances and clubbing 31% of his hits for extra bases, he also struck out in 40% of his at bats, showing just how raw he is at the plate.
If the Braves can get him to refine his game and make use of his athletic ability, Brown could become a dynamic hitter. He played 29 games in center field and 21 games in right field, and he has the speed, instincts, and arm to excel at either position, though he's likely to play in center field as much as possible to make use of his natural ability. The Braves know it will take a while for him to develop, so they'll be patient with him as he moves up to Rome in 2013 as a 21 year old.
Connor Lien: RF/CF, B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'3", Wt: 205, DOB 3-15-94
Lien played on a star-studded Orlando high school team that included supplemental 1st round picks Jesse Winker and Walker Weickel as well as Tom Gordon's son Nick. The Braves selected him in the 12th round and thought highly enough of him to give him a $375,000 bonus, well over the suggested slot of $100,000 for where he was drafted. Lien had a decent debut in the GCL, playing just up the road from his high school, hitting .228 with a .352 OBP, a .634 OPS, 4 doubles, 2 triples, 11 RBI, 15 steals, and 30 runs scored in 180 plate appearances. Lien showed off his youth this year, striking out in 33% of his at bats, but he also showed a surprising amount of patience at the plate, walking in 11% of his plate appearances. He didn't show much pop, but he projects to develop above average power.
In fact, he is expected to be above average across the board, with natural speed, power, and a strong throwing arm. He played 25 games in right field, which is where he profiles best in the future, but he also appeared in 18 games in center field, with most of those coming toward the end of the season. The Braves may look to get him more games in center and see if they can make the most out of his tools. His skills are obvious, but Lien is still a raw player, and the Braves will be patient with his development. He'll likely move up to Rome in 2013 as a 19 year old where he'll be the team's every day right fielder.
Fernelys Sanchez: CF, B: S, T: R, Ht: 6'3", Wt: 198, DOB: 3-1-94
A broken leg cost Sanchez most of his high school season, and it also caused him to fall in the draft, allowing the Braves get him for a steal in the 16th round. The team gave him a $210,000, over double his suggested slot price, to make sure they could bring him into the organization. He was justifiably rusty in his pro debut, and it showed in his numbers, as he hit .155 with a .493 OPS, 1 double, 1 homer, 5 RBI, 3 steals, and 32 strikeouts in 67 plate appearances. Those numbers aren't at all indicative of his future ability, as he was both getting back in playing shape and adjusting to the pro game.
Sanchez has outstanding speed and could become a real threat at the top of the lineup. He isn't expected to develop much power, but he does have a strong, lean frame that could allow him to hit some line drives that would allow him to utilize his speed. He profiles as a plus defender in center field with outstanding range and a good arm. He'll come to Spring Training in 2013 looking to compete for a job with Rome, but it's more likely that he spends a few months in Extended Spring Training and gets his season underway as a 19 year old with Danville in June.
The Braves don't have a sure thing with any of their top four outfield draft picks from 2012, but Black, Brown, Lien, and Sanchez are all dynamic, toolsy players who could turn out to be well above average Major Leaguers. The Braves know they're currently thin on outfield prospects, and they've taken a risky path to replenish their system, picking a group of raw players with huge potential. It could turn out that none of the players in this group live up to their possibility, but if even one does it will have been a worthwhile gamble for the Braves.