Over the last two weeks, Talking Chop's prospect team put our heads together to rank the twenty-five best prospects in the Braves minor league system going into the 2014 season. The list is a weighted compilation of the lists of five of our writers: Ben Duronio, Mark Smith, Ethan Purser, Andrew Sisson, and Daniel Simpson.
For the list, eligibility was determined based on the major league at-bats/innings pitched requirements for rookie eligibility. If a player has used up their MLB rookie eliability, they will not be on our list.
All statistics are from the player's full 2013 season for all levels. Level designations are from the level at which the player completed the 2013 season.
David Hale's minor league career is somewhat of a testament to the trouble of switching pitchers back and forth between starting and relieving. After being drafted in the 3rd round in 2009, Hale bounced between starter and reliever for three years before becoming a full-time starter in 2012. This led to a great deal of inconsistency, with Hale seemingly dazzling for a few appearances and then following it up with his best Carlos Marmol impersonation.
To Hale's credit, he just kept working, and improved every year of full-season ball. Hale is a strikeout pitcher with a very solid three-pitch repertoire. His fastball sits around 92, but he can touch 94-95 on occasion. His fastball also has a good amount of sink to it, and he'll play with the speed of it in order to generate more sink on occasions. His slider is best breaking offering, and is above average. He also shows decent feel for a changeup, but will need to keep working on it if he wants to stick as a starter. Hale also rarely throws a curve, but it's fringey at best for now.
The bugaboo for Hale is and always has been his control. After walking 10.8% of the batters he faced in 2012, Hale cut that number to 7.3% with Gwinnett last season. In his brief, two-start stint in the bigs at the end of 2013, he only walked one in 11 innings pitched. Keeping the walks down will be key to Hale's future. If he can do that, he should have a future with the big league club. At worst, he's a 7th inning guy with a good fastball-slider combo, and at best he's a back-of-the-rotation starter who will eat a good number of innings.
Aside from his cup of coffee, Hale spent all of last year in AAA, and doesn't appear to have much left to prove there. I wouldn't be surprised if he breaks camp with team, but if not, he'll almost assuredly be the first call up in case of an injury to a pitcher.
Victor Caratini was by far the most intriguing bat the Braves selected in last year's amateur draft, and after spending 2013 obliterating Appalachian League pitching, it's easy to see what the Braves liked so much about him. Atlanta nabbed Caratini with the 65th overall pick, making him the first catcher taken that high by the organization since Brian McCann.
Caratini's swing is a bit long, but he generates excellent lift. His bat speed is excellent and to top it all off, he's a switch hitter. Despite only 1 home run, 25 of his 58 hits went for extra bases. As he puts on muscle and fills out, it's easy to see him developing some serious home run power. And did we mention his plate disciple? Caratini walked in 15.9% of his plate appearances last year, a fantastic figure, especially for someone so young.
Although he was drafted as a catcher, the Braves went ahead and moved Caratini to third base with Danville. The general consensus among the scouting community was that this move would have happened sooner or later, as Caratini was extremely raw behind the dish, but has a cannon for an arm that will play well at the hot corner. He's obviously still extremely raw with the glove, but he has the chance to be an average defensive third baseman with a plus arm.
If there's one hitting prospect you want to keep an eye on in 2014, it's Caratini. He's easily got more upside in his bat than anyone else in the system. Expect for his to open the season with Rome.
Coming out of Gonzaga, Martin had a reputation for pinpoint control. He closed at Gonzaga, and many assumed Atlanta would just make him a reliever. Not so. The Braves gave Martin the chance to start and he's really broken out, becoming one of the surprises of the Atlanta farm.
Martin has a three-pitch repertoire that starts with his fastball. His heater sits around 90, but is deceptively fast; it appears to explode out of his hand. It's also got some nice late action that helps miss bats. His primary offspeed offerings are a good curveball and a decent slider. Martin also throws a changeup on occasion, but it's a fringe-average pitch, at best. His arsenal won't blow anyone away, but with his feel for pitching, he could end up as a 4-5 starter.
As impressive as Martin has been so far, his numbers do show some disturbing trends. His BB% has risen at very level, culminating in a 10.6% mark at Gwinnett this past year. For a guy who hung his hat on command and control, that's slightly off-putting.
Martin should be in the running to make the team in spring training, but the most likely outcome is that he goes back to Gwinnett and comes up when Atlanta needs another arm.
After hearing his name called with the 31st pick in the 2013 amateur draft, the right-handed Hursh was sent to Rome, where he spread 27 innings across nine appearances, holding opposing batters to a .555 OPS while posting a cool 0.67 ERA.
While his listed height (6-foot-3) might be on the generous side, Hursh sports an extremely athletic frame with good lower-body development. He utilizes a long, smooth arm action and delivers four offerings from a three-quarters arm slot. The sinking fastball is the best of the current crop, featuring plus velocity, sitting 92-94 mph with the ability to touch much higher, with plus downward and arm-side movement, projecting to miss barrels at the major-league level. The changeup is his money off-speed offering, featuring above-average arm-side sink and fade. The rest of his secondary arsenal, which includes a curveball and slider, needs further refinement, but both flash average to above-average potential. For my money, the curveball has the potential to be the more effective pitch, flashing good shape and decent depth in the mid- to upper-70s, though command of this pitch is a concern. He’s had more success with the mid-80s slider thus far, which features late glove-side bite with very little depth.
Hursh projects as a quality mid-rotation starter who can miss barrels and induce weak contact. There is also the chance that Hursh’s secondary arsenal doesn’t make the necessary improvements, leaving him as more of a two-pitch reliever. If history is any indication, Hursh should begin the minor-league season in Mississippi’s rotation,continuing his development within the confines of the Southern League.
Mauricio Cabrera continues to be one of the Braves most exciting prospects, continuing to carry the "young and raw with upside" tag. The right-hander, pitching as a 19-year-old, threw 131.1 innings in Rome this past season. Unfortunately, his strikeout and walk rates both took a step back, 18.7% and 12.4% respectively. On a positive note, he only surrendered three home runs, doing a great job of keeping the ball in the park and on the ground.
Standing at 6’2" Cabrera is gifted with a massive lower half. He has a very loose arm action that initially swings down and back towards first base and then whips through the zone at a ¾ arm slot. Cabrera will again need to work on his control issues, reigning in his explosive fastball, as well as getting a feel a better feel off-speed pitches, which are both currently below average. Cabrera will eventually have to make the transition from "throwing" to "pitching" in order to realize his tremendous upside.