Talking Chop's 2014 Top 25 Prospects: 1-5

The Talking Chop crew is bullish on Tommy La Stella, the organization's #3 overall prospect - C.B. Wilkins

Talking Chop finishes up our week-long presentation of our 2014 top 25 prospect list with prospects 1-5.

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.

Prospects 21-25

Prospects 16-20

Prospects 11-15

Prospects 6-10

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#5 | Jose Peraza | Shortstop | Age: 19 | Rome

504 PAs, 1 HR, 64 SB, 34 BB, 64 K, .288/.341/.371

The soon-to-be 20-year-old speed demon middle infielder had an excellent season last season and has seen himself steadily climbing the rankings as a result. He is arguably the team’s top position player prospect along with Christian Bethancourt and Tommy La Stella.

Peraza was ranked third by Keith Law and sixth by Baseball America. He improved across the board at Rome last season, hitting .288/.341/.371. He will never hit for any power, but if he is able to get on base at a decent clip and show off his wheels he will be a productive offensive player. This season he should play predominantly at high-A Lynchburg and may get a look at double-A Mississippi if he proves his worth early in the season.

The good news is that the Braves have the ability to take it slow with Peraza since Andrelton Simmons has a chokehold lock on the shortstop position for the foreseeable future. If Peraza is going to provide value in Atlanta in the next three seasons, it will be either due to a Simmons injury, via a trade, or at a position other than shortstop.

- Ben Duronio

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#4 | Christian Bethancourt | Catcher | Age: 22 | Mississippi

388 PAs, 12 HR, 11 SB, 16 BB, 57 K, .277/.305/.436

There's little we can say about Christian Bethancourt that you don't already know. He's a standout defensive catcher with perhaps the best arm in the minor leagues. Baserunners will think twice and decide against stealing off him. If you want to nitpick defensively, Bethancourt can get a little sloppy/lazy on his receiving and blocking, but it's not to a degree that would make it a problem.

The issue with Bethancourt remains the bat. He got off to a pretty horrid start in 2013, especially considering he was repeating AA, but a strong second half that saw increased power and walk rates was enough encouragement for a September call-up - that at-bat he had was disastrous and the epitome of his issues, but you try not to do that in your first MLB PA. In the end, the bat will determine Bethancourt's ultimate role - defensive specialist with enough defense to start (think Jose Molina) or All-Star caliber (shy of Yadier Molina but maybe a win or two below).

- Mark Smith

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#3 | Tommy La Stella | Second Baseman | Age: 25 | Mississippi

324 PAs, 4 HR, 7 SB, 37 BB, 34 K, .343/.422/.473

This is one of the bigger differences between our rankings against Keith Law’s and Baseball America’s. While we have La Stella third, Law and BA both have La Stella ninth.

What has us ranking La Stella so highly is the likelihood that he makes it to the majors, and the fact that its likely going to be this season that it happens. Being a left-handed hitter definitely helps his chances, and hitting .343 in the upper minors makes him one of the more talented hitting prospects in the system.

ZiPS projects La Stella for a .275/.340/.411 line with a .331 wOBA and 1.6 WAR next season over 378 PA. Over 600 PA that would be a 2.5 WAR, which would be higher than two of Dan Uggla’s three seasons in Atlanta. The point in elaborating on that? We think he’s major league ready and that he can be a positive factor on the team this season, and we have ranked him accordingly with that mindset.

As our interview with La Stella last month detailed, he has his mind on the right things and focuses on the process first and foremost. With more walks than strikeouts last season, La Stella has shown tremendous command of the zone and could be a very useful lefty bat at the bottom, or potentially even the top, of the Braves lineup this season.

His defense is not where he would provide most of his value, but he’s athletic enough to handle the position capably. On the bases throughout the minors he has stolen 24 bases while being caught just seven times, but he should not be looked at as a speed demon by any stretch. La Stella is the kind of guy who does a lot of things pretty well. He is a well-balanced player who makes pitchers work and will be one of the bigger focal points throughout spring training.

- Ben Duronio

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#2 | J.R. Graham | Right-Handed Starting Pitcher | Age: 24 | Mississippi

35.2 IP, 10 BB, 28 K, 1.374 WHIP, 4.04 ERA

Man, injuries are the worst, huh? Graham was sidelined with a shoulder strainin May after making eight appearances for Mississippi and was held out of competition for the remainder of the 2013 season. Prior to the injury, many believed that Graham had an outside chance of making an impact down the stretch either in the bullpen or in the starting rotation. Instead, Graham spent the summer months rehabbing in Lake Buena Vista, preparing himself for the 2014 season. While all reports have him healthy heading into the season, one has to wonder if the effects of the injury will linger; we shall see how he looks in the spring and evaluate from there.

The injury notwithstanding, Graham is an arm worthy of plenty of excitement. The fastball is a plus-plus offering, sitting in the mid-90s and touching the upper-90s, with tons of arm-side and vertical movement. The slider is a plus offering with more depth than lateral break, sitting in the mid- to upper-80s. The changeup is a clear third pitch but is still average, showing great depth and some arm-side fade in the mid- to upper-80s. The delivery is athletic and the arm is very quick, and while some claim that Graham has a future in the bullpen due to his diminutive stature, he grades out as a future number two/three starter for me.

Graham should see time in Atlanta at some point this year, with the health of the shoulder being the omnipresent caveat and his ultimate role to be determined. One thing’s for certain: Graham could end up forcing many evaluators to question how he lasted so long in the 2011 draft.

- Ethan Purser

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#1 | Lucas Sims | Right-Handed Starting Pitcher | Age: 19 | Rome

116.2 IP, 46 BB, 134 K, 1.106 WHIP, 2.62 ERA

Lucas Sims did just about everything you would want a first-round pick to do in his full-season debut. While the 116.2 innings aren't a lot, it's plenty for a first minor-league season, and it allowed Sims to work into the five-man rotation workload. When he did pitch, he was mostly excellent, striking out 30% and walking 10%. The 10% is a little high, but there's no real long-term concern there.

As for the stuff, Sims was worthy of a first-round pick. The fastball is less than elite, but it sits in the low-90s with the chance to bump into the mid-90s. What should get people excited are the breaking balls. Both are curveballs, but they have different shapes. The main curve is 76-78 with a sharp downward break, and it's the better of the two. The second is more of a slurve - low-80s but without the sharp bite of a slider. Moving on to the change-up, it's still a work in progress and is basically straight at the moment. I was impressed, however, at his ability to sell it with good arm speed, and with more repetition, it should improve.

The lack of an elite fastball keeps me from tagging him as a 1 or 2, but the secondary pitches along with a good fastball give him a solid chance at being a very good 3 or solid 2. Sims doesn't have the traditional projectability of a teenager, but he has a solid frame that should eat innings and maintain velocity.

- Mark Smith

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