That magical time of year has once again arrived and we, the Talking Chop staff, have voted and will begin soon rolling out our Top 25 Prospects list for the 2017 season. While there was much agreement as to the deserving members of this list, yet a few players remained just on the cusp but a few votes short of official recognition. With those we throw out the first pitch on our coverage, and our Honorable Mention prospects.
This is now the third consecutive iteration of this list that has seen Morales standing, or perhaps squatting, just on the outside of the top 25. Morales has had questions about age, performance, and defense (in no particular order) give enough reason to question his inclusion and push him just below other candidates. In a position of weakness for the system, Morales had an opportunity in 2016 to capitalize and take a leap towards being the man-in-waiting behind the plate, but regression in his power production and a phenomenal drop in performance through the doldrums of the summer pushed him to the backburner, especially upon the drafting of Brett Cumberland. He did manage to land the majority of the playing time over the second rounder Lucas Herbert, a sign of what the Braves feel they see in his potential.
Though his frame does not seem that of your typical quick-twitch athlete, Morales is far from a bumbling David Ortiz type and is extremely quick behind the plate. His pop times are off the charts, as evidenced by an even 50% caught stealing rate this season. While his receiving lags he has taken steps forward and is a more than capable athlete.
After 7 home runs in a short 2015 there was hope he could tap into power, but that manifested itself more in high doubles totals (25) in 2016 with equally high contact rates. He consistently put the bat on the ball with a smooth line drive stroke, and was one of the early season darlings of that Rome team, batting between Ronald Acuna and Austin Riley. Soon after the injury to Ronald Acuna, Rome’s offense took another blow as Morales fell into a crazy and likely luck-driven slump that saw him hit .133 over a nearly 2 month period with a .148 BABIP. A mid July resurgence balanced it all out for Morales, who hit .340 over the final month and a half and became one of the main driving forces to Rome’s resurgence.
Lucas Herbert was fairly obviously rushed to Rome in 2016, being a guy who was already seen as a project before an injury cut his 2015 short after 3 games. That was obvious throughout the season for Herbert as he struggled to make consistent contact or provide any sort of production at the plate. There were some stretches where he showed life, and he was able to display some raw power that makes him intriguing, but he is clearly going to repeat Rome in 2017 with the hopes of better results.
That’s not to say this is any sort of a damning circumstance, as this is sort of what we expected Herbert to be as a player. The only thing missing out of Lucas’ arsenal right now is that hit tool, one that drags so drastically it gives serious question to his ability to even be a viable backup.
Still, there is no denying that Herbert is a defensive talent to be marveled. While his 34% caught stealing rate isn’t as gaudy as Morales, his showed a much more well-rounded and advanced feel of the game. He handled arguably the most talented staff in minor league baseball with extraordinary ease, showing off talent receiving and calling games as well as a certain feel for each pitcher and when something as simple as a mound visit could be in order. This talent is what the Braves drafted him for and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. The future is pretty simple for Herbert, his defense could get him to the major leagues but that hit tool has to come around to keep him there.
Were it not for an injury in the early part of the season, Yepez seemed destined to move his way into the back end of this list. After his call up in May as the primary first baseman following the release of Matt Tellor, he was one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League, but was still able to hold his own with the bat . Yepez’s injury sidelined him for just short of 3 months but he returned to play some games down the stretch. After hitting .299/.364/.458 in his professional debut, the expectations amongst the more avid fans of the system were very high for Yepez. He didn’t get much opportunity to display power and prove wrong his dissenters that believe that will prevent him from being able to have an impact as a corner infielder, and that is the primary reason he will not open the season on the list (though I predict we’ll see him come June).
Yepez does have a strong natural feel for hitting, and can put up good averages and on base percentages with his approach at the plate. He also displayed solid gap power in 2015 (which is the best sample we have to go on), and given his age it’s very reasonable to assume that gap power can develop into average game power. It still remains questionable if Yepez will have a defensive home. His inabilities have already caused him to move off of third base, something the Braves rarely do with a player this young, and reports on him at first are mixed at best. Yepez has to hit and hit very well to make it to the major leagues, especially since he lacks the quickness to play a corner outfield spot.
I’ll be honest, I was amongst the vocal opposition to the Braves drafting Wilson in the 4th and signing him at $1.2 million-$650k over his $550k slot-to get him away from North Carolina. Wilson has and lot of arm talent, but the questions about his off speed stuff made him seem a destined reliever hardly worth that kind of money. I have to take a step back for a moment and admit that I should reconsider. While the questions still linger on the offspeed stuff, Wilson performed in a way that puts him right up their with our 2016 Draft Trinity of Anderson, Wentz, and Muller and has to date justified the selection though maybe not quite the signing bonus. Sometimes you have to pay the price to sign players away from major colleges, UNC in this instance, and if Brian Bridges feels that Wilson was worth it I can’t really say I have a huge argument against it.
Nothing about his scouting report has changed between the draft and now, and why should it...I mean 3 months is hardly enough time for a team to make a meaningful impact against 13 or so years of work. Even so, a 0.68 ERA grabs the attention, though that’s short of a prodigious performance in a complex league. Wilson walked less than 3 batters per 9, struck out more than a batter an inning, and pitched well in every role he has been given. With a full year of training with the Braves system under his belt at the start of Danville’s season in 2017, he will be given a showcase opportunity that if successful will give him enough reason to be pushed onto the list for 2018.
The old man of the crew, who also stands as the best bet to make it to Suntrust Park, comes in at 5th even though I’m not doing this in any order. The reigning ACC Pitcher of the Year was a solid 3rd round sign as a polished lefty who could provide bullpen help to the major league team in the very near future. This is not to say that there is no door for Harrington as a major league starter, far from that actually. Here is a pitcher with 3 potential average or better pitches with potential average or better command and a feel for pitching that is above his level.
Still, the changeup lags at this point and he has not used it enough to develop it. Until he does use it, he will not start and even so he does not project for a starting role with the Braves. If necessary, especially given the inconsistencies inherent with young pitchers, he could provide a solid swingman type or some attractive trade bait for a team in need of a controllable back end starter.
I don’t believe Harrington will ever see a start on the mound for Atlanta, I don’t see him providing anything more than a couple of 45 FV guys, and he does not have the stuff to be dominant late inning pitcher. These are the types of guys that just don’t show up in prospect lists even if he can fill a valuable role in a major league setting. Harrington should start no lower than Rome next season, and I see Carolina as a likely landing place if he remains as a starter.
We’ll get a chance to see him tested early, as he should be moved aggressively to match his polish, and even has the potential to provide relief help in Atlanta this season if a hole opens up in the bullpen late (which always happens). His track record in college and success in a small sample size as a pro leaves the door open for him to outperform our projections and maybe carve out a role in the major league rotation. As of now though, we are in wait and see mode with him.