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Talking Chop’s 2017 Pre-season Braves Prospect Rankings: 1-5

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We have reached the conclusion of our preseason prospect rankings. These players are really, really good.

Ozzie Albies

Well folks, this is it....the final 5 of our 2017 pre-season Braves prospect list. Here is how we got here (also known as the rest of the list).

6) Kevin Maitan

7) Mike Soroka

8) Ian Anderson

9) Touki Toussaint

10) Austin Riley

11) Travis Demeritte

12) Joey Wentz

13) Patrick Weigel

14) Alex Jackson

15) Dustin Peterson

16) Cristian Pache

17) Kyle Muller

18) AJ Minter

19) Lucas Sims

20) Derian Cruz

21) Ricardo Sanchez

22) Rio Ruiz

23) Ray-Patrick Didder

24) Braxton Davidson

25) Brett Cumberland

The final five players on the list are well-known to those who follow the Braves minor league system, although the order may surprise some of you. Before we get to the top 5, we just wanted to thank each and every one of you for reading both this list as well as all the drivel we put up on Talking Chop, For us, this is a labor of love and you all have made it both really fun as well as very rewarding. Our sincerest thanks go out to all of you, please have safe travels as you mill about this holiday season, and happy holidays from all of us at Talking Chop.

Enough of all of that, here is the top 5 that you likely skipped all of that to read anyways.

5.) Sean Newcomb

Coming in at number 5 on our list is big lefty Sean Newcomb. The centerpiece (and now sole remaining member) of the Andrelton Simmons trade with the Angels, Newcomb is another member of the former 1st round pick club that the Braves seem to be collecting when he was the 15th pick overall in 2014. Newcomb has an enticing mix of stuff that has made him a top 50 prospect in all of baseball, although he is not without some risk/faults.

He features a big fastball that lives in the mid-90’s but has approached the high 90’s in spurts, a plus curve, and a changeup that should at least keep batters honest as they try to dial in on his fastball. He also features the frame and athleticism to, in theory, maintain that velocity late into games, but he will have to work on being more efficient on the mound first. His 71 walks in 140 innings in 2016 represented a slight improvement over his 2015, but is still not a good walk rate at all and results in him having to work out of many jams and run his pitch counts up earlier in games. However, he has struck out nearly 10 batters per nine innings pitched in AA and if he can find the strike zone more reliably and pitch deeper into games, he has front of the rotation type ceiling although given his proximity to the majors, tempered expectations may be best here.

It’s hard to really project Newcomb at this point. His stuff is undeniable and he would have starts where he was absolutely amazing such as against Biloxi on 9/2 where he went 7 strong innings where he allowed 1 hit, 1 walk, no runs, and 8 strikeoouts. It’s also worth noting that while the walks have been plentiful, the hits really haven’t as hitters are hitting just .216 against him in his minor league career and his 3.19 FIP in 2016 was nearly a run better than his ERA. He keeps the ball in the ballpark and it is certainly true that he has less experience than most college starters which means there could very easily be more room for projection and development there. Our ranking is slightly lower than you will see from other sources (at least as of now) and that just comes from some skepticism that he will reach his lofty ceiling and that lack of command at some level will always be a concern with him. However, he is also a guy that could turn the corner in a hurry and press for playing time in the rotation in 2017.

4.) Max Fried

If there is any top minor league pitcher used to being overlooked, it's Max Fried. The lefty may have been the 7th pick of the 2012 MLB Draft, but he was overshadowed on his Harvard-Westlake HS team by the very well hyped Lucas Giolito and was in Giolito's shadow at times. Upon being the Padres pick, a pick which was higher than Giolito went due to Giolito's Tommy John Surgery, Fried went to work in the Arizona League pitching 17.2 strong innings. Then came 2013 and his first full year in the minors, where Fried was solid in the Midwest League, going 6-7 with a 3.49 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 118.2 innings- numbers which would have been better with slightly improved command.

Fried entered 2014 just like he did 2013 in position to be ranked among the Top 50 prospects in all of baseball. Unfortunately he only pitched 10.2 innings and eventually required his own Tommy John surgery while former teammate Giolito was on his way to being the highest rated pitching prospect in all of baseball. Fried missed all of 2015 as he recovered from the surgery and came back this year, but he came into the year as a guys almost forgotten about outside the Braves organization. Fried returned spending the whole year in Rome healthy minus some blister issues and pitching to an 8-7 record with a 3.93 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 103 innings.

What those numbers don't tell you is that Fried had a 5.21 ERA and 1.47 WHIP at the end of May as he was really struggling to find his pre-injury form. But after May it all seemed to click for Fried, pitching to a 2.80 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, becoming one of the hottest pitchers in the Sally League. He may have been a bit old for the league at 22 years old, but because of the injury and lost time the age factory does lose some of the questions another pitcher might have faced.

Not only is Fried's performance back on track, but so is his stuff- and that means his prospect status will likely get him back on to the Top 100 prospect lists he fell from while injured. Fried has big stuff for a lefty a plus curve that he can use as an out pitch with a fastball that sits in the 90s from the left side and an emerging change. He's still working on his command, but if did make strides in the second half walking 9 over his final 26.2 innings after walking 38 in 76.1 innings. Fried limits hits and can generate swings and misses as evidence by his 112 strikeouts in 103 innings this year. He also gets outs with one of the best pickoff moves in the minors, catching 10 guys with it this year- a number which would have been higher if opposing runners didn't completely stop running on him, attempting just two steals over his final 9 starts.

Fried is likely to start the year in High-A but could push to AA pretty fast if he can build upon his late season momentum. He's back to looking like a potential #2/3 starter with a chance to reach Atlanta as soon as 2018.

3.) Kolby Allard

The number 14 pick of the 2015 draft, Kolby Allard, began his 2016 on a rough note – being shelled for 11 runs over 2 starts. Something clicked after that second start and Kolby went on to be completely dominant for both Danville and Rome where he went a combined 9-1 with an 1.75 ERA, and 0.993 WHIP – which included two scoreless postseason starts. Over his final 14 starts of the regular season (baseball reference doesn’t keep the stats of the postseason starts) he also limited batters to a .207/.269/.295 line, gave up just 7 stolen bases while picking off 6. This absolute string of dominance not only resulted in him grabbing the SAL championship, but also shot him up to the #61 prospect in all of baseball according to MLB Pipeline. His peripheral stats are nothing to scoff at either – a 9.8 K/9, and 2.6 BB/9 during the regular season, while almost limiting hitters to roughly 7 hits a game. Long story short: he was nothing short of dominant – ESPECIALLY for an 18 year old in Low-A ball where he was about 4 years younger than his average competition.

HOW DOES HE DOES THIS? The young lefty possesses two already plus pitches – a fastball that sits in the mid-90s over an entire game, and a backbreaking curveball which is probably his best pitch. He also throws a changeup, which while it lags behind the other two, is still very solid and is developing. If you’ve never seen his curveball I suggest you stop what you are doing and watch this video: http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/0/v37009153/draft-report-kolby-allard-hs-pitcher. There’s really not much else to say about Kolby – he absolutely lived up to the hype last year. A full, healthy season is the only thing we have yet to see from Kolby who looked to be just fine after his return from back surgery over the last offseason. With a full off-season of training, and conditioning, while getting to work with some of the best pitching coaches in baseball…look out A+ ball.

2.) Ronald Acuna

A year and a half ago, in the midst of the first season of the rebuild, the Braves system was seen as deep but lacking of any sort of potential building block position players. Now, the Braves have 3 (4 for those who consider Swanson), and Ronald Acuna might just be the best of them all. At the very least he is the most versatile, boasting and often displaying a 5-tool potential no player withing the system can match (though my eyes are on Pache). Acuna came into 2016 as the Braves most-hyped stock watch guy, garnering more acclaim than Ozzie Albies had at the same age and level. On even the one of the most talented minor league teams of the past decade, Acuna still stood out this season despite an early season injury that delayed him announcing his presence to the baseball community. Sharkcuna played only 42 games due to his broken thumb, but made the most of it hitting .312/.392/.429 with 14 stolen bases with a 15.6% K rate and 10.8% BB rate as an 18 year old in full season ball. He was placed in the Australian Baseball League this winter, and is crushing the ball with a .359/.400/.531 line and 12 stolen bases in 17 games. While he didn’t put on as much of a power display as he had in Danville, his thumb injury limited his ability to do so and he still showed off raw power on many occasions. Like this one:

Ronald Acuna
Ronald Acuna opposite field HR

It’s probably shocking to anybody outside of those who are familiar with our writers to see Acuna this high on the list. We aren’t afraid to make somewhat bold moves on our lists (see-Ozzie Albies mid-season number 1 in 2015 and Ozzie over Dansby 5 months ago). We rank those players who we believe have the best major league futures as such, and from the conversations we have had it is clear we are all sold on Acuna’s talent. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, who has personally laid eyes on Acuna would maybe not agree with quite the heights we have lifted him to but would agree he is amongst the best 5 or so prospects in the system. I have not encountered a single viewer who has left a game and not seen Acuna do something that wow’s him/her. A reasonable comparison could be drawn to the Nationals’ Victor Robles, who is considered one of the top 20 or so prospects in baseball. So while the national media may not have quite jumped on the bandwagon as the more loyal followers of minor league baseball have, we feel strongly that Acuna deserves the number 2 spot not just on personal preference but on intensive research and scouting of him.

To play to an annoying cliché, the ball just sounds different off of the bat of Ronald Acuna. When he hits the ball it jumps, and he demonstrates possibly the best bat speed I’ve seen on a prospect. He tends toward a line drive/ground ball swing that may limit his power output, but given his raw power he could still be a 15-ish home run guy with that profile and a fantastic table setter with his speed, natural hitting ability, and plate discipline. There are parts of Acuna’s game that despite his good play still remain raw, as should be expected with a player this young. Acuna possesses fantastic speed, especially in closing, but often his routes get scenic and he can be seen changing his angles up frequently. When he gets a jump on the ball you can consider it caught, but he struggles with the nuances of the defensive end, just like a player we are all familiar with in Mallex Smith did when he came over from the Padres. He is quite lengthy on the basepaths as well, and while he makes up for it with plenty of speed to spare he still needs plenty of work in taking extra bases more efficiently. Still, the most glaring holes in Acuna’s game are nothing more than tiny tweaks-things that can be worked through in a single offseason. As a player with few long-term road blocks standing in his path Ronald Acuna could quickly see himself become not just a star but THE star of the Braves system and one of the most exciting outfield prospects in the organization’s history.

1.) Ozzie Albies

Our number one prospect is no surprise (well, not really anyways) as Ozzie Albies continues his reign at the top of Braves’ prospect lists for what has seemed like a lifetime despite the reality that he will still be a teenager until early January 2017. Ozzie plays like his hair is on fire and is an energizing force both in the field on defense as well as with the bat and on the basepaths. He is a plus defender both at shortstop and at second base (where he was moved to allow Dansby and Ozzie regular playing time together in Mississippi) with a strong arm, although there are times where he tries to do too much which can lead to silly errors. He has good hands and range to go along with great instincts and good footwork which will project well in the future as the up-the-middle defender.

At the plate, he is a switching hitter that has batted around .300 from both sides of the plate. His plus speed and strong game sense makes him a threat on the basepaths and that, combined with ability to get on base at a nice clip (.377 OBP in his career), makes me strong candidate as a top of the order table-setter. However, although he is not a big guy at all, he is much stronger than you would think and his 6 homers across two levels in 2016 was easily a career high but were certainly not gimmes. For the most part though, he will be a line drive hitter and allow his speed to let him take extra bases (he had 33 doubles and 10 triples in 2016).

Albies is the most major league-ready position player prospect in the Braves’ system. It’s possible, if not likely, that the Braves would have called him in September 2016 if not for a really unfortunate injury where he fractured the tip of his elbow on a swing in the playoffs for Mississippi. However, early reports are that his recovery is ahead of schedule and with no ligament damage, one would hope that he would be good to go for Spring Training where he is likely to be competing for a roster spot right away. However, given his struggles at AAA (which, while overblown by some, were certainly there when compared to how he has handled the minor leagues previously) and the need to get him some rehab and reps to get back into playing shape after the injury, it’s still a good bet that he will start the year in AAA where he will likely playing second base primarily. However, he could press for a promotion quickly and with his enticing tools and multiple ways to provide value to a team (defense, hitting, baserunning, intangibles)....the Braves could easily pull the trigger and call him up but late spring 2017.