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Talking Chop interviews John Sickels about the Braves farm system

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SBN and Minor League Ball’s John Sickels sat down with us to share his thoughts on the Braves farm system

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves farm system has become a focus of attention for many Braves fans over the last year and a half or so. Between the struggles of the big league club and the massive infusion of talent between the 2015 and 2016 drafts as well as the various trades the Braves have done, the Braves’ minor league affiliates have been a source of great interest among fans looking for a brighter tomorrow.

We cover the minor leagues a lot here at Talking Chop and are quite proud of the community of readers we have built up on that side. We feel strongly that our minor league coverage is among the best around and its equally true that our readers are among the most well-versed on a team’s farm system in all of baseball. That said, its important that we look to people that are smarter than us and have different perspectives and more/different forms of experience. In April, David Lee from Baseball Prospectus and the Augusta Chronicle gave a sweet interview detailing his thoughts on the Braves farm system and today we have another special guest, John Sickels.

Mr. Sickels, for those of you who are unaware, runs Minor League Ball and before that worked for ESPN, Bill James, and publishes his own prospect handbook and also wrote a biography on Bob Feller. I reached out to John and he agreed to share his thoughts about the Braves’ farm system and those thoughts are below. Enjoy!

Thanks for agreeing to the interview Mr. Sickels. First, could you introduce yourself to folks that may not be aware of who you are?

I got my start way back in 1993 when I lucked into a job working for Bill James. I was his research assistant for three years and focused a great deal on researching minor league players for his Player Ratings Books. In 1996 I started off on my own, writing the Minor League Scouting Notebooks for STATS, Inc, which eventually morphed into the Baseball Prospect Book beginning in 2013. Also in 1996 I started writing for ESPN.com and was their main prospect guy for eight years. In early 2005 I started the Minor League Ball site on the then-brand-new Sportsblogs network, which became SB Nation.

It seems hard to believe because in my mind this all happened yesterday, but I’ve been writing about and studying prospects in one form or another for 23 years now, even longer if you go back to the late 1970s when I first got interested in prospects as a fan.

The Braves farm system has experienced a major overhaul over the last couple of years. Before this influx of talent, just how bad was the Braves farm system compared to the rest of the league?

In my opinion they had slipped into the lower tier. Back in 2013 for example there were some good pitching prospects like Julio Teheran and Alex Wood but hitting was very thin and in general depth was lacking. Checking back on my old lists, I had the Braves ranked as high as eighth in 2012 but that had slipped down to 26th in 2013 and 26th again 2014 before the overhaul started.

Overall, what do you think of the Braves' rebuild efforts, in particular in regards how they have built up the farm system up until this point?

In general I think they have done well. It was an incredible coup to get Dansby Swanson from Arizona and arms like Sean Newcomb’s are rare. Zach Bird and Andrew Thurman have been disappointing but John Gant has proven very useful. Overall the level of depth has certainly improved.

Where would you rank the Braves' farm system amongst the rest of the farm systems in baseball right now?

Well I had them 12th entering 2015 and had them at Number Two entering 2016.

Pitching and defense remain the key strengths although some of the arms have been disappointing so far. We’ll see how things look again in October. Number two feels too high right now but we’ll re-assess when the season ends.

Who is your favorite player in the system to have a breakout system and garner a lot of attention by the end of the season? Why?

We need to see him at higher levels but Patrick Weigel at Rome has been awfully tough to hit this year. Mike Soroka isn’t really a sleeper for Braves fans who know all about him but on a broader, national level he hasn’t received as much attention as he deserves. That will change by the fall. I also think Rob Whalen has a chance to surprise.

When you are evaluating a pitcher, what are the attributes that you look at the most in terms of their viability as a starter? As a reliever?

Well are we wearing our sabermetric hats or our scouty hats? If you are talking numbers, I am a fascist when it comes to pitching and prefer guys with high strikeout rates in any role. Scouty-wise, I’d like a starter to have at least three workable pitches. He doesn’t have to have perfect mechanics as long as he repeats them well. Obviously maintaining his stuff inning-after-inning is crucial. Pure athleticism is important for all pitchers but it may be more important for starters as athletic pitchers tend to repeat their deliveries more easily, which in theory helps their command and helps them stay healthy.

In terms of position players, is there a tool or tools that you may value more highly than others? How highly do you value a high ceiling vs. a more guaranteed floor in terms of position players?

In general I would look first for up-the-middle players with a chance to hit. It is harder to find a competent defensive middle infielder or catcher who can also hit than it is to find a first baseman who can hit. But you can’t just ignore the sluggers either. Ceiling vs. safety isn’t really an either/or thing. A good farm system needs a wide range of player types.

If you study the history, you’ll find teams that got caught up in drafting nothing but high-upside raw tools players often end up with farm systems filled with football players and track stars and no one who can play baseball. But you’ll also find teams going “too safe” with their picks, who wind up with a bunch of Quadruple-A bats with no position or control artists who can’t get the ball past hitters.

A good system needs diversity, a mix of tools guys and skill guys. If you take too many gambles, you’ll suffer when the dice don’t break your way and they don’t pan out, but if you don’t take enough gambles, you limit your future and potential payout. It is all about calculated risk. Over the years the Braves have been on both sides of this equation.

Who are the most overrated players in the system or, at the very least, players that you see as having the greatest risk of failing as prospects?

I’m skeptical about Manny Banuelos holding up physically. We also need to see Braxton Davidson get to his raw power more consistently in games.

The Braves just executed a very risky, but overall very well-received draft strategy earlier in June. Who is your favorite player from the Braves draft class and why? Are there any players that standout as being concerning to you?

On paper and in theory, 2016 is the kind of draft a rebuilding team needs. You have three top high school pitchers with the early picks in Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, and Kyle Muller, but then they shifted gears and turned primarily to the college ranks and more polished players. Part of that is for money of course, to make the bonus pool work out, but on paper this is a mixture of upside and polish that injects several flavors of talent into the system.

That said, there’s some risk here because high school pitching can blow up on you easily. A good rule of thumb: if you have five good pitching prospects and one of them turns into a good pitcher, you’re doing well. High school pitching also takes longer to develop so this is not the type of draft calculated to improve the major league team quickly. In theory it would have been good to mix in a closer-to-the-majors college pitcher or hitter with one of the top three picks, but if the guy you want isn’t there, you don’t draft to match a theory.

I like all three of the high school arms but Muller strikes me as particularly intriguing because he’s had two-way success, which testifies to his athleticism.

Overall, Braves fans have really struggled this year with much of the product on the field. Is there hope that the future is a brighter place?

There’s always hope. There is a cycle that every team goes through. It is frustrating, yes, but I remember back in 1991 when two worst-to-first teams met in the World Series. The Braves are in a down cycle right now but they’ve hit bottom and will move back up and maybe sooner than you think