As the draft approaches and Talking Chop ramps up draft coverage, we will take a 2 part look breaking down the state of the Braves at each positions. This will be focused on the short and long term options in the system, as well as potentially draft targets at each position.
As it currently stands the Atlanta Braves hold the 21st best starting rotation by fWAR in the Major Leagues. This is a young rotation that has no where to go but up, and should soon start doing that. While the Starters had been a huge disappointment to start the season, the progession of Matt Wisler, Julio Teheran, and Mike Foltynewicz in these past weeks has been nothing short of inspiring. There are some holes to fix (Williams Perez), but those three are key proof that you never give up on a talented pitcher.
Starting pitching is the intentional strong suit of this system, and there are good names to choose from. Just from the highlight players alone you could make an entire rotation, so no matter the failure rate the Braves should be able to turn some guys out. The top gun in the system is Sean Newcomb, who were he in rotation now would be the only left handed pitcher. While he hasn't quite lived up to expectations at AA, he still just lacks the command and seems to be going through the middle of a transition.
The most dominant pitcher in the system this season has been one of last years first rounders in Mike Soroka. He has a 2.66 ERA at Rome, with similar stuff and numbers to that of Lucas Sims when he made his stellar full season debut (the last 1st rounder to be successful immediately). Soroka is the most advanced high schooler I've seen at that level and age, with a knack for pitching and a command of the strike zone and the mental aspect that no 18 year old should have.
Most MLB Ready Prospects
The AAA rotation has 2 players that will or have made their debuts this season in John Gant and Tyrell Jenkins. Gant has been one of the most successful pitchers since being grabbed for table scraps at the deadline last season, and earned a short relief stint in Atlanta. If the Braves would stop moving him to the bullpen (please) it would allow his good mix of pitches and above average command play up into a potential middle of the rotation arm.
Tyrell Jenkins has been known as one of the most talented players in the system, but still hasn't put the command together to excel. He has been on the verge of Atlanta all season, but a few unfortunate rest-related circumstances have pushed his debut back. He should make his debut in 2016, the only question now is his ability to stay in a rotation. Of course, seeing as the Braves view Williams Perez as a more valuable rotation piece than Jenkins, maybe he isn't all that close to a rotation spot. I mean why give the reigning Pitcher of the Year who has improved his secondary stuff drastically this season a chance to start right away? It's not like he's Ryan Weber.
The system is deep, but has no player that has consistently shown ace stuff. Newcomb is of course the closest, and the pure amount and success of the pitchers in the system make this one of the strongest positional groups for any system in baseball.
Potential target at #3
There are 3 big time arms in the draft, and if the Braves go that route they will have a very good choice at the top. The diamond of the draft is left hander Jason Groome, who gets into the mid 90's with an easy delivery, something highly coveted for left handed pitchers. The curveball is his bast off speed pitch, flashing an absolutely nasty bite. He also works a changeup on the back end that needs refining, but should be a good pitch for him. If Groome is at 3, I have a hard time imagining Atlanta passing on him. However if he doesn't it opens the door for either AJ Puk or Riley Pint.
Riley Pint has the highest ceiling of any prep arm in the draft, and has been a known commodity for a while. There is some slightly concerning effort and wildness to his delivery, but he has more than enough velocity to dial it back a bit. He shows a plus plus fastball, a plus curve, a plus change, and mixes in a slider. There are not many players with that type of repertoire. He would have the best pure stuff of any player in the system by a good bit, but would it be worth the risk?
The final name is Florida left hander AJ Puk. It is hard to find left handed pitchers that consistently get into the mid 90's, and when a team passes on him they usually regret it. Puk has all the talent you look for in a top of the rotation guy, with his size, the fastball, his dynamite slider, and a quickly improving change up. He has control problems, but if 2015 is any indication the Braves will not be afraid of a guy with that potential even with the control problems.
When it comes to these three, there really isn't a wrong choice to me.
Potential later target
Cal Quantrill really stands out at the back end of the first round type pitchers, pooling a mix of talents into the pot. He is a Tommy John recipient, but that doesn't factor into this at all, rather his abilities jump out. Here is a guy who could slide through the system relatively quickly, with a fastball that can touch the mid 90's and 3 other pitches that grade out above average or better. His command grades and mental grades could make him a real steal in the draft if he uses that to make his pitches play up.
The framework for a bullpen has been created, but as it stands it still is not very good. The unfortunate fact is that every time it seems the Braves have a good reliever, he turns into a not-so-good reliever pretty fast. The guy though, is Arodys Vizcaino. He has everything you want from a closer and more, and takes the closer role out of questions. It seems though that there are only a few other long term options on the roster-Chris Withrow, Shae Simmons, and Hunter Cervenka.
Best and Most MLB ready Prospect
This is a super easy choice, as AJ Minter is one of the best relief prospects in all of baseball. He was just a Tommy John surgery away from being a first round pick, and has all the stuff to match. He was easily in the mid-90s as a starter with good offspeed stuff, and he throws strikes. I would expect Minter to be firing out of the Braves bullpen next season, and he should be an immediate impact player.
The Braves bullpen could be worse. They have their closer, and they have other dynamic arms. Unfortunately, until those starting pitcher prospects begin to slide into the bullpen, the bullpen couldn't be much worse.
Potential Draft target
Again, the Braves will be willing to take risks on high ceiling arms, and Alec Hansen from Oklahoma would be the definition of that. The Braves would likely try him on a short leash as a starter, and if his horrible control problems don't iron out would pop him into the back end of a bullpen. His plus plus fastball and plus or better curve would make him a really weapon as long as he isn't too wild. In my humble opinion, he is worth the risk.
I could take about the state of catcher, but honestly no part of me wants to. While Tyler Flowers could lock the spot down for a couple of years, he is an older player and was never that good to start with. The Braves need a catcher, and the Braves need a catcher in a hurry.
Lucas Herbert is the guy all Braves fans need to know. He has a lightning quick release and a strong arm, and the most advanced defensive skills of any high school catcher in the 2015 draft. Herbert also has an upper cut swing and potentially above average power, something the Braves are light on in the system. The only question remains on his hit tool, as he has a rough swing that definitely needs work. He was sidelined after just 2 plate appearances with a torn meniscus, but still was placed in Rome. He struggled at the outset, but turned it around and hit .277 over a month long period before his recent 5 game slump.
Most MLB Ready Prospect
Sadly, the most MLB ready catching prospect is in Rome with Herbert, and even he is a couple of years away. Jonathan Morales looks like a huge steal in the 20th round from last season, and has hit well in his early career. The biggest problem has been his glove, which shows flashes of ability but still needs some work. He is probably not a short term option behind the plate, even if the Braves choose to accelerate him.
Catching is just the absolute weak point for Atlanta.
Potential Draft target
If the Braves target a catcher early, I have to imagine it would be a defense first college player they hope can make the major leagues quickly. I guess Sean Murphy from Wright State best fits that bill, as he is the best defensive catcher in this year's college crop. He has the strongest arm of the catchers in 2016, but his bat is far from the strongest. A player not performing in the Cape Cod League or at a small college has to be a red flag, and Sean Murphy waves that one wildly. I just don't know if he will ever hit at the major league level, though anything would be an improvement over the current outlook.
Long term solution
Outside of Herbert, the best long term solution is probably going to be International Free Agent Abraham Gutierrez. The Braves have long been linked to him, and seem almost a lock to sign him. He would immediately become the best catching prospect in the system. If they want a long term catcher from the draft, the only one that stands out for his potential is Ben Rortvedt. Rortvedt can hit, so if they can get his defense moving in the right direction he will be a good major league catcher.
Short Term Fix
At least for the foreseeable future, this is the question mark. The Braves will have to dish out some cash in free agency or some prospects in trades, because the current option just aren't ready or aren't good enough.
Freddie Freeman is the guy for the Braves, his contract dictates as much, and he is where Atlanta rests their hopes for the near future. He has been a cornerstone type player for his first 5 seasons, but his numbers have been declining the past few years and his play in 2016 is alarming. Last year he was given a pass for his injuries, but he is still not right this season and it shows. The simple fact is that Freddie Freeman is going to have to produce at the level he produced at when he had a .371 and .351 BABIP, just to justify the over 20 million dollars he will make annually from 2018-2021. Freddie Freeman is a good player no doubt, but I'm less and less sure with each passing day that they should have built around him.
Juan Yepez is still listed as a third baseman, but his defense is not good enough for him to play there long term. He is far and away the best (only) first base prospect the Braves have, and I have to say I like him a lot. He has a calm, very nice swing that gets the bat to the ball a lot, and he hits well usually. The power has yet to show on a consistent basis, but is clearly there and has helped to his over .800 career OPS. He is still young and raw, so unfortunately the Braves have a long wait to get Yepez to Atlanta. Once he does, Freeman's contract will likely be up and the Braves will reap the benefits of a really good 1st baseman.
Look, I like Freddie Freeman as a baseball player, and I know I will get destroyed by most of you guys for this, but his contract is an overpay. It was backloaded by a previous regime that was looking to win in the moment, and is now a huge chunk of a small payroll. The Braves can't afford him, but the Braves can't afford to lose him either because the farm system is bare. It is just not a good situation. Freddie is a great 1st baseman, but he is not elite and doesn't really deserve a "elite player" contract.
Potential Draft target
Unless you think that drafting Nick Senzel and moving him to first base is the best possible use of a 3rd overall pick, the Braves will have to get a guy later on in the draft. Wake Forest's Will Craig jumps out for me from the college crop. While he is listed as a 3rd baseman, he has subpar abilities at the position but easily the bat to play 1st base. Craig has a large 6'3 frame, and a nice swing from the right side of the plate that generates power. If the Braves feel the need to move Freeman's contract, or if they want a backup plan in place that is more short term, Will Craig would be a good move.
A more long term choice from the prep side of the spectrum would be Mississippi's Walker Robbins. Not only can he do the job with the bat, he has good defensive skills at first base and won't be a liability. As for the bat, the left handed hitter has a clean swing at the plate, and is able to generate a fair amount of pop from his 6'3" frame. He is also said to have an advanced approach at the plate.
Long term solution
As far as you can be concerned, Freddie Freeman is the short and long term solution at first base for the Atlanta Braves. While the money is a problem, they would have an extremely difficult time being able to emulate the production he brings to the table. In the super long term, Juan Yepez is an option, but I would just bank on seeing number 5 hitting in this lineup for 5 more years.
The front office fell in love with Jace Peterson, and rode him to the bitter end over the last year. He started hot, I'll give him that, but he was never able to sustain any level of productivity and has been cycled out along with every other second baseman that has failed to produce for the Braves. The position is a black hole larger than catcher, but due to it's proximity to has a lesser effect on other bodies.
Best and Most MLB Ready Prospect
The best "second baseman all the way" prospect right now is Luke Dykstra down in Rome, but everybody and their mother knows how the story will unfold. There is Albies. There is Swanson. No matter who you favor, one will play shortstop and the other will play second base. I operate under favoritism towards Albies defensive skills, so let's call Swanson the second baseman for the time being (feel free to destroy me in the comments). Dansby Swanson is going to be a very good major league baseball player. He is nearly MLB ready now, and carries the ability to hit .300 with about 15 home runs in a season. Swanson will also be a well above average if not gold glove caliber defender. This is a good situation for the Braves to be in.
The situation is grim at the moment, but fret not for the minor leagues hold a bright future ahead. My sheer belief in Swanson and his ability puts me under the mindset that the Braves are in good position at second base, even if the pickings are a bit thin.
Potential Draft Targets
It would surprise me to see the Braves target anyone in the first few rounds up the middle, but if they do it will most likely be a high school player that will be ready towards the end of Albies' and Swanson's years of control. My highly scientific process of pointing to a random person on the screen has me now debating the prospects of putting Zack Burdi at second base. I kid, the guy I would target were I a Braves GM targeting a middle infielder would be Gavin Lux. He is a shortstop, I know, but you have to figure the Braves hang on to a couple of their shortstops and push Lux to second base. Lux is intriguing simply because he has seen a lot of improvement in a short time. If he continues to improve at that rate, you are looking at a guy with a frame that could generate power and above average defensive skills.
Long term solution
Long term, short term, and term in between, Dansby Swanson is going to be your guy. Or Albies. Debate that on your own time. It's not a tough decision really, for the foreseeable future second base should be locked down, and while it is wise to have a backup plan in place it isn't worth wasting a high pick on. If you really want to go super long term, the guy there might be Yunior Severino, who the Braves are favored to sign out of the Dominican Republic. He may not be able to stick at short, but he can hit and does good work with the glove. 4 years down the road he may be another in a deep cast of middle infielders for Atlanta.