We are in the home stretch, folks, as we continue our Top 30 Braves prospect list. Here are some links to help you get caught up.
We are getting to the cream of the crop of the Braves’ farm system now. In this particular section, we have a few players who are still in the minors but have big-time potential, a couple of pitchers who have big time stuff but still have questions to answer, and one pitcher who has already forged his way on to the major league roster.
12. Joey Wentz - LHP
Joey Wentz was a huge pickup for the Braves when they were able to slide him to 40th overall last season, and grabbing him gave them another top tier left-hander to add to their stable. Wentz was a star amateur in Kansas, but arm fatigue forced him to play first base throughout the summer showcases leading into his senior season. He came back strong as a senior to start the year, regaining all of his stuff from the previous year, but arm fatigue again caught up to him towards the end of the season. That was enough concern to drop him to 40th and the Braves, where they bought him out of his scholarship and put him in the Gulf Coast League to begin his professional career. Wentz dominated there, as he should have, and was pushed to Danville, where he struggled but still managed to strike out batters.
As expected, Wentz was assigned to Rome to start 2017, and he has geared himself up for his new league and is beginning to form a dominant one-two punch with Bryse Wilson. Wentz has a stellar 2.87 ERA on the season and an even better 2.50 FIP, making him one of the top pitchers in the South Atlantic League. He is in the league’s top 10 in every projection-significant category, and is second in the league in FIP. His numbers are comparable to Kolby Allard’s 2016 numbers in every category, despite Allard spending time in Danville, and are better than Mike Soroka’s numbers in nearly every category. This is not to be taken lightly — Joey Wentz has absolutely dominated the Sally League. He strikes out 27.4% of his batters (9.9 K/9) and walks only 7.3% (2.6 BB/9), giving him the best ratio of strikeouts to walks in the system at any level. Wentz keeps the ball and is hard to square up, having only allowed one home run this season.
Evaluating Wentz yields the same results you would get from scouting his statline. He is an advanced lefty in every sense of the word, and has great stuff to match his development. The Braves have been patient with Wentz, limiting his pitch counts early to prevent arm fatigue, but lately the reins have begun to loosen a bit. Wentz is only working about 90-92 mph right now, but was in the mid 90s in high school and has the frame to add more velocity. He is a very projectable 6’5” and 210 lbs, with plenty of room to fill out and get back into the mid 90s without straining the limits of his body. He repeats his mechanics remarkably well for a player with his body, age, and somewhat high-maintenance leg kick, and has shown the makings of above-average command. He rarely misses over the middle of the plate, which has kept teams from being able to square up his pitches. Wentz also uses his frame to create sink on his fastball, which makes 92 play up even better and would make potential mid 90s offerings dominant.
Wentz’s curveball is an often dominating pitch, which for left-handed batters has proved unhittable in his career. Right-handed batters have had marginally more success, but he locates the pitch well and gets strikeouts against all types of batters with the pitch. Wentz shows a better feel for his changeup than most at this level, and is able to use the pitch to get strikeouts at this level. He doesn’t leave the pitch over the middle of the plate often, and the slight deception in his delivery and his easy arm action make it a fantastic third offering. Wentz has the ceiling of a player with three plus pitches and above-average command, which would make him a top tier prospect if he could regain his velocity from his amateur days. Time will tell, but Wentz may well be the most exciting prospect from the talented 2016 crop of pitchers.
11. Cristian Pache - OF
Cristian Pache was one of the big money international free agents signed by the Braves during the July 2 signing period in 2015. He was touted as a plus defender with a funky swing, a good hit tool that could likely develop power as he got bigger, and a rocket for an arm, plus some speed to burn. While the power has been virtually non-existent, it is important to remember that Pache is still just 18 years old. Meanwhile, the hit tool that was praised early has shown up quite well. In just one season, Pache has improved his approach at the plate and is no longer aggressively swinging at everything near the zone, while also increasing his walk rate all the way up to nearly 9%. The power hasn’t developed, evident in his 18% extra-base hit percentage(.074 ISO, 104 wRC+), but he has collected 19 stolen bases to somewhat cover up his lack of pop.
One thing is for certain: the reports on Pache’s defense were not overstated. Fielding is Pache’s bread and butter and it’s very apparent why. His instincts in the field, both in terms of his first step, and how he positions himself before every batter, are superb. He makes fantastic reads off the bat and takes great routes to the ball. His arm is as advertised, as he has an insane 12 outfield assists. Pache provides the Braves with another solid-OBP, speedy, elite-defending outfielder in what is becoming an extremely deep prospect list. The fact that someone with his skill set comes in outside the top 10 is a bit crazy, because if his power develops as projected, he will be another 5-tool prospect.
10. Touki Toussaint
The run on pitchers begins now with our number 10 prospect, Touki Toussaint. After an absolutely dynamite 2016 where he put up a career high in innings pitched and progressed a lot towards the end of the season, Toussaint found himself promoted to High-A (Florida) for the 2017 season. A quick glance at his traditional stats and you may see someone that is struggling mightily and might be in over his head, but if you look at his more advanced stats you are painted a much nicer picture.
Coming into his most recent start, Toussaint was 2-9 with a 5.80 ERA, and 1.453 WHIP in 16 starts. You’re panicking now, right? Fear not, however...
A look at his advanced stats and you see a player with a career low HR/FB rate (7.9%), a career low FIP (3.82), a career low xFIP (3.65), and his highest strikeout rate since 2014 (9.91). What is causing this oddity? Tough to tell since Florida does not have MiLB.tv — but some possibilities are his strand rate (lowest since 2014, at 61.4%), and his BABIP (highest it’s been since 2014, .322). Due to these advanced stats (thank you Fangraphs), it’s safe to say that Toussaint’s stock is soaring just as high as ever and while his development may not feature a rise as meteoric as that of Soroka or Allard, he has every bit as much potential as they do.
You’ll also be happy to know that Touki still possess that incredibly terrifying curveball.
9. Ian Anderson
Second on the run of pitchers is last year’s third overall pick in the MLB draft, Ian Anderson. Anderson, once considered a bit of an overdraft at the time of the pick, (by some - okay, by Twitter) was part of a brilliant draft maneuver by the Braves that allowed them to draft three high-ceiling pitchers (Anderson, Wentz, Muller). Despite being just 19 years of age, Anderson has an advanced pitching repertoire with a mid-90s fastball, low-80s curveball, and dynamite changeup. He got off to a great start to his pro career last year, going 1-2 with a 2.04 ERA, 1.134 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, and 2.7 BB/9.
It was with those fantastic stats and advanced feel for pitching that the Braves decided to start Anderson in Rome in 2017. He has struggled at times with his command (specifically with his fastball), which has led him to a 4.68 BB/9. However, he’s still been an overpowering presence in A-ball. Over 14 starts, Anderson features a 3.72 ERA, a 3.03 FIP, and an 11.43 K/9 rate. His line drive rate is a low 14%, and he induces a lot of weak contact on the ground (48.7% GB%), which doesn’t jive with his inflated .363 BABIP. Anderson has also been crazily consistent versus RHB and LHB, such that he has the same OPS-against, .643, against both types of hitters.
Time will tell if the Braves are as aggressive with Anderson as they were with Soroka or Allard, but he is just as talented as these other two highly touted pitchers. What he lacks in command, at least at this current time, he makes up for with an overpowering arsenal and should his command improve, you may see another meteoric rise for a Braves prospect.
8. Luiz Gohara
Acquired along with Thomas Burrows in the trade for Mallex Smith and Shae Simmons, Gohara has done everything anyone wished he could do so far. Perhaps the biggest prospect out of rarely-scouted Brazil, Gohara signed with the Mariners are the age of 16, when he already stood at 6’3” and almost 220 pounds. At the time, he was rated the seventh best international prospect according to Baseball America, with a fastball that sat in the low-to-mid 90s and a good slider.
Gohara showed out in his first dip into professional baseball. With an aggressive assignment straight into Rookie ball, Gohara went 1-2 in six games with an 4.15 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and electric 11.22 K/9, and 3.74 BB/9 rates. It seemed like the sky was the limit for the young Brazilian at the beginning of his career. Then, the mechanical issues began to arise, along with qualms about his fitness. After such a great start to his career, Gohara’s stock seemingly fell in 2014, when, upon promotion to Low-A, he went 0-6 with an 8.20 ERA, 8.92 K/9, and 5.79 BB/9. The stuff never went away as he was pushed his fastball up into the high 90s and could easily touch triple digits, but weight issues proved problematic. 2015 was a bit of an odd year for Gohara as he went 3-7 with a 6.20 ERA and 5.37 BB/9 rate but earned himself a promotion to A-ball, where he made two starts and posted a very low 4.66 K/9 while compiling a lucky 1.86 ERA (4.22 FIP). The Mariners were in quite the conundrum with this talented lefty who had an incredibly impressive arsenal but struggled with his command and his weight.
2016 ended up being completely different for Gohara. The Mariners started him off at Low-A at Pulaski, where it took him just three starts to earn a promotion. Gohara went 2-0 with an 1.76 ERA, 12.33 K/9, and 1.76 BB/9 in those starts. He finished off the season in A-ball where he went 5-2 with an 1.82 ERA and an impressive 83% strand rate. Because he missed some time during the season, Gohara was sent to the Arizona Fall League where he dazzled scouts by going 1-0 over 9 starts with a 14.7 K/9 rate, and 2.3 BB/9 rate. That brings us to the present season, where Gohara made 7 starts at the High-A level (1.98 ERA, 9.66 K/9, 2.48 BB/9) before his promotion to Mississippi, where he’s been just as impressive. Through 10 games in AA, Gohara is 1-1 with a 10.04 K/9, and 3.79 BB/9 rate, along with a 2.90 ERA.
Stuff-wise, Gohara is special. He can touch triple digits easily but normally sits in the high 90s. He combos this with a slider that, dare we say, comes close to Touki Toussaint’s curve in terms of filthiness. With better fitness and an improved work ethic, Gohara’s stock is rising rapidly and he has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter. He sits at #8 right now but with improvement to his changeup, we could see him sneak closer to the top 5 range. He is a prospect worth the wait.
7. Sean Newcomb
Sean Newcomb is the first of the elite pitching prospects to make his way to the major leagues, and the early returns have suggested that he may be better than his minor league numbers showed. Newcomb was taken in the middle of the first round by the Angels back in 2014, and soon after made his name as a dominant starting pitching prospect. Newcomb posted a 2.38 ERA across three levels in 2015, struggling with walks but striking out 168 batters in 136 innings. What happened next is well known, as the Braves took a chance on the dominance he showed by dealing star shortstop Andrelton Simmons to acquire the young left-hander (along with Chris Ellis as a minor piece).
Newcomb disappointed many with a 3.86 ERA in 2016, but beyond that surface stat, he was actually quite good. He still maintained a strikeout rate of nearly 10 batters per nine innings, and while his walk rate stayed high he didn’t allow batters to hit the ball hard off of him. His FIP on the season was only 3.19, and he showed tremendous improvement down the stretch, earning him a spot on Gwinnett’s roster for 2017. Newcomb struggled to start the year, but settled down to once again dominate and put up an aggregate 2.97 ERA with 11.5 K/9 in AAA. The Braves finally made the move to bring him to Atlanta, and he blew away the projections with a first start that saw him not allow an earned run. He continued his strong play for three more starts, finishing June with a 1.48 ERA in the Major Leagues. July came, and so did far more talented opponents than he had previously faced. The Astros roughed him up in his first start of the month and the Nationals did the same his next time out, turning what had been an entirely positive debut season into a rather pedestrian one after two starts. He still shows the flashes of brilliance, but clearly hasn’t improved enough to take on elite lineups.
It’s all fine and dandy to be disappointed in Newcomb’s last couple of starts, especially as they’ve given Braves fans a firsthand glimpse at his recurring control problems, but improvements to his control and command are the improvements that stare us directly in the face. Newcomb has always had a tremendous fastball that easily sits in the mid-90s with movement, but until this season he had absolutely no clue where it was going. He uses his 6’5 frame to create huge power without using much effort, so it seemed only logical that he would be able to control the ball well. That hasn’t been the case, until the slight tweaks he made in 2017 began to take hold. His upper and lower body are now a bit more in sync than they were in 2016, and even when he struggles with his command, the problems are not so egregious as before — he misses close, often getting shafted on borderline pitches, and runs counts to full rather than allowing four pitch walks.
The next step for Newcomb will be getting those pitches in the zone, and that is a step he seems poised to take. Now, with better umpires and a very good pitch framer behind the plate, borderline pitches have turned into called strikes and Newcomb is thriving. He still leaves the ball up and over the plate a bit too often, but it’s silly to expect an overnight change of course. Now that he gets the fastball in the zone, he can work in his masterpiece curveball. The curve gets swings and misses and can do so in any count, and has already shown that it is a pitch that gets major league hitters out. Newcomb is also reintroducing his slider to his arsenal with success thus far, adding another layer to his game. His use of his changeup has been far more frugal since his promotion, which is to be expected given the problems he has commanding the pitch. It is a dynamite weapon against right handed batters when he runs it inside, but the question is the degree of consistency he can manage with the pitch. If all of the pieces come together, the ace potential is still there for Newcomb. He has already reached a stage in his career in which he might be able to take over as one of the top two pitchers on the staff, and he’s shown the ability to make the needed adjustments to be a starter for a very long time in the major leagues.