Well here we are... we have arrived at the top six Braves prospects on our midseason top 30 Braves prospect list. In case you are just now catching up with things, here are the links to what we have put out so far.
The top six players features four teenagers with varying degrees of professional experience under their belts. The oldest of the top six also happens to be the player that was most recently drafted by the club. All of these players are incredibly good, but it is also worth mentioning that for the first time in a while... we have a new #1. Enjoy! (By popular demand, a list of each of our individual top 30 rankings is posted at the end of the article).
6. Kolby Allard - LHP
Starting off the final six of this top 30 list is young lefty pitcher Kolby Allard. Before the 2015 draft, Allard was one of the early favorites to be taken first overall due to his electric fastball and arguably the best breaking ball in the entire draft class. However, a back injury cost him most of the spring prior to the draft in terms of playing time, and that uncertainty about his health allowed him to miraculously fall to the Braves in the middle of the first round. He did not play much in Rookie ball in 2015. During the offseason, he underwent a procedure on his back that most (but not all) described as minor. After that, though, it was off to the races for Allard.
Allard features a fastball that generally lives in the low-to-mid 90s that has tons of movement, especially on the horizontal plane, and that he commands extremely well. His breaking ball is among the better ones in the minor leagues when it is on, and his changeup has made big strides and plays off his fastball really well due to his consistent arm action. The biggest thing Allard has going for him is that he can throw all of his pitches for strikes, which allows him to be aggressive with hitters and not just hope that they will get themselves out.
This combination of stuff and feel for pitching has served Allard well. After a bit of rust at the beginning of the 2016 season caused some rocky starts for him in Rome, Allard rebounded in a hurry and established himself as one of the better pitching prospects in all of baseball by the end of the season. The Braves liked what they saw so much coming into 2017 that instead of simply promoting Allard to High-A like many had predicted, they instead sent him (along with another member of the top six) straight to Double-A despite him being just 19 years old. Allard has rewarded the Braves’ faith to say the least, posting a 2.98 ERA over 18 starts (96.2 innings) in Double-A, along with 83 strikeouts and 35 walks.
It is arguable that Allard is the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball and members of the national media are beginning to wonder the same thing. So why is he only #6 here? All of these players are great, but there was a feeling among some of us that his breaking ball wasn’t quite as sharp this season and he hadn’t progressed as much as others. He is so good that this doesn’t show up in the numbers as much, especially given his advanced approach on the mound, but to our eyes, at least, there is a little more room for pessimism regarding whether he can reach his lofty ceiling. That said, this is far from a consensus opinion, and Allard could easily end up as the best pitcher on this entire list.
5. Kyle Wright - RHP
Despite picking fifth in the MLB Draft this year, the Braves went out and drafted a guy widely considered to be right at the top of the prospect list in Kyle Wright. The big right-hander from Vanderbilt, who grew up a Braves fan, was considered to be the favorite to be taken with the top pick in the weeks leading up to the draft until the Twins went in another direction just a few days prior to the draft — though the ups and downs of the draft board were nothing new to him this season.
Kyle Wright had a NASTY changeup last weekend: pic.twitter.com/kwvk5BJFZb— Michael Lananna (@mlananna) June 12, 2017
Heading into the year, Wright was expected to go first or second overall by many, but he got off to such a rough start that some experts were saying he could fall out of the first round all together. Wright rebounded, of course, and began to dominate the SEC when he stopped trying to light up the radar guns with each pitch. It’s a common draft year issue for many top draft prospects, as they sense the scouts watching and make every effort to impress, only to see the maximum effort approach hurt their performance more than help it. Wright finished his college season with a 3.40 ERA and 1.09 WHIP — numbers that don’t begin to tell you how dominant he really was against the top competition he faced. He also held opponents to just 7.1 hits per nine innings with 2.7 walks and 10.5 strikeouts.
Wright is an athletic 6’4", 220-pound right hander with four pitches, and despite his status as a college pitcher, he still has projection remaining in his frame. His fastball is his best pitch, and one that can touch 97 mph. He’s got a pair of breaking balls which, depending on who you talk to, grade out as plus, though he uses them based on the handedness of the hitter. The hard curve is mostly for lefties, while the slider is for right-handed hitters. He’s also got feel for an above-average change. If he is able to add anything more as his body adds more strength, he could become an even bigger prospect than he already is, with two plus pitches and a third which should be above average against hitters from each side, as well as potentially above-average command. That’s a frontline starter mold, a guy who looks like a future #2 with the chance to be even more depending on what he can add going forward.
This batter had no chance against Kyle Wright pic.twitter.com/EYr9y5ZsQ2— Matt Powers (@MattPowers31) June 16, 2017
Wright, who has yet to debut as a pro as of this writing, likely won’t pitch much this year. He’s coming off a new career high in innings for the Commodores with 103.1, or 10 more than he threw in 2016. That means the Braves are likely to keep him to 20-30 innings this summer and work him in shorter stints once he debuts. The hope is to get him to Rome by the end of the year and ideally for him to start next year with Florida. That would give Wright a chance to reach Double-A at some point next season. He’s a kid who has a chance to be up in 2019, and as already mentioned, be one of the front-end guys in what should be a loaded Braves rotation.
4. Mike Soroka - RHP
Coming in at number 4 on the list is the highest-rated pitcher (according to us anyway), right-hander Mike Soroka. Drafted 28th overall in the 2015 draft by the Braves after they selected Mississippi rotation mate Kolby Allard earlier in the draft, Soroka was a bit of an unknown commodity to fans, given that he was a prep arm from Canada who had not gotten the level of exposure that some draft prospects do in the while playing in the US high school and college ranks. However, after a strong Rookie ball campaign in 2015, fans started to get to know him in a hurry.
Soroka features essentially a four pitch mix. He throws a low 90s two-seam fastball that he calls a sinker due to the action he gets on it as it dives out of the bottom of the zone, in addition to a “truer” four-seamer that touches the mid 90s. His breaking ball has multiple planes of movement and, if anything, is probably best called a power curveball as he throws it in the mid-to-potentially-high 80s a good chunk of the time. His changeup has been the pitch that he has made the most progress with, especially with regard to his ability to throw it for strikes, and he considers it his best pitch when it is on.
Given how loaded the 2016 Rome rotation was going into the season, some were surprised to see Soroka win the Opening Day start. However, it quickly became apparent that there was no cause for surprise, as an uptick in his stuff, in addition to an adjustment on the rubber to help him against left-handers, turned him into one of Rome’s best and most consistent performers. Soroka, who is still just 19, joined Allard in Double-A in 2017 and all he has done is be one of the best pitchers in the entire league. In addition to playing well enough to get an invite to the 2017 Futures Game (and sporting what some called the best breaking ball on the World team roster in that game), he has posted a 2.37 ERA over 17 starts (98.2 innings) with 79 strikeouts and 21 walks.
So other than the obvious “he is really good” reasons that have already been listed here, why do we consider Mike the best pitching prospect in a system that is loaded with good pitching? The general consensus is that not only has his stuff taken a step forward against a much higher quality of competition this season, but that his mental approach to pitching will help all of his offerings play up. You can easily see this not only on the mound but also through interviews (here and here are a couple good examples): Soroka has plans and backup plans on how he is going to attack hitters and manage a given game. He makes in-game adjustments extremely well based on how his pitches look, and he does not dwell on the mistakes he does make. This, combined with what some consider to be the best command and control in the minor leagues, gives Soroka the chance to be a frontline starter who works efficiently and goes deep into games.
By the way, did we mention he is doing all of this and is 19 freaking years old? Soroka could see time in Gwinnett by season’s end given his domination of the Southern League so far, and will likely get a long look at joining the Atlanta rotation in 2018 if he continues to progress.
3. Kevin Maitan - SS/3B
When the Braves spent a record $4.25M on a young Venezuelan shortstop with comparisons to Miguel Cabrera on July 2, 2016, it got fans’ attention. Well the attention of fans who weren’t already aware of this kid, anyway. Maitan has been hyped as the best Latin American 16-year-old prospect in the past decade, since Miguel Sano — even better than the top guy from the 2015 class, a kid who just starred at the Futures Game after raking in full-season ball this year, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Considering what Guerrero Jr. has done this year and that Sano was an All Star this year, that tells you what people think of Kevin Maitan.
Now 17 years old and having skipped over the Dominican Summer League to head to the Gulf Coast League, the 6’2", 190-pound switch hitter has gotten off to a strong start. Maitan missed the first week of the GCL season due to a minor hamstring issue, but in the seven games he’s played since his debut, he’s hitting .308/.357/.385 with a pair of doubles. One of those doubles actually came in the bottom of the eighth in a tie game this past Monday, when his two RBI ended up becoming the game-winning runs.
Maitan has an advanced, mature approach to the game and should be a plus hitter with plus power when he reaches the big leagues. He’s likely to outgrow shortstop at some point, but his agility and big throwing arm should play well over at third base.
Maitan is a guy who will hit for average and power, and the comps to Miguel Cabrera and Chipper Jones let you know how highly thought of he is. He’s got a good chance to develop into a #3 hitter in a big league lineup and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if his big time talent and mature approach helped him to move on a similar path to guys like Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies.
2. Ozzie Albies - 2B/SS
Ozzie Albies has been the golden boy for Talking Chop for a few years now, and it is with a heavy heart that I say we may soon see the last of Ozzie in the minor league recaps and on these lists. Since being signed out of Curacao, the young shortstop has always been advanced for his age and his level, and put forth one of the best debuts in recent memory hitting, .364/.446/.444 across both Rookie ball levels in 2014. In 2015, he came out blazing in the South Atlantic League and hit .310/.368/.404, nearly winning an A-ball batting title at the age of 18. The Braves pushed him aggressively to Mississippi in 2016, or so they thought, until he hit .369/.442/.512 over the first month of the season and forced a promotion to Gwinnett. Albies finally met his match as a 19-year-old in Triple-A: he struggled and hit just .248/.307/.351 in 56 games there (though hurt by a .290 BABIP, which is quite low for him) and was eventually demoted to join with Dansby Swanson in Mississippi.
The move to second base to make way for His Hairness did no harm to Albies, who hit .305/.373/.451 for the remainder of the season and finished with a .321 average that was almost good enough to win the Southern League batting title... at 19. In Double-A. Albies, opened the 2017 season as the number 11 prospect per Baseball America’s ranking, but coming off of a freak elbow injury that ended his 2016 season and delayed his start to 2017, he struggled early. Through his first 30 games, Albies was hitting only .254/.289/.389 with a career high 22% K rate and career low 5% walk rate. Slowly, Ozzie began to round into form and over his last 35 games has hit .322/.362/.520 as a 20 year old in AAA. His errors have gone down, he’s stolen a league-leading 21 bases on 23 attempts, and the burning question has become just when he will take over for current major league second baseman Brandon Phillips. Fun fact: In his 1,665 career plate appearances Ozzie Albies has never faced a single pitcher younger than he, and the only two pitchers above A-ball who are younger than Albies are Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard, who are both, of course, also in the Braves’ system.
Ozzie Albies has always had an advanced feel for the barrel of the bat, and has never seen a pitch he couldn’t square up and hit for a line drive. Despite only being 5’9” (on stilts), he is a very strong player and is able to hit the ball very hard on a consistent basis. He and Andrew Benintendi were the only players that Baseball America slapped a 70 grade on as far as hit tool goes, and that is high praise for a guy at any stage of his career. Ozzie has always had solid gap power and hit enough to keep pitchers honest, but has gone on a recent power binge that has many questioning their power grades for him. He has a career-high fly ball rate, and as he grows into the strength adulthood brings, has already matched his previous career total of seven home runs in just 80 games. He may not be large, but he is strong for his size and barrels the ball well, and is showing that he can be a guy that hits 10-15 home runs in a season. Adding the power dimension to his game puts less stress on his on-base skills, and will help keep pitchers honest and prevent them from attacking him like they typically would with a guy who can’t create power.
For much of this season, there was concern surrounding Albies’ ability to drive the ball from the left side of the plate, but he has again answered that call down the stretch with some mechanical tweaks that have allowed him to come alive from the place he bats most often. This will improve his on-base chances, where he can show off double plus speed. One of the concerns about Albies’ game has been regarding his stolen base efficiency, but he has blown that away by going 21-for-23 on stolen base attempts and becoming a well above average baserunner all around. He also uses that speed well at second base or shortstop, and at the second base position he is a plus defender who will consistently create runs with his glove. He has the ability to play shortstop were it not for the presence of Dansby Swanson, and could very well be the better defender of the two if given time to improve his consistency. Albies has always had arm strength, but made many errors on balls he threw away. He has again made notable strides in this facet of his game, and has cut down his errors en route to realizing his potential as a game-changing defender. In summary, a formerly elite prospect has made improvements in every part of his game, taking huge steps forward and putting him in the conversation to make his major league debut at 20 years old, and he dropped out of the top spot on this list. We must really love this next guy coming up.
And our new #1 prospect is....
Ronald Acuña - OF
A new #1. It’s not as though Ozzie Albies fell, it’s just that Ronald Acuña passed him (and nearly everyone else in minor league baseball) in the first half of this season. Acuña was starting to break out last season for Rome in his first taste of full-season ball, but a hand injury derailed his national hype train.
For a guy not included on MLB.com’s Preseason Top 100 Prospects, Acuña has been doing everything he can to prove his doubters wrong. The 19-year-old Venezuelan (who doesn’t turn 20 until December) hasn’t been promoted just once, but twice already — a rare feat for a teenager who had 40 games of full-season ball under his belt prior to this spring. Just after his big showing in the MLB Futures Game, where he had the most impressive game I’ve ever seen from a guy who went hitless in four at-bats, he was promoted to Triple A -- one rung below the big leagues.
Starting with High-A Florida, Acuña played 28 games and hit .287/.339/.478 with three doubles, five triples, and three homers to go with 14 steals in 17 tries. With eight walks to 40 strikeouts in 115 at bats being his only blemish, Acuña was promoted to Double A.
Acuña got off to a ridiculous start in Mississippi, before cooling down a little and settling in. However, after a huge week following his Futures Game performance, he was again promoted. In 57 games with Mississippi, he hit .326/.379/.520 with 14 doubles, a triple, and nine homer, along with 19 steals in 30 attempts. The steal numbers that don’t tell the whole story due to his aggressiveness, particularly in trying to steal third base. His walks stayed similar in 221 at-bats in Double-A, with 18, but his 56 strikeouts came at a decreased rate.
Then, in his first game with Triple-A Gwinnett on Thursday, Acuña struck out, homered in his second appearance, singled in another run, walked on four pitches to load the bases, singled again, and lined out. Yeah. Ronald Acuña, everyone.
Overall, Acuña is hitting .317/.366/.516 with 17 doubles, six triples, 13 homers, 51 RBI, this year with 33 stolen bases in 47 attempts. He’s also got 27 walks against 97 strikeouts in 341 at-bats. The all-around ability is just special, even if he does strike out more than you’d like. However, his walk totals are a bit deceiving, as he showed at the Futures Game that he has a plan at the plate and an idea of the strike zone, evident through his first two long at-bats. As if that wasn’t enough, his rocket of a throwing arm with mostly great accuracy and the ability to cover a lot of range in center field makes him a true five-tool talent, and one who could be up in Atlanta in the near future if he stays on this pace.
One guy that Acuña has always been compared to coming up is Nationals prospect Victor Robles, with many saying he can be a lot like Robles with more power. But considering Acuña is 19 and in Triple-A with a .317/.366/.516 slash line this year after just 126 career games of full-season ball and Robles is 20 years old in High-A with a slash line of .297/.382/.516 this year in 174 career games of full-season ball, it’s safe to say Acuña has quickly surpassed Robles as a prospect.
As promised, here are each of our top 30 ballots to show where everyone stood at the time of voting. It is worth noting that Garrett practically begged me (Eric) to let him switch Acuna and Albies on his ballot before I posted this since that reflects his current thinking. All of these votes were close and we definitely did some adjusting after the composite was made, but this is a quick snapshot of our general thinking.