The Major League All-Star Break is here and as per tradition, Talking Chop’s minor league staff is about to roll out our newest top prospects list. We’ve expanded the field to 30 prospects for you to have even more reading pleasure, but even that wasn’t enough as we felt we had many players who deserved a shot at that list but didn’t quite make it. To open our prospecting, we have our five honorable mention names (in no particular order).
In his first season in the organization, Alan Rangel got off to an inauspicious start, with a 6.31 ERA in the Gulf Coast League as a 17-year-old. Forced to repeat the level in 2016, the Mexican righthander broke out with a 3.28 ERA in 12 games. He had stellar peripherals with more than a strikeout per inning and a low walk rate, and expectations were for him to start the season in Danville.
In early June, the Braves called him up to join Rome’s roster in his first taste of full season ball. Rangel started off with a reasonably successful start, but over his next few games struggled to get batters out and was sitting at a 6.48 ERA with hitters posting a 1.025 OPS against him. Rangel has managed to maintain his extremely low walk rate of 1.6 batters per nine innings this season, but has seen a drop in his strikeout rate that has led to teams hitting .351 against him. His .413 BABIP-against leads to the belief that much of his struggles are due to poor luck, and a 19-year-old in his first go at A-ball should be expected to struggle somewhat.
Rangel doesn’t have an electric fastball, as it sits around 90-92 with average at best movement, but his best traits are his projection and pitchability. Though listed at 6’2”, Rangel has grown since his signing and is a touch above that, with a very slender 170-pound frame. There is plenty of space for Rangel to add bulk and still maintain what is a very smooth and repeatable delivery, and if he can add a tick or two to the fastball it will play up as an average or slightly above average pitch. His best skill is his ability to throw strikes, as he fills up the strike zone and can hit his corners well. Rangel struggles when his fastball drifts towards the upper portion of the zone as he doesn’t have the velocity or movement to get it past good hitters, but he generally does well in avoiding that problem. Rangel’s best pitch is a curveball that sits solidly above average and flashes plus movement. He controls the pitch well and rarely misses so far out of the zone that the hitter doesn’t consider offering at it. When he buries the pitch it can be a strikeout offering, but on occasion he can vary his delivery just enough for hitters to recognize the curveball out of the hand and lay off. His changeup shows average or better potential, and the deception of his delivery makes the pitch play well. He does a very good job keeping the changeup out of the middle of the strike zone, and gets good movement on the pitch as well. When Rangel struggles with the changeup, he doesn’t get enough separation between it and the fastball, and that separation can vary wildly within a start. Ultimately Rangel will never be a dominant pitcher, but has the makings of a backend starter with his ability to control his fastball and mix in good offspeed pitches. At just 19, there is plenty of time for him to grow into his own as a pitcher.
Pena is a guy that would easily jump into top 30 lists for most organizations, but due to the sheer quantity of infielders requiring playing time, wasn’t able to crack a spot on the GCL Braves and has been playing in the Dominican Summer League. Though not as critically acclaimed as Yunior Severino or Kevin Maitan, Pena was a huge signing for the Braves out of the Dominican Republic from last year’s international class and received an even $1 million bonus. Pena’s start in the DSL has been less than spectacular as he currently is only hitting .221/.362/.326, but he has not been as poor with the bat as those numbers indicate. Pena has walked 19 times and struck out only 15 times in 106 plate appearances. The biggest issue for Pena has been his inability to get under a ball, as he has ground balls in more than 50% of his at bats and has fly ball and line drive rates below 20%. As the youngest signing from last year’s class (he doesn’t turn 17 until July 13) he has a long road to the big leagues, but huge talent to dream on.
Pena’s reports out of the Dominican pegged him as an all around guy as he received 50’s or better across the board on his tools. He likely won’t stick at shortstop, where he has played in the Dominican, and third base is the most likely landing spot. The bat is there to be able to play as a corner infielder, as he has good bat speed and bat control to be able to hit for average. He has also shown a good approach at the plate early. His future projection will likely hinge on how well his power plays at the professional level. Pena has average or better raw power and a swing path that should be geared to tap into that, but his early returns are not showing that yet. His 6’2” frame is athletic and he should have plenty of room to add even more bulk to his frame without losing the mobility he needs to play an infield position.
Juan Contreras was considered by many to be the best pitching prospect the Braves signed from last year’s international class, and the Braves gave him $1.2 million to have him in the system. Contreras started out the 2017 season injured, but in his most recent start went 3 innings with no runs or walks allowed and 3 strikeouts. He had a 3-walk game in his first start in the GCL, but in his other two appearances this season hasn’t walked a batter. There is not much to go on as far as in-game action for Contreras, but early indications and reports have been widely positive.
For Contreras, it starts with a big fastball. He runs the pitch into the mid-90s, and with his tall frame and downhill action gets huge sink on the pitch. He’s lean and could even add a bit to his frame, making him just the kind of projectable power arm the Braves love to stash away. There isn’t much that warrants concern about his delivery or his arm action, so with his attack-focused nature and solid mechanics it’s reasonable to believe that he will develop good control. Contreras matches his fastball with a slider that may project to be his best pitch, and that fastball-slider combo gives him a reasonably high floor as a late inning reliever. He has a downward curve that flashes average movement, but needs refinement, as does his changeup. Contreras has #2 potential at this point in his career, with the development of the changeup likely dictating whether he is a starter or a reliever. Even with just the fastball and the two curveballs he should have the arsenal to be a backend starter.
Opinions were split as to whether Cruz or Cristian Pache was the top international signee for the Braves in 2015, with many leaning to the extremely athletic shortstop for the top spot. Seen as a speedy player who will hit, but with little power, much the opposite has actually played out, as Cruz has not shown much ability to steal bases. Cruz does have plus or better speed, but he has not been very aggressive and is only 11 for 17 in steal attempts in his first 93 career games. The 2017 season saw Cruz open with the Rome Braves, and after just a month his disastrous stint at the top of that lineup was ended. He hit just .167/.207/.237 at a level that he simply was not ready to play at and was demoted to Danville. His early play in Danville has inspired some confidence, as his strikeout rate has plummeted and he has shown power hitting .294/.379/.529 in his first 13 games. He is quickly separating himself as the top bat on the team, and has been a driving force in the two hole in the early stages of the season.
While Cruz’s early play has shown that he is going to be more of a slow-moving project, what the Braves are waiting on is arguably the best pure athlete in the system. He was regarded as the best athlete in last year’s class, and he has shown that off at times early in his career. Cruz has good bat speed in a short swing from both sides of the plate, and has shown the ability to barrel the ball when hitting against more appropriate competition. Cruz’s biggest drawback has been his defensive ability, as he has 40 errors in 87 games at shortstop in his career and the fear that he will eventually have to move to center field is becoming more and more likely with each passing game. That said, he has been somewhat surprising in his early career with his ability to get extra base hits, and with his frame and projectability there is some natural power he could tap into though his short swing path does limit his overall potential in that category. There is a lot of refinement left for Cruz’s game, but when he shows out he has shown the serious talent that made him a highly sought-after amateur.
Ray-Patrick Didder has never been an elite performer in the minor leagues, but beyond Ronald Acuna there may not be a player in the system that can match his explosive athleticism in all facets of the game. Didder’s season has been disappointing after he seemed to be breaking out last season as he has hovered around the Mendoza line all season and seen a massive uptick in his strikeout rate. He has made some strides in his ability to draw walks and occasionally flashes the play that made him a leader for the Rome Braves last season. Ray-Patrick has continued to be a stellar defender and has 11 outfield assists already this season after having an even 20 last year. The move from shortstop to center field in rookie ball has been huge for Didder as he is one of the best defensive outfielders in the minor leagues, and the Braves have even tried to help his versatility by moving him back to the middle infield for seven games at each position this season. Didder has continued to be a threat on the bases as well with 19 stolen bases this season.
Didder is undoubtedly a stellar athlete and is incredibly fun to watch with a double plus arm, plus to double plus defense, and 80 grade speed. If he were born in America he would likely be the starting quarterback in a spread offense for a Division I school, as that is the type of all around athleticism he possesses. Didder has even shown good gap power with a quick swing that uses his strong wrists to spray line drives into gaps. Once he gets on base, he is a threat to take an extra base at any time. The only problem has been his ability to get on base. Didder walks a lot and, prior to this season, never struck out a lot, leading to a career .366 OBP. Unfortunately he has regressed dramatically this season and hasn’t been able to get the barrel on the ball and get the hard-hit line drives he had last season. Didder’s ability on the basepaths and on defense gives him a clear path to the major leagues as a bench player/pinch runner, but the bat has really held him back from asserting himself as a legitimate hitting prospect. All of the tools are there for Didder and he just has to take the opportunity to progress to the point of being a solid 4th outfielder type with a chance for more.
Kyle Muller was an early second round pick last season and went well above slot value with his signing bonus. He has a 1.74 career ERA in 41.1 IP at the Rookie ball level with 53 strikeouts to 18 walks. Just based on that, he should be an easy top 30 prospect in the system and we shouldn’t have a debate about it. Muller sat in the low 90’s in high school, with good downward plane from his 6’6” frame and the makings of average offspeed stuff. Unfortunately, reports from out of rookie ball this season have not been nearly as rosy. There have been reports of a dip in velocity and an overall regression in his stuff, which has prevented him from joining his draft mates Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, and Bryse Wilson as members of Rome’s staff. His history of success and his stuff in the past give reason for optimism, but those reports give the writers at Talking Chop enough hesitation to omit him from the Top 30 list. Should he regain his stuff from prior to the draft he will be adjusted next season accordingly, but at this moment there isn’t enough shared confidence to name him as one of the top guys.