Welcome to the fourth installment of the Talking Chop 2019 pre-season top 30 Braves prospects list. For those of you who have been following along so far, our condolences. For those of you who missed the first few installments, fear not....here are some links to get you caught up.
The way the rankings are determined is that each member of the Talking Chop minor league staff (in this case, that means Eric Cole, Garrett Spain, Gaurav Vedak, Matt Powers, Aaron Huston, and Wayne Cavadi) submitted their own personal prospect rankings. From that, we make a composite and see how that looks. More often than not, we all agree that the final composite is good to go and ends up being the final list once ties are resolved and the math is double-checked. We have made adjustments in the past to account for weird outlier cases, but that is the gist.
A few notes about the list before we get to the part that most of you likely skipped to already:
- It is best to think of these rankings in terms of tiers rather than hard and fast rules. If you see a player one spot ahead of another, there is likely not to be a big jump in our grades of each of those players. This was particularly pronounced this season as the players even at the top were ranked very closely together in the final composite.
- These rankings are purely subjective. We try to get a good consensus opinion by making these rankings a composite so that all voices are heard, but we are going to have our own staff biases simply because we talk all the time about who/what we like and don’t like. We aren’t aiming for perfection here, merely adding to the conversation.
- We loosely use rookie eligibility to determine who is or is not eligible for the list. This was famously relevant when we did not rank Dansby because he had already locked up a starting spot on the roster and was just a couple at-bats away from no longer being a rookie. This wasn’t as relevant this year, but it is worth keeping in mind
- We don’t hate your favorite pet prospect....in fact, we probably love them. There are guys that did not make the list that we like a lot both as players and as people. Please keep the comments section bearable...comments like “these rankings are a disgrace because you ranked X player this high/low” don’t add anything to the discourse and will likely get you put in timeout as I (Eric) don’t have much patience for such things.
- Spoiler alert: we are going to be wrong at times and that is okay with us. Prospect evaluation is an exercise in disappointment because professional baseball is really hard and sometimes guys don’t work out for a variety of reasons and sometimes guys come out of nowhere to be amazing. We always hope for the latter and pray for the former to not. Each list gets better and better as we learn more and more about what players are and are not capable of and what attributes make successful major leaguers.
- Yes, we did make a honorable mentions list. You can look at it right here.
Without further delay, here are prospects 7-12 in reverse order because we like making you count down the prospects and building the suspense...or something. Enjoy!
12.) Joey Wentz - LHP
Originally a two-way player, Wentz was the runner up to Bo Bichette in a HR derby before committing to pitching full time. Not even issues with dead arm were enough to sway the Braves from taking him with the 40th overall pick in 2016 draft. Coming out of high school, he was getting some labels as someone that eventually would be a hard thrower from the left side. It doesn’t hurt that he had room to grow being 6’5” and 210 lbs. So far, though, he has been more of a finesse pitcher due to his ability to throw strikes rather than a flamethrower.
He seemed to put a lot of the arm issues to rest with a fantastic 2017 campaign. At Rome, Wentz threw 131.2 innings, striking out 152 and walking 46 (1.10 WHIP). He was showing off a fastball that sat low to mid 90’s, maxing out around 96. His curve and change both flashed plus, but it’s his change that stood out the most. Wentz was making the case for himself and he was starting to get national recognition with making a few top 100 lists.
It’s easy to forget how good he was in 2017 given how 2018 went. Injuries came back to bite him in the 2018 season (one of which was an oblique) where he only managed to throw 67 innings with a disappointing 53 strikeouts and 24 walks (17 of those walks came in 4 straight games). His struggle with injuries all year led to a decrease in velocity (sitting 88-92) and overall stuff. Despite the drop in stuff and injuries, he was still throwing strikes and getting guys out.
Health is going to be key for Wentz, as well as an improvement in his arsenal. If he’s healthy in 2019, he could find himself back on top 100 lists. It’ll be interesting to see if the Braves move him to AA (where he can start hitting again) or keep him in High-A.
11.) Kyle Muller - LHP
The big 6’6”, 225 pound lefty out of Texas, Kyle Muller was actually quite a bit further down our lists in past seasons as his stuff was down from the time he was drafted. It was reported during the 2017 season that his velocity was down significantly from the mid-90’s to more in the high-80’s and low 90’s and his stock took a big hit as a result.
Things took a huge step in the right direction in 2018 and Muller put together a great season, going 11-3 with a 3.03 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over 25 starts combined between Rome, Florida, and Mississippi. For a guy who had been moving the opposite way in prospect rankings since he was drafted, Muller’s stuff and velocity coming back proved his doubters wrong as we saw a plus fastball, an above average breaking ball, and an average potential with his change.
Muller still walks a few too many guys (46 in 139.2 innings), but he does a great job of limiting hard contact and misses his share of bats. He allowed just eight homers and 30 total extra base hits in his nearly 140 innings while striking out 129 in the 2018 season.
Muller has middle of the rotation potential as a starter. In fact this ranking feels too low for him, but in a system with this many high end prospects you are bound to find very good prospects outside of the Top 10. It is expected that Muller starts 2019 in Double A as he made just five starts in Mississippi at the end of 2018. However, it’s not out of the question that he makes a fairly quick trip up to Gwinnett but it may be slightly slower than some would like due to all of the pitching in the upper minors for the Braves and the need to get everyone their starts/innings in.
10.) Luiz Gohara - LHP
A rough season for Gohara has led to some frustration surrounding him as he entered the 2018 season expecting to be a key contributor to the major league team, but that never materialized. An injury in spring training delayed the start to Gohara’s season, and he was never really able to put it all together following that. Luiz got a handful of games at the major league level, but struggled with a 5.95 ERA and underwhelming peripherals in 19 2⁄3 innings of work. His work in Triple-A wasn’t much better, as he took steps backward in nearly every significant category. Gohara faced a difficult offseason in his personal life, which is worth noting when discussing his struggles and the hope is that with a chance to get a full offseason and spring training under his belt he’ll be able to return to the form he had shown in his previous two seasons. Reports so far have been good on that front as he has apparently lost a good bit of weight and is in much better condition.
Gohara has always been dripping with talent, starting with a sinking fastball he can run up to 99 mph from the left side. Command is the big concern for him, though it seemed prior to this season he had made strides in being able to hit corners, this season made it seem like nothing was going to work for him. Gohara’s second weapon is a wipe out slider that is the best in the Braves system and is a second true plus pitch that has the potential to be even better. These two pitches alone should be enough to launch Gohara into a late inning role at a minimum, but even so he struggled this season in relief. Gohara’s changeup has made strides towards being a usable pitch and has worked towards being fringe average which should be suitable given the depth of the rest of his arsenal.
There were whispers last season that some within the system were disappointed in Gohara’s seeming lack of commitment to his weight and conditioning, so that will be yet another thing to keep an eye on this coming season. Gohara should be expected to have a bounce back season this year, because given his stuff there’s no reason to believe he can’t be at least a quality set up man. Right now, he’s on the outside looking in with the number of starting pitchers that have reached the major leagues before him. He needs to show this year that he can cut back on his walks without becoming more hittable, which was the problem that plagued him in Triple-A last season. The challenge before him now will to show that he is still the player that was seen as potentially the top pitcher in the system as recently as last spring.
Coming in at No. 9 on our pre-season list is right hander Bryse Wilson who took the farm system by storm this year to rise from high-A all the way to the majors. Drafted in the 4th round of the 2016 draft, Bryse’s best pitch remains his fastball which generally lives in the low to mid-90’s but does go a touch higher even later in games. His breaking ball is a bit of a hybrid pitch between a curve and a slider which plays up when he throws it harder, but is a bit inconsistent. He has been developing a changeup that helps keep lefties off balance and has improved significantly each year he has been in the minors. This will be an important part of Wilson’s development as his splits against lefties in Triple-A (admittedly a small sample) were significantly worse than against righties.
Wilson’s rocketing to the majors was astonishing in 2018. He started the year in high-A with the Fire Frogs where he was absolutely untouchable. After a quick promotion to Double-A and a bit of an adjustment period there, he began pitching well there as well and got the bump to Triple-A. One of the more surprising developments of the 2018 season was when he got called up to the majors in August for a start against the Pirates where he pitched well before getting sent immediately back down. Overall, Bryse posted a 3.44 ERA in 125.2 innings in the minors with 143 strikeouts against just 36 walks. Back in 2017, I wrote that Bryse was quietly becoming one of the best pitching prospects the Braves have and he has done little to dissuade us from that point of view. There are legitimate concerns about his secondary pitches and whether or not that means his ultimate future may be in the bullpen if they don’t improve, but given that he is still developing and learning what he can and can’t do...we remain confident that he can stick as a starter. Given how quickly he was fast tracked by the Braves in 2018, it appears as though the Braves agree.
At No. 8 this year, we have catcher William Contreras who happens to be the brother of Willson Contreras of the Cubs. Contreras is a fascinating case because other than his family lineage, he was not a heralded prospect when he was first signed by the Braves out of Venezuela back in 2015. However, after a year in the DSL and GCL respectively, Contreras came onto the scene in a big way with a season at Danville that saw him post an .811 OPS in his 45 games there. Contreras can just flat out hit and he began to show some power last season with 11 homers while he was at Rome and 36 extra-base hits overall in 2018. He also has shown real promise behind the plate with a strong arm and quick release to help control the running game. He is still learning how to manage a pitching staff and he does do some silly things behind the plate when he is trying to rush his actions or has a momentary lapse in concentration, but our looks combined with sources around the industry show a guy with a high likelihood of being able to stick behind the plate and be an asset there.
Contreras is a catching prospect with real offensive upside which is a rarity in today’s game. It may take a few seasons for him to get to the majors as he learns his craft (catching prospects are notorious for moving slowly in general), but he possesses the skill set to be among the best in the game. He should hit for average with a bit of pop and he is not afraid to draw a walk either. Like with basically any catcher, he is not a burner so don’t look for stolen bases or a bunch of triples on his stat line, but he is athletic enough to not be a total liability on the basepaths and he does possess quick actions defensively. We think he has an outside shot of making the big leagues in 2020 and, assuming all goes well, could be a really good catcher for the Braves for a long time.
There is some real debate among Braves fans about who the best outfield prospect in the system really is, Drew Waters or Cristian Pache. One thing there is no debate about is that Pache is the highest upside hitting prospect in the system - not only among the outfielders but amongst all hitters.
It’s easy to see why that’s the case with Pache. He’s a true elite defender at a premium position with speed that earns double plus grades and a plus arm. It’s the kind of tool set that gets you a spot in the big leagues regardless of your ability to hit in the mold of Billy Hamilton if he doesn’t hit at all. However, Pache isn’t a guy who struggles to hit. He makes more than enough contact, and that plus plus speed allows him to beat out infield hits and stretch an extra base. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some questions with the bat though.
Until last year, the biggest question was power as Pache hit no homers in his first 750 career plate appearances over two seasons. Some power came on in 2018 and Pache hit nine homers while slugging .410 on the season in the pitcher friendly Florida State League - up from .343 in 2017. There is some belief that he could develop into a 15 homer a season hitter as he matures, so with last year’s power “breakout” there is less cause for worry about Pache’s power.
The biggest worry with Pache is that he needs to improve his plate discipline/approach and increase his walks. Pache walked just 20 times in 495 plate appearances. Part of this is because he’s just able to make contact so regularly that he doesn’t need to take walks, but there is concern that his free swinging tendency could be exploited by big league pitching. Questions about his ability to reach his offensive ceiling (as well as his inability to translate his raw speed into consistent results on the basepaths) were pretty consistent across the board when we were ranking him.
Pache has superstar potential, a possible Gold Glove center fielder who has 20/20 seasons with homers and steals, but he is going to need to see his plate discipline improve to reach that ceiling in addition to further growth in the power department. It doesn’t hurt that his floor is so high that the Braves are getting a valuable asset no matter how his development plays out, but his 2019 season as he reaches the upper levels of the minors is a big season for him.