Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the fourth installment of the 2019 Talking Chop Top 30 Braves Prospects List: Mid-Season Edition. For those that are not aware, we put out two top 30 lists each year: one before the season begins and one at the All-Star break to incorporate new draftees, account for graduations, and make adjustments based on what we are hearing and seeing. We have already rolled out the first 60 percent of the rankings earlier this week. If you missed out on those (and/or you want to look at how we go about making our rankings), below are links so you can get caught up:
This installment features the cream of the crop in terms of the 2019 draft class for the Braves and beyond that, is unsurprisingly pitcher heavy because... well... the Braves have a lot of starting pitching prospects. Enjoy!
12) Braden Shewmake - SS
Starting things off at number 12 today is the No. 21 pick in the 2019 Draft: shortstop Braden Shewmake. It may as come as no surprise that the Braves’ two first rounders from this year’s draft were among the more polarizing prospects among us here at Talking Chop (some are still in a certain state of shock that Shewmake required full slot to sign at No. 21). The selections of Shewmake, as well as fellow draft classmate Shea Langeliers, were a departure from what we have come to expect from Braves’ drafts and how the decision to take these two guys early on in the draft plays out is something we are watching closely. In Shewmake, you have a guy that has a track record of performance at the plate and in the field in college baseball’s toughest conference (SEC), but who lacks a true standout tool. His hit, run, and fielding tools were graded by most before the draft as good but not great. He makes hard contact at the plate, but his swing is built more for low line drives and that, combined with a skinny frame, leads one to wonder if any significant power is ever going to come.
That isn’t a glowing endorsement so far, right? Well here is the thing about Shewmake... in at least my (Eric) early looks at him, the sum is greater than the parts with him. He is just a guy that gets the most out of what he has and it just works well together. He isn’t putting up crazy power numbers and the open stance isn’t my favorite, but he has been consistently making hard contact in games while being impressive in the field. Despite a two-game lull before this write-up, Shewmake has posted a .388/.424/.575 line through his first 19 games as a pro. One can quibble about his current walk rate, but ultimately what is going to decide Shewmake’s projections is how he does next year against more advanced pitching. Shewmake raking against Low-A pitching is definitely a good sign, but one that none of us feel like is enough right now to start getting too excited just yet. The concerns about his overall upside are real and his defensive future may be as a utility guy rather than sticking solely at short (which is hardly a bad thing in this day and age), but the guy can just flat out play baseball and all of his tools play well together. What interests us more is whether the team makes any changes to his swing and whether he adds more muscle to his frame once the season ends. If those things happen and those changes go well, this ranking could look low in the years to come.
11) Joey Wentz - LHP
Wentz’s career has been very up and down. Being 6’5” with a strong frame, he was labeled early on as a potential hard-throwing lefty that had shown some of flashes of that identity in the amateur ranks. Unfortunately, that transformation hasn’t yet panned out due to various injuries. Coming out of high school, Wentz had a bout of dead arm syndrome, and from there injuries have persisted. In his first full and only healthy season, Wentz was electric, posting a 1.10 WHIP with a 10 K/9 and a 3 BB/9. He was not so lucky last season as he had a couple of injury setbacks, including a strained oblique. As a result, his stuff backed up, dropping his velocity into the high 80s, and leading to a suffering strikeout rate of just 7 K/9.
In a year’s time, Wentz has watched as other pitchers have leapfrogged over him. The main goal heading into 2019 was to prove that he could stay healthy. So far so good: Wentz has started 17 games while posting solid but not great numbers. His strikeout rate improved (8.73 K/9), but he’s also seen his walk rate spike. He’s been sitting low 90s and carrying this velocity deep into games, which helps his above-average-to-plus changeup play up. Even more encouraging is that Wentz has recently been piling up the strikeouts over his past few starts, setting a career high with 10 in his most recent outing (July 6). All signs are pointing up again, but there are still concerns about his breaking pitch and the quantity of walks. As long as Wentz keeps progressing, he will not only reclaim his title as one of the best pitchers in the Braves system, but once again flirt with being a top 100 prospect.
10) Tucker Davidson - LHP
Davidson, a 23-year-old southpaw from the same 2016 MLB draft class that brought Braves fans Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller, Bryse Wilson, and Jeremy Walker (wow), left Rome in 2017 as one of the more trendy “under-the-radar” prospects for 2018. Rightfully so, in the end, as Davidson transitioned from an anchor in the bullpen into a trustworthy starter, finishing 5-4 with a 2.60 ERA and 101:30 K/BB ratio in 103 2⁄3 innings.
The transition was possible in large part to a developing curve and a new grip on Davidson’s changeup that enhanced its reliability, in addition to a slider that some said was the best on the JUCO circuit. But, Davidson’s command eluded him in 2018, leading to 58 free passes in 118 1⁄3 innings and a 1.50 WHIP, along with a ground ball rate below 50 percent, seven percent lower than his breakout 2017.
For Davidson, then, the story of 2019 has been about getting back to his 2017 norms. He is still a bit fastball heavy, now able to sit in the mid-90s, touching as high as 97, but the command and ground balls are back, keeping him out of trouble. To the naked eye, he’s walking 3.87 batters per nine, which is almost one fewer than last year but still a bit high, but it’s also jacked up from earlier in the season. Since June began, he’s walking just 2.78 per nine while striking out 39 over 29 1⁄3 innings. Pair that with a 53 percent ground ball rate, and it’s understandable why Davidson is posting a full-season career-high 76.4 percent LOB% and 2.90 FIP.
Davidson is chasing the Southern League ERA crown, in a tight race with a league-best 2.04 ERA. There were questions surrounding whether Davidson had the stuff to excel at the upper levels, and despite a down year, the Braves still moved him up to Double-A, where he has answered the call. Davidson isn’t the perfect pitching prospect, but he’s certainly deserving of the big jump in rankings.
9) Jasseel De La Cruz - RHP
De La Cruz may be the helium prospect of the year for the Braves, putting up staggering numbers early in a breakout season. This is a season a long time in the making, as De La Cruz has made a huge breakthrough after a slow climb in his previous four seasons. Early in 2018 he looked to be on the way to a similar breakout, but just four starts in to the season he suffered an injury that kept him out of action for almost two months. He returned in mid-June but wasn’t quite as effective as before and he began the 2019 season repeating Rome. De La Cruz needed just four starts to prove to the Braves he was ready for the next step and he was promoted to play for the Fire Frogs at the end of April. He stayed hot on the mound and posted a 1.93 ERA in Florida, and he capped it off in glorious fashion with a nine-inning no-hitter on May 18. This earned him yet another promotion, and now at Double-A at 22, he is right on track with others his age. This is an important step in his future with the Braves, as with this being his fifth season in professional baseball he will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this coming winter and will have to prove he is worthy of a 40-man spot or else up on a different team.
De La Cruz has everything you look for in a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and the ceiling is there for much more if he can put together some improvements across the board. De La Cruz isn’t the tallest player in the world at 6’1”, but he has filled out his frame well and seems durable enough to start. His pitching motion isn’t the smoothest and he has a hitch in his lower body late in his delivery that does impede his ability to repeat his mechanics, but he has enough athleticism for decent command. He’s also definitively improved his motion to make it smoother since last season, and if he continues to move in the right direction he will see even more success. Right now his command is his weakest attribute, although his walk rates don’t show it, and he’ll want to work more to the corners of the plate if he wants to continue his success into Triple-A and the majors.
De La Cruz has one of the best pitching arsenals in the Braves system and it makes him a more exciting prospect than others with more name recognition. His fastball is plenty for MLB, sitting in the low 90s and touching into 95/96, but most importantly, it has above-average spin and gets movement that can force swings and misses. He also gets a high number of ground balls, though that number has dipped drastically at Double-A and will be important to keep an eye on going forward. His best pitch is a slider that shows plus, and when it’s on, it’s a true swing and miss pitch that is a nightmare for opposing hitters. His fastball-slider combination give him a relatively high floor as a major league reliever, and it seems his changeup will be the defining key to his future. The changeup has always shown above average for De La Cruz but was wildly inconsistent; it was a question if he would have the feel for it from start-to-start. The changeup can still be too firm at times, but he is using it more often and more effectively this season. The effect can be seen in his strikeout-to-walk rates against left-handed hitting. In 2017, De La Cruz struck out 19.4 percent of left handed batters and walked 13.9 percent of them. In 2018 those numbers improved to 20.4 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively, and in 2019 he has struck out 20.5 percent of lefties and dropped the walk rate to 8.7 percent, all while crossing three levels. Command will have to take a couple of steps forward to get to his ceiling as a No. 2/No. 3 starter, but the tools are in the bag for De La Cruz and he has already taken leaps and bounds in two seasons from an unknown player to a top 10 prospect.
8) Shea Langeliers - C
The other member of the Braves’ 2019 draft class in today’s rankings update is catcher Shea Langeliers, who cracks our top 10 after being the ninth overall pick in the 2019 draft. Hailing from Baylor, Langeliers was widely considered to be the best defensive catcher (or at least right there with No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman depending on who you ask) in the draft class with some offensive upside as well. He has a very strong throwing arm and routinely posted elite pop times in college. One note here is that Langeliers did not call his own games in college, but worked hard to insert himself into that role and his development there is going to important to monitor as he goes through the minors. He possesses solid hit and power tools which, as a catcher, are already big pluses considering what teams normally get out of the position offensively. In his draft year, Langeliers posted a .311/.376/.484 line for Baylor in 38 games despite suffering a broken hamate bone, an injury known to adversely affect offensive outcomes, in his left hand during the season.
Again, the 2019 draft class, particularly at the top of the draft, has been very polarizing for us here at Talking Chop. While all of us agree that Langeliers is, in many respects, a safe pick... you will find varying opinions among us as to whether or not spending a top 10 pick in this draft on a catcher not named Adley Rutschman was the correct course of action. Ultimately, this just comes down to how well Langeliers’ hit tool plays in 2020 and beyond. Everyone thinks he is an excellent defensive catcher and in early looks, he has absolutely had good moments at the plate even if the results haven’t yet been consistent. We aren’t going to knock a guy who is likely a bit gassed from a long college season, but how his bat plays next season and beyond is something we are going to be watching closely.
7) Bryse Wilson - RHP
Wilson has been one of my (Wayne’s) favorite prospects since I saw him for the first time. The 6’1”, 225-pound righty wasn’t even at his best that day, but it was his moxie that was impressive. It was Tim Tebow Day and the home opener in Rome, Wilson’s full-season debut. In front of a sell-out crowd of over 5,000 with national and local media flashing bulbs seemingly every second, Wilson allowed one hit and one unearned run into the fifth inning.
Not bad. That’s why it wasn’t surprising when he came out and tossed five shutout innings in his 2018 MLB debut at the ripe old age of 20. Simply put, Wilson just has it.
Not much has changed since the preseason assessment. Wilson is up two slots from No. 9, and that’s primarily thanks to graduations. Sure, his big league appearances haven’t been amazing, but Wilson is still just 21 years old and way ahead of schedule. Remember, he went after Anderson, Wentz, and Muller, and he’s well ahead of all of them.
It’s the same story as it always has been. A strong fastball, a decent slider-curvish pitch, and a changeup on the rise. That’s what Wilson’s future is dependent upon, the development of the change, because he’s shown he won’t walk a lot, while striking out enough with basically two pitches throughout his climb up the ladder. Right now, Wilson seems like the swing man, one who could provide extended bullpen innings or start in a pinch when needed and stay in the rotation for awhile. But he still has plenty of the mid-rotation allure that makes him a prospect we really like.