Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the fifth and final 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 reached the summit of our little thought exercise here. If you missed out on the previous articles (and/or you want to look at how we go about making our rankings), below are links so you can get caught up:
This final installment contains familiar faces all of whom are at Double-A or higher for the Braves. We hope that you have enjoyed the rankings this week. If memory serves, this is my (Eric) ninth prospect list I have managed here at Talking Chop and each time I am blown away by the support you guys give the series. Thank you all very much and enjoy the top six.
6) William Contreras - C
While he is the best catching prospect in the Braves system, and prior to the draft and the inclusion of Adley Rutschman, you could make an argument that he was the best catching prospect in all of baseball — William Contreras isn’t even the best catcher in his own family. At least, not yet. The brother of Cubs’ two-time All-Star catcher Willson Contreras, William is a significant prospect in his own right and is a much better prospect at the same stage than Willson was. Similar to his brother, who was a late bloomer, William is a well rounded catching prospect with few holes in his game.
Contreras is a solid defender with a solid arm. While you probably wouldn’t give either category a plus grade necessarily, he could be above average in both of his defensive tools after a little more time to work on his development. With a pair of above-average tools you end up with a potentially plus catcher and Contreras isn’t just some defense-first catcher.
William has a considerable offensive ceiling. He’s got a feel for hitting and although there is real power potential in the bat, it’s more extra-base power than over-the-fence pop at the moment. He started out this year in Florida, and in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, hit a very respectable .263/.324/.368 with 11 doubles and three homers in 50 games. Nothing special, but considering the league, his age, and most importantly his position, the numbers are reasonable.
Contreras received a surprising promotion to Mississippi and his bat hasn’t done as well as you’d like in yet another pitcher-friendly setting. He’s played in 25 games for the M-Braves and hit just .162/.244/.176 with only one extra-base hit. Catchers usually take a while to get their bats going as they move up. That’s just a normal thing, because they have so much more defensive responsibility than anyone else on the field that requires focus and attention.
When you consider that Contreras is a 21-year-old and still working on the defensive aspects of his game, we wouldn’t say there is much to worry about despite the numbers. Contreras is the kind of player who can struggle through a little bit and not have it affect him, and is likely the kind of player who ends up better because of it in the long run. We expect Contreras to finish the year at Mississippi where he should improve on his current numbers, even if the final line won’t look the way most would prefer. Still it doesn’t take away from his ceiling as a very strong starting catcher and potential All-Star, though it may slow down the timeline a bit as the bat doesn’t look quite as advanced as most had been thinking.
5) Kyle Muller - LHP
Not long ago, Kyle Muller had dropped significantly on many prospect lists, but tweaks to his delivery have slowly produced results and he’s now set himself up as the top left-handed prospect in the Braves system. Muller was considered a potential late first round talent in the 2016 draft and the Braves were fortunate to see him slide to them early in the second round. They gave him the second-highest bonus of all second round picks at $2.5 million. Muller fit everything the Braves wanted in a prospect as a projectable, athletic prep pitcher who played two sports in high school and didn’t have significant mileage on his arm. He was dominant in his first season in the Gulf Coast League, but lagged behind many of the other arms from that draft and spent his first full season in Danville. Questions loomed about a reported velocity dip and he wasn’t getting fantastic results. Even in early 2018, he was struggling to miss bats. Muller then kicked everything into high gear when he reached High-A, and with his stuff having taken a leap forward he quickly caught up to fellow draftees Joey Wentz and Ian Anderson.
Muller’s strikeout rates last season weren’t elite, as he found himself only punching out 23.4 percent of batters, but they were a vast improvement over his numbers in Rome. Critically, he didn’t see a significant jump in walk rate even as the strikeout rate rose. Muller’s walk rates in High-A stayed below 10 percent, and when he jumped up to Mississippi at the end of the season, he walked only 5.2 percent of batters while maintaining his strikeout rate. Muller was a completely different prospect than the one that broke into the system, and early this season he has been among the best pitchers in the Southern League. Muller’s strikeouts are at a career high of 26.3 percent, though this has not come without negatives. The walks for Muller have skyrocketed this season to 14.3 percent and while he has made improvements since a particularly bad opening month, his 11.4 percent walk rate since the beginning of May would still be by far a career high. Muller has done everything else right and prevents hard contact quite well but he will need to get himself back to his previous walk levels to maintain his success.
The increase in walks isn’t a complete surprise with one factor just being that the strike zone at Double-A is smaller than at lower levels and the team has him focused more on trying to hit spots rather than just getting the ball into the zone. With a more corner-centric approach, he is missing the plate more often, even though he isn’t notably missing his spots more than he has before. Muller has made a few changes to his delivery that have enabled his rise in the system but his changes to his body have further complicated the entire process. When he began his professional career, he was too far over the top and his entire delivery was too stiff, with a lack of a fluid arm action that prevented both repeatability and the ability to maintain velocity deep into starts. The Braves have made tweaks to loosen him up in every way, to get his lower half more involved, and to genuinely smooth things out all around and it has paid significant dividends with his velocity. His physical growth as a professional has somewhat limited his growth in command, and right now he is clearly still adjusting. He lacks the obvious explosion in his lower body that a lot of smaller players have, but he has a strong core and good thighs that create easy velocity. He isn’t as consistent as some in getting his legs into the proper position and landing point, and that leads to inconsistencies in his delivery that are altogether unsurprising for someone his size. He will have to fight his body at times, but by all accounts Muller is a hard worker and is well liked by both the staff and teammates. There are no doubts that he is going to put in the work to improve himself and make the necessary strides to take advantage of his significant natural ability.
Muller has turned himself into a pitcher who possesses plus velocity on his fastball, and this season it has jumped to sit consistently in the mid-90s while touching as high as 97. He holds his velocity deep into games and never shows much sign of fatigue, though command of his fastball is still far off from where it needs to be. Muller spins his fastball well and he’s seen a noticeable increase in his spin rates along with velocity that has made his fastball his best swing-and-miss pitch. He generates his power easily from a low-effort delivery and has been able to stay healthy early in his career. Muller’s curveball is his best offspeed pitch and gives him two pitches to produce outs. He throws his curve on a 2-to-8 plane and it is his primary non-fastball offering, flashing plus movement and providing fantastic velocity separation from his other pitches. He continues to improve the feel of his changeup and currently shows it as an average offering, but he needs to be able to keep it in the zone and low or he will struggle at the next level. The changeup has an above-average velocity gap from his fastball and that gives him three pitches at three distinct speeds, making life tough for opposing hitters. He’s more raw than his presence at Double-A might suggest, but he’s made tremendous strides from season to season and with his intangibles should be expected to continue to do so. Muller has top of the rotation potential and could be a long term piece in Atlanta.
4) Kyle Wright - RHP
When the Braves made Kyle Wright the highest-paid draftee in Braves history, the expectations that came along with that were sky-high. Despite having the label as a No. 1 prospect leading up to the draft, it was said that Wright was still pretty raw as a pitcher. The first thing you notice about Wright is that he’s got that ideal pitcher’s build, standing 6’4” with projection left. He’s got a loose arm that can bring the heat as his fastball sits in the mid 90s and tops out around 98. His curve and slider are above-average to plus. His changeup is still coming along, but projects to be at least average. That’s a crazy arsenal of weapons, but it’ll come down to his control to determine whether or not he is a TOR arm.
In his first full season of professional baseball, Wright ended up making his MLB debut. Fairly or unfairly, despite that rawness, he’s flown through the system due to the expectations of being a top pick. 2018 was a bit of a mixed bag, but he showed true flashes of an elite talent. This season, Wright got off to a slow start, but has gotten better as the season has gone along. In his last four starts (June 14 through July 3), he’s thrown 25 1⁄3 innings with 32 strikeouts versus just five walks and just four earned runs. Working on his command and lowering his walk rate are areas that Wright has focused on cleaning up after getting sent back down to Triple-A. He’s sitting at a 2.52 BB/9 for the season, but it’s been at 1.89 BB/9 over his last ten games.
When Wright is off, it’s due to a couple of main factors. One, he falls in love with the idea of blowing the fastball by every player. This goes back to his junior year at Vandy. As soon as he stopped trying to blow the fastball by every batter, he turned into a completely different pitcher that second half of the season. Second, it comes down to his overall pitching ability and sequencing, especially after the first time through a lineup. Wright is still learning this aspect of his game, including trusting all of his pitches enough to throw them in any count. There’s still plenty of hope that Wright lives up to the high expectations to help lead this staff with the likes of Mike Soroka and Max Fried for years to come.
3) Drew Waters - OF
In the preseason rankings, Waters was ranked sixth and climbs another three spots in our midseason update. Not only was the 20-year-old switch hitting outfielder aggressively placed in Double-A, but he’s excelled. Yes, he’s sporting a .456 BABIP through 87 games, but all he’s done is hit the ball with authority. Waters has a ridiculous 157 wRC+ and a total of 43 extra-base hits. He’s still making use of his speed with 11 steals, though he has been caught five times. One the areas that Waters has seen improvement is in the outfield. He already has eight outfield assists (versus five last year), and his overall range factor of 2.32 would put him top 10 in all of MLB outfielders.
That doesn’t mean Waters doesn’t have things to work on. He lets his emotions get the best of him at times and that frustration has led to quite a few strikeouts on just 3 or 4 pitches. Waters’ aggressive approach is a double-edged sword. Not only does he carry a 27 percent strikeout rate, but he’s maintained a low six percent walk rate for the past two seasons. In addition, Waters just hasn’t been able to get many plate appearances from the right side, which is his weaker side. While he has improved his OPS against lefties from last season to this season, it still pales in comparison to what he’s done from the left side (.942 vs .716 OPS). These areas of his game are going to have to improve significantly to reach his insanely high ceiling and become a more complete player.
2) Ian Anderson - RHP
It feels so long ago that the Braves used the third pick in the 2016 MLB Draft on this slightly less talked about arm from up north. The Braves thought they were taking the best available prospect in the draft with that pick, and while many fans were upset, it looks like the team made the right call, as Anderson just earned the start in the Futures Game last weekend.
Anderson has made 17 starts this year for Mississippi and has gone 6-5 with a 2.91 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 113 strikeouts in 86 2⁄3 innings. Along with the Futures Game, the highlight of his season was a no-hitter with 14 strikeouts on June 28th.
The one thing some point to as Anderson’s weakness is that his walk rate is elevated from last year at 4.5 walks per nine innings, but he’s been better with his command recently. He has walked 15 hitters over 51 innings over his last nine starts, a rate of 2.6 per nine innings. That’s down from 28 walks in 35 2⁄3 innings in his first eight starts, a rate of 7.1 per nine.
Anderson has started to fill in his lanky, projectable frame, and that’s led to his stuff ticking up. His plus fastball may now grade out closer to a 60-65 instead of just a 60, and his curve is solidifying itself as a plus pitch, with the changeup being an above average third pitch.
Anderson is ready to make the move up the ladder to Triple-A, but with no spots open, he will remain in Mississippi for right now. You could potentially see him in a big league rotation for good by this time next year, if not sooner, and he still projects as a potential No. 2 starter at that level.
1) Cristian Pache - OF
Entering the season, Pache and now No. 3 prospect Drew Waters were seen as the 1A and 1B of outfield prospects in a system pretty deep at the position. Pache was the preseason No. 7 with Waters at No. 6. Halfway through, both have had monster seasons surpassing expectations, but Pache is no longer the best outfield prospect in the system.
He’s the best prospect, hands down.
We know the drill when it comes to Pache. Lightning fast speed, a bazooka of an accurate arm, and instincts in the outfield that make the gaps seem like black holes where baseballs go to die. Last year, we wanted to see more power, and this year, we did. We’re seeing more, and it’s coming the right way.
Think back to 2017, when we hoped to see a little more power from Ozzie Albies, the only thing lacking to make him the perfect prospect. We did, however it came at the expense of his strikeout rate and normally solid walk rate. It’s been the opposite with Pache, slashing his strikeout rate from his 2018 Double-A debut to a respectable (but still with room for improvement) 23 percent, while walking at a career-high 7.6 percent rate. His ISO is off the charts for him at .226, and he’s doing it with a nice blend of line drives (24.2%) and fly balls (35.9%). Basically, he’s not becoming a one-trick pony. Pache can kill you in the gap, and has finally shown he can get it out of the park.
Overall, Pache is slashing .294/.352/.519 with a career-high 25 doubles and 11 home runs, and while maybe the only thing to be concerned with is his seven stolen bases, he’s also a different player than the guy who stole 32 in Rome in 2017 when all he did was hit singles. That speed hasn’t gone anywhere. All these huge numbers, and he’s on the cusp of a promotion to a league that has been rather power-friendly this season.
Pache is everything guys like us that rank prospects want to see. He started 2017 in Rome with some very loud tools to go with some very glaring flaws, but you saw “it,” that something special. And each year, he’s shown more of that “it” to the point where he is the most complete prospect in the system. Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Pache in the outfield was a dream started in 2016. It may be a reality in the very near future and far greater than any of us actually envisioned.