The 2018 draft will probably go down as one of the least successful in recent Braves memory, mostly due to the complete absence of production from the top of the class. That said, the Braves managed a number of under the radar signings that could ultimately swing some value in their favor. The failure to sign Carter Stewart due to his undisclosed injury wasn’t a total loss up top and led to the drafting of Shea Langeliers with the compensatory pick. However, the loss of that pick and the third rounder due to the sanctions relating to the signing of Drew Waters cut a huge chunk out of the talent pool for this particular draft. The picks the Braves did make in the first two rounds have not had the most impressive professional debuts either. Greyson Jenista, the highest drafted signee, has been pretty awful above A-ball and has not shown the ability to hit that made him a high draft pick. There are some signs of resurgence now at the end of the 2019 season, but the early returns have not been impressive.
Out of the first ten picks in the draft the most impressive was AJ Graffanino, who in addition to being a fantastic defensive shortstop hit .318 across two levels in 2018. In 2019 he has played exactly one game, and got hurt after one plate appearance and has not returned to action. Andrew Moritz, the sixth rounder out of UNC Greensboro, has shown decent bat-to-ball skills but has yet to show enough power or defensive ability to be a legitimate major league talent. Fifth rounder Trey Riley has an ERA over seven this season. Brooks Wilson has a 2.08 ERA in 21 games at High-A, and though he is a bit old for the level the production is there so far and he is the only player from the top 10 rounds that has shown much of any signs of life this season. It came down to the area scouts to save the day in 2018, and they just so happened to pack the late rounds with a handful of talented players that have flourished in professional baseball.
We have made it to the main portion of today’s festivities, and it’s time to go over the late rounds of the draft. Two rounds in and you’ve got yourself a Nolan Kingham, and for the Braves he has been a solid addition to the system. Kingham is highly unlikely to be a contributor in Atlanta, but he has back end starting potential and could be a decent piece for use in a trade. Kingham’s numbers in High-A Florida don’t really jump out, but with a poor defense behind him he was subject to a lot of bad days that may not have otherwise been so and he’s overall been an effective pitcher. Kingham controls the zone well and mixes in three pitches that give him major league potential, and with just 36 walks in 164 1⁄3 innings in his career he is a model of pitch-to-contact. His walk rate is the second lowest in the league at 5.2% (all stats will be min 100 IP), he had the third highest ground ball rate in the league, and he was top six in FIP and xFIP.
Three key names came to Atlanta in a four pick span between the 14th and 17th rounds, and all three rank on or very near Talking Chop’s Top 30 prospects for 2019. Victor Vodnik was probably the player that most excited us coming into the season and he has not given any reason to change that opinion thus far. Outside of a short stint on the injured list his 2019 season has gone off without a flaw, and although limited in his outings he has shown a tremendous potential on the mound. Vodnik has struck out more than a batter per inning pitched this season and over 50 1/3 innings has only allowed one home run. Talking Chop’s midseason Top 30 list had him rated as the top Braves prospect from this most recent draft. Another highly rated player was 15th rounder Greg Cullen, whose season turned from a player showing decent bat to ball skills to one on a pure baseball-hatred tour over the past month. In Cullen’s past 25 games for Rome he has as many strikeouts as he does walks and has slashed .322/.454/.517. Cullen has above average natural hitting ability, and if he can start to show a decent level of power he does have the potential to be a bench bat in the major leagues. The best player for Rome this season, however, has been Cullen and Vodnik’s teammate-17th rounder Justin Dean.
Just a glance at the leaderboard for the South Atlantic League will tell you what a fantastic season Dean has had, as he’s dominated all season long and finds himself ranked in the top ten of the league in multiple categories. Despite missing almost a month with injury, Dean is fifth in the league in OPS, wRC+, and wOBA, fourth in on base percentage and ninth in batting average. His 40 stolen bases lead the league by a decent margin, and he also has three more triples (9) than anyone else and ranks seconds in runs scored. Dean is a prototypical leadoff hitter, with the ability to reach base with hits or walks and make defenses nervous on the basepaths. Dean is a tremendous athlete and has surprising pop out of his 5’8 frame. The only question still raised for Dean is how good the hitting skills will play, as he still has a fairly high strikeout rate especially for a college bat. It’s abnormal for a college bat with the success he’s had to not be moved out of the South Atlantic League and to a league that will more appropriately challenge his abilities. Dean has real major league talent, and despite a logjam of outfielders in the system has managed to stand out for his early play.
The Braves took a community college third baseman in the 20th round by the name of CJ Alexander, and despite clear talent and raw power there were enough questions about his hit tool to cause him to tumble in the draft significantly. He then came out in his professional debut and hit .352 with an 18.6% strikeout rate. Alexander debuted in Mississippi to start the season and was expected to be a key contributor to a trio with Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, but 2019 has been a huge disappointment for a player some saw as a better option than Austin Riley. Alexander had more walks than strikeouts through his first eleven games of the season, but the results didn’t play out in the box score as he only had four hits and a .484 OPS. Then, Alexander went down with an injury and it was two and a half months before Braves fans would see him on the field again. Alexander was not quite the same when he came back, striking out more than 20% of the time with an OPS of .461 when he was placed in High-A, but he was nonetheless promoted back to Mississippi. In eleven more games he only has two more hits and this time has struggled to draw walks and not strike out. 2019 was a lost year for Alexander, and for a college bat looking to separate himself that’s a major setback. That said, Alexander has still shown hitting potential this season, and he has real raw power from the left side of the plate and that makes him a tantalizing prospect. Still, he was easily the most disappointing prospect in the system this season and it will be interesting to see if he can get back to full strength one he has an offseason to recover from a tough season.
We’ve saved the best for last, and that honor goes to 35th rounder Logan Brown. I’m kidding, of course, but Brown has been a fantastic player this season and is a legitimate catching prospect. He needs to work on some of his fundamentals behind the plate and the power is underwhelming, but he can hit the ball and has athleticism and arm talent behind the dish and that’s allowed him to sneak onto some prospect lists. The most impressive player from the draft has been, by a large LARGE margin, 32nd rounder Trey Harris. Not much was expected of Harris out of Missouri, more of an organizational type who has a good locker room presence, strong baseball smarts, and personable nature that could be a valuable piece to minor league teams. Spoiler alert, children, Trey Harris did not like that idea very much. He’s still a cool cat, only now he’s a hot hitter who has made some key changes that have sparked a 180 to his career. Harris has been a leader on and off the field, and the results speak for themselves at every level he’s played.
Harris started off his professional career by dominating rookie ball exactly how he should given his age, but it was his chances in Rome that drew real attention. He struck out less than 14% of the time in 2018, then in 2019 repeated those numbers almost exactly while showing a .228 ISO and hitting .366/.437/.594. Harris received a promotion to High-A, and he was only slowed marginally hitting .303/.388/.443 in 34 games. After hitting .429 over his past six games he was promoted to Mississippi, and finally it seemed he had reached a challenge. Through his first nine games he only had a .562 OPS and didn’t draw any walks. Death, taxes, Trey Harris hot streaks and he has hit .348 over his past twelve games with six extra base hits and a 16.3% strikeout rate. Harris is top five in minor league baseball in batting average, ranks 16th in hits, and ranks a cool third in all of minor league baseball with a 171 wRC+. Harris has been easily the biggest eye opener of the season because the man can just hit baseballs, and with twelve home runs in primarily hitter friendly leagues it’s fair to expect Harris to be a 25 home run bat with the Triple-A ball. If Harris continues to hit he will find himself in the major leagues, and even though it’s still more likely that he’s a bench bat there is ever growing reason to believe the Braves stole a starting-caliber outfield in the 33rd round. He’s stated that changes to his commitment to every pitch of every at bat has paid massive dividends and he’s showing a consistent hit tool that outperformed, statistically at least, every single other position player from the 2018 draft. Only one position player signed from the 32nd round, Kevin Pillar, has ever gone on to produce 10+ career WAR. If the Braves get lucky, they may have found the second.