We are back with installment No. 2 of our 2020 Preseason Braves Top 30 Prospects List and, at least so far, not too many of you have been yelling at us which means it must be early in the week. For those of you that are needing to catch up, fear not...here are links to the previous write-ups so that you can get up to speed. If you are looking for a rundown of how we formulate the list, the article with the 25-30 section is what you will want to look at.
Next up, we have prospects 19-24 in reverse order which is a pretty interesting group ranging from guys who remade themselves and had stellar seasons to some 2019 draftees to a couple of guys who seemingly have loads of potential, but whose 2019 seasons...well...did not go as well. Hope you all enjoy it!
24.) Jeremy Walker - RHP
Jeremy Walker, have a year! At this point last year, Jeremy Walker was all but written off as a prospect. He’d come off two straight seasons of striking out less than seven batters per 9 and carrying an ERA around 4 in Low-A and High-A, but a move to the bullpen in 2019 really helped to revive his career. Add to the fact that he pitched the final two innings of a no hitter combined with Ian Anderson on June 28th really encapsulates the season as a whole for Walker.
On the surface, he’s got the build you’d want from a pitcher standing 6’5. He primarily uses a sinking fastball (91-94, max 96) to go along with a curve that doesn’t have a ton of break that’s around 82 mph. Some sites say he has a slider, but we think they are getting it confused with his curve since it doesn’t have a ton of break, though it’s still a pretty effective pitch.
So what changed in 2019? The main thing is his righty vs lefty splits. Before 2019, he was equally as bad against both. In 2019 he straight up dominated right hand hitters to the tune of a .209 BAA with a 0.91 WHIP. He also started to strike about a batter per inning, which is a big improvement over his previous seasons. Walker has always been a strike thrower who minimizes walks. In addition to throwing strikes, he gets an insane amount of ground balls with his sinker. The Braves moving Walker to the pen was the right move where his stuff can play up in shorter spurts. If he can carry over his improved strikeout rate into 2020 with his already impressive ability to get ground balls and minimize walks, then Walker could give the Braves bullpen another big time weapon.
23.) Freddy Tarnok - RHP
Freddy enters his third full season of professional baseball with legitimate expectations on him as the Braves appear to be completely dedicated to him as a starting pitcher. As we all know, Freddy had a late start when it came to pitching so is definitely a project, but there is a lot to like in the 21 year old. His strikeout numbers took a dip as he came in at a 7.53 K/9, and his walk rate went up to 3.31 walks per nine, but it was his first full year of being nothing but a starter and the Braves were slightly aggressive with him - placing him in A+ ball despite the limited playing time. Freddy finished the season on a nice run by compiling an ERA of 3.04 over his final 11 games (53.1 IP), and holding opposing batters to a .686 OPS against him.
2020 will be a fun year for Freddy - the numbers won’t be looked at too harshly as he is still really raw as a pitcher, but if he continues to put up solid numbers you could really see his stock begin to rise as a prospect. More importantly, if he stays healthy the full year and puts up an entire season (2 full seasons with professional workout regiment), maintains his fastball velocity (came in throwing 96/97 and was sitting low 90s most of last season), and continues to develop his complimentary pitches (curveball/changeup), we really could see Tarnok’s stock rise as he is an intriguing starting pitching prospect. More consistency with his mechanics is ultimately what is most important for Freddy for this year.
22.) Mahki Backstrom - 1B
Once thought of as a potential first round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, the Braves got a real steal midway through Day Three of the draft when they landed Mahki Backstrom and signed him to an overslot deal.
Backstrom is everything you could want in a first base prospect. He’s big, athletic, and hits the ball very, very hard- posting some eye popping bat speed and exit velocity numbers. He fell a bit last spring because he didn’t get off to the best start to his high school year, but settled in and after correcting his issue, he ended up being productive again during his high school season.
Backstrom didn’t get much of a chance to play in pro ball after signing right before the deadline, but as a 17 year old he more than held his own against pro pitching. In 23 games he hit .300/.402/.457 with five doubles, two homers, and 12 walks to 27 strikeouts in 82 plate appearances. One of the biggest positives about Backstrom other than the massive power is the fact he is an extremely hard worker, spending hours and hours in the cage to try to continue improving his hit tool which is the biggest question mark in his promising tool set. He likely spent plenty of time this winter training with Mets first baseman/outfielder Dom Smith, who graduated from the same high school as Backstrom, and whom Backstrom has trained with in the past.
It remains to be seen if the Braves get aggressive and push him to Rome, or if the more likely scenario of starting him in extended spring training before a start in Danville makes the most sense considering he will just be 18 years old this season. We put his timeline as 2023/2024, but he’s got the toolset to be a future All Star if he can make enough contact and benefits from the fact that it feels like the DH could be coming to the National League before too long.
21.) CJ Alexander - 1B/3B
CJ Alexander was arguably the rising star in the Braves system coming into the 2019 season with expectations high that he would have a true breakout season and become one of the top prospects in the system. Unfortunately circumstances didn’t fall his way, and it leaves one struggling to figure out what we’ll see from Alexander. No matter how it’s sliced, 2019 was all but a completely lost year for Alexander as he only saw 43 games of action and struggled mightily at the plate in that playing time, but his debut and tools were so overwhelming that he has to stay on the radar. Injuries caught up to CJ early in the season, and just eleven games in he was sent on an extended injured list stint that lasted until early July. While he came back and played most of the rest of the season with diminished production, he also suffered another injury on August 18th when a scary fall into the tunnel knocked him out for the remainder of the season.
When Alexander was on the field his performance was nothing to write home about as he hit just .117/.245/.180 across two levels on the season. The injuries certainly contributed to his struggles, but even so the adjustment to Double-A was not going well and it will be interesting to see how he looks his second time around. Alexander balled out in his first season after being drafted in 2018, hitting .352/.429/.495 over 52 games that season, and that performance is what lands him on the list now. Alexander is probably somewhere in the middle of those numbers, and is definitely a legitimate prospect that hopefully just had a bad season.
If he can get his swing back into form and be the player he was in his debut he’ll no doubt be a Top 15 prospect in this system again as the talent for Alexander has never been a question. He has a huge six-foot-five-inch frame with the raw power to match, and as the bat develops he should turn into a legitimate power threat in the lineup. His ability to hit the ball was the biggest question mark that made him drop to the 20th round in the draft, but he mostly answered those concerns in his debut until they were re-emphasized after his struggles last season. Alexander defends well at third base and certainly has the profile to stick there should he be able to recover fully from last year’s injuries and return to the level he is capable of playing at, although it is worth mentioning that Alexander got looks at first base as well which was likely due to the elbow injury that kept him out for an extended period during the season.
20.) Tyler Owens - RHP
Tyler Owens is an undersized high school pitcher who got big time money from the Braves and he is early showing why he fully deserved that significant overslot draft bonus. Owens is a right handed pitcher out of Ocala, Florida, and when he slipped into Atlanta’s hands in the thirteenth round in 2019 they jumped on him and gave him the highest bonus of any player after the 10th round at $550K. Owens got right on the mound in rookie ball and proved quickly why he was deserving of that number. Owens spent all of two games in the Gulf Coast League before the Braves decided the then 18 year old deserved to be promoted to Danville. He responded with a solid final eight games of the season and struck out 28 batters in 23 1⁄3 innings in Danville. He’s likely earned himself a spot on Rome’s opening day roster assuming he takes care of business in spring training, and he is the highest rated pitcher from the Braves 2019 draft class on our list.
Owens recently turned 19, and while his 5’10 frame is a question mark that likely prevented him from a much higher draft position, the raw stuff of a solid mid-rotation starter is clearly present. Owens can run the ball up to a peak of 98 mph, though more often sits around 93-94 as a starter and has already shown decent feel of commanding the pitch at those velocities. Owens has shown a slider that has already become an out pitch and could prove a nasty weapon either as a starter or as a late inning reliever if necessity pushes him in that direction. The changeup rounds out his arsenal and clearly lags behind the other three pitches as it does for most pitchers at his level. There is some awkwardness in his arm action that may prove to make it difficult for him to consistently command pitches and could be a reason he gets pushed to the bullpen. His lower body is strong and stays clean through his delivery, and he has the athleticism to repeat and maintain a lower effort delivery despite his unorthodox mechanics.
19.) Bryce Ball - 1B
Ball certainly gave Braves fans plenty to be excited about in a brief 2019 debut. That said, their are still a few question marks for the big swinging first baseman.
The left-handed first baseman looks every bit the part of a heart-of-the-lineup slugger, listed 6-6 and 235 pounds. He converted two years at Northern Iowa Area CC into a big 2019 junior campaign at Dallas Baptist. There, he put up monster numbers — .325 average, 1.057 OPS and 18 home runs, highlighted by a three-home run game and a six-game home run streak. The Braves took him in the 24th round and he spent his first 41 games as a pro in Danville which wasn’t fair to the young pitchers as he belted 13 home runs with a 1.086 OPS in 145 at bats. A promotion to Rome saw little difference: Ball slugged four home runs in 21 games, hitting .337 with a .913 OPS.
There is a ton to like. Obviously, throughout the rebuild, the Braves haven’t had (or needed really) a true first base prospect, and Ball is that and pretty much that alone unless the DH comes to the National League. His hit tool seems for real, as he’s shown the ability to make contact, and he has big power and the ability to draw walks while limiting the strikeouts to a pretty decent percentage everywhere he’s been. The strikeouts were a little higher than usual in Rome, which could be concerning or simply the signs of a long season. Looking at his splits shows that — although the bulk of his power comes against righties — he can handle both righties and lefties seemingly just fine, hitting the ball to all fields relatively well.
There are always some reservations with mature bats like Ball exploding on the younger, inexperienced pitching of the lower levels of the minor leagues, and that’s why Ball isn’t higher on our list. His limitations in the field are hopefully improving after an offseason spent in instructs to focus on just that. His swing seems simple enough, and the contact is hard, so hopefully the Braves found a diamond in the rough that continues his offensive onslaught up the ladder.