Ladies and gentlemen, we have made it to the end. This is the final installment of the Talking Chop Preseason Top 30 Braves Prospect List. Every time, this is a grand undertaking and while at the end we are all quite tired, we know how much our readers here enjoy these lists and that, in itself, is worth all of the work.
I do want to take a minute and thank my staff on the minor league side that makes all of this prospect/minor league content happen. Despite all of the thankless work and negativity that can exist online, these guys still bust their butts constantly to not only do the fun stuff like big flagship projects/event, but also the nuts and bolts stuff that is what sets Talking Chop’s minor league coverage ahead of others. The grind of recapping minor league games every single day in the season is a real grind, but these guys nail it and have a passion for minor league coverage that you will struggle to find anywhere else. So to Garrett, Wayne, Doc, Aaron, Matt, and Gaurav...thank you for making this and everything else possible. You guys are the best.
Now, with that out of the way, some of you out there may have waited until the very end of this series to get caught up on the top 30. To make that task a little easier, below are links to all of the previous installments. If you want to know how the list was put together in terms of the process, etc....make sure to read the 25-30 section where we outline all of the rules and whatnot.
Now, without any more delays, your tantric wait is over. Enjoy the top six prospects, according to us anyways, in the Braves farm system.
6.) William Contreras - C
A spring training favorite to make that next step as a prospect heading into 2019, William Contreras faced his first real test with adversity as he struggled at the plate while compiling a .692 OPS in High-A ball thanks to a slugging percentage that sat at .368. While elite power isn’t necessarily his thing, thanks to a swing that is built for line drive / gap power, you does expect more out of him thanks in large part to his fantastic season in Rome last year. In 50 games with Florida this past year, Contreras hit .263/.324/.368 with a 106 wRC+, and what’s crazy is you actually associate that with a bad season because you know how good William can be with the bat. That being said, no shine lost as him as it’s rare to have someone as athletic as he is that also calls a great game behind the plate, has a fantastic arm, and by all accounts works well with his pitchers.
Now entering his fifth season as a professional baseball player (four full seasons), William looks to rebound from a tough end of 2019 (90 wRC+, .647 OPS in 60 games with Double-A Mississippi) and reestablish himself as the top catching prospect in the Braves organization. Behind the plate William has all the tools to be an elite defensive catcher - showcased by his 48% CS% in 2019. If William is able to put it all together in 2020 there’s a good chance he’s knocking at the door waiting to get that call up to Atlanta. If not, and if Shea Langeliers continues to improve at the plate and with calling games, it is entirely possible (if not likely) that Contreras will fall behind him on the catching depth chart in the minors for us.
5.) Kyle Muller - LHP
One thing you can say about Kyle Muller is that the guy does not know when to quit. He’s the type of player that is easy to root for cause he’s such a hard worker. There were high expectations when he was drafted in the 2nd round back in 2016. After a disappointing 2017 where he threw less than 50 innings and reports of a velocity dip, he decided to do something about it and signed up with Driveline. Slowly, he’s built up his arm strength from topping out at 92 mph in 2016 to a max of 98 in 2019. Who knows where he’ll be in 2020 with another offseason with Driveline.
And not just because 99 is pretty tight, but here's where Muller's velo has been previously:— Sam Briend (@SBriend97) March 8, 2019
2016: avg 89.5 top 92.2
2017: avg 90.7 top 94.3
2018: avg 92.2 top 96.5
He came out in winter of 2017 and has relentlessly worked to get better. Nice to see it paying off in big ways. pic.twitter.com/LNg9vplRXq
So we know about the development in his velocity, so let’s take a look at his other pitches. His 2-8 curve flashes plus, but the change is still a work in progress where it flashes average. With the velocity difference in all three pitches, he can really keep hitters off balance as evident by a spike in his strikeout rate from around 8.5 K/9 in 2018 to 9.67 K/9 in 2019. Getting back to the fastball, it’s a real heavy pitch and though Muller is a flyball pitcher, he did an excellent job of keeping the home runs to a minimum as he gave up just five in 111 innings for a 0.40 HR/9. In the heart of the season, Muller had a stretch of where he pitched into the 6th inning in 13 of 18 starts. In 2018, he made it to the 6th inning in 15 of his starts. He’s got that big strong body of an innings workhorse. As he matures and decreases the walk rate, he could easily pitch deeper into games and is someone that could throw 200 innings in a season.
As expected, not everything was positive. Being able to harness his new power came with some side effects. His walk rate spiked to 14.5%. There isn’t a history of major control issues, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Muller is a also fiery competitor, but there are times when he lets his emotions affect his pitching. There were multiple instances where Muller would walk a batter and then give up a double to the next hitter. When he’s got that runner on base he looks to try and overpower the next hitter instead of trying to get a double play ball. He also missed over a month due to a calf strain. Thankfully Muller does not have a history of injuries, but missing a month due to injury was still unfortunate and would hurt anyone’s development.
All signs are pointing up for Muller. It’s going to be exciting to see how he progresses in 2020. He should start in Gwinnett, but it wouldn’t be surprising for him to start back in AA to show he’s got the walks in check. Tucker Davidson is another Braves prospect that goes to Driveline. He’s working on developing a cutter or sinker. I’d honestly love to see Muller come out this year with a new pitch, perhaps a slider/sinker in addition to improving his control and further development the change.
4.) Kyle Wright - RHP
Kyle Wright had the most disappointing 2019 season overall of any of the Braves’s top tier prospects, but a late season resurgence changed the tune of his narrative and has him back on the rise again. Wright was one of the Braves’ marquee draftees and signees of the rebuild, going fifth overall in 2017 and commanding a then-record $7 million signing bonus. He hasn’t quite lived up to that early in his career, but the keen of memory will note that he was always expected to be a bit slower on the move than most college arms. Wright’s 2018 season, his first full one in the Braves system was a good move in the right direction for him as he posted a 3.46 ERA over 138 innings and got a taste of the major leagues with six innings. 2019 was expected to be another huge leap forwards for Wright, and in many ways it was while in others it wasn’t. Wright’s time in the major leagues in 2019 was simply disastrous, as he posted an 8.69 ERA and 6.16 FIP over 19 2⁄3 innings. He struggled to find the strike zone and to limit hard contact, and this was a pattern that was prevalent through the first half of the minor league season as well.
The first nine games for Wright with the Gwinnett Stripers saw him allow a 7.22 ERA and while his walk rates were significantly diminished from the previous season he didn’t miss many bats and struggled in the high run environment of the 2019 International League. Then, a switch seemed to flip around mid June and the Wright that dominated the SEC roared to life. Over the final 10 starts of his season he went 7-0 for the Stripers and posted a 2.59 ERA with 70 strikeouts to 18 walks over 62 innings in one of the toughest offensive environments in the minor leagues for pitchers that was Triple-A in 2019. Wright showed that when he is on his game, he can be a true ace of a staff. He finished off his season with a short relief stint in Atlanta and allowed one run over three innings with four strikeouts and no walks.
There’s not many reasons Kyle Wright shouldn’t be at least a decent major league pitcher at this point, but yet he’s been absolutely awful in his short stints in the major leagues and it is the one thing most holding back his prospect status at this phase. Wright’s value will continue to degrade if he stays in the minors because there’s nothing left to prove against minor league hitters. He is better than Triple-A batters and now he just needs a chance to do his work in Atlanta and has to execute for full starts and not just in short stretches. One of the things worth mentioning is that Wright hasn’t gotten a chance to get comfortable in Atlanta and a longer stint may benefit him so that he can get his reps in and settle into a role.
Wright has a mid 90’s fastball with both a two seam and four seam grip, both of which feature spin rates in the 75th percentile range, but both have been the bane of his existence as a professional. Wright’s fastball has gotten hit hard in the major leagues and at times in the minors, but during his stretch of good play in Gwinnett his command took a leap forward and that made all the difference for getting him to his secondaries where he is absolutely dominant. Wright has an easy plus slider that is a go to out pitch at any level and when he gets an opportunity to use it it has been his best weapon. In his limited major league experience in 2019 batters posted a .036 batting average and .095 wOBA off of the slider and this aligns with the scouting we’ve seen at the minor league level. The curveball is about a half step behind the curveball and we shouldn’t expect it to be a main offering in his arsenal, but it provides him a change of level pitch and gives the hitters two break planes to think about when they get to his offspeed stuff. When the rare day comes and the slider doesn’t work Wright’s curveball is still an above average major league option and it gives him the flexibility to go to that pitch as a main offspeed offering when needed. The changeup for Wright is inconsistent and can get hit pretty hard, but is another aspect of his game that took a strong step in the right direction at the end of the season.
For Wright, there is no question of talent, stuff, pitchability, or health. He’s a prototype on the mound, but for his command which can inexplicably shut off. When he’s locating his pitches, he’s a top three pitching prospect in the minor leagues, but he is prone to not just innings or games but whole months of time where he just cannot find his location. The walks don’t always show up in the final box score, but the hits and home runs do and this inconsistency is what holds him back from being a clear top pitcher in this system. This is a fact the Braves knew of Wright when they drafted him, and is one they’ve worked hard to fix and they finally got that longest stretch of success at the end of the season last year. If that next step can be taken and his command rounds into form on a consistent basis. then there’s not much stopping Wright from being a top of the rotation arm that could end up competing for Cy Young awards (although that is a lofty, lofty outcome). He is a crazy talented guy and he may just click for the Braves in year three and take over with Mike Soroka and Max Fried as one of the most talented young trios in the major leagues.
3.) Drew Waters - OF
Drew Waters would be the bell cow in most farm systems, as he is regularly ranked in the top half of most league-wide prospect lists. As it stands currently, due to some stiff competition, Waters comes in third for the Braves. Thus far, he has lived up to the hype that preceded him coming out of Etowah HS in Woodstock, Georgia, and some might say he has even surpassed it. Coming off his eye-opening 2018, his 2019 was equally impressive, winning the Southern League MVP (despite only playing there for ¾ of the season), and slashing .309/.360/.459 with 40 doubles, nine triples, seven home runs, 132 wRC+, and a .368 wOBA. He even took time to steal 16 bases. He wound up as a 20-year-old playing in AAA. Not bad, kid.
He turned 21 just before the turn of the year, so there is still some projection left for him and the power is expected to come along with that even though it may come at the expense of a bit of his speed. As it stands now, 56 extra base hits in 134 games is still a solid showing, and some of those doubles and triples will start to go over the fence. The biggest knock on Waters right now would be the strikeouts, which escalated from 2018 to last year, and particularly during his time with Gwinnett (36.1 K%). Waters can be a bit trigger happy at the plate and his selectiveness comes and goes, so he still needs to be more particular about when to use his aggressiveness.
Another thing to monitor about Waters is, strangely enough, his luck. His batting average on balls in play in 2019 was .435. His BABIP since joining the organization is .401. He has never played at a level where his BABIP was lower than .362. Granted, part of this is because Waters is a line drive machine, and not all of his success was based on luck. Also, some hitters prove themselves able to sustain higher than average BABIPs for their entire careers. It is arguably too soon to classify Waters one way or the other, but as the sample size grows, so too will our confidence in the ability to project him upwards.
2.) Ian Anderson - RHP
Coming in at number two on our preseason top 30, we have right-handed pitcher Ian Anderson who may finally get to show his stuff with the big league club this season. Drafted third overall by the Braves in 2016 in what was a really well-executed draft strategy by John Coppolella, Brian Bridges, and co. that essentially landed the team three first rounders thanks to a strong use of their draft bonus pool, Anderson features a strong three pitch mix with a fastball that gets good late movement, a changeup which has rapidly turned into his second best offering, and a curveball that hasn’t developed much (if at all) since he was drafted but is still an average offering that occasionally flashes above average. Anderson has been fantastic since the Braves drafted him and last year was no exception. In 21 starts for Double-A Misssissippi, Ian posted a 2.68 ERA in 111 innings while striking out 11.92 batters per 9 while there. When he is on, he is essentially unhittable...in fact, he threw seven no hit innings back in June where he also struck out 14 batters in arguably one of the best pitching performances we have seen in the minor leagues here at Talking Chop.
There are some concerns with Ian, although some of them could end up being short-lived. His spin rates are not the greatest which, for more analytical driven folks, could be a red flag as he debuts in the major leagues although it is hard to argue with the results he has gotten during his major league career. It also helps to have a changeup that he has really developed to keep batters honest in situations where he doesn’t get that movement that a higher spin rate could yield. His command also completely left him during his late season call-up to Gwinnett which saw his walk rate jump up to 6.57 batters per nine while showing a decreased strikeout rate (both of these are extremely small samples to be fair). One does wonder if the different baseball that is used in Triple-A and the major leagues is suited to how Ian pitches and/or if he can make the necessary adjustments to it. It would hardly be surprising to see him struggle bit with a ball with different physical properties, so hopefully with a good bit of work this offseason, he can adjust accordingly.
The ultimate question is when will we see Ian in the major leagues. On the surface, he is a guy with three pitches with two of them consistently plus a third that could flash plus if he could get it back to form. Given the Braves’ needs in their rotation, Ian will get a shot at a starting job in spring training even though the guys who are already on the 40 man roster will have a leg up in that competition. However, if he struggles with is command during spring, we may have to wait a bit longer to see if he can harness his impressive arsenal down in Triple-A. How long that could hypothetically take is anyone’s guess.
1.) Cristian Pache - OF
We have arrived at the summit of our top 30 list and, to the surprise of essentially no one, that player is outfielder Cristian Pache. Pache was our unanimous number #1 pick (which is rare to have everyone on the same page on a guy) due to his high floor, extremely high ceiling, and the type of athleticism that one can dream about. Signed out of the Dominican Republic back in 2015, Pache could have essentially played whatever sport he wanted to with his raw athleticism and it is likely that whatever he chose to focus on, he could have been great at it. In addition to be a 70 runner, he has above average to maybe plus raw power (the grade is definitely lower for game power), and he is also the best defensive centerfielder in the minor leagues and the day he debuts in the major leagues, he will be among the best defensive centerfielders in the game with great instincts, quick routes, and a really strong arm when he sets and throws (his off balance and back foot throws are less good).
Pache has been a player of steady improvement rather than having any true breakout season, and that consistent progression has pushed him up the system to Triple-A Gwinnett at age 20. Pache began his career with questions regarding what was a very awkward swing at the plate, but as he’s made adjustments and developed a strong base all of his offensive tools has taken steps forward. The batted ball skills have never been in question for Pache as he’s one of the better pure hitters in the system when it comes to making contact. Pache struggled in the past as a player whose major weakness was his plate discipline but he’s quickly shown maturity there and his walk rates hit a career high 8.6% in Gwinnett. It’s rare to see a player get better in that facet as they move up the ladder, but Pache did just that. His power grade has made huge leaps each year as he has begun to drive the ball more and in 104 games in the Southern League he managed a .196 ISO, which is incredibly impressive given that run environment. Pache had his struggles in Triple-A soon after his promotion, which was not unexpected for a player his age, but the adjustments came quickly and he found himself finishing off the season on a 14 game span hitting .365/.400/.596 with nine extra base hits.
Pache’s performance at the end of 2019 brings up the question of whether he has the ability to make the major league team out of camp this year. While we believe Pache could hold his own at the major league level and his defense would make up enough for him to still be an above average player, the Braves are going to be as patient as possible and will want to see even more success in Triple-A at the plate. Pache is one of only a few players in the minor leagues who has true superstar potential, and while that performance from the offensive end will still be a few years away from his peak as he continues to make all of his adjustments, his defensive production will make him one of the young stars of the game when he gets his opportunity, especially if he can learn to utilize his impressive speed on the basepaths better (he gets caught stealing WAY more than a guy as fast as he is should). One only wonders how close to his really impressive ceiling he can get.