It’s that time again, folks, as you can join us here at Talking Chop over the next six days as we unveil our top 30 prospects. We have a few surprises in store this season and as always the format stays the same. We took a group of our minor league panelists, who you will see in the byline of upcoming articles, and we each made individual lists which were composited into a top 30. We’ll be starting off with an honorable mentions list of five notable players who just missed our list but will be certainly worth keeping an eye on this season.
Greg Cullen was easily among the least hyped prospects on this system, coming to the Braves out of Niagara University where he led the NCAA’s Division I in hitting in 2018 with a .458 batting average. This prompted Atlanta to select him in the 15th round of that year’s draft, and he’s done nothing but rake since being drafted. He has a .387 on base percentage over his two seasons in the minor leagues, and his .393 OBP in 2019 put him fifth in the South Atlantic League. The big knock there is that Cullen is significantly older than his competition at that level, and was one of the victims of the Braves’s reluctance to promote players to High-A Florida.
Cullen is going to have to rely on his hit tool to progress through the system, but fortunately his does show the potential to play at the major league level. Cullen is a patient hitter who keeps strikeouts down and will draw his walks, though it will be a question if he can maintain that as pitchers typically will attack hitters like Cullen more at higher levels leading to diminished walk rates. Cullen doesn’t provide much in the way of power potential and is likely limited to second base and corner outfield spots on the defensive end, though he does field his position well. Cullen is a decent runner and it plays well in the infield, but he isn’t a blazing runner and won’t make up value with stolen bases. 2020 will be a pivotal year for Cullen, as a trip to Double-A is going to tell us more about his potential once he is able to face more experienced competition.
Jared Johnson joins this group as the player with the biggest potential to rise up on our prospect lists as more looks at him on the professional level combined with what we know his raw tools to be will have an impact on his stock come season’s end. Johnson was a bit of a pop up prospect for the draft and the Braves snatched him up in the 14th round in the 2019 draft and made him one of their larger overslot picks with a $257K bonus. Johnson’s professional debut was promising as he posted a 3.52 ERA with twelve strikeouts to four walks in 15 1⁄3 innings in the Gulf Coast League. After playing against poor competition in high school, Johnson is just another we hope to see more against better opposition.
The physical tools for the young pitcher are obvious, as he can come out with a fastball up to 97 mph out of a 6’3, 215 pound frame. Combine this with a slider that has shown above average potential and it’s easy to see why he was more than worth taking a chance on out of the 14th round. Johnson is a bit of a late bloomer and is raw, so it should be expected that his timeline is going to be a bit more extended as he gets more experience and learns to pitch. Like most pitchers at this level, developing a changeup will be the biggest step he needs to take, and he is even further behind than most at this point though his lack of experience gives him more potential to be molded by the Braves development staff.
Morton is the second of four 2019 draftees on this list and the lowest drafted of the four, but the Braves believed in him enough to drop a $450K signing bonus on him in the 19th round. Morton’s debut wasn’t what anybody wanted, as he struggled with a .529 OPS and a strikeout rate of nearly 40%, but he is another that the Braves will just have to wait a bit on. Morton was a two sport athlete in high school and as such may not have the same amount of experience as his peers, but what he does possess is athleticism in spades.
Our own Matt Powers said of Morton “There may be no higher upside player in the draft class” and that potential is what Atlanta shelled out 4th round money for. Morton can run and stick out in center field, he’s a strong young hitter who has the potential for 20+ home run power, and he has an arm that also made him an intriguing prospect on the mound as well. Morton doesn’t have the experience to hit professional pitching as of this moment, but he hasn’t been embarrassed at the plate and shows the zone recognition and plate discipline to be able to improve that tool. He will be a slow riser through the system, but he’s one of those players you can dream on being a star if everything in the toolbox comes together.
Joey Estes is another of the Braves’s big bonus late round picks, receiving the second highest of their bonuses after round 10 with a $500k signing bonus. Estes struggled in his professional debut with an 8.10 ERA and almost as many walks as strikeouts, but it’s also worth noting that he was young even for the draft class. Estes didn’t turn 18 until a month after the Gulf Coast League season ended and that made him a bit more intriguing as a draft prospect.
Estes is one of the rare players that come out of high school with four pitches, though like many, the changeup didn’t factor much in his high school arsenal. He is led off by a fastball that runs up to 95 mph, and he has the frame and the athleticism that he could add a tick or two as he matures. His best secondary pitch and maybe best pitch overall is the slider, a low 80’s offering that bites away from right handers and has the potential to be his go-to for swinging strikes. He also mixes in a mid-70’s curveball to round it out and that has the potential to be an average offering. Estes has quiet mechanics and has shown a decent feel for pitching, so while command is not one of his current strong suits it is one facet that you can believe he will improve on. Estes is not going to be one of those overpowering arms that draws your attention, but with a well rounded arsenal, athleticism, and his pitchability he could become an intriguing option down the road.
Paolini is, honestly, a guy we’re trusting in the Braves scouts to be right on. There’s not a ton of information out of Paolini as he played at a smaller high school in a cold weather town. Atlanta took a chance on him in the fifth round and went well over slot value to sign him to the highest bonus of any of their high school picks in 2019 at $600K. Paolini’s GCL debut was shaky at best as he hit just .192/.315/.242, but with him coming from a cold weather city, it’s likely he doesn’t yet have the experience against better competition and you could see vast improvement after he spends a year in extended spring training. Paolini did show that he can take walks, and the strikeout rate of 25.9% is bad but not egregious, so there are definite positives to take from his professional debut.
Paolini is another athleticism pick with a 6’2 frame that shows power potential from the left side and speed to burn out in center field. His swing is tooled up for power and he has the physical tools to develop, and rookie league power numbers (well, most numbers) are useless in predicting where a player will end up so his lack of production shouldn’t be concerning. Paolini can play all three outfield positions, which will be very valuable in a system that seems to have at least two outfield spots locked down for the foreseeable future, and he shows an above average eye at the plate. If the bat comes around and he can make consistent contact Paolini is a player that will rocket up the system list, but for now he is a player that everyone just needs to see more of to know what they really have.