Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first installment of the 2020 Talking Chop Top 30 Braves Prospects List: Preseason 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 to make adjustments based on what we are hearing and seeing. Before we get into the actual names and rankings, here are some things you all need to know about how we do things:
- Our top 30 is derived from a composite of all of the personal rankings from the Talking Chop minor league crew (this time, that includes Eric Cole, Garrett Spain, Matt Powers, Wayne Cavadi, Doc Herbert, Aaron Huston, and Gaurav Vedak). After we all get our personal rankings together, we make a composite of said list, and then we double check to make sure that nothing appears to be super wonky. An important note for our rankings: we dropped the highest and lowest rankings for each player before calculating their composite ranking to try and remove outlier rankings that have, at times, led to some less than desirable results in the past. With all of the turnover on the list in the past season or so, we just wanted to make sure the resulting composite was as consistent as possible and lessen the influence of outlier rankings.
- We loosely use the MLB rookie eligibility requirements to see who is and who isn’t eligible for the list, although we are completely fine with removing a guy if he is relatively close to losing eligibility and has an established role in the major leagues (we did this with Dansby Swanson in the past and elsewhere). This wasn’t a big deal this year as no one was super close to the requirement, although that could change at midseason with both Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson halfway to losing rookie eligibility already.
- These are just our rankings and each one of us is different. Depending on who you are talking to, you will get differing opinions on what we like and don’t like in prospects and that is absolutely okay. If you are looking for an overriding philosophy present in our list, you are unlikely to find one other than we all talk to each other a lot and that all of our rankings are very fluid. There are those that will be bold and rank lottery ticket prep guys highly while others weigh proximity and sample size more, etc. etc. That is just the nature of the game and having those variances in opinions is good and allows for players of all types to get discussed.
- Don’t get hung up on specific ranking spots. If one guy is ranked 13th and another is 12th for example, it is likely that there were some that had those guys flipped in their personal rankings and it is even more likely that we don’t see a huge difference between those two players. It is best to think of our list in terms of tiers... not hard and fast rankings. Same goes for guys that were in the honorable mentions and didn’t make the top 30. We have to draw the line somewhere, but it isn’t like those guys have zero chance of ever being big leaguers or even being on the list at midseason.
- Like all things with prospects, these rankings are subject to change and they do, in fact, change quite a bit. This is more of a snapshot of this moment in time than anything. Guys improve and regress and when they do, we alter our thinking. Prospect development is not a linear path... so prospect rankings shouldn’t be either. If you think a guy is turning a corner or over-ranked based on his recent performance, check back when we do the next list rather than try to set us on fire in the comments section. It is likely you will be happier that way.
- Be kind and understand that just because you hold a different opinion doesn’t mean you need to yell/cuss/place a voodoo curse on us. Prospect rankings seem to really get folks in their feelings at times when, in reality, they are just a fun thought exercise that mean very little in the grand scheme of things. We are proud of the work we do on these, but none of us think we have all of the answers and it is really interesting to see how our rankings change as well as seeing when we are right or wrong. I am famously pretty intolerant of folks being jerks... so be one at your own risk.
In case you missed it, Garrett Spain continued his tradition of doing quick write-ups of several honorable mentions that did not quite make it on to our list this time. If you want to give that a read, you can just click right here.
Without further delay, here are the first six prospects of the preseason top 30 prospects which has a healthy mix of familiar faces as well as new ones.
30.) Riley Delgado - SS/INF
For the past two seasons, Riley Delgado has been hovering at the back end of the Talking Chop’s top 30 lists. Even MLB Pipeline has him ranked at 24 for their 2019 midseason list and he was also a player that was noticed by Chipper Jones. These are some positives for a player that was a complete unknown heading into the 2017 draft. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we know exactly the type of player that Delgado is and what he isn’t.
After a breakout campaign in 2018, expectations were suddenly on the rise for the nondescript Delgado. However, what we saw at the end of 2018, where he played 44 games in High-A, is what we got in 2019. Due to the lack of hitters that Braves put in High-A, Delgado batted 2nd in the order so he was able to accumulate over 500 at bats and put up a slash line of .282/.324/.323. Despite that, he still ended the season with a 95 wRC+ due to a lack of power and struggles with drawing walks and isn’t exactly what you want to see from a player that’s essentially repeating High-A. It speaks volumes knowing the Braves don’t like to leave their top prospects in the Florida State League for very long. That isn’t to say it’s all gloomy for Delgado. For one, he lowered his strikeout rate to a career low 7.7%. He just knows how to make contact and can use the entire field. He is also very talented out in the field as he played at 3B, SS and 2B all the while playing really good defense.
There’s definitely some value for Riley Delgado as someone that you can count on to make contact at the plate and play good defense all over the infield. If Delgado wants to improve his chances of getting promoted, he’s going to have to show a bit more power or at least walk more (5.1% BB rate in 2019). In a game that’s all about making adjustments, it would be nice to see Delgado finally make some with the bat. He’ll be 24 years old for the entire season next year, so he still has time to figure some things out and prove Chipper was right about him.
29.) Greyson Jenista - OF/1B
A pretty highly regarded bat first OF/1B out of Wichita State, Greyson Jenista, hasn’t seen the success as fast as some might had hoped. Blessed with 60 grade raw power, an above average arm, and solid speed - the results just haven’t been there for Greyson who is coming off a rough stint at Double-A Mississippi hitting .243/.324/.338. The OBP continued to be his leading tool as he did walk at a good rate - 10.5%. With major overhauls to his swing - Greyson’s ISO dropped down to .095, well under what you would want to see from a bat of his capability. His showing in limited playing time down in the AFL did little to think that those improvements are imminent, but it is easy to forget that 2019 was Jenista’s first full season of pro ball.
You love the possibilities with Greyson - a surprisingly agile runner despite his size, and great raw power from the left side. The Braves will do everything they can to let him develop which can be seen by the mechanical adjustments he made coming into last seasons’ campaign. The numbers from 2019 while not great, weren’t too important, but now entering his third year in professional baseball after playing in college, 2020 is an extremely important one for Greyson. If he shows improvement with his hit tool and maintains a 10-11% walk rate while showcasing some of that power he displayed in college then Greyson will shoot up the rankings.
28.) Kasey Kalich - RHP
Kasey Kalich, a surprise 2019 fourth rounder out of Texas A&M, is a hard-throwing righty who profiles as a late inning reliever. His brief time at A&M saw him post a 13.5 K/9 rate in his sophomore season, and a high-spin fastball/slider combo that surely jived with the Braves’ organization’s still nascent fascination with analytics. Given his age and the competition he was facing in the SEC, it makes sense that he would excel once he hit the lower levels of the Braves farm and he did. During his limited post-draft tenure with Rome, Kalich posted a sparkling 1.31 ERA | 2.81 FIP, alongside a 9.58 K/9 rate. Although his walk rate (4.35 BB/9) appears high at first glance, a deeper dive into the numbers show a strong finish for Kalich - he walked five over his last 16 ⅓ innings (10 appearances), and posted a 0.67 WHIP over that same span. He did not allow a home run in the 21 ⅔ innings he threw for the Braves.
After pitching 34 innings during the college season, Kalich was used judiciously after being drafted, being used every four or five days and gradually working up to two-inning stints. There should be no restrictions on him for 2020, and based on his short but effective time in the Braves system thus far, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see him touch Gwinnett by the end of the season.
27.) Philip Pfeifer - LHP
If you wanted to take bets at the beginning of the 2019 season on a player that we expected to eventually feature on the 2020 top 30 prospects list, it is unlikely that Philip Pfeifer would have been picked. Don’t get us wrong, he absolutely has the pedigree to have made a case in the past. A former 3rd round pick out of Vanderbilt back in 2015, the Braves snagged Pfeifer from the Dodgers (along with Caleb Dirks) in the deal that sent Bud Norris and the mythic Dian Toscano out of town back in 2016 (man, time flies). However, despite having an intriguing fastball/curve/changeup mix with some arm side run on his fastball and his breaking ball best when he is throwing it a little harder, Pfeifer struggled mightily as a reliever in the Braves minor league system. The biggest issue: walks...and a lot of them. In 2017, Pfeifer walked 42 batters in 59.1 IP (against 77 strikeouts) and in 2018, he walked 40 batters in 55 innings (with 52 strikeouts which was a noticeable dip).
However, the Braves and Pfeifer both thought that since being a reliever was not working out, but that he still seemed to be a guy that had some talent in his arm, that they would give starting a shot and that turned out splendidly for him. Pfeifer started the season in High-A Florida and blasted his way all the way back to Triple-A thanks to a big reduction in his walk rate and a return to form when it came to swings and misses. In 133.1 innings in 2019 (more than double is previous career high as a pro), Pfeifer walked 42 batters which effectively cut his walk rate by more than half while striking out 159 batters.
It is fair to say that even though Pfeifer’s ascent was remarkable in 2019, tempering ones expectations is going to be important here. Pfeifer is already 27 years old so we aren’t necessarily talking about a guy that is going to turn into a rotation stalwart for the next 10 seasons. However, for the first time since his early days with the Braves organization, Pfeifer looks like a guy that belongs in the major leagues and explains why the Braves added him to their 40 man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Whether that is as a starter where he has a ton of competition or as a long reliever which, given his track record, may not suit his approach as well remains to be seen.
26.) Hayden Deal - LHP
At number 26 (which is exactly where we had him on our midseason update from 2019), we have LHP Hayden Deal who has fashioned himself into a very viable, if somewhat low ceiling, starting pitching prospect. Deal was an undrafted free agent back in 2017 who was brought on board primarily due to the work of Braves scout Billy Best. From the Carolinas, Deal is a Presbyterian College alum and despite being from a small school, has pitch mix that could play as either a starter or a reliever. He features an arsenal that includes a low 90’s fastball, a decent breaking ball, and, most importantly, a very good cutter (somewhere between a 55-60 on the scouting scale). Deal started his pro career as a reliever and only made five starts for Rome during the 2018 season. This past year, the Braves saw his performance in Rome and decided to transition him to starter with good results. In the first half of 2019, Deal posted a 1.88 ERA with 57 strikeouts and 16 walks in 67 innings. The second half was not nearly as kind as his numbers dipped to a 4.99 ERA with slight dips in his strikeout and walk rates as he surpassed his career high for innings in a season.
Deal has intrigued us for a while now, enough that we even wrote him up early on this past season as his use of a cutter gives him a unique weapon against righty batters. Deal’s age (he’ll be 25 for all of the 2020 season) doesn’t give him all the time in the world to develop as a starter in the minors and that he is in high-A makes this all the more daunting. Even if he doesn’t work out as a starter or needs to move more quickly for roster reasons, he has the experience and stuff to be an asset in the bullpen as well where his cutter could play up in shorter stints. The second half numbers were a bit of a bummer, but he also threw 50+ innings more than he ever had as a professional and his BABIP against him did spike a bit after the All-Star break as well....so he had a couple of things going against him that may not be the case going forward. Expect to see him at Double-A in 2020 where his unique arsenal will be put to the test.
25.) Alex Jackson - C
Jackson is down two spots from our last ranking of 2019, and it may be more to do with familiarity than anything Jackson did or did not do. It’s hard to believe Jackson is only 24 after hearing about the prospect with the raw power since 2014, so there is still some time for Jackson to become... well, something.
The right-handed slugger is set to begin his third go-round in Gwinnett after the Braves signed Travis d’Arnaud and brought back Tyler Flowers for another year. That should say where the Braves stand on their thoughts of Jackson, who will likely see time in 2020 as the closest catching prospect to the majors.
We know the story with Jackson by now. He’s a man of monster power, and took advantage of the ball in Triple-A in 2019 with a career-high 28 home runs on an also-career-high .304 ISO. There is no worry about the home runs, but the question comes about what he does in his other at-bats. Jackson has a career on-base percentage of .317 and strikes out just under 30 percent of the time. He’s not exactly known for contact. The only hit he got in his 13 at-bat MLB debut in 2019 was off his elbow, striking out five times in those 13 hitless at-bats.
Behind the plate, Jackson has a cannon and an accurate one at that, throwing out 25 of 50 attempted base stealers. Pitchers seem to like working with him, but back-to-back seasons of double-digit passed balls are worrisome, although almost everybody will tell you his receiving skills are vastly improved since he moved back behind the plate after coming to the Braves in 2017. Jackson is reliable depth which is exactly why he is on the 40 man roster already and if he can become a little more consistent with the hit tool — a big if at this point — Braves fans can feel confident with AJax as a reliable backup.