Welcome to the Talking Chop 2021 Preseason Top 30 Braves Prospects list. It’s good to be talking about minor league baseball again. Each year we seek to rank prospects as a staff knowing that in a few months...we are going to laugh/cringe at our placements. It is just the nature of the beast, but a fun thought exercise nonetheless. If you missed the first couple of posts, here are some links so you can get caught up.
This next installment features a bunch of familiar names if you have been following us at Talking Chop or, at the very least, been keeping tabs on the minors for the last couple of years. We hope you enjoy it and we will see you with 13-18 tomorrow!
24.) Jeremy Walker - RHP
Walker’s transformation from mediocre starter to a MLB bullpen asset in 2019 was one of the nice Atlanta Braves prospect stories of the season. After missing all of 2020 with a shoulder injury, we may be back to square one.
Walker was part of the 2016 MLB draft class that landed the Braves Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Muller. The 6’5 righty out of Gardner-Webb split time in the Danville rotation and bullpen upon signing before joining the rotation full-time in Rome for the 2017 season. There — and in Florida the following season — he failed to dazzle, posting middling strikeout rates and lackluster ERAs. With the aforementioned names surging up the prospect charts, Walker got lost in the shuffle.
He had a bit of a herky-jerkiness to his delivery as a starter, but was more refined in his conversion to the bullpen in 2019. Walker was able to focus on his sinker and curveball and saw his strikeout rate increase, walk rate return to its normally low rate and also return to the extreme ground ball pitcher he was earlier in his career. He made it all the way to the big leagues that season and was rather impressive in his small sample size posting a 1.93 ERA (albeit a 3.21 FIP) and stranding 84.6 percent of baserunners.
Walker will be 25 on opening day. We don’t know where he will be as a pitcher, now on the shelf for an entire season with the shoulder injury. However, there is plenty that we’ve seen that suggests he could be a solid contributor out of the pen as soon as he’s healthy.
23.) Patrick Weigel - RHP
Patrick Weigel has been a fixture on Talking Chop rankings ever since the 2016 season. The Braves took Weigel in the seventh round of the 2015 draft and he got everyone’s attention in a 2016 season that saw him destroy low-A competition with a fastball that approached 100 mph and being seen as a real weapon in the future for the Braves’ rotation. Unfortunately, Weigel had a setback as he had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2017 which brings us to the 2019 season.
The Braves limited his innings in 2019 and he looked to be on the road to recovery. However, we did notice that the fastball did not have the same pop or movement post-surgery and his breaking ball was in the same boat. The numbers were fine in 2019 with a 2.73 ERA, but the strikeouts were less prevalent as he made it to Triple-A and the walks, particularly the quality of the walks, left something to be desired. Again, he was coming off a major injury so drawing too many conclusions from a carefully managed season after his rehab is not advised.
However, we flash forward to 2020 and despite the fact that he has been on the 40 man roster and the Braves were in DESPERATE need for starting pitching last season....Patrick did not get a single opportunity to start. He did finally make his much deserved major league debut in a forgettable relief appearance where his usage by the Braves was suspect, but beyond that...he wasn’t given much of a chance to get a roster spot. Keeping that in mind along with the fact that he will turn 27 next summer, we are having a lot of trouble seeing a path forward for Weigel as a starting pitching prospect. We suspect that the Braves view him as a reliever or, at the very least, as far enough behind other starting pitching prospects that playing time in the rotation is going to be a very tough. That impacts his value as a prospect a good bit and explains his drop on our rankings. We want to be wrong here as we have been big Weigel fans for a while now, but based on the available information we have...his value is trending in the wrong direction.
22.) Philip Pfeifer - LHP
We wrote at the beginning of last year that Philip Pfeifer is in the organization because of his versatility as it relates to being able to play different roles in the minors and that he wasn’t really much of a prospect. He took that as fuel to make me, Gaurav, eat my words and turn in an absolutely amazing 2019 campaign that really carves him a nice path to the majors.
Philip started the year in High-A ball at Florida where he appeared in 16 games, 14 starts, and had a 10.76 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, and compiled a 3.23 ERA and 2.72 FIP. He was promoted to Mississippi where he appeared in 11 games and had a 9.53 K/9, 4.24 BB/9, 2.38 ERA, and 3.45 FIP. He finished the season with a well-earned promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett where he appeared in just three games, all from the bullpen, and proceeded to strike out 16 per 9 innings, with a 2.45 ERA, and 3.08 FIP. So after five years of providing solid organizational depth for the Dodgers then the Braves, Philip begins 2021 with a real chance of making a major league team. His role is clear - multi-inning reliever with a four-pitch arsenal including a slider and curveball that flashes plus, an average fastball that can sit mid-90s in the bullpen, and a fringy changeup.
The only thing working against Philip is his age. At 28, you don’t expect any more real development in his pitches to occur so you have to hope his command sits in that 2-3 walk per nine range. Sitting all of 2020 was a definite negative as well because he couldn’t immediately build off of that 2019 campaign but there is a legitimate chance he makes the bullpen sometime during the season, but with Josh Tomlin being brought back it’s going to be difficult because they would play similar roles. Pfeifer likely starts the season in Triple-A and if the injury bug begins to rear its ugly head he could find himself in Atlanta.
21.) Freddy Tarnok - RHP
At 21 we’re going to place a guy that we all like, but are somewhat baffled by, and that’s right handed pitcher Freddy Tarnok. Tarnok was one of the premier signings for the Braves in 2017, coming into the system as a third round pick that got 1.5 million dollars straight out of high school. He had immediate success in rookie ball and after a couple of months in Rome in 2018 he seemed poise to place himself among the best prospects in the Braves system. Tarnok didn’t allow a run in the first month of the season, and by the all star break had proven himself to be one of the South Atlantic League’s elite relievers and had made the All-Star team. He had a 1.26 ERA, a .544 OPS against, and 49 strikeouts in 35 2⁄3 innings as a reliever for Rome. Things got a bit more complicated, however, when he was moved into the starting rotation.
After giving up just five earned runs in 35 2⁄3 innings as a reliever Tarnok gave up eight in his first 5 2⁄3 as a starter, and that was just the start of his trouble. He was prone to disastrous innings, and over the remainder of the season he posted a 6.26 ERA and allowed an .832 OPS against. His strikeout rate plummeted to 34 in 41 2⁄3 innings, though that did come with a significant improvement in his walk rate.
2019 was a step forward for Tarnok overall. His raw numbers don’t look great really, as he had a strikeout rate of just 19% and a walk rate of 8.4% and this all added up to a 4.87 ERA. This doesn’t quite tell the full story though as he had a 3.72 FIP and importantly was three years below the league average age. Then, after coming back from an early season injury Tarnok really seemed to turn the page and was fantastic down the stretch for Florida. He posted a 2.98 ERA, his strikeouts rebounded to around 22%, and his walks dropped significantly to just 5.3%. Overall, 2019 was a success for Tarnok, but a player with his profile losing a full season in 2020 hurts and it’s unclear exactly what his progression is at this point.
Tarnok is extremely talented. Like, it’s absolutely bonkers what he can do when he is on his game. His career and progression have been somewhat similar to Touki Toussaint and while he lacks the truly maddening secondary offering, the overall potential isn’t that far off. His fastball velocity tanked early in 2019, but he rebounded and showed a fastball that can touch up into the mid-90s with electric movement. That is, when it’s working. Inconsistency has been a problem for Tarnok, and command comes and goes sometimes at random. The slider is another nasty pitch that can flash plus potential, but at times goes completely away and even at it’s best can be a struggle for him to reign in. His changeup is better than expected at this stage in his career and has the potential to be a solid above average pitch, but is also a pitch that battles back against him at times. He’s just four years removed from being in high school where that changeup was a non-factor, so its development being where it was in 2019 was a positive, but we really have no idea where any of these pitches sit because reports on Tarnok have been limited to say the least. There is mid-rotation potential in this arm if his command keeps progressing as it has, but he needs to tighten up the spin on his pitches and get a more consistent feel for all of them, and that is going to take him some time.
20.) Bryce Ball - 1B/DH
There might not be another prospect in baseball that needed a 2020 campaign more than Bryce Ball who was coming off an absolutely fantastic 2019 season that saw him hit .324/.410/.676 in Rookie ball at Danville over 42 games before being promoted to Rome where he hit .337/.367/.547 while displaying a solid strikeout rate that hovered between 17-22%. The quality of prospect that Ball faced throughout the year substantially improved as he went from the Missouri Valley Conference to professional baseball yet he still showed a propensity for getting the bat on the ball and hitting for power. While the walk rate will need significant help, walking just 4% of the time in Rome, you want to see someone that’s 22 years old dominate in A-ball and that’s exactly what Bryce did.
The power is there. At 6’6 and 235 pounds Bryce Ball is a physical specimen. With that, comes a massive body, with massive limbs and big moving parts to actually hit a baseball so the path to the majors remains a battle but his first year in professional baseball was extremely encouraging. He’s got mammoth raw power with a 70 raw power grade, and it came out during games in Danville where he hit 13 homers, but for the most part you actually hope to see the in-game power tick up with more consistency - though 17 homers in 62 games in your first professional season is outstanding.
2021 will be extremely interesting for Ball. He has the opportunity for his stock to absolutely balloon up if he continues to hit .300+ with a 10% walk rate, and ISO in the .200+ range. The Braves may try and challenge him as he turns 23 this season so there is a world where he starts the season in Class A+ ball with Rome before quickly getting promoted to Mississippi.
19.) Justin Dean - OF
Things were expected from the Braves’ 17th round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft out of Lenoir-Rhyne in 2020. Justin Dean repeated Rome in 2019 (he played 28 of 60 games after signing there in 2018), and saw his triple slash line go from .257/.333/.363 with no homers in those 28 games to a much more comfortable .284/.386/.431 with nine homers over 109 games.
Dean built on that by getting to spend the offseason last year in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .200/.302/.200 over 14 games. While the line itself wasn’t impressive, the fact he was a small school kid who hadn’t played above Low-A made it respectable. Dean was likely expecting to see time at Mississippi in 2020, whether that was to start the season, or after an in-season promotion. Of course that didn’t happen and he is likely ticketed for Mississippi in 2021.
Dean is a guy that despite being smaller framed (5’6, 185) and a later round pick from a smaller school, has a real chance to contribute at the big league level. Dean can hit a bit, shows an ability to get on base, and while not having big power in his game has some extra base pop. He is also a borderline plus runner and a quality defender- mostly in center field, but has seen some time in both corner spots since going pro. While he probably isn’t a starter in the bigs, he certainly has the profile as a guy who can hold down a fourth or fifth outfielder job and provide value.