Welcome back for the middle installment of our 2021 Top 30 Braves prospects midseason update. You guys have been killing it with spreading the word about the list rolling out and reading. We really appreciate it. In case you are just now getting caught up, here are the previously installments.
This is the beginning of the section of the list that I will let you all know now that the voting was INCREDIBLY tight. The difference between the #15 prospect on the list and the #8 prospect on the list was a total of nine points and that was with five people voting. Going down a touch further was still close to that, but that particular range was incredibly close and I wanted to make sure that was noted. You all will still probably yell about the rankings, but I now will feel less bad about when I ignore those comments made by those that clearly didn’t read this part.
On to the prospects!
18.) Mahki Backstrom - 1B
How he got to the Braves: 18th Round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft
When you think of the modern game, there is perhaps not a more prototypical prospect in the Braves system on paper than Mahki Backstrom. Long, lean, athletic, and coming with massive raw power, Backstrom has the raw profile of middle of the order run producer once he develops.
Development is the part that is going to take some time, as the 2019 draft choice from the 18th round is still just 19 years old all season and spending the season in the FCL(former GCL). The numbers haven’t been ideal at .179/.356/.304 in 73 plate appearances, but he started out very slow as he seemed to be pressing and has been better of late- though the constant interruptions of rain in the FCL are doing no one any favors. If there is one other positive for him this summer it is the fact he has a 21% walk rate- small sample size warning though he did post a 15% rate in a similar sample size after signing in 2019.
For those who don’t remember, Backstrom was a potential late first rounder in the 2019 MLB Draft back in the summer of 2018 who fell after a poor start to his senior season before a rebound late that spring. He went on to sign an overslot deal with the Braves as part of a loaded Day 3 group that year and was obviously very young for the class.
Backstrom is probably a good four years away from helping the Braves and will need to show he can hit since he is a power over hit first baseman only prospect. That said if there is a potential 35-40 homer bat in the system, it would be Backstrom that has the best odds.
17.) Braden Shewmake - SS
How he got to the Braves: 1st Round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft
You would be hard pressed to find a more horrific start to a season than what Braden Shewmake suffered through in May. His swing was off, he couldn’t make contact, and when he did his contact quality was so poor he ran a .119 BABIP which wasn’t even entirely undeserved. Most of his contact was pop ups straight into the air or ground balls rolled over to first base. He hit .094/.144/.165 over the first month of the season, so it may surprise you to hear that he has worked himself all the way back to a .697 OPS. It’s going to be impossible for him to overcome his early season struggles statistically, but he’s done as good of a job as you can ask. Despite missing some games for unknown reasons, he has been tremendous non stop for the last two months. Over his last 32 games he has hit .328/.368/.592 with 17 extra base hits and a 15.6% strikeout rate. This is the player the Braves thought they had drafted and one that has really put himself back into the conversation for the future shortstop role should Atlanta not retain Dansby Swanson.
Shewmake is at his best when he is spraying line drives around the field, and of late he has gotten back into doing that. He has gotten what was a 14% line drive early this season up to 21% on the year while lowering his ground ball rate from 60% to sub 50%. That is a great sign, as well as the reduction in strikeouts, that the hit tool that was expected to carry him has begun to develop. Also, the Braves banking on unlocking power in his bat seems to be paying off as he has a .264 ISO over his past 32 games that ranks in the 95th percentile in the league. The big concern for Shewmake right now is his aggression at the plate. He has a walk rate of just over 5% over his span of good play, and he will really need to grow into more walks or it will significantly limit his future on-base ability. For a profile built around being able to get hits and get on base it is a significant red flag to see him drawing so few walks. Back to the positive, Shewmake has made significant defensive strides and the question mark around his ability to stick at short has seemed to be answered. He has added strength without sacrificing his mobility and has clearly put in a lot of work to stick at the position. He’s not a gold glove caliber shortstop, but he can play the position at an average level and if his hit tool and power progresses as hoped that will be enough.
16.) Bryce Elder - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 5th Round pick in the 2020 MLB Draft
It’s not surprise that Bryce Elder is one of the few top Braves prospects that have been promoted this year as the 22 year old has had a very dependable 2021 campaign. He started the year in High-A Rome where he was just devastating hitters to the tune of an 11.0 K/9, 0.40 HR/9, and 2.60 ERA. It took just nine starts before the Braves promoted Bryce to Double-A where he has now made six starts and has a very respectable 3.41 ERA, 8.5 K/9, and has seen his walks slightly decrease from 4 BB/9, to 3.65 BB/9.
Bryce has done it through his very respectable four pitch mix which includes a very heavy sinking fastball that sits in the mid-90s, a fantastic slider, a quickly curveball, and a changeup that that looks to have taken a step forward as well. Considered his third best pitch, Bryce has used his curveball a lot more as out an out pitch this year, while flashing a changeup that’s looked average to even above-average at times.
Make that 4 IP 3H 0R 0BB 8K for Bryce Elder on the night already. He's clearly toying around right now and it is pretty pic.twitter.com/5NPvQnJmuh— Gaurav (@gvedak) June 4, 2021
At just 22 years of age, Bryce is almost three years below the average age of players in Double-A and has already stood his ground quite well. He will likely stay in Mississippi for the rest of the year while trying to earn a stop at Triple-A Gwinnett next year in just his age 23 season - not bad for a college pitcher drafted in a pandemic struck 2020 MLB Draft.
15.) Ryan Cusick - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 1st Round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft
Wake Forest is apparently becoming an Atlanta Braves pitching factory. One year after selecting Demon Deacon Jared Shuster 25th overall, the Braves chose Cusick with the 24th pick in this year’s MLB draft. Shuster is off to a nice pro career and the Braves are hoping Cusick follows suit.
Cusick jumped on everyone’s radar because of his signature fastball. It’s not just the velocity — which Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said maxed out at 102.7 mph this season, the highest recorded college fastball. Walter also said that his fastball moves and his command “improved dramatically” as he cut his walk rate nearly in half.
The right-hander is massive, listed at 6-6 and 235 pounds, so, as with most young arms, command has been a concern, walking 32 in 70.0 innings last season. However, Walter feels his breaking ball command was also improved, as it shifted from a slurvy breaking ball to a reliable 12-5 curveball. He also has a change that has sinking action, but as the case with many a college pitcher, still needs work. There is no denying that his big two pitches worked as he struck out 108 in 2021 with his 13.9 strikeout-per-nine tops in the ACC.
Cusick is a gamer with the required pitcher’s confidence to not be overmatched in the pros as he continues to work on his command. He carries that monster velocity deep into games because he has worked hard to improve his simple delivery and overall athleticism. He will be one to watch from his very first pitch.
14.) Joey Estes - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 16th Round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft
A 16th round draft pick from the 2019 MLB draft, Joey Estes has become one of the stars of the Augusta Greenjackets putting together an outstanding full season debut. Through 15 games, Estes has a 11.5 K/9, while limiting walks to the tune of a 2.45 BB/9 - just fantastic stats for a 19 year old who would normally be taking on college opponents as opposed to, mainly, drafted professional hitters.
Estes features four pitches, with his fastball/slider combination doing a majority of the heavy lifting, along with a curveball that flashes above average, though is hardly used now, and a changeup that has developed over the course of the season. His slider has quickly ascended to a strikeout pitch for right handed hitters that darts away away. But going back to his changeup, it’s one that flashes some real potential and is key in his development as a starter.
Joey Estes with a pair of strikeouts in a scoreless first. Using the changeup to get the K against the lefty is awesome. Everyone knows the FB/SL duo but if he can consistently throw the CH then the Braves have an absolute steal pic.twitter.com/P1er2sTmQc— Gaurav (@gvedak) July 27, 2021
2021 has been a fantastic year for Estes as his command has taken a serious jump, his changeup has taken a jump forward, all while his fastball and slider have maintained their high level. Estes has gone from a probable reliever, to a starter with some real potential as can be seen by his jump to 14th in our rankings.
13.) Victor Vodnik - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 14th Round pick in the 2018 MLB draft
Victor Vodnik and Freddy Tarnok are similar in many regards on their climb in the Braves system. Both were oozing with raw stuff when drafted — highlighted by an electric fastball — and both split time in the bullpen and rotation in Low-A Rome as they worked their way to becoming starting pitching material. Now both are in the Mississippi rotation and while Tarnok has taken the steps forward we all hoped for, Vodnik still has some question marks.
Vodnik isn’t a massive pitcher, listed at 6’ and 200 pounds, and at 21 years of age, that’s probably what he will be. He has a power fastball that has been clocked as high as 100 to go with an inconsistent — albeit very good when on — slider and a hard changeup. Naturally, with a fastball like that, Vodnik has always had good strikeout numbers, but an uptick in his walk rate in his first full season in 2019 was a bit concerning.
Despite profiling as a reliever with already two relatively solid strikeout pitches, the Braves moved Vodnik into the rotation full time in 2021. The inconsistency in command has followed him into this season. He’s only made nine starts due to a lengthy stay on the IL — missing all of June — but as they say, numbers don’t lie. The good news is he has struck out 29 batters over 24.2 innings. The bad news is he’s walked 17 over the same span. That’s an alarming 6.20 walks per nine.
His most recent start tells the story of his 2021 season: inconsistency. He landed just 26 of 48 pitches for strikes, lasting a mere 1.1 innings while allowing seven runs on six hits — two of which were home runs — walking two and striking out just one. But here’s what we know about Vodnik: the Braves saw enough to add him the player pool last year. He has the stuff when he’s on but needs to harness it and find consistency in his command. While it seems that Vodnik could find greater success in middle relief, the Braves are (currently) sticking with him as a starter. Still just 21, there is plenty of time to stretch him out and see just how good this stuff can be.