Atlanta Braves: Top 10 Prospects at Midseason

Matt PowersCorrespondent IIJune 28, 2012

Atlanta Braves: Top 10 Prospects at Midseason

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    As we sit in late-June the Braves are just a few games away from reaching the halfway point in the season. Call-ups and injuries as well as the draft have changed the Braves' top 10 prospect list from what it looked like heading into the year.

    Preseason top prospect Julio Teheran has been up and down since the start of spring training. Randall Delgado, Andrelton Simmons and Tyler Pastornicky have either graduated to the big leagues or surpassed the rookie limits. Electric-armed Arodys Vizcaino went for Tommy John surgery.

    To be eligible for this list, a player must not be on the current active roster as well as still under the limit for at-bats or innings pitched to qualify for the Rookie of the Year Award. Among the players who just missed the cut would be Todd Cunningham, Josh Elander, Joey Terdoslavich and David Hale.

    Evan Gattis also did not make the list due to him being older for a prospect and doing his damage against younger competition.

10. Nick Ahmed, SS

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    Nick Ahmed was the second-round pick of the Braves in the 2011 MLB Draft out of UConn. Ahmed may not be the most talented player in the system, but the shortstop is a gamer who gets the most out of his abilities by always going at 100 percent.

    Ahmed played 59 games for Danville in the Appalachian League last year as he returned from an injury that forced him to miss the bulk of his college season. Still he managed to hit .262/.346/.379 with four homers, 24 RBI and 18 steals.

    Ahmed impressed the Braves enough in spring training to skip right over Low-A and begin the year in High-A Lynchburg. In his first 71 games he has hit .269/.345/.424 with five homers, 32 RBI and 21 stolen bases. His performance was good enough to earn him a spot on the Carolina League All-Star team.

    Ahmed may or may not be a starting big league shortstop, but at the least he could make a very solid utility player. He has limited power, but does have gap power and has shown good on-base skills. With Andrelton Simmons in place he may be trade bait, but he still has value to the Braves.

9. Zeke Spruill, RHP

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    The Braves used their second-round pick in the 2008 MLB Draft on a prep pitcher named Zeke Spruill. Spruill had his share of ups and downs in the minors from 2008 through 2010, but came into his own last year.

    Spruill began 2011 in High-A by going 7-9 with a 3.19 ERA in 20 starts with a 6.4 strikeout per nine inning rate which was right at his career mark of 6.3. He got promoted to Double-A and went 3-2 with a 3.20 ERA in seven starts, but only managed to strike out 3.2 hitters per nine innings.

    Spruill has spent this year in Double-A, and is currently 5-7 with a 3.90 ERA in 15 starts. The good news is that his strikeout rate has improved to a more respectable rate of 5.4. Spruill may never be a strikeout pitcher, but he at least needs to be able to miss some bats.

    Spruill has had very good results over the last year and a half, and could be ready for a look in Triple-A later this season. He is talented, but because he doesn't miss many bats his ceiling is a bit limited. He seems like his ceiling is as a No. 4 starter, but is more likely to be a No. 5 starter.

    The fact that he is a guy close to the big leagues that is a fairly safe bet to help a team makes him a potential trade chip at the deadline.

8. JR Graham, RHP

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    The Braves used their fourth round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft on JR Graham, a pitcher who was projected to be a reliever coming out of Santa Clara University. The Braves got Graham signed fairly quickly and used him as a starter to help get him innings.

    Graham surpassed all expectations while pitching for Danville of the Appalachian League. Graham pitched in 13 games, including 8 starts, where he went 5-2 with a 1.72 ERA without allowing a single home run in 57.2 innings. Graham also struck out 52 batters while only walking 13.

    Similar to Ahmed, the Braves allowed Graham to skip Low-A and head to High-A Lynchburg. In 13 games with Lynchburg Graham has gone 8-1 with a 2.53 ERA to go with 55 strikeouts against 15 walks in 81.2 innings and a ground out to fly out rate of a very impressive 2.18. Also like Ahmed, Graham made the Carolina League All-Star team where he impressed in his inning of work.

    Graham has quality stuff, gets a ton of ground balls and doesn't walk many hitters. However there are a few reasons that some projected him to be a reliever coming out of college. The most glaring drawback is his size as he is listed at just 6'0", which is very small for a right-handed starter. The other thing working against him right now is the fact that his changeup needs significant work.

    With his upper-90's fastball and a big curve, Graham has the ability to close or at least be a very good setup man if starting doesn't work out for him. The Braves have enough pitching depth that they can be patient with Graham and allow him to try to continue on through the system as a starter.

    If Graham can remain a starter his value goes up significantly, but even if he doesn't he still has to be among the top 10 prospects in the organization. If the Braves keep him in the rotation, he likely wouldn't be ready to make his big league debut until at least mid-2014. If the Braves decide to convert him back to the bullpen there is a possibility he could make his debut in September, though a 2013 debut would be more likely.

7. Alex Wood, LHP

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    The Braves selected Alex Wood from the University of Georgia in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft after he fell a bit further than expected. Wood is a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher who put up very strong numbers in the premier conference in college baseball.

    Wood went 6-1 with a 2.64 ERA and 81 strikeouts against 19 walks in 82 innings for Georgia this year, despite the fact that the Bulldogs struggled a bit. The main reason for his success is his big fastball, which he can run up to 96 MPH, to go with a pretty solid changeup, but he also has solid control.

    The reasons that Wood dropped in the draft are well documented. First Wood has a delivery that causes some concern. Making it even more concerning to some is a prior Tommy John surgery from the beginning of his college career.

    Wood has very good potential because he's a hard-throwing lefty with good control. If he is able to improve upon his breaking ball, he could eventually be a potential No. 2 starter, but projects as more of a solid middle of the rotation guy.

    In his professional debut on Monday night for Low-A Rome, Wood went two innings against Greenville. In those two innings he allowed two hits without allowing a run or walk and struck out four. It was a very solid performance against a quality lineup.

6. Edward Salcedo, 3B

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    Prior to the 2010 season the Braves made a splash when they signed a young international free agent from the Dominican Republic. That third baseman was a very sought after prospect a few years ago but had a big money deal with the Indians nullified for age questions. That third baseman is Edward Salcedo, a raw but very toolsy 20-year-old currently playing for High-A Lynchburg.

    Salcedo hit in the Dominican Summer League in 2010 and earned a promotion to Low-A Rome at just 18 years old. Salcedo didn't fare well in Rome, hitting just .197 in 54 games, but he was young for the league and adjusting to life in America.

    Salcedo repeated Rome last year and had a hot start to the season before cooling off. He managed to hit .248/.315/.396 with 12 homers and 68 RBI, which are actually decent overall numbers. In the process of posting that stat line he showed fans flashes of his elite potential but also frustrated those same fans with his offensive struggles.

    Salcedo moved up to High-A this year and in 72 games he is hitting .263/.308/.409 with seven homers and 30 RBI. The line is pretty similar to the line he posted a year ago, but it is at a higher level in a league that is a bit tougher to hit in.

    Salcedo also has major issues on defense as well. He has made 19 errors this year after committing 40 in 100 games at third base last year. The good news here is that he has the natural ability to become at least an average defender with time and work.

    Salcedo has the potential to become an All-Star third baseman, but he is also very raw at the plate. For this reason he is going to more only a level per year, to allow time for his tools to become usable skills. Even if he spent the next three seasons in Double and Triple-A, he would be making his big league debut at age 24.

5. Sean Gilmartin, LHP

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    When the Braves decided to use their top pick in the 2011 MLB Draft on Sean Gilmartin, many fans groaned. Part of this was because the Braves needed to add bats to the organization and there were bats like Mikie Mahtook and Jackie Bradley still available.

    The other part of the reason is because Gilmartin was considered to be a similar selection to Mike Minor before his post-draft velocity spike. Like Minor, Gilmartin was a safe college lefty close to being big league ready to become a back end of the rotation starter but with limited upside.

    Gilmartin made five starts for Rome in Low-A after signing his pro contract. He went 2-1 with a 2.53 ERA and 0.94 WHIP while striking out 30 in 21.1 innings. Obviously he didn't face real competition at that level, but that was to be expected per the pre-draft scouting reports that called him close to being ready.

    Gilmartin began this year in Double-A Mississippi, and had some issues early on before he has started to pitch better. Overall in 15 starts he is 5-6 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. He's done a great job of limiting home runs, allowing just six in 93 innings, as well as walking just 23 batters.

    Since making his pro debut Gilmartin has done nothing to prove the scouting reports wrong. He has been solid, but not over-powering against minor league hitters. He could be ready for the big leagues after just another handful of starts, and could get promoted to Triple-A at any time. His potential hasn't really changed much, as he still projects to be a back end of the rotation arm.

4. Christian Bethancourt, C

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    Edward Salcedo isn't the only talented but frustrating position player prospect in the Braves organization, as Christian Bethancourt has also frustrated his share of fans. The 20-year-old catcher has power potential in his bat, the potential to be a plus defender behind the plate and an elite throwing arm for gunning down potential base-stealers.

    Despite his young age Bethancourt has been around for a long time already. He began his Braves' career in 2008 in the Dominican Summer League, where he hit .267 in 34 games. His best year at the plate was in 2009, as he split the season between the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues and hit a combined .277/.342/.446 with four homers in 46 games.

    Bethancourt went to Low-A Rome in 2010 struggled at the plate, hitting .251 but with an on-base percentage of just .276 and a slugging percentage of .331. That led to him repeating in Rome last year, but he managed to hit .303/.323/.430 and was promoted to High-A Lynchburg after 54 games. In 45 games for Lynchburg he managed to hit .271/.277/.325 with just one homer and 20 RBI.

    Following the 201 season Bethancourt went to the Arizona Fall League, a showcase for prospects. In the AFL he managed to hit .306 with five homers and 13 RBI in just 19 games, leading to some believing he had in fact turned a corner in his development.

    Bethancourt was moved to Double-A for this year, but hasn't been able to build upon his strong AFL showing. In 44 games for Mississippi he is hitting .259/.285/.278 with no homers and 11 RBI. He has just three extra base hits, all doubles, in 158 at-bats. Still because of his defense he was selected to the Southern League All-Star Game.

    Bethancourt is talented but frustrating. His defense and throwing arm alone will be good enough to keep him in the big leagues as a backup for a while, but he has the potential to do much more. He has to tap into his power potential and turn it into usable power in game situations. He also has major issues with his plate discipline, as he hasn't recorded a walk rate of better than 3.6 percent since 2009 at any stop.

    Still Bethancourt has always been very young for the level he has been at every season. The Braves know what his potential is, and may be willing to let him repeat Double or Triple-A before bringing him to the big leagues.

3. Lucas Sims, RHP

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    Heading into the 2012 MLB Draft the Braves were expected to draft a bat according to all reports. When the Braves went on the clock all of the talk among the fanbase was about which hitter the Braves may want after guys they were linked to, like DJ Davis and Tyler Naquin, were already selected.

    Then the Braves shocked everyone. The team decided it just couldn't pass on local prep right-handed pitcher Lucas Sims. The pick was certainly a bit of a surprise even though Sims had been expected to be taken in the range where the Braves selected him, though it a fairly well-received surprise to the fans.

    The reason the fans didn't mind the pick of Sims over a bat is because he's a local kid with the potential to eventually become a top of the rotation arm. Unlike most of prep pitchers, Sims has good stuff right now instead of just projection, though he has very limited projection remaining left.

    Sims had a very strong spring which helped boost his draft stock. His fastball saw a velocity spike, and now hits the upper 90s. He also has a very good slider and a curve that should be at least an average pitch to go with solid command.

    The biggest worry with Sims is that some thought heading into the draft that his career path would take him to the bullpen, where he could become a solid closer. Though Frank Wren and the Braves believe in his ability to be a top of the rotation arm. 

    Sims made his professional debut in the Gulf Coast League on Tuesday, pitching two perfect innings and striking out three batters. If he can put together a few more strong outings, there is a chance he could move up to Danville of the Appalachian League later this year. Still he isn't likely to reach the big leagues until probably 2015 or 2016.

2. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP

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    When the Braves dealt Javier Vazquez to the Yankees prior to the 2010 season, on the surface it appeared that the centerpiece in return was Melky Cabrera. Melky went on to bomb in his only year in Atlanta, though he has seen his career improve after being non-tendered after the 2010 season.

    The real centerpiece in the deal was a young right-handed pitcher who had just hit 19 years old a month before the deal. Few causal fans knew about this kid, Arodys Vizcaino, but he was coming off a very strong season for the Yankees' short-season affiliate in Staten Island. In fact Vizcaino's season was so good that he made the Baseball American Top 100 Prospect List despite not yet making his full season debut.

    Vizcaino started his career in the Braves organization in Rome and went 9-4 with a 2.39 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 14 starts. He then went up to High-A Myrtle Beach and pitched solidly in three starts. At just 19 years old for that whole season the kid with the electric arm had a bright future. The only red flag was the fact that he sat out for a few weeks with an elbow injury, but avoided surgery.

    Vizcaino began his 2011 season back in Myrtle Beach, but after going 2-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in nine starts he was quickly promoted to Double-A. Vizcaino got off to a good start in Double-A as a starter, however the Braves moved him to the bullpen in order to protect his arm after he again experienced elbow issues, as well as hoping to use him in the big league bullpen down the stretch.

    In Double-A Vizcaino went 2-3 with a 3.81 ERA in eight starts and three relief appearances before getting promoted again. After being promoted to Triple-A it only took him six appearances to get called to the big leagues after he allowed just one run and seven baserunners in seven innings pitched.

    Vizcaino made 17 appearances for the Braves and went 1-1 with a 4.67 ERA while striking out 17 in 17.1 innings pitched. If you take out his one bad appearance against the Dodgers where he allowed five runs in just a third of an inning, his ERA drops to 2.12. The numbers appeared to be solid on the surface, but when you consider he was just 20 years old and in a pennant race they become much more impressive.

    Then early this spring Vizcaino's elbow issues popped up again, this time requiring Tommy John surgery. That surgery may not be a bad thing as it may be able to fix the issues that seem to have popped up way too often and could help him finally stay healthy.

    Vizcaino will be back for the 2013 season, but because he is coming off a major surgery and has a history of elbow issues he may not ever get another real shot in the rotation. The fact that he has thrown just 286 innings in his four professional seasons could help keep him in the bullpen as well since the Braves could be cautious with him instead of working him to build up the arm strength needed to start.

    Even if he never starts another game Vizcaino has the raw stuff to be a closer someday, or more likely a top notch setup man for Craig Kimbrel. If he moves back to the rotation he could possibly be a top of the rotation starter, though he would need to head back to Double-A to continue in his development. He should be ready to go for Opening Day or shortly after next season.

1. Julio Teheran, RHP

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    Julio Teheran signed with the Braves out of Colombia for less money than the Yankees offered because of his relation to the Braves' signing scout. Since then he's gone on to become one of the best prospects in the game. Heading into both 2011 and 2012 Teheran ranked fifth on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospect List. As one would expect, that qualifies him as being head and shoulders above the rest of the competition for this spot.

    Teheran made his pro debut in Danville of the Appalachian League in 2008, but got hit hard in six starts. Teheran started 2009 back in Danville and in seven starts dropped his ERA from 6.60 to 2.68 before being promoted to Low-A Rome. Teheran was up and down in Rome but held his own, going 1-3 with a 4.78 ERA.

    In 2010 Teheran really took off, starting back in Rome. In Rome it took just seven starts, where he went 2-2 with a 1.14 ERA, before getting another promotion. In High-A Myrtle Beach he got to make 10 starts and went 4-4 with a 2.98 ERA and struck out 76 in 63.1 innings before getting promoted again. That promotion took him to Double-A, where he went 3-2 with a 3.38 ERA at just age 19.

    Teheran was began the year in Triple-A last year at just 20 years old, and posted historically good stats for that level at that age. Teheran went 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA in 25 games, but only struck out 122 hitters in 144.2 innings. He also made his big league debut, but he struggled a bit in a small sample size.

    Teheran came into this year with a shot at winning the final spot in the Braves rotation, but was just awful in spring training and lost out to Randall Delgado. He was blasted in his first start in Triple-A but has been better since, though he has been very inconsistent and is just 5-4 with a 3.50 ERA in 13 starts.

    Teheran also made one big league start against Toronto. He looked dominant at times throughout the first four innings, but struggled in the fifth and got the early hook from Fredi Gonzalez. Still he showed why he is such a highly rated prospect, and could eventually become a top of the rotation arm.

    Teheran has been picked apart a bit in the last year. His numbers at Triple-A are all down from last year, including the walk rate and the strikeout rate. Then there are some that are concerned about his lack of strikeouts, even from 2011. Now some are saying that his big fastball doesn't have the same life this year as it has in the past.

    The good news is that Teheran's breaking ball has significantly improved. All you need to do to see this is watch some film from the start against Toronto and watch the movement on the curve. Even if his fastball has lost a bit of life, the improved breaking ball should help to balance that out.

    Teheran still projects as a front of the rotation arm, though he may not be a true ace. That's not anything to complain about since there are so few true aces in the game today. He could be ready for a permanent spot in the Braves rotation at any time now.