Top Prospects That Can Get the Atlanta Braves over the Hump Next Season
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Unfortunately, losing in the postseason has been a common trend for the franchise over the years. According to Tracy Ringolsby of MLB.com:
Eight consecutive postseason series lost. That's the second-longest streak of postseason failure in history, but while the Chicago Cubs' failure in 10 consecutive postseasons was spread over 88 years (from 1910 through 1998), the Braves have seen eight postseason opportunities go for nothing in the last 13 years.
Though there is no obvious solution to fix the Braves’ ongoing postseason struggles, the team should boast another impressive rookie class in 2014. Despite the lack of more impact talents such as Evan Gattis, Julio Teheran or Alex Wood in their system, the organization still houses several intriguing prospects that should contribute in some capacity at the major league level as early as next season.
Here’s a look at four top prospects that can help the Atlanta Braves get over the hump next season.
J.R. Graham, RHP
A fourth-round selection in the 2011 draft out of Santa Clara University, J.R. Graham put himself on the big league radar the following year during his full-season debut. Making the jump from the rookie-level Appalachian League to High-A Lynchburg, the right-hander registered a 2.63 ERA with a .236 opponent batting average and 68/17 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) in 102.2 innings over 17 starts.
His success at the level resulted in a midseason promotion to Double-A Mississippi, where he continued to surpass expectations with a 3.18 ERA and 42/17 K/BB ratio in 45.1 innings.
Participating in his first major league camp this past spring, the 23-year-old opened eyes while working exclusively out of the team’s bullpen. Appearing in five games (including two save situations), Graham notched two saves while allowing nine baserunners (six hits, three walks) with five strikeouts over nine scoreless frames.
Assigned back to Double-A to open the season, it seemed as though he wouldn’t be long for the minor leagues. But after a solid first month, the right-hander experienced shoulder soreness during his May 13 start and landed on the disabled list. Although tests revealed no structural damage, the injury sidelined Graham for the remainder of the season.
Provided that he’s healthy entering the 2014 season, Graham should contribute at the major league level. With no obvious spot in the Braves’ starting rotation, my best guess is that the organization uses him as a reliever at the highest level—just as it seemed it was preparing to do during spring training.
Christian Bethancourt, C
Christian Bethancourt is one of the better defensive catching prospects thanks in part to an 80-grade arm and receiving skills that have steadily improved over the last two seasons. However, the 22-year-old’s bat has always left something to be desired.
This past season, his second straight at the Double-A level, Bethancourt finally made significant strides in his development at the dish. In addition to making more consistent contact and striking out less, he was especially productive after the All-Star break, batting .297/.325/.486 with 14 extra-base hits (seven home runs) and 16/5 K/BB ratio in 35 games.
Due to his presence on the Braves’ 40-man roster, Bethancourt was among the team’s September call-ups at the end of the regular season. He appeared in only one game down the stretch (September 29), going 0-for-1 with a strikeout as a pinch hitter.
With the Braves’ catching situation undecided for the 2014 season and Bethancourt already on the 40-man roster, expect the club to give him an extended look during spring training. He’s more than qualified to serve as a valuable defensive replacement to bat-first backstop Evan Gattis next year, but he’ll still need to hit in order to win the role.
David Hale, RHP
Selected in the third round of the 2009 draft out of Princeton University, David Hale has quietly flown beneath the radar during his ascent of the Braves’ farm system.
The 26-year-old right-hander turned in a breakout campaign in 2012 for Double-A Mississippi. Making 27 starts, he registered a 3.77 ERA and .228 opponent batting average with a 124/67 K/BB in 145.2 innings.
Moved up to Triple-A Gwinnett for the 2013 season, Hale posted a 3.22 ERA and 77/36 K/BB ratio in 114.2 innings (20 starts) at the more advanced level. And because he already owned a spot on the Braves’ 40-man roster, he received his first taste of the major leagues when the rosters expanded in September.
In his major league debut on September 13 against the San Diego Padres, Hale set a franchise record with nine strikeouts over five scoreless innings. He allowed four hits and a walk in the outing while throwing 56 of his 87 pitches for a strike.
Making his second start on September 26 against the Philadelphia Phillies, the right-hander picked up his first career win, allowing one earned run on seven hits with five strikeouts over six innings.
As is the case with J.R. Graham, there’s no obvious spot for Hale in the Braves’ 2014 starting rotation. However, he should still make the team as at least a long-reliever/mop-up guy and could slide into the rotation if the need arises.
Juan Jaime, RHP
Signed by the Atlanta Braves as a minor league free agent on August 19, 2011, Juan Jaime missed all of the 2010 and 2011 seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The organization decided not to risk another injury with the right-hander and converted him to a full-time reliever upon his return to the mound last year. The right-hander responded by amassing 18 saves with a 3.16 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 51.1 innings.
Moved up to Double-A Mississippi to open the season, Jaime exceeded expectations in his first taste of the Southern League. While the 26-year-old’s 4.07 ERA wasn't particularly appealing, it’s worth noting that his FIP was 2.53. As usual, he missed plenty of bats with his plus-plus fastball and devastating-but-inconsistent slider, posting an absurd 15.0 K/9.
Jaime is already on the Braves’ 40-man roster, so he stands to receive a long look next spring in major league camp. However, chances are that the right-hander will open the season in the minor leagues before assuming a key role in the team’s bullpen during the second half.