10 Prospects Who Will Help the Atlanta Braves in 2014
Prospects have been a big part of the Atlanta Braves string of success over the past three decades. Those teams in the early '90s may have had players who were big free agents or acquired in big trades, but the core of the team was always built from players developed through the Atlanta minor league system.
That strong minor league system has been fruitful in recent years, and it has produced yet another strong core of young players. These key players—Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons—who were all signed to long-term contracts this offseason, were each called on at one point in the past when they were just prospects.
As the 2014 season gets set to begin, let’s take a look at the next group of prospects that will be called upon by Atlanta to fill important positions on the major league roster this season. Atlanta fans have suffered through a spring in which many holes have been created because of injuries, and the Braves minor league system will need to fill the void with quality players.
This is not a typical top-10 prospect list, but rather it is a list of 10 prospects who could help the Braves at the big league level this season. As you’ll soon realize, many of these guys are pitchers—especially relief pitchers, which is an area of the team that may see a lot of turnover in 2014.
Hale will be holding down the fourth spot in the Atlanta rotation to begin the season, alongside Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Aaron Harang. He will likely stay in that role once Ervin Santana joins the club in the season’s second week, and he will continue as a member of the rotation until Mike Minor is ready to return in early May.
An Atlanta native, Hale made two starts for the Braves at the end of last season, impressing the team enough that he was added to the postseason roster. Hale has three average-to-plus pitches: a low-90s fastball, a slider and a changeup. Selected in the same draft in which the Braves took Mike Minor, Hale was a two-way player in college and didn’t convert to pitching full time until he joined the Atlanta system.
That late start to pitching has put Hale behind Minor in terms of his arrival to the major leagues, and it led to a considerable amount of inconsistency throughout his minor league career. But after Hale arrived in the majors last year, he was able to harness his control on a more consistent basis, which led to his pitches being more effective.
Hale is a fastball pitcher, but control of his changeup is the key to keeping hitters off balance. Much like Brandon Beachy, Hale could be a better pitcher in the Bigs than he was as a prospect in the minor leagues.
One of three rookie pitchers with no major league experience who made the Opening Day roster, Schlosser would have filled a spot in the rotation before the Braves acquired veteran Aaron Harang. Instead, Schlosser will open the season in the bullpen and serve as the de facto long reliever. Once Santana joins the club, the Braves may send Schlosser back to the minors in order to return to a starting role.
Schlosser uses a three-quarters sidearm delivery to help deceive hitters, and he is able to consistently work down in the strike zone. That helps him keep the ball in the park and generate a lot of ground balls. Because of that, his role could grow from long reliever to need-a-double-play reliever, much like the role Peter Moylan held for several years.
Thomas was a lucky find by the Braves scouting department. He was undrafted out of college and spent three years toiling away in the Independent Leagues. The Braves found him in 2012, and he’s succeeded in whatever role the team has needed him to fill. Now, the organization will call on Thomas to be an important lefty reliever out of the bullpen.
Thomas doesn’t have a great arsenal—a low-90s fastball with a decent change and a tailing curveball, both of which he throws in the mid-70s—but all of his pitches look the same coming out of his arm slot, which adds to their effectiveness. He has confidence to throw any pitch in any situation and is unafraid on the mound, which is an important quality for a young reliever.
Acquired as the consolation prize in a 2011 trade that sent Rodrigo Lopez to the Cubs, Buchter was added to this year’s Opening Day roster because of the injury to Cory Gearrin. Otherwise, Buchter would be in the minors, as he had a decent spring but was cut in the final days of camp because the Braves were concerned about his propensity to walk too many batters.
If he can find consistency with his control, Buchter has the potential to be a great reliever. He posted a 15 K/9 rate last year, which was one of the best marks throughout the minor leagues (and better than Craig Kimbrel's mark with the big league club).
Like Jonny Venters, Buchter has a sweeping mid-90s fastball and a devastating slider. The only thing holding Buchter back is his elevated walk rate. If he can sort out the free passes, however, Buchter could become an invaluable part of the Atlanta bullpen.
Graham missed much of last season with shoulder tendinitis, but the team says he’s fully healthy this year, and they are moving him from the rotation to the bullpen in order to accelerate his readiness for the major leagues. As a reliever, Graham can light up the radar gun with a 100 mph fastball, and he compliments that with a slider and changeup—both of which need more work.
There is a strong chance that not all of the young pitchers beginning the season in the Braves bullpen will succeed, creating some opportunities for those relievers who post good numbers in the minors. Graham could be one of the first guys called upon to help fill a hole in the pen, as he has the stuff to eventually be a top setup man or a closer.
Drafted out of college last year, Hursh impressed during his time in Low-A with the Rome Braves. As a result, Atlanta will push him into the rotation at Double-A this year.
As a more advanced college pitcher with a substantial number of innings under his belt, Hursh could soon be ready to fill in a hole in the Atlanta rotation. The advantage he has over guys like Harang or Schlosser is his mid-90s fastball that can touch 98 mph.
Hursh could also be a guy who is called upon to step in and fill a role in the Atlanta bullpen. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the progress of Jason’s off-speed pitches, a bullpen role could get Hursh some major league experience while he primarily uses his fastball. The goal for now, though, will be to see how all of his pitches play while in the rotation at Double-A.
I’ve dubbed him the poor man’s Craig Kimbrel, but make no mistake, that’s a compliment. Simmons is a diminutive reliever with a big-time fastball, much like Kimbrel. He rocketed through the Atlanta minor league system last year and got a long look this spring before being sent out to minor league camp.
He throws a consistent mid-90s fastball with good late life along with a hard, biting slider. The Braves pushed him hard last year and challenged him by promoting him from Low-A to Double-A, skipping the High-A level. He responded well to the challenge, a sign that the Braves could challenge him with a major league assignment sometime this season.
Tommy La Stella
The lone position player prospect on this list, La Stella can be thought of as Dan Uggla insurance. While the Braves have Uggla signed through 2015 with a hefty untradeable salary, if he struggles the way he did last season there’s reason to believe that Atlanta will cut ties with him, regardless.
That case is bolstered by the hitting prowess of La Stella. He’s the best hitting prospect in the Braves system, posting a .356 batting average across two levels last season. While he doesn't possess anything other than average power, he more than makes up for it with his superior strike-zone judgement.
If Uggla fails, then La Stella is waiting in the wings to take over. La Stella’s strong approach at the plate could also be useful for Atlanta in a pinch-hitting role. While he is limited to second base defensively, the need for a solid contact hitter off the bench at some point this season could trump his defensive shortcomings.
Jaime is a pitcher who can run his fastball into the triple digits, but the Braves have been waiting for him to become more consistent as a reliever from one outing to the next.
That inconsistency was on display this spring. Jaime was one of the last cuts from the spring roster, and it looked like he might be a strong contender for the last bullpen spot before his control deserted him in his final spring appearance.
Jaime will no doubt have a list of things to work on in the minors, but once he finds the key to staying under control each time he takes the mound, he will be a very effective reliever. The Braves will be watching and waiting for that to happen.
Vasquez was slowed in spring training—first by visa issues and then by a slow recovery from a lat strain he suffered toward the end of the winter ball season. When healthy, he’s a side-arming flamethrower, able to run his fastball up to 100 mph.
He’s new to throwing side-arm, having made the conversion last season. His fastball didn’t lose any velocity when he dropped down, and he actually gained more command over all of his pitches. The new arm angle also added more movement to his slider, giving him two strikeout pitches.
The Braves had hoped he would be ready to step into a major league role to begin the season, but his stumbles this spring let the team know that he needed some more fine-tuning in the minors.
A Few More from the Farm
The Braves could also see contributions this season from a few other prospects this season, and they are as follows:
Todd Cunningham is an outfielder with good speed and developing power who could fill a Jordan Schafer-like role for Atlanta.
Phil Gosselin is an infielder in the mold of Tyler Pastornicky.
Christian Bethancourt has the catching part of his game down, but he needs work on the hitting side.
Joey Terdoslavich is technically not a rookie, but his ability to play all four corners and switch-hit off the bench could be useful in Atlanta.
James Hoyt is a reliever the Braves pulled out of the Mexican Independent Leagues.
Cody Martin had a rough spring but could fill a role in either the rotation or the bullpen.
Hector Rodriguez also came out of the Mexican Independent Leagues as a starting pitcher with high strikeout numbers.
Mark Lamm is yet another reliever close to the majors who could suddenly find that extra gear.
What the Atlanta minor league system lacks in top prospects, they make up for with a plethora of useful pieces.
Some content for this article was sourced from CB Wilkins "2014 Atlanta Braves Prospect Book," and to a lesser extent the "2014 Baseball America Prospect Handbook."