Braves Baseball: Breaking Down Atlanta's Top 10 Prospects to Start 2014 Season
At the start of the 2014 MLB season, the Atlanta Braves have high expectations surrounding them. Despite a plethora of injuries to starting pitchers, Atlanta is one of the favorites to win the NL East and make the playoffs in the National League.
One of the main reasons for this optimism is the talented club the team has at the Major League level. Especially once guys start returning from injuries, both the lineup and the pitchers are some of the most skilled at their respective positions in baseball.
Unfortunately, the high talent and improving nature of the Major Leaguers for Atlanta, as well as all the recent winning this team has done, leaves something to be desired in the minor leagues. According to ESPN's Keith Law, the Braves rank just 22nd out of the 30 clubs as far as farm systems are concerned.
It's not all bad news though. As Law points out in his snippet on Atlanta, the Braves' system is rather top-heavy, meaning there could be some useful pieces worth waiting for.
Atlanta's 2012 No. 1 pick, pitcher Lucas Sims, is the organization's top prospect.
Sims was the 21st overall selection in the 2012 draft, and although he has yet to pitch above A-ball, early signs are all positive.
In the 2013 season, pitching for Rome of the South Atlantic League, Sims went 12-4 in 18 starts. More importantly, he allowed just three home runs all year and struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings. At Low-A ball, it's hard to put much stock in certain stats. Wins and losses are nearly irrelevant when compared to how deep into games a pitcher is going or how his command is. Limiting home runs and striking out batters are two important factors to a prospect's success. Sims excelled in both areas.
According to FanGraphs' Mike Newman, Sims throws in the mid-to-low 90s with his fastball, but can touch 95. He pairs that with a strikeout-inducing curveball, touted as the best in the Braves organization.
It is fair to assume Sims is still a number of years away from the bigs. However, the swing-and-miss potential is what makes him so intriguing. If he harnesses his control as he moves up in leagues, Sims could grab a high spot in Atlanta's rotation of the future.
While Lucas Sims was the only Braves' player to make the top 50 of Keith Law's list of the Top 100 prospects, catcher Christian Bethancourt was one of only three Braves to crack the overall 100.
Bethancourt has been with the organization since he was 16, back in 2008. Having moved through the minors, the young man from Panama has played two full seasons in Double-A. His 2012 numbers were awfully disappointing across the board. Playing in Mississippi of the Southern League, Bethancourt finished the year with just a .566 OPS.
Thus, he repeated Double-A again in 2013, improving his production tremendously in the power department. He went from eight extra-base hits in 268 at-bats to 33 in 358 at-bats the following season, raising his slugging percentage from a dismal .291 to a respectable .436.
Despite the uptick in power, Bethancourt still seems to have some sort of phobia towards walks and getting on base. He has yet to draw more than 17 walks in any year, at any level of the minor leagues.
However, his upside is not strictly at the plate. Although good power figures are important, Bethancourt's strength is his defense. While ranking him as the 90th-best prospect in baseball, Law called him perhaps the best defensive catcher in the minors right now. With the way things are trending, that statement alone is reason for hope.
Teams around the Majors are just now determining the literal value of a great defensive catcher, even beyond having a strong arm and throwing out potential base-stealers. The value of pitch-framing, game-calling and the like is still up for debate. However, according to Baseball-Reference, the value of a great defensive catcher could be as much as two to three wins per year, just from defense alone.
J.R. Graham was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 46th round back in 2008. He did not sign, and that ended up working in the Braves' favor. Atlanta took the right-hander in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.
In his first full year, shuffling between High-A and Double-A, Graham was solid for Lynchburg and Mississippi respectively. He posted a 12-2 combined record, with a 1.06 WHIP and 2.80 ERA. Things were looking up until 2013.
In 2013, Graham started only eight games before succumbing to a shoulder injury and missing the remainder of the season. That injury, coupled with concerns about his frame and mechanics, have Josh Martin of BattlingLeadoff.com thinking that he may never become the starting pitcher prospect he was originally thought of.
Moving a pitcher from a starter to a relief role is a drastic killer of his value. There is simply not much to gain from a reliever prospect, no matter how good he is. While starters throw 200-plus innings in a season, even the best relievers only affect 60-80 innings in a year. If Graham gets "demoted" to a permanent reliever role, his upside is tarnished.
However, it is too soon to relegate him to that. Although shoulder injuries can be iffy, Graham was a top-100 prospect just last season. And, for whatever it's worth, the Braves have come out and said they want to keep him as a starter.
Similarly to Christian Bethancourt, the high regard for shortstop Jose Peraza stems from tools other than his bat.
Signed at age 17 out of Venezuela, Peraza played Low-A ball last season in the South Atlantic league. He doesn't yet walk a ton and has little power, but the wheels are for real. Peraza stole 64 bases in 114 games. He also stretched hits into extra bases 26 times, including eight triples, which helps to lessen the blow of his .371 slugging percentage.
There are also positive signs about his defense, with speculation saying that he could stay at the position long-term, rather than being forced to move elsewhere like many prominent shortstop prospects.
Even if the power is limited, an improved batting eye and willingness to take a walk is something that can expedite Peraza's arrival to the higher levels of minor league baseball. A player with four-tool potential is still someone to keep an eye on.
Signed as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, Mauricio Cabrera is another in a list of Braves prospects brought in from Latin American countries in recent years.
Cabrera is still a ways away from contributing on the Major League level, as he has pitched no higher than Low-A ball thus far. Also, his immediate results have not been overly impressive. Last season for Rome, Cabrera walked way too many batters, approaching five bases on balls per nine innings. But the stuff is there.
While he struck out 107 in 131.1 innings, the upside has him averaging even more than 7.3 K/9.
A year ago, thoughts centered around him needing to develop a secondary pitch and harness his high 90s fastball. After seeing his numbers drop from 2012 to 2013, that is still the case heading into 2014. Of course, you can't teach 98 mph.
Jason Hursh is another example of a player the Braves selected early in a draft a few years after another team failed to sign him previously. It took a Braves first-round pick in 2013 to grab Hursh out of Oklahoma State.
While he was selected very highly, the upside of Hursh is a bit of a contentious subject. While Atlanta obviously thinks highly of him, others feel his ceiling is very limited, and he may turn into nothing more than a solid reliever.
While a high-floor player is important to build the depth of a farm system, Hursh clearly being one of the Braves' top 10 prospects is a sign of how little depth they currently have.
His numbers at Rome in 2013 were good, as far as classic figures such as ERA and WHIP are concerned. However, he struck out only 15 batters in 27 innings. This speaks to his limited upside. Hursh will have to strike out many more batters this season if he hopes to remain on radars.
Tommy La Stella
Tommy La Stella, the former eighth-round pick in 2011, is far from a defensive wizard at second base. However, with the current status of Atlanta Braves Major League second basemen, that may not be much of a deterrent for him eventually making the club.
Luckily, La Stella excels at the plate. This early in his career, his strengths are already apparent. He has a great eye at the plate. La Stella struck out fewer times than he walked in each of the past two seasons. Thanks to that superior eye, he has also collected a ton of hits and gets on base more than 40 percent of the time.
La Stella is not much of a runner and has little pop in his bat. Coupled with his defensive liabilities, his entire value is in his eye and contact skills. This limits his overall upside but doesn't squash his usefulness at the next level.
Feelings on David Hale are all over the map. Some folks consider him safely among the Braves' top-10 prospects. Others have him nowhere near it. Nevertheless, despite what outsiders think, Hale was chosen as one of the lucky few to make Atlanta's opening day roster in 2014.
Because of all the injuries to their starting pitchers, the Braves have in fact tabbed Hale to start this Friday, April 4, against the Washington Nationals. It is a great step towards removing Hale from even qualifying for such a list in the near future.
For now though, Hale is still considered a prospect, and a questionable one at that. Drafted in the third round back in 2009, he's slowly matriculated his way up the minor leagues. He even made two appearances for the Braves in 2013 after pitching much of the year in Triple-A.
While his 2014 Spring Training numbers were atrocious, Atlanta felt they saw enough in him in past seasons to warrant the call-up. After moving from Double-A to Triple-A following the 2012 season, Hale actually did a good job of lowering his walks, one of the main problems he had at the lower levels.
The interesting thing with Hale though is that, in the smallest of small sample sizes, he was absolutely fantastic during his brief MLB stint last season. In two starts, he went 11 innings, struck out 14 batters and walked just one man.
There is...limited media circulating on the Braves' 2013 second-round pick Victor Caratini. However, this much is clear. The 19-year-old catcher/third baseman has much of his future value tied to that slash.
Caratini is a good hitter albeit with limited power. In just 200 at-bats in his first season in rookie ball, Caratini hit .290 with a .415 OBP. However, he hit just one home run while striking out 49 times. Clearly early in his development, it is already evident that he does not have the bat to be a prototypical corner infielder.
That doesn't mean he can't be projected as a Major League catcher however. Caratini, even with his lack of power, walks enough and hits enough to be a plus bat at the catcher position. At just 19, it is too early to know if he can play the position, but his future may depend on it.
Fangraphs' Marc Hulet sums this up nicely:
A switch-hitting catcher with average defensive skills, strong on-base abilities and gap power carries a ton of value so you can understand why Atlanta would attempt this experiment.
Wes Parsons is an interesting prospect. He was an undrafted free agent that the Braves scooped up last season. He has his own Youtube highlight tape (with soundtrack!). He also has a solid case for being one of the Braves' top 10 prospects. Perhaps this says more about the state of their farm system than Parsons' actual abilities, but the young man is still intriguing.
At 6'5" and 190 pounds, Parsons has an aesthetically pleasing frame to watch throw a baseball. He also threw it quite well last season in A-ball. In 109.2 innings, he struck out 101 batters while walking just 21. He pounds the strike zone and has showcased great control.
Keith Law ranked Parsons as the Braves' fifth-best prospect heading into the 2014 season. That seems a tad high for someone who was not even drafted and has so little experience. Others feel Parsons' upside is more limited, and he may be nothing more than a long reliever.
Whatever the eventual outcome, it seems only fitting that an undrafted free agent rounds out the Braves' top prospect list. Fans should take solace in the fact that their Major League club is really good and really young in a lot of places.