Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses of Atlanta Braves' Top 10 Prospects
With the calendar having rolled over to June, two major things happened in the world of MLB prospects. The amateur player draft took place, adding a slew of talented youngsters to teams' lists of their top prospects. Also, money-conscious teams have begun calling up their best players as the timeline for avoiding a year of arbitration eligibility has moved in the organizations' favor.
For the Atlanta Braves, one of these two events was much more impactful than the other. While Atlanta has some useful pieces in the minor leagues, it lacks a top-flight prospect that fans are clambering for. The Braves have also already promoted a couple of key men to the bigs in second baseman Tommy La Stella and reliever Shae Simmons.
However, the MLB draft was a worthwhile and successful effort for Atlanta, as it managed to grab at least one prospect who immediately finds himself in the top 10 of the organization. Although, he is not without his faults. In that regard, he is not alone.
Here are the strengths and weaknesses of Atlanta's top 10 prospects, with ranking according to Bleacher Report's own Martin Gandy.
10. Aaron Northcraft
Strength: command and pitching presence
Aaron Northcraft is a bit of a veteran prospect if there is such a thing. He was drafted back in 2009 and is approaching his mid-20s. However, he was selected out of high school, and high school pitchers often take time to reach the majors, if they get there at all.
On Northcraft's side is his mound presence. He has controlled the strike zone well the past few seasons, even after the upgrade to Double-A competition. His FIP figures from High-A and Double-A suggest a pitcher who definitely knows what he's doing and can limit both home runs and walks.
Weakness: plus pitches
The reason Northcraft has not progressed quickly through the minors is because he lacks elite-level pitches. His fastball is solid, as are some of his other offerings, but none of his pitches are well above average. The fact that he still manages to strike out a high number of opposing batters speaks back to his command.
9. Wes Parsons
Much like Aaron Northcraft, Wes Parsons' best pitching attribute is his command, and he's actually seen better results than Northcraft.
Although he's yet to advance past High-A, Parsons has a career WHIP of 1.05 and career K/BB rate of 4.79. Both figures are outstanding, especially if he can continue those trends up through the minors.
Parsons was signed by the Braves as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Perhaps his thin frame or lack of an elite fastball scared teams away. Whatever it was, no one felt Parsons was worthy of a selection all throughout the draft that season.
Even with good production, it may be human nature for Atlanta to give another kid a chance before Parsons because it has less invested in him and thought less of him at the time of drafting. The baseball draft is so fickle that being undrafted is hardly a death sentence. However, the major league club may want to see more, sustained success from the undrafted FA before giving him the benefit of the doubt.
8. Mauricio Cabrera
Strength: arm strength
Mauricio Cabrera was signed as a 17-year-old out of Puerto Rico in 2011. 2014 was his first action in High-A ball and he went down with an injury. However, the setback has done nothing to scouts' beliefs in his "stuff."
The common refrain is that Cabrera may have the best stuff of any pitcher in Atlanta's system. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and has action to it. His breaking stuff is also good but is actually bested by his changeup.
Starting out so young and getting used to the U.S. on top of that, it is no wonder Cabrera is taking his time progressing through the system. The talent is evident, though.
With an occasionally unrepeatable delivery, Cabrera can be effectively wild. He can also be just plain wild, to his detriment. His career K/BB rate sits well below 2.00, and 20-plus combined wild pitches and hit batsmen per season is becoming the norm for him.
The job for Atlanta's minor league coaches is to harness Cabrera's arm and get him into better, consistent mechanics on the mound. That alone will settle down his control issues and make him a better player.
7. Victor Caratini
Victor Caratini can play third base and catcher. He can bat lefty or righty. He's a second-round pick from just last season who has proven himself to be more than a replacement-level bat to go with his glove. In A-ball, Caratini is already hitting for a high average while drawing walks to boot. And he's only 20 years old.
The only major hole in his game at this point is his lack of power. Through close to 400 at-bats at low minor league levels, Caratini has mashed just three total home runs. His slugging percentage of .416 suggests he's nothing more than a singles hitter with some doubles sprinkled in.
A switch-hitting catcher who can get on base has a place at the highest level. Expecting Caratini to bring an Evan Gattis-like bat with him is going overboard.
6. Braxton Davidson
Strength: hitting upside
Besides having a very strong name, Braxton Davidson has some upside in his bat. The lack of positional depth in the organization may make Davidson seem even better than he is, but the ability to hit for both power and average is there.
Just out of high school, it will take time for him to develop, but the Braves got a bargain with him slipping to them in the first-round compensation picks.
The only reason Davidson wasn't selected higher in the 2014 draft is because of his lack of a position. Supposedly he can play outfield, but his skills in that regard are suspect. He also lacks speed to play anything but a corner spot if he cuts it in the outfield at all.
First base seems like his destined position. Of course, Atlanta is all set at first for the foreseeable future.
5. Jose Peraza
Like Mauricio Cabrera, infielder Jose Peraza was signed as an international free agent at the age of 17. The Braves have moved him from shortstop to second base to align more closely with the major league club's needs. Wherever he plays, though, his speed is translatable.
In just 295 games throughout the minor league levels, Peraza has stolen 147 bases. He swiped 64 last year alone. His comfortably solid on-base skills aid his stolen-base ability, but most of his effectiveness starts at first base.
As he matures and learns on the basepaths, he should be able to limit the times he is caught stealing, further elevating his game.
Peraza has a .382 career slugging percentage even though he's never batted above High-A ball. He has very limited power, as evidenced by his four career home runs. The interesting thing is that he lacks doubles power as well, collecting more than half as many triples as doubles just because of his speed.
4. Jason Hursh
Strength: sinking fastball
Jason Hursh was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010 right out of high school. He chose to attend Oklahoma State rather than sign with Pittsburgh. Three years later, Atlanta selected him in the first round.
Out of high school, Hursh was just a sixth-round pick, but the Braves liked what they saw in his development. He possesses a very good fastball that has sink to it. Already in Double-A after just nine career pro starts, Hursh seems to pitch to contact and has had some success with that.
Weakness: striking batters out
Hursh may need better breaking stuff or off-speed options to throw off hitters' eye levels because he does not miss many bats. The sinking stuff allows him to limit home runs, and he does a solid job of avoiding too many walks. But the lack of strikeouts should be something for Atlanta to monitor.
He currently strikes out less than 5.0 batters per nine innings, a putrid rate for even the slowest-throwing pitchers.
3. J.R. Graham
With a fastball that reaches into the high 90s, J.R. Graham profiles as a major league pitcher. He even went to college to improve his draft stock after he was selected in the 46th round out of high school in 2008. Unlike many of the other pitching prospects in the Braves organization, Graham has a solid mix of plus-pitches with the ability to actually throw them for strikes.
At barely 6'0" and less than 200 pounds, Graham's stature was what dropped him to the fourth round of the 2011 draft. Teams weren't confident he could hold up or develop into anything more than a middle reliever. Both of those concerns are real.
Graham is already battling through injuries, and even if he makes it back to pitching like he's capable of, entrusting him with a spot in a starting rotation may not be the best move.
2. Christian Bethancourt
Strength: defense behind the plate
Christian Bethancourt probably has the most pronounced strengths and weaknesses of anyone in the Braves organization. He is inarguably one of the best defensive catchers in the country.
His presence behind the plate and ability to call a game, throw runners out and receive pitches are all on display when he catches a game. His defense is the reason he's a top-notch prospect.
As recently as 10 years ago, a catcher's defense wasn't thought of as being as important as it is today. Teams used inept-hitting catchers out of necessity more than choice. Now, organizations are considering how much a catcher's defense can be worth, regardless of what he bats.
This is important for Bethancourt because he may be the perfect test case for Atlanta. He can't hit a lick.
He is an average to below-average contact hitter who possesses no power and no batting eye. Bethancourt doesn't get on base enough to make up for his inability to hit for a high average. In fact, his OBP is probably the worst part of his offensive game.
A great defensive catcher is worth something. One who can't get on base is worth less.
1. Lucas Sims
Lucas Sims was Atlanta's top prospect to start the season and continues to be throughout the 2014 year. Although he is not currently the best player in the Braves' minor league system, Sims still possesses the highest ceiling.
He has three MLB-level pitches that he can command in the fastball, changeup and breaking ball. A first-round pick out of high school in 2012, Sims is also just 20 years old and dominated A-ball last year.
He has struggled somewhat with jumping a level this season, but it is no cause for concern at the moment.
Weakness: home runs allowed
While a jump in overall numbers in 2014 is not terrible, Sims' spike in home runs allowed is something to keep an eye on. He allowed six long balls in his first two seasons combined yet has already given up eight in 13 starts this season.
The other factor at play is his dramatic dip in strikeouts. Sitting down 10.3 batters per nine innings in 2013, Sims is striking out fewer than five per nine this season.
It should take time for a 20-year-old to adjust to new opposition, so specific stats aren't enough to knock Sims down the prospect rankings. These struggles are areas of improvement, though, for the future ace.
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