With just a few weeks until pitchers and catchers report, we are firmly in the middle of prospect season. With top prospect lists being release by all the major publications over the next weeks, it’s worth taking a deeper look at one of the best organizational pool of talent in baseball: the Atlanta Braves. The Braves minor league system took a hit during the offseason when a number of prospects were released from the organization following the John Coppolella bonus scandal, but this system is still full of high end talent and a solid amount of depth. Topped by the likely #1 overall prospect in baseball and overflowing with pitching talent, the Braves are set up very well for the future by their exceptional farm system.
Nobody else could have been #1 in this extremely deep system. Acuna is the darling of the prospect world right now and has already been ranked as the #1 overall prospect by Keith Law and Baseball America with more to come. Acuna was signed out of Venezuela in 2014 as an outfielder with projected plus power and speed. Following his ascent through the minors and explosion into the spotlight in 2017, he’s now viewed as a true 5 tool threat. The plus power and speed have stuck, while he has also become a more complete hitter and established himself as a future Gold Glove outfielder in a corner or a solidly above average center fielder. The power to all fields is Acuna’s most impressive attribute, as shown by his masterclass hitting performance through three levels of the minors in 2017. He has the ability to hit the ball from gap to gap as well as over the wall, and couples his gap power with plus speed that will see him hit plenty of doubles and triples once he hits the majors sometime in 2018. If there’s one area where Acuna can still improve, it is his plate approach which sees him strike out perhaps a bit too much. Overall though, Acuna is the most talented prospect to come through the Braves’ system since Jason Heyward in 2010, and his ceiling is almost limitless at this point.
Gohara is a relative newcomer to the Braves system. He was part of the trade last offseason that sent Mallex Smith to Seattle (and then immediately to Tampa Bay). In Seattle, Gohara was a relatively well regarded pitching prospect who struggled with consistency. Since making the move to Atlanta however, Gohara has elevated his stock immensely on his way to becoming arguably the best arm in a system full of talented pitching. Gohara’s headliner is his plus plus fastball that regularly sits at 96-97 but can easily touch triple digits. He pairs his exceptional fastball with a good slider in the high 80s with strong horizontal movement. Gohara’s fastball and slider are his primary pitches and he plays them off each other well, but to make the next step in development he’ll need to bring his third pitch, his changeup, up to the quality of his other offerings. In 2017, Gohara threw his changeup only 10% of the time, compared to 57% for his fastball and 33% for his slider. The changeup is not a good pitch for Gohara right now, but he has said that he’s spent this offseason working on both his changeup and his conditioning. Those two factors will be key to Gohara fulfilling his potential as the improvement in his conditioning and the strengthening of that key third pitch will allow him to pitch deeper into games and keep hitters off balance.
Wright was the Braves’ first pick of the 2017 MLB draft. The first round pick out of baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt joined Dansby Swanson as the Commodore contingent in Atlanta. Wright was seen as sort of a coup for the Braves, as he was expected to be one of the first two picks prior to the draft. Instead, he became a steal at #5 as he slotted in immediately as one of the top arms in a stacked farm system. Wright is a tall, powerful right hander with a strong four seam fastball that sits at 95 but can touch 97-98 with good downhill action and plenty of sink. He plays his fastball off two plus breaking pitches. Both the slider and curveball are plus pitches for Wright and he’s shown adeptness at using them strategically as well as the ability to flat out overpower hitters with the break from both offerings. Like Gohara, Wright also carries a changeup that is not necessarily a good offering at this moment, but it is probably already better than Gohara’s offering. Of all the arms in the Braves system, Wright has the highest ceiling due to his arsenal of pitches and his fluid, consistent mechanics. After amassing just 11 professional innings in 2017, he will likely start the season at High-A with the opportunity to climb through the ranks aggressively if his potential turns into performance.
Aside from Ronald Acuna, nobody in the Braves system elevated themselves in 2017 quite as much as Austin Riley. Riley was a slow starter in his first two pro seasons with Atlanta, but still managed to hit his way to Double-A at the age of 20. His 2017 explosion has thrust him directly into the spotlight of a talented cadre of minor league hitters in the Atlanta system. His raw power has been evident since the beginning, but what has come on leaps and bounds over the past two seasons has been his overall approach at the plate. His K% and BB% are trending in the right directions heading into 2017 while his raw power should continue to evolve into better game power. Often thought of as a future corner outfielder because of his defense, there is now a path to a future at 3B after Riley’s impressive improvements on defense in 2017. He moves well for his size and his glove is starting to catch up to his plus arm. If Riley can continue to improve his plate approach and cut down on strikeouts, there is definitely a place for him in the Braves’ long term plans as a power hitting, strong armed contributor at the hot corner.
Allard’s stock has fallen a bit since last offseason as his fastball has not progressed as expected. What once looked like a plus pitch is starting to look more like a below average offering and no matter the strength of the secondary offerings it’s difficult to project a successful future for a pitcher with a below average fastball. The hope for Allard is still there however, primarily because of the strength of his secondary pitches. Allard’s curveball is the best in the Braves system and one of the best in the minor leagues, and he pairs it with what looks to be a plus changeup that shows noticeable sink and keeps hitters off balance even when faced with an inconsistent fastball. The curveball is Allard’s highlight however, and his ability to throw the pitch in two distinct ways will certainly help to offset the relative weakness of his four seamer. The versatility of Allard’s offspeeds also helps him to pitch deep into games as he has shown the ability to adjust his grip to disguise and change his pitches as he sees hitters for a third or fourth time. The hope for the Braves is that Allard finds some extra velocity for his fastball to help play more strongly off his plus breaking pitches. If that happens then Allard could very well find himself in the high levels of the minors by the end of 2018.
Soroka is yet another member of this system who had a breakout season in 2017. Like the others, he’s still very young at just 20 years old but has shown abilities beyond his years. He finished 2017 with a 2.75 ERA with a 3.7 K:BB rate, showing off his impressive control and command. He’s been compared to the Tigers’ 2016 Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer as a tall, intimidating right hander with plus offerings and plus control but without the elite strikeout numbers of some other pitchers. His primary pitch is a strong four seam fastball that regularly sits at 95-96 and can touch 97, as well as a two-seam sinker at 95. He rounds out his arsenal with an overpowering 89 MPH curveball with strong 12-6 movement and an above average sinking changeup that sits around 85. Soroka is a very good groundball pitcher, inducing grounders at a higher rate than any other pitcher in the Braves system and among the best in the minors. His deep arsenal allows him to throw well even deep into games, and he shows a good understanding of his pitch mix and how to throw all his offerings strategically. His main weakness throughout his minor league career so far has been some relatively poor performances against left handed hitters, but he improved in this regard in 2017.
Fried has already made his major league debut, and his 5 inning performance against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs in August showed why he’s rated so highly among evaluators. The left hander has drawn comparisons to Mariners ace James Paxton, as both were first round picks who took a while to develop with a plus fastball and curveball. Fried’s fastball is a prime offering, touching 96-97 at times, but it plays second fiddle to his dominant curveball. Fried’s curve is his primary weapon, a weapon of mass destruction that sits at low as 72 and as high as 77 depending on his grip. He can throw the devastating pitch as a looping 12-6 offering early in counts or as a tighter horizontal breaker later in counts. Like others on this list, he also carries a fringe changeup that he throws rarely but can be effective played off his good fastball. He is the best fielder among pitchers in the Braves system by far, and has an extremely deceptive and effective pickoff move to both first and second. Fried will still need to throw more strikes to achieve his potential, but he will likely see the opportunity to impress as a member of the Braves’ big league rotation to start the 2018 season.
The fourth straight pitcher on this list is right hander Ian Anderson. Anderson is tall and lean at 6’3” and just under 175 pounds with an overhead release. Because of his length and release point, his entire arsenal has dangerous diving movement towards the plate which helps to accentuate his strong fastball which regularly sits around 93-94 MPH. His fastball is downhill but has fairly little movement otherwise, limiting its potential as a true out pitch. Like Allard and Fried before, Anderson also carries a plus curveball that flashes in the high 70s with a looping 12-6 movement. He throws the curveball confidently in any count, both for strikes and beneath the zone to generate awkward swinging strikes. His solid three pitch mix is rounded out by an above average changeup with strong sinking movement. Anderson’s fastball is by far his primary pitch as he throws it above 60% of the time even in later innings. His biggest strength is the coordination and smooth consistent delivery on each of his pitches and his ability to throw the 12-6 curve in any count even deeper in games. Anderson could be another rapid climber in 2018 as he continue to develop his pitch strategy and strengthen his changeup.
Pache may already be the best defensive outfielder in the entire minor leagues. It’s not too much of a stretch to project his glove as an 80 grade with a 70 arm and plus speed to top it off. His outfield route awareness is special for someone his age and his physical tools ensure that he’s able to get to just about any ball hit in his direction. He profiles very similarly to the Mets’ Juan Lagares as a future multiple GG Winner and singles lover. He hits singles like his life depends on it. In 2017, Pache had more singles than strikeouts, and his plus speed often allows him to stretch these singles in doubles in the field, or in the form of stolen bases. He has shown himself to be a gifted base stealer, certainly a function of his speed. At the plate, he makes an effort to use every part of the field and enjoys to hit the opposite way especially. There’s not a whole lot of power in his bat now and there isn’t likely to be in the future, and he doesn’t have an advanced plate approach that allows for high walk figures, but his defensive tools and hitting skills make him an overall intriguing prospect that can certainly fashion a major league spot for himself in the near future.
Wentz is another promising 20 year old pitcher in a system full of promising 20 year old pitchers. He’s a tall, strong left hander at 6’5”, 210 pounds with room to build more muscle onto his frame. His delivery is smooth and consistent for a pitcher his size, showing his excellent athleticism. Wentz’s fastball sits at a relatively low 91-93, but plays beyond its velocity due the angle he throws it at which allows him to deceive hitters despite the low velocity. Wentz also throws an 11-5 sidearm-ish curve with good bite. He throws the pitch with confidence in all counts and especially as first pitch strikes. He rounds off his arsenal with an average changeup that sits in the high 70s with good sink. All three of his pitches play beyond their velocity and movement because of Wentz’s plus command and control of his offerings and his consistent and deceptive delivery. If he can add more muscle onto his tall frame and bring his fastball up another few ticks, he has the makings of a strong #2 starter in the majors.