Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Braves Top 50 Prospects, 2017 Preseason: #5-#1

Here it is. The top five prospects of this year's Top 50. The elite of the elite, the best of the best, the cliche of the clicheiest (sp?). These are five players who all belong in each Top 100 countdown of the best prospects in the game. Suffice it to say, it's really hard to overhype this group.

Before I get to that, some sad news. The Top 50 has already seen a player get cut. #41 Steve Janas was released before spring training. I haven't seen any reasoning for the move, but the move was likely either a move based on Atlanta's ridiculous bullpen depth or a precursor to a move to one of Asia's professional leagues where Janas can make more money.

With that out of the way, let's get on with the show.

5. Kevin Maitan, SS, 17 years-old, Grade: B+

I first read about Maitan two-and-a-half years ago when former Fangraphs prospect guru Kiley McDaniel wrote, "Maitan has been compared to Miguel Cabrera by most of the scouts I’ve asked about him. He’s unusually physically mature for his age and flashes all the tools you want to see to throw that Cabrera comp around: he can play shortstop pretty well now, he’s got more raw power than most kids a few years older than him, he has smooth actions in defense and at the plate and so on." McDaniel is now an employee of the Braves and Maitan is now the Braves's biggest international signing in years.

Venezuela has produced a number of great hitters over the years with Cabrera the creme of the crop. To be compared to the surefire Hall of Famer is a true testament to how exciting Maitan is from a potential standpoint. A switch-hitter with a middle-of-the-order bat, Maitan has been loved by scouts since he was just entering his teenage years. The Braves quickly worked to get a handshake agreement and then made good on that agreement last July, signing the youngster to a $4.25 million signing bonus - a franchise-record.

What amazes me is that Maitan also a solid eye at the plate. This is a kid who just turned 17 the other day and he already has a good idea of the strikezone and is confident in both his eye and his ability to let a pitch go by in order to get a better pitch in the at-bat. Right now, he has five-tool potential, though many believe the speed will subside to some degree as he grows further into his at least 6'2" frame.

Where Maitan ultimately ends up on the field is still a question. While third base has often been tabbed as the likely destination, the Braves will let Maitan stick at shortstop until a move is necessary - if at all - because his value will be at its highest there.

Remember that Maitan has only played in some instructional league games, which aren't officially counted. He could start 2017 with Danville, though a more sensible landing spot in the Gulf Coast League is more likely. Whatever the case, Braves fans will probably wait until June to finally see him in action. As someone who is just over an hour away from Danville, you can bet I'll make sure to see him provided he makes a stop with the team.



4. Kolby Allard, LHP, 19 years-old, Grade: A-

Any time you get an opportunity to take a Top-10 talent with the #14th pick, you thank Jobu and do it. A back issue scared teams away from drafting Allard in 2015 as high as he deserved. The fearless Braves went high-ceiling as they have made a habit of doing under John Coppolella. Twenty months later, it looks like the luck of the Irish has definitely followed the Notre Dame grad and current general manager of the Braves.

No one doubted Allard's potential and so far, that potential has left little to doubt. After six innings of work in 2015, Allard pitched 87.2 innings last season - mostly with Rome. That leaves us with career numbers of 93.2 total innings, 107 strikeouts (29%), 25 walks (7%), and just a handful of homeruns allowed. Only three of the 370 batters he has faced were younger than him and most of his ERA issues from lat year were a result of three outings (his first two with Rome and July 28). Over his final six starts, he had a 2.17 ERA and struck out 41 in 37.1 innings. He finished his sophomore season with a dozen scoreless innings in the playoffs.

All of those numbers I just previously mentioned is a way of saying Allard is really good. Why is he so good? The lefty works off a fastball that includes a great deal of natural movement. Mature for his age, Allard will add and subtract velocity to keep the hitter off-balanced rather than stick to a low-to-mid-90's speed. His secondary options are just as good with a breaking changeup and plus-curveball that rivals many in the system.

We're just 93.2 innings into his career so my ranking reflects that a bit more than others, who may have him higher or at least grade him the top lefthanded arm in the system. I believe he can be that and could be #1 or #2 by midseason if he stars early in Florida. Allard won't turn 20 years-old until August 13 so he has plenty of time to continue to make every concerned evaluator during the 2015 draft look foolish.



3. Ozzie Albies, 2B, 20 years-old, Grade: A-

No one could have predicted the meteoric climb Albies has taken since beginning his professional career in June of 2014. Signed to just a $350,000 signing bonus in 2013 during the Frank Wren-led regime, Albies was a smallish middle infielder with potential. Less than five years later, he's on the cusp of the major leagues and is just entering his Age-20 year. What an absolute find.

After blitzing the rookie leagues in '14, Albies became a major prospect with a .310/.368/.404 run in the South Atlantic League as an 18 year-old. Last year, he skipped right by the Carolina League and began the season with Mississippi. He had just two hiccups all season. In his first 35 games after a quick promotion to Gwinnett, Albies hit a miserable .226/.267/.336. He righted the ship to hit .282/.367/.376 over his next 21 games, but still was demoted back to Mississippi at the end of June. However, that was likely more of a move to get him time up the middle with a certain franchise cornerstone at shortstop as Albies had been moved to second three weeks before the demotion. Albies did well down the stretch for Mississippi and stayed at second after that aforementioned franchise cornerstone joined the big league team. Albies' season came to an unfortunate end in Game 1 of the Southern League playoffs with an elbow fracture.

Overall, despite that bad 35-game run with Gwinnett, Albies hit .292/.358/.420 on the season with 49 extra base-hits and 30 steals. A good shortstop, Albies defense at second, while inexperienced, gave the Braves reason to believe he could not only handle the position, but thrive. Overall, Albies carries a career .310/.377/.419 triple slash into 2017.

Albies' game still has room to grow. If he improves his walk rate from the 8% it's been the last two years into double digits, it would make him an even bigger weapon. The good news is that he flashed more power last year than any year before. If he keeps a nearly .130 ISO, or increases it, he has .800 OPS+ potential yearly, which, with his overall game, makes him a yearly option to post 4-6 fWAR seasons.

Detractors have often cited Albies' build, but Albies generates a lot of force in his swing and gets a good deal of exit velocity after connecting. The negative is that he puts the ball on the ground a lot, though he's not a punch-and-judy hitter. The ball screams off his bat and it's often beyond defenders before they can even react. He hits well from both sides of the plate and finds the gap frequently along the way. With his swing and profile, I doubt he'll put up many, if any, double digit homerun seasons, but he's not going to be an empty batting average guy, either. He's going to get his doubles and with his speed, he's going to turn some of them into triples.

The big question is when, not if, Albies makes his major league debut. The addition of Brandon Phillips and, before him, Sean Rodriguez seemed to point to the Braves going slow with Albies coming back from an elbow injury and that's the smart play. Recent news that Albies has not been cleared just yet also points to a slow start for the youngster to his 2017. Even without that fact, the Braves do not need to push Albies up the chain too quickly. Instead, he's likely to remain in the minors until summer when the Braves can better evaluate their options - both with Phillips and Jace Peterson in the majors and where Albies is at in his development. If he's deemed ready, the Braves seem likely to bring him up to begin what will hopefully be a long double play partnership with Swanson. It's going to be an exciting day for Braves fans when that day comes.



2. Sean Newcomb, LHP, 24 years-old, Grade: A-

Some have soured on Newcomb, but not me. His final nine starts, I believe, are a sign that Newcomb could be ready for the breakthrough season that not only justifies this high of a ranking in a system as deep as Atlanta's, but also gets him to the major leagues.

Let's talk about those nine starts, which came after a particularly ugly seven-game stretch. From July 18th to the end of the regular season, Newcomb had a 2.26 ERA in 51.2 innings. He struck out 60 next to 21 walks. To put that in a different way, Newcomb struck out nearly 30% of all batters he faced over his final nine starts while walking just 10%. Now, ten percent of all batters may still sound a lot. The average major league starter walked 7.7% last year after all. But for Newcomb, it was a big deal. Before that nine-game stretch, he was striking out 24% of all batters and walking 13%. Now, nine games in a 27-game season don't tell the whole story, but neither does his full-season totals. Somewhere in the middle, that's the story of Newcomb's 2016. I choose to believe, though, that the story is one that suggests Newcomb is ready to start to look like the pitcher who was picked 15th overall out of Hartford back in 2014.

One reason I believe this is because the solid finish was in large part due to mechanical alterations meant to help Newcomb's control. The biggest result was simple - his delivery became easier to repeat, giving him the consistency that he lacked as a professional.

Newcomb's stuff is off the charts good. His fastball/slider is good enough that Newcomb has often been considered a potential reliever should starting prove to not be a fit for him. The big lefty could struggle for some time with walk totals, but that's more a byproduct of having ridiculous movement on his mig-90's fastball and changeup. His curve/slider is a hard spinner that, when Newcomb is ahead of the batter, can be difficult to both recognize and lay off.

Newcomb is far from a finished product and it could take a few years in the majors for him to really take the strides needed to reach his potential. I look for progression in the minors and in Newcomb, I see just that. The full season results are not overly impressive, but when the light switch was flipped on, we saw the version of Newcomb that makes scouts excited. If we see more of that in Gwinnett to open 2017, he'll be in the majors very soon.



1. Dansby Swanson, SS, 23 years-old, Grade: A 

Was there much doubt? Still technically a rookie and thus still a prospect in my book, Swanson is the only rookie on this list with a guaranteed spot on this season's roster and it's a pretty important one: starting shortstop and #2 hitter. The Dansby Era has definitely begun.

Acquired in the trade Dave Stewart still wakes up in a cold sweat over, Swanson toyed with the Carolina League to open 2016. He was brought to Mississippi by late April, replacing Albies in the process, and got off to a solid start there. However, his results stagnated from there. In a 23 game stretch from late May to late June, he slashed just .208/.283/.333. Another 15-game stretch in July resulted in a slash of .179/.277/.321. In fact, his final 15 games in the minors weren't much to write home about, but the Braves still brought him up to join the roster on August 17.

In 38 games, Dansby Swanson showed the National League that he's here to stay. He slashed .302/.361/.442, played great defense, hit three homers (including an inside-the-parker), and basically made the fans forget all about that guy who was traded in the Erick Aybar deal.

Now, the question is...just how good can he be in 2017? Well, it seems unlikely he'll maintain a .383 BABIP over a full season like he did in his month+ with the Braves in 2016. That said, he probably can post a better than .140 ISO and push his walk percentage above 9%, which will negate a drop in BABIP for the most part. Defensively, he should remain a solid defender who may never win a Gold Glove, but will be a plus player in the field. All in all, a 3 fWAR season is not too much to hope for during Swasnon's first rull season in the majors. The last Braves rookie position player to do that was Jason Heyward in 2010.

In Swanson, the Braves have a cornerstone - a guy to build around. While he lacks one standout skill, he rates extremely well in nearly everything. I could see him having a similar career as Michael Young, but a hopefully realistic part of me believes that's Swanson's projected floor and that the ceiling is much higher. Consider that it took Young two full seasons to do what Swanson seems capable of doing right now and Young was a year older during his rookie season. Hence why I think Swanson has a higher ceiling. Regardless, Young was a 23.8 fWAR player during his career. Those players don't just fall in your lap unless Dave Stewart gets really anxious to compete with the Dodgers.



That puts a cap on this year's preseason Top 50. Swanson seems like the proverbial choice by most publications and I do plan on comparing my ranking with other sources in the coming days to give some perspective. Thanks for reading and sometime near midseason, I plan on updating this list. At that point, Swanson will likely have lost his prospect status so a new #1 will be at the top of the list. Who will it be? Let me know in the comments.

2017 Walk-Off Walk Top 50 Prospects*
5 Looking In (Honorable Mentions)
#52-43
#42-31
#30-21
#20-16
#15-11
#10-6

The Walk-Off Walk Top 52 Prospects (to recap)
52. Jon Kennedy
51. Isranel Wilson
50. Yoeli Lopez
49. Carlos Castro
48. Dilmer Mejia
47. Anfernee Seymour
46. Bryse Wilson
45. Kade Scivicque
44. Yunior Severino
43. Abrahan Gutierrez
42. Jonathan Morales
41. Steve Janas (released)
40. Chad Sobotka
39. William Contreras
38. Bradley Roney
37. Thomas Burrows
36. Connor Lien
35. Jesse Biddle
34. Caleb Dirks
33. Ricardo Sanchez
32. Lucas Herbert
31. Ray-Patrick Didder
30. Akeel Morris
29. Matt Withrow
28. Michael Mader
27. Juan Yepez
26. Christian Pache
25. Brett Cumberland
24. Luke Jackson
23. Derian Cruz
22. Braxton Davidson
21. Alex Jackson
20. Rio Ruiz
19. A.J. Minter
18. Lucas Sims
17. Patrick Weigel
16. Kyle Muller
15. Dustin Peterson
14. Joey Wentz
13. Travis Demerrite
12. Austin Riley
11. Max Fried
10. Ian Anderson
9. Ronald Acuna
8. Touki Toussaint
7. Luiz Gohara
6. Mike Soroka
5. Kevin Maitan
4. Kolby Allard
3. Ozzie Albies
2. Sean Newcomb
1. Dansby Swanson

*Top 50 was increased to Top 52 after a trade.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Spring Roster Battles Preview - The Bullpen

Read previous Spring Roster Battles Previews
Fifth Starter

The bullpen was decent enough in the first half for the Atlanta Braves, but in the second half, it took off. As a team, they had a FIP of 3.48 in 264.2 innings in the second half. Luck may have played a role as their xFIP was nearly a run higher. That is a result, I believe, of less-than-stellar walk totals and an unsustainable 6% HR/FB rate. Regardless, it was an improvement and gives the Braves something to spring into next year with.

Atlanta plans on utilizing an eight-man bullpen to open 2017. I believe that is a mistake and ultimately will be a short-lived experiment that will be scrapped when the team needs an extra bat, but let's assume that the bullpen is eight pitchers deep when the season begins. We have a good idea who four of the names will be: Jim Johnson, Arodys Vizcaino, Ian Krol, and Mauricio Cabrera. Who will be the other half? Let's see who is in the picture.

By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational
(Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Surprise Second-Half Contributors: Jose Ramirez and Chaz Roe

Both are out of options. Both have always interested teams because of their raw talent. Both...sometimes can't find the strike zone. And finally, both had a really nice summer for the Braves bullpen. Will either last into 2017?

Ramirez began the year in the bullpen for the Braves, but after two appearances, he was slipped off the 40-man roster and went down to Gwinnett. He found his way there and was back in the majors for July. At that point, we saw a pitcher who had lowered his arm angle, which appeared to help him get the ball down more. From the point he returned to the Braves to the end of the season, he had a 3.44 FIP to go with a 4.86 xFIP.

Meanwhile, Roe was picked off waivers in early August and joined the Braves immediately. He was superb over 20 games, striking out 33% of the batters he faced while walking just 9%. Like Ramirez, the Braves changed his arm angle slightly and upped his slider usage dramatically to the point that nearly 60% of his pitches were his slider. The results were not only a 64% groundball rate with the Braves, but a 44% outside-the-strike zone swing percentage (PITCHf/x).

Of the two, Roe is more interesting to me. A sinker/slider pitcher, he appeared to land with a perfect pitching coach in Roger McDowell, who preached sinkers as a way to induce weak grounders. Both could be kept to at least start to the season for the same reason Ramirez was kept last year (bubble player, out-of-options).

Finally Healthy? Jesse Biddle and Paco Rodriguez 

A sly pickup by John Coppolella last spring, Biddle is coming back from Tommy John surgery. How far along he is will help decide if he competes for a roster spot this spring. I'm under the impression that he'll head to the minors so the Braves can better monitor his innings, but if that curveball is back, Biddle could be in the mix.

The Braves have been waiting since the southpaw's trade from the Dodgers to add "Paco's Tacos" to the menu. Now, the former 82nd overall pick of the 2012 draft seems ready to finally pitch for the Braves after missing all of the second half of 2015 and 2016 with injuries.

If healthy, there is little question that Paco Rodriguez is a weapon. In 124 games in the majors spanning 85.1 innings, Rodriguez has a 2.98 FIP, 3.00 xFIP, and 2.82 SIERA. Lefties are completely clueless against Rodriguez and have managed a .220 wOBA against him while Rodriguez has sent 35% of them back to the dugout with a K. His numbers against righties aren't nearly as amazing, though he has held his own (.271 wOBA, 3.88 xFIP) to believe he has more potential than just a LOOGY.

Again, we have to preface this with "if healthy," but if he is, the Braves will have a duo of left-handed arms that other teams will envy - and be interested in trading for in Krol and Rodriguez.

The Rule 5 Twins: Armando Rivero and Daniel Winkler

Rivero had a 2.84 FIP and 37.4% strikeout percentage in Triple-A last year. In any other system, he would have received an opportunity to thrive in the majors, but the Cubs were kind of good last year so he was left in the minors. He'll have an opportunity to win a spot on this year's team and I think he has a very good chance of doing just that.

Daniel Winkler seems likely to begin 2017 on the disabled list after his horrific fractured elbow on April 11 last year. At the time, he was off to a wonderful start to his season by striking out half of the eight batters he faced. It looked like the righty with the violent delivery could help the Braves in 2016.

When - and if - he is able to help the Braves this season is a mystery. Even if he's able to, he might not get much of a look considering the depth the Braves have. To keep him, the Braves will have to put him on the 25-man roster for nearly two months once he's healthy to fulfill his Rule 5 requirements or offer him back to the Rockies, who always need pitching.

Chrisjnelson [CC BY 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Taking a Flyer: Blaine Boyer, Sam Freeman, Eric O'Flaherty, Jordan Walden

If you missed the news, Walden's contract was voided this week as we are not seeing the progression in his rehab that had been expected.

Blaine Boyer was added a month ago after failing to secure a major league contract from anyone. This was despite some pretty good traditional numbers since he made it back to the majors in 2014 (171.1 innings, 3.31 ERA, 1.28 WHIP). Sabermetrics are a little less impressed with a 3.73 FIP and 4.39 xFIP. The big reason is while Boyer does a good job limiting walks and keeping the ball in the yard, he doesn't miss many bats (4.6 K/9, 12.4% K% over last three years). Instead, he works off weak contact and inducing enough grounders to be successful. He's the epitome of an older style of pitching where you let your defense do its job and just focus on out-thinking the other hitter. All that matters is that it works. Over the last three years, Boyer has been a 1.1 fWAR reliever, which isn't great but ranks him 99th among 163 qualified relievers. It wasn't enough to get a major league deal, but he'll have a chance to be on the roster when the season begins.

Sam Freeman was an early pickup this offseason. Freeman has been in the majors in each of the last five seasons with his best work coming in 2014 as a member of the Cardinals. That season, he carried a 3.79 FIP and 3.92 xFIP. Unlike many southpaw options, Freeman has reverse splits, which limits his appeal. He's more likely to be a third lefty out of the pen and even then, his limitations against left-handers make that unlikely.

Eric O'Flaherty was brought back on a minor-league deal after being a last-minute addition to the roster last spring. Knee and elbow injuries limited him to 39 games last year and he wasn't particularly effective either. He had surgery on his left elbow last September to help with the tension and should be good-to-go as camp opens. His pitches last year lacked that typical O'Flaherty sink. We'll see if the surgery helped to fix that this spring.

Starting Candidates Left Over: Josh Collmenter, John Danks, Joel De La Cruz

Of this trio, Collmenter seems like the good bet to be part of the final mix. He was brought back on a $2M contract rather than being non-tendered and the Braves like his experience as a swingman who throws strikes. In an eight-man bullpen, there's certainly room for the long guy.

Depth for Gwinnett's starting staff, De La Cruz will get some innings - especially early in camp - but seems destined for a reassignment at some point. Danks could be an intriguing option, though. He's had major league success and is a bit tougher on lefties. With that said, he's going to need a tremendous spring to get in the mix for a spot out of the pen.

By StatsMP76 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Prospects: Caleb Dirks, Jason Hursh, Luke Jackson, A.J. Minter, Akeel Morris, Lucas Sims

This is a fun group and a mini-bullpen in its own right. While Dirks flies under the radar, the results are clearly there. In 110 games and 143.1 innings, Dirks has a 1.32 ERA, a 28% strikeout rate, and a 8% walk rate (intentional passes not included). He's allowed just six homeruns as well. Dirks lacks the big stuff or high velocity of other prospects, but in a results-driven business, he's got the resume. I imagine he'll be given a chance to produce at Gwinnett first, though.

A converted starter and former first-round pick, Hursh spent most of 2016 at Mississippi, which was the third consecutive season he did that. Hursh did pitch twice in the majors and also eight times with Gwinnett. If Bobby Cox was still the manager, he might look at Hursh as the next Kevin Gryboski and utilize him in as a "rally killer" who induces double plays. Hursh has never really lived up to his billing and probably won't start in 2017.

Speaking of haven't lived up to his billing, Luke Jackson was picked up in the Tyrell Jenkins trade. He quickly climbed to Triple-A, but has not been able to gain much momentum there. In two brief trips to the majors, he has struggled to find the strike zone and keep hitters from finding the seats when he does. The appeal is still there with Jackson hitting triple digits on the gun with an inconsistent, but devastating at times curveball. If the Braves can get him to locate his pitches and find consistency with his mechanics, he could be a high-leverage arm for them as soon as this year.

In A.J. Minter, the Braves have their "best relief prospect since Craig Kimbrel." They also have a potential x-factor for their bullpen if they feel he's ready to unleash on the National League in 2017. With a 97 mph heater that has amazing movement and a unique slider that darts into lefties and away from righties, Minter has two major-league quality offerings. If he can stay healthy, he can give the Braves yet another power arm that other teams have to game plan around in late innings. He has yet to throw in back-to-back games, but if he can cross that hurdle, the sky is the limit for his 2017 campaign.

Akeel Morris has been quietly effective for a few years now and while he doesn't have the ceiling of a Minter, he still has potential to work himself into high-leverage situations with his three-pitch mix of a mid 90's heater, solid changeup, and a slider that could make-or-break his career depending on how well he develops it. His delivery appears to come out of whack from time-to-time and I really worry about his long-term health considering how much his arm drags behind him before the ball is released. I believe his likely destination will be Gwinnett, but being already on the 40-man only helps his chances.

Finally, there is Lucas Sims. I am only including him on the chance the Braves get enamored with his potential as a reliever this spring. My belief is that he heads to Gwinnett and battles to climb the starting pitching depth chart, but many feel he is destined for a relief role at some point. Will that be 2017? It's possible.

To Sum Up...

I just gave you 18 options for four spots. Some of them are better bets than others, of course. It's hard to really nail down just what the Braves will do with the bullpen, though my bet is conservative to start the season. I think the six prospects I named are all destined for Gwinnett - though one or two could be pushed to Mississippi because of numbers. That brings us down to a dozen options. Winkler is likely to begin the year on the DL while Biddle probably needs to be brought back slowly. Now, we have ten options and I believe you can further lower that by removing De La Cruz and Danks from the discussion.

Four spots, eight names. My bet is that the Braves go with Collmenter and the two out-of-options guys in Ramirez and Roe. In that scenario, the final spot will be a three-way battle between Boyer, Freeman, and O'Flaherty - one likely to be won by Boyer. That would give us a bullpen of Johnson, Vizcaino, Krol, Cabrera, Ramirez, Roe, Boyer, and Collmenter to start the year.

If you don't like that bullpen, don't despair. The chances of the bullpen lasting even a month without injury or poor play forcing a move is minimal. At that point, we might see guys like Dirks, Jackson, Minter, and Morris start to work their way onto the team in a potentially permanent way. We could also see the Braves scrap the eight-man idea for a more conventional seven-man bullpen - which I definitely would prefer.

What does your bullpen look like? Think the Braves will go younger or do you agree that they will be more conservative to start the year? Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Braves Acquire Brandon Phillips for Practically Nothing

By Rdikeman (Own work) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
The Cincinnati Reds spent the offseason trying to find a new home for Brandon Phillips. They nearly sent him to Atlanta in January, but Phillips balked at the deal. He wanted further assurances that his no-trade protection would be respected even as a trade would typically negate any 10/5 conditions - or 10 years in the majors, 5 years with the same team.

In the end, the Braves and Phillips came to an agreement with the Braves honored a limited no-trade clause that blocks trades to a dozen teams that was already part of the deal. Those dozen teams are unknown to this point, but most of the time, each year, a list is filed of teams the player would not accept a trade to. One can assume the list includes teams with the least chance to be successful in 2017, though cities Phillips is not fond of may also be included. Further, the Braves agreed to pay Phillips a bonus of $500,000 in the event that he's traded.

The money part of this deal is very fascinating. Shortly after the 2012 season began, Phillips agreed on a six-year, $72.5M contract extension with the Reds that went into effect that year. After making $12.5M in the first year of the deal, he went down to $10M the following year and with each subsequent season, his salary went up $1M. This year, the final season of that deal, is worth $14M. There are also other conditions like award bonuses ($75K for All-Star selection) and some deferred money (unsure about the specifics there). What is most interesting about this deal is that the Braves are on the hook for just $1M for the 2017 season with the Reds covering the rest of the money.

The Braves completed this deal without having to surrender a prospect. Lefty Andrew McKirahan and righty Carlos Portuondo will head to the Reds in the deal. McKirahan is the more interesting name of the two because he pitched in 27 games for the Braves two years ago. A former Cubs farmhand, McKirahan was a 2015 Rule 5 pick by the Marlins. At the time, he was coming off his Age-24 season split between High-A ball and Double-A where he had a 2.08 ERA and a 4 K/BB rate.

After failing to make the Marlins, McKirahan was waived and picked up by the Braves. His time with the Braves was interrupted after three games because of a PED suspension. Once able to return in late July, McKirahan was a regular member of Fredi Gonzalez's bullpen. His final 19 games were especially ugly, though. In 18 innings, he gave up 16 runs while striking out 14. Last spring, he was expected to compete for a bullpen spot, but a recommendation of a second Tommy John surgery ended his bid. He was not expected to compete for a bullpen spot this spring.

Portuondo, who spent eight years in Cuba's top baseball league, lasted just one year in the Braves' system after Atlanta gave the defector $900K nearly a year ago. A fastball/slider pitcher with decent movement on his low 90's heater, Portuondo spent last year with Carolina and Gwinnett. His numbers were pedestrian with some poor control, especially for a 28-year-old.

To sum up, the Braves surrendered two minor league bullpen depth arms and absorbed a million dollars for a three-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, and one-time Silver Slugger. Of course, to be fair, Brandon Phillips is not that guy anymore. His game took a step backward after 2011. Since then, his wOBA has been between .300 and .325 with a five-year average of .313. His wRC+ has been anywhere between 88 and 101 with a 94 average. After a number of years as one of the top ten or so second baseman in the game, he's a borderline Top 20 second baseman now.

Projections for Phillips - take them with a grain of salt because they include the Reds park - obviously did not expect much of an improvement for a guy entering his Age-36 season. PECOTA projected .269/.306/.390 with 12 homers, 10 steals, and a 0.7 WARP. Steamer expected similar results. That said, if Phillips's bat ultimately performs closer to the last two seasons rather than the two projections I mentioned, the Braves are getting a guy who hit .293/.324/.405 over his last 1200 or so PA with a .315 wOBA and 95 wRC+. Not a great improvement, mind you, but a more valuable player than the PECOTA/Steamer version.

While we are on the subject of value, we cannot ignore that Phillips' declining value hasn't been solely a result of his bat. His UZR/150 was between 8.1 and 12.3 for five years before 2015. That season, it fell to 2.1. Last season, it was -2.3. Strong DRS and rPM numbers both cratered last year. Defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable for just one season, but it seems clear that Phillips has lost a step and his instincts aren't nearly as quick. He turns 36 in June so that shouldn't be surprising. How far his defense deteriorates, however, could be something to watch. If he's at least average, the Braves will be happy.

By SD Dirk [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Where does Phillips fit in? Well, the Braves clearly felt pressure to make a move in response to Sean Rodriguez's car accident. A lot is still unknown about just how severe Rodriguez's shoulder surgery was as I've heard between 3-6 months of recuperation time as a possible time table.On the other hand, David O'Brien tweeted that "most if not all" of the 2017 season could be lost for Rodriguez. Expected to platoon with Jace Peterson at second, Rodriguez was a solid addition for the Braves this offseason before the injury. Here's the bad news - Phillips is not a better platoon option. He has carried a reverse split the last three years of .286 wOBA/76 wRC+ against lefties and .319 wOBA/98 wRC+ against righties. Peterson showed potential platoon ability by putting up a .326 wOBA and 101 wRC+ last year against righties. Relegating Peterson to just backup duty would appear short-sighted, though the injury to Rodriguez and lack of a clear option for a fourth outfielder might prompt the Braves to do just that.

Of course, Phillips is only a stopgap. He would be that even if he weren't a free agent following the 2017 season. Ozzie Albies is on his way and while his numbers at Triple-A were underwhelming, it's important to remember that the biggest reason the Braves demoted him back to Mississippi was to get time at second with Dansby Swanson. In Albies' final 21 games at Triple-A, he hit .282/.367/.376. I wouldn't call that a guy needing a demotion to Double-A. Nevertheless, at just 20 years-old and one season above A-ball - plus an injury to end 2016 - the Braves would like to go slow with Albies. The 2017 roster looks like it could compete for a playoff slot, but avoiding arbitration for another year while letting Albies mature more could be the better play for the Braves.

When he's ready, though, Phillips could be repackaged. The Braves may hold on to him if they are in a playoff race, believing his veteran presence and decent bat off the bench could be useful. On the other hand, a good season for Phillips could mean that the Braves not only got the Reds to pay 93% of his salary, but they also potentially landed a better prospect in a trade than McKirahan or Portuondo - which isn't hard because neither are prospects. That, my friends, is why John Coppolella will be named Executive of the Year at some point.

There's really nothing to be upset about with this trade. The injury to Rodriguez created a need and while the two players aren't the same type of player, Phillips helps to fill that need while costing the Braves next to nothing in the process. In a few years, if a retrospective was done on this trade, the Braves either win this trade or at least don't lose it. That is the kind of deal you make every single time.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Spring Roster Battles Preview - The Fifth Starter

By EricEnfermero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Football's done (sorry Falcons fans) and that means one glorious thing - baseball is just around the corner. In fact, in a few days, the Atlanta Braves will open spring training as pitchers and catchers report followed by the rest of the team. With all the negative in the world, spring training is a beautiful thing as it's impossible to not be a little optimistic. For Braves' fans, even as terrible as the last few years have been, it's an exciting time as this squad looks improved and a potential sleeper for a playoff slot.

If they get there, it will start with the rotation. Last season, only the Reds had a worse fWAR (4.7 to 3.1) from their starters. Unsurprisingly, the Braves rotation finished in the bottom 5 in FIP and xFIP and sixth worse in SIERA. The Braves were especially horrid in the second half. Over 72 starts, the rotation managed 0.3 fWAR. Ouch.

But 2017 promises to be different. The Braves added a trio of veterans to plug into the rotation as their younger arms continue to mature and they will join rotation leader Julio Teheran. To be fair, it's unlikely the Braves will compete with the Nationals and Mets as far as top rotations in the East, but it should be good enough to be closer to the league average, especially as 2017 opens. Presumably, a young gun or two will get a chance to push a veteran out of the mix from there.

Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, R.A. Dickey, and Teheran make up four. Who will join them? Let's take a look at the contenders.

The Presumptive Choice - Mike Foltynewicz

Folty's step forward in 2016 appeared to make him safe from needing to reclaim his rotation spot, but the additions of the three veterans - plus further flirting with Chris Archer and the like - meant that the Braves were not convinced that the hard-throwing righty had done enough to deserve an easy path onto 2017's roster. To be fair, Foltynewicz clearly has a foot in the door here. His work down the stretch makes that clear. After a 5.09 FIP during the first half, he finished the second half with a 3.68 FIP. That's promising though his xFIP shows a much smaller 18 point difference.

Looking at some of the changes in the second half versus the first half, one thing that stands out is more confidence in his changeup. It has given him a better weapon against lefties as a strikeout pitch. He doesn't use it much against righties, but it could be a weapon as he refines it. All in all, Foltynewicz certainly took a step forward and will be given an opportunity to do the same in 2017.

The Replaced - Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler

With the three veteran additions to the rotation, Blair and Wisler were put on notice - produce or enjoy Gwinnett. For Blair, it was much-needed after a poor first run in the majors. He struggled with Mike Minor Disease, a condition that forces pitchers to nibble around the strike zone to the point that they fall behind and are forced to throw strikes in hitter's counts. For example, Blair threw a first-pitch strike 4% fewer than the average pitcher and was in the zone 5% less. Subsequently, hitters swung more at pitches in the zone and made more contact because they were able to narrow their batting eye rather than be defensive in pitcher's counts. Blair has the potential to be an effective major league pitcher, but only after he trusts his stuff.

Matt Wisler was easily Atlanta's most disappointing pitcher last year. After a strong five-game run with the big league club over the final few weeks in 2015 (34.2 ING, 9 BB, 24 K, 2.34 ERA), Wisler was tabbed to slot into Shelby Miller's #2 spot. That mistake explains why the Braves were so anxious to bring in some more established pitchers for 2017. Wisler's numbers over the first couple of months looked great from a basic ERA standpoint, though a deeper look shows some questionable trends (.232 BABIP, xFIP near 5.00). In the second half, those trends pushed his ERA as high as 5.16.

Wisler is similar to Blair in many ways. Neither pitcher will rack up the strikeouts and instead, both will depend more on getting ahead and fooling the hitter into making soft contact. Wisler has struggled to do that. Despite solid walk numbers, he's thrown a first-pitch strike 58.8% of the time, about 2% below average. With his stuff and control, he needs to be above average with his location to be effective because we know hitters are going to make contact.

The Veteran - Josh Collmenter

At this point, we have a good idea who Collmenter is. He won't strike out many batters, won't walk many batters, and will surrender a fair number of gopher balls. His control was actually iffy last year before a 19-inning run with the Braves seemed to help. Surprisingly, he was brought back for 2017, though his chances to rejoin the rotation are minimal. Still, Collmenter has a good chance to break camp as the long guy out of the pen and be in line for some emergency starts as needed.

The "He's Still Around?" Minor Leaguers - Joel De La Cruz, John Danks, and Kris Medlen

This trio received minor league deals since the end of the season. De La Cruz is a Gordon Blackley special - a guy with Yankee minor league ties who the Braves later brought aboard. They haven't had much success with these longshots and De La Cruz wasn't anything special last year (5.19/5.03/5.09 FIP/xFIP/SIERA). That said, the Braves are comfortable with him and he gives them more starting pitching depth to stash at Gwinnett in case they need an emergency start and don't want to press a kid into the role.

As a lefty, Danks is likely around to compete for a bullpen slot, but with Teheran and Colon in the World Baseball Classic, there are innings to fill and a guy like Danks will have an opportunity. He hasn't been good since 2011 and was cut four starts into 2016 by the White Sox. As I wrote about Danks before, "consider that the Braves turned Bud Norris, Jhoulys Chacin, and Lucas Harrell into future assets last year." Does that mean they will do the same with Danks? Probably not.

I mentioned Medlen, but he won't be able to contribute until summer - if at all - and might only be a relief option. However, I wanted to mention Medlen in case you hadn't heard about it.

The Top Prospects - Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims

Both of these top pitching prospects will be in camp. Both have put up big strikeout numbers. Both have garnered Top 100 prospect status in the past. Both struggle to fire consistent strikes.

Newcomb is the higher ceiling guy here. Some have soured heavily on him while others, like me, believe there was enough progress in the second half of last season to justify the high praise. In fact, with only five prospects remaining to be revealed as part of my Top 50 Prospects, Newcomb is one of the special handful still in the running for the top spot. I mean, you can probably guess who's #1 and you might be right, but Newcomb's still alive here.

For Newcomb, his season's lowest point came on July 8th when he threw 45 pitches and couldn't get out of the first inning. Despite his epic failure of an outing, he only allowed one hit. Yikes. In the ten starts to follow, he K'd 34% of the batters he faced while keeping his walk rate at an acceptable 11%. Despite an ERA a good run-and-a-half higher than 2015, his FIP was roughly the same.

Newcomb is a longshot to push Foltynewicz. For him, it's more about impressing the coaches enough to move up the depth chart when - not if - but when a spot opens up. While the Braves have a lot potential ace-quality pitchers below Double-A, Newcomb has more upside than any Braves pitcher vying for a spot on this year's roster. He'll have to show he can dominate again like he did down the stretch, but if he does, he'll be in the bigs this summer.

As for Sims, he came in at #18 on my Top 50. He was in a similar place last year as Newcomb is this year. After a so-so first half in 2015, Sims finished the season on a hot streak with Mississippi that had fans and coaches alike hoping that the light had turned on for the talented righty. After a brief cameo in a return trip to Mississippi to start 2016, Sims headed to Gwinnett in late April and his first two starts went well (12 ING, 3 R, 16 K). The wheels came off from there as his ERA hovered over 9.00 over the next nine games. By mid-June, he was demoted back to Mississippi and finished with nearly a K-an-inning and a 2.83 ERA over his final 14 starts.

Sims' walk rate has steadily gotten worse over the last two years as hitters at the advanced levels are better equipped to handle his heater and force him to throw quality breaking balls. He's still going to get his strikeouts, but without consistent secondary offerings, he can't show the batter something new the second-and-third time through the order. That alone might make him destined for the bullpen.

The Braves will try to give Sims time to change course and improve his chances to remain a starter, but with plenty of reinforcements coming in "waves," the time to get back on track is now for the young righthander. If it doesn't click by midseason, a potentially permanent move to the bullpen might be in the cards.

The Sleeper - Patrick Weigel

With just one full season under his belt, this 2015 7th rounder is an ultra longshot, but he did receive a non-roster invitation for a reason. By the end of last season, Weigel was pitching in the playoffs for Mississippi, which tells us a lot about both his maturity level and his performance considering his relatively brief professional career.

Weigel was a closer in college, which limited expectations for him once he was drafted. Now, though, after the season he had last year (over a K-an-inning, 2.47 ERA), the expectations are sky high for Weigel. A return to Mississippi to start 2017 is likely for the righty considering the depth at Gwinnett, but don't be shocked to see Weigel receive a lot of press this spring.

To Sum Up...

One spot, ten pitchers. Oh, and likely, it's more like zero spots because Foltynewicz would probably have to experience a miserable spring to get bumped from his spot. Short of injury, this article looks like a lot of words written to come to a simple conclusion - it's Folty's to lose.

But as I mentioned throughout, for the younger pitchers on this list, this might not be a battle to open the season as the fifth starter, but to claim the sixth starter spot. Another word for that is "next guy in." Consider this: Colon and Dickey are in their 40's and the body likes to break down frequently at that age while Garcia has rarely been healthy the last five or so years. The Braves may balk at bringing up a kid for a spot start when they can rely on a veteran like Collmenter or Quad-A depth like De La Cruz, but the chances that each starter makes 30 starts in 2017 is astronomical. There will be a need for a guy for at least a few weeks to step in. Who that is will depend some on whose schedule lines up the best to replace the downed pitcher, but it will also rely heavily on the depth chart. Who's Gwinnett's #1? That guy has the best shot to get a promotion when the need arrives.

The Braves used 16 different starters last year, including Casey Kelly, Roberto Hernandez, and Ryan Weber. The year before, they called on ten different starters and used Trevor Cahill and Eric Stults. That's the difference between those years and this season. The additions of three veterans and continued development of pitching prospects has given the Braves a chance to plug-and-play a number of interesting arms.

Who's your pick for fifth starter? Is it Foltynewicz short of an epic spring collapse? Did I leave a pitcher out of the discussion? Let me know below.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Braves Top 50 Prospects, 2017 Preseason: #10-#6

Just ten prospects to go in this year's Top 50. This week, I will cover the bottom half of the Top Ten. It's difficult to not repeat yourself when talking about these ridiculously talented young pitchers the Braves have. Four of them make today's list and none of them can go legally buy alcohol yet. All have off-the-charts stuff with a breaking pitch that can buckle the knees of opposing hitters. Once again, it's a good time to a Braves fan.

As always, there are links to previous Top 50 capsules and a summary of the Top 50 players that have already been released, including today's five.

10. Ian Anderson, RHP, 19 years-old, Grade: B

Did you know 2016's third overall selection's middle name is Theodore? I really wish he'd go by that instead of Ian. Theodore is a name Braves fans can chant as he strikes out Mookie Betts to end the 2019 World Series. I guess we can chant Ian, too, it just lacks a certain pizzazz. Oh, well, at least Atlanta will finally have another title, right?

The young righty was selected #3rd overall last year as much for his signability as his projectability, Anderson was a late signee only because he had to wait for his high school's graduation. Such a late start left him with just ten overall starts, split between the GCL squad and Danville. He was dominant during the first stop, striking out a batter for each 18 innings he threw and only allowing two unearned runs. He wasn't as good in Danville, but an 18-year-old holding his own there is plenty good in my book. In truth, he had one real stinker of a game on August 22, but was wonderful over his final two starts. A stinker can make your numbers look worse when you toss just 21.2 innings.

Anderson works off a mid-90's fastball that has a good deal of late life on it. His change-of-pace has plus potential at the major league level. A mid-80's pitch that he doesn't telegraph, it looks like a fastball right up until it dies at the plate and sinks under the swing of hitters. He also shows a curveball that he throws in high-70's to low-80's depending on how much looping break he wants on it.

What has always been impressive about Anderson, beyond his repertoire of pitches, is his poise and competitive nature on the mound. He might draw some comparisons to another slender right-hander who was a bulldog on the mound - Tim Hudson - though Anderson has better strikeout potential.

Anderson won't turn 19 until May 2. By that time, he'll likely be a few weeks into his first full season of professional ball with Rome. The sky is super high for Anderson as he moves into 2017. In a system with amazing pitching prospects, Ian Theodore Anderson has a chance to possibly be the best of the group.



9. Ronald Acuna, OF, 19 years-old, Grade: B

Playing winter ball in Australia is often an oddity of a player's career. You do it once, have a bunch of memories about vegemite and fighting kangaroos, and that's about it. However, Ronald Acuna turned a month in Australia into a Evan Gattis-like explosive experience. In 20 games for Melbourne, the Venezuelan talent hit .375/.446/.556 with 2 homers and 13 steals. So amazing was his run with the Aces that the team dubbed him "The Answer to Everything." At least they didn't hype him up too much.

It was a great way to end what had been a disappointing 2016 for Acuna. To be clear, Acuna was not disappointing with the bat as he still raked. No, Acuna hit the shelf with a broken thumb or hand on May 9th and would miss more than three months before finally getting back into action in late-August. He finished the season on a tear and carries a seven-game hit streak in 2017. Overall, in just 42 games, Acuna slashed .312/.392/.429 with 4 homers and 14 steals. Give the kid roughly a .380 wOBA for his efforts.

Oh, and because it needs to be said, Acuna was one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League. Despite his youth, he has shown advanced plate discipline (11.3% walk rate so far) and the potential to be a five-tool guy with his speed, defense, bat, and improving power. I can't speak too much on his arm, but I will say this - to only be credited with six outfield assists to this point next to two errors suggests that there may be a line in the scouting report that reads something like "If you run on him, be ready to grab your glove and head to your position." Just guessing, of course.

We only have 97 games - plus 20 games "down under" - to grade Acuna, but the ceiling is still being measured for the guy. Could he the best outfielder the Braves have developed since Andruw Jones? No pressure, but it's possible. With any luck, Acuna will stay in the lineup this year and we can see what the kid can do.


8. Touki Toussaint, RHP, 20 years-old, Grade: B+

The Braves did the right thing in 2016 by holding Touki back a season after he struggled in his brief run with Rome the previous season. Like many Rome players, he struggled to open the season, but improved as the season continued. Over his last 17 games, which includes 16 starts, Toussaint struck out 104 in 89.1 innings with a 2.72 ERA and an 11% walk rate compared to the 15% rate before June. By the end of the season, the South Atlantic League had had just about enough of Touki. With any luck, the Florida State League will have a similar feeling by the time next summer is heating up.

By now, you probably know the story about Toussaint. Picked #16th overall in the 2014 draft, the Braves essentially bought Toussaint off the Diamondbacks in 2015 by taking on Bronson Arroyo's bloated salary. It was the kind of insane deal that got Dave Stewart fired from his general manager position. You could count on one hand the number of players with a higher ceiling that Toussaint entering the 2014 draft. Despite that knowledge, the Diamondbacks said, "yeah, but Arroyo's contract is a bit too much." It must have been hard to be a Diamondbacks fan during the Stewart years.

One word to sum up Toussaint is "raw." Another word could be "projection." As in, Toussaint's projection is all over the map. He could become a dominant starter - the kind of starter with filthy stuff that leads a staff into the playoffs. He could also become a tremendous closer who racks up K's and saves. Or...he could be a bust. There doesn't appear to be a lot of leeway between, though logically, even as a bust, he could still have a good deal of value similar to Juan Cruz.

Nothing Toussaint throws at the hitter stays straight for long. His mid-90's fastball gets a good deal of break away from lefties and cuts into righties. His change-up has a similar drop to Ian Anderson's as it comes to the plate when Toussaint has a feel for it. Of course, Toussaint's calling card is a curveball that is GIF-worthy.

If Toussaint cleans up his delivery as he did in the second half of 2016 and continues to pound the zone with strikes to set up his curve, he's going to be pretty tough to stop. If you get a chance to watch him this season, do it. He's got the stuff to throw a perfect game any given start.


7. Luiz Gohara, LHP, 20 years-old, Grade: B+

Do you realize how good of a system the Braves have to have in order for a player of Gohara's stock to not only fail to rank as the top left-handed prospect in the system, but to also not even rank as the #2 southpaw prospect? Welcome to the Braves, Gohara. If you want to get to the front of the line, it's going to be a bit tougher than it was out west.

A rarity in baseball, Gohara was born in Brazil at the trading deadline in 1996. If you're curious, the Braves were quiet that day. Gohara is also a rarity in that he was still 16 years-old when he made his debut. Just to add to this because it shows how good the Mariners thought he could be, at 16 years-old, he made his debut in the Appalachian League for Pulaski. Sixteen years old. He didn't head to the Dominican Summer League or play with some high school kids in the Gulf Coast League. No, he went straight to the Appy League. The first batter he faced in his second game was Kyle Wren, who was six years older than Gohara. Two things have to happen to receive an assignment like that. The Mariners had to really love Gohara and they were convinced he was mature enough to handle it.

Since then, Gohara has both been babied to limit innings and slow to adapt to the professional game. Just to re-iterate a point: he's faced 914 batters during his four-year career. Roughly 70 came against guys younger than he was. Finally, in 2016, Gohara started to catch up. Still 2-to-3 years younger than the competition, Gohara decreased his walk rate from the previous year by about 7% (12.7% to 8.2%) and saw a similar increase in his strikeout rate. Already difficult to elevate the ball against, Gohara surrendered just two homeruns in 69.2 innings. He ended the year with 11.2 innings in the Arizona Fall League against far-more-advanced competition and struck out 19 compared to just three walks.

Why did Jerry Dipoto trade his talented left-hand prospect? There have been reports about work ethic issues and problems controlling his weight. He's a big boy, that's clear. But he's got tremendous athletism, which helps him repeat his delivery and pound the zone with a mid-90's fastball that can close in on triple digits.

Gohara's slider has plus potential and if he develops his changeup, the ceiling the Mariners originally saw in him will be much easier to reach. The Braves could start him in Rome, but I wouldn't be shocked to see him in Florida after his positive 2016 campaign. If there is ever a double header with Toussaint/Gohara going for the Florida Fire Frogs, I might have to drop everything and leave Virginia for that experience.



6. Mike Soroka, RHP, 19 years-old, Grade: B+

I'm getting tired of writing about all of these amazing pitching prospects.

Just kidding. I love it. Mike Soroka was just 18 when the South Atlantic League season began. He was less than a year removed from graduating from Bishop Carroll High School all the way up in Calgary. Despite that, the ever-aggressive Braves started him in Rome and he became one of Rome's most consistent starters. Almost half of his 24 starts were classified as quality starts. Ten times, Soroka threw at least five innings while allowing a run or less (which would be zero, fyi). He finished sixth in the league in innings pitched. Of the top 21 leaders in innings pitched during the 2016 South Atlantic League season, Soroka is the only one who wasn't in his age-20 season or older.

Just to make this clear, he was really good. Did I mention he's still a teenager? Like every Braves pitching prospect, he has a good heater that moves. For Soroka, he can reach the mid-90's, but stays a tick or two below that for the most part. He's fearless on the mound and already willing and confident to pitch inside with his fastball to set up his plus curveball. When he's got feel for his curve, he'll buckle a lot of right-handed batters' knees. His changeup needs work, but has good potential.

Soroka probably won't mimic some of the strikeout numbers of the other top pitching prospects the Braves have, but despite being a high school selection, I believe his floor is very high. My belief in his high floor is why I place him sixth in my rankings. I have a great deal of confidence that Soroka will reach that floor with a chance to be even better. His ceiling isn't as high as Toussaint's or Gohara's, but I love Soroka's chances to lock into a middle-of-the-rotation cog at the very least. If he develops his changeup a bit more - or adds a different offspeed delivery - Soroka has a chance to be an ace.



2017 Walk-Off Walk Top 50 Prospects*
5 Looking In (Honorable Mentions)
#52-43
#42-31
#30-21
#20-16
#15-11

The Walk-Off Walk Top 52 Prospects (to recap)
52. Jon Kennedy
51. Isranel Wilson
50. Yoeli Lopez
49. Carlos Castro
48. Dilmer Mejia
47. Anfernee Seymour
46. Bryse Wilson
45. Kade Scivicque
44. Yunior Severino
43. Abrahan Gutierrez
42. Jonathan Morales
41. Steve Janas
40. Chad Sobotka
39. William Contreras
38. Bradley Roney
37. Thomas Burrows
36. Connor Lien
35. Jesse Biddle
34. Caleb Dirks
33. Ricardo Sanchez
32. Lucas Herbert
31. Ray-Patrick Didder
30. Akeel Morris
29. Matt Withrow
28. Michael Mader
27. Juan Yepez
26. Christian Pache
25. Brett Cumberland
24. Luke Jackson
23. Derian Cruz
22. Braxton Davidson
21. Alex Jackson
20. Rio Ruiz
19. A.J. Minter
18. Lucas Sims
17. Patrick Weigel
16. Kyle Muller
15. Dustin Peterson
14. Joey Wentz
13. Travis Demerrite
12. Austin Riley
11. Max Fried
10. Ian Anderson
9. Ronald Acuna
8. Touki Toussaint
7. Luiz Gohara
6. Mike Soroka

*Top 50 was increased to Top 52 after a trade.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Send Me An Angel

By Eltiempo10 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Was that title enough of an earworm or is it too obscure? If so, I'm perhaps older than I thought.

The Atlanta Braves have more depth heading into 2017 than they did in either of the last two seasons, but the bench still needs work. The addition of Sean Rodriguez definitely helps as it likely means either Rodriguez or Jace Peterson will be on the bench on most days and both are borderline major league starters. But outside of either one of those players, what will this bench look like?

Chase D'Arnaud will be around, but do the Braves really want to depend too much on a player with a sub-.600 OPS in the majors? Kurt Suzuki will take up a spot as well, though he's hardly much of a threat with the bat. With that in mind, the Braves could use some extra offense. Depending on whether they go with an eight-man bullpen or not - and I hope the latter - the Braves still head into spring training with at least a spot open for grabs and as many as three.

A potential platoon of Rio Ruiz/Adonis Garcia could man one of those spots, though their lack of versatility could make that option a little less desirable for the Braves especially if they are going with a four-man bench. Atlanta has also apparently flirted with the idea of bringing back Jeff Francoeur and/or Kelly Johnson, but even if they did that, there are still questions about this bench that need to be addressed. Of the players I've already mentioned, only D'Arnaud has played a passable shortstop in the majors, which only helps his case and hurts the offensive potential of this bench. Furthermore, who is second on the depth chart to play center field?

Right now, probably Rodriguez. And why not? He's played nearly 60 innings in center during his career. Clearly, he can handle the position for a few days, right? And if not, there's always Peterson. He slammed into a wall last year after all. That's about all I have to say about that.

Listen, I love Ender Inciarte, but he's hit the DL in each of the last three years. That's too short of a sample size to say he's likely to do it again in 2017, but the trends certainly aren't in his favor. If such an event happens - and hopefully it's only for a couple of weeks if it does - who plays center field? Would you believe the choice might be Emilio Bonifacio or Mel Rojas Jr.? Not excited about that? Well, there's also Xavier Avery. Who? I'll give you a minute or two to read this quick introduction I wrote on Avery a few weeks ago when the Braves added him. I'll wait.

Done? Maybe Rojas or Avery satisfies you as a deep depth option. Maybe Bonifacio isn't that bad (he is). Maybe you think Inciarte will stay healthy all season. But, if you're like me, you'd like a bit more depth. The kind of depth the Braves had before they traded away Mallex Smith.

Back to the title of this post. Real Life's "Send Me An Angel" was a fun 80's hit about asking the heavens for love.  In this case, all I want is a fourth outfielder. Regardless, John Coppolella, send me an Angel............Pagan. Also, if that's not his walk-up music, someone really failed at their job.

Angel Pagan won't make the Braves winners in 2017, but he will make them a little better. Since his last big season in 2012, he's been between a 1.4 and 2.1 fWAR player in three of the last four years. To put that into context, in the last four seasons, Nick Markakis has been worth 4.9 fWAR and Matt Kemp has been worth 2.1 fWAR. Same time frame, Pagan has been a 4.5 fWAR player. By the way, he'll be paid a fraction of the cost as those other two.

To be fair, injuries have sapped Pagan of much of his speed that made him a yearly 30-steal threat. With that said, he still swiped 15 bases last year, one fewer than Inciarte and Smith, who led the Braves. Pagan's also been much healthier of late, having posted back-to-back 500+ PA campaigns after failing to do so in the two seasons prior. Pagan also has been successful throughout his career with the bat compared to his center field peers. He finished last year with a .324 wOBA (vs. .322 career) and 105 wRC+ (vs. 103 career). Though 35 years-old, nothing in his numbers would seem to make one believe that a decline was imminent.

I should also mention that as a switch-hitter, Pagan is a perfect fourth outfielder. He gives his manager flexibility to try to schedule off days for Markakis and Inciarte against tougher left-handers and give Kemp a day off against a nasty righty.

To be fair a second time, Pagan's defense in center field has deteriorated along with his speed. Outside of 2011, the defensive metrics have never loved Pagan's D to begin with and it's only gotten worse. If the Braves need him to play much longer than a few weeks in center field, they are probably asking for too much. Pagan played a lot of left field last year and the metrics agreed that it was a good move for him. That would give the Braves a late-inning defensive caddy for Kemp who won't be completely inept with the bat should he need to hit.

Pagan could be an outstanding addition for the Braves if the money is good and presumably, at this point, it seems unlikely he'll demand more than an incentive-rich one-year deal with a low base salary. So, I ask you again, John Coppolella. Send not only me, but the Braves an Angel. It's just too good of a fit.