Friday, January 20, 2017

Braves Top 50 Prospects, 2017 Preseason: #42-#31

Last week, I began my Top 50 prospects and almost immediately, the Atlanta Braves swung a deal for more prospects. So...thanks for that, John Coppolella.

I kid, but the trade forced me to change my Top 50 to a Top 52 as both players acquired jumped right into the list with one appearing in today's portion. To get me back on track, today's part of the list will be supersized to a dozen. Short of another trade, I'll release ten more next week and ten more the following week before splitting the Top 10 into two parts. I also must apologize for this post being so late. I've been sick the last few days and had trouble wrapping my head around this list. 

When I originally did my Top 50 prospect list, I had Kyle Kinman ranked #38. However, I realized he was actually 26 and I like to keep my prospect lists limited to 25-and-under and players designated as a rookie. With that said, I thought his placement was worth a mention. Lastly, please check out Gondeee's Top 30 Braves prospects that he published this week. As usual, it's a valuable read. 

42. Jonathan Morales, Catcher, 22 years-old, Grade: C 

It wasn't the season many had hoped for with Morales. After blitzing the Gulf Coast Lague (.304/.377/.511) the previous year, Morales jumped to Rome in 2016 and saw a 220 point drop in his OPS. Included was a long stretch of 41 games where he hit .151/.241/.212. That month-plus really impacted his numbers, though even if you take those games out, it was still a far cry from his 2015 run after he was a 25th round pick.

Morales has decent pop and won't strike out much. The flipside of that is he's so aggressive that he's unlikely to take many walks. Offensively, the right-handed hitter needs his hit tool to stand out and it simply did not in 2016. Defensively, though scouting reports aren't high on him, he's had solid metrics and has impressively gunned down half of the 106 baserunners that attempted to steal on him. He also played a little third and had a three-inning cameo in right field, though that was likely more for emergencies.

With the depth behind Morales, he'll be pushed up to Florida in the spring and will need a bounceback season. Obviously, by the fact I ranked him so high, I think he's capable of it. While I don't think his ceiling is nearly as high as other catchers in the system, he is part of a much-improved catching depth that was non-existent two years ago.

41. Steve Janas, RHP, 25 years-old, Grade: C 

Holy groundballs! Janas has maintained a groundball rate in the minors of over 55% during his young career. In nearly 300 innings, he's given up just 14 homers. However, what holds back Janas is that he lacks a true pair of plus pitches or the velocity to push him higher on prospect lists. Nevertheless, this is a results-driven business and the results aren't too shabby for Janas.

Though he won't blow you away with heat, he can hit mid-90's. The downside of doing so is that it makes his fastball straight and easy to both see and pound. As a result, he'll sit in the low-90's with his sinker and cutter. He also has a plus changeup and an inconsistent breaking curveball. Janas was a starter until last season when he got pushed to the bullpen. 

His control and ability to generate groundballs will get him looks and his fearlessness on the mound makes him a wild card. However, the lack the stuff and strikeout ability may limit him to Quad-A filler/organizational depth similar to one of his most common comparable pitchers according to Clay Davenport's projection system - Zeke Spruill. Strangely, both righties went to high school in Marietta. Janas will get a look this spring, but with Josh Collmenter already on the team, Janas is likely going to provide long relief/swingman depth behind a talented Gwinnett rotation.

40. Chad Sobotka, RHP, 23 years-old, Grade: C 

Similar to A.J. Minter, the Braves drafted Sobotka in 2014 knowing that he wouldn't pitch until the next season. As opposed to Tommy John surgery like Minter had, Sobotka was coming back from a stress fracture in his back, which put an ugly end to his collegiate career with the University of South Carolina-Upstate.

His 2015 season was limited to just 37 innings and they were rarely good, but the 6'7" righty bounced back in 2016. His numbers with Rome look poor (4.26 ERA, more hits than innings pitched), but the Braves still liked what they were seeing and promoted him to Carolina. In 13 games there, Sobotka finally started to perform with a 2.04 ERA/1.51 FIP over 17.2 innings. He struck out 24 and walked just three - a far cry from the dozen he walked in just 19 innings with Rome to begin the year. By season's end, he had joined Minter in Mississippi for two appearances.

Sobotka's velocity is good, though not great. However, he gets great movement and his two-seamer can get a good number of grounders. His slider has plus-potential and while he has a changeup, he will mostly work off his fastball/slider. Sobotka could be in the majors sometime in 2017, though with just 75.2 innings as a professional, Atlanta might go slow with him. Either way, Sobotka looks like he has a shot to be a solid righty with high-leverage potential.

39. William Contreras, Catcher, 19 years-old, Grade: C+

Over two seasons, Contreras has shown that he could be capable of being a big sleeper in a system with rapidly improving catcher depth. Just 19 years-old, Contreras signed out of Venezuela and made his debut with the 2015 Dominican Summer League team. His triple slash of .314/.370/.413 was solid enough before you consider his age (17) and position.

Contreras moved up to the Gulf Coast League this year, where he shared time with Ricardo Rodriguez (acquired in the Christian Bethancourt trade) and 26th rounder Alan Crowley. His numbers took a bit of a dive to .264/.346/.375. He displays a quick bat and there is some power projection.

Scouts rave about Contreras's defensive ability behind the plate and how he handles pitchers. I like his offensive potential as well. He's the type of player who could easily have a breakout campaign and jump up this list quickly. While he'll be ticketed for a stop in Danville for 2017, I do hope he plays his way up to Rome, which would further cement his prospect potential.

38. Bradley Roney, RHP, 24 years-old, Grade: C+

For three years, Roney has both excited Braves fans with big K numbers and frustrated Braves management because he often doesn't know where his pitches are going. In 67.2 innings last year in the high levels of the minor leagues, Roney struck out 88 - the most strikeouts by a Braves reliever and tied for 15th in the entire system. That strikeout rate was actually down a tad from 2015. Unfortunately, his walk rate continues to be his Achilles' heel.

In 2016, Roney issued 54 unintentional walks - a rate of about seven every nine innings. His strike percentage was about 6% below the league average. You can't survive for long doing that no matter how good his curve is - and it's really good. It's a major league quality pitch, but without pitching ahead in the count more frequently, hitters can let the curve dart below the strikezone.

Last year at this time, we looked at Mauricio Cabrera in much the same way as Roney. Sure, Cabrera had 100 mph heat and some good secondary stuff, but will he throw strikes? Cabrera was a higher rated talent, but Roney can have a similar impact on the major league roster if he can only throw strikes. No better time than 2017 to start.

37. Thomas Burrows, LHP, 22 years-old, Grade: C+

Acquired last week in the Mallex Smith trade, Burrows was the #117 pick of the 2016 draft. Before that, he became the all-time saves leader at the University of Alabama. It's easy to look over Burrows when the Braves also acquired Luiz Gohara in this deal, but Burrows has a good chance to get to the majors - and soon.

Burrows pitched in the short-season Northwest League after he was drafted and blitzed the circuit with 37 strikeouts in 24.2 innings. That comes out to a third of all batters he faced. He gave up a lot of hits, though a .367 BABIP will do that to you. The walk rate wasn't good, but competent enough to help Burrows earn a 2.88 FIP.

Burrows gets good sinking movement from his low-to-mid 90's heater and his slider improved dramatically in 2016. Lefties have a very difficult time even picking up the ball and that will likely continue to be an asset for the southpaw. Whether he can be a full-inning reliever and high-leverage asset will be something to watch as he moves up the ladder.

36. Connor Lien, OF, 23 years-old, Grade: C+

It was not the season many had hoped for Lien in 2016 - least of all the outfielder himself. In 2015, Lien burst onto the scene with a .285/.347/.415 clip in the pitching-friendly Carolina League with 36 extra-base hits and 34 steals. The season was awarded with a trip to the Arizona Fall League, which is where the video below came from

However, an early season hand injury put Lien on the shelf for over two months in 2016. The 22-year-old also struggled when he was in the field, slashing just .233/.320/.408 with a 33% strikeout rate. On the bright side, he continued to display tremendous defense in center field.

Lien possesses good pop and his defense includes an elite arm and great instincts and range. However, his bat still needs a bit more refining. The plus side is that even with his negatives last year, the .175 ISO and 9% walk rate help to put an optimistic spin on the season. He'll likely repeat Mississippi to begin 2017 and try to trend positive once again.

35. Jesse Biddle, LHP, 25 years-old, Grade: C+

After a lost year to Tommy John surgery, Biddle will be given the chance to return and flourish in 2017. A former top prospect for the Phillies who the Braves acquired from the Pirates after the latter tried to sneak him through waivers. 

I recently wrote a scouting report about Biddle so I would rather not spend too much time rehashing it here so here are the highlights. Biddle is a former Top 100 Prospect who struggles with his release point. If he can find more consistency with it, he can get over his fastball and let the pitch work for him. His curveball has exceptional bite and is his best pitch. 

Biddle will have a shot to compete for a spot in the bigs this spring, but I imagine the Braves see 2017 as a year for Biddle to work on things rather than pressure himself with a big league assignment. A decent spring and a bill of health will allow him to begin the year in Gwinnett. If not, he could start a level lower. Regardless, Biddle could be a sneaky-good move by the Braves front office if he's able to rebound.

34. Caleb Dirks, RHP, 23 years-old, Grade: C+

After a year in the Dodgers' system, Dirks returned last year to the organization that spent a 15th round pick on him back in 2014. Not that it has mattered much to Dirks - he continues to dominate opposing hitters every step of the way.

In 143.1 innings, Dirks has a beautiful 1.32 ERA and an FIP under 3.00. He won't put up ridiculous strikeout numbers - especially for this system, but he's been close to a 30% K-rate regardless. What makes Dirk especially good is his control. He had about a 20% difference between his strikeouts and walks - an elite number worth celebrating.

Dirks doesn't have the best stuff and his velocity won't wow anyone, but he knows how to throw his pitches and hits his spots. Last year, that was especially true because about 43% of his pitches came with Dirks ahead in the count. The average is roughly 6-7% lower. Dirks may lack the ceiling of some relieving prospects the Braves have, but as long as he continues to pitch like he has, he'll have his opportunity to impress.

33. Ricardo Sanchez, LHP, 20 years-old, Grade: C+

Year 2 of Ricardo's time with the Braves was much healthier than his 10-start 2015 campaign, but the results remained underwhelming for the teenager who won't turn 20 until April 11. The last fact gives the Braves hope that 2017 will be the year Sanchez begins to scratch the surface of his talent.

Talent and stuff-wise, Sanchez can excite you on a good day with low 90's heat and a very good curveball. His delivery is smooth and he adds a developing changeup that often can make or break him on any given day depending on his feel for the pitch.

Sanchez is trying to put it all together. He's prone to a big inning and can sometimes lose focus. Undersized, Sanchez can resemble a bulldog when in trouble as he tries to get out of jams. He's a competitor and a strong worker - he just needs to be more consistent. It's hard to get noticed in this system if you weren't a #1 pick, but Sanchez has the stuff to be a sleeper in 2017.

32. Lucas Herbert, Catcher, 20 years-old, Grade: C+

Kolby Allard's catcher in high school, Herbert was picked in the second round of the 2015 draft. Many assumed the Braves were hedging their bets in order to keep Allard from going to college rather than signing. However, I thought the Braves really liked what Herbert brought to the table and felt he was worth the pick. To this point, we haven't seen the results to support that contention.

It's early, yes, and Herbert was aggressively moved to Low-A Rome probably before he was ready. As a result, only 12 of the 367 PA he logged last year came against pitchers younger than him. Herbert struggled last year to find the right stance, the right setup with his hands, the right amount of batting gloves. He seems to me like a batter that really needs to rework much of what he does at the plate. If he can find consistency at the plate, his plus power will be a weapon and could be the difference between a starting and backup role in the majors should he get there.

Defensively, Herbert is a tremendous force behind the plate. He's incredibly athletic and shows great footwork along with great instincts at reading the ball. These skills will give him a chance to stick around even if his bat is still lagging behind, but I do hope the Braves show a bit more patience with him. He clearly did not appear ready for Rome and could use a return assignment. However, with so many catchers now in the system, finding at-bats for all of them is becoming a bit more difficult. Still, Herbert's power and defense are worth an extended look.

31. Ray-Patrick Didder, Outfield, 22 years-old, Grade: C+

The converted infielder had spent three years at rookie ball showing a good idea of the strikezone, but not much else. That changed in 2016 when the now center fielder settled into the position with Rome. In nearly 600 plate appearances, Didder posted a .361 wOBA with the aid of a .387 OBP. He added a .107 ISO to go with 37 steals.

One thing that stands out quickly about Didder is that he trusts his hands enough to crowd the plate. Last year, he was hit 39 times, the most in minor league baseball. While he has great speed, he's still developing an eye for when to steal. Defensively, he's a surprisingly rather good there despite being a middle infielder only a few years ago. He has the range to play center with a strong and accurate arm.

Up until this point, Didder has been about league average in age each year. That might change this year as a strong start with the Fire Frogs could get the 22-year-old promoted to Mississippi by summer. Such a move would cement his place as a strong outfield prospect. Either way, if Didder keeps developing like he did last year, the Braves will be very pleased with the Arubian native.

2017 Walk-Off Walk Top 50 Prospects*
5 Looking In (Honorable Mentions)

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

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

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