Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Transaction Tuesday: Braves Get Their Tebow and Make Waiver Claim

By Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
We're still a few weeks from this series really taking off as minor leaguers get moved up-and-down the system, but here's this week's recap. Just to be clear, I won't be detailing every time a guy gets "assigned" to the Braves, which is just a way of saying the team brought someone up to be a reserve for their major league squad. This will happen daily throughout the spring. To get an idea of who is up with the team for that day, check the official Braves' twitter page, which typically posts lineup information that includes which reserves are with the team that day.

Atlanta Braves
Signed: OF Sanders Commings...Once a tremendous defensive back at the University of Georgia, Commings was a fifth-round pick by the Chiefs and was lauded for his athletic ability. The Chiefs thought they had a potential big player for them, but injuries over two years with KC limited him to just two games before he was cut at the end of camp in 2015. After failing to secure another job with an NFL team, Commings started to think "If Tim Tebow can do it, why not me?" Well, I don't know that part for sure, but nevertheless, he began to work out with Jerry Hairston Jr., the former MLB outfielder, to get his swing and defensive skills back on track after last playing competitive ball in high school before attending UGA. All in all, it's an interesting move and who knows if anything comes of it. On the bright side, unlike Tebow, this signing hasn't set off a massive media circus.

Claimed: 1B/OF Christian Walker (Orioles)...Walker rode strong power and walk numbers into Top 200 prospect range before 2014, but his numbers have stagnated or declined in the higher-level minors. Two brief cups of coffee in the majors have done little to impress anyone and after spending all of 2016 in Triple-A, the Orioles decided to try to sneak Walker off their 40-man. No such luck as the Braves came in to grab the right-hand hitter last week and he has since played for the Braves this spring. Again, Walker has nice power with 63 homers over the last three years (including one major league bomb), but his OPS has been in the .750 range in the International League because of a mediocre hit tool and an 8% walk rate while striking out a quarter of the time. A lot of the increased strikeouts is a product of a mechanical change he made in order pull the ball more and take advantage of his power. However, in theory, Walker does appear like a fit for the Braves for two reasons. His right-hand bat could provide the Braves with an option against left-hand pitching in late innings - something lacking right now. Walker doesn't possess typical lefty-masher stats in the minors, but he handles them well enough. Still, as I said yesterday during my roster battle preview for the bench, I'm not sure I see what is so desirable about Walker outside of Triple-A depth.

DL'd: UTIL Sean Rodriguez (60-day)...This move was obviously expected after the car he was driving was struck by a man who stole a police cruiser. His wife and kids were all hospitalized in the event, but the whole family is out of the hospital and moving forward. While he was fortunate to avoid worse injuries from the accident, it seems likely that Rodriguez will miss most - if not all - of 2017.

No minor league moves.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Spring Roster Battles Preview - The Bench

Read previous Spring Roster Battles Previews
Fifth Starter
The Bullpen

I've given the Atlanta Braves plenty of time to make a few more moves - even suggested a couple here and here - but here is the final Spring Roster Battles Preview. Much like the last preview on the bullpen spots, this article will focus on players vying for at least two spots rather than one particular spot up for grabs. Remember that the Braves could go with a four-man bench if the bullpen is eight-large when the season opens. If they go with a more modern seven-guy setup in the pen, the bench will have five spots available. To be clear, I highly doubt that the Braves don't sign or trade for at least one other player to take up one of the open spots, however there may be. Nevertheless, here is where we are right now.

There are two guys we can pretty much write in with pen for 2017 - catcher Kurt Suzuki and utility do-everything-guy Jace Peterson. I'll point out a possible contender for Suzuki, but short of an epic collapse this spring, I am willing to bet the former Twin will break camp with the team. As for Peterson, he has done enough over the last two seasons to stick around. He's better suited for this utility role than the one he tried to fill since coming over from the Padres.

Who will fill the other two - possibly three - spots? Let's meet the contenders.

d'Arnaud by Editosaurus (own work) via Wikipedia Commons
The Can-He-Do-It-Again? Guy and the New Guy: Chase d'Arnaud and Micah Johnson

I am rocking my Lynchburg Hillcats hat at the moment and before the team was an Indians/Braves/Reds affiliate, they developed many of the Pirates prospects - including former fourth round pick Chase d'Arnaud. The shortstop was part of the Mills Cup-winning Hillcats of 2009, a team that featured former Braves farmhands Jamie Romak and Jeff Locke. I loved watching that team and d'Arnaud looked like a good prospect. Unfortunately, he never repeated his success of '09 (.838 OPS) and despite four callups to the majors before 2016, d'Arnaud never impressed. But an arrival with the Braves last spring appeared to unlock some of the potential the Pirates once saw in him. In his first 35 games, including 27 starts, d'Arnaud hit .299/.364/.393. With the failures of Erick Aybar, d'Arnaud became a much preferred option. His early success is why it's a little easy to forget that he slashed .190/.271/.276 over his final 49 games. In the larger scheme of things, it was a successful year for a person void of any success in the majors. In the even larger scheme of things, it was still an underwhelming season.

That said, d'Arnaud has an excellent chance of making this team. The Braves are comfortable with him and he played six positions last year. Historically, his best position is third base, where his limitations in range play up the least, but he can slide over to short and not looked lost there. With no natural backup to Dansby Swanson on the team, d'Arnaud could be a good fit. Also, considering the Braves may decline to carry a fourth outfielder and go with more flexible utility options like Peterson, d'Arnaud could help provide depth there.

A little over a month ago, the Braves acquired Micah Johnson for either cash considerations or a player to be named later. Like d'Arnaud, Johnson was an interesting prospect at once who flamed out in the majors. Unlike d'Arnaud, Johnson has some pretty good minor league stats. I mentioned this when he was picked up, but Johnson has two distinct swings - one that has more torque and power and another that is contact-orientated. I prefer the first as it gives him more value.

Despite a potentially intriguing bat, Johnson's chances to make this club might be completely dependent on his ability to play center field - a position that isn't natural to him. If he fails to impress, he will head to Gwinnett and play more outfield and other infield positions as a way to up his value. That said, the Braves, especially if they go with a five-man bench, might opt for Johnson's speed as a late-inning weapon.

The Prospects: Dustin Peterson (WOW #15) and Rio Ruiz (WOW #20)

It was the kind of season that Peterson needed. A player heavy on projection, but short on results, Peterson had not impressed much over his first three years and then 2016 happened. In his defense, he was extraordinarily young at each level, including last year in Double-A. Nevertheless, his ISO jumped from the low 100's to .149 while his walk rate, a saving grace from an ugly first season in the Braves system, held steady. The biggest difference came in a better display with his hit tool with the aid of a higher, but likely sustainable .327 BABIP. Adjustments in his swing also lead me to believe he's due for similar, if not better results as he moves up to Triple-A. Short of an injury, Peterson is not a serious candidate to make the 2017 roster, which is okay. He needs more at-bats and experience.

Ruiz by Tate Nations (CC by 4.0) via Wikipedia Commons
Like Peterson, Ruiz had a nice bounce-back campaign. However, whereas Peterson is a super longshot to make this roster, Ruiz has a chance if he's able to turn in a solid spring. Part of the trouble with Ruiz in 2015 came down to a lack of commitment to improve his body and bust his butt. He changed that in 2016 and according to a Q&A with Braves GM John Coppolella last Friday, he looks even better. It's difficult to project stardom, but there's enough here to believe Ruiz can carve out a nice career as the left-hand portion of a platoon. His defense, while not eye-opening, is good enough and he has a great arm. His hit tool is strong and he has good pop in his bat that he is still working to develop into game power.

With Adonis Garcia in the mix and seemingly well-loved by Braves management, Ruiz will not be given a spot - he'll have to show he has earned it. Even if he does, the Braves might not opt for a strict platoon and give Garcia his fair share of time against righties. What could really hurt Ruiz is the Braves willingness to go with an eight-man bullpen. There doesn't exist a lot of room for platoon players who are limited defensively in terms of flexibility. That said, his left-hand bat could come in handy late in games when he's not in the lineup.

The Longshots: Emilio Bonifacio, Ronnier Mustelier, Mel Rojas Jr., Adam Walker, Christian Walker, Colin Walsh

I actually worry that Bonifacio is less of a longshot. Bonifacio was last relevant as a major league player in 2014, when he posted a career-best 2.2 fWAR. He's only received 125 PA since, but has a -1.3 fWAR for his troubles. At nearly 32, his speed is not nearly the weapon it once was though it does remain a weapon. His other skill is his defensive flexibility, which might make him preferable for the Braves to other players who are a bit more limited. He's solid enough at second base, average at third base, and a train-wreck at shortstop. He's decent enough in the outfield corners and historically, average to slightly below-average in center field. If your bench is full of guys you believe can give you a pinch-hit option, finishing the bench off with a super-utility player like Bonifacio doesn't seem so bad. However, it's difficult to say that about this bench, when includes offensively-limited players like Suzuki and Jace Peterson.

Mustelier and Rojas Jr. return after decent years in the Braves' system last year. Mustelier slashed .291/.353/.394 in Gwinnett and has recent experience at third base. That said, ignoring the Mexican League, he hasn't played center since a cameo there in 2012. Rojas Jr. was picked up for depth from the Pirates' system and hit well in Triple-A, hammering ten homers there between Indianapolis and Gwinnett (along with two more in Double-A). Down the stretch, he was one of Gwinnett's best options. He's much more comfortable in center field than Mustelier. However, neither outfielder received an invite to spring training. That's not enough to completely rule them out, but doesn't bode well for their chances.

Adam Walker. Adam Brett Walker. Walk-Off Walker. However you know him, there are two certainties with Walker. He's going to hit the ball a long way and he's often not going to hit the ball at all. 30% of his plate appearances since being drafted 97th in 2012 have ended in a strikeout. Meanwhile, 124 - or one every 18 AB - have turned into homeruns. ZiPS even projects 29 homeruns for Walker in 2017 if he received 531 PA in the majors. Unfortunately, it also projects a 44.6% strikeout percentage. To put into that perspective...Chris Carter set the record for strikeout percentage in a season where a batter reached 500 PA. In 2013, Carter K'd 36.2% of the time - a good 8% fewer than the ZiPS projection for Walker. As a project, he's a fun one because if the Braves can get him to make more contact without sacrificing power, he becomes a viable major league option. I doubt that will happen in 2017, but he's worth a look.

Christian Walker (no relation) was just picked up by the Braves off waivers form the Orioles. He has his own contact issues, though not nearly as severe as Adam. His power isn't an 80-grade skill, either. I'm honestly not sure why the Braves were enamored with Walker outside of depth. He was a decent enough prospect in the O's system and he does have an option remaining should the Braves not be inclined to try to sneak him through waivers. Or Christian could impress this spring and land a spot as a right-handed bat off the bench who spells Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis against a tough lefty. Certainly, it's possible, but I'm not very confident.

Colin Walsh gets lost in the when we talk about a bench bat, but least we forget his ridiculous 2015 season when he slashed .302/.447/.470 in the Texas League (Double-A). Now, the Texas League isn't known for depressing offense by any means, but those numbers are eye-popping. So much so that the Brewers took him in the Rule 5 after the season. He struggled tremendously in 63 PA (four hits), though he did walk enough to post a .317 OBP. He was returned to the A's where he held his own in Triple-A. Walsh can play second, third, and the corner outfield positions and oh, he's a switch-hitter. In fact, it's hard not to think of another A's middle infielder with a switch-hit bat who the Braves once picked up - Brooks Conrad. Defensive liabilities aside, Conrad was an excellent bench bat for the Braves in 2010. Could Walsh be one for the Braves in 2017? For what it's worth, he did not receive an invite to spring training.

The Super Longshots: David Freitas, Balbino Fuenmayor, Blake Lalli, Anthony Recker

Freitas is a catcher/first baseman with a decent hit tool and already has experience in four different organizations since the Nats drafted him in 2010. He's never rated highly as a prospect and has often served as the backup catcher despite a career .273/.361/.421 slash. Freitas will turn 28 before the season and doesn't have much of a shot to make this team. Neither does Fuenmayor, though a strong spring could make things a little interesting. Fuenmayor had a mega 2015 after spending the previous year in independent ball. Playing mostly in Double-A, Fuenmayor hit .358/.384/.589 with 17 homeruns in less than 400 PA. While certainly not a prospect, it was the kind of year that will attract more attention the following year...which did not go so hot. Last season, while at Triple-A, Fuenmayor hit .291, but with him being allergic to walks and not being able to flash his good power from the Texas League, his numbers soured into a line resembling a middle infielder without any speed (.291/.325/.405). He's pretty limited to first base, though he did play 59 games at third in 2014 with Quebec. While his name deserves consideration, his bat probably doesn't.

Blake Lalli made it back to the majors last year for the first time since 2013. The 33 year-old went 2-for-13. Small sample size, but he set a new personal best with batting average (.154) and slugging (.231). That might tell you something about his first two gigs in the majors, which also were small cups of coffee (16 PA in 2012, 24 PA the following year). Lalli's bat has been substandard the last three years and he's battling to stick on the Gwinnett roster, which could be tough to do. That is especially true with Anthony Recker likely to be in Gwinnett. With the backup catching situation a problem in Atlanta last year, Recker got an opportunity and ran with it. Over 33 games, he hit .278/.394/.433. A .343 BABIP helped compared to his career .268. The Braves were not convinced that Recker was a good bet in 2017 and signed Kurt Suzuki to replace him. While Recker will be given an opportunity to unseat Suzuki, his best chance to be on a major league roster come opening day will be from injury or being traded to a team in need of catching depth.

To Sum Up...

There are a lot of options, but a few stand out: Chase d'Arnaud, Micah Johnson, and Emilio Bonifacio. Rio Ruiz might force his way in and if Atlanta goes with a more typical seven-man bullpen, that could help his chances, but regardless, Atlanta is seeking a versatile mix of players. Judging by early usage of Johnson in center field, Atlanta seems interested in using him as the primary backup to Ender Inciarte. Such a move would help Johnson's chances of making this roster. With shortstop needing depth, d'Arnaud is a good bet as well.

The biggest problem with this bench is related to what they can bring you in pinch-hitting situations. A National League bench will be counted on in late innings for high-leverage opportunities against good relievers. Peterson, d'Arnaud, and Johnson aren't prove offensive contributors at the major league level. Such a realization is likely weighing on John Coppolella as he fine-tunes the team heading into 2017. Because of this, I imagine the Braves will bring in a veteran bat like Kelly Johnson even if they do go with a four-man bench. Someone has to step in and give the Braves some kind of offense after all.

What does your bench look like? Is a four-man bench a potential problem should Atlanta go with it? Should the Braves go outside the organization for help and who should they pick up? Let me know in the comments.

Monday Roundup: First Two Games in the Book

Not too much to recap this week as we are just two games into the Grapefruit schedule, but here we go.

BRAVES 7, Blue Jays 4

The Braves fell behind 3-0 but stormed back with a half-dozen runs split between the fourth and fifth innings to win this one. A few takeaways from this game include the Braves using what is manager Brian Snitker's hopeful opening day lineup with Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson at the top. They're followed by Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp, and Nick Markakis as the heart of the order. Finally, Brandon Phillips, Adonis Garcia and Tyler Flowers fill out the regular eight. Dustin Peterson had a pair of hits and Emilio Bonifacio, trying to win a spot on the bench, went 2-for-2 with a walk and a double. Bartolo Colon worked around some trouble in the second to go 2 innings with three hits allowed, a run, and a K. John Danks struggled and Blaine Boyer wasn't spot on either, but Mauricio Cabrera, Akeel Morris, and Luke Jackson finished the day with four combined innings, a hit, a walk, and four K's. For Morris and especially Jackson, each good outing will boost their chances to make the roster.

Who helped himself the most? Bonifacio
Who hurt himself the most? Danks

Astros 3, BRAVES 2 

Jose Ramirez has a lively arm, but with so much depth, he'll need to come to camp and impress. Sunday was not his day. He surrendered four hits in 1.2 innings, including a two-run Max Stassi homer that broke a 1-1 tie in the 8th inning. Newly acquired Christian Walker singled in uber-prospect Ronald Acuna in the ninth to cut into the deficit, but Travis Demeritte flew out to end the game. Micah Johnson got the start in center field. He went 0-for-2, but Atlanta continues to look at Johnson as a possible CF backup heading into 2017. Also in the outfield on Sunday was Dustin Peterson, who played right field after replacing Nick Markakis. Since moving away from third base two years ago, Peterson has played almost exclusively in left field outside of four games last year in center field. Increasing his defensive flexibility would help him get to the majors quicker though he did get charged with an error. Julio Teheran started and looked good despite the inconsistent Lance Diaz behind the plate. Aaron Blair struggled with location over his two innings and did give up a run, but also struck out three. Blair's slider, a potential weapon for him that he developed more last year, looked good. Eric O'Flaherty and Sam Freeman each tossed scoreless innings and Adam Kolarek threw 1.1 scoreless. All three lefties are battling to make the team as non-roster guys.

Who helped himself the most? Walker
Who hurt himself the most? Ramirez

Week's Record: 1-1
Grapefruit League Record: 1-1

Seven-day Forecast: @Tigers, vs. Cardinals, @Yankees (TV: YES), @Cardinals, vs. Red Sox, SS @ Phillies (TV: CSN) and SS vs. Marlins, @ Red Sox (TV: NESN).

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Random Prospect Sunday - Tanner Murphy

Sometimes, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. For Tanner Murphy, that right time happened on a baseball diamond during his sophomore year of high school. The catcher on his travel team broke his thumb, prompting the coach to ask for a volunteer to put on the tools of ignorance. Murphy, a shortstop, went behind home plate and immediately threw out a greedy base runner trying to take advantage of the new catcher. For Murphy, it was a match made in heaven and would soon help him catch the eye of major league scouts.

Born on February 27, 1995, Murphy will turn 22 tomorrow. He graduated from Malden High School in southeast Missouri. A small city of just 4,275, Murphy was a star athlete who earned a scholarship to Southern Illinois University. However, the Braves came calling in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. The Braves had already taken Victor Caratini about 80 picks before Murphy, but were going to try Caratini out at third base, which made Murphy their top catching prospect from the draft by default. Murphy was also an option as a pitcher as he possessed low-90's velocity, but catcher seemed like his calling. Shortly after the draft, they inked the young man to a minor league contract with a $250,000 bonus - about $125K below the slot value.

At the time, Murphy may have been considered a stretch at #133. Ranked #488 in Baseball America's Top 500 rankings before the draft, Murphy fit the bill during the Frank Wren era. Safe, calculated picks that wouldn't demand the world and had pretty decent floors. Murphy's defense was pro-worthy, but could he hit?

After the draft, the 18-year-old headed to Florida to join the Gulf Coast League Braves in Lake Buena Vista. His bat never seemed to catch up, as he managed just 22 hits in 97 AB (.227 average). Only three of those hits went for extra bases - all doubles. He did on-base .313, which is solid enough considering where his average was. He did cut down 42% of potential base stealers (13-of-31). The next season put Murphy on the map a bit as a prospect. He hit just .242 with Danville, but bashed 5 homers in 191 PA. He showed an exceptional understanding of the strikezone with 30 walks, or a 16% walk rate. He did much of his best work over his final 29 games, slashing .292/.389/.438.

His quick rise in prospect status continued the next spring. Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez took an immediate liking to the country boy from Missouri. "When you look at this kid, you know something good is going to happen," the former long-time personal catcher of Greg Maddux said. It was Murphy's first training camp with the big league club, an award for his strong 2014 campaign. At the time, the Braves were breaking in Christian Bethancourt as their new starter behind the plate and hoped they wouldn't need Murphy for a few years. Former Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez noted, "He's got some talent and he's got some ability...(Catching instructor) Joe Breeden has seen him the most and Joe likes him a lot."

Not only would 2015 be Murphy's first big-league camp, but also his first taste of full-season ball. Former Fangraphs prospect guru Kiley McDaniel ranked Murphy as the #22nd best prospect in an improving system, noting that, "The Braves really like this kid and see a breakout year coming in 2015 at Low-A, praising his makeup, receiving ability, solid average arm, average raw power and flashes of hitting ability and an approach." Murphy headed to Rome to join another catcher picked with a high-round choice the year before Murphy in Bryan De La Rosa. The two shared the position and shared in the misery of an awful season at the plate. In De La Rosa's final season in the system, the former third-rounder hit .205/.277/.322. That's bad, but slightly better than Murphy, who slashed .193/.277/.312. His walk rate dropped 6% while his K-rate spiked 4% to nearly a quarter of all plate appearances. Just 20 years-old, it was the kind of ugly campaign you hope is the strange outlier in an otherwise productive minor league career.

Most of the time, a prospect that has such a down year would get a repeat assignment, but traffic was getting crowded behind Murphy. With 2015 draftees Lucas Herbert and Jonathan Morales joining Rome, Murphy moved up the ladder to the Carolina League. The league is known to favor pitchers, which did not improve Murphy's chances for a big bounceback season. Some of his metrics did improve (12.6% walk rate, 16.5% K-rate), but what Murphy did with his swings were less than thrilling. He hit just .214 with 15 EBH in 334 PA.

But...that's not the complete story. Murphy got off to an epically bad start to open 2016. It was the kind of start that often gets players cut. Over his first 30 games, Murphy had just 12 hits in 100 AB (110 PA). It doesn't take a mathematician to know how bad that is. He wasn't walking, had just one extra base hit, and was K'd a fifth of the time. He started to get some of his power back over his next eleven games and then, on the day before the All-Star Break, his stance was altered to loosen him up at the plate. The results were pretty immediate. He walked twice in his first game with the new stance and hit a homer in his second game. Over his final 48 games, Murphy slashed .288/.412/.390 with 3 homers. No longer pressing, he walked 30 times to 26 K's over his final 182 PA. Murphy's bat, for the first time in two years, was an asset to his team.

As we move into 2017, it doesn't get any easier for Murphy. Mississippi's catching situation seems packed. Kade Scivicque was added to the organization late last year and finished with a cameo in Pearl. Joseph Odom also played 39 games in Mississippi after a callup from Carolina while the Braves added Armando Araiza this offseason. With little room at Triple-A, the Braves could opt to keep Murphy at the High-A level, though how much time is available there is also suspect. The aforementioned Morales and/or Herbert could be moved up the chain - especially with Brett Cumberland coming up from Danville. Further, Alex Jackson is moving to catcher and will demand much of the playing time with whatever A-level squad he starts with. Despite Murphy's strong finish, he could find it difficult to find at-bats once the 2017 season begins. The fact that Scivicque and Odom were non-roster invitees while Murphy wasn't does not bode well, either.

Whatever the case, Murphy is easy to root for. I've linked to a recent interview he did with Talking Chop earlier in this profile and it's an eye opener into the struggles he went through over the last two years and how he kept striving for success. However, the name of the game is production. Murphy will need to get off to a good start to avouid being forgotten in the rapidly improving catcher depth Atlanta now has. If he continues to hit like he did in the second half of 2016, he'll definitely be hard to forget.

Follow Murphy on Twitter @tsmurph14

Saturday, February 25, 2017

#AskCoppy for February 24: Demeritte, SunTrust Park, Kemp, and more

One of the coolest things in baseball social media is #AskCoppy. If you've never heard of the hashtag, it refers to an hour or two where John Coppolella fields questions from Atlanta Braves fans. It's a fun way to get some insight into the mind of the Braves' general manager. Obviously, twitter limitations keep the responses to a minimal, but considering that Coppolella doesn't have to do this at all, we will take what we can get. Here are some of the highlights from yesterday's edition of #AskCoppy.

Jason Cleghorn asked: What do we know about how Suntrust might play?  Pitchers park, hitters, neutral? How strategic was the design? #askcoppy

Coppy's take: If you are a hitter it's a great hitter's park; if you are a pitcher it's a great pitcher's park -- jk -- will play similar to Turner Field

Kyle Hess/Beam/Atlanta Braves
Analysis: Nobody really knows how STP will play until we actually see it in action. That said, there are a few differences between STP and Turner Field that should be fun to watch. One of particular interest is right field, which I covered last year. Not only will the right field alley be 15 feet shorter than Turner Field, it'll include a 16-foot wall beginning in the alley and extending to the right field foul pole. Also, the wall will include 10 feet of padding and the rest will be exposed brick, which could be fun to watch to see how the ball caroms off the two different parts of the wall. The picture on the right is from October, but I feel it gives you kind of an overview.

Kacey Johnson asked: Is Travis Demeritte a potential long term answer at 3B? Also, thanks for being the coolest GM in MLB! #AskCoppy

Coppy's take: Thanks for the kind words!  Travis has looked awesome early in camp and we feel like he could play everyday @ number of spots

Analysis: "Number of spots" is very intriguing. While Demeritte has played shortstop and third base in the minors, 81% of the innings he has played in the field have been at second base. Typically, that means he doesn't have the range and/or arm to play elsewhere on the infield, but it's not always true. In fact, Demeritte has wonderful range. His arm is a bit more of a question mark, but could it be good enough to play third base? Quite possibly. In addition, Demeritte could see some outfield time if the Braves want to keep their options open.

Jason Reese asked: Any chance you sign Angel Pagan and/or Pedro Alvarez for bench or are you content to go with what you have? #askcoppy

Coppy's take: It wouldn't be right for me to drop names, but we are in contact with a couple of potential adds -- but would have to be NRI @ this time

Analysis: This is not too surprising. I've mentioned my fondness for Pagan before and the Braves have been linked to both Kelly Johnson and Jeff Francoeur the past few weeks. While I would love a double signing of Pagan and KJ to fill out the bench, it seems like a pipedream as they try to wait out the market and get a better deal than the NRIs, or non-roster invitees, offers they have received to this point. Meanwhile, the Braves are ready to try to wait out the market and get the best possible deal.

Jesse Russell asked: what's the ceiling for Sean Newcomb? Can he be our "Jon Lester" in the rotation soon? #AskCoppy

Coppy's take: Sean has as much talent as any young pitcher we have, but we just want him to be @SeanNewk -- we love who he is and what he can be

Analysis: I was one of the few people this offseason who devoted a prospect list to the Braves' system and ranked Newcomb as high as I did (#2). I agree that Newcomb has as much talent as any other young pitcher in the system. In fact, from a ceiling standpoint, Newcomb has few peers. That said, he has a long way to reach that ceiling and it's fair to say that the likelihood is extraordinarily low that his career mimics that best-case scenario. Not sure I really see the Lester comp for Newcomb, though. An older, but possibly better comparison might be Sam McDowell. At his wildest, McDowell was dangerous. But once he was able to get his walks per nine inning under 5.0 in 1965, he became one of the game's finest pitchers for the next half-dozen years.

Kevin asked: the people need to know. Better band: Alice in Chains or Nirvana? #AskCoppy

Coppy's take: Blasphemy, I know -- but I LOVE AIC

Analysis: He's not wrong. I'll even go further. Pearl Jam is better than both. Oh, and Foo Fighters are better than all of them. Don't @ me.

Joe Lucia asked: how would you rate Matt Kemp's fitness this spring?

Coppy's take: Matt has been tremendous on our club, in great shape & working hard.  Great person beloved by teammates.  We are lucky to have him.

Curtis Compton/AJC
Analysis: One of the most talked about and covered subjects this spring has been Kemp's efforts to get his career - and specifically his work ethic - back on track. Soon after acquiring the former All-Star, Coppolella mentioned in an interview to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, "He’s 31-years old. He is not in shape and that’s something we need to work on with him. He’s been told about it. We are going to talk to him more. It’s the kind of thing where, for him, you can’t really do that during the season. It’s not like you can drop 30 pounds during the season and keep playing.” It was a frank assessment of Kemp and one that had all the potential in the world to backfire. However, it appears to have worked out wonderfully as the picture on the right, courtesy of the AJC, shows. While it is too much to expect Kemp to return to his near 40-40 days of 2011, if the work he put in this offseason turns into big results at the plate and in the field, Kemp could not only be an x-factor for the 2017 season, but a marketable asset should the Braves try to move him.

Dan Horton asked: What did you like about Sanders Commings that made you want to give him a shot? #AskCoppy

Coppy's take: Terrific talent & even better person.  Totally committed to baseball & willing to work.  You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Andy Sadler asked: what's the plan with Sanders Commings? What level might he start at and what position will he play?

Coppy's take: No plan.  Come in & see how he performs.  He could go to 2A or he could begin in extended ST.  It's about whatever is best for the player.

Analysis: If you missed the news this week, the Braves signed Sanders Commings, a former University of Georgia defensive back who was selected with the first pick of the 2013 fifth round - right ahead of Denard Robinson. Commings, who didn't play baseball in college, made it on the field for two games his rookie year, but injuries hounded him during his 2+ years with the Kansas City Chiefs before they ultimately waived him before the '15 season. Now, Commings will give a baseball career a chance. During his senior year of high school, he hit .520 with 15 homers, which prompted the Diamondbacks to select him in the 37th round. To say the least, this will be much less of a media circus than the Tim Tebow experiment.

Mdubs8 askeddo you believe you were close to acquiring an ace at any point this winter? #AskCoppy

Coppy's take: Not really.  We flirted, but nothing even resembling a hookup and certainly not marriage.

Analysis: Some good insight here. The Braves were linked to - at different times - Chris Sale, Chris Archer, and Jose Quintana this offseason. From a logical standpoint, it did not make a lot of sense. While adding an "ace" seems like a no-brainer, there were financial concerns with adding much more salary to the rotation. Further, while there is good reason to be optimistic this year, there are some questions that need to be answered to know if the window to compete has been thrown open. Of course, the Braves did their due diligence, but the price it took to trade for Sale was way over what they felt comfortable with.

Noah Goodman asked: #AskCoppy how do you feel about Jesse Biddle?

Coppy's take: Jesse has been tremendous early in camp -- kudos to Billy Ryan & Matt Grabowski & our entire front office -- look for big things in '17

Analysis: In a shrewd move, the Atlanta Braves grabbed Biddle last spring off waivers and stashed him away as he rehabbed from injury - similar to what they are doing this year with Jacob Lindgren. Now, the Braves are looking to take advantage of that move by adding Biddle to the mix. I believe he's destined for Gwinnett to at least start 2017, but Biddle was once a top prospect who could still pan out for the Braves. For more on Biddle, here is my scouting report.

Gil Elliott asked: #AskCoppy: Do you agree a lot of stolen bases are really on the pitcher but the catchers bear the brunt of the blame?

Coppy's take: Yes -- I think it's like 75-25 -- great point

Analysis: If you were wondering why the Braves did not feel pushed to improve their starting catcher situation beyond Tyler Flowers, this might help explain it. While Flowers had a terrible season throwing out runners (3-of-63), the Braves were willing to look past that because of the other things he brought to the table (pitch framing, a good year with the bat). While the Braves certainly flirted with Jason Castro, they ultimately did little but add a veteran backup to the mix in Kurt Suzuki. Many fans that look at traditional catcher defensive stats won't consider Flowers a competent catcher. The Braves realize that he's not the biggest person responsible for stolen bases.

Chris Jervis asked: How much do #Braves value pitch framing & game calling? Flowers has been very good w/ these, even if more 'traditional' areas lag.

Coppy's take: It depends who you ask in our front office -- we argue about it a lot, but it's healthy discussions that make us better

Analysis: Interesting answer to a good question. All winter, we heard that the Braves were valuing pitch framing more than previous years. In the end, they added Suzuki, who has not graded positively based on publicly available pitch-framing metrics (the Braves may have their own they use). Based on the answer, you might think that Coppy isn't thoroughly convinced that pitch framing is very important, but the pursuit of Castro says otherwise. I would love to be a fly on the wall as they debate the merits of pitch calling. By the way, remember to follow Jervis over at outfieldflyrule.com.

Easy D asked: #AskCoppy Most smart people agree that Parks & Recreation is watchable, but not really great. Agreed?

Coppy's take: Thought it was pretty funny -- not Workaholics funny, but pretty good

Analysis: I can only assume Coppy was being nice here. "Most smart people?" Parks & Rec was one of the best shows of the last 15 years. Yeah, I said it. I challenge you to watch this and not agree that Parks & Rec is truly great.

Nolan Ryan Alexander asked: What does Adam Brett Walker add to the system? Where do you see him fitting in? @braves #AskCoppy

Coppy's take: Power!  May have the best raw power in baseball and he has a chance to help us at MLB level depending on his development.

Analysis: So, I think I may have a name and face to an anonymous account that has talked up Walker both before and after the Braves acquired him. I only suggest that because of the full "Adam Brett Walker" reference. To be honest, because I allow anonymous commentators, it could have been more than one person. Either way, Adam Walker has power as Coppy suggests - a lot of it. The question is can he develop enough while already in his mid-20's to translate his big power into results at the major league level.

Some lasting thoughts...Coppy said Johan Camargo has opened some eyes early this spring. Camargo has never had much of a bat, but has flashed a good glove. He was a bit of a surprise addition to the 40-man this winter and if Coppy's love for him says anything, he's likely to stay for a little while...Coppy also mentioned that SunTrust Park and the surrounding buildings and facilities could be a selling point with free agents next winter as they try to show them around all of the fun things the area has to offer....He thinks Luke Jackson will play a factor for this year's squad. I agree....Rio Ruiz continues to work to improve his body and has been impressive so far.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Transaction Tuesday: Lindgren, Number Changes, Minor Leaguer Suspended

Though spring training is just beginning, we have some transactions and moves that may have flew under the radar. With that in mind, here is this week's Transaction Tuesday Recap. Spoiler alert - there's not a lot to report just yet.

By Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Disabled: Jacob Lindgren (60-day)...It didn't receive a lot of fanfare, but Atlanta's signing of Lindgren could turn into a big move - in 2018. Lindgren, who has earned the moniker "The Strikeout Factory," will miss all of 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery. However, when he is healthy, the Braves will have a pair of lefties in Lindgren and A.J. Minter that could dominate coming out of the pen for years.

Number Changes: Rio Ruiz (#32 to #14), Jose Ramirez (#40 to #52), Matt Wisler (#37 to #45), Mauricio Cabrera (#62 to #56), Jason Hursh (#67 to #61), Chaz Roe (#50 to #51)...The beginning of spring training typically allows holdover young players a chance to lobby for a new number.

Suspended: Gabe Howell...A 20th rounder last June, Howell was a star at Trion High School in northern Georgia. He hit .650 his senior year with 22 extra-base hits, including eight dingers. He also stole 14 bases. Still, Howell wasn't a heavily recruited athlete and landed with the Braves. A shortstop in high school, Howell played briefly at third base for the GCL Braves last summer before being move up the ladder. For whatever reason, he never played with Danville and his first season's stats included just seven games. His second season isn't off to much of a better start either as he was saddled with "a 68-game suspension after a positive test for hydrochlorothiazide." Most often used to treat high blood pressure and fluid build-up, hydrochlorothiazide is also considered a masking agent that can hide or impair the ability for drug tests to screen for other performance-enhancing drugs.

And that's all for this week. If you haven't seen this series before, it really takes off during the season as a way to follow promotions/demotions.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Should the Braves Bring Back Kelly Johnson and/or Jeff Francoeur?

By Arturo Pardavila III [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It seems inevitable.

Maybe it shouldn't, but it really does seem like only a matter of time.

It is so expected that should the Atlanta Braves sign either Kelly Johnson or Jeff Francoeur over the next few days, it would surprise no one. The Braves have proven that when it comes to depth, they like to go to players they are comfortable with. Both Johnson and Francoeur were brought back last year and given a chance to win a job on their bench, which both did. For Johnson, it was actually the second time he re-Braved. Eric O'Flaherty, Emilio Bonifacio, and Kris Medlen are a few other players brought back for this year's roster that could eventually play for Atlanta in 2017. With the bench wide-open, why not Johnson? Why not Francoeur? Why not both?

Let's see if either, or both, are good fits for the Braves in 2017.

As I previously went over in a spring training battles preview for the bullpen, the Braves appear convinced to give the eight-man bullpen experiment a shot. I don't like the idea for an NL team that must utilize its bench on a nightly basis. Last season, the Braves did not use their bench nine times and six came in AL parks. That leaves just three times when the Braves did not use their bench for a pinch hitter, pinch runner, or defensive replacement when they didn't have the aid of the DH. It's a rarity that a manager won't have to go to the bench two-or-three times under traditional National League rules. Yet, the Braves want to limit the bench to four players, which includes a backup catcher that managers will be apprehensive about using in case a catcher is needed later in the game.

Where does that leave the bench? Well, right now, we have a good idea about half of it. Kurt Suzuki was given a one-year, $1.5 million contract last month to support Tyler Flowers. While Anthony Recker will be given a chance to unseat Suzuki, there is a high probability that short of an injury, Flowers will be in the starting lineup on opening day with Suzuki on the bench. The other fairly known player in the mix is Jace Peterson. After 214 starts at second base the last two years, plus 13 additional starts at third base, left field, and center field, Peterson looks destined for the utility bench role many felt he would be best suited for as a prospect. With Sean Rodriguez out for potentially the whole season, Peterson will be asked to do much of what they expected out of Rodriguez, minus the lefty-bashing bat, as the newly acquired Brandon Phillips takes over at second base.

Plenty of other names are in the mix, including the aforementioned Bonifacio, Micah Johnson, Chase D'Arnaud, and Rio Ruiz. Would adding Johnson or Francoeur be an improvement?

Let's look at what each player brings the Braves. Kelly Johnson's third go-around with the Braves was brief. He played in just 49 games with Atlanta before being traded for the second consecutive season to the Mets. All in all, it was a down year for Johnson after a bit of a surprise resurgence in 2015. That year, he hit .265/.314/.435 with most of his best work coming before his July trade to New York. Last year, his numbers fell across the board, though this time, his numbers dramatically improved after joining the Mets. Throughout his career, the left-hand hitting Johnson has shown little preference between left-handed and right-handed pitchers with a slight edge in favor of facing southpaws.

By Sgt. Anthony Hewitt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Francoeur was included in a late season trade to the Marlins. After playing in 100 games for the first time in three years with the Phils in 2015, Francoeur joined the Braves last year - seven years after the disappointing end to his run with Atlanta that included epic highs and massive lows. Francoeur hit just .249/.290/.381 before his trade and hit better, though with no power, with the Marlins. On the season, he had a .254/.297/.378 slash. Where he did shine, somewhat, was against left-handed pitching. His OPS saw a 90-point improvement when he had the platoon advantage. That's pretty close to his career marks, though it should be said that his .253/.293/.402 lifetime slash against right-handers makes his value limited.

Beyond the differences at the plate, what truly separates these players is defensive flexibility. The only time Francoeur has ventured away from the outfield was for a two-inning stint on the mound in 2015 and a one-inning fill-in job with the Marlins on the season's final day - a game former Braves player Martin Prado managed. Meanwhile, Johnson has played six different positions, including each position on the infield and both corner outfield positions.

If the Braves were to sign one, the final position on the bench would also be directly impacted. If the Braves signed Francoeur, it would improve D'Arnaud's position as the Braves might be more apt to keep a player with a wealth of experience at shortstop. Signing Johnson may also force that, though Peterson was a shortstop until 2014 and Johnson has made cameos at shortstop with the Mets the last two years. Neither should get much time there, but their experience may be enough to prompt the Braves into rolling the dice and only bringing up a shortstop if Dansby Swanson were to miss time.

If it were me, I'd consider Johnson because he can provide more support at multiple positions. That said, having both Johnson and Peterson could be considered redundant, though Johnson's success against lefthanders helps to differentiate himself from Peterson. As for Francoeur, you might be able to argue that he would be a decent pickup if you felt he could play all three outfield spots and possibly first base. The last time he ventured into center field was 2014 for four innings in Triple-A and he's never played first base. His bat would have to be his saving grace and we are talking about a guy who has slashed .237/.279/.372 over his last 1561 PA (five years). Again, you might say "But we need a right-handed bat off the bench for late inning lefthanders." Here's where I say "don't confuse Francoeur with Matt Diaz." If you recall, Diaz was the definition of a platoon-hitting right-handed batter who bashed lefties. Remember that five year sample I referenced a couple of sentences back? Francoeur has slashed .240/.292/.363 against southpaws since 2012. That comes out to a 73 wRC+. While his career numbers, and especially last year, are more slanted to a guy who hits lefties noticeably better, he's still only an average bat career-wise against lefties (101 wRC+). Kelly Johnson carries a 103 wRC+ against lefties and is not inept against righties (101 wRC+).

With that in mind, if I'm the Braves, I'm definitely trying to bring back Johnson. And bonus, you can trade him to the Mets again. Win-win.

What say you? Johnson? Francoeur? Both? Neither?

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)

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.