Saturday, February 4, 2017

Braves Top 50 Prospects, 2017 Preseason: #20-#11 (Part 1 of 2)

These prospect capsules are taking forever. It's with that in mind that I've split this week's ten pack into two parts just to help with loading times and whatnot. This is Part 1 while Part 2 will be released within an hour.

I did want to touch on something I forgot to mention before - my grading scale. I want to start by making it clear that I'm not an expert or a scout. I base my grades on scouting reports I've read, footage I've watched, conversations I've shared, and stats. In addition, I'll use what level the player is at versus his age. Overall, don't get too upset if I grade lower than others. I'm a very hard grader.

20. Rio Ruiz, 3B, 23 years-old (5/22), Grade: B-

2016 was just what the doctor ordered for Ruiz to get back into the prospect game. After being part of the Evan Gattis trade, Ruiz struggled tremendously in 2015 with Mississippi. He did finish strong, though, with a .289/.370/.459 clip over the final 154 PA. The former fourth-rounder used that momentum to start 2016 off right with a nice spring training and a hot bat to begin the year with Gwinnett. Over his first 107 PA, Ruiz hit .337/.411/.495 and people were already calling for his promotion to the bigs. He would taper off badly in May, but hit well enough down the stretch to finish .271/.355/.400 with a .342 wOBA and 118 RC+. It's worth stating that Ruiz received just nine plate appearances against pitchers younger than he is. His season was rewarded with a five-game run in Atlanta where he picked up two hits, including a triple.

What do the Braves actually have in Ruiz? He doesn't do anything exceptionally well, but does enough positive things to project major league success. He's always shown a solid eye at the plate with a walk rate ranging from 10.6% to 13.6% above rookie ball. The strikeout rate hit 20% last year, but he's not hurt by making too little contact. Defensively, he lacks the lateral movement needed to be an elite defender, but does have a strong and accurate arm and makes the plays he can get to.

He's never hit more than a dozen homers in a season and probably won't be a yearly 20-homer guy in the majors. He may also be platoon-limited with a .293/.229 OBP/SLG against southpaws in 2016 and .306/.384 the year before. While I have a tough time believing Ruiz is a long-term option the Braves can plop down at third base and not have to tinker with, I do think his skillset can help the Braves as early as 2017.



19. A.J. Minter, LHP, 23 years-old, Grade: B-

When the guy you grade as a first round talent is available in the second round, you take him even if he's injured and won't pitch until the next season. That's what the Braves did in 2015 when they selected A.J. Minter out of Texas A&M. Now, less than two years since that June day, the Braves could see Minter break camp with their team for 2017. If there's one thing this Braves front office has done repeatedly with prospects is aim high. In Minter, they did just that.

After Minter recuperated from Tommy John surgery performed early in 2015, he made his professional debut with Rome on May 5 of last year. He needed just a handful of games in the South Atlantic League to shake off the rust and allowed no runs in 6.2 innings with six K's and one walk. Late in May, he was promoted to Carolina and over eight games, continued to hold the opposition scoreless in 9.1 innings with four walks and ten strikeouts. He would spend the final two months of 2016 with Mississippi and while he finally gave up some runs, he struck out 31 over 18.2 innings. Overall, in 31 games, Minter had a 1.30 ERA and a FIP nearly as good over 34.2 innings. He walked just eleven batters (8%) and picked up 47 strikeouts (35%).

Minter has worked hard to clean up his delivery, which is only going to make his 97 mph heater all the more deadly. Not content with velocity, Minter gets tremendous movement with the pitch and he's capable of throwing it up in the zone or dropping it low. He'll pair that devastating pitch with a slider, though it won't look like many sliders you are used to. It dives into lefties and moves away from righties, the opposite of what you might expect from a left-handed pitcher. Minter also has a change, though that's a holdover from his college starting days and I never saw it in what video I watched of Minter.

My ranking here is based on the idea that Minter won't be later moved to the rotation. It's always a possibility and would definitely improve his value, but I believe the Braves see him as a reliever and a high-leverage one at that. I believe he'll become that as soon as the second half of 2017. He'll face some stiff competition this spring as Ian Krol was awesome last year and Paco Rodriguez has the experience to match a similar pedigree as Minter. If the Braves go with three lefties, it could open the door for Minter. Personally, I doubt that as Minter was never pushed to throw back-to-back games in 2016. The Braves might want to see that first with Gwinnett before bringing him to SunTrust - though I would be shocked if Minter has a healthy campaign and doesn't play in the majors at some point.



18. Lucas Sims, RHP, 23 years-old, Grade: B-

It seems like Sims has been in the system for a decade, though it's only been half of that since the Frank Wren-era Braves took him with the 21st pick of the 2012 draft. Sims was a callback to an older era of selecting the best prep players from Georgia who often grew up big Braves fans. Sims became the top pitching prospect in the system after 2013 when he finished with 134 K's in 116.2 innings for Rome. The season included a 2.62 ERA and 3.09 FIP. In a system dying for players with high-end projection, Sims stood out as someone to dream big about.

Subsequent efforts have been a mixed bag. The strikeouts have been there (9.7 K/9 in 2015, 10.1 K/9 last year), but the walks have subsequently climbed to an unacceptable rate. Last year, he walked nearly six every nine innings. While a number of Braves' minor league arms disappointed in 2016, Sims may have been the most disappointing because he had finished 2015 on a hot streak with Mississippi and was one of the stars of the Arizona Fall League to end the year.

Sims relies on a low-90's fastball that he can get up to 96-97 mph. Like nearly every top Braves' pitching prospect, he not only has great velocity, but superb movement. For strikeouts, he goes to a curveball that has late break on it that, if Sims is right, leads to a lot of whiffs. He also has a changeup that is inconsistent, but excellent when he's on and a slider that he's still trying to get feel for.

Many have suggested that Sims' profiles best as a reliever. I'm not ready to agree just yet, but the control issues are concerning. Ignoring injuries, there's only two ways a pitcher with Sims' stuff doesn't become a good major league pitcher: nothing between the ears or hurting himself because he can't harness his outstanding stuff. I still have a good deal of hope for Sims, but he cannot stagnate for too much longer because the arms that are coming have even higher ceilings.



17. Patrick Weigel, RHP, 22 years-old, Grade: B-

The 2015 draft for the Atlanta Braves has a chance to be franchise-altering. In addition to the big two names at the front of the draft in Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, the Braves also picked Minter (#19), Lucas Herbert (#32), and the guy who will be revealed at #12 in the second part of this update. In the seventh round, they grabbed University of Houston right-hander Patrick Weigel. Minter has the best shot to be the first Brave from that draft to make it to the majors, but Weigel's not far behind.

Weigel flew under the radar heading into 2016 because of his lower-profile draft selection and mediocre numbers with Danville. He broke out in 2016, though. In 149.2 innings, Weigel struck out 152, walked 52, and had a 2.47 ERA. Most of that was at Rome, though Weigel did log 20.2 innings with Mississippi to close the season.

Last summer, Baseball America was asked this question: is Weigel a seventh round steal? This line from J.J. Cooper was telling - "He might be a little older than some of his teammates, but on one of the best pitching staffs in the minors, Weigel’s pure stuff is as good as anyone else in the Rome rotation." That was a rotation with Allard and Soroka, along with Touki Toussaint (also unranked so far), Ricardo Sanchez (#33), and the guy who will be ranked #11th in the second part of this update. That's some incredible praise.

Weigel has a hard fastball with arm-side movement that can reach the high 90's. He has three other pitches and all have potential. The slider is the best of the trio and is a hard breaking pitch that gets more vertical movement than horizontal. Weigel also has a looping curveball that changes the batter's eye and a changeup that he's shown improved feel for.

A reliever in college, Weigel not only could beat the higher-drafted duo of teenage arms picked ahead of him, but he has a shot to be a very productive pitcher in the majors.



16. Kyle Muller, LHP, 19 years-old, Grade: B-

0.65 ERA. 1.88 FIP. 35% strikeout rate compared to an 11% walk rate. No homers allowed. Older hitters had a triple slash of .145/.263/.145 against him. Yeah, I'd say that's a good start to a career.

Drafted out of Dallas's Jesuit College Prep after winning a state championship as a senior, Muller was a late bloomer ahead of the draft that the Braves had to convince Muller to not become a Longhorn after graduating. Fortunately, they were able to and those stats I relayed in the first paragraph were the results over a 27.2 inning stint in the Gulf Coast League. Big and strong at 6'6", 225 pounds, Muller was also a big target with the bat (one of the top prep homerun hitters in the country) before giving that up to give the Braves yet another high-profile lefty arm.

A MLB.com Top 25 prospect before the draft, Muller has mid-90s velocity to go with a curveball that has taken amazing strides since his junior year of hifh school. He's also shown improved feel for his changeup and as he continues to perform, he'll continue to rocket up these rankings.



(Part 2 to be released in a few hours.)

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


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

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

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