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.

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