Saturday, February 4, 2017

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

A few hours ago, I released the first part of prospects #20-#11 for this year's Top 50. With how amazingly deep the Braves' system is, even players just inside the Top 20 deserve so much digital ink that it turns what are supposed to be regular three-paragraph recaps into longer pieces. Next week (hopefully Tuesday), I'll release the next section of prospects, which will cover #10 to #6. If all goes well, the Top 5 will be released the morning of pitchers and catchers reporting. Thank you for your patience.

If you didn't read part 1, here is a link.

15. Dustin Peterson, OF, 22 years-old, Grade: B-

After an uneven year with Carolina, expectations weren't very high for Peterson entering 2016. What followed was Peterson's best season since the Padres picked him 50th overall in 2013. Despite being one of the Southern League's youngest players, Peterson slashed .282/.343/.431 and was on pace for an even bigger season before a before a late 25-game stretch (.606 OPS) dropped his numbers. According to Fangraphs, Peterson had a .356 wOBA and 124 wRC+ - the first time he finished above 100. The strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, his ISO was the highest, and even his defense graded much better in his second year in left field.

Overall, it was the kind of season the Braves envisioned when they acquired him from the Padres in the Justin Upton trade. Now comes the hard part - succeeding for a season is one thing, but if Peterson wants to be a starter in the majors, he's going to have to show he's not a one-hit wonder. Here's the good news. There's enough reason to believe that we haven't even seen the best of Peterson yet.

Consider this. Peterson has played young at nearly every stop. As a 19 year-old, he was in the low-A Midwest League where he logged just 18 PA against pitchers younger than he was. At 20 years-old, he played in the never-easy-to-hit Carolina League. Just eight times did he step into the batter's box to face a guy younger than he was. Last year, it was a scant 18 times. Three years - just 44 PA against pitchers younger than Peterson was at the time. He's been behind the curve from the get-go, which makes his success last year even more promising. Consider also that the former third baseman's defense went from a -12 in 2015 according to Clay Davenport's defensive metrics to a 1 last year. One doesn't sound great, but it's a significant improvement.

Peterson lacks a one big tool. That's to say none of his skills will likely get a 60 or better grade on a 20-80 scale. On the other hand, potential-wise, he's average or better in every category. He's got enough power, enough speed, and makes enough solid contact to put together a solid, if not unspectacular, stat line. If his defense is real, he could have a similar batting line to Melky Cabrera. I know Braves fans hate that name - I do, too - but Cabrera has a career .286/.337/.417 triple slash. I could see Peterson posting a bit better marks in OBP and SLG with a slightly lower batting average, but if the defense is for real, that's a valuable player. Maybe not a franchise cornerstone, but valuable.



14. Joey Wentz, LHP, 19 years-old, Grade: B-

Selected four picks before #16 Kyle Muller, Wentz is quite similar to the the Jesuit Prep flamethrower. Like Muller, Wentz is a prep star lefty who also flashed a good bat and Top 20-30 potential. Some dead arm and signability concerns for the UVA commit pushed him a little lower in the draft than he should have been, which was a big get for the Braves.

Unlike Muller, Wentz didn't stay in the Gulf Coast League for long. After 12 scoreless innings, five walks, and 18 K's over four starts in the GCL, Wentz headed north to Danville to finish the year. His numbers there aren't so gaudy largely due to control issues, but he did finish with three earned runs allowed over his last 14.2 innings with 16 K's (and nine walks).

One last similarity with Muller - Wentz is a big guy. Listed 6'5" and 210 pounds, Wentz has a clean delivery that will serve him well as he progresses. Wentz relies on a low-to-mid 90's fastball that may have even more untapped velocity. He gets good armside run on it as well. His curveball has big-time potential while his changeup, while still a work in progress, could be a plus pitch. If he puts his late season control issues behind him - and there's really no reason to believe he won't - Wentz could be the best of the trio of excellent prep arms picked in the '16 draft.



13. Travis Demeritte, 2B, 22 years-old, Grade: B-

Lucas Harrell was a Brave for all of ten seconds (okay, 29.1 innings). The pitching-starved Rangers were so desperate that they handed an actual prospect over to Atlanta for Harrell. Notice to major league general managers - you probably shouldn't talk to John Coppolella when you're vulnerable. He's like Frank Underwood. He'll sell you on the worst possible thing and make you think it was your brilliant idea. Plus, I'm really not convinced Coppy wouldn't throw you in front of a train if he had to. Spoiler alert, by the way.

Back to Demeritte. All the way back in 2013, the Rangers spent the #30th pick on the Windor, Georgia product. The Braves followed by picking Jason Hursh. Six picks later, Arizona grabbed Aaron Blair. Now, all three belong to the Braves and Demeritte might be the best of the trio. Demeritte spent the summer in rookie ball before landing in low-A the next season. Since then, his wOBA has ranged from .344 to the .390s last season. Suffice it to say, he has a bat. A slugging second baseman, Demeritte has carried a 12% walk rate and has swiped 27 bases the last two seasons combined.

The catch, however, is that he strikes out a lot. As in 34% of the time. How difficult is it to be an effective major league hitter and strikeout that often? Well, over the last four years, there are 15 instances of a player striking out out at least 30% of the time while also having enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Nine had 1.0 fWAR or lower. On the flipside, there are also four instances of a 3.0 fWAR or better. That's a way of saying it's possible to be successful and still strike out at a ridiculously inflated frequency - it's just not the norm.

Two things must continue to improve Demeritte's chances of being a valuable major leaguer and I believe both will. It's not particularly easy to strike out at least 170 times and still on-base .360 or better as Demeritte did last year. In major league history, it's only happened 31 times. In each case, the batter walked at least 72 times and hit at least 17 homeruns. With Demeritte's power and eye, I believe he has a shot to be #32. Furthermore, Demeritte's defense is quite good at second base - good enough to stick despite the gaudy power numbers.

Of course, for Demeritte, second base seems like a longshot considering the presence of Ozzie Albies. The Braves could try him in left field and he has played some third base in the minors as well. Ticketed to start next season in Double-A, Demeritte overall game could get him to the bigs in a hurry.



12. Austin Riley, 3B, 20 years-old, Grade: B-

Though 63 games, 2016 was looking like a lost season for Austin Riley. The preparations had been made for articles detailing how young Riley was, how he could still impress, how we needed to be patient. All of those still apply, but after a .252/.299/.372 start to his first full season, Riley turned it on to quiet the detractors. Over his final 66 games, Riley slashed .289/.348/.581 with an absurd 17 homeruns. And with that, we are excited again.

Riley finished 2016 with 20 homeruns and in case that's not impressive enough, the last time a Braves farmhand hit 20 homers was 2013 when Ernesto Mejia and Robby Hefflinger both reached the 20-homer plateau. The last time a Rome player did it was Evan Gattis in 2011. Riley's season also scored high on a few metrics, including a .360 wOBA and 128 wRC+ to go along with his .208 ISO. The former 41st overall selection had a great year even if it started terribly.

Riley's prospect status is interesting because he was arguably a better pitching prospect heading into the 2015 draft and many expected teams to try to push Riley to the mound. The Braves gave him a chance to hit and he's quickly became one of their top prospects and best power prospect in the system.

Questions remain about Riley's contact rate (27% strikeout rate), plate discipline (8% walk rate), and his defense (-3 according to Clay Davenport's defensive stats). These are fair enough criticisms, though a player with Riley's age and upside can certainly improve upon what concerns there are about his game right now. He'll have an assignment with Florida to open 2017 and could be knocking on the door to join the Braves, if all goes well, by the end of 2018.



11. Max Fried, LHP, 23 years-old, Grade: B

After missing a year due to Tommy John surgery, Fried started over in low-A ball as part of Rome's stacked rotation. Like many members of the team, he started slow with a 5.21 ERA during his first 48.1 innings (28 BB, 40 K, 5 HR). However, over his next 54.2 innings, he found his footing. He allowed just a 2.80 ERA, struck out 72, and walked a mere 19 batters. That, my dear readers, is a definition of someone flipping the light switch.

Fried was a big prospect well before he was included in the Justin Upton trade. In fact, if I recall correctly, the Braves settled on him after the Padres balked at the idea of including Matt Wisler. The Braves ended up with both and Fried definitely has a higher ceiling.

Fried's velocity isn't quite as noteworthy as some other Braves' prospects, nor is the movement on his heater as great. What Fried does have is the ability to control his heater whereas other pitchers in the system struggle to consistently locate it. Fried rarely grooves a fastball into the zone and is able to often use both sides of the plate with the pitch. His changeup isn't superb, but he does a great job disguising it with the same pitching motion as his heater. He'll use those two pitches to try to get ahead before going to his curveball, which has ridiculous break to it and will be the reason Fried puts up solid K numbers as he moves up the system.

Like many pitchers in this system, you can make the argument that Fried's stuff could be the best. I rank him a little lower than others because while I do agree, from an experience standpoint, leaving him in low-A was an appropriate move, he faced a lot of younger batters. He subsequently owned them. The results against older batters were a little less impressive (.253/.343/.460). I don't consider that damning or even that informative, but it's there. Hopefully, we see Fried move on up to Double-A - if not to start the year, soon after - which will allow us a better opportunity to judge where the lefty is.



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

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

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

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