The Atlanta Braves front office, guided by general manager John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart, landed in a proverbial sweet spot in 2016. Though Coppolella outlined the organization’s scouting mantra in simplistic terms at the Winter Meetings in December — “There isn’t a process beyond good players.” — clubs still need avenues to acquire such talent. All routes led to an enviable destination.
For a franchise no longer trading off premier talent like Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton and Shelby Miller, the Braves arguably improved on an already excellent farm system while simultaneously upgrading the major-league roster. Phase Two of this rebuild received consensus rave reviews for a reason.
The trick required planning, and past shortcomings. Owning the No. 3 overall pick and three first selections overall, the Braves cashed in on another high-quality draft class of prep pitchers in 2016. With financial flexibility and big-market spenders kept out of the international waters, the team cashed in on, possibly, a generational class of free-agent talent headlined by shortstop Kevin Maitan. The flipping of low-cost veterans to contenders for intriguing young talent keeps yielding results with no end in sight.
The final result? A cache of players Hart and Coppolella pined for when they first took over in November 2014.
In the first 2017 edition of our annual Braves prospect composite rankings, familiar names top the list but newcomers dot the landscape. First, a quick refresher.
FOX Sports South pieced together a composite top-20 ranking for the Braves’ 2017 top prospects to help balance out the various projections. Using available prospect lists from eight different sources, players were awarded points for top-20 rankings. (For example, a No. 1 ranking earned a player 20 points, a No. 2 ranking earned 19 points, No. 3 earned 18 points, etc. The highest-possible score was 160.) The eight lists are as follows:
Before breaking down any remaining particulars, here’s the 2017 pre-spring training edition of our top-20 Braves prospect composite rankings:
Tier 1: Scored double-digit points on every prospect list
Tier 2: Scored double-digit points on at least one prospect list
Tier 3: Scored points on at least two prospect lists
Dansby Swanson’s two-year reign is unanimous — and poised to end
By a mere two at-bats, the former No. 1 overall pick out of Vanderbilt holds on to the unanimous top spot in the Braves’ farm system. Dansby Swanson, the 6-foot-1 shortstop with the preternatural gift of making the key play at the key time, kept his rookie eligibility after his August debut, and now he enters the 2017 season as a National League Rookie of the Year frontrunner and one of MLB’s premier prospects.
Swanson exceeded reasonable expectations in his first 38 career games, batting .302/.361/.442 for 107 weighted runs created plus while providing an immediate defensive upgrade. His initial success led the franchise to consider moving him into the No. 2 spot in the lineup in his first full season — and to continue heaping praise on him throughout the offseason.
“If you want to put the grades out there he’s not going to be the guy that you’re looking to hit 30 homers. He’s not that ‘loud tool’ guy, where he’s going to steal 60 bases, hit 30 homers. He’s not that guy,” president of baseball operations John Hart said at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Washington D.C. “But the people that know – he’s a shortstop, makes the plays, handles the bat, does every little thing to help you win a game. Does something to help you win a game all the time.
“I think – I know – baseball people realize what a special kind of a team guy he’s going to be. Those guys are hard to find.”
The only prospect that gives Swanson a legitimate challenge for the top spot is his presumptive middle-infield partner of the future. Ozzie Albies, the infield phenom who won the Southern League batting title in his age-19 season, finished no lower than third on every prospect list after setting the minor leagues on fire in 2016. (Note: Talking Chop’s list graduated Swanson and placed Albies at No. 1. For the purposes of this composite and the official MLB definition of rookies and prospects, Swanson returns to their top spot.) The 20-year-old is expected to make his MLB debut this season despite suffering a scary elbow injury in Double-A Mississippi’s playoff run and the team’s addition of second-base options Sean Rodriguez and Brandon Phillips.
On the surface, very little has changed on the mountaintop. Swanson and Albies were the franchise’s top two position prospects last year and they will be once again. Only this time, the organization’s potential long-term solution up the middle will be making plays together in Atlanta.
Kolby Allard passes Sean Newcomb to headline ridiculous depth of arm talent
Put away the maps and flashlights. The search is over.
The Atlanta Braves have compiled the deepest stockpile of minor-league arm talent in baseball, particularly in regards to southpaws. The organization’s composite top-20 claims eight pitchers who were former first-round selections — and each one has the tools to land on a universal top-100 list or two at some point. As ESPN’s Keith Law wrote when tabbing Atlanta as baseball’s best farm system: “It’s as if someone told Coppolella the axiom that you can never have too much pitching, and he just said, ‘Hold my beer.’”
Kolby Allard, the franchise’s top draft pick in 2015, now leads the pack.
The 19-year-old left-hander spearheaded a Rome Braves roster that went on to be named Baseball America’s Minor League Team of the Year behind its ultra-talented rotation. Featuring a low- to mid-90s fastball with movement plus one of the best curveballs in the system, Allard put health question marks behind him while posting a 2.98 ERA in 87.2 innings last season. In the process, he leapfrogged his left-handed predecessor in Sean Newcomb.
Newcomb’s arm talent remains impossible to ignore, but control issues were once again a concern for the 6-foot-5 southpaw; at Double-A Mississippi, Newcomb walked a batter every two innings. However, the former first-round pick’s strong finish — 2.70 ERA and 69 strikeouts over his final 10 starts — reignited expectations that he will be a major-league factor in 2017, either as a rotation piece or in a bullpen role.
The “supporting cast” among the Braves’ young arms could still qualify as baseball’s top collection of pitching, a group of former first-round picks (Fried, Toussaint, Soroka), recent top picks (Anderson, Wentz, Muller) and a hard-throwing newcomer (Gohara). And that’s not even mentioning the organization’s 2016 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Weigel, a 6-foot-6 righty that could turn heads in camp as a non-roster invitee.
Ronald Acuna’s skyrocketing stock puts spotlight on system’s fast risers
Hindsight offers absurdities: Acuna, the electric, five-tool outfielder, did not make the top-20 cut in last season’s composite rankings. The likes of Zach Bird and Manny Banuelos, two players the Braves let go for nothing over the past year, ranked ahead of him. There was a quick course correction. Within the first month of the campaign, his manager in Rome Braves manager, Randy Ingle, was heaping praise on him with subtle comparisons to Andruw Jones.
The baseball world has since taken notice of Ronald Acuna.
The only thing holding the 19-year-old Venezuelan product back in terms of the 2017 hype train are injuries: He played just 42 games between rookie ball and Single-A last season. Make no mistake: The train is picking up steam. Acuna hit .312/.392/.429 with 14 stolen bases in those 42 games then went on to torch the Australian League this winter, becoming a teenage All-Star for the Melbourne Aces. He’s come a long way from signing a bargain-basement $100,000 signing bonus in 2014.
Acuna is not the only fast riser in the system, though. Two right-handers also steal some spotlight.
In his first full pro season, Mike Soroka (No. 11 in 2016), jumped five spots into the organization’s top tier of prospects after posting a 3.02 ERA in 143 innings for Rome. In terms of end-to-end consistency, the 19-year-old Canadian was arguably the most productive arm in the entire system last season. And then there’s his teammate in Weigel, who “stole” Soroka’s year-end award by tossing 149 2/3 innings with a 2.47 ERA between Rome and Mississippi. The 22-year-old former seventh-round did not make the cut in the 2016 composite but jumped into the No. 14 spot and could be knocking on Brian Snitker’s door with another dominant campaign.
Incredible rate of turnover does not undercut overall talent level
Twelve players on last season’s list did not make the cut due to trades, cuts, prospect graduation, incoming talent, lack of production or some combination of those factors. Seven of those players are no longer in the organization, a group spearheaded by Mallex Smith (No. 10 in 2016) and Tyrell Jenkins (No. 12 in 2016). That’s a significant rate of turnover for an organization that can make a legitimate argument for baseball’s No. 1 farm system two years running.
In fact, the turnover rate itself is, in part, a reflection of the front office’s continued success at the lower levels.
As names drop off the official prospect lists — think Mallex and Tyrell, Banuelos, Aaron Blair, John Gant, Chris Ellis and, yes, even Hector Olivera — the franchise’s star-studded draft classes and international hauls have started to break through.
Set Acuna’s meteoric rise aside. Since last season’s composite was first released, Coppolella and Hart have added the most sought-after name on the international market in years (Kevin Maitan), three first-round picks on the mound (Anderson, Wentz, Muller) and bona fide names from the Mariners (Luiz Gohara, Alex Jackson) and Rangers (Travis Demerrite). Then there’s the early returns on names like fourth-round pick Bryse Wilson, who posted a 0.68 ERA with a 9.79 strikeout rate in rookie ball, and top international catching prospect Abrahan Gutierrez, neither of whom make the pre-spring cut.
The 2017 season is guaranteed to see more hemorrhaging. However, with this much depth and another top-five pick on the way in June, the Braves are well-positioned long after the Swansons and Newcombs of the world make their ascent.