After two seasons of sporadic debuts and flashes of youth-infused optimism, the 2017 season marked the first official tidal wave of top prospects to break on Atlanta.
Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Sean Newcomb, Max Fried, A.J. Minter, Rio Ruiz and now Luiz Gohara are now competing at the major-league level with one month remaining in the season and more on the immediate horizon. And many of those prospects on the horizon — both in the immediate and distant futures — are putting up gaudy numbers in the minor leagues.
This is not a year-end top prospects compilation, though elite prospects certainly dot the landscape. Instead, production takes precedence for our All-Prospect Team — specifically, production in relation to age and level. The team also focuses exclusively on players who logged a full season in Atlanta's organization, meaning 2017 draftees Kyle Wright, Drew Waters and Drew Lugbauer were not considered despite hitting the ground running this summer.
So, for baseball’s deepest farm system, here are the top performers for the 2017 campaign, organized by position for a five-man rotation, starting nine and bullpen:
The Atlanta Braves own the scariest collection of left-handed pitching prospects in baseball and, of that group, a Brazilian product who just turned 21 posted the scariest numbers. The Braves acquired Gohara in one of their two prospect blockbusters with the Seattle Mariners this past offseason and the 6-foot-3 left-hander (listed at 210 pounds, give or take) quickly followed up on a 2016 season in which he posted a sub-2.00 ERA at two different levels.
After High-A batters managed just eight runs in seven games against him to start the tear, Gohara jumped to Double-A Mississippi, where he struck out 60 batters in 52 innings. Upon being promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett, his strikeout rate kept climbing. Minor-league batters could not figure out his nasty fastball-slider combination. Climbing three levels while striking out more than 28 percent of opposing hitters — including 48 strikeouts in just 35 1/3 at the final minor-league stop before The Show — made Gohara the pitching edition of Ronald Acuña in Atlanta’s system.
There's a reason he's now the youngest starting pitcher to debut for the Atlanta Braves since Julio Teheran in 2011.
The workhorse of Atlanta’s farm system keeps producing. After logging nearly 300 innings over the past two seasons, including skipping a minor-league level and dominating Double-A hitters in his age-19 season, the 6-foot-5 Canadian right-hander continues to flash "future rotation mainstay" potential.
Even throwing to much older batters on a start-to-start basis, Soroka, who played for the World Team in the Futures Game this summer, posted numbers that were remarkably similar to his 2016 campaign, when he easily could have been named the organization’s Minor-League Pitcher of the Year. And throughout, the former first-round pick has displayed a mature-beyond-his-years approach that jumps out to both coaches and teammates.
The 2016 first-round pick became the youngest pitcher to log 150 or more strikeouts in a minor-league season since Julio Teheran reached the plateau in 2010. In fact, among pitchers in their age-19 season, that’s only happened nine times this decade, including the likes of Jose Fernandez, Archie Bradley and Tyler Glasnow. (Keep in mind: Teheran was once the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball.)
Wentz, the 6-foot-5 left-hander who was selected 40th overall last summer, has now struck out 205 batters in his first 175 1/2 innings since high school, complete with a 2.87 ERA and only four home runs allowed.
His latest reward: The South Atlantic League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher trophy.
In a system overflowing with first-round pitching talent, Bryse Wilson, a fourth-round selection in 2016, has quietly held his own among the best and the brightest. A right-hander built like a linebacker (listed at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds), his low- to mid-90s fastball is complemented by a solid breaking ball and developing changeup, making him a nightmare for low-level hitters to date. He’s now allowed just 40 earned runs in his first 163 2/3 pro innings.
Kolby Allard’s delayed placement on the All-Prospect rotation speaks volumes about Atlanta’s depth. He’s one of the best left-handed pitching prospects in all of baseball — sound familiar? — and he just skipped a level before his 20th birthday and flummoxed Double-A hitters all year. That’s extremely rare.
As a reference point, here is the complete list of qualified pitchers to post a sub-3.50 fielding-independent pitching at Double-A in their age-19 season in the past seven seasons: Mike Soroka and Kolby Allard. That’s the list.
Atlanta’s front office has devoted ample resources to addressing its long-term catching needs. Top draft picks, expensive international signings, high-profile trades — John Coppolella and John Hart have left few, if any, stones unturned. Brett Cumberland, a former college standout at Cal, is one of the important pieces to the puzzle, and it would have been difficult to ask for a better campaign at the plate.
The switch-hitter was quiet in rookie ball last year, but he opened the year with Rome hitting 76 percent above league average and then turned around and slashed .269/.384/.363 after jumping up to High-A. Besides flashing more power, a 10.8 percent walk rate helped push his season’s on-base percentage (.409) to the highest mark of any full-season prospect in Atlanta's system.
Of course, hitting accounts for a small percentage of a catcher’s day-to-day duties in the long run, but it’s impossible to dismiss the farm system’s overall uptick in offensive performance behind the plate.
Braves catchers at the four major minor-league stops (Rome, Florida, Mississippi, Gwinnett) combined to hit only 43 home runs in 2016. Cumberland, Alex Jackson and Lucas Herbert alone combined to hit 38 in 2017.
Florida Fire FrogsTim Holle
1B: Carlos Franco
Highest Level: AAA
2017 Stats: .252/.326/.427, 21 home runs
FOX Prospect Composite Ranking: N/A
First base is the most unimpressive position in the Braves' farm system for good reason: Why spend high-end resources acquiring top-end talent when you have Freddie Freeman? Carlos Franco, 25, edged out the likes of Joey Meneses and Carlos Castro after hitting 64 percent better than league average at Double-A before moving up to Gwinnett. The Triple-A level has been more of a challenge, but after 21 homers he takes the top spot despite moving to third base and designated hitter at times in 2017.
The baseball world is getting its first look at the hyped second-base prospect at the highest level, but before Ozzie Albies accumulated five doubles, four triples and two homers in his first 32 MLB games he was tormenting Triple-A pitching. Coming off a scary elbow injury to end his 2016 minor-league playoff run, the switch-hitting Albies continued to find success while working through concerns against right-handed pitchers with Chipper Jones.
From June 3 until his big-league promotion, Albies hit .308/.354/.513 as one of the youngest players in the International League. No other second-base prospect stood a chance.
SS: Johan Camargo
Highest Level: MLB
2017 Stats: .301/.345/.474, 14 extra-base hits
FOX Prospect Composite Ranking: N/A
Dansby Swanson spent most of his season in the majors. Ozzie Albies spent most of his second at second base. Other notable shortstop prospects like Kevin Maitan and Ray-Patrick Didder showed obvious flashes but claimed below-average numbers at their respective levels. So in a farm system loaded with top-shelf shortstop talent, it's back to Johan Camargo — the franchise's most surprising contributor at the major-league level this season.
Before hitting his stride for Brian Snitker & Co. and injuring his knee, though, Camargo first started putting things together in Gwinnett. The 23-year-old logged 14 extra-base hits in 129 at-bats to go along with his .340 on-base percentage. While it's a smaller sample size than most hitters on this team, Camargo's time in the International League hinted at his improvement — and his shortstop challengers simply fell short in the numbers department.
In 2016, Austin Riley's year-end statistics read as follows: .271/.324/.479 with 20 home runs. Compare that line with his 2017 numbers above and it's clear that, even after jumping up two levels, the 41st overall pick in 2015 is one of the most consistently great hitters in Atlanta's farm system.
After working through a few hiccups with the Fire Frogs (still owning a 109 wRC+), Riley, 20, truly hit his stride in Double-A, claiming a .511 slugging percentage in 203 plate appearances. He joined teammate Ronald Acuña and consensus top-100 prospects Kyle Tucker and Rafael Devers as the only players this season to post at least a .500 slugging percentage in 200 Double-A plate appearances before their age-21 campaign.
The other prospects to hit those marks over the past five years? Javier Baez, Miguel Sano, Maikel Franco, Xander Bogaerts, Joey Gallo, Addison Russell and Dilson Herrera. Push that time frame out to the past decade and the list only adds Oscar Tavares, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Eric Hosmer. You get the picture.
There's nothing left to say. Following one of the greatest minor-league seasons in recent memory, Ronald Acuña's reputation proceeds him. Hyperbole does not apply to comic-book characters.
The 2017 Minor League Player of the Year more than earned the honor. At 19 years old, he's MLB-ready. He put together Atlanta's first 20 homer-40 steal season since Andruw Jones and will likely open the 2018 season as the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball.
As Baseball America illustrated after Acuña wrapped up his season in fitting fashion — logging a double, home run and outfield assist for Gwinnett — he's one of the few teenagers to ever truly excel at the Triple-A level. He's one of three players since 1987 to post a 150 OPS+ or better in 200 or more plate appearances in Triple-A before turning 20 years old. The other two? Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield.
Cristian Pache, a 6-foot-2 center fielder, was one of Atlanta's top international free-agent signings in the summer of 2015 and he's quickly growing into his athleticism. Blessed with 70-grade speed and defensive tools that can stick in center field, Pache's offensive profile will keep playing catch-up with his physical attributes.
Pache's power is still lagging (zero homers in 2017, .324 second-half slugging) but the body remains projectable and the rest of the pieces are starting to fall into place. After landing on FanGraphs' top-100 list, he finished the season as one of seven teenage prospects playing above rookie ball to log 30 or more stolen bases.
Barring rookie-league restrictions and half-season statistics, 2017 second-round pick Drew Waters could have made the final cut with his .791 OPS in his first pro action. There's a reason why scouting director Brian Bridges followed up the Waters selection by saying, "Acuña’s just around the corner. We have two other (future) outfield spots we want to fill.”
Instead, an under-the-radar switch hitter pushes his way into the picture slightly ahead of Jared James (Mississippi), Isranel Wilson (Rome) and Dustin Peterson (Gwinnett), among others.
Relievers selected in the 17th round are considered MLB sleepers for a reason. Devan Watts, a 6-foot right-hander with a mid-90s fastball, fits the bill. In his first two pro seasons out of Tusculum College, he owns a 1.75 ERA while averaging more than a strikeout per nine innings.
Watts makes a run at the top reliever spot after blossoming for Mississippi by striking out more than 31 percent of the batters he faced there. Left-handed hitters stood virtually zero chance against him — holding High-A hitters to a .214 average and Double-A hitters to .186.
Big-league hitters were properly introduced to Akeel Morris, a former Mets prospect now setting down hitters in Atlanta's organization, after he gave up just one run against 34 MLB batters faced this season. Combine the right-hander's big-league numbers with his steady production at the highest minor-league levels and it's clear the changeup specialist earned a spot on this rundown.
Southpaw strikeout artists can be terrifying for minor-league hitters. That was Thomas Burrows in 2017. The least-known part of the Braves-Mariners offseason trade centering around Mallex Smith and Luiz Gohara projects as a lefty specialist, particularly after fanning a third of the left-handed hitters he faced this season.
A former fourth-round pick, Burrows' 12.42 strikeouts per nine innings ranked 21st out of all minor-league pitchers throwing at least 60 innings in 2017.
Another intriguing left-hander with high strikeout potential, Corbin Clouse turned 22 this summer and jumped up to Double-A with encouraging results. He struggled at times with command and against same-side hitters, but it's difficult to ignore a former late-round pick who has now fanned 33.6 percent of the professional batters he's faced.
Clouse narrowly received the nod over the likes of Atlanta's best relief prospect (A.J. Minter, due to injury) and Mississippi teammate Josh Graham, among others.