Braves general manager John Coppolella and his scouting department have never hesitated to put their draft strategy on display, a laser-focused drive to win baseball’s arms race by the end of the decade and beyond.
“You can never have enough pitching. We’ll keep taking pitching. In the draft this year, I would expect pitching,” Coppolella said back in spring training before his front office tabbed Vanderbilt ace Kyle Wright with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 draft. “A lot of that bats we get in the foreign market. A lot of the arms we get in the draft. We’re gonna keep drafting pitching.”
While Kyle Wright represents a minor tweak in the organization’s rebuild blueprint — dipping into the college ranks after feasting on prep arms for two years — the shift checks off multiple boxes.
For starters, Wright was the consensus best player available at fifth overall for a franchise most certainly in “BPA” mode, and depending on the source the standout right-hander might be the top prospect regardless. Drafting an advanced college star also places Atlanta’s 2017 first-round pick on a similar timeline with past draft picks Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka (already in Double-A before their 20th birthdays) and enticing left-hander Max Fried, not to mention the likes of Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, Touki Toussaint and Luiz Gohara depending on how fast they rise up through the system.
Wright adds top-end firepower to an existing wave of talent.
Scouting director Brian Bridges described his newest prized prospect as a four-pitch standout featuring three plus offerings with a mid-90s fastball, curveball and slider.
“He's advanced for his age,” Bridges said. “He brings everything we'd want to see."
The Quantity vs. Quality discussion always exists in farm system debates, but the Braves have seemingly found a way to circumvent this argument, at least in the pitching context, by acquiring both over the past few years. Wright is the latest in a growing line of arms the organization is banking on to pay off in the near future — perhaps starting as early as 2018. The major-league competition remains a mystery, but the arms race had a clear frontrunner at the minor-league level even before adding a 6-foot-4 candidate for the No. 1 pick in the draft.
2nd pick (No. 41 overall): Drew Waters
Atlanta’s alleged obsession with hometown products is a misconception, the trend of a bygone era.
Since Lucas Sims was drafted 21st overall in 2012 by a different front office, the franchise’s first-round picks have hailed from Oklahoma, North Carolina, Mississippi, California, Kansas, New York and Canada. The Braves’ second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks over this span were similarly Kerouacian. Drew Waters put an end to the local draft drought — although Marietta native Dansby Swanson has notably filled the void left behind by Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur.
Waters joins Braxton Davidson and Todd Cunningham (yes, really) as the only outfielder the organization has drafted in the first two rounds over the past decade. His potential power-speed combination clearly points to a higher ceiling.
The Perfect Game All-American and 2017 Gatorade State Player of the Year in Georgia put up batting practice statistics against top competition en route to a state championship. Bridges projects Waters to grow into a corner outfielder with a plus arm and power at the plate.
"We really like the switch-hit, speed-power combo once he grows into his power. (Graded) 60 to 65 arm, can really play defense. Pretty good athlete,” Bridges said. “ … We know this kid inside and out and we know what he’s all about and what he brings to the table."
3rd pick (No. 80 overall): Freddy Tarnok
After drafting two of the top 25 prospects on Baseball America's big board with their first two selections, the Atlanta Braves dipped into the prep pitching ranks for the first time with an off-the-board pick in Round 3.
Florida high-school right-hander Freddy Tarnok boasts a projectable 6-foot-4 frame and a fastball already sitting in the mid-90s. According to multiple reports, the Tampa commit could continue to add muscle and velocity. The Braves scouted the two-way prep player multiple times throughout the spring after national cross-checker Sean Rooney called Bridges with one simple message: "This guy's for real."
At this point, given the franchise's track record with surprising prep arms like Mike Soroka and Bryse Wilson, Roy Clark & Co. deserve the benefit of the doubt with Tarnok.
A late bloomer as a pitcher — he did not begin pitching until just recently — if Tarnok continues to develop his feel on the mound he could turn out to be yet another promising arm in Atlanta's system. Rumored to prefer playing shortstop, Bridges confirmed that after multiple conversations Tarnok "convinced himself" to go the pitching route within the past two months.
Prep Baseball Report
4th pick (No. 110 overall): Troy Bacon
A 6-foot-1 Mississippi State commit, Troy Bacon profiles as a power reliever.
Competing for the No. 1 JUCO team in the country entering the national tournament, the right-hander dominated, striking out 64 batters in 40 innings thanks to a fastball that can touch the high-90s.
"High-upside guy. Very athletic. Smart kid," Bridges said. "Strong body, live-bodied kid with a fast arm."
(With the Braves going off the board in the third and fourth round, there is growing evidence that the organization invested the vast majority of its $9,881,200 bonus pool to land Wright and Waters. If Wright signs his expected over-slot bonus, even a conservative estimate would mean Atlanta invested approximately 80 percent of its bonus pool into its top two picks.)
5th pick (No. 140 overall): Bruce Zimmerman
The first left-hander and college senior selected by John Coppolella & Co. with their 2017 haul is another small-school name: Bruce Zimmerman out of Division 2 University of Mount Olive.
Jordan Rodgers landed in Baseball America's top-400 draft prospects and in the sixth round as another senior signee for Atlanta — similar to the direction the franchise went with previous sixth-round selections Matt Gonzalez and Matt Withrow.
"I've completely transformed," Rodgers said. "I finally completely trust my skills and myself for the first time in my career here. I stopped worrying about mechanics, stopped worrying about this, that and the other, what could go wrong and started worrying about having fun and playing the game. That's when stuff started to really change for me. I stopped thinking, trusted myself, knowing that I have the ability to be here."
Bridges said he has a chance to grow into a utility player at the big-league level.
"He can play all three positions," Bridges said, referencing third base, second base and shortstop. "He's a solid defender who can swing the bat. He's got some pop."
University of Tennessee
7th pick (No. 200 overall): Landon Hughes
After two years of scouring the country for prospect talent, the Braves have not ventured far from their backyard early on in 2017. Hughes, a Marietta, Ga., native who played his JUCO ball at Wallace State (Craig Kimbrel's alma mater) and Georgia Southern becomes the seventh straight player selected from the Southeast.
Working exclusively out of the bullpen during his senior season, Hughes owned a 2.51 ERA in 43 innings with decent strikeout numbers. According to MLB Pipeline's Jim Callis, his fastball sits in the low-90s with an effective cutter.
"If he made it all the way to the major leagues he'd be a seventh-inning (reliever), 90-95 (fastball), slider guy," Bridges said. "He sinks the ball. Really gets good extension and has some swing and miss to his fastball."
Georgia Southern Athletics
8th pick (No. 230 overall): John Curtis
A wiry 6-foot-2 southpaw, John Curtis continues a run of potential relief arms for an organization overstocked with starting pitching.
The Lenoir-Rhyne product put up quality strikeout numbers but 63 walks in 85 2/3 innings pitched over the past two years.
(Related note: College relievers are much easier to sign.)
9th pick (No. 260 overall): Riley Delgado
Another senior sign.
Riley Delgado, a Miami native, grew into a reliable shortstop and leadoff hitter for the Blue Raiders. A two-time All-Conference USA performer, he posted a .427 on-base percentage last season.
Bridges made it a point to mention his efficiency with the glove, commiting only a handful of errors throughout his college career.
Middle Tennessee State Athletics
10th pick (No. 290 overall): Jacob Belinda
Jacob Belinda was an emotional selection for the Braves scouting department.
As Bridges explained, his voice nearly cracking, the Lock Haven right-hander was scouted by the late Gene Kerns — a widely admired scout who signed the likes of Brandon Beachy and David Wright before passing last week. Even when the pick was called in from the Braves room, the organization made it known how much it meant to call in Belinda's name.
"Gene Kerns meant a lot to baseball, and he meant a lot to me," Bridges said. "And I told Gene when I got the job that he would be with me the whole time I was here. ... Just to have a chance to make that selection of his player in the 10th round meant the most to the people in that room."
A left-handed bat who enjoyed a breakout junior season for the Wolverines, Lugbauer garnered All-Big Ten honors while spending the majority of his time at third base. If he signs with Atlanta, he will move behind the plate full-time (based on his draft position). Regardless, a .518 slugging percentage with 12 home runs makes him an interesting third-day selection with plus power.
After two straight drafts of using early picks to address the organization's catching depth (Lucas Herbert, Brett Cumberland), Lugbauer is the first — but not the last — catcher on the board for Atlanta in 2017.
12th pick (No. 350 overall): Hagen Owenby, Catcher, East Tennessee State
Following a two-pick detour, Bridges and his staff return to the Southeast for their second consecutive junior catcher. Owenby is a 6-foot-1, 217-pound option behind the plate who was one of the best hitters in the Southern Conference over the past few years.
This gives Atlanta two straight selections on catchers with some pop.
Another Georgia Southern reliever with some strikout potential — this one coming from the left side. Simmons posted 35 strikeouts and 20 walks in 29 appearances for the Eagles.
14th pick (No. 410 overall): Keith Weisenberg, RHP, Stanford
The Braves were linked to another Stanford pitcher, Tristan Beck, who missed the entire 2017 season with a back injury, in the earlier rounds, but it is Weisenberg who gets his name called by Atlanta. The right-handed reliever posted decent numbers during his junior season (with control issues), though he did only three extra-base hits in 21 1/3 innings.
15th pick (No. 440 overall): Austin Bush, 1B, UC Santa Barbara
The classic "Huge Human, Huge Power, Huge Strikeout Potential" selection. A left-handed bat who belted 20 home runs and 14 doubles as a junior in the Big West, Bush will need to get a better command of the strike zone whenever he turns pro.
16th pick (No. 470 overall): Gary Schwartz, OF, Grand Canyon University
The 2017 WAC Player of the Year hit the .300/.400/.500 slash line markers in his final season on campus.
"It means a lot to get the opportunity to play at the next level, and I'm thankful that the Braves gave me the call," Schwartz said in a statement. "It's what we all work towards our whole lives in this game, and getting an opportunity to move forward in my career means the world! It was an unbelievable feeling to get the call and see my name come up, and I am excited for the future."