The Braves are overwhelmed with uncertainty, though it helps that their pockets are still rich with the game’s premium prospects.
Even if MLB’s probe strips the Braves of multiple international signees, the farm system would remain a reason for optimism, while the franchise’s patience could be rewarded as early as next season.
Say what you will about the past (and current) administration, but it put the Braves’ system in optimal position for the foreseeable future.
Baseball America unveiled its top 10 Braves prospects Monday. The list largely differs from the midseason rankings following the graduations of second baseman Ozzie Albies and starter Sean Newcomb, along with a few prospects just scraping the surface of their potential.
The list shakes out as follows:
- OF Ronald Acuna
- SP Luiz Gohara
- SP Mike Soroka
- SP Kyle Wright
- SP Ian Anderson
- 3B Austin Riley
- SP Kolby Allard
- SP Max Fried
- SS Kevin Maitan
- OF Cristian Pache
Acuna remains at the top after jumping from unranked in the spring to a consensus top-10 overall prospect as the summer passed. He almost got a September call-up, but instead is ticketed to start opening day 2018.
“I mean, to be honest, I didn’t know what the reasoning was or anything like that, but I’m just going to get more prepared in the offseason,” Acuna said through an interpreter. “Then coming into next season, the goal stays the same: to reach the big leagues.”
Allard was the midseason No. 2, and while he slipped, the lefty taking his place is even more enticing.
Gohara exhibited the makeup of an ace during his brief September stint in the majors. He likely wouldn’t have been promoted had it not been for his Rule 5 draft eligibility, but he exceeded any expectations one could’ve placed on the fireballer.
The Braves have seen plenty of pitchers laced with “potential” take the mound over the past couple of years, but none carried the electric presence of Gohara. An offseason acquisition from Seattle, Gohara becoming the Braves’ highest-ranked pitching prospect is no surprise. He leaped from No. 9 to No. 2 because of his cup of coffee in the majors.
A poster child for those who refute ERA, Gohara’s 4.91 ERA is put into perspective by his 2.75 FIP. In 29 2/3 innings, Gohara struck out 31 while walking only eight. His high-90s fastball looked overpowering at times, and as far as the “eye-test” goes, Gohara doesn’t have a ceiling.
“I’m ready to just show I can make the starting rotation with the other guys,” Gohara said after his first major-league start. “That’s my goal for next year. To break with the team in spring training and make the rotation.”
Soroka and Wright often overshadow Gohara as the system’s best arms. It’s not out of the question that either debuts next season, though that may be optimistic for Wright, who the Braves selected out of Vanderbilt with the fifth overall pick in June.
But the 20-year-old Soroka has the mental makeup the Braves search for in their pitchers. He’s continuously studying the game and felt he made strides last season.
“I think I learned more this year in Double-A than I have my entire life combined,” he said. “Derrick Lewis, our pitching coach in Double-A, was tremendous. It was every game we had multiple things to learn. Just some things to watch as you go forward. I feel like a completely new guy now. So to have that confidence going forward is pretty special.
Anderson, the No. 3 overall choice two years ago, isn’t progressing at the rapid rate of Soroka or Gohara, but he would be the best pitching prospect in several systems.
Riley might be the Braves’ best hope for internal power – and solving the revolving door at third base since Chipper Jones retired. If Riley continues his trajectory, a September call-up is on the table.
Scouts have somewhat soured (use that term loosely) on Allard, who once was regarded as arguably the team’s best prospect. J.J. Cooper of Baseball America said scouts are concerned about his ability to pitch in the zone with his fastball. Allard doesn’t have the natural gift of a Gohara; not that that’s stopped an endless list of pitchers who excelled despite average “stuff.”
Fried showed a devastating breaking ball when he debuted in the majors, though he didn’t consistently flash the dominance of Gohara. Fried, who’s battled injuries throughout his young career that put him under the radar in some respects, will compete for a rotation spot in spring training.
If Fried doesn’t lock down a spot, a possibility considering the present circumstances, he’ll start the season at Triple-A Gwinnett rather than in the Braves’ bullpen. The Braves inserted him into the bullpen initially so he’d get a taste of the majors. They aren’t entertaining him in that capacity moving forward.
Maitan is among the primary subjects of MLB’s investigation. There is the possibility, though several evaluators think it won’t happen, that he will be ruled a free agent because of potential illegal activity in how the Braves signed him. Once looked at as maybe the long-term answer at third, Maitan, if he remains in the system, may end up a first baseman, according to Cooper.
“There's definite concern,” Cooper said in his chat. “His status in the Top 10 is somewhat a function of the glowing reports everyone game him when he was an amateur. There's some reason to think that this first year was just a rough adjustment, but it was easy this year to find scouts who expect to see him unable to stick at third and think he'll end up at first base, even if he's currently playing shortstop. The left-handed swing has to get better and he has to stay on top of his conditioning and weight.”
Pache has caught the attention of those in and outside the Braves’ building. Remember: Acuna wasn’t viewed a budding superstar a year ago. Pache is a candidate to make a leap next season.
Starting pitcher Bryse Wilson was No. 10 in midseason rankings, and simply fell, the casualty of a strong system. Cooper said three of his favorite non-top 10 Braves prospects are left-hander Tucker Davidson, power-arm Yefri Del Rosario and catcher William Contreras.
Braves officials love Contreras, the brother of Cubs catcher Willson. He could experience a swift rise into the rankings by midseason 2018.