Fun fact – all ten member of last year’s Top 10 are still in the system. In fact, you have to go all the way to #18 (then Jacob Lindgren) to find the top prospect from last year’s Preseason Top 50 who isn’t still in the system. Despite that, this year’s Top 10 is a little different. Last year’s top pick – Ronald Acuña Jr. – has graduated. As, too, has Max Fried, who was ranked #5. A third member of last year’s Top 5 is actually in today’s release so he fell out. And two other Top 10 members from last February have already been ranked in this year’s after falling out of the Top 10.
So, we have some turnover and that’s always a good thing. Today and next week, we’ll focus on our final ten prospects with some longer blurbs going into the elite ‘spects of an elite system – starting this week with the bottom five of our Top 10. Please enjoy, let us know what you think, and share. Thanks for reading!
10. Bryse Wilson
Poe: #9, Francis: #10, Cothran: #8
2018 Preseason: #12, Midseason: #10
What happens when you take a pitcher with a fearless mentality on the mound plus a mid-90’s fastball and then you watch him start to figure things out in regards to his changeup? You get Bryse Wilson, a pitcher many thought had a ceiling of a high-leverage reliever when the Braves grabbed him in the 4th round back in 2016. But Wilson has simply improved in every way. He pitches with increasing command in the strike zone, something that is a big deal to see from a pitcher who just turned 21 a little more than a month ago. His changeup and slider – while not as consistently there for him as his fastball – flash enough potential to see a pathway to a starter with three plus-or-better pitches. I think as he gets more established, we’ll probably see him add a curveball as well.
What has always stood out about Wilson is the kind of things that Brian Bridges and his crew looked for: a focus on pitcher IQ and pitchability. Under Bridges – especially during the Coppolella years – the Braves sought pitchers who not only had next-level raw stuff, but the intelligence and work ethic to turn that raw talent into established skills. Hopefully, that continues with the team that replaced Bridges. Either way, Wilson is that kind of pitcher. The Braves bought in on Wilson, paying more than double his slot value ($1.2 million). That raised a lot of eyebrows from people who saw a reliever-arm. The Braves believed he had much more.
That’s not to say there aren’t still concerns. His secondary pitches, while they can be very good, have yet to develop into the type of offerings that make you completely confident he’s ready to throw 90+ pitches every fifth day. Because of that, there remains doubters who see more of a multi-inning reliever than a six-inning starter who sees the lineup a second-and-third time. I’m not one of those. I believe he can be a yearly 2-4 WAR starter and I’d say there is a good shot at that. That’s pretty good for a guy who only recently was able to purchase beer legally.
Whatever the case, I am absolutely positive that, if healthy, Wilson is going to play a notable role for the big league team in 2019. It might be as a starter, it might be as a reliever, it might be both. And while improvement could make-or-break his future as a starter, the skills to contribute are already there. And like Bridges and company thought a few years ago – always bet on the guy on the mound who not only possesses the skills to throw the heater by a batter, but also the intelligence to know when to do it AND has the balls to do it in the first place. (Poe)
9. William Contreras
Poe: #7, Francis: #8, Cothran: #12
2018 Preseason: #16, Midseason: #12
I fell in love with William Contreras in late June of 2017. It was the first time I traveled down to Danville to see the rookie-league Braves in action. I watched a raw teenager that day look as smooth as any minor league catcher I had seen up-close in years. And good Lord, what an arm! Oh, and not a bad stick, too. From that day all the way to now, I bought a ticket onto the Contreras hype train and you cannot throw me off.
I mean it. I will fight you.
Contreras wasn’t the quick climber that most of the players in this Top 10 were. He went the traditional route, playing a year in the Dominican Summer League, another in the Gulf Coast League, and then moved to the Appalachian League where I saw him. When 2017 opened, he was a fringe prospect, but that season, he flashed strong hitting skills with a .374 wOBA over 198 PA. It was a bit shocking that Contreras didn’t join Rome to open the 2018 season, but once he did, he showed that 2017 was no fluke, slashing .293/.360/.463 with eleven homers – six more than he hit in rookie ball. He finished the season with a month in the Florida State League, running out of gas or simply finally reaching a level that challenged him.
Contreras swing is far more controlled now than it was when I first saw him and as he continues to grow into his frame and add strength, he has the skills to be a .280ish type hitter with 15-20 homers. While his arm will rival most catchers, Contreras still has to work on his defense and footwork – something literally every 21 year-old catcher in history needed to do. He flashes average-to-above average athleticism for a catcher and he makes moderate improvements every year, which you love to see. Visible and statistical progression is the most important things to seek for prospects in my opinion.
After opening 2017 as maybe the fourth-best catching prospect in the system, he’s now the unquestioned top catching prospect for the Braves and is right on the cusp of joining every overall Top 100 list out there. As the J.T. Realmuto talks have continued, the absence of his name in rumored exchanges tells me that the Braves have likely made it clear Contreras is off the table. If true, that’s pretty impressive because I think the other 49 members of this Top 50 are all possibilities.
In closing, let me put it this way – William Contreras could be a starter for the big league club for a decade. And it’s amazing how easy it is to see that. (Poe)
8. Luiz Gohara
Poe: #10, Francis: #9, Cothran: #7
2018 Preseason: #2, Midseason: #4
It’s hard for me to write about Gohara. Don’t judge me yet…let me elaborate on the tale of a broken heart (and broken hearts can be blind) He is here due to a player that I really enjoyed rooting for, and dropped quite a bit of ink on, was traded to Seattle (for a short time, only to be recently reacquired by Seattle again). At the time of the trade, it seemed downright indulgent to trade a position player of Mallex Smith’s skill-set for another highly regarded pitching prospect. The trade itself was seen by most as a landslide win for the Braves, and on its face, I cannot argue. However, Gohara came with warts, while Mallex was full of high end makeup, pure joy and was incredibly exciting. And now…a full year later, Mallex has a 3.4 fWAR season under his belt with great game changing speed and a good walk rate that would look really sexy at the top of this lineup, while the warts on Gohara have continued to grow, some self-inflicted and some out of his control. /EndBitterRantBeginOptimism
However, there’s reason to believe that Mallex’s 2018 could be his peak season, while Gohara’s finally turning the professional curve. Early reports on the offseason tell us that Gohara has dropped the weight equivalent of a full-grown female dalmatian. 40 pounds to be exact. That’s great news coming from Florida and means that Gohara has made some life changes that could produce an abundance of fruit in his profession.
Let’s talk numbers. 2018 was awful and I’m not going to put much stock in the numbers (you shouldn’t either). I eluded to this point in paragraph 2…physically, mentally, he wasn’t healthy. Prior to 2018, Gohara was an elite talent with less than stellar makeup. Now that he’s taking care of himself, we can hopefully see that stellar sinking fastball that sits mid-90s and tops at 99 accompanied with a sick slider that sprints away from left-handers bats sending swingers to their seats. If instructs (I assume Gohara is there now) are going like we as fans hope, that 3rd-4th pitch is being developed and he’s going to be back to the frontline starter ceiling type in 2019. However, it’s possible that his 2 plus pitches could be put to better use in the bullpen. For the sake of Gohara, I hope starting works out as I feel routine and structure could be a good backbone to a healthier lifestyle. There’s no player I’m more excited to see a photo of during Spring Training in the “best shape of his life”. If the reports are true, hold onto your butts, Braves fans.(Cothran)
7. Drew Waters
Poe: #6, Francis: #7, Cothran: #6
2018 Preseason: #14, Midseason: #9
Drew Waters was the Braves’ second round pick in 2017 out of Etowah High School in the suburbs of Atlanta. Waters was known for his high ceiling coming into the draft but fell to the second round largely due to the incredible amount of high school talent that year. While he may have gotten lost in the shuffle of amateur talent in 2017, he was still a large part of the Braves’ draft plans after the team gave first rounder, Kyle Wright, a record setting bonus. Waters was also allegedly the subject of some questionable negotiations after the draft that would eventually cost the Braves a third-round pick in the 2018 draft.
After an up and down debut season in 2017 that saw him lay waste to the GCL but strike out 36% of the time in the Appy League, Waters broke out into one of the best outfield prospects in baseball in 2018. For most of the season Waters dominated the South Atlantic League, slashing .303/.353/.513 good for a 145 wRC+. Waters even earned a late season promotion to the Florida State League, something that very few Braves prospects have accomplished in their first full pro seasons. While he was a little over-matched after his promotion, he was still able to hold his head above water in 133 plate appearances that should do him good heading into 2019.
Waters has always been a tool-shed of a prospect, but it’s remarkable how quickly those tools are translating into on-field production. He has always had exceptional bat speed and quick, strong wrists that allow him to generate plus raw power. He is currently a plus runner, but he may slow down with time as he adds muscle to his lean frame. He is a solid-average defender in center field and will likely develop into a plus defender in a corner with more than enough arm strength to play any outfield position. Most importantly he projects to have at least an above average hit tool if not even better at the major league level, making him one of the few, true five tool prospects in the minor leagues.
The outlook on Drew Waters is one of the best in the entire system. If he can reach AA in 2019 and have the kind of success that he did in the Sally in 2018, Waters could easily find himself among the most elite prospects in all of baseball. He has the potential to be an All-Star level, switch-hitting outfielder that could be helping the big league club as soon as 2020. (Francis)
6. Cristian Pache
Poe: #8, Francis: #1, Cothran: #9
2018 Preseason: #10, Midseason: #7
Since I brought on extra writers to help put together the Top 50 prospects, there has never been a case where a prospect was ranked as high as #1 and as low as #9. While not every rankings is as unanimous as last year with Ronald Acuña Jr., there is rarely that big of a difference in where a top prospect is ranked on one ballot versus the next. But Cristian Pache isn’t a regular top prospect. To some, he has the potential to be a gamechanger in every facet of the game. To others, his floor is lower than other elite prospects and caution reigns supreme.
Let’s get the stuff we all agree upon out of the way. Pache can play an elite center field. The Braves already have a center fielder with multiple Gold Gloves in Ender Inciarte and one with the skills to play a plus center field in Acuña. Pache is better than both. Notice that I didn’t say he could be better. I fully believe he’s better at playing center field than either Inciarte or Acuña. For that matter, he might be the best center fielder in professional ball right now. That’s not being a homer, either. He’s extremely fast with true 70-grade speed and an arm to match. His range is otherworldly. As in, his range is all of this world and more. Okay, that might be hyperbole. Notice that this time I did say “might.”
And he’s only 20. He’s not even close to maturing physically. And that last fact is what pushes many smart people to rank Pache much higher than we as a group did. Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs agree with Michael that Pache is the top prospect in the system.
But people like me stress caution because the bat has its share of problems. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it – I search for progression in numbers during a climb up the ladder. It’s not that you can’t continue to post similar stats at each level and not go onto have a good career. It’s whether or not you are maturing in plate approach. Are you walking more? Striking out less? Hitting with more raw power? Getting the ball off the ground more. These are the things that interest me far more than home run and stolen base totals. It’s why I was higher on Brian McCann than Jeff Francoeur. The former kept improving parts of his game before arriving in the majors. The latter stagnated on those issues. And not to toot my own horn, but one is still in the bigs while the other interviewed him so toot, toot.
Last year was a mixed bag for Pache and that’s not surprising. Consistency at the plate in both approach and mechanics have been issues for Pache. On one hand, he flashed more raw power than he did with Rome in 2017. However, his ground-ball rate was nearly the same at around 50%. After showing better plate discipline in Rome than he did in rookie ball, he regressed in walk percentage and his strikeout rate remained nearly the same.
To be fair – he did spend the last month or so in Double-A, which is hard for any teenager not named Acuña.
So, while I respect and understand why Pache is such an exciting prospect – and I do share much of that excitement – he’s not in our Top 5 because, along with Ryan, I can’t put him above other talents who produced at a higher rate than he did. His potential is off the charts. He could turn into a .310 hitter with 20 bombs and 40 steals. Or he could hit .260 with a weak walk rate and less than double digit homers who probably doesn’t start on a contender regardless of his defense and speed. In a way, Pache could be Christian Yelich or he could be Billy Hamilton and where you rank him probably is indicative of how bullish you are on the chances he reaches that high-end comp. For me…the confidence is just not there. But man, I really hope I get roasted for how badly I underestimated him. (Poe)
And then there were five. If you’ve been following so far, you can probably guess the final five. Four pitchers a corner infielder remain. How will they be ranked? Let us know below or give us a tweet. And while you’re going to social media, please give this a share.