The Braves Face Some Questions Ahead of the Rule 5

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees

Tomorrow is a big day for the Atlanta Braves and the other 29 ballclubs. Players eligible for the Rule 5 draft need to be added to the 40-man roster or they will be left unprotected. Leaving them unprotected could mean the loss of a potential piece for a future Atlanta Braves roster. The good news here is that the concern of a 40-man roster crunch in Atlanta has been a bit overplayed – even by yours truly. While there are certainly some intriguing options, the list isn’t quite as robust as it once was before the promotions of Touki Toussaint and Chad Sobotka – both players who would have been eligible this winter.

I’m not going to address every player available – that list is fairly long. But I will touch on a few notable options that both could generate some interest. Remember that there is a second part to the Rule 5 in which players who are eligible for the Rule 5, but not protected by a placement on the Triple-A roster, are also vulnerable to poaching teams. The minor league portion of the Rule 5 is a lot less strict about the roster rules that pertain to selected players.

How many guys can the Braves add?

Right now, the Braves have 36 players on their 40-man roster and could add four players from the eligible list. However, they could add even more by moving a few other players off the 40-man roster like pitchers Luke Jackson and Wes Parsons, along with corner infielder Rio Ruiz. They really don’t need to do that, but it’s an option should they want to pursue it.

I don’t foresee the Braves drafting a player unless they simply cannot say no. That likely won’t happen with how late the Braves draft in the Rule 5, but look for them to keep at least a spot open on the 40-man roster just in case. Last year, Alex Anthopoulos took Anyelo Gomez from the Yankees, but the club later returned Gomez. Notably, they selected Dan Winkler a few years back. He’s the last Rule 5 player selected by the team that has stuck. While I don’t think the Braves will be active in this year’s Rule 5 draft as most contending ballclubs don’t want to promise a spot on their 25-man roster to a rookie they take in the Rule 5, I typically like to take a look at the crop of players who will be available so expect that in the coming weeks.

The Guy the Braves Gotta Keep

Nope, this section doesn’t need to be plural. Truly, there is just one option who I feel the Braves absolutely need to protect and that’s right-hander Patrick Weigel. The former seventh rounder out of the University of Houston has thrown just four innings of ball since undergoing Tommy John surgery in June of 2017, but remains one of the top young arms in the system. Tall and stout on the mound, Weigel routinely was in the mid-90’s with his velocity before his injury and has a very good, though still developing curveball. His slider is an even better breaking pitch.

The question with Weigel – and this is common for many young arms – can Weigel develop a plus changeup? He was working on it before going down and it’s good enough to give hitters something to think about provided he locates it well. But it’s clearly his worst pitch and it’s the only reason some prospect experts are a little undecided if his future is ultimately as a middle-of-the-rotation stalwart or a high-leverage inning reliever. Both of those trajectories are obviously the best case scenarios.

Weigel has been throwing since last January and ramped it up near the end of the season to appear in action in the rookie leagues. He continued to work into the Fall Instructional League for the Braves. There’s still a lot of raw talent here after spending most of his college run as a reliever and losing action to injury. And many will agree that in a rotation of the ages for the 2016 Rome Braves, Weigel was every bit as good as Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, and Kolby Allard. He’s a must-keep ahead of the Rule 5 draft.

Definitely Thinking About It

With this section, I want to touch on some of the guys who deserve more than just a glance. Maybe these guys aren’t on Weigel’s level where protecting them is a no-brainer, but they definitely deserve your – and, more importantly, Alex Anthopoulos’ – consideration.

RHP Jacob Webb – Typically, right-hand relievers are fairly safe in the Rule 5 draft. Teams are far more interested in left-handers or if they go with right-handers, they seek out project arms or guys who are truly starters in the minors. Webb is neither a project nor has he ever been a starter. But he could be useful for the Braves and I’m even referring to the 2019 season. Webb appeared in 30 games for Gwinnett last season and led all Braves minor leaguers with 18 saves between his work with the Stripers and the Mississippi Braves. Tommy John surgery a few years ago slowed his progress, but he’s rocketed up the minors since with mid-90’s velocity and a slider that gets its fair share of whiffs. His control even improved last year – especially with Gwinnett. He’s only continued to roll while playing in the Dominican Winter League. In 10 appearances, he has struck out 14 and walked a pair over 10 innings. Webb has only allowed one run. He could have a Chad Sobotka-like effect on the Braves in 2019. Provided he’s still with the team.

RHP Huascar Ynoa – The answer to what the Braves received for Jaime Garcia at the 2017 trading deadline, Ynoa spent three years in rookie ball, but started to find himself in 2018 over two levels of A-ball. Don’t pay too much attention to his 8.03 ERA in six starts with Florida. His metrics were tremendous – he just had bad luck. Ynoa is the right mix of project and ceiling that could entice another team to take a shot and the Braves might want to avoid losing him like they acted to avoid losing a similar potential breakout arm in Ricardo Sanchez last year. It’ll take some time for Ynoa, but he could be worth the extended look in the end.

C Alex Jackson – Heading into the 2018 season, it was a no-brainer that the Braves were going to add Jackson to the 40-man roster before the 2018 Rule 5 draft. The question was more if it happened during the regular season. But after a big bounce-back 2017 that including 19 homers in the regular season and another handful in the Arizona Fall League, Jackson’s bat was quiet in 2018. He randomly was promoted to Gwinnett for the final month-and-a-half and that did nothing to put a spark back in his bat. Jackson is frustrating at the plate as he possesses monster raw power, but his contact skills aren’t there yet for the soon-to-be 23-year-old. Behind the plate, there are better things to say as the move from the outfield hasn’t gone as bad as many feared. He won’t win any awards, but his receiving and footwork were noticeably better in 2018 than they were in 2017. He’s a project. Might a team take a chance? It’s certainly possible.

Try To Protect Them in the Minor League Portion

These are guys that don’t really deserve much consideration for a spot on the 40-man roster, but it would be nice to keep them in the system both for depth for the major league roster or a potential sleeper that could breakout later.

LHP Jon Kennedy – The Aussie left-hander with the presidential name could be a decent arm in the future. He has impeccable control and gets his fair share of grounders. Though 24, 2018 was just his third season in stateside baseball after another four working his way up in the Australian professional league. He could attract some attention in the Rule 5 and did make four cameo appearances with Gwinnett last season.

LHP Dilmer Mejia – Slow-and-steady as they come, Mejia finished his fifth season in 2018 and finally made it above rookie ball for the first time to throw 21.1 innings split between Rome and Florida. Unfortunately, he spent most of the season with Danville, where he has pitched far-too-often over the last couple of years. Despite the experience, he’s still just 21-years-old. Atlanta has tried him both as a reliever and a starter. They get more velocity with the former, but he has enough control, stuff, and pitchability to last as a starter. Could be the kind of project another team is interested in giving a shot to.

RHP Matt Withrow – The brother of the former Brave, Chris Withrow, Matt didn’t pitch in 2018 due to injury and spent much of 2017 on the shelf as well. That likely should shield Withrow from too much attention and the Braves would be happy about that. In his last healthy season, he struck out 131 batters in 120.2 innings with the Florida Fire Frogs in 2016. The control wasn’t great before injuries so it’s doubtful it’s much better now, but if he can get a chance to work on his craft, Withrow could still be a good arm for the Braves moving forward.

IF/OF Travis Demeritte – It was a bit of a surprise that Demeritte, despite a poor 2017, didn’t receive protection heading into that year’s Rule 5 draft. It’s less of a surprise this time around after a second poor season at Double-A. A move to left field wasn’t too hard for the infielder, who was not moved because of defensive issues (he’s rather solid at both second and third). Demeritte’s issue has always been contact. He has great power, takes a good number of walks, and is a good enough athlete on the bases. But it’s hard to really improve with awful strikeout numbers.

At Least Think About It

These guys deserve at least a little consideration before ignoring them.

RHP Josh Graham – Drafted after a move from behind the plate to the mound made him a prospect at Oregon, Graham has always had amazing velocity. The problem is that he has struggled to keep Double-A batters off the bases. He’s walked a shade over 16% of all Double-A batters he’s faced – a significantly higher rate than his previous mediocre walk rates at A-ball. That tells me advanced hitters are not swinging themselves into as many outs. They’re forcing Graham to throw strikes when behind in the count and he’s failing to do that. Graham is an intriguing prospect, but a very flawed one.

LHP Chase Johnson-Mullins – Built like an offensive lineman, CJM has rarely stayed healthy enough to show what he can do. The southpaw utilizes heavy sinking action and a plus slider to generate a number of groundballs. He could definitely be a fast riser if he’s healthy and even could attract a little attention as a Rule 5 prospect. Nevertheless, until he’s able to stay on the mound and pitch above A-ball, I doubt the Braves fear that there will be many takers.

1B Braxton Davidson – His sixth homerun in the Arizona Fall League ended the autumn circuit’s season as he walked it off for the title. He hurt himself jogging the bases, but it was the end to the most Braxton run yet. He flashed the power that prompted Frank Wren to draft him just months before he was fired. He also showed the plate discipline that has always been a bit of a saving grace. He also K’d a ton. That’s Davidson in a nutshell. Unreal power, a lot of walks, and just a dash of contact. After years of the Braves trying to make Davidson-is-an-outfielder happen, they finally moved him to first base this year. He’s not particularly good there, but if he could ever make just enough contact to hit .240, he’d be a legit prospect who might garner a B- grade. The problem is that in three years in high-A ball, his average has decreased all three seasons. The run in the Arizona Fall League might have opened a few eyes, but most of them are still closed.

UT Ray-Patrick Didder – A fun ready-made utility player, Didder combines enough plate discipline with a decent hit tool and pretty good speed to make a productive player. That said, the issues with his game, which include very little pop, really limit his future. If his hit tool was a bit better, maybe he’d attract some more attention. Didder could certainly develop into a 25th man on a team who can play shortstop or centerfield and several other positions. But that’s probably the best case scenario.

Who would you keep? Is there another player you prefer that I didn’t mention here? Let me know!

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