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The Best Tools In Atlanta's Minor League System

Taking stock of which minor-leaguers in the Braves' system have the best tools.

Robby Hefflinger has the best power in Atlanta's minor league system.
Robby Hefflinger has the best power in Atlanta's minor league system.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Best Hitter: Tommy La Stella, 2B, Mississippi Braves. The Braves' minor league system is fairly devoid of hitting talent, especially in the upper minors. But Mississippi's second baseman stands as a notable exception to that. La Stella, while old for the league, possesses excellent bat control and good bat speed which have made his hit tool the best in Atlanta's system. La Stella's eye is also top notch (he currently has more walks than strikeouts in AA - 28 to 27), which only supplements that hit tool. This year in AA, La Stella has posted a line of .343/.415/.479, good for a 161 wRC+. As you can see from his spray chart below, La Stella uses the whole field well, utilizing a quick, compact swing to drive the ball to all fields. Talking Chop's 4 minor league guys were split on several categories, but La Stella was the unanimous selection here. Honorable Mentions: Todd Cunningham, Victor Caratini.


Best Power: Robby Hefflinger, LF, Mississippi Braves. Much as the Braves' system is devoid of hitting talent talent, it's also pretty bereft of standout power hitting. In fact, only two Braves' minor leaguers have even eclipsed 20 homers this year. Robby Hefflinger, with 27, is one, while Ernesto Mejia, with 28, is the other. "Heff," as he's nicknamed, was Atlanta's 7th round pick in 2009, and while he's always possessed plus raw power, he had never really shown it in games until this year. With Lynchburg, he hit 17 doubles and 21 homers in 307 PAs, earning himself a promotion to Mississippi. Since then, he's been stymied by the more advanced pitching of the Southern League; in 171 PAs in AA, he's only managed 6 doubles and 6 home runs. It will be interesting to see if Hefflinger can make the necessary adjustments now that he has struggled, but regardless, his power in the Braves system is rivaled only by Gwinnett's slugging first baseman. Honorable Mention: Ernesto Mejia.

Best Strike Zone Judgement: Kyle Kubitza, 3B, Lynchburg Hillcats. Since being drafted by the Braves in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft, Kyle Kubitza has been a sabermatrician's fantasy. (Seriously, I think Ethan has composed poems about him.) Kubitza has an excellent eye, as evidenced by his Carolina-League-leading 71 walks. On the year, Lynchburg's third baseman has taken a free pass in a whopping 15.4% of his plate appearances. This has led him to post an impressive .373 on-base percentage despite a middling .255 batting average. Perhaps more impressive, his walk percentage has actually improved every year in the minors so far. Unfortunately, Kubitza's contact rates aren't stellar, which has also led him to strike out in 24.3% of his PAs this year. But make no mistake, Kubitza's eye is second to none in Atlanta's system and should lead to continued success down the road. Honorable Mention: Tommy La Stella.

Best Baserunner: Jose Peraza, SS, Rome Braves. Jose Peraza's 58 steals lead all of Atlanta's minor league system, but that gaudy number is as much a testament to his acumen on the basepaths than anything else. Peraza's raw speed is stellar, but his intelligent baserunning further enhances it. Watch Peraza on the basepaths and he always seems to have excellent instincts on exactly when to jump. Couple that with an excellent crossover step, and seemingly always knowing when to take an extra base, and it's easy to see how Peraza is the best baserunner in the system. Honorable Mention: Kyle Wren.

Best Speed: Kyle Wren, CF, Rome Braves. Wren and Peraza make this a two horse race, as they both flash blazing-fast speed on the basepaths and in the field. The four of us were split on this, with two giving the nod to Wren and two to Peraza - if you wanted to rank them the other way, no one would blame you. Wren currently boasts the best SB% in Atlanta's system, having swiped 30 bases and only being caught 5 times (86% success!) Our own Ethan Purser recently clocked him at 3.78 seconds on a jailbreak, which is...really fast. I've seen several scouts peg both Wren and Peraza with 70 speed and if you watch them run, you'd have a hard time disagreeing too much with that assessment. Honorable Mention: Jose Peraza.

Best Pitcher: Lucas Sims, RHP, Rome Braves. Atlanta's first round pick in 2012, Lucas Sims has shown nothing so far to make people believe he couldn't one day be a top-of-the-rotation starter in the majors. Sims, who looked great in rookie ball last year, has been even better so far this year in Danville. He currently leads the Appalachian League in K/9 with a stellar 10.21 mark. Walks are still a bit of a bugaboo for him, as he's currently sporting a 3.71 BB/9. He's also done an excellent job of keeping the ball in the park, allowing a homer every 36 innings (0.25 HR/9). With a lively fastball and stellar curve, Sims already sports two plus pitches and is currently developing the feel for a changeup. With his athletic frame, Sims should have the stamina to work deep into games, as well as the ability to add a few more ticks to his fastball. He's a young pitcher, so all the usual caveats apply, but there's none better in Atlanta's system now. Honorable Mention: J.R. Graham.

Best Fastball: Juan Jaime, RHP, Mississippi Braves. Juan Jaime's an odd prospect case, as myriad injuries have kept him in the minors for a long time. But there's no denying his fastball, which can hit triple digits easily and routinely sits in the upper 90s, is very impressive. Jaime's used that fastball to notch an absurd 14.61 K/9 mark this year, though throwing that fast wrecks his control, as evidenced by his BB/9 of 6.19. Regardless though, he has easily the fastest heater in Atlanta's system. Honorable Mentions: J.R. Graham, Mauricio Cabrera.

Best Changeup: Sean Gilmartin, LHP, Gwinnett Braves. Many Braves fans have become disillusioned by Gilmartin's modest results so far, given that he was Atlanta's first round pick in 2011. But Gilmartin still has the tools to be a solid back-of-the-rotation starter, thanks in large part to his stellar changeup. Gilmartin's fastball is by no means overpowering, but his changeup mimics said fastball so well out of his hand that it catches many hitters off-balance. With excellent late movement and a deceptive release, Gilmartin's change is easily his best pitch, and also the best change in the Braves' system. Honorable Mention: Ian Thomas.

Best Breaking Ball: Lucas Sims, RHP, Rome Braves. In a perfect world, we'll have bards writing poems about Lucas Sims's curveball in about 5 years. The young righty is blessed with an above average fastball, but his curve is where he really shines. Sims throws a traditional hammer curve that sits in the mid 70s and features wicked 11-5 break. Sims also shows good feel for the pitch, adding or subtracting a few ticks when he needs to in order to get a sharper break or a more dramatic break. The caveat with his curve is that his control is not all there - yet. It's not uncommon to see a young pitcher struggle to control his breaking stuff, and Sims is no exception. But there's no reaon to think he won't be able to continue refining his control. Honorable Mentions: J.R. Graham, David Hale.



In the first .gif, you can see Sims throwing a harder, sharper breaking curve that slices out of the strike zone. In the second, you can see him take a little off for more looping break that misses his spot but still catches the inside corner. *Both .gifs courtesy of Craig Goldstein.*

Best Control: Ryan Weber, RHP, Lynchburg Hillcats. Best control is a bit of an interesting category because, to quote Mark: "Not too many of our pitchers are terribly good at it at the moment." You could probably make the argument for several players here, but our pick is Ryan Weber. Atlanta's 22nd round pick in 2009, Weber has used his good control to make up for lack of stuff. Weber sports a very good 1.31 BB/9 this year with the Hillcats, which has led him to a solid 3.21 FIP. Honorable Mentions: Sean Gilmartin, Wes Parsons.

Best Defensive Catcher: Christian Bethancourt, C, Mississippi Braves. This one's a bit of a no-brainer. Bethancourt is widely considered one of, if not the best, defensive catchers in the minor leagues. Sporting a true 80 arm, Bethancourt has absurd pop times and the ability to completely shut down a run game. His receiving skills are a work in progress, but are improving greatly. Bethancourt may be the only Braves minor leaguer who could make the show on the back of his defense alone. Honorable Mentions: Cory Brownsten, Bryan De La Rosa

Best Defensive Fist Baseman: Christian Marrero, 1B, Mississippi Braves. This is one of the few categories where there isn't a true standout. Atlanta's system has several first baseman that are somewhat above-average, but none that truly stand out as anything special. Marrero gets the nod here for his good defense at a higher level, but really you could justify giving this to several different players and I wouldn't object. Honorable Mentions: Edison Sanchez, Trenton Moses.

Best Defensive Second Baseman: Phil Gosselin, 2B, Gwinnett Braves. Braves fans got a good look at Gosselin's defense this past week, and seeing his range and glovework in comparison to Dan Uggla's was striking. Gosselin isn't a truly great defender by any stretch of the imagination, but with good range, soft hands, and a decent arm, he's the best Atlanta's system has now. Additionally, it's worth noting that there isn't as much competition for this title, because younger prospects who may eventually play second base are still being played at shortstop in the lower minors. Honorable Mention: Eric Garcia.

Best Defensive Shortstop: Jose Peraza, SS, Rome Braves. Jose Peraza is one of Atlanta's most exciting young prospects, both on the field and on the basepaths. In the field, Peraza uses his elite speed to bring excellent range to the shortstop position. He also boasts strong, but improving glovework as well. His arm isn't elite, but it hasn't held him back so far. Peraza is very young and is still developing the instincts necessary to stick at short long-term, but the Braves have to be very encouraged by what they've seen defensively so far from their talented young shortstop in his first go at full-season ball. Honorable Mention: Elmer Reyes.

Best Defensive Third Baseman: Joe Leonard, 3B, Gwinnett Braves. Although he doesn't offer much with the bat, Gwinnett's third baseman is an excellent defender at the hot corner. Leonard has soft hands and good glovework to go along with an average arm. Given his weak bat at a normally strong offensive position, it's unclear if Leonard will ever make it to Atlanta. But if he does, he can hang his hat on his defense. Honorable Mention: Kyle Kubitza.

Best Defensive Outfielder: Todd Cunningham, CF, Gwinnett Braves. Todd Cunningham, while not an elite defender, is a solid center fielder and an excellent corner guy. He doesn't have much of an arm to speak of, but uses his above average speed and instincts to read balls well. His offense may prevent him from regular playing time in the major leagues, but he can be a 4th outfielder based on his defense and versatility. Honorable Mentions: Matt Lipka, Kyle Wren.

Best Infield Arm: Kyle Kubitza, 3B, Lynchburg Hillcats. Kubitza hasn't always been known for his defense, but he's steadily improved since being drafted with pick #115 in the 2011 draft. His glovework and range aren't stellar, but he has a good arm and the ability to make tough throws. (Note: This was only for 2B, 3B, SS. Christian Bethancourt was not considered - otherwise he would have won.) Honorable Mention: Edward Salcedo.

Best Outfield Arm: Blake Brown, RF, Danville Braves. Blake Brown was Atlanta's 5th round pick in 2012 as an extremely toolsy high school outfielder. While most of his tools have yet to emerge in game, his arm is on full display in Danville's outfield. Brown is an extremely strong, wiry player who has a cannon for an arm. And boy does he like to show it off, as he's already thrown out a whopping 18 runners in 87 games this year. If Brown can ever translate his power and hit tools into skills on the field, he could easily be a dynamic player at higher levels. Honorable Mention: Greg Golson.

This best tools list was compiled by myself, Ethan Purser, Andrew Sisson, and Mark Smith. A special thanks to those three guys for all their hard work.

*Heat map courtesy of Sims .gifs courtesy of Craig Goldstein*

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