In the third edition of our four-part series about Atlanta's most recent drafts, I'm going to take a look at the ten best players selected by the Braves in the 2012 Rule IV (or First-Year Player) Draft.
The 2012 Rule IV Draft didn't really have a discernable trend in terms of the types of talent which the team focused on drafting. The top two, and most acclaimed, picks were both pitchers, which is a trend that the Braves tend to hold to, as it's an organization that loves developing arms. The Braves also focused on catching in the draft somewhat, taking four catchers (although one, Josh Elander, is now a corner outfielder, and another, Levi Borders, didn't sign) in the first 14 rounds of the draft. The Braves also took a gamble on a pair of high school outfielders, Fernelys Sanchez and Connor Lien, and gave both over-slot bonuses that convinced them to forego college and sign with the professional club.
A comprehensive list of the Braves' selections for the 2012 Draft reveals a pair of impact arms taken in the first two rounds, and then a great number of players that haven't quite panned out yet or are still major question marks. It was a bit difficult to rank these players after #4, as the aforementioned players that haven't quite developed as planned are mostly pretty interchangeable, but this list does reflect the ten most likely players, in my opinion, to contribute at the big-league level.
Let's take a look!
Top Ten Players Selected in 2012 Rule IV Draft
1. Lucas Sims, Right-handed pitcher, 1st round, 21st overall, Brookwood High School (Snellville, GA)
I waffled between picking Sims and Wood as my number one player from the 2012 Draft, but I ended up choosing Sims due to his greater (in my opinion) upside and potential to be a stalwart in the Braves' rotation for many years to come. Sims, a player from the Braves' backyard up in Gwinnett County who was a Clemson committment, was the Braves' top choice in the 2012 Draft due to his athleticism, advanced approach to pitching, clean mechanics, and three polished pitches (for a player his age, especially); a low-90's fastball, a curveball with devastating break, and a serviceable changeup. Since being drafted, Sims has also implemented a slider that has proven to be more consistent than his changeup, although the potential for him to offer three plus pitches in the future still does exist with his fastball, curveball, and change. Sims has ascended the prospect rankings, and is pretty much the consensus number one prospect in Atlanta's system. You'll also find him in the top 75 of nearly every list of the top prospects in all of baseball, with him coming in at number 40 on Keith Law's list as well as on Baseball Prospectus' list, and at number 57 on Baseball America's list. Sims is the youngest pitcher in the Carolina League this season, and has had some adjustment troubles, but certainly hasn't been bad, posting a 4.07 ERA in 9 starts. His strikeout numbers are down, as he has had trouble being consistent with his secondary offerings and has thus relied heavily on his fastball, which has been the source of many of his problems. Sims posted excellent strikeout rates at lower levels in the minors, which allowed him to be so dominant. Despite his struggles in 2014, I expect Sims to improve as the season progresses, and hopefully make his debut in 2016 or 2017. He has the potential to be a #2 or #3 starter for many years, or possibly even an "ace" if everything comes together perfectly.
2. Alex Wood, Left-handed pitcher, 2nd round, 85th overall, University of Georgia
I'm sure I'll take some heat for not choosing Wood as the number one player taken in the 2012 Draft, and I don't blame you. Really, Wood and SIms are 1A and 1B in my eyes, as Sims has the upside, but Wood has already produced at the Major League level. Wood, a native of Charlotte, NC, was the Braves' second selection in the draft as a redshirt sophomore out of the University of Georgia. Wood was forced to redshirt his first year as a Bulldog after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2009. He was UGA's Friday night starter for both of his full seasons at the school, and compiled a 2.73 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 102.1 innings in his final yea. According to most rankings of draft prospects that year, Wood was anywhere from about the 40th-60th best talent in the draft (MLB.com had him at 42, Baseball America had him at 54, Keith Law had him at 61), so the Braves were fortunate enough to have him fall into their laps at 85th overall. Wood's previous UCL injury and wacky, deceptive mechanics are likely what scared off many teams from drafting the lefty, as some view his mechanics as being rough on Wood's arm, which in turn could lead to another UCL or shoulder injury, and ultimately relegate him to the bullpen. Wood has seen time in both roles as a member of the Atlanta Braves (he is the first player from his draft class to make the bigs), debuting as a member of the bullpen on May 30th, 2013, less than a calendar year after being drafted. Wood's ascension to the majors was so quick because he absolutely dominated the minors, posting a ridiculous 1.73 ERA combined at stops in Rome, Mississippi, and Gwinnett. Wood has spent time in both a bullpen and a starting role due to the Braves' reluctancy to put a full workload on his arm, but the team views him as a starter going forward. Wood features a plus fastball and changeup, as well as a sometimes-inconsistent curveball (although all three are above-average offerings), and is a pitcher who relies on strikeouts inducing ground balls with his heavy fastball. Wood also has the potential to be a fixture as a 2 or 3 in Atlanta's rotation for years to come, but his health is worth monitoring.
3. Shae Simmons, Right-handed pitcher, 22nd round, 689th overall, Southeast Missouri State University
Part of the reason why I love the MLB Draft is how teams occasionally take late-round selections and turn them into prospects or Major League players (Evan Gattis, who Dan talked about, is an example of this). Shae Simmons is another player who has risen from relative irrelevancy as the 689th player picked in the draft to a top-15 prospect in Atlanta's minor league system. Simmons, a right-handed flamethrower who may be 5'9" on a good day, was drafted by Atlanta out of Southeast Missouri State as a guy who had nasty, hard stuff but a tough time controlling it. Simmons was a starter in college, but was moved to the bullpen after being drafted by the Braves due to his small stature and max-effort delivery. His velocity thus improved from sitting in the low-90's and touching the mid-90's to sitting consistently in the mid-90's and touching the upper-90's, and that combined with a nasty slider has propelled Simmons to put up some ridiculous numbers in the minors. He made his debut with the GCL Braves and quickly earned a promotion to Danville for the final month of the 2012 season, where he struck out a Kimbrellian 41.2% of batters he faced, but he also walked 15.7% of batters. He ended his stint in Danville with a 3.48 ERA, but a FIP of 1.96 suggested some bad luck. Then, Simmons began 2013 with Rome as the club's closer and dominated, striking out 37.5% of hitters with a 0.90 ERA. Simmons earned a promotion to Mississippi, skipping Lynchburg, and did more of what he had always done--strike out a ton of hitters, but also struggle with control. Something has clicked for Simmons in 2014, however, as he's earned Mississippi's closing job, and has absolutely mauled the Southern League, going 12/13 in save opportunities with a 0.90 ERA (1.24 FIP), and is now walking only 5.3% of batters with a similar strikeout rate. This may be attributable partially to sample size, but Simmons is now better commanding his fastball and slider, inducing ground balls and striking out tons of batters. Simmons also generates a good ratio of ground balls with his heavy, downhill fastball, making him a prime candidate to be a high-leverage, late-inning reliever in the future. He could be up with Atlanta as soon as later this season, but I fully expect him to join the bullpen in 2015, at the latest.
4. Josh Elander, Catcher, 6th round, 209th overall, Texas Christian University
The first position player on the list, Josh Elander was drafted as a catcher after his junior season at Texas Christian University. The Round Rock, Texas native was drafted on the strength of his bat, as questions about his ability to stick to catching defensively cost him in terms of where he was drafted. Elander was an offensive force at TCU, hitting north of .314 with a slugging percentage above .500 in all three of his collegiate seasons, also slugging 11 home runs in just over 275 plate appearances in his final year. If it had been a sure thing that Elander would have been able to stick at catcher, he probably would've been a much higher pick, but alas, he fell to the sixth round and was selected by Atlanta. After spending all of his time at Danville in the 2012 season after being drafted at catcher and slashing .260/.366/.439 in his first taste of pro ball, the organization decided that Elander, in fact, would not be able to stick as a catcher, and moved him to the outfield. Elander made mincemeat out of single-A pitching at Rome last season, hitting .318/.381/.536 with 11 home runs and a 160 wRC+ in 74 games, making the Sally League All-Star Team and earning a call-up to Lynchburg for the second half of the season. He wasn't quite as productive offensively at Lynchburg, hitting at a roughly league-average clip with 4 homers, and began this season at Lynchburg. Elander was off to a rough start to this season, hitting only .212/.330/.294 in 23 games, and then went to the DL with a left shoulder injury. He was re-activated earlier this week and hit a home run in his second game back, as well as a pair of doubles in his third, which is certainly good to see. With Elander, the question is always going to be whether or not he'll hit enough to play in the bigs. Elander's future profile is limited to a corner outfield position (or possibly first base), and you really have to be able to hit in order to stick in the majors with that defensive profile. In my eyes, Elander is far from a sure thing to make the majors, but he could carve out a role as a bench player or a second-division starter. He doesn't offer anything outside of at the plate, as he's not a good defender and lacks speed, but his power and plate discipline could propel him to time in the majors, although it remains to be seen how he will perform against higher-level pitching.
5. Tyler Tewell, Catcher, 14th round, 449th overall, Appalachian State University
Although he was the third catcher taken by the Braves in this draft, Tyler Tewell has been a pleasant surprise for the Braves since he was drafted in the 14th round out of Appalachian State in Boone, NC (one of his college teammates will show up later on the list), and it also may be a bit surprising to see him this high on the list. Tewell is a left-handed hitting catcher who also played some outfield collegiately. Tewell was drafted as a player with strong hitting skills (specifically contact, as he rarely struck out in college) and the capability to play catcher at the profesional level. Tewell, who will turn 23 in July, has reached advanced-A ball in his third season in the Braves' system, after spending time playing in the GCL and the Appy League in 2012 and at Rome in 2013. Tewell hit well in his pro debut in rookie ball, but struggled last season for Rome, hitting .222/.272/.354 in 86 games. It's notable that Tewell posted an abnormally-low BABIP (.260) that's especially abnormal considering his profile as a hitter, in that he's usually pretty line-drive oriented. However, that didn't stop him from being promoted to Lynchburg this season, and he's performed well, hitting .295/.330/.420 with a 109 wRC+ before being put on the DL with an unknown injury. Some may scoff at me putting Tewell this high on my list, but let's be honest--pretty much everyone under Simmons has major, major question marks, and I like Tewell's contact skills. I don't foresee him ever being a Major League starter, but a left-handed catcher who can swing an okay stick and play decent defense behind the plate? Sounds like a possible backup catcher in the bigs to me if things go well for Tewell as he advances up the organizational ladder, which is why I have him in the fifth slot, despite being the third catcher drafted in 2012 by Atlanta.
6. Connor Lien, Outfielder, 12th round, 389th overall, Olympia High School (Orlando, FL)
Lien is a bit of an "out there" prospect, as he still hasn't played full-season ball and is a package of tools instead of being a player that we're sure on. I'm a sucker for toolsy players, though, which is why he shows up at 6th on my list. Lien, a 6'3", 205 pound outfielder from Orlando, was a 12th round selection for the Braves in the 2012 Draft. The Braves gave Lien a $375,000 bonus, which was $275,000 over slot, showing their desire to have the talented high schooler forego his commitment to UCF and join the organization. Perfect Game described Lien as a "very projectable player with solid present tools to develop," and his frame certainly suggests that he could be a productive player given some refinement. In his two seasons of pro baseball, Lien has struck out in 27.2% and 29.7% of plate appearances, suggesting that his hitting approach, specifically when it comes to making contact, needs some work. However, Lien possesses both some speed and some power, as he stole 10 bases in 56 games for Danville last year with 6 home runs and a .175 ISO. That pop in his bat led his wRC+ to a 102 mark, despite hitting only .226 with an OBP just south of .300. This leads me to believe that there's a shot that Lien could leverage his physical abilities into baseball production with some coaching and some luck. I'll have my eye on Lien this year, and hopefully we'll see him performing well in Rome at some point. He's an intriguing player to keep an eye on, in my opinion. It's impossible to project his future, but physically-gifted players with the ability to play a competent center field have a good shot of contributing in the bigs, and Lien has time to develop and refine his skills at only 20 years old. With a system as bereft of outfield talent as Atlanta's, it would certainly be huge for the organization if Lien could develop into a legitimate Major League option down the road, but there are still plenty of questions surrounding him, and they're certainly justifiable.
7. Bryan De La Rosa, Catcher, 3rd round, 116th overall, Olympic Heights High School (Boca Raton, FL)
Coming in at seventh on the list is Atlanta's third round pick in 2012, Bryan De La Rosa. De La Rosa, who was born in Puerto Rico but attended high school in Boca Raton, Florida, was drafted in the third round by the Braves as a catcher with strong defensive tools but a raw offensive skill set. Atlanta hoped that they would be able to develop De La Rosa's bat and turn him into a legitimate starting catcher prospect, but that hasn't quite happened yet. De La Rosa, whose body is somewhat reminiscent of Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz in that it's short and stocky, was hoped to possess the ability to hit for power with some refinement, but that refinement just hasn't shown up yet. He had a very poor debut in the Gulf Coast League after signing in 2012, putting up a .162/.194/.222 line. That line wasn't wholly unexpected, as the consensus surrounding De La Rosa acknowledged that he probably wouldn't hit right off the bat. De La Rosa showed some improvement during his second year of professional ball in the Appalachian League, hitting .261/.328/.306. He didn't show much pop in his bat, but he walked at a decent clip and wasn't a total disaster. However, this season at Rome, De La Rosa has been exposed, as is currently posting (shield your eyes) an .095 average, with one extra-base hit in 63 at-bats. His strikeout rate is nearly 50%, and there are major, major doubts as to whether or not he'll ever produce at the plate to even survive above A-ball, much less at the Major League level. However, De La Rosa is still only 20-year-old, so there's a nonzero chance that he could finally figure it out at the plate. For now, I'm not expecting to see De La Rosa ever play in the majors, but that could change with offensive improvement due to his strong arm and defensive ability. This has to be considered a disappointment, as he just hasn't made much progress towards becoming a legitimate prospect at all.
8. Nate Hyatt, Right-handed pitcher, 13th round, 419th overall, Appalachian State University
Hyatt joins his college teammate Tyler Tewell on the list. Hyatt was selected in the 13th round, one round and thirty picks before his teammate. Hyatt was the closer for the Mountaineers in his senior season, and posted a 4.28 ERA, converting 16/17 save opportunities while striking out 29 hitters in 27.1 innings of work on the mound. Hyatt, however, walked 24 hitters in those 27.1 innings of work, which means that there was plenty of concern about his ability to throw enough strikes at the professional level. Hyatt impressed in his professional debut with Danville, posting a 1.80 ERA with a 1.81 FIP in seven games, which was enough to earn him a call-up to Rome to finish the season. He was even better in the Sally League, striking out 40% of hitters while walking only 9% in 14.2 innings there. As a result of his success, Hyatt began the 2013 season with limited pro experienced in advanced-A ball, and experienced some struggles. He did earn 12 saves during the season, but his issues with control came to light, as he walked 14% of hitters, and only struck out 25.6%. His ERA came out at 3.86, and his FIP of 3.52 suggested that he experienced a bit of bad luck (his .371 BABIP against corroborates this). Hyatt is once again with Lynchburg this season, and has posted a 2.50 ERA in 18 innings of work. His control is improved so far, as he is only walking 9% of hitters. Hyatt's fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90's with movement, and he also features a breaking pitch that is less consistent. I'm never going to count out a reliever who can throw a quality fastball and has any sort of breaking pitch given Atlanta's propensity to develop arms, and I don't think it's out of the question that the 23-year-old Hyatt could make a big league roster as a low or medium-leverage reliever at some point in the future, although it's far from a sure thing.
9. David Peterson, Right-handed pitcher, 8th round, 269th overall, College of Charleston
David Peterson comes in at ninth on the list, and he's the opposite of Shae Simmons in that he was a tall college closer who was drafted by the Braves and eventually converted into a starting pitcher. Peterson, from Walnut Creek, CA, attended the College of Charleston and began his career as a starter with the team, but eventually became the closer in his senior season. After serving as Rome's closer in the 2012 season after being drafted, the Braves found that his skill set would be better served in the future as a starting pitcher. Peterson began 2013 with Lynchburg as a starter for the team, and posted a 2.89 ERA with a 17:7 K:BB ratio in 18.2 innings before succumbing to the infamous UCL tear and a Tommy John surgery at the end of April 2013. Peterson still hasn't returned this season, but hopefully we'll see him back on the mound here in the next couple of months. Peterson relies on a low-90's fastball as well as a decent curveball, but has to develop a third pitch in the form of his changeup if he wants to continue starting. Peterson is a total ground ball pitcher, with ground ball rates north of 60% in both his 2012 and 2013 minor league seasons. Peterson would probably come in higher on the list if not for the uncertainty surrounding his arm injury, but if he can develop his changeup and come back from injury, he could become a starter to watch in the system due to his groundball tendencies. If not, he'll probably be relegated back to relieving, which would considerably lower his stock as a prospect. Keep an eye on how he performs this summer, if he's able to make it back from surgery.
10. Blake Brown, Outfielder, 5th round, 179th overall, University of Missouri
The final name on the list is Blake Brown, who was the Braves fifth choice in the draft out of the University of Missouri. Brown, a 6'0", 185 pound outfielder, was drafted so high after his junior season due to his raw tools, as he never really put up fantastic stats in college. Brown's defensive profile is that of a corner outfielder, which puts even more pressure on his bat to perform, which, to be frank, it hasn't professionally. Brown has always demonstrated a good eye at the plate, walking north of 10% of the time at all but one of his professional stops, but has had major issues with making contact. He's done a bit better this season, striking out 27.9% of the time at Rome, but it's also his second go-around in the Sally League and he's pretty old for his level, as he turns 23 next month. The power potential has never manifested itself for Brown either, as he has managed just 7 home runs in 180 Minor League games. He's currently slashing .220/.319/.314 for Rome, and I don't have much hope that he'll ever hit enough to become a legitimate big league option. He's mostly slotted at 10th on the list due to his tools, but those start to become irrelevant when you still haven't produced at his age. I don't expect Brown's future to be more than that of an organizational player, but hey, stranger things have happened, I suppose.
Photo Credit: Kyle Hess/Rome Braves