#15 | Mallex Smith | Center Fielder | 21 years old
Mallex Smith came over from the Padres in the Justin Upton swap, and immediately assumes the title of greatest-named minor leaguer as well as fastest minor leaguer in the Atlanta organization. In Smith, Atlanta acquired one of the few players in minor league ball who we can confidently say is faster than Jose Peraza. In 2014, Smith led all of professional baseball (majors + minors) in stolen bases, stealing a mind-boggling 88 bags in 114 tries. We'd like to see a little improvement on his 77.2% success rate, but make no mistake: Smith has true 80-grade speed. (For reference: Billy Hamilton's minor league stolen base success rate was ~82%.)
He can also hit a little, too, as evidenced by his .310/.403/.432 line. Smith has a short, compact swing that's designed to put the ball in play and let his wheels do the rest. This should serve him well as he continues to climb the latter. He also shows an impressive eye, drawing 69 walks in 564 PAs last year. Smith seems to embrace the mantra of "get on, get over, get in", which will serve him well as a leadoff hitter. He doesn't have much power, but he has enough to put balls in gaps and let his legs do the work. He strikes me as the kind of guy who will notch a bunch of "hustle doubles".
The best thing we can say about Smith is that he will almost certainly be a big leaguer. If his bat doesn't develop at all, he would still be a dangerous 4th OF/pinch runner. And if it does, well, we could certainly get used to Smith and Peraza setting the table for the Cobb County Braves. Look for Smith to start the year with the Mudcats, though it isn't out of the question that Atlanta could start him in Mississippi.
- Daniel Simpson
#14 | Jason Hursh | Right-Handed Starting Pitcher | 23 years old
The Braves’ first round pick from 2013 quickly rose to double-A Mississippi last season, spending the entirety of the season in the Southern League. The 3.58 ERA was fine, and that Hursh made 26 starts and twirled nearly 150 innings is a positive. The native Texan, who turned 23 just after the season ended, continued the trend from his first professional season, inducing tons of ground balls and limiting free passes. The troubling thing was his meager 13.5% strikeout rate, which throws up red flags for Hursh’s future.
Hursh has the prototypical starting pitcher’s body, with a filled-out 6’3" frame featuring a strong lower half that should have no problem handling a starter’s workload. Hursh’s bread-and-butter is a heavy, sinking fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90s. The pitch has above-average velocity and plus movement, and the only current knock on it is that it occasionally flattens out, and he doesn’t always live down in the zone with it. The concern with Hursh, and the reason behind his inability to strike out hitters, is that the secondary pitches are nothing special. His changeup is the better of his secondary pitches, and will flash impressive arm-side fade in the low-80s on its good days. The feel for the pitch and its consistency needs work, however. Finally, Hursh’s breaking balls, which are a slider and a curve (they’re quite similar), sit in the mid-to-upper 70s and need quite a bit of work to be viable big league offerings. Neither pitch offers much deception, they don’t generate swings and misses, and they tend to be a bit cement mixer-esque, profiling as "show-me" pitches.
Hursh is likely close to a finished project, and the smart money is that he’ll start with Gwinnett in 2015 as a starting pitcher, with the goal being improvement to his myriad secondary offerings. At this point, I am more inclined to believe that Hursh’s future is as a late innings reliever (possibly as soon as this year), but I’m not 100% out on him as a starter. The fastball profiles an easy plus pitch, but he’ll need to start missing more bats if he is to have a chance to start at the Major League level.
- Ian Morris
#13 | Garrett Fulenchek | Right-Handed Starting Pitcher | 18 years old
Garret Fulenchek was the Braves second round pick in the 2014 draft out of Howe HS in Texas. The 6’4" righty was an under the radar name coming into the draft, however he signed for over-slot deal of $1.0MM. He struggled to adapt in his first taste of pro ball, finishing the GCL season with 37.2 innings with a 29:22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. However, there is a lot to be excited about for the projectable righty who features a low-to-mid 90’s sinker, with a sharp slider that is presently ahead of his changeup. Developing his secondaries, like most young draftees, will be his biggest challenge going forward. Expect the 18-year-old to start at low-A this upcoming season, but it would not be surprising if the Braves were to move at a slower pace with his development.
- Andrew Sisson
#12 | Alec Grosser | Right-Handed Starting Pitcher | 20 years old
Alec Grosser has exploded onto the scene after being taken in the eleventh round as a relatively unknown commodity in the 2013 draft. He didn’t have extensive showcase or year-round experience as an amateur, also playing quarterback for his high school football team, so he was viewed as a bit of a project. Last year, Grosser, who celebrated his twentieth birthday earlier this month, spent the entirety of the season with Danville in the Appalachian League and put together a strong campaign. He made twelve starts, struck out a batter per inning and displayed good control, and produced an excellent ground ball clip. His 3.68 ERA wasn’t a fair reflection of how well he pitched last season; his performance was the brightest in system’s low minors.
Two things that evaluators love when discussing pitching prospects are athleticism and projectability, and Grosser has plenty of those. It’s easy to imagine Grosser adding a couple of ticks to his fastball as he continues to grow into his 6’2" frame. Presently, the pitch sits in the low-90s, and features considerable sink and arm-side run, which is the source of his strong ability to induce grounders. He works low in the zone with the pitch, and generally commands it well. While it’s easy to project the fastball as a future plus pitch, the real treat of his arsenal might actually be his low-80s slider. He needs to develop his command and feel for the pitch, but at it’s best, it’s a whiff-inducing offering with late, sharp two-plane break that could be a true weapon at the highest level. His third offering, a changeup, needs considerable work, as it’s currently a long way away from being an effective, legitimate offering. The development of this third pitch will likely determine whether or not he has a future as a viable starter, or if he’ll slide to the bullpen.
All signs point to Grosser beginning this season in Rome’s rotation in the Sally League, his first full-season experience. Grosser has a ways to go developmentally before we can even start thinking about him as a major leaguer, and his future role is to be determined. Monitoring the development of his changeup will be key this season, but there’s a lot to like about the young righty.
- Ian Morris
#11 | Jace Peterson | Second Baseman/Third Baseman | 24 years old
This could very well be Jace Peterson’s only appearance on a Braves top prospect list. After being acquired from the San Diego Padres in the Justin Upton trade, the 24-year-old looks to battle for the second base and/or bench job in spring training. While the odds are against him taking the everyday job, he could be a useful player off the bench. While he doesn’t have a standout tool, his solid contact skills and ability to work the count, as well as being able to play both second and third base, should provide enough offensive value to make him viable of a roster spot this season.
- Andrew Sisson