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Talking Chop’s 2017 Pre-season Braves Prospect Rankings: 16-20

We continue our look at the Braves’ top 25 prospects with a couple international signees from the 2015 class plus some of the more intriguing pitchers in the system.

Derian Cruz doing Derian Cruz things

Prospect season is among the our very favorite times of the year (right up there with the draft, July 2, and the start of the season). We get to revisit our rankings from midseason as well as our previous preseason rankings, see where we screwed up or how things changed, and add names that have joined the organization since the rankings came out. We rolled out the first five player on our top prospect list yesterday and Garrett went over some honorable mentions for the list on Monday. If you have learned anything so far, it is that this list is incredibly deep and there are easily 10 names that could reasonably included in a top 25 Braves’ prospect list that we did not include.

We continue that list today with a couple relatively new additions to the system, a pair of international signees that continue to impress, and veteran of the Braves’ farm system looking to turn things around and get back into consideration for the major league rotation. That being said....let’s look at 16-20 on our Top 25.

20.) Derian Cruz - SS

One of 2015’s top International prospects, Derian Cruz signed for an at the time franchise record $2 million. A switch hitter, Cruz has quick hands and puts the ball in play to allow his speed to play up. He’s raw at shortstop where his elite athleticism and speed show, the only downside is his arm isn’t the strongest per scouts. An elite athlete with sprinter’s speed Cruz has a lot of potential and I’m sure the Braves will push him next year.

Jeff Morris

He started play this year in the Gulf Coast League where he hit .309/.336/.445 (132 wRC+) in 26 games with 2 home runs. On July 30th he was promoted to Danville at only 17, he did not fare as well there only hitting .183/.204/.279 in 25 games. All in all he had 17 XBH in 51 games and only had 7 stolen bases which I thought was odd given his speed. Baseball America slapped a 70 grade speed tool on him before he was signed and he’s fast running the bases from what I’ve seen it just didn’t seem like the team was very aggressive with him on the basepaths. He only walked six times all year and committed 18 errors in 48 games but the talent is there. Expect Cruz to start back up in Danville next year with a stop in Rome not far behind.

19.) Lucas Sims - RHP

Lucas Sims has been much of a hot and cold prospect on lists through his tenure since being a first rounder, and has had even more of a roller coaster ride on the field. After starring in the Arizona Fall League he came in 2016 with hopes high, and did not disappoint early with a 1.84 ERA and a MiLB-leading 26 strikeouts through 3 games. He earned a promotion to AAA, where he started off strong before hitting a rough patch very quickly. While he kept his strikeout rate high, his command faltered as it had in 2015 and he could not overcome AAA batters easily. Following the firing of Fredi Gonzalez and the subsequent promotions of manager Brian Snitker and pitching coach Marty Reed from Gwinnett, his mechanics got out of whack and he was left with a coach he was less than comfortable with trying to fix it. Through 9 games in May and June he pitched to a 9.23 ERA with 11 home runs allowed and 31 BB in 38 IP. He settled down after his demotion to work with Dennis Lewallyn, but continued battling his control for the remainder of the season. While his play in Gwinnett was awful, there is something to be said of his ability to right the ship upon return to Mississippi. He finished the year 5th in the minor leagues in strikeouts with 159 in 141 IP, and his 2.67 ERA as a 22 yr old in AA is nothing to scoff.

Lucas Sims Photo Credit: Garrett Spain

While Sims has always gotten high marks for the simplicity and repeatability of his delivery, the simple problem has been his inability to do so. He goes from rock solid one game to completely inconsistent the next, and sometimes leaves you guessing as to what you will get. Sometimes he gets it moving and gets on top of a nasty curveball, and other times his arm slot disappears and he’s left with a sloppy, flat, and hittable sweeper. These are all normal things. He’s 22 and while this problems certainly leave cause enough for concern to not slot him as a top prospect they also are no reason to give up. All could click for Sims and he could use his low to mid 90’s fastball (up to 98 in short AFL outings), knee buckling curve, and average changeup to be an effective starter. Even if he doesn’t figure these problems out the fastball-curve combo leave him with a fantastic chance to be a late-innings reliever (especially given that his walk rate goes down and strikeout rate goes up when he pitches with runners on out of his much more repeated stretch). Having a floor of a reliever at 22 with mid-rotation potential makes Sims a very valuable asset even in the stacked Braves system, and at his best is arguably the second best right handed pitcher in the system (behind Toussaint at his).

18.) AJ Minter - LHP

In terms of pure relief prospects, AJ Minter is potentially the best in all of baseball and no worse than second behind Detroit's Joe Jimenez. Minter has quickly shut down the fan criticism over the Braves selecting another Tommy John pitcher in the 2nd round of the 2015 Draft, and become a major asset for the team as a guy capable of being a high end reliever.

Minter is a lefty with a fastball that sits 94-97 and can touch near triple digits, but the pitch also has life to it which makes it really tough to square up and can lead to swings and misses- more on later. His other pitch is a hard slider, which is also an effective pitch. Minter threw just 13 relief innings as a freshman, followed by 24.1 as a sophomore, and 21 innings across four starts as a junior before getting hurt. Of course the numbers in college were eye-popping as he went 5-0 with a 2.02 ERA and a 10.71 K/9 rate, though he did have a high WHIP thanks to some struggles as a freshman.

He made his debut this past season and was dominant all the way through, starting with 6.2 innings in Rome, with 9.1 innings in Carolina, and finishing with 18.2 innings for AA Mississippi. That amounted to 34.2 innings over 31 games, as he posted a 1-0 record, 1.30 ERA, and 0.84 WHIP. His ratios per nine innings matched his overall numbers, as he gave up an average of just 4.7 hits per nine innings, 2.9 walks per nine, and 12.2 strikeouts per nine. That's a 4.3 strikeout to walk rate. And even more impressively is the fact he upped his K/9 to 14.9 in his 18.2 innings with Mississippi. As for how hard he is to square up, all you have to do is look at how many extra base hits he allowed- just 2 doubles, 1 triple, and no home runs all season.

Minter may have the great stuff and numbers, but he's also not without some red flags. Minter didn't pitch much at Texas A&M because of that Tommy John surgery as well as missing time as a freshman due to thoracic outlet syndrome. He's also thrown just 58.1 college innings to go with 34.2 innings in the minors in 2016, giving him just 93 innings above the high school level.

Assuming Minter is able to stay healthy and gain a bit more of the experience he lacks overall, he's certainly got the upside to be a top level closer at the big league level. That's especially important right now when the market for high end relievers has reached historic prices in terms of both contracts and trade packages. He could potentially be ready physically for the start of 2017, but the Braves could also decide to keep him in AAA to open the year as he gains experience.

17.) Kyle Muller - LHP

Coming in at number 17 on the list is 2016 draftee Kyle Muller who was among the better two-way players in the 2016 draft. Hitting for power and throwing in the low to mid 90’s is a good way to get scouts’ attention and he did just that. Muller features a fastball that tends to live in the 92-93 range but can go a tick higher as of now. The pitch plays up because he gets good downward movement on it and he locates it well. His changeup is, in our estimation, his likely second best pitch despite not throwing it a ton as an amateur as it has good fade and he hides it well with his delivery. That being said, his curveball having good days and bad days, but when his curve is on it’s an above average pitch and it could surpass his changeup down the road. Muller was a pretty hard Texas commit coming out of high school and was going to require a significant signing bonus to come out of the draft. The Braves obliged in picking him at #44 overall and giving him a $2.5 million overslot bonus to get him to join the organization and forgo college.

Muller has a lot of things going for him, not the least of which was an excellent pro debut in the GCL where he sported a 0.65 ERA in 27.2 IP with 38 Ks against 12 walks. The walks were a bit high for him, but he had a crazy workload in high school and with fatigue comes some lost command so he deserves a pass in that regard. However, his heavy workload was worrisome for some which is likely why he did not get the bump to Danville like some of his draft mates. Managing his innings could very well be the smartest thing the Braves do with Kyle (seriously...it’s remarkable he could throw at all given how many innings he played as a senior with the Texas state playoffs included), but it could make the transition to low-A Rome (where he is likely to start 2017) a little rockier. He also has a great frame to shoulder a full season workload, so one would think that he should be good to go for full season ball. this ranking is a bit cautious compared to some outlets, but he could easily jump into the top 10 and we would not be surprised.

16.) Cristian Pache - OF

Pache was the other big international signing out of the Dominican Republic for the Braves in 2015. A lanky centerfielder with solid speed he’s currently listed at 6-2, 185. He just turned 18 though and I could see him filling out a little over the next year to add some power to his game. The guy has a great eye at the plate, sprays the ball all over the field and hardly ever strikes out (10.3%). He glides around out in center field with relative ease and only committed 6 errors over his first 51 professional games. He has a better arm than advertised racking up 9 assists and 4 double plays this year. I saw him gun down a couple guys myself in GCL.

Photo Credit: Jeff Morris

Like Cruz, Pache started 2016 in the GCL and fared well hitting .283/.325/.377 in 27 games before being promoted to Danville at the end of July where he took off. In 30 games at Danville he hit .333/.372/.404 at 17. He doesn’t have blazing speed but stole 11 bases in 57 games and is a good baserunner.

If his hit tool continues to develop I could see him moving up the ladder quickly, although his numbers weren’t as crazy as Ozzie Albies in 2014, they were good enough that a jump to Rome to start the season wouldn’t shock me. It won’t show up on any scouting report or box score, but Pache seems to be a natural leader from watching him at GCL and Instructs. Even though he’s only 17, his teammates seem to gravitate towards him. If you remember one thing about him from this article it’s pronounced PAH-CHEE.

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