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Talking Chop’s Top 25 Midseason Braves Prospect List: 21-25

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We have assembled our top 25 Braves prospects and we begin with prospects 21-25

Top left: Chris Ellis, Top Right: Rob Whalen, Bottom Left: Derian Cruz, Bottom Middle: Ricardo Sanchez, Bottom Right: Braxton Davidson
Photo Credits: Bottom Left - Jeff Morris; All Others-Garrett Spain

Welcome, yet again to our most recent update to our Top 25 Braves prospects list. We always have an absolute blast doing this, and this iteration was even more fun as there were new voices involved in the process which resulted in, I (Eric) believe, a much better list and a process we were happy with. In addition to Garrett and I fumbling about, we were extremely lucky to add Gaurav Vedak and Matt Powers to the minor league side of things which ultimately led to some changes as to how we formed our list. If you want to check out what our preseason rankings looked like, you should click here. Here are a few things you need to know:

  • First, we continued our practice of including recent (in this case 2016) draftees in our list. So if were wondering, yes...they were including when we were each writing our lists and you will see some of those young men on this list.
  • Second, we will be including recent IFA/J2 signees. I have been on record as saying we were not going to do that and I still could go either way with that, but the other guys wanted the chance to rank them if they felt it was appropriate and its hard to argue with that. I won’t fault another list from not including or including them. Just know that such signings were in our thought process so feel free to speculate on where (if anywhere) they ended up.
  • Third, we don’t have a hard rule as to when a prospect graduates from prospect status, we just sort of eyeball it. Some guys in the minors right now (Manny Banuelos, Aaron Blair) or the DL (John Gant) have significant major league service time this season or last so were not included by any of us on lists. This is not a reflection of love or lack thereof for any of those guys.
  • Fourth, this is not a list based on major league readiness or any specific metric. We simply made a list of the guys who we thought the most of to the least. Ultimately, prospect rankings are an imperfect science and we will absolutely be wrong about a number of these guys. We are fine with that. With so many perspectives involved and differing weighting regarding ceiling vs. floor, tools, risk/injury history, age, etc, we hope that there was enough course correction to be more right than wrong.
  • Finally, beyond that the process was pretty simple. Each of us came up with a list and we generated a composite list from that. We took a look at it to make sure there wasn’t anything super weird due to outliers and the like, but surprisingly most of our picks were within a close range of each other so we were quite happy with how it turned out. With that said, here are prospects number 21-25

25.) Rob Whalen

When the 25th best prospect in the system has a 2.20 ERA on the season, that usually signals good things. Rob Whalen has had a break out 2016 season, with already a career high in innings pitched and strikeouts. Coming off of double knee surgery this winter, expectations were that of a slow start for Whalen. The first month of the season that was just the case, as he allowed a 4.26 ERA and walked 14 batters in 25.1 IP over 5 starts. Since the game on May 1, Whalen has broken off a string of 12 starts with a 1.48 ERA, 73 IP, 69 K, 22 BB, 10 games with a Game Score over 60 and 2 with a game score over 70. He continues to improve nearly every game, and has not gone fewer than 6 innings since May 17. These numbers aren’t even a significant improvement over Whalen’s career performance, as he has allowed a 2.40 ERA in 58 career starts. Whalen was originally acquire by the Braves in the trade with the Mets that netted John Gant for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe, a trade which slowly turned into one of the biggest steals of the Coppolella/Hart era. He had struggled with injury last year a bit, and his time with the Mudcats was not all that impressive, culminating with a 1 inning outing to end his season. Since, he has seemingly recovered fully and now seems a potential back of the rotation starter, or one that could prove a legitimate bullpen piece as soon as next season.

Rob Whalen

Nothing about Rob Whalen’s arsenal is truly outstanding, but he puts it together very well and outperforms his tools. His fastball is a pretty basic fastball, one that sits in the low 90’s with a fair amount of arm side run and sink. He does a good job of hiding the ball, and commands the pitch quite well, so the pitch performs a tick or two better than the raw velocity would indicate. His go to offspeed pitch is a good curveball that acts as an effective out pitch for Whalen and helps him bump his K rate tremendously. He will also mix in a slider at times, a pitch that is best used as a mix in pitch to keep hitters off balance. In that role it performs admirably, though with more use it would likely become more hittable. He also mixes a changeup that works well against batters, and shows some feel to possibly improve that to an average or better offering. Whalen is by all accounts a great makeup guy, and one that is good to have around the clubhouse. He competes well on the field and shows a #4 type ceiling at the present. He is likely destined for the bullpen in the future, especially given the pitching depth for the Braves, but could be a guy to sneak into the rotation and have a good career for them.

24.) Braxton Davidson

The #32 pick for the Braves in the 2014 draft pick, Braxton Davidson, was considered one of the best prep bats in the draft with a 50 hit(future), and 60 power tool slapped on him almost right away. He was considered to have an advanced approach at the plate with a strong feel of the zone which should lead to a high OBP. The main fault many scouts found in his hitting approach was his inability, or at least shortcoming, when it came to identifying offspeed pitches. This problem with offspeed pitches led Fangraphs to rate his hit tool as a present 20.

How has it translated in his pro career so far? There’s no doubting his advanced feel for the zone as he’s always had a superb walk rate of at least 13%. It is almost to the point that he knows where he wants the ball and if he doesn’t have a ball in that specific zone he won’t swing which has led to a lot of caught looking strikeouts. He’s had an interesting year with a .340 BABIP yet still hitting .229/.342/.376. The game power still isn’t there, though he has had a recent surge in power of the last month(.253/.417/.494 over his last 27 games).  His 104 wRC+ while playing right would put him right around league average had he had the same numbers in the majors (huge stretch, I know).

He shows stretches of brilliance that merits that first round draft grade but also cold streaks that can drive you crazy. In my opinion he was too aggressively promoted this year and should still be in Rome. His walk rate is awesome and a lot of his value right now comes from being able to get on base and it also looks like something he will be able to repeat across various levels. That said coming in to today he is striking out at an alarming 33% and is hitting .229 despite a .340 BABIP. At just 20 years of age he’s about 2.5 years younger than the average age of his competition so while the strikeout rate is very high he has plenty of time to make adjustments. How he finishes the season will be very interesting to monitor. 

23.) Ricardo Sanchez

Coming in at 22, 6 spots lower than on the preseason list, is young lefty Ricardo Sanchez. Once acquired from the Angels for Kyle Kubitza, who has since been released, Sanchez has now toiled around in Rome for a season and a half. Still, he is almost 3 full years younger than the league average age and has made major strides past last season. Despite some scattered poor starts, Sanchez has overcome his health problems of last season and has already pitched 27 more innings than his career high. His walk rate has trended down each year, from 12.1% in 2014 to 11.7% in 2015 and now 10.5% in 2016. He has also seen a bump in his strikeout rate from 17.2% to 19.6% this season, but still hasn’t seen much reduction in his ERA (5.45 in 2015, 5.27 in 2016). Mostly from an extremely high HR rate (1.22/9, 14.7% HR/FB), he has struggled at points. Still his strikeouts have been trending up for the entire season, and having missed a couple of starts in early June he was a little rusty in a couple of bad starts in June. He is scheduled to pitch tonight’s game for Rome, and in his last 2 games has 13K in 12 innings and has only allowed 1 run.

Ricardo Sanchez

One piece of information that seems to jump out for me is Sanchez’s health this season. In addition to not hitting the DL like he did twice last season, he seems to have shed the baby fat he carried last year (he’s just 19) and looks a lot more consistent on the mound. He’s small for a pitcher at 5’11, but has an easy and repeatable delivery and should not have problems staying in a rotation in the future. He consistently puts his fastball between 90-92, and though he struggled to hold that velocity deep into games he should get stronger and more durable as he matures. His best pitch by far is an easy plus curveball that could project as even better in the future depending on how he commands the pitch. When he locates it, or at least can keep it out of the dirt, it is one of the most effective pitches in the Braves system. On its proper plane, it is a wicked 1-7 breaker that falls off the table, though it can get sweepy and slurvy when he loses his arm angle and especially when he tires. He shows feel for his changeup, but struggles leaving it up at times. It has the makings of an average pitch in the future. As with the rest of Sanchez’s skills, his command is raw and really has a tendency to wax and wane over the course of the season. I expect him to develop into a pitcher with good command given his motion and athleticism, but he definitely is not there yet. One piece of his game that seems to stand out is his competiveness and sometimes seemingly fearless nature. He’s unafraid to work up in the zone, and will go in on any hitter at any time. When he struggles, he sometimes will show some frustration or discomfort but seems to really bear down and compete. In my live views of him, his best play is after his worst innings or after he allows baserunners on, as he really seems to find another gear to compete from. He is a young and extremely talented player, and for now it seems like the most important thing will be to exercise patience with his development. 

22.) Derian Cruz

Derian Cruz at #22 feels a little low, especially after the way he has swung a red hot bat in the Gulf Coast League against older, more experienced pitchers rather than begin his career in the Dominican Summer League. However that’s what happens with high upside prospects who are years away when the Braves farm system is so deep with talent, despite the fact he could be pushing for a spot in the Top 10 in plenty of other organizations right now.

Derian Cruz
Photo from Jeff Morris, @_Jeff_Morris

The 17 year old shortstop- he doesn’t turn 18 until after the season, is certainly living up to his $2M signing bonus from the 2015 July 2nd period. Cruz has done nothing but hit since the GCL season started, as he’s hitting .333 with four doubles, two homers, and four stolen bases through his 54 at bats. He’s been good enough to make the Baseball America Prospect Hotsheet for this week(7/8) as the Helium Watch guy, which is very tough for a prospect in a complex league to do as they do favor guys in full season ball for the list. Cruz is the kind of quick-twitch athlete with speed and advanced contact ability to really make noise as he moves up the organizational ladder. He’s also got quite a bit of pop in his bat, and even if he does only hit 10-15 homers per season as he fully matures, the advanced contact and good bat speed should help him rack up a bunch of extra base hits. He’s probably a good four years away, but he’s got the ability to be a dynamic five tool shortstop.

21.) Chris Ellis

Chris Ellis Garrett Spain

At #21 on our list is Chris Ellis, who has opened eyed this season with an outstanding performance in AA and subsequent promotion to AAA. Acquired from the Angels in the trade that sent defensive wunderkind Andrelton Simmons to LA, Ellis was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft out of Ole Miss amidst some concern as to whether or not he was going to end up as a reliever or a starter. He didn’t stay in rookie ball for long due to his participation in the College World Series, so 2015 represented his first full season in pro ball and he performed well for the most part. He has a three-pitch mix with a fastball, curveball, and changeup. His delivery comes over the top, but he also doesn't use his legs much to drive towards the plate. He instead relies on slinging the ball in which has resulted in repeatability and control issues. However, this season he has made great strides in commanding his two-seam and four-seam fastballs and is generally doing a good job keeping the ball down in the zone and generating weak contact.

With Ellis’ success and promotion this season, he seems like a strong bet to make the big league club either late this season or in 2017 for sure. He has not shown difficulties as a starter, but his lack of a true out pitch and peripherals that are average in many respects probably means that he has the ceiling of a 4th starter (and a very good one at that). Some seem to think that he is destined for the bullpen as he does have command issues and his curve is an average offering for the most part, but he has improved in all of those aspects this season. His lack of command was his biggest problem before he became a Brave, but has shown a knack for throwing strikes this season and while he will never have huge K numbers he should miss enough bats to be successful in the majors. He has an outside shot to be a number #3 starter if he can improve his peripherals against AAA competition, but him slipping a couple spots from our pre-season rankings has much more to do with the influx of talent in to the system and some other guys making a bigger leap forward for us than anything he did wrong. That he is the #21 ranked prospect on our list speaks to the sheer depth in the system and if others have him ranked higher, you will not find many objections from us.