For better or for worse, a lot of the analysis and work that we do here can probably best be described as amateur scouting. Don’t get me wrong, we are very proud of the work we put out and will stand by it to the bitter end. However, we are not paid professional scouts that have backgrounds in player development having working for MLB teams. Those with such a pedigree are a rare breed of person that often spend months away from their families combing the high school and college ranks looking for talented players. It takes a keen eye, a huge time commitment, and a love of baseball that is hard to fathom.
It’s in that spirit that we generally have the philosophy around here of we will always listen to people that are smarter and better than us. I freely admit that is arbitrary, but it works for us. Ultimately our goal here at Talking Chop is to promote the Braves’ minor league system and get the most accurate information out there we possibly can. Fortunately, there are no shortage of folks that we can get great information from for you guys and a few of them have been gracious enough to take time to sit down for an interview with us.
You may remember when David Lee from Baseball Prospectus and the Augusta Chronicle stopped by for a chat and today we are beginning a two-part series where Baseball America’s Hudson Belinsky does the same. Hudson has been at Baseball America for the better part of two years now covering and scouting minor league prospects and draft prospects. Before that, he was an associate scout with the Tampa Bay Rays and has been involved with baseball for a long time. I caught up to him as he was on one of his many travels and we talked baseball for a quite a while. Tomorrow will have part two of the interview, but for now enjoy part one where we talk about the last couple drafts for the Braves as well as about a few Braves prospects.
Hey Hudson, thanks for joining us. First, before we get into specifics, give us your overall impression of the Braves’ farm system compared to the beginning of the season.
I certainly think it has gotten better. We talk about this stuff in the office all the time, making conversation about “Hey, what do you think about this system?” or “This system is more top heavy or more deep or…?” and we have these discussions sort of for fun and the Braves’ system is a system we discuss often. We talk about how deep it is at this point and the impact that its got at this point.
There is so much impact potential...when you are picking as high as they did and you have the international guys they got, it kind of makes sense the system would jump. I think the question is whether or not their system jumped as much as you would expect the average team would in the same position. I think you could make that argument with how aggressive they were internationally and in the draft with spending on high school talent and going after high ceiling arms in the draft. They certainly added some “umph” to their system and when you are betting on so many young guys with upside, some of those guys are going to click.
Prospects, the nature of them, is that most don’t pan out...usually they don’t pan out. That’s kind of the unfortunate reality of it. When you take so many of them, you figure the chances are pretty good that a couple of these guys are going to turn into stars.
The Braves’ draft strategy earlier this summer garnered a lot of attention. Do you like the strategy they employed and do you think they got the right guys with those early picks?
I did like the strategy and I think this will be something that we look back on in a few years and think about it differently. It all starts with Ian Anderson obviously. We ranked Ian Anderson pretty high in this class….I think we had him at 11 or 12 in the class in our ranking and that’s in a class that didn’t have that impact, no doubt guy at the top. When we are talking about Senzel, Moniak...those were sort of the top guys, but even with those guys there wasn’t a slam dunk “This is number one, two, three” like we have in years past.
So, with Anderson, in terms of just pure stuff and command and how he profiles, I think there is certainly an argument that he is the #3 player in the country or there is an argument that he is even better than that. The question is, in terms of his draft stock, he had a little bit of a side issue. He had pneumonia in the spring and it gave him some discomfort when he threw in the bullpen one day. They were minor things, but we are still talking about a high school right-hander that high in the draft...any minor thing is going to be a red flag. That, for us, made him a little riskier. The prep pitcher phylum has always been a risky demographic.
Now that he has been on the field and he has had a whole summer of going out and dominating the way that he has, it makes more sense where he went. When you think about it that way, in terms of his perceived value, to get him for $4 million and to be able to spread that money around is huge. It may look like a guy that they went way under slot who may not be necessarily worth this pick and there is certainly people that would argue that, but overall I think they got a guy who is a top 5-10 overall and you got two of the other premium high school arms AND you get some good college talent with college arms and one of better college performers in the county in Brett Cumberland...its hard to argue with all of that. I liked it, I like everything they did and I think they did a great job.
One guy that has me a bit worried is Joey Wentz has we have heard some anecdotal reports that his velocity is down in rookie ball. Should I be concerned or is that overblown?
I actually haven’t seen him this year, but I have had some discussions about him with people who have seen him that I trust. His velocity is a little down, but that said velocity is not going to end up being his bread and butter. He’s down but I wouldn’t say he is out. He is still a guy who is really young. He’s athletic and he’s got three pitches, so when you think about that in terms of his history with pitching….this is a guy who, last summer, was on the showcase scene as a hitter and was not pitching in front of scouts. Then, he really put in the work and came out firing bullets in the spring and made it clear that he was a pitching prospect at this point.
I wouldn’t be worried about what he has done this summer at all, particularly because of his history. You figure how early he got started, not that they get started super early in Kansas where he is from, but he got started relatively early for a guy with his age and experience. He’s had a really long year. It would be one thing if he had lost all of his stuff and command, it was a disaster, and he hadn’t shown you any signs in pro ball, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think a good offseason with rest and getting on a program with a pro staff is going to be really helpful for him.
Usually the first half season a lot of these guys have, folks either get too excited or too concerned based on performance, but I take that sort of stuff with a grain of salt. My focus tends to be “What was our perception of them before the draft?” and “Have the tools changed dramatically one way or another?” and if they haven’t, then don’t worry about it.
One guy that was drafted last year that has garnered a LOT of attention from our readers is Austin Riley. Some have said he doesn’t have the bat speed to hit real velocity while others say he could be special...what did you think about him going into the draft last year and has your opinion changed of him at all, especially after the second half he has had this year?
He was an interesting one in the draft, because I got started with this job in the middle of that draft spring, so I heard about him as more of a pitching prospect. I had seen him pitch once before at a showcase before I was with Baseball America and he was likeable. He had some unwanted weight on him, a little bit of a gut, as a rising senior, but he still threw hard. He was up to 94 and it was legit stuff as a pitcher. Then the spring came and he had really put himself into better shape and showed that he was determined to work on his craft and his athleticism. We still thought of him as a pitcher and I think a lot of teams did and only later did we start to hear some buzz on him as a hitter. I had seen him for like two or three games that spring and he hit a missile at the National High School Invitational in North Carolina, so you knew there was power. The question was could he play third base?
I saw him play in Danville that summer and he was exceptional there. I understand that kind of criticism of not having that extreme, loose-twitch swing where you’re gonna get excited about plus-bat speed or plus-plus bat speed or something like that, but he is strong as an ox. I’m not necessarily super worried about him catching up to big velocity long-term, especially when you consider his experience level as a hitter. This is a guy who didn’t have a whole summer...well, he is basically the opposite of Wentz in some ways. He didn’t have a whole summer facing good pitching before he went into pro ball. Then he went into pro ball and he was crushing a lot of mistakes.
Whether he is going to hit certain pitches long-term is something we have to project and any time you have to project you are putting yourself in a dangerous territory. You really have to see the guy to see if he has that ability and that projectability. He has some elements to him that you can’t teach. I think there is real power there and when he does figure out the timing of it all I think you could have something really interesting on your hands. Lastly, I would add that where they got him in the draft and based on where his bat is right now...they got him in the 40’s, that’s an exceptional value especially in a bad draft because 2015 was a bad one.
This front office has two drafts under its belt now. Give us a grade for them in terms of how well they have done from maximizing their early picks to finding real value in later rounds?
Well, in terms of what they have done in the later rounds, they have done as good as anybody, especially in this year’s draft. If you go back and look at their picks against a bunch of other teams that are taking guys that are more like favors and relatives. At that time, the Braves are still sitting at the table and trying to figure out, “Hey, is there a guy we can get here that has a chance to play in the big leagues for us?”. That is a strategy that not every team has. They draft for 40 rounds and I personally really respect that strategy.
Lets face it, the draft process is not perfect and there are going to be big leaguers coming out in the 37th or 39th round, that’s just the reality of it. If you are working hard and focusing on the draft for 40 rounds, your chances of finding big leaguers late are better and the Braves put themselves in a better position that way.
At the top, it becomes a question of philosophy, really, and they have focused on prep pitching with their first picks a couple times in a row now. It seemed like they were trying to go more prep pitching, maybe the dollars and cents of it didn’t work out, in 2015 than they ended up doing. That seems to be their strategy with an influx of arms with high ceiling. In terms of having that strategy and executing it, I think they have done outstanding. Whether that’s the strategy I would employ or that’s a strategy another team would employ is a different question. They have certainly been successful in executing the strategy they have chosen to do and that’s all you can ask for from an amateur scouting department.
I think they have hit on some of the right guys, they have gotten a lot of high ceiling into their system, and they have either tradable assets now or guys they can develop into big leaguers, so I think they are doing pretty good.