Yesterday, we posted part one of my interview with Baseball America’s Hudson Belinsky where we talked about a wide range of topics including the past couple of drafts by the Braves, Joey Wentz, Austin Riley, and his thoughts on the Braves’ front office’s draft strategy of late.
We continue that interview here (Hudson and I had a nice, long chat....thanks again, Hudson!) where we talk about the future a bit with some discussion of the 2017 draft, who could break out next year, and where the Braves’ farm system stands right now. Enjoy!
Hudson, would you mind giving us a couple of Braves prospects that you think are primed for breakout seasons next year?
One guy I like is Derian Cruz, who is an international sign from 2015. Shortstop prospect who has been in the Gulf Coast League and played in the Appy League this year. Really, really impressive hands at shortstop, his feet are really quick, he moves well to either direction, and has really natural reactions off the bat. His arm strength later in the year was a little bit down. When we do this….you know, if you go in and watch somebody for three games or five games, you can sort of come out saying “That’s what I saw in this series and that’s what this guy is”. If I had just gone in and saw his arm, I would have put a 40 on it if I were a scout. Then I checked with some people who had seen him a bit in spring, and considering the fact that he is 17 years old...literally a child and you factor that in, and other folks were saying that he had a plus arm earlier in the season. That’s a very different evaluation, especially when we are talking about a shortstop.
As he gets stronger and gets some more weight on him, in addition to learning how to better position his feet when he throws and things like that, there is a chance that he’s a true shortstop in every sense: the body control, hands, and arm strength. I personally haven’t seen that arm strength, but I have been told by people that I trust that it’s in there.
So you are talking about a guy who can play shortstop and he is also a switch hitter and I have primarily seen him hit left-handed. He has some surprising pop in his bat is what I would say. From the left side, he is the guy that can drive the ball to the gaps. He hits those kind of low trajectory line drive ability in him I would say. When we are looking at things like Statcast, that will really show that these days...but teams have valued for a long time the ability to hit line drives. Cruz’s right-handed swing is a little more compact and shorter to the ball and probably has less power as a result. He’s more of a singles hitter as a right-handed hitter to me.
He’s a really interesting guy because when you put it all together, you have a switch-hitting up-the-middle player with some speed and some arm strength and a bit of pop. When you put that all together, that’s what shortstops look like. He’s a really interesting one for sure.
One guy that has been ranked highly and touted is Sean Newcomb and for some this season has been disappointing. Are you concerned about him or have the criticisms of him this year been a bit much?
That’s a good question. That kind of goes make to the uncertainty idea that we have about prospects. The more certainty you have, the higher the value regardless of where they are. Say you’re looking at the BA Prospect Handbook. You have their rank, but also their future projection with a sort of a risk label between an extreme risk or a minor risk. Newcomb is an interesting one, because at this point he’s not a low risk guy, which is not what you are hoping for with a college draftee two years out.
That said, he is also a guy who is a little inexperienced like some of the guys we have talked about here. He was not an elite prospect out of high school and a lot of his development happened more recently. Coming out of that program at Hartford, they do an outstanding job but they don’t necessarily have the resources of a pro team. There are things like that where he is going to need some extra development. He is throwing with more intent right now and probably harder than he ever has in his life, so he is still trying to figure that out.
He still has things that you like with that repeatable delivery and motion. With guys that have that repeatable motion but don’t necessarily throw strikes as much as you would like, there is something to be encouraged by there. It might not happen today or tomorrow, but you are talking about a guy who is athletic and has the raw materials to develop command. I do think there is a future for him as a starter, but over the next couple of years he will be able to answer those questions more clearly for us. If he ends up stuck in AA or AAA and can’t throw strikes as a starter, then he could be a bullpen guy which diminishes his value but doesn’t necessarily kill him as a prospect either. He’s still left-handed and still has great stuff.
I asked a couple of your contemporaries about this (JJ and John) so I will ask you too. One of your competitors had the Braves barely having a top 10 system after the trade deadline. Generally speaking and just as a first guess, would you agree with that assessment or would you have them a bit higher or lower based on what we know right now?
Well, I don’t know what John of JJ said, so this is my fresh guess here. The Braves are very clearly a top ten system and I don’t think it’s really all that close. If you start lining them up, if they aren’t number one, who is #1? The Yankees, the Padres, and the Red Sox I think are up there. You could make an argument that the Brewers are better than the Braves.
Inside the top 10 makes more sense to me, but I wonder if that is more rooted in being more in on another system for whatever reason. That said, I wouldn’t agree with it. When we start to line these teams up: Brewers, Yankees, Red Sox, the Indians could possibly be up there...there are a good number of teams that you could make arguments for. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with those arguments, but I can acknowledge them. The Braves are an elite system and I don’t think there would be many systems I would take over theirs given that they have that depth.
Just go to a Braves minor league affiliate and you start to pay attention to the guys that are not top 30 guys in their system. These are guys that are not even going to have scouting reports in our handbook, and you will say “Oh, that guy is really interesting. That guy could be a big leaguer. He has some tools.” There are so many guys like that in their system, you could probably write a top 50 list on them and have no problem. Right now, there are some teams where you get to ten guys and finding another twenty is really tough.
You are currently on the road working on and scouting for the 2017 draft? Us Braves fans obviously have a vested interest in the players that could be available near the top of the draft. Who are the top players right now for you in the draft and who is a player that may not be getting that sort of attention but could easily find his way into that conversation with a good fall and spring?
I don’t necessarily pay much attention to what other people are writing or putting out there. That’s me personally because, as a practice, it has a chance to bias my opinion and make me think a certain way. As a result, I don’t really know who is under the radar at this point. I can, however, go into some guys who I really like.
Hunter Greene, for me, is the first guy to talk about. He’s a shortstop/right-handed pitcher from southern California. He is as good of a draft prospect as we have seen in a long time. The two-way potential is exceptional. The guy from Japan, Shohei Otani, that is all the rage right now as a two-way guy...well, Hunter Greene is similar in a lot of respects. I had a front office executive tell me that Greene is better than Otani was at the same age and he didn’t think it was close.
We are talking about a guy with huge raw power. He’s participated in these high end home run derbies that these high school kids will do on the showcase circuit. I saw one of them at Wrigley Field and he is literally hitting balls into the street. Not just over the fence...out of the stadium. His game power has been a bit underwhelming for most this summer, but there are some things about him that are just really special. This spring, he was pitched away a lot which is going to happen a lot when you are a top high school prospect. People were pounding him away and he learned to go with that outside pitch last spring and he was hitting a lot of hard doubles or hitting balls that were one-hopping the wall. As a result, he wanted to get stronger this summer and make those doubles into home runs. If he gets a cookie on the inner half, he can hit it 400+ feet, but now he wants to be able to go after those pitches away and hit them over the fence in games.
He is also swinging a heavier bat to try and get stronger, using a drop-1 bat as opposed to a more standard drop-3 bat for the showcase circuit. He is going to go back to the drop-3 bat in the spring. He has the elements to hit in my opinion: his swing is relatively compact and he shows the ability to make contact with pitches up-down and east-west. He has swung and missed a bit and rolled over a bit this summer, so his performance has not been great, but he does show you elements of a hitter.
Defensively, he isn’t a burner but he takes graceful actions to the ball and he gets to everything. He has really smooth hands and has elite arm strength. He doesn’t always show it, but when he has been challenged and had to go get a ball in the hole and let it rip, it’s as good a shortstop arm as you will see in high school.
The thing is that a lot of people like him more on the mound in spite of all of this probably because of his lackluster summer offensively. As a pitcher fully rested, he is 94-98 over 50 pitches, and he holds his velocity well. He shows flashes with his slider. Sometimes it will be more soft spin and sweeping, but sometimes it will have more power to it and will sit in the mid-80’s. When it’s on, it’s a plus pitch. The consistency of that pitch will determine how effective it is long term. He has a pretty good changeup, too. He can throw it for strikes, he can bury down in the zone….most of the time this summer he did bury his changeup. At times, it has been a swing and miss pitch, so it has the elements of an average pitch. His delivery is insanely athletic, repeatable, and he has fastball command already.
There is just a lot to like about the guy, not only because of all of that but he turned 17 in August so most of this summer he was doing all of that as a 16 year old. He is going to be really young for the draft, he will be 17 on draft day and he is probably the clear top high school guy.
After that, it will be a matter of philosophy at the top because there are some really good college arms in this class. Alex Faedo out of Florida who is a fastball/slider right-hander with command and has a really good track record of performance. He was a weekend starter at Florida as a freshman and again as a sophomore. He comes from a good high school program, Alonso High School, in the Tampa area. He has a really good draft profile given his tools, the likelihood of actualization of his tools, and you have track record with this guy so some will be more comfortable with him than say a high school prospect with similar stuff.
Jeren Kendall is one of the top college position players right now, or at least has that perception around him right now. He is an outfielder at Vanderbilt and he has tools: power, speed, plays centerfield. Definitely the kind of guy you look for at the top of the draft. There are not a ton of shortstops at the college level which isn’t great. Usually, if a college position player is going to go high, they usually are playing with their feet in the dirt.
There are a couple shortstops on the high school side. To get back to the original question, in terms of a guy who could rise up a bit, Brady McConnell is a shortstop from Florida who is this wiry, quick-twitch guy who has some room on his 6’2-6’3 body to add some weight and has some smooth actions at shortstop. His throws needs some work, but he has the arm strength for the left side of the infield. He had some struggles this summer (he struggled at the East Coast Pro showcase). If he gets a little bit stronger and shows well this spring, he could move up draft boards.