We are over the halfway point now, as this is the fourth installment of our Top 30 prospects list. Here are links to get you all caught up with how we got to this point.
18. Drew Waters - OF
The Braves went to their backyard with the second round pick of this year’s MLB Draft with Drew Waters out of Etowah High School in Woodstock, Georgia. Drew put up a monster line of .494/.624/1.126 (1.750 OPS) over 32 games in which 60% of his hits were hit for extra bases and collected 14 stolen bases on 17 attempts (82% SB%). He also had a great defensive year. Coming into the draft, many evaluators had Waters with 55s and 60s when it came to his grades. Waters has a plus arm, along with plus speed and athleticism, which should allow him to be a plus defender in center. With two other big name prospects (Acuna, Pache) showing plus defense in center already, should Waters move to another position, it will likely be right field, where he should be an absolute defensive star.
Waters’ bat isn’t far behind is defensive prowess as his hit tool is graded right around 50 -- not bad for an 18-year-old. He switch-hits, but shows more power from the left side, and if you’ve ever seen video of him before, his swing from the left side will remind you of another NL East right fielder whose name rhymes with Fryce Sharper.
If his hit tool remains league average and he shows no improvement, you are looking at a defensively gifted center-fielder with speed to burn and the occasional pop, especially from the left side. If he continues to develop, Waters could become another true five-tool center-fielder in an absolutely loaded organization.
Waterswas assigned to the Gulf Coast League where he is already wreaking havoc, with a 1.025 OPS through 11 games, including pairs of homers and stolen bases. Keep an eye out for him, as he could be a fast riser up the prospect rankings.
17. Max Fried - LHP
Coming in at number #17 is Max Fried who, coming into the season, was among the highest rated prospects in the Braves’ system. Drafted seventh overall in the 2012 Draft by the Padres, Fried was considered one of, if not the best, left-handed pitching prospects in baseball prior to his 2014 run-in with Tommy John Surgery. The Braves, who have a bit of a history of taking gambles on injured arms, were undeterred and happily snatched him up along with Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson, and Mallex Smith in the trade that sent Justin Upton to San Diego before the 2015 season.
It is easy to see why the Braves liked Fried. When he is at his best, he has a plus curve with lots of break that he can throw for strikes and coax tons of swings and misses, a fastball that touched the upper 90s last year, and a changeup that plays well off his other offerings. 2016, in many ways, was a coming out party for Fried: he dominated for Rome down the stretch and through the playoffs, and was arguably the best pitcher in a loaded Rome rotation by season’s end.
Even this spring, Fried looked great, and the reports about him and his stuff were incredibly positive... so much so that folks were beginning to wonder if he was going to make it to the big leagues this season. Unfortunately, the 2017 regular season has not been nearly as kind. Fried’s velocity has been down, and his curve has not had the same break it did in 2016. There have been enough minor ailments, such as issues with his back and with blisters, that have caused him to miss time, that, in addition to the steps back with his stuff, that one has to wonder if he is completely healthy. The results have evidenced his regression: he has posted a 6.69 ERA and opposing batters are hitting .275 against him. It is worth noting that Fried’s FIP on the season is 4.33, which is in line with his career norms and implies that luck has also not been on his side.
It is hard to say what to expect of Fried going forward. He clearly does not look right stuff-wise, and lacks the same aggressiveness he showcased last season. It is possible that the promotion from Low-A to Double-A simply exposed some holes in his game and that he will just have to make adjustments. It is also possible that some lingering injuries are bothering him and once he is healthy, he will be ready to go again. However, based on what we are seeing from him this season, we are far less bullish on him than we were previously. Righties in particular are crushing Fried this season (.293 batting average against so far in 2017), and given how his stuff has backed off, it is easy to see why they are seeing the ball well against him. There is no need to lose all hope, but for now, we are going to temper our expectations.
16. Austin Riley - 3B
Austin Riley is a pretty fascinating prospect who, if he can reach his ceiling, could be valuable as a power hitting third baseman for the Atlanta Braves. However, his profile is not without risk. Drafted 41st overall by the Braves in 2015, Riley first got fans’ attention with a big performance in Rookie ball with the bat, swatting home runs all over the place, even though most prospect evaluators preferred him as a pitcher prior to the Draft. After a first half at Rome where he struggled at the plate both with both power and contact, Riley surged in 2016’s second half, posting a .289/.348/.581 line with 17 homers, compared to just three longshots in the first half.
While the raw power is undoubtedly there for Riley, there are many questions about his game. First and foremost is his ability to stick at third base. He has a stocky build that may make him appear less athletic than he actually is, but he was not particularly good defensively in 2016. He has a very strong throwing arm, but his footwork and range at third leave a lot to be desired, and he made 30 errors at the hot corner in 2016. That said, reports on him defensively this season have been much more positive. Riley worked incredibly hard on his defense and he came to the year on fire defensively, as he seemingly made big play after big play with his glove, showing better range and quicker reactions on balls hit his way. He is also on pace to more than cut his errors in half in 2017 compared to his 2016 numbers.
The other question about Riley has been about his hit tool. Again, the raw power is real, but questions persist about his ability to time up elite velocity and make consistent contact as he ascends the minor league ladder. He is always going to be a guy that strikes out a fair bit, but at times last year he was completely neutralized by his contact issues, especially during the first half of the season. That said, he is trending upwards in several aspects related to his hit tool. Despite a career low BABIP so far of .289, Austin’s power has shown up in games far more in the first half of 2017 than it did in 2016. He has also brought his strikeout rate down over 5 points (21.8%) from his rate in 2016 (27.1%), while maintaining his walk rate.
In short, there is a lot of reason for optimism with Riley. He has tremendous raw power, and while he still seems like a guy that could move at a slower pace than other top prospects as he continues to develop at the plate and defensively, he has the potential to be an everyday player at the major league level, and a good one at that. We are more confident that he can stick at third base than we were to start the season and if last year was indicative of a trend, he could be primed for a big second half at the plate. Riley being ranked this low has more to do with us wanting to wait and see if his progress sticks in the second half, and whether he can convert some of his grounders into line drives, as well as the fact that some players took bigger steps forward... not because there is any particular cause for pessimism based on his 2017 performance.
15. Travis Demeritte - 2B/3B
Travis Demeritte was pure theft from the Rangers, acquired for Lucas Harrell and Dario Alvarez who were not in the long term plans of the Braves, or any team with a reasonable front office. (Ivan’s note: Aw, poor Dario Alvarez.) Demeritte has some problems, having previously faced a suspension for PEDs, and striking out at incredible rates, but he provides a ceiling that no other player in that trade could even sniff.
Demeritte was a first round pick for Texas back in 2013, and the talented second baseman quickly showed off his talent with an .856 OPS in rookie ball. He was placed in A-ball with the Hickory Crawdads the next season and crushed 25 home runs despite only hitting .211 on the season and striking out 171 times. He stayed in Low-A for the 2015 season, and two months in, was handed an 80 game suspension for furosemide, a banned substance. He didn’t show nearly the same power that season, and continued striking out at a rate well over 30%.
Demeritte moved to High-A in 2016, and as the California League tends to do to hitters, he was unleashed. Demeritte still struck out more than 30% of the time, but hit 25 home runs in 88 games with the Rangers’ High-A affiliate in High Desert, then added three more with the Carolina Mudcats after the trade. That was good for a career-best .915 OPS. Demeritte came into 2017 as one of the most highly anticipated Braves prospects, and he was no disappointment. He drove the Mississippi Braves offense and has hit 11 home runs, no small feat in the Southern League. In the early going, he even lowered his strikeout rate to below 25%.
But, the calendar turned to summer, and Travis Demeritte began to fall. What seemed like the ultimate breakout for the most polarized player in the system quickly turned to disappointment, as his on-base percentage has dropped below .300 on the season and a power outage occurred. Demeritte’s strikeout rate has popped back up into the upper 20% range, and as he faded, so has the rest of the M-Braves’ offense.
Demeritte strikes out a lot — that we know. It has been the only source of condemnation for the talented middle infielder, who has taken his talents over to third base and has all the makings of a very good fielder there. The strikeout rate doesn’t tell the story though, as many of his strikeouts come after deep counts, earned after plate appearances of six pitches or more. Early this season, some of those deep-count strikeouts were becoming walks and hits, and Demeritte was flying. A middle infielder with the power to hit 30 home runs in a season, play above average defense, amass significant walk totals, and hit just enough to make it all work would draw the adoration of many organizations. Suddenly though, those deep-count strikeouts turned into four-pitch at-bats. The battles were gone and Demeritte was left walking back to the bench time and again, disappointed with his result. As he struggled, he seemed to press and began to slide deeper into a hole. Players struggle often, but the swift and deep slump Demeritte has endured is breathtaking. He seemed almost ready to make the leap to Gwinnett and perhaps be ready to challenge for a third base job by the middle of 2018, but now he is another player attempting to claw his way back.
The power won’t go away for Demeritte; neither will the athleticism nor the plate discipline. The only worry now for Demeritte is whether his contact abilities will return. He doesn’t have to hit .300 to make it work: he has the power, on base skills, and defensive ability to be an average third baseman even if he only hits .250. His power gives him a carrying tool that won’t go away. Better pitchers can get good hitters out, better catchers and age can limit the ability of speed, but strength takes many more years to atrophy. That creates opportunities for Demeritte to succeed and will give him a longer leash, but as his Rule 5 eligibility approaches and a logjam forms at third base, he will need to show his abilities soon. His athleticism gives him options, such as perhaps the chance to win a left field gig, but he has to hit reasonably well to convince the Braves that he’s worth a spot. An extra month of good play and we would be talking about a Top 100 prospect, and that’s the player Atlanta hopes returns in the second half of the season.
14. Bryse Wilson - RHP
Coming in at number 14 is one of the biggest climbers on our list: young right-hander Bryse Wilson. Drafted in the fourth round in 2016, Wilson did not come with the same hype accompanying fellow draftees Ian Anderson, Kyle Muller, and Joey Wentz. In fact, several pundits questioned the pick, as many considered him a future bullpen arm, especially after the Braves had to go over slot to sign him away from a pretty strong college commitment.
To say that those who thought he couldn’t start and did not have the same ceiling of other prospects in the system (some of us included) were wrong is a bit of an understatement. Wilson features a fastball that generally sits in the low to mid 90s, a breaking ball that gets multiple planes of movement, and now an emerging changeup in which he’s gaining confidence after being basically a two-pitch pitcher in high school. We covered Bryse Wilson recently in an article here at Talking Chop so we won’t dwell too much here. In short, he has cleaned up his mechanics a bit, all of his pitches have taken steps forward, and he now has the look of a top-flight pitching prospect.
Wilson is a guy that is trending upward in a hurry. His first season of full season ball has shown that not only is he capable of being an effective starter, but one that can go deep into games. He now regularly throws six-plus innings in his starts in Low-A. In a recent start, he threw a complete game shutout with over 100 pitches, while still hitting 95 mph in the ninth inning. His changeup is getting better and better and he is throwing it more and more, while also throwing his breaking ball for strikes. Between these developments, his already sound command of the strike zone, and his willingness to be aggressive within the zone, we could easily be underselling Wilson with this ranking. He could easily be in the top 10 by the offseason.
13. Alex Jackson - C
Thank you, Mariners. Alex Jackson, along with Tyler Pike, was acquired from Seattle this offseason for Rob Whalen and Max Povse in a savvy move by the Braves to use their pitching depth to acquire high ceiling, raw position player talent. Jackson was just a couple years removed from being the number six pick in the 2014 draft, where he was described as an “offensively gifted catcher with plus arm strength” according to MLB Pipeline. He was supposed to be a fast riser through the system with his hit tool carrying him along the way, and the Mariners moved him to the outfield in hopes that the move would help his ascension as a prospect.
Unfortunately for the Mariners, the hit tool that everyone thought would carry him into stardom lagged behind severely and his move to the outfield ended with mixed feelings. After OPSing .820 his first season, Jackson struggled in 2015 with a miserable .683 OPS between Low-A and A-ball, which included a terrible spell in A-ball where he hit .157/.240/.213 — “good” enough for a 37 wRC+. After having somewhat of a rebound season in 2016 that saw Jackson end with a 120 wRC+ and .740 OPS, the Mariners decided to pull the trigger on the trade which sent him to Atlanta.
The first step for Jackson after being acquired by the Braves was getting acclimated back to catcher. The Braves saw good value in Jackson if he continued to rebound with his bat while providing passable defense at catcher. While he’s still a work in progress behind the plate, his bat is shining, hitting .284/.353/.530 with a 157 wRC+. He has set a new career high in home runs already (13) in just a half-season of play. He’s not only hitting at a nice clip, he’s hitting for power on a consistent basis. He still has a lot to do defensively, though, as he’s committed nine errors behind the plate. A number of these errors have been of the throwing variety, and despite a great arm and pop time, he is throwing out only 20% of would-be base stealers. That said, Jackson is still just 21 years old, so expect the Braves to move him along slowly so he can develop his receiving game . If he does that, the sky is the limit for a prospect that came at the cost of two back of the rotation potential starters.