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Talking Chop 2018 Pre-season Braves Top 30 Prospect Rankings: 1-5

The final installment of our top 30 preseason prospect list features one of the finer collections of pitching talent you will find in minor league baseball and a position player that is arguably the best prospect in all of baseball period.

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-All Star Game
Ronald Acuna is ready to show the world what he is made of.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We have made it to the summit, ladies and gentlemen.....the top 5 of our top 30 Braves prospect list for 2018. This is the creme de la creme of what the Braves have to offer in the minor leagues and based on just how much talent we have already gone through with this list....well, it is safe to say that we have really high hopes for what these guys can achieve. Before we get started, here is the list so far.

6) Austin Riley

7) Max Fried

8) Joey Wentz

9) Cristian Pache

10) Ian Anderson

11) Touki Toussaint

12) Bryse Wilson

13) Drew Waters

14) Alex Jackson

15) Patrick Weigel

16) Brett Cumberland

17) William Contreras

18) Dustin Peterson

19) Travis Demeritte

20) Tucker Davidson

21) Jean Carlos Encarnacion

22) Kyle Muller

23) Freddy Tarnok

24) Isranel Wilson

25) Lucas Herbert

26) Ricardo Sanchez

27) AJ Minter

28) Huascar Ynoa

29) Jefrey Ramos

30) Drew Lugbauer

And here are the writeups so you can get caught up on all of the prospect goodness

Talking Chop 2018 Pre-season Braves Top 30 Prospect Rankings: 6-10

Talking Chop 2018 Pre-season Braves Top 30 Prospect Rankings: 11-15

Talking Chop 2018 Pre-season Braves Top 30 Prospect Rankings: 16-20

Talking Chop 2018 Pre-season Braves Top 30 Prospect Rankings: 21-25

Talking Chop 2018 Pre-season Braves Top 30 Prospect Rankings: 26-30

That is a lot of really talented guys, several of which who have real arguments to be ranked higher in what is still a very good Braves’ farm system. One quick note I have here is that a big part of the fun for us is seeing where we get things wrong. No one has a monopoly on the truth or information or being right, especially when it comes to projecting prospects. We can all do our due diligence and still miss something (good or bad) about a given player. One of the most interesting things for us is to see what we do get right and wrong, learn from that, and hopefully use that to make subsequent evaluations and lists even better.

Also, before we get to the final list: we have a new addition to the Talking Chop masthead. The man you know as Sparhawk has long been a valuable contributor in our comments sections and while I am sure he will still be sharing his thoughts there, he will also be sharing them as a part of our staff. I will let him introduce himself in whatever manner he sees fit, but give him a big welcome. I am confident he will do great.

With all of that out of the way, here are the top 5 Braves’ prospects, all of which are closer to the major leagues than you might think.

5. Kolby Allard

The first guy in the last installment of our pre-season top prospects list is lefty pitching prospect Kolby Allard. After a back injury prevented him from being in consideration for the top overall pick in the 2015 draft (which was certainly in play without the injury), the Braves received an absolute gift when he fell to them in the middle of the 1st round. After signing him away from his UCLA commitment, Kolby Allard only pitched a very limited amount in rookie ball before a stellar full season debut in Rome. While his innings were limited to 87.2 IP due to an offseason clean-up procedure on his back, Kolby made the most of his time as he posted a 2.98 ERA with 95 strikeouts against 25 walks in 2016.

Coming into 2017, few prospects had as much helium as Kolby had after his strong 2016 season. The Braves were so impressed with it (as well as the progress he showed in spring training) that he, along with fellow 2015 draft classmate Mike Soroka, got the promotion all the way to Double-A Mississippi. Given that he had not topped 100 innings as a professional and was still a teenager, one would assume that he would struggle against older, far more advanced competition. While there certainly some ups and downs and he would be the first to tell you that, Allard rose to the challenge and finished top 10 in the league in ERA with a 3.18 and threw an astonishing 150 innings....over doubling his career innings in the process. His finish down the stretch was particularly promising as he threw 32.2 IP and gave up just six earned runs while striking out 37 batters and walking just three batters over his last five starts.

Kolby features a fastball that will sit in the low 90’s that plays up due to his control and how he is able to get it to cut to the corners of the plate. There is also room for projection in terms of velocity as his frame fills out and he continues to acclimate to the rigors of full season grinds. His breaking ball was thought to be the best in his draft class and while it was inconsistent at times in 2017, when it is on it is one of the better breaking balls you will find in the minor leagues. His changeup made big strides in 2017 as well to where it consistently grades as above average and plays up due to his sequencing and deceptive delivery.

There have been more than a few folks that have said that Kolby’s stuff took a step back in 2017 and those reports are not without merit as his fastball and breaking ball were not as consistently excellent as they were previously. However, we are still quite confident as a staff that he can approach his lofty ceiling for a couple of reasons. One, it was apparent and seems to be confirmed by Kolby that he was working specifically on pitching up in the zone and conserving his energy given that he was going to be doing the FULL full season grind for the first time. Also, he still has projection both on his frame as well as in his development and you will struggle to find two pitchers in the minor leagues that work harder at improving their bodies and their craft than Kolby and Mike Soroka who have grown close as they have ascended the minor league ranks. Also heartening was both how he ended his season and the fact that even when he didn’t have his best stuff, he still put up result after result against more advanced competition. There may be a bit of risk with Kolby’s profile, but we feel comfortable betting on him nonetheless.

4. Luiz Gohara

The Braves took a risk in acquiring the talented Luiz Gohara prior to the 2017 season in exchange for Mallex Smith and Shae Simmons. Gohara’s season quickly showed what the Braves saw in him as he was too much to handle in the Florida State League and posted a 1.98 ERA in 7 starts before earning a promotion to Double-A. Gohara didn’t slow down despite being one of the youngest players in the league and actually improved his strikeout rate while allowing a 2.60 ERA. Gohara earned another promotion, this time to Gwinnett, and after a slow start finished his last 4 starts out with a 1.83 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 19 23 innings. The Braves felt so strongly about Gohara’s performance they gave him a September call up and despite allowing a 4.91 ERA, he was overall extremely effective with 31 strikeouts to 8 walks in 29 13 innings. Gohara has always been a high strikeout pitcher, and last season he outdid himself with a 27.8% strikeout rate, a few ticks above his career average, all while advancing across 4 levels. Gohara also looked strong with his command and dropped his walk rate.

Gohara’s ceiling is absolutely absurd and it starts with a mid-to-high 90’s fastball with incredible plane. When Gohara struggles with his command it often centers around his fastball moving so much that he is unable to keep it in the zone, as it features a late arm side fade and sink that rivals any pitcher in baseball. Gohara has shown an ability to command both sides of the plate and is able to go in on hitters, but tends to work on the outside corners more often. The questions about his weight seem unfounded as he does well to control his body and repeat his delivery. When Gohara’s command suffers, it typically isn’t by much and he seems to just miss corners or leave it a bit over the plate. His fastball is lively enough to get away with most of the time, but you could see times in the major leagues in which that wasn’t the case. He backs his fastball up with a double plus slider that rivals Minter’s as the best in the system, and the argument tends to favor Gohara. When Gohara struggles and gets hit it almost always centers around him struggling to keep the slider down and away from the middle of the plate, but it’s rare that he isn’t able to do what he wants with the pitch. As hard as it is to top a high 90’s fastball from the left side he may just do so with that slider. Gohara has one glaring hole in his game and it is his changeup (or the presence of third average pitch at least). Occasionally he shows flashes of a pitch that could be effective, and with the strength of his other pitches he doesn’t necessarily need a dominant changeup. His struggles there could very well be attributable to fatigue, as prior to his call up to Atlanta he had already pitched 44 innings more than his career high and had to pile on 29 more to that. He also graded incredibly well on peripherals (no lefty starter in baseball threw harder) and he appears to have gotten incredibly unlucky on balls in play.

Gohara’s durability, easy arm action, and his ability to command his fastball all point to him staying on as a starter. His dominance with his top two pitches also give him that desired “ace potential” but he still needs to make strides with his changeup to reach that. That’s so common at this age that it doesn’t concern any of us at TC all that much, and even if he doesn’t develop that changeup...a lefty reliever with a high-90’s fastball and double plus slider is a nice floor to have. If he does develop that changeup fully, he has the potential to be one of the top lefty starters in baseball if his health and command allow for it.

3. Mike Soroka

At number 3 on our pre-season top Braves prospects list is RHP Mike Soroka who has done nothing but impress since he joined the Braves organization. Soroka was drafted 28th overall in the 2015 draft by the Braves as a fairly unfamiliar name to the layperson given his status as a Canadian prep arm. Mike did not last long as an unknown, however, as he has gone on to two consecutive full season performances that have put him among the best right-handed pitching prospects in baseball despite consistently being among the youngest players when he is on the field.

Soroka has what amounts to a four pitch mix and he has much better “stuff” than he is given credit for. He throws a low 90s two-seamer that works like a sinker due to the pitches action and how it is employed in addition to a four-seam fastball that touches the mid 90s that allows him to change speeds and eye levels. Soroka’s breaking ball has multiple planes of movement and has been called everything from a power curveball to slurvy to a cutter to...well you get the idea. The point is that it is quite good and unpredictable for hitters even though he throws it in the mid-to-high 80s. His changeup has been the pitch that has made the most progress although there is room for growth in terms of start to start consistency. He struggled early against lefties in the pros, but the combination of his improving changeup and his ability to command the inside part of the plate has given him multiple avenues to beat southpaws.

Soroka’s calling card has been his command and control as he is not afraid to throw strikes, puts his pitches where he wants them, and has been a feature near the top of league leaderboards both in terms of ERA as well as allowing the least walks among starters. In his 330.2 innings as a pro including rookie ball, Mike has given up a total of 71 walks while sporting a minor league career ERA of 2.91 and a 1.11 WHIP. He also profiles as a workhorse innings-wise due to his efficiency, how quickly he works, and how well he has acclimated to the increased workload of full season ball. There is frontline starter upside with Soroka given his advanced approach to the game and his command, but even those with less optimistic outlooks can easily see being a contributor in the middle of Braves’ rotations for a long time.

2. Kyle Wright

Kyle Wright enters his first full season of professional baseball sitting firmly at #2 in our prospect rankings. The fifth overall pick out of Vanderbilt was a bit of a surprise, only in that no one believe Wright would be available at 5. Once he dropped to it the Braves were more than happy with selecting him and giving him the biggest signing bonus in Braves history ($7M).

He made 3 starts in the GCL where he put up a 12.7 K/9 over 5.2 innings before he was promoted to the Florida Fire Frogs where he went 0-1 and put up a 3.18 ERA and 2.87 FIP.

The Talking Chop crew went down to Orlando to catch his pro debut and it’s clear why he was worthy of that record bonus. He has a fastball that tops in the high 90’s although it generally lives in the mid 90’s range, a curve and slider that are easily graded as plus pitches, and a changeup that is average right now and might grade out higher with more coaching. Who knows what he might become with a full season of top of the line coaching and mentoring? Expect the Braves to be aggressive with him despite his pro experience given his advanced age and feeling for pitching. He may join the ranks of Soroka, and Allard in Gwinnett later in the season to create one of the most dynamic trio of arms in all of minor league baseball.

And our number one prospect for the Atlanta Braves is.....

Ronald Acuña

The least surprising ranking on this list also happens to be the occupant of the top spot. After having his near breakout derailed by injury in 2016, Ronald Acuña stepped up with a gigantic 2017 season. Acuña entered the season as a borderline Top 100 prospect to most of the prospect industry (certainly not to us at Talking Chop), but after a season deserving of him winning the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Award, he finds himself considered the best prospect in all of baseball by most and no worse than the second or third best prospect along with Shohei Otani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Acuña started the year in High A but quickly found himself getting promoted to Double A and then up to Triple A as a 19 year old. Acuña’s fast rise probably could have taken him to the big leagues in September, but after a very long year (don’t forget his winter ball before the season) and with the Braves not in the playoff hunt, the team decided to wisely give him a couple more months before bringing him to the show and starting his service clock.

That’s not to say Acuña didn’t earn his big league shot in September, as he hit .325/.374/..522 with 31 doubles, eight triples, 21 homers, and 44 steals in 139 games combined between the three levels. Those numbers actually got better each time he moved up, as he saw his OPS move from .814 in High A to .895 in Double A to finally .940 in Triple A.

This season Acuña emerged as a true five tool talent, showing at least four plus tools in his power, speed, glove, and arm. The fifth tool - his hit tool - certainly played like a fifth plus tool in the minors last year, but may end up being more of an above average tool at the big league level. That would be because if Acuña has one weakness, it would be strikeouts as he racked up 144 in 2017. After seeing Acuña live, I don’t think the strikeouts will be a huge issue as he knows the strike zone and how to work a count, but they will always be there for a guy who is a middle of the order power threat.

Acuña, who turned 20 in mid-December, is an early favorite to win a starting job to start the 2018 season, and even if he doesn’t he is still expected to move up to Atlanta early in the season. He remains the type of talent with the chance to become a true superstar in the game with his loud tools and the ability to make everything look like it comes easy to him.

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