Welcome to the fifth and final installment of the Talking Chop 2019 pre-season top 30 Braves prospects list. For those of you who have been following along so far, we thank you sincerely for making it this far. The sheer amount of support you have given us over the years is remarkable. I can honestly say that we couldn’t have continued to do this without all of your support and it means far more than you know. For those of you who missed the first few installments, fear not....here are some links to get you caught up.
The way the rankings are determined is that each member of the Talking Chop minor league staff (in this case, that means Eric Cole, Garrett Spain, Gaurav Vedak, Matt Powers, Aaron Huston, and Wayne Cavadi) submitted their own personal prospect rankings. From that, we make a composite and see how that looks. More often than not, we all agree that the final composite is good to go and ends up being the final list once ties are resolved and the math is double-checked. We have made adjustments in the past to account for weird outlier cases, but that is the gist.
A few notes about the list before we get to the part that most of you likely skipped to already:
- It is best to think of these rankings in terms of tiers rather than hard and fast rules. If you see a player one spot ahead of another, there is likely not to be a big jump in our grades of each of those players. This was particularly pronounced this season as the players even at the top were ranked very closely together in the final composite.
- These rankings are purely subjective. We try to get a good consensus opinion by making these rankings a composite so that all voices are heard, but we are going to have our own staff biases simply because we talk all the time about who/what we like and don’t like. We aren’t aiming for perfection here, merely adding to the conversation.
- We loosely use rookie eligibility to determine who is or is not eligible for the list. This was famously relevant when we did not rank Dansby because he had already locked up a starting spot on the roster and was just a couple at-bats away from no longer being a rookie. This wasn’t as relevant this year, but it is worth keeping in mind
- We don’t hate your favorite pet prospect....in fact, we probably love them. There are guys that did not make the list that we like a lot both as players and as people. Please keep the comments section bearable...comments like “these rankings are a disgrace because you ranked X player this high/low” don’t add anything to the discourse and will likely get you put in timeout as I (Eric) don’t have much patience for such things.
- Spoiler alert: we are going to be wrong at times and that is okay with us. Prospect evaluation is an exercise in disappointment because professional baseball is really hard and sometimes guys don’t work out for a variety of reasons and sometimes guys come out of nowhere to be amazing. We always hope for the latter and pray for the former to not. Each list gets better and better as we learn more and more about what players are and are not capable of and what attributes make successful major leaguers.
- Yes, we did make a honorable mentions list. You can look at it right here.
Without further delay, here are prospects 1-6 in reverse order because we like making you count down the prospects and building the suspense...or something. Enjoy!
6.) Drew Waters
Yes it’s true...Drew Waters comes in ABOVE Cristian Pache in this year’s preseason rankings. The second round pick in the 2017 draft, Drew has showed off what hes capable of at two different spots in compiling a 189 wRC+ with the GCL Braves in 2017 and a 145 wRC+ with Rome in 2018. The walk rate took a big hit in 2018 where he had a sub-6% walk rate which is something he absolutely has to work on, but had 58 extra-base hits while using all parts of the field well (40% pull, 37% opposite). Drew also collected 23 stolen bases in 2018 on 28 chances (82%) providing great value on the base paths.
Defensively, Drew has the tools that make you drool still in picking up five outfield assists while committing eight errors. He’s not Pache in the field and it’s mean to compare any player to Pache in the field, but Drew is still really good out there and we project him as an above average to plus defender when it is all said and done. Like a lot of the other high ceiling Braves prospects, Drew is still just 20 years old and could fill out a lot more. Expect Drew to start the season at High-A Florida with perhaps a mid-season promotion to Mississippi if he hits well and improves his approach at the plate. There is a lot to like about Drew and he’s starting to really put it together and become an elite position prospect that hits for average, power, has speed on the basepaths, and plays a stellar outfield. Drew is one to watch.
5.) Kyle Wright
Kyle Wright was projected by many as the favorite to go number one overall just weeks before the 2017 draft and the Braves organization was ecstatic to get him when he slid down to No. 5. The Braves rewarded him with a record signing bonus and many immediately slid him in as the Braves best pitching prospect. Wright’s professional debut was a solid start to his career with him striking out 18 batters against 6 walks in 17 innings between the Gulf Coast League and the Fire Frogs.
Early returns for Wright in 2018 were not as favorable and many began to express concern over a player who was expected to dominate Double-A having a 4.71 ERA in his first 13 starts. None of the numbers were particularly favorable for Wright as he had 57 K/30 BB in 63 innings at Mississippi. After the reins were loosened a bit and Wright was able to delve deeper into his tremendous arsenal, he finished his last 7 games in Mississippi with a 2.33 ERA and 48 strikeouts to 13 walks in 46 1⁄3 innings pitched. He carried that success into a dominant seven game stint in Triple-A as he once again flashed top of the rotation talent. Wright’s short stint in the major leagues was a bit underwhelming statistically, but he showed his stuff and also some of his inconsistencies. Wright will be a player for a rotation spot in 2019, though a promotion during the season seems like the most likely scenario.
All four of Wright’s pitches show above average potential with his fastball keying his arsenal. Wright’s two seamer sits in the mid 90’s consistently and has flashed higher and he is able to run it with nasty sink and tail that makes it a tough pitch for batters to square up. His curveball is his second best pitch, though the one that got him in a bit of trouble last season. Consistency was key for Wright and the Braves focused heavily on him using the curveball to develop it, and it lost some effectiveness during his stint with Mississippi. He seemed to come out better on the other end, with it flashing plus more consistently in his time at Triple-A. Wright also throws a sharp slider that produces swings and misses with a combination of good velocity and bite to make it another potential plus offering. The changeup is clearly Wright’s fourth pitch and the one that needs the most work, and as such is more frequently graded out as average rather than above average. Command will be the ultimate deciding factor for Wright, as he has begun to show an ability to throw strikes with regularity but hitting his spots has been more of an issue for him. Wright’s ceiling is likely as a No. 2 starter and assuming he pitches well to start 2019, he will get the chance to prove he can reach that sooner rather than later.
4.) Austin Riley
Third baseman. Trade bait. GOAT. There are quite a few things Riley can turn into, but the one thing we know for certain is that he has changed into is a really solid baseball player. Like many drafted by the Braves in the same time frame (first round of the 2015 MLB Draft), Riley has been moved aggressively up the system and has always been among the youngest at each level.
When asked why I (Wayne) have always been so high on Riley, the answer has never changed. It isn’t his ability to crush home runs or exciting wRC+s at every level against pitching way more advanced than he is. It has been his proven ability to seek out coaching, adjust, and thrive. When Riley started in Rome, he sat dead red, his hands dropped back a little when he swung, and, simply put, he looked lost. He finished that campaign hitting .282 with a SAL-best 17 second-half home runs. He struggled to start the season in Florida the following season, but when he reached Double-A as a 20-year old he raked. Last season, albeit injury-riddled, there was no adjustment period. Riley seemingly just “got it.”
The same can be said defensively. Riley, a former pitcher, was raw at the hot corner in Rome. He was always seemingly strongest to his right side and had the ability to make a big play. He would often follow it with a lousy throw, rushing himself. While Riley is no Nolan Arenado, he is capable of handling third, showing nice range to both sides, vastly-improved instincts (perhaps that came with confidence), and the same rifle of an arm.
With CJ Alexander arguably the most exciting prospect at the lower levels, and at the same position, it seems the Braves have been dangling Riley a little more as trade bait these days. While it will break this writer’s heart to see him go, he doesn’t have much left to do in the minors (except salvage the service clock, that strike out rate won’t improve by much in Triple-A in this era of baseball) and is blocked in so many ways with a serious (we think) talent rising quickly behind him. Riley will be in the big leagues soon. Hopefully, it’s at SunTrust Park.
3.) Touki Toussaint
This is it, almost definitely the last time Touki Toussaint will be included on one of these prospect lists. It’s been fun to watch him grow since June of 2015 when he came over from Arizona for Bronson Arroyo’s contract. At the time, Toussaint was a raw, high upside pitcher who had some real inconsistency with his command. He has worked very hard and improved the command to the point where he can now be considered one of the best pitching prospects in the game especially following his lights out performance at the 2018 All-Star Futures Game.
Touki reached Atlanta in 2018, making five starts and a pair of relief appearances as he threw 29 innings right when the pennant race started to reach the finish line. He posted more than respectable numbers, a 4.03 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts. However those numbers fail to show his true impact because he had one rough relief appearance with three runs and four walks allowed in an inning of work. Toussant actually had a 3.33 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in the five starts he made and earned a spot on the postseason roster based on the strength of his performance in those starts.
It’s no secret that Touki has some of the best pure stuff in not only the Braves system, but throughout the league. He has a borderline plus plus fastball that he can get up to the upper levels of the 90s, but he has learned to take a little bit off in order to be able to locate it better which a big part of why his command has improved so much since he came over in 2015. Everyone knows about the eye popping plus plus curve with a massive spin rate, one of the best curveballs among not just pitching prospects but pitchers in general. Then we’ve seen his changeup improve from what was once a clear third pitch in need of work to a pitch that is getting closer and closer to being a plus pitch. Add in another above average pitch in his cutter and you can see why he is so highly regarded.
Make no mistake, despite his significant improvement in the command department, there are still times when Touki can be a little prone to losing his command. However, he is projected to be close enough to average with his command at maturity and is an extremely hard worker, so the command isn’t a big worry the way it was four years ago.
Toussaint is still a guy with a true ace ceiling and a likelihood of being a good No. 2/3 starter. He will compete for a starting spot in Atlanta out of spring training this year, though it’s not out of the question the Braves look to him as being a potential multi-inning relief weapon similar to what you see from guys like Josh Hader and Chris Devenski.
2.) Ian Anderson
We almost had a new top prospect in the organization in the name of Ian Anderson after his absolutely stellar 2018 campaign. Ian has three plus pitches - a fastball, curveball, and changeup that commands pretty well and make him extremely difficult to hit. Any higher jump in his command and Ian might be a top 15 pitching prospect in all of baseball. Ian played two different levels last year - 20 games at High-A Florida, and four games at Double-A Mississippi. He went a combined 4-7 in 119 innings with a 2.49 ERA, 1.140 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, and 6.6 H/9. Yes, you read that right - Ian Anderson’s H/9 was just 6.6 per 9 which saw his opponents hit under .200 against him on the season. Ian works both sides of the plate really well, shows good control of all three of his pitches, and has absolute command when he’s on the mound.
Once Mike Soroka exhausts his prospect eligibility (spoiler alert), Ian is the easy No. 1 prospect in the Braves system based on our voting. What is important to note is that despite his domination on the mound last season, and his advanced feel of pitching, he is still just 20 years of age and can continue to improve various aspects of his game. The only thing you really want to see out of Ian next year is reducing that walk rate to under 3.5 per 9, but that’s really nitpicking, as he was absolutely dominant in 2018. What’s crazy to believe is that Ian could conceivably be pitching in AAA in his age-21 season. There is a lot to like about Ian, and he was not talked about enough on a national scale. That could easily change in 2019.
1.) Mike Soroka
Last but certainly not least, Mike Soroka tops the Talking Chop prospect list in what will likely be his last appearance on our lists. Drafted 28th overall in the 2015 MLB Draft out of Canada, Soroka very quickly established himself as a premier prospect in the Braves farm system. He possesses a fastball with strong sinking action that sits in the low to mid 90’s that can touch a bit higher, a breaking ball that he varies the shape and velocity of well, and a changeup that has been inconsistent at times but when it is on it may be his best pitch as it has some good fade and is really tough for hitters to pick up. After a solid pro debut in rookie ball, Soroka stormed on to the scene with Rome in posting a 3.18 ERA and being particularly adept at not giving up free passes. The Braves thought so much of his progress that season and in spring training that he got jumped all the way to Double-A where he was even better with a sub-3 ERA in 153.2 innings in 2017. As per usual, Soroka was somehow even better to start 2018 as he was lights out for Triple-A Gwinnett before making his major league debut in May. After a really strong debut performance against the Mets, shoulder discomfort derailed his season and he spent much of the season on the disabled list getting healthy although by all accounts from instructs he is healthy and ready to go for 2019.
If there were no concerns about his health at all, Soroka would have easily taken the top spot on this list except for the small problem that he likely wouldn’t have been eligible as an entrenched member of the Braves rotation. However, shoulder injuries for pitchers are scary and that led to a really close vote for the top spot. If he is completely healthy, with Soroka’s command and control combined with stuff that is much better than he is given credit for, he has a real shot at being a strong No. 2 starter with a chance for more. His mental aptitude for the game and his work ethic are both well-documented and, assuming he is healthy, he should have no problems pitching on the big stage and finding success. Many of us are projecting him to make the rotation out of spring training in 2019 and is likely to not relinquish that spot for a long time.