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Atlanta Braves prospect profile: Rome Braves CF, Justin Dean

Justin Dean is turning into an ideal leadoff hitter for the Rome Braves, blending a little bit of everything into a well-rounded player.

Justin Dean of the Rome Braves. Wayne Cavadi | Talking Chop

ROME, GA Atlanta Braves outfield prospect Justin Dean is off to a hot start for the Rome affiliate. Nothing changed Friday at State Mutual, as Dean had a big hit in the five-run fourth that propelled Rome to its second-straight victory.

Let’s take a look at the Braves centerfield prospect.

Rooted in DII baseball

Dean played his college ball at Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, North Carolina. He was a First-Team All-Conference player his final junior season, also taking home ABCA All-Southeast Region accolades. And it was deservedly so, as he had a monster season, hitting .398 while scoring 59 runs with 26 extra base hits and 14 stolen bases in 16 attempts.

As with many DII players, Dean was likely pegged ‘too small’ for the big stage and bright lights of DI. He’s listed at just 5’8” and 185. All that just gave him a pretty big chip on his shoulder.

“It’s nothing new,” Dean told me. “I’ve been on the low end of the totem pole starting back in high school. Going to DII was a good fit, I got to go to a school I was going to play everyday and that’s what I needed to turn my career around.

“You never know where you’re going to end up. Everyone talks about DI and the attendance and all that, but you can make something of yourself wherever it is you’re at. You keep putting up numbers, they’re going to find you.”

And found him the Braves did. They made Dean their 17th-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft and after making Danville look relatively easy, he finished the 2018 season in Rome.

The player

Look at the stat line and you see what you get with Dean. A toolsy player who blends solid contact skills and speed into the ideal leadoff hitter.

Dean stands wide in the box, and transfers his weight well. He uses more a leg slide than kick, but he rears back and unloads. The bat speed is quick, and mostly level, and he gets out of the box quickly. He displayed above-average speed plenty of times, most impressively getting down the line in just over four seconds, nearly beating out a routine ground ball to shortstop.

He showed off his speed the previous evening as well, coming around from first to score on a double to left field. It helps Dean in the field as well. For the most part, his routes are sharp, but when they aren’t he has the speed to make up for it. Friday evening, there was a play in center that looked like Dean may have lost it or misjudged it, and although he had a bad jump, he was still able to make up ground and get there, lunging for the ball.

Dean took the lessons he learned from last season — primarily what worked in Danville, and what didn’t work in Rome — and went to work this offseason.

“Really, I was changing the slot on my swing,” Dean said of the work he put in this offseason. “I was on top of a lot of stuff I didn’t need to be on top off. A lot of stuff went on at instructs, and I did some work on my own, but focused on staying through the baseball.”

So, we have talent. We have a solid work ethic and the awareness of what he needs to improve. We also have the likable personality. In fact, Rome is full of them. He and Trey Harris, for example, looked right at home earlier in the preseason at media night and were anything but shy.

This team, Dean included, is having fun.

“It’s the most important thing,” Dean said. “I come here and enjoy it, because it’s every day. And every day is not easy. You just got to come here and remember why we do it and why it’s fun, and why you started doing it.”

The season

Rome opened on the road against Kannapolis and Dean got the young Braves off and running. Quite literally. The now-22-year-old righty turned a fly ball to center field into an inside the park home run in the first at bat of the Rome Braves’ season.

“That was really cool,” Dean said smiling. “I kind of wish it went over to save some energy, but it was definitely a cool and unique to get the season going.”

What’s Dean done since that game? Well, one thing he hasn’t done is stop hitting. He’s started eight games and has hit in every single one of them.

“No doubt, he’s definitely the catalyst on our team,” skipper Matt Tuiasosopo said after Friday’s victory. “On offense and defense. Nothing drops on the defensive side, but like I tell him every day, he goes, we go. He has the power to put it over the fence, but he’s been driving the ball and getting some doubles early on. We were joking that all these doubles, he can’t get on first to steal. But he’s really in a good place right now.”

Dean delivered again Friday, roping his fourth double of the season to put the exclamation point on a huge inning that kept the Rome Braves perfect in their home ballpark this season. He’s now posted a slash line of .344/.400/.563 with five of his 11 hits going for extra bases. He’s striking out a little bit more than you’d like to see with someone that has his speed atop the lineup (21.9% of the time), but it should also be noted that he has struck out just once in his last four games.

When the Rome Braves won in 2016, there were a lot of high-profile names on the roster that stole the limelight. But there was also Ray-Patrick Didder, who had a breakout season and became kind of a cult prospect favorite amongst Braves fans. Dean has a lot of those same qualities: a gritty, hard-working player, with blazing fast speed, that plays the field well, and can get the Rome Braves motor running when they need it most. You won’t see his name mentioned in the Braves top prospect lists right now, but start paying attention.

In that not so distant future, that very well could change.

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