Over the past few years Rome has been the place to be to watch young talent in the Braves system, but the international penalties and aggressive promotion of prospects has already begun to take its toll on the lower minor leagues and the 2019 roster doesn’t feature near the depth of exciting talent as previous years. Only three of Talking Chop’s Top 30 prospects, Trey Riley (#20), Jasseel De La Cruz (#21), and Victor Vodnik (#29) come into the season on the Braves roster. Scattered throughout are a handful of promising but flawed prospects who could make a major league impact but find themselves on the outside looking in.
Jasseel De La Cruz, Jake Higginbotham, Kurt Hoekstra, Odalvi Javier, Nolan Kingham, Tanner Lawson, Jackson Lourie, Jose Montilla, Luis Mora, Jose Olague, Alan Rangel, Trey Riley, Victor Vodnik, Lukas Young
Rome carries a solid top 3 into the rotation this season, but the last two spots are a bit more in flux and difficult to predict. Jasseel De La Cruz was on his way to a major breakout last season, but an early season injury and subsequent injuries set him back a bit and he’s repeating Rome. Normally, De La Cruz would likely have seen a promotion to High A regardless, but with his struggles and the depth of pitching above him the Braves had both the luxury of taking it slow and the necessity to leave some pitchers behind. JDLC has a live fastball that is his best pitch and a set of solid offspeed offerings, but needs refinement on his offspeed stuff and his command to take a step forward and make a splash in a system deep on pitching. Otherwise, he could find his mid-90s fastball in a bullpen role that would suit his stuff well.
Trey Riley has an outstanding fastball and slider to build off of, and will go into 2019 looking to refine his command of those pitches and to develop his changeup. After being taken in the 5th round out of community college in last year’s draft Riley struggled in his professional debut, allowing 8 runs in 9 innings. He walked 10 batters in that span, with his only real positive coming with his 13 strikeouts. Still, the Braves were not deterred and bumped the talented right hander up to Rome to get him going on full season ball. While the Braves are committed to Riley as a starter at the moment, all signs thus far indicate an eventual move to the bullpen where he would project well with that fastball/slider combo.
Victor Vodnik is the youngest pitcher on this Rome roster and the only high school player from the Braves 2018 draft, and he comes with the best chance of the Rome rotation to actually stay in a starting role long term. Vodnik is a bit undersized coming in at 6’0 tall, but he has the fastball velocity in the low 90’s and has shown it as high as 98 mph. His slider and changeup both have the potential to be above average, being the only pitcher on this team that can claim three pitches that have flashed above average. Vodnik was dominant in his short time in the Gulf Coast League with 9 strikeouts to 1 walk over 4 ⅔ innings of work. Like most 19 year olds it’s going to be about command and refinement for Vodnik, as well as keeping himself healthy.
Rome also features a handful of interesting guys out of the bullpen, starting with last year’s 11th rounder Jake Higginbotham. Higginbotham filled up innings last year at Danville and was spectacular, and will come in as a college arm who has a chance to fly through the system. Nolan Kingham was taken just one pick later, and while he didn’t have the same level of success at Danville comes with the same level of potential to really make a splash next year if he can put in good work. An interesting note is that the Rome roster officially lists Kurt Hoekstra as a pitcher. He has been an infielder his entire career but made 5 pitching appearances last year, and with his career with the bat unlikely to take off it seems the Braves have enough belief in his arm to give him a chance.
Logan Brown, Ricardo Rodriguez
Rodriguez was a decent prospect when the Braves acquired him from the Padres in exchange for Christian Bethancourt, but has yet to see his career take off. The 21 year old is a glove first catcher, but last year showed some positive signs at the plate that he may still have some potential. Rodriguez’s walk rate jumped up in his first chance in Danville and he continues to not strike out at a high rate, but he doesn’t hit for much power and projects as a backup catcher at best.
Griffin Benson, Greg Cullen, Darling Florentino, Carlos Paraguate, Braulio Vasquez, Brendan Venter
Greg Cullen led the NCAA in hitting in 2018, and when the Braves brought him into the system with their 15th round pick he continued to do just that with a .373 OBP in his debut with Danville. Cullen has some gap power but his career is going to be determined by his bat. If he can continue to hit and draw walks he will rise up through the system with the potential to find himself in a backup role in the major leagues, but if his bat stalls so too will his chances.
Darling Florentino and Carlos Paraguate, both born 2001 (yes, you are old) are interesting choices for this roster as neither had particularly good seasons in 2018 but received huge promotions for this season. Florentino has some power potential at third base, and at 17 still plenty of time to grow. He’s going to need to prove he can make contact and draw walks to carve himself out a career. Florentino hit just .217/.253/.341 in the Gulf Coast League last season, with a 3.4% walk rate and 27.4% strikeout rate. Still, debuting in the GCL and then getting promoted to Rome shows the Braves have some belief in his bat. Paraguate has much better peripherals than Florentino, but neither of those are particularly important as projections go as he played his entire season in the Dominican Summer League. Paraguate hit .226/.337/.279, and honestly there just isn’t much information on him as the DSL doesn’t receive coverage and it’s shocking to see a batter jump all the way from there to Low A.
Braulio Vasquez has had an up and down career, but last year saw his power take a step forward and is going to be the most exciting player on the Rome infield. Vasquez has played shortstop in the past, but has moved off of the position and over to second base and third base and put on some weight and strength at the expense of a step of speed. Vasquez makes decent contact and has average power potential, and the Braves saw enough of him to skip him over Danville altogether and give him a chance in Rome. Brendan Venter was a 13th round pick out of Auburn, but struggled in his professional debut most of which was spent in Rome. If he can make it to the Major Leagues he would be the second player born in South Africa to do so, joining Gift Ngoepe of the Pirates and now Phillies.
Jose Bermudez, Justin Dean, Andrew Moritz, Trey Harris
All four of Rome’s outfielders are decent prospects in their own right, with Andrew Moritz leading the way. Moritz was drafted in the 6th round last year out of UNC Greensboro, and in his professional debut hit .280/.352/.376. Moritz has the potential to be an above average hitter, but he lacks power or plus speed and will need to hit in order to stick as a corner outfielder. Trey Harris came in as a 32nd rounder but put up a decent performance, making it to Rome and posting a .286/.351/.393 slash line at Low A. Harris doesn’t really have a particular glaring hole in his game, but none of his tools other than speed really grade out above average so he’ll need to get everything out of every tool in order to get to the major league level.
Justin Dean is an athletic center fielder with surprising pop out of his 5’8 frame, and of the group he’s shown the best performance thus far. Dean stole 16 bases and had 20 extra base hits in 60 games, while also walking 33 times to post a .381 OBP. If he sticks in center field he has a decent chance to find himself in the major leagues, though the strikeouts last year bordered on concerning and if he sees an uptick his profile would take a significant hit. Jose Bermudez has been a slow-moving center fielder, and last season injuries took away most of his season when he really had a chance to separate himself in the system. Bermudez has speed but not much power, which won’t surprise you if you look at his 6’2” 160 lb frame. Bermudez needs to put on some strength to succeed, especially when he has been prone to strikeouts. The positives for Bermudez is that he sees the ball well at the plate and has drawn a lot of walks, and with a frame that has plenty of room to develop he could be a guy that can put on some late power and take another step in his development.