Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the third installment of the 2019 Talking Chop Top 30 Braves Prospects List: Mid-Season Edition. For those that are not aware, we put out two top 30 lists each year: one before the season begins and one at the All-Star break to incorporate new draftees, account for graduations, and make adjustments based on what we are hearing and seeing. We have already rolled out the first 12 names of the rankings. If you missed out on those (and/or you want to look at how we go about making our rankings), here is a link so you can get caught up:
This installment is an interesting one as it has several new faces and fast risers plus at least one old friend that has continued to perform in the minor leagues after many wrote him off completely. Enjoy!
18) Michael Harris - OF
After playing it safe with their first three picks of the 2019 draft going with high floor college players, the Braves went local and took a gamble in the third round with elite athlete Michael Harris out of Ellenwood, Georgia. Harris is just one of the many two-way players that the Braves drafted, and he will be starting his career in the outfield. During his senior year in school, Harris hit .432 with four homers, four triples, and seven doubles while also earning a 1.87 ERA and 15.0 (!!!) K/9 rate. Harris sits in the low 90s already on the mound, and flashes a plus curveball with a decent changeup. But, due to his elite athleticism, you can see him making improvements if needed. On the flip side of things, Michael has absolute real power potential with the bat, making him an extremely intriguing pick in the third round.
Much like Austin Riley, Michael has started his professional career in the field and much like Austin Riley again — has shown great promise with the bat, sporting a line of .367/.457/.467 through nine games in the GCL, good for a 168 wRC+ that comes with a great 11.4 percent walk rate. The Braves will likely do whatever they can to have him play on the field because of his athleticism, but his prowess on the mound is a phenomenal Plan B.
17) C.J. Alexander - 1B/3B
The minute C.J. Alexander was taken in the 20th round of the 2018 MLB Draft, we started to call him the steal of the draft. He did nothing but prove that right last year, hitting at every stop along the way and really emerging as the second-best third base prospect in the system, behind just Austin Riley.
Unfortunately, this season hasn’t gone quite so well. Alexander only played a small handful of games after an aggressive assignment to Double-A, and he not only failed to hit but wasn’t playing third base — sticking to first and DH exclusively. Then, it came out that Alexander was dealing with an elbow injury that required surgery and kept him out until this past week. There is some reason to think his struggles in a small handful of games were due to the injury, and even if they weren’t, the sample size was so small that you can’t impair his stock at all as a result. He’s been having some success in the couple games he’s played with Florida since returning.
Nothing else has changed for Alexander since the spring. He’s still a promising hitter with huge power. He’s still a current third baseman who may need to move off the position eventually — but because of the elbow, may not return to third the rest of this season. We would expect Alexander to get comfortable in Florida and then move back up to Mississippi, though there is some chance he finishes the season out in Florida since Ryan Casteel has been excellent for Mississippi in Alexander’s place.
16) Kolby Allard
Coming in at 16 we have LHP Kolby Allard who, not too long ago, was one considered to be on the fast track to the major leagues and one of the top pitching prospects in the Braves’ farm system. While his development has hit a couple of snags along the way, Allard has shown himself to be willing to make changes and work his ass off to keep pushing for a job in the major leagues.
Drafted 14th overall by the Braves back in 2015, Allard was billed as a guy that would have normally been in contention for the No. 1 overall pick thanks to arguably the best breaking ball in the class and a fastball that had once touched 97 but faltered due to back injury that cost him a chunk of the spring. The Braves snatched him up in the middle of the first round and while he did have to have a medical procedure on his back, he nonetheless quickly established himself as a top-flight pitching prospect. He was really good for Rome in 2016, skipped High-A altogether, posted a 3.18 ERA in Mississippi, and posted a sub-3.00 ERA in 19 starts for Triple-A Gwinnett while making his major league debut last year.
However, beneath those numbers hid an issue of diminishing stuff. Allard’s breaking ball wasn’t as sharp as it once was projected to be; his velocity was always a bit lighter than advertised, but was steadily getting worse and worse — to the point that he would often be sitting in the high 80s with a 90 or two thrown in. In addition, his command was faltering. After a not-great stint in the majors last year and those concerning reports about his stuff, many wrote Allard off completely. In a system with as many talented arms as the Braves have, Allard was finding himself passed over again and again.
2019 has seen some really positive developments, though. Allard has put up some strong results in the first half and the reports on his stuff are much better (especially when you factor the new Triple-A baseball into things). His velocity is now more consistently sitting in that 91-93 range, the command wavers at times but has shown signs of improvement, and he has added a cutter which gives him another pitch to keep hitters guessing rather than sitting on his fastball. It is honestly unclear where Allard’s future will take him. He has absolutely held his own this season and made adjustments for the better, but the Braves have a slew of starting pitching prospects that are as good or better than he is. His stuff isn’t exactly tailor-made to play up in the bullpen, either. As a result, Allard’s name is likely to be one that you hear in trade rumors throughout this month given the glut near the top of the pitching ranks in the minors. However, it is fair to say that those who thought that Allard was going to get torched this year and had no future were sorely mistaken.
15) Trey Harris
What a rise for Harris, who went from unranked to the top 15 in just half a season. There is a lot to like about Harris, starting with his personality, work ethic, and darn good hit tool. Harris is a bit of mid-career Tony Gwynn in stature, or even Kirby Puckett, standing at just 5’10”, but a stocky ball of muscle weighing in at 215 lbs. Don’t let that mislead you, however, as Harris can move — he’s “sneaky athletic” as he told us earlier this season — and has proven that concerns about his defense may have been a bit overstated (he’s made just one error all season while contributing four assists). But as we said, it’s the hit tool that will help Harris continue to climb the ladder.
The 23-year-old right-handed hitter is a homegrown talent, growing up a Braves fan in Powder Springs, Georgia before embarking on a very solid four-year career at Mizzou (where he even christened SunTrust Park with the first home run ever hit there in a game against Georgia). After a brief stint where he showed well in Rome last year, he absolutely lit up the South Atlantic League in 2019 with a .366/.437/.594 slash line, showing off those sneaky athletic skills with more power than anticipated behind 28 extra-base hits. He’s continued to hit and walk at a nice rate since his promotion to Florida, where he’s slashing .284/.376/.432.
His big smile, contagiously positive attitude and work ethic alone make him a fan favorite, but he is as pure a hitter as you’ll find in the system, with a pretty, smooth right-handed swing. If it weren’t inside the Braves system with its highly-touted outfielders, Harris would have a clearer path. Until then, the former 32nd-rounder will continue to show those who passed on him the mistake they made and hit as he climbs the ladder.
14) Victor Vodnik
There might not be a pitcher with more helium under his prospect status than Victor Vodnik. Much like Freddy Tarnok, Vodnik saw his stock skyrocket right before the draft thanks to a very intriguing senior season where, despite his good work with the bat, his arm really shined. Coming out of high school, Vodnik sat at 5’11”, 175 pounds but thanks to some good conditioning during the offseason he reported around 200 pounds and right at 6’ tall.
Vodnik has insane arm strength, easily hitting 100 MPH if he wants, but he typically sits low-to-mid-90s with great sink, which has led to his insane 52.7% ground ball rate. His fastball is so dominant that he can easily overpower lower-level hitting, so the real challenge for him will be his eventual faceoff against higher-level competition. He combos the fastball with an above-average changeup, along with a developing slider that has real swing-and-miss potential as the bottom just completely vanishes. Despite his rawness, Vodnik has put up very solid numbers this season — 1.94 ERA (2.65 FIP), 9.91 K/9, 3.11 BB/9, 0.19 HR/9, and again, an absurd 52.7% GB%. Because of his size, there is definite reliever risk in him, but if he can continue to develop his slider and continue to work on his command, the Braves have an absolute steal from the 14th round in the 2018 MLB draft. If Vodnik’s third pitch stalls and he becomes more reliant on his fastball/changeup combination he could develop as an elite reliever.
There is a ton to like about Vodnik and the Braves are just scratching the surface. He will take a lot of time to develop but, especially if he develops that third pitch, he could be a gem. Despite his extremely good numbers, expect the Braves to play it very slowly with Vodnik and give him as much time as he needs.
13) Patrick Weigel
Let’s rejoice for Patrick Weigel, who is healthy and pitching again full-time. It was quite devastating when news hit that Patrick Weigel would need Tommy John Surgery after just 15 starts and the verge of a call-up to Atlanta back in 2017. After about 14 months of rehab, he pitched in four games (6 K in 4 IN) to end the 2018 season as a small appetizer. The Braves have brought him along slowly, starting around 40 pitches per game and ramping up to 89 pitches in his last outing. The interesting thing is how Weigel has been handled versus the path of Max Fried. Fried threw 60 pitches in his first game returning from TJS, and only threw fewer than 60 pitches twice in his comeback. However, Fried struggled a bit in the following year, so it’ll be very interesting to see how this new more cautious approach works out for Weigel.
This season, Weigel got off to a great start, but late May saw a streak of about six starts where he struggled with command, walking 17 batters in 23 innings. While he had been recently been promoted to Triple-A, this stretch also coincided with an increased workload. The good news is that he’s starting to right the ship. While command is usually the last thing to come back for a pitcher coming off TJS, Weigel’s velocity also hasn’t returned in full. Before the injury, he was throwing 92-96 and could even touch the upper 90s. These days, he’s mainly been sitting around 90-93 and touching 95/96. It’s also possible that the Braves are intentionally holding Weigel from going all out.
In the offseason, Weigel was added to the 40-man roster, so the big question is whether or not he will make his MLB debut at some point this year. Right now, he has 10 starts in AAA and some of his numbers and advanced metrics don’t look great. He might be sitting pretty with a nice 3.18 ERA, but his xFIP is 6.30. Add to that the decreased velocity and inconsistent command, he simply needs more time. His immediate future will ultimately depend on how he progresses over his next few starts. For now, it’s just great seeing him back on the mound.