Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the second 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. Yesterday, we rolled out the first six 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 has a nice mix of new faces, guys we have become accustomed to seeing in the rankings, and resurgent players who had previously fallen out of favor. Enjoy!
24) Vaughn Grissom - SS
Vaughn Grissom is just one of the elite-level athletic prospects that the Braves are gambling on from the later rounds of the 2019 draft. An extremely high-upside shortstop, Vaughn managed to stand out despite being teammates with No. 5 overall pick Riley Greene because of some rather gaudy tools. Vaughn will likely grow out of shortstop, as he stands at 6’3” / 180 and can easily add on 18-20 more pounds. However, he should be able to easily switch to second or third because of his athleticism. Vaughn added a ton of power his senior year and has untapped potential with the bat.
Vaughn already possesses a good hit tool for his age and has a really easy swing. With that swing and athleticism comes a very entertaining Diamond Kinetics page which Vaughn dominates. He’s in the 95th percentile in max barrel speed (74.357 MPH), 84th percentile for impact momentum, 96th percentile for max acceleration, and 94th percentile for exit velocity (95 MPH). The athleticism also plays well defensively, as Vaughn has quick, smooth feet and a great arm clocking in at around 87 MPH. Vaughn is the perfect kind of high-ceiling lottery ticket you love to gamble on with a team as young as the Braves. This will allow Vaughn to take as much time as he needs to develop, and if he reaches his ceiling - the Braves have another gifted infielder.
23) Freddy Tarnok - RHP
At No. 23 on the list is a pitcher with arguably the best pure talent in his arm in the system. Drafted somewhat surprisingly in the third round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Braves, Tarnok features a high-octane fastball that reaches the upper 90s as well as a breaking ball that has a ton of movement and promise, but does lack consistency. After a good start to his pro career in Rookie ball, Tarnok started the 2018 season in Rome’s bullpen and thrived, piling up the strikeouts. He eventually made the expected conversion to starter, where he continued to strike guys out, but also suffered from command issues that made him far less effective. Those command issues have sadly continued into 2019 and he has also been striking out batters less and getting hit harder and more often that one would expect given the quality of his raw stuff (opposing batters are hitting .272 against him). He had missed about a month due to injury this season and recently has begun his rehab assignment down in the Gulf Coast League.
In Tarnok, the Braves have a very, very raw talent. He got into pitching later than many guys his age and he is still learning to harness his talent. As a result, don’t expect him to fly through the minor league system like some of the other Braves’ prep pitcher draft picks in recent years — he is going to take some time to develop. The results have not been great, particularly this season, but arms like Tarnok’s are rare and the Braves will likely be willing to give him lots of time to find himself. If things come together for Tarnok (especially if he can develop a solid changeup) and he sticks as a starter, he has the ability to be a frontline guy. There is a lot of risk with him and his future could very well be in the bullpen given his profile, but his lofty ceiling keeps him a guy to dream on and monitor for the time being.
22) Travis Demeritte - OF
Travis Demeritte has been quite the polarizing prospect in his career, but his wayward path has him pushing for a roster spot in Atlanta sooner rather than later. Demeritte starred in the Rangers’ system after being drafted in the first round in 2013, but was traded in 2016 for Lucas Harrell and Dario Alvarez. Early on, the Braves thought they might have acquired a key starter. They tried Demeritte at third base and in the outfield to increase his versatility, but in 2017 he was moved to Mississippi and his career derailed a bit. Demeritte couldn’t put up the same numbers in the Southern League and it took a toll on his overall value, and after spending two years in Mississippi, many gave up on him completely, as he looked lost at the plate for a large portion of his plate appearances. Promoted to Gwinnett to start the 2019 campaign, Demeritte immediately looked like a new player. He saw a return of his power production in a big way, and with a decrease in strikeouts, an increase in walks, and a huge increase in line drives, he seems to have put himself right back on track to be a major leaguer. Demeritte has the second-highest OPS (1.005) in the International League and the sixth highest ISO (.301).
Whether Demeritte has the potential to be a regular in the big leagues remains to be seen, and it’s highly unlikely that happens in Atlanta. But, if the power continues to play, it is likely someone will find a place to play him. Importantly for Demeritte, his defense in the outfield has taken a step forward this season and that makes him playable at four positions which enhances the value he provides to a team. Demeritte is never going to be an above-average hitter from a contact perspective, but he’s able to make up for his deficiencies in the swing and miss department by showing a good eye and plate discipline to draw walks and keep a decent on base percentage.
Perhaps no prospect stands to benefit as much as Demeritte does from a new, more lively ball because it plays directly into what he tries to do at the plate. Demeritte wants to lift the ball, hit home runs, and rack up doubles. His bat plays up in the hitting environment we’re seeing today. His surge is no fluke. He’s made genuine strides in his game and his approach and when his natural plus power is combined with a high home run play-style it bodes well for his ability to create value. Demeritte has always been considered a potential thirty-home run bat and he’s starting to now realize that potential. It’s important to realize that although it seems like he’s an older prospect he’s still just 24 years old — only three months older than current rookie of the year favorite Pete Alonso. It took some time, and a better hitter’s park, for him to realize the potential but he is reaching it now and that’s why he’s remade himself into a decent prospect. No longer playing second base full time hurts Demeritte’s stock, as does the waning hope he will ever figure out how to hit at a high level, but there’s reason to believe he will help a major league team, especially if he were to embrace a utility role. He can play off the bench with his power adding just another bit of depth, and his positional versatility makes him a promising piece. Right now, the Braves’ bench is playing so well it’s impossible to force someone out, but one injury or bad stretch of play and Demeritte should find himself in Atlanta.
21) Jeremy Walker - RHP
It feels like Jeremy Walker has been in the Braves system forever. In reality, he really hasn’t, as he joined the team in 2016 as a fifth round pick out of Gardner-Webb. Part of why Walker feels like he has been around so long is that his fastball has made him an intriguing starting pitching prospect right after he was drafted.
Unfortunately, Walker’s big fastball was too straight and he didn’t have strong enough secondaries or command, quickly dropping him from in the rankings. Walker came into this year as an afterthought, and when he made the move from the rotation to the bullpen as the guy that was handcuffed to Patrick Weigel’s starts as the latter built his innings back up this year, no one gave it a second thought — until Walker’s big fastball started to show much better life.
With better zip on the fastball and a bullpen assignment that allowed it to play up further, Walker has posted a 2.45 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 58 2⁄3 innings in Mississippi, recording 57 strikeouts to just five walks. It’s worth noting that the fastball isn’t the only thing that’s helped Walker’s breakout this season. His command has made major progress, going from walking 3.0 hitters per nine innings in 2018 down to just 0.7 per nine this season. His slider has also ticked up a bit, but that’s more of a secondary reason for his progression.
Walker has recently been promoted to Gwinnett, where he’s made one appearance so far. He likely needs some time there before getting up to the big leagues and becoming a potential middle reliever.
20) Tristan Beck - RHP
Tristan Beck came into the 2019 season as one of the more exciting prospects for Braves fans to watch, but an early season injury delayed his timetable and he is just now returning to action. Beck was a potential first-round pick back in the 2015 draft, but he opted to go to Stanford instead and the Braves were able to reap the reward of that and snag him in the fourth round of last year’s draft. After a stellar freshman campaign at Stanford, he struggled with injuries in 2017 and then in 2018 he was not as effective as his 2016 season. This regression allowed the Braves to pick him up and there was a lot of excitement surrounding him as a polished college arm with a four-pitch mix that could play up if his command stayed strong.
Beck played very little in 2018 and only in the Gulf Coast League, but he was nonetheless promoted to play for the Fire Frogs to open the 2019 season. Beck struggled early and had a 7.71 ERA through his first four starts, although his peripherals were significantly better. Unfortunately, he succumbed to a groin injury and missed two months before getting back on the mound in late June. Since his return Beck’s stuff has taken a step forward and in limited time, he has improved his numbers. Staying healthy will be the number one priority for Beck as he is more than talented enough to blow through the minor leagues if he can stay on the mound.
Beck proved scouts right after his freshman year at Stanford and many again projected him as a first round arm, but following the injury his stuff all regressed and that was what allowed him to fall to the fourth round. Many were banking on projectability that hasn’t come for Beck despite adding about 30 pounds in college, and it’s unlikely he’ll add much to his low 90s fastball that can top out at 96. His curveball and changeup both flashed as plus offerings in college, but since then have taken a step back and now seem more average options to go along with an average slider. Command will be key for Beck, as without any plus offerings or a blazing fastball, his ability to his spots and mix his pitches will determine his ultimate role. There is plenty of reason to believe in Beck as a middle of the rotation starter as he has a clean delivery that he has shown the ability to repeat and he has a good knowledge of the game and how to make his pitches play up with smart usage. There is also still a chance that given enough time away from the injuries that his curveball and changeup could again take the step forward to where they were previously. If that’s the case, he could prove to be the steal of the draft in 2018. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to rate a guy with his injury history very high no matter how much one believes in his stuff and that is the main justification for him coming in ranked below where his true talent would have him.
19) Justin Dean - OF
Dean, along with his former outfield mate in Rome, Trey Harris, is one of the highest risers on our midseason top 30. He rose from an honorable mention this preseason all the way into the top 20. It wasn’t simply one thing that has improved from the preseason assessment. It’s everything.
The 22-year-old outfielder opened the season with an inside-the-park home run in Rome’s first at-bat and — minus a short stint on the injured list — has been rolling ever since. Entering this week’s action (Monday, July 8), Dean is slashing .288/.405/.442 with 13 doubles, six triples, four home runs, 52 runs scored, and has 26 stolen bases in 32 attempts, a success rate nearly 20% better than last season. He’s always been a big walk guy — he walked 80 times and struck out 94 in 551 career at-bats at Lenoir-Rhyne — and continues to do so with an impressive 13.3% walk rate.
So, just what kind of player is Dean? He saw his 14-game hit streak come to an end on Sunday. He went 0-for-2, but still walked twice, stole two bases, and scored two runs. Simply put, Dean is a baseball player.
One big change is his swing. He changed the slot, and unlike last year, instead of getting on top of the ball and driving it into the ground (his ground ball rate is down six percent from last year to 46.2 percent), he’s finding a lot more gaps with an improved line drive rate (up seven percent to 21.6 percent this season). He’s not going to ever be a big home run guy, but he is stronger than he is given credit for and if he stays in this organization, he won’t have to be with plenty of power to go around elsewhere.
He seems to thrive in the leadoff spot which has a trickle down effect to the top of the order. His speed — which most will say is his best tool — plays in the outfield, where he’s shown he can play all three positions, although with a modest arm, center field suits him best. Dean told us earlier this season, “It’s nothing new, I’ve been on the low end of the totem pole starting back in high school.” He’s always proved he can handle the next level, even when some felt he couldn’t. In a system loaded with outfield talent, he’ll have to continue to do so, but thus far, he’s proved plenty wrong that doubted him.