With the unfortunate announcement that Major League Baseball will be suspending operations until further notice, it looks like it may be awhile before we get a chance to see Braves prospects in action this season. So, In lieu of our traditional roster previews that come out around this time during the year, I thought it would be fun to do some roster predictions and come back around to it in a month or two and see how wrong I am.
We start off our season with a look at the roster for Low-A Rome, and while there is an abnormal lack of depth to the team mostly due to the effects of the international sanctions, there is still a lot of talent more towards the top end of the roster that will make this a fun team to track. We’re going to focus on players that are seen to have legitimate major league potential here, because it’s really a waste of time to try to figure out how the Braves will place their roster filler given the amount of turnover there is from season to season and during seasons.
Starting off with the pitching staff is going to reveal some young guns especially out of the most recent draft, and perhaps the most exciting off those is going to be Tyler Owens. Owens was the 13th round pick for the Braves in the 2019 draft, and he jumped off of the page in his professional debut with a performance that got him to Advanced Rookie ball in Danville. Most players who get to this level in their first pro season end up in Rome at some point, and with 23 innings in the league in which he looked solid there’s no reason to repeat Owens at the level. His 32 strikeouts and .184 batting average against jumps straight off the page, especially against much older competition, and Owens has the stuff to back it up. With a fastball that can sit at 93-94 and a potential plus offering with the slider Owens could have an early breakout in Rome and position himself as one of the legit arms that will come in a new wave after the current one has positioned itself.
One round later the Braves selected Jared Johnson, and I’m going to predict them to be very aggressive and go ahead and give the young man a nod. We may not see him at the beginning of the season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a couple of weeks in he makes himself a mainstay in the rotation. Johnson logged just 15 innings in the Gulf Coast League and his numbers were solid, but the stuff is ahead of the performance right now and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he can compete in Low-A right away.
As we start looking down at the bottom of the rotation and the bullpen the players are less clear cut top prospects, but all guys who could contribute if the cards fall correctly. Trey Riley has had an abysmal start to his professional career, with performance and health problems derailing his first full season, but he has the talent to succeed and the Braves will give him another chance. I’m hesitant to consider him a top prospect at this stage, but a month of good work and suddenly he will work himself back towards top 30 consideration. Peyton Williams is a no brainer for this roster although his ERA at Danville wasn’t too hot last season, the peripherals were better, and as a somewhat older arm (21 years old) the Braves will look to see what he’s got. Williams has middle relief potential and a nice performance at Rome could set him on track to go up multiple levels this season. Alex Segal is an under the radar pick to look at in 2020, and in 2019 he got his professional career off to a decent start with a 4.13 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 28 ⅓ innings as a pitcher in Danville. The command isn’t all there for Segal, but he could be a decent find in the 22nd round if he can continue to miss bats as he did throughout college and his first professional season.
I don’t anticipate there being a whole lot to talk about behind the plate in Rome next season, but once you move to the infield you can find a couple of Talking Chop’s favorite draft prospects from 2019. Neither player is a lock for the roster, but it would not be a stretch to see both and the Braves honestly don’t have better options. Over at first base we expect to see Mahki Backstrom, a now 18 year old first baseman who will play the entirety of next season at age 18. He would be one of the youngest players in the league, but also one of the most talented as a player who can produce tremendous bat speed and raw power despite his young age and room to grow. His professional debut was all we had hoped for as he hit .300/.402/.457 in the Gulf Coast League, and that could very well be enough to convince the Braves he is ready to skip a level. A lot will depend on what happens on the back fields of spring training, but Mahki’s production and progression so far indicates he is far enough along to make the Braves think hard about giving him that promotion.
Moving over to shortstop you have Vaughn Grissom, and while I could entertain arguments that would keep him in extended spring training I just don’t see how you can do it. This is another that would involve skipping Danville altogether, but Vaughn got significant playing time in the Gulf Coast League (44 games), made consistent contact throughout his time there, and showed quick improvement throughout the season. That ended in a month of August that saw him hit .333/.410/.364 with more walks (9) than strikeouts (8). He has middle of the order pop, decent speed, and a bat that has already outperformed expectations and this should be enough to have you excited to see him play in 2020.
Your wild card here is going to be Beau Philip, and I’ll be honest I have no idea what the Braves are thinking with him. Personally, I don’t regard him as a prospect of note, but the Braves took him in the second round because they see….something? I guess. So we need to talk about him. The Braves may decide to leave Vaughn in extended spring, make Philip the full time shortstop, and proceed that way. They may even skip Philip over Low-A altogether, although I would argue he may not even be ready for Rome much less a two level jump. If I had to guess, both Philip and Grissom will be in Rome, with Philip getting moved around and turned into a utility player as that is the only value I can see him providing to a major league team.
Moving to the outfield there is really only one player we’ll be keeping a close eye on this season, but he is the cream of the crop for the team and will be one that should carry a buzz with him all year. We’ve said plenty about Michael Harris, and he is a lock for Rome’s roster given that he spent time there in 2019. Harris’s numbers in Rome were bad, he had an OPS of just .501, but watching him it was clear he wasn’t out of his depth. He lost a few at bats to more experienced players, but overall for a player fresh out of high school Harris absolutely blew past all expectations. Harris totally skipped Danville after posting a .917 OPS in the Gulf Coast League, then at Rome he struggled but showed potential, made contact at a decent rate (23.7% strikeouts) and showed an advanced eye at the plate. Harris was not expected to be this quick to pick it up with the bat, but his contact skills are much better than advertised and I easily see him as an average to above average hitter. The power flashes above average to plus, but he’s a bit on top of the ball right now so the numbers aren’t showing up in games yet. With a winter under his belt and the experience of last season in Rome, I would not be surprised to see Harris light the world on fire in 2020.
This leaves us with a few notable players I expect to spend their season in extended spring training. Stephen Paolini is the highest drafted of those, and while I don’t doubt his talent and that he could be there in 2021, I think it’s clear to everyone that he’s just not a guy who is ready to play in Rome yet. Things could have changed this winter and we’ll have to see what he does, but the performance wasn’t there even in the Gulf Coast League and there’s no reason to rush him especially with the log jam of outfield talent above him. Kadon Morton will be another outfielder I would be surprised to see in Rome at any point this season, and much like Paolini I like the talent but the skill isn’t quite there for him to compete at Rome. Morton may well be the most physically gifted of all the players in the most recent draft, but his numbers in the Gulf Coast League (45 strikeouts in 32 games) do not instill confidence just yet. Morton is going to be a big time lottery ticket and he will almost certainly not hit, but the potential if he does is so tantalizing you just have to keep your eyes on him and your fingers crossed.
The last player I will discuss I went back and forth a bit on before finally settling on leaving him off of my roster predictions. Joey Estes is much more talented than his 8.10 ERA in the Gulf Coast League last year would show, and I’d say he is much closer to Rome than you think despite only getting 10 innings professionally, but as of yet I can’t see them making that jump with him. Estes could find himself in Rome this season, in fact if I were a betting man I would say I think he will get a taste towards the end of the season, but right now I think it’s best for his career to stay in extended spring and maybe even get a short dip back in the Gulf Coast League depending on his development over the next few months.