For those that are not aware, we put out two Top 30 Atlanta Braves prospect lists each year...well, most years anyways: one before the season begins and one at the All-Star break to incorporate new draftees, account for graduations, and to make adjustments based on what we are hearing and seeing. 2020 was an obvious weird exception where we both had no All-Star break and we also had no minor league baseball to scout, so updating our thoughts didn’t make much sense. Before we get into the actual names and rankings, here are some things you all need to know about how we do things:
- Our top 30 is derived from a composite of all of the personal rankings from the Talking Chop minor league crew (this time, that includes Eric Cole, Garrett Spain, Matt Powers, Wayne Cavadi, and Gaurav Vedak). After we all get our personal rankings together, we make a composite of said list, and then we double check to make sure that nothing appears to be super wonky. An important note for our rankings: we dropped the highest and lowest rankings for each player before calculating their composite ranking to try and remove outlier rankings that have, at times, led to some less than desirable results in the past. With all of the turnover on the list in the past season or so, we just wanted to make sure the resulting composite was as consistent as possible and lessen the influence of outlier rankings.
- We loosely use the MLB rookie eligibility requirements to see who is and who isn’t eligible for the list, although we are completely fine with removing a guy if he is relatively close to losing eligibility and has an established role in the major leagues (we did this with Dansby Swanson in the past and elsewhere). For example, you will notice that Bryse Wilson does not appear on our list. That is not because we don’t like him...it’s because he is a handful of innings away from losing rookie eligibility and has been up and down in the majors for a couple of years now. When in doubt, we will err on the side of getting new blood on the list for no other reason than our preference.
- These are just our rankings and each one of us is different. Depending on who you are talking to, you will get differing opinions on what we like and don’t like in prospects and that is absolutely okay. If you are looking for an overriding philosophy present in our list, you are unlikely to find one other than we all talk to each other a lot and that all of our rankings are very fluid. There are those that will be bold and rank lottery ticket prep guys highly while others weigh proximity and sample size more, etc., etc. That is just the nature of the game and having those variances in opinions is good and allows for players of all types to get discussed.
- Don’t get hung up on specific ranking spots. If one guy is ranked 13th and another is 11th for example, it is likely that there were some that had those guys flipped in their personal rankings and it is even more likely that we don’t see a huge difference between those two players. It is best to think of our list in terms of tiers... not hard and fast rankings. Same goes for guys that were in the honorable mentions and didn’t make the top 30. We have to draw the line somewhere, but it isn’t like those guys have zero chance of ever being big leaguers or even being on the list at midseason. We are always willing to adjust our rankings fairly quickly on a guy if the information or what we are seeing changes.
- Like all things with prospects, these rankings are subject to change and they do, in fact, change quite a bit. This is more of a snapshot of this moment in time than anything. Guys improve and regress and when they do, we alter our thinking. Prospect development is not a linear path... so prospect rankings shouldn’t be either. If you think a guy is turning a corner or over-ranked based on his recent performance, check back when we do the next list rather than try to set us on fire in the comments section. This is particularly true this year when the amount of information we have is very limited. I will go ahead and let you all know that our confidence level in these rankings is relatively low....mainly because we haven’t seen most of these guys in action for a year or so. I fully anticipate a lot of changes during the midseason list and you should, too.
- Be kind and understand that just because you hold a different opinion doesn’t mean you need to yell/cuss/place a voodoo curse on us. Prospect rankings seem to really get folks in their feelings at times when, in reality, they are just a fun thought exercise that mean very little in the grand scheme of things. We are proud of the work we do on these, but none of us think we have all of the answers and it is really interesting to see how our rankings change as well as seeing when we are right or wrong. I am also famously pretty intolerant of folks being jerks, particularly in the comments section or on Twitter... so be one at your own risk.
As is customary, Garrett went over a few of the names that just missed our list this go-around, so take a look at our honorable mentions before you read this installment. Below, you will find the first six prospects from our top 30 with four more such installments to come. Enjoy!
30.) Thomas Burrows - LHP
Our frequent readers will recognize the name that kicks off our list at No. 30, and that is left-handed relief pitcher Thomas Burrows. Burrows first made his name as the star reliever on the 2016 Alabama Crimson Tide baseball team, as he was dominant with a 0.95 ERA, 13 K/9 and just under three walks per nine in his junior season. As a fourth-round pick of the Seattle Mariners he immediately continued that success and the Braves picked him up in the trade that sent Mallex Smith to Seattle. While originally just considered a minor second piece along with top prospect Luiz Gohara, Burrows has put himself in good position to be a part of the Braves in the near future.
Burrows first season in the Atlanta organization saw him dominate with a 2.16 ERA and a 12.4 K/9 rate, but it also saw him spend the entire season at Rome despite being a successful Division I reliever. Even stranger, he started 2018 in Rome as well at age 23, but thankfully the Braves quickly moved him to High-A after his first outing. His stint in Florida really was not that impressive as his walk rate ballooned, but he was moved to Mississippi at the end of the season and went right back to dominating the competition. The Braves sent him to the Arizona Fall League and he did well there with a 2.25 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 12 innings placing him as a real threat to get to the Major Leagues in 2019.
2019 was a tough year for Burrows, as despite repeating at Double-A his strikeout rate dropped from 37% to 28.2% and he had a terrible time stranding runners with an abysmal 57.3% LOB rate. HIs 3.11 FIP was still better than his 3.86 ERA, but it was still a bit of a disappointment. He went to Triple-A next and for the first time in his professional career was significantly younger than his average competition and it showed. Burrows’ strikeouts dropped again, this time to below 25%, and his walk rate ballooned to 11.3% as he posted a 4.75 ERA and 4.46 FIP. He was only 24, so this was more of a set back than a disaster, but him losing the chance to prove himself outside of his time at the alternate site really hurt him in 2020. Now 26, with the Braves having a stocked bullpen and the last taste of him bitter, 2021 will be a make or break year for Burrows.
Burrows projects nicely as a major-league reliever. His fastball is only in the low 90’s, but with his low arm angle he gets nice run on the pitch and he is a nightmare against left-handed batters. In 2019 lefties had just a .501 OPS against him, but right-handed batters crushed him to the tune of a .752 OPS. His slider is his best pitch and blows away left-handed batters, but he still hasn’t quite tuned it in to being able to get both sides out. That along with his pop-up control problems limits his ceiling, and with the three-batter minimum rule now in place, the market for a Loogy is non-existent. If Burrows can figure out a way to use his pitches against right-handed batters he can be a fantastic middle relief option, but without that skill he may fall short of being a key bullpen piece in the future.
29.) Cam Shepherd - SS/UTIL
How rare is it to see an undrafted free agent make a team’s Top 30 prospect list heading into his first full year with the club? It’s so rare that I can think of only one time I’ve ever seen it in the past — TJ Friedl signing with the Reds after the 2016 season after some teams didn’t realize he was sophomore eligible in the 2016 MLB Draft.
Cam Shepherd isn’t quite as rare a situation. If this draft wasn’t limited to only five rounds, he absolutely would have been a fairly high pick going in the first 12 rounds of a normal draft, depending on how signability played out. Shepherd had the talent to go in the first 10 rounds back in 2019 as a junior as well had he not decided to head back to Georgia for his senior year.
Shepherd isn’t the highest ceiling prospect out there, but he is a fairly well-rounded player with a high floor and significant experience and success against high-end competition. He projects more of a utility infielder in the big leagues than a starter, but he’s got adequate and potentially growing pop (8 HR in 294 PA in 2019, up to 4 HR in 86 PA in 2020), the ability to use his instincts to steal a base (he had seven in just 18 games in 2020), and has shown the ability to make more contact than we’ve seen at times during his college career.
If you told me before the draft started that the Braves were going to use one of their later picks on Shepherd in 2020, his talent, potential, and track record would have made me comfortable with that decision. However, getting a player like this after the draft as a free agent is a big win during a very weird year.
28.) William Woods - RHP
William Woods didn’t enter spring training on the radar to make our prospect list. The Braves 23rd-round pick out of a Tennessee JUCO in the 2018 MLB Draft had an interesting but not impressive line in Rome in 2019 that had more questions than answers.
Woods spent the whole year there and made 20 appearances, including seven starts totaling 51 innings. He posted a 3.35 ERA and 1.31 WHIP, but behind those numbers were a promising 6.7 H/9 and 10.2 K/9 — and an equally troubling 5.1 BB/9. Woods started to emerge during quarantine after posting some videos to Twitter showing improved velocity up to the upper 90s, including the 99 MPH video posted below.
Work hard today. Outwork yourself tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/l3ixgzW64e— William Woods (@williamwoods22) September 4, 2020
While that started to get us a little more excited about Woods, there were still questions. Mainly why the videos were so short and only featured the fastball. While there was something to get excited about, it wasn’t something to fully buy-in on.
Then, late in the season the, Braves added Woods to the alternate site roster, giving us more reason to believe in him as the Braves wouldn’t be adding him without good reason. It’s hard to assess what Woods is right now. Sure he has added velocity, but does it hold up? Has the command improved? What about the secondary offerings? Until we see more from him he profiles as a potential hard throwing reliever with a lively fastball — but certainly one with potential to be more.
27.) Hayden Deal - LHP
Coming in at No. 27 on our preseason list, we have LHP Hayden Deal who came out of nowhere to turn himself into a bona fide prospect. As an undrafted free agent back in 2017, Deal was spotted by highly regarded Braves scout Billy Best at a small college, Presbyterian College. Deal has a good mix of pitches that could be utilized as a starter or a reliever, although it is very unclear where he is at as a starter right now. His fastball generally sits in the low 90’s, a breaking ball that is above average but unlikely to get much better than that, and, most importantly, a cutter that most would agree is his best pitch. After starting his pro career as a reliever, the first half of 2019 saw Deal post a 1.88 ERA with 57 strikeouts and 16 walks in 67 innings in High-A. The second half wasn’t as kind, but already possessing a pitch that allows him to get righties out and some success as a starter certainly opened some eyes.
It isn’t really a secret that some of us here have had a bit of a fascination with Deal and his cutter going back to 2019. However, the loss of the 2020 season hurt guys like Deal the most as he is an older prospect already (he just turned 26), so this ranking is predicated on him being at least in Double-A to start the 2021 season. It wouldn’t be a crazy notion to see him moved to the bullpen if the Braves feel like he is running out of time to establish himself as a starter, but if he moves to reliever, his value obviously goes down. The biggest problem we see is a combine lack of track record as a starter as well as he only has one season where he has thrown significant innings and in that one season, he was significantly worse as the season went on. We are cautiously optimistic about Deal, but he is a name that could fall off the list depending on how 2021 goes in the first half.
26.) Joey Estes - RHP
A four-pitch pitcher coming out of high school, Joey Estes was one of the late-round bigger bonus prospects coming out of the 2019 draft in the 16th round. His professional career got off to a slow start as Estes went 0-1 with an 8.10 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 6.3 BB/9, but also a 4.01 FIP at the age of 17 in the Gulf Coast League.
Missing out on 2020 was extremely unfortunate for Estes because he has the body to add size and perhaps increase his velocity, though as of 2019 he was sitting in the mid-90s. His second-best pitch is his slider that has good lateral movement and makes for a tough at-bat for right-handed hitters. His curveball and changeup are both slightly below average to average with his curveball being the more advanced pitch for him.
2021 will be a big one for Estes because if he’s taken that next step with his secondary pitches he becomes an extremely intriguing prospect. He spent the majority of the year quarantining with another Braves 2020 draft pick — Mahki Backstrom. The two pushed and challenged one another so it will be exciting to see how they come out of the gates in 2021.
25.) Stephen Paolini - OF
At No. 25 on this installment of the top 30 is outfielder Stephen Paolini. Paolini wasn’t on very many people’s radar going into the 2019 draft. However, the Braves certainly thought they had grabbed a diamond in the rough out of a small Connecticut high school when they drafted him in the fifth round. Paolini has a fascinating raw set of tools as he is a plus runner, should be able to stay in centerfield, and has a bit of pop in his bat. The level of competition Paolini played against as an amateur can reasonably give one pause, but the Braves seem intent on playing the long game with him and developing him slowly to hopefully uncover his potential.
The trick with Paolini is that he is physically capable of doing a lot of different things on the field, but what his body ends up being as he grows will determine how we can project him. When we interviewed Stephen back in early 2020, he felt as though he could be a guy that could steal bases as well as provide some power at the plate and ideally, that is what he would turn into. However, we did notice that he had filled out some early in 2020 and we plan on getting a lot of closer looks at how those changes in his frame impact both his ability to impact the baseball, but also how he looks running the bases. We are tad higher on Paolini than most and we love the story, but having a healthy dose of patience and understanding that he is still a ways away is probably best when thinking about him.