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Talking Chop 2021 Preseason Top 30 Braves Prospects: 7-12

The Braves sure do like lefty pitchers as this installment shows us.

Detroit Tigers v Atlanta Braves - Jasseel De La Cruz delivers a pitch Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

We are heading into the home stretch of our Top 30 Braves prospects list. We appreciate each and every one of you taking the time to read these posts and share them on the interwebs. The entire MiLB team does a ton of work on these and it is great to see that work is gobbled up by you guys

If you are looking to get caught up on the list so far, here are some links to help you out.

Talking Chop 2021 Preseason Top 30 Braves Prospects: Honorable Mentions

Talking Chop 2021 Preseason Top 30 Braves Prospects: 25-30

Talking Chop 2021 Preseason Top 30 Braves Prospects: 19-24

Talking Chop 2021 Preseason Top 30 Braves Prospects: 13-18

We are also reaching the point of the list where you are going to be seeing the big bets we have made as a group. Sometimes those bets look great (ranking Ronald Acuna Jr. high early) and sometimes they don’t (Eric not listening to Garrett when he said that Lucas Sims wasn’t a top 5 guy in the system). Only time will tell, but really all of the fluctuations, surprises, and missteps are what make these thought exercises interesting to look back on. Enjoy prospects 7-12.

12.) Mahki Backstrom - 1B

Really close to the top 10 comes an incredibly intriguing prospect - Mahki Backstrom. You don’t see a ton of first base prospects, especially at his age (19), make the list because there is a lot of value in positional versatility but Backstrom has the makings of being such an impact bat that he comes in right at 12. He appeared in 23 games in 2019 where he hit .300/.402/.457 with a pair of homers and five doubles. He has spent a lot of 2020 living with and practicing with another Braves prospect, Joey Estes, and has put on a lot of muscle.

Coming into the draft Backstrom ranked in the 98 percentile in max barrel speed, impact momentum, and max acceleration, and while they aren’t indicative of hitting talent, it shows how elite his bat speed is which is a massive plus. He has the opportunity to hit for big power and has shown a really solid eye at the plate with the chance to have a sizable OBP if his hit tool continues to develop. Not being able to get those game reps in 2020 certainly hurt his development but he’s got a fantastic head on his shoulders and is as determined as anyone else. Backstrom made a major adjustment to his swing as he dropped his hands down and with it has come a swing that creates a lot of backspin and some of those doubles from last season may be turning into homers.

11.) Tucker Davidson - LHP

At No. 11 on our rankings is lefty Tucker Davidson who may be one of the players that has the most variance in how he could be ranked at midseason. Tucker began his career with the Braves as a 19th round pick that, before he got to full season ball, was largely pegged as a relief prospect by most but who quickly established himself as one of Rome’s better starters in 2017. On the season as a whole, he posted a 2.60 ERA in 103.2 innings with a 2.76 ERA as a starter (12 starts total). His time in high-A was a bit of an adjustment with his walks jumping up and his strikeout rate taking a dip. However, the 2019 season saw him get back on track with a very strong showing in Double-A (2.03 ERA in 110.2 innings with 122 strikeouts) before a late season call-up to Triple-A.

Davidson has a lot of things going for him with throwing with his left hand being near or at the top of the list. He has also pretty famously been working with the Driveline guys which has seen his fastball tick up and threaten triple digits. Opinions here are divided on how good that fastball is as some have seen it as lacking the movement we would like while others have faith that his ability to get some rise out of it and get swings and misses up and out of the zone will serve him well in the majors. His curve can be a plus pitch, but can be inconsistent as an out pitch. The changeup was a work in progress the last time we saw him play other than a less than stellar major league debut (no one should care about that small of a sample), so the grade on that is incomplete for us.

Tucker’s career has some parallels to Bryse Wilson in that he has performed as a starter in the minor leagues primarily on the back of a quality fastball, but we are still unsure if that will be enough in the major leagues. There is certainly talent there, but it was a little telling that there was clearly an opportunity for him in the major leagues last season and he wasn’t given much of a shot. The Braves even went as far as to say that Davidson was lagging behind other pitching prospects for those opportunities, so we are left wondering if the developments we need to see from him to reach his middle of the rotation starter ceiling are in progress or ever going to happen. Consider us to be in a holding pattern until we see more. We could easily see him shove in Triple-A and do well and we could also see him struggle with his command and secondary pitches and get surpassed by others.

10.) Jasseel de la Cruz - RHP

Leading off our Top 10 is right handed pitcher Jasseel de la Cruz, whose steady improvement and performance throughout his career has slowly pushed him further up this list. It seems like every year we get a little more bullish on JDLC, and the potential still remains limitless with his pure stuff. De La Cruz signed back in 2015, and really came in off of most people’s radar. He only got seven appearances in the Dominican Summer League that year and had a 7.11 ERA, but come 2016 he was ready to begin his rise in the system. In 41 13 innings across the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League, de la Cruz had a 2.18 ERA and allowed hitters to hit just .193 against him. A third stint in rookie ball in 2017 saw him get to Danville, and while he struggled at the higher level he still pitched respectfully well overall with a 3.80 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 42 23 innings.

Going into his age 21 season with little fan fare and a mediocre performance in advanced rookie ball not many people paid much attention to de la Cruz, but it took all of one game for that to change in 2018. Right out of the gate de la Cruz through five hitless innings with eight strikeout in his debut with Rome, and only an injury early in the season was able to slow him down. In his first four starts he had a 2.04 ERA with 20 strikeouts to five walks in 17 23 innings until going on the injured list for a month and a half. He was inconsistent upon his return, with a major walk problem and a 5.79 ERA over the remainder of the season, but his healthy performances early and his obvious talent were enough for him to vault up our lists. 2019 was the breakout for Jasseel as he finally began to move quickly through the system as he came up on Rule 5 eligibility. He pitched four games in Rome, struck out 22 batters in 18 innings, and was immediately promoted to the Fire Frogs. Across his first three games in High-A he struck out 22 batters in 19 innings with only five walks allowed and a .452 OPS against. He was playing the best extended period of baseball of his career, and then in his fourth High-A start he threw a no hitter. Nine innings, no hits, and only two walks allowed in obviously one of the best performances of the last decade for a Braves prospect. He then got a quick promotion to Double-A and finished out the year much as he had the previous two with decent numbers and flashes of brilliance that made him a mouth-watering prospect to follow.

Along with his ability comes inconsistency, and that’s what has so far held him back from being a truly elite prospect. His delivery is jerky and has led to command difficulties, and the times when he can’t find the plate he struggles to settle in and combat those problems. When he’s on he’s untouchable, take a July 7, 2019 game against the Biloxi Shuckers where he struck out 10 batters over 6 innings with just two walks allowed. Then the next game he allowed five walks and seven runs in 4 23 innings. He is surprisingly one of the more efficient pitchers in the system despite his command issues, as he focuses his efforts on weak contact and combats some of the pitch count problems that poor control can cause. His pure stuff is outstanding, as he uses his fastball at a variety of velocities from the low 90’s all the way up to 99. Being able to use his fastball both as an explosive power pitch and a running sinker gives him effectively two pitches. Add in a dominant plus slider that is the go to swing-and-miss pitch and you have a pitcher who even if his command doesn’t work out could easily find himself as a closer in the major leagues. Development of his command is important and more so is the changeup, as although he’s shown a feel for it at times, he hasn’t been nearly consistent enough for it to be considered a major league quality offering. Without that pitch he may not be able to survive his control problems at the major league level and may be forced into a bullpen role. The talent is immense and the Braves will keep him in the rotation as long as possible, but even if that doesn’t work out the potential for him to be a star in the bullpen is absolutely real.

9.) Braden Shewmake - SS/UTIL

If you have been following the minor league team here at TC, you will know that there were some big variances in opinion on Braden Shewmake when he was drafted. Shewmake hails from Texas A&M and was one of the Braves’ first round picks in the 2019 draft along with Shea Langeliers. That was the start of the Braves’ lean towards drafting college players in the early rounds of the draft and prioritizing a certain level of safety there. Shewmake had an excellent collegiate career even if the power numbers that were present during his freshman year didn’t continue to project upward. He can run and his hit tool from the left side was on full display during his time at Rome with a 151 wRC+. His open stance does look a little funky and the bat path at times isn’t really one that lends itself to power, but he drives the ball with authority and is on time far more often than not.

One question we had when he was drafted was whether or not he was a shortstop or if he was going to be better suited for a utility-type role (which still has a lot of value, but the cause of that shift does matter). While several of us still think that he may end up as a utility guy, his fielding, in particular his arm, were better than we had initially thought and obviously the early returns on offense were quite good. Based on that performance as well as continued positive information from folks that we consider smart and in the know on such things, Shewmake’s rank was adjusted up a bit from our preseason rankings last time.

There are some open questions, though. Will we see more power from him in the minors? His frame certainly seems like it could carry more muscle (he was quite skinny the last time we saw him), but as a college guy who should, in theory, have already grown into his body mostly, will we see physical changes there and if so, how does that impact his speed? Will we see some swing adjustments? These are things we are going to be monitoring during the minor league season and, hopefully, we will get a clearer picture sooner rather than later.

8.) Jared Shuster - LHP

Slotting in at number eight and making his debut to our top prospect list is the Braves top draft pick from the 2020 draft - Jared Shuster. There is so much to like about Jared starting off with the fact that he is a lefty that can run the ball up to 97 mph, sits mid-90s, with some good run. With that fastball comes what is considered the best changeup by many scouts in the last draft along with an average slider.

Shuster put himself on the map after a fantastic stint in the Cape Cod league that saw his velocity take a huge jump forward and then, before COVID put a season to the end, he put up an astounding 14.7 K/9, and 1.37 BB/9 in his junior year. Because of this huge uptick in play, the Braves were happy to snag him to an under slot deal and could end up being a very sneaky high-value pick. Where Atlanta places him to start the season will be interesting. He will be 22 years old at the start of the season and could see an early stint in Rome with a later promotion to Mississipi if all goes well. Shuster is definitely a pitcher to watch closely in the 2021 season as his ascension up prospect rankings may happen if his fastball command improvement is repeated.

7.) Kyle Muller - LHP

The highest upside arm in the Braves system is, was, and will continue to be not Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson, Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, or anyone else. That honor goes to Kyle Muller, the 6’7, 250 pound lefty the Braves took high in the second round of the 2017 MLB Draft.

Muller didn’t just possess a huge frame, but also huge raw stuff with a fastball that isn’t far from hitting triple digits on the radar gun. He also has three other pitches that flash as at least above average offerings in his curve, slider, and change, however they only flash as above average or better, and the consistency has been a work in progress.

The biggest issue with Muller isn’t the consistency of his secondary offerings, but his command. For example he had a 5.5 BB/9 over 22 starts in Double-A back in 2019, and has a career 4.0 BB/9. Those numbers are high, but only tell you part of the story. Muller can go weeks with what appears to be great strides in his command, leading to streaks of dominating starts. Then a switch flips and he can’t find the zone at all for multiple starts and he at times has looked lost.

Muller spent 2020 at the alternate site and is a strong candidate to be in the first group of guys to get to camp in 2021 for extra work as reports out of the alternate site weren’t overwhelmingly positive for him. Still, with everything going for him, he’s so close to having that switch flip and becoming a top of the rotation lefty. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the now 23-year old is still figuring things out, as taller, long armed pitchers usually take a little longer as they try to figure out their bodies best in order to get the delivery correct and in sync.

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