The Braves have graduated numerous top pitching prospects to their major league squad over the past five seasons, but they have managed to avoid weakening the system too much. Atlanta has a handful of pitching prospects still left in the minor leagues who don’t have enough space to get on the roster right now, but who could be a lucky break away from making it to Atlanta. I’ve compiled seven players, sorted from most to least likely to debut or return to Atlanta (in the case of the first), plus one pipe dream bonus candidate. The end of this list is more long shot players who could have a break out campaign or who pose an interesting story and may be worth keeping an eye on.
Tucker Davidson is the only player on this list that has made a major league debut so far, although that performance was far from peak Davidson and really served more to highlight how far he was from being ready than anything. Davidson’s performance in his minor league career has had its ups and downs, but overall he’s been one of the top three or so pitchers in the system from a statistical standpoint since his debut in 2016. Most of his struggles were centered around significant mechanical changes, and Davidson has grown from an unheralded 19th rounder to a legitimate rotation contender in four years. While there are a few young players that are ahead of Davidson for rotation spots right now, a strong performance in Triple-A and a couple of injuries at the major league level could open the door for Davidson to get time in the rotation in 2021. Regardless, a couple of spot starts and short stints in the bullpen to take up innings seems more likely than not and fans should be aware of Davidson and expect a much more successful return to the big leagues this season.
Pfeifer falling prey to injury was a huge blow for him last season, as the injuries and inconsistency with the Braves rotation in 2020 would have given him a huge opportunity to prove himself at the major league level. Instead, he’ll be coming into Spring Training with a massive range of potential outcomes. He is the most likely of any player on this list to make the team out of Spring Training, and I truly feel that he’s ready for the call. Being on the 40-man roster helps him in this regard, and he’s not a valuable enough prospect for the Braves to hesitate to call him up to spot start. Pfeifer’s career was headed nowhere, but he absolutely exploded following a move to the rotation in 2019 and he has real potential as a player who can fill a variety of roles on a major league team. It’s unfair to expect Pfeifer to be a real long term solution in the rotation, but he could be a great piece to fill in gaps either for the Braves or another team that sees benefit in his services.
A left-handed arm that did get a non-roster invitation to Spring Training this season, Thomas Burrows is likely just a half-step away from a major league debut. Burrows has done well in his entire career to stay healthy and limit home runs, but projects with less strikeout potential than some relief prospects like Corbin Clouse (next on the list, below). However, he carries high ground ball rates and can limit hard contact. Burrows is not the sexiest arm with an average MLB reliever’s arsenal, but he’s got a somewhat deceptive delivery and performs better on the field than his raw talent. Burrows is more of a middle relief option, but he has the potential to be a solid piece in the bullpen and could be one injury away from a quick call to the big league squad.
Corbin Clouse is a player that needs to be on the radar of followers of the minor league early in 2021, though his exclusion from being a non-roster invitee gives reason to think the Braves’ expectations for him are low. Injuries contributing to inconsistent play are probably the only reason we haven’t seen at least a taste of Clouse already, but the ability to stay healthy has become a big enough question mark to affect his prospect status. Clouse has never struggled for strikeouts in his career with a strikeout rate over ten batters per nine at every single level, and he manages to avoid incredibly high walk rates such that his statistical record doesn’t suffer too much. Home runs became a problem in Triple-A in 2019 to go along with injury, but how much of that can be attributed to the different ball is unclear. From an age and performance perspective it seems like a no brainer that Clouse will get an opportunity if he comes back healthy this season, but the Braves’ hesitance to put him in a position to prove himself may hint at his status in the organization.
It’s not outrageous to think we’ll see Kyle Muller in Atlanta in 2021, but it would take a lot of things going very right for him to make it. It’s less likely than many minor league fans probably hope, and the Braves have no real reason to rush him to the Major Leagues barring a catastrophe in the rotation. One big reason being that he is behind Davidson and Pfeifer on the depth chart just among left handed starters, and I would also expect the Braves to just keep him in Triple-A and let him develop without the pressures of trying to help a playoff club. Muller has all the potential in the world and I expect nothing less than to see him excel at the minor league level in 2021, but he’s probably not ready to make an impact in Atlanta just yet. He could see some time late in the season to fill innings in the bullpen, and a season as chaotic as 2020 could set him up in the rotation, but the likelihood he will get significant time is very low.
Jasseel de la Cruz
Jasseel de la Cruz is in the same position Muller is in terms of likelihood of getting a chance to start in 2021, but he is more equipped to succeed in the bullpen right now and with the way injuries can pile up, it’s fair to consider him as having a chance to make it to Atlanta. His fastball and slider combination are already ready to get outs at the big league level, and his attacking style and high grounder rates are something the Braves will covet if they need someone in an emergency. Where de la Cruz lands long term is still subject to massive uncertainty, but I’d argue that of the Braves’ top starting pitching prospects, he’s the most equipped to come in and succeed in a major league bullpen right now, behind only Pfeifer.
Daysbel Hernandez has a live arm and a boatload of potential, though to say he’s even remotely close to the big leagues is a stretch. That said, every now and then a team gets in a weird situation and they choose to just bring a guy up that throws hard to see what happens. Hernandez is that guy. If he falls apart, no big deal, but every now and then you get those Mauricio Cabrera runs where the dude just goes insane for a month or so. That is the situation that could get Hernandez to the big leagues in 2021, though I want to make it clear I think he has real potential in the bullpen in future years.
I want the Braves to have one absolutely crazy storyline in 2021, and Kurt Hoekstra would be the best. After four years of kicking around the lower minor leagues and trying to make it work with the bat, the Braves took Hoekstra and his arm, converted him to a pitcher, and immediately watched his entire career change. In four minor league seasons, he never made it out of A-ball or hit above .255, and in one year on the mound, he’s made it to Triple-A. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see Hoekstra in 2020, but now with two years of focusing on pitching under his belt and an invitation to Spring Training, I ask, “Why not?” Hoekstra gassed it at every level of the minor leagues in his only professional season and he’s got the stuff to be a major league reliever. I hope beyond all hope that Hoekstra does well enough to earn himself a look in 2021, and while it is an absolutely insane longshot, it would be pretty cool.