This is part two of our articles on breakout prospects; if you would like to read the first on the top pitching prospects for 2023 you can click here. Last season the Atlanta Braves saw a number of hitting prospects take major steps forward in their development, and if you look in the system you’ll note that none of them are there anymore with Michael Harris II starring at the major league level, Vaughn Grissom graduating from prospect status, and Justyn-Henry Malloy being shipped to Detroit for Joe Jimenez. The cupboard is a bit bare, but there is still talent that could shape the organization in the future.
The Atlanta Braves gave Tyler Collins a big bonus in the eighth round in 2021, going well over slot to sign him for $450k. Collins was the first among the 2021 class to really impress, going down the North Port and dominating in the Florida Complex League with a .354/.424/.453 slash line. Collins was one of the players we were most excited to see in 2022, but he never made it up to Augusta with injuries limiting him to just four games in Florida. Collins struggled in that small sample and losing that much game action is not good for a young prospect, but there is still reason for optimism going forward. Collins is the most dangerous player in the system with his speed which should allow him to not only rack up stolen bases but play an above average center field. Collins has feel for the barrel and line drive contact with his major limitation being a small frame and contact-centric approach that will limit his power long term.
Kevin Kilpatrick Jr.
Kevin Kilpatrick Jr. was bit of an older draftee out of a junior college in Florida, but has a surprisingly high ceiling and look solid in his first professional showing. Now 22, Kilpatrick spent time in both the Florida Complex League and with Augusta last season and in 22 Single-A games hit .287/.354/.425. Kilpatrick is an exciting athlete with a chance to stick in center field and shows plus bat speed along with natural strength that should allow him to hit for above average power. It’s an intriguing profile to get from a 17th round pick with the biggest question mark for Kilpatrick being his hit tool as there is too much swing-and-miss in his game at this stage. The good news is that Kilpatrick has solid zone recognition and the Braves have already had him make a positive swing adjustment. Kilpatrick added a leg kick to his motion and lands on the balls of his feet, allowing him to be more explosive with his hips than he was in Augusta last season when he was landing his front flat-footed. With his zone recognition, bat speed, and raw strength this swing fix should allow him to get more consistent high quality contact and we could see him make a major leap forward in his power numbers. Kilpatrick is a personal favorite of mine, and one who one second looks has stood out more each time with his swing decisions, bat speed, and athleticism. He is one of the rare players who is able to affect a game in every aspect on a consistent basis, and what he needs to prove now is that he can do it against high level pitching. He hasn’t yet seen that and probably won’t for at least the first half of 2023, but he could be a player that ends up in our top 15 by the end of the season.
Kevin Kilpatrick makes it a three-run fourth as he caps the inning off with an RBI triple! pic.twitter.com/JJd5zbBEZy— Augusta GreenJackets (@GreenJackets) August 27, 2022
Cal Conley had a huge Arizona Fall League performance that got him more attention from fans of the organization, and he hopes to continue that success into a breakout 2023 campaign. Conley did a lot well last season with solid strikeout rates and above average power numbers that already laid the groundwork for an intriguing prospect. Conley was active on the basepaths with 36 stolen bases in the regular season then nine more in 23 games in Arizona. Conley’s carrying tool will be his above average power from both sides of the plate and his ability to consistently barrel baseballs. He will have to maximize both skills because his defensive home is a major question mark and he may ultimately be relegated to a designated hitter role. Conley makes questionable swing decisions but overall looked better last fall and with his power profile will stay on the forefront of the minds of people following the system.
Valdes got next to no attention last season but quietly put together one of the system’s best offensive seasons. Valdes put up huge power numbers at High-A Rome last season with 11 home runs and a .215 isolated power, both of which are made more impressive by what a pitcher’s haven the home park is there. He didn’t show that same power production in his move to Mississippi, but he flashed the raw power with some long home runs and posted a 112 wRC+ in 23 games showing he can handle higher level pitching. Valdes is listed at catcher but will have to move off the level, so the main concern is just where he will end up playing defensively. Offensively though he has the tools to have another big season especially if he can get out of the Southern League, and has put up better than league average walk rates and strikeout rates.
If you have followed our coverage for the last six months or so this is going to be no surprise. We love Nacho Alvarez here and think he is on the path to being a major league player though we still have questions. Defensively, Alvarez is arguably the second best infielder in the system behind Braden Shewmake, playing a plus third base with the athleticism and arm strength to get some time at shortstop where he was solid. Offensively, Alvarez was an on base machine with elite level swing decisions out of a player who is just 19 years old. Alvarez walked 26.8% of the time and only struck out 12.7% of the time, while not showing any signs of slowing down on the rare occasions he faced higher quality stuff. A foul ball that affected his swing slowed him down a bit over the last third or so of his Single-A plate appearances but he still had a 160 wRC+ and incredible .493 on base percentage. Alvarez has the raw strength to be a power hitter, but we believe he would be better served to adjust his swing and approach a bit to tap into that even if it comes at the expense of some strikeouts. The Braves seem to agree with that evaluation as his swings this spring are more forceful and he’s made adjustments to his toe tap and load that allow him to time the movement of his lower body more efficiently to the rotation of his core. What’s resulted is a more explosive swing that we’ll have to watch over the first few weeks of the season to see the effects of.
Like in article one there are a few bonus names to know, which is basically just the entire outfield from Augusta last season. Kadon Morton, Brandol Mezquita, and Stephen Paolini are all in similar boats as players who have languished in the lower minor leagues but really hit their strides last season. For Mezquita he excelled early in the season but got nicked by injuries late and is hoping to recapture that form. For Morton and Paolini they both were terrible in their professional careers before hitting a turning point in the middle of the season that saw both put up above average numbers for the first time. Morton is one of the system’s few premium athletes and though the hit tool has not performed he has made necessary swing changes to hopefully continue to improve his game.