Today we will take on the third of our series in Atlanta Braves minor league awards, this time taking a look at the best defender in the system. Projecting defensive ability is one of the more difficult things to do in regards to minor league players as without the wealth of information available at the major league level we’re left evaluating individuals by eye over the course of the season. Earlier this week we ran through out player of the year and pitcher of the year awards.
Your Winner: Ignacio Alvarez Jr.
Alvarez came into the system with a reputation for his defense, being known at Riverside Community College in California as a phenomenal third baseman. His first step, arm strength, and sure hands made him a vacuum at the hot corner. However, after 13 games at the hot corner in rookie ball in 2022 the Braves made the surprising decision to shift Alvarez over to shortstop, a move they kept with going into 2023. It is rare for any player to move from another position to shortstop, as typically at the lower levels of amateur baseball the best athletes are playing premium defensive positions. However in Alvarez’s came the Braves felt they could extract more value from him by giving him a run at the shortstop position, and thus far it seems to have paid dividends.
Alvarez lacks the typical foot speed of a major league shortstop, but he has been able to make up for that with his reliability in the other areas of his game. As mentioned his instincts and reaction time stand out, allowing him to put himself in a good position to make plays early on in their progression. This allows him to mask shortcomings with his speed and still produce a solid range at shortstop. Alvarez also has one of the better arms in the system, able to make any throw from the shortstop position with ease. This allows him going to his right to make plays others in the system may not be able to, as his arm can make up those split-seconds necessary on close ground balls. Alvarez led all South Atlantic League shortstops in games played at shortstop (107) and innings played (893), and ranked second among those in the league with 450+ innings with a .965 fielding percentage.
Cody Milligan is only in his second season since moving to the outfield, but he has quickly taken to center field. Injuries limited his playing time in 2023, but when he was on the field he was a standout defender in the middle of the Mississippi outfield defense. Milligan’s speed is his calling card as he has the range to track down most fly balls in center field, but he has also impressed with his first step quickness and ability to track. As he further learns to play outfield he projects as a plus defender out there, giving him a chance to stick as a major league fourth outfielder.
Braden Shewmake’s defense has been the gem of his profile as a minor leaguer, something that wasn’t necessarily expected when he was drafted. Still he quickly proved he was going to stick at shortstop once he reached pro ball, and this year he split his time evenly between shortstop and second base. The Braves have confidence in Shewmake’s defense, feeling able to allow him to learn other positions while still expecting Shewmake to be able to slot back in at shortstop whenever needed. Shewmake played in 119 games this year between second base and shortstop and had a .985 fielding percentage.
Justin Dean makes highlight reels for his throws from the outfield, with opponents now knowing not to really test him out there. Dean can play all three outfield positions well, possessing plus speed and solid routes that allow him to track down fly balls with the best of them. Dean primarily plays in center field, getting 81 games at the position this season, and in 104 total outfield appearances made just one error.