We now enter the final weekend of minor league baseball, at least for the Atlanta Braves system, and with that we continue our look at the best players of the 2023 season. In our last installment Ignacio Alvarez Jr. won our defensive player of the year award. To finish out our series we will go through the organizational all-star team, featuring the best at every position.
Drake Baldwin, C
A month ago this position may have been more of a toss-up, but Baldwin finish out 2023 separating himself from the rest of the field and dominating in High-A Rome. Baldwin finished the season with a 135 wRC+ before being promoted to Double-A where he had a solid 14 game showing. Baldwin decreased his strikeout rate from his Rome stint upon promotion and finished with a 117 wRC+ at Double-A. Baldwin’s advancement at the plate along with the increasing confidence in his abilities behind the plate make him an easy choice for the best catcher in the system.
Joe Dunand/Justin Janas, 1B
Dunand and Janas tied for the top spot at first base, so we’re going to have to award both the all star spot here. Dunand was a pickup from the Marlin’s organization in 2022 and this year spent most of it on an absolute tear in Gwinnett. Dunand found himself hitting .285/.373/.536 (124 wRC+) through August 26th, but ended the season on a major slump which ate into his numbers. Dunand split time at a few positions this season, but had his most games played at first base.
Janas faced a similar story, being by far the most consistent hitter in a poor Augusta GreenJackets lineup. Janas hitting .310 in 77 games for Augusta, posting a 133 wRC+ in his first full professional season. This earned him a call up to High-A Rome where his numbers got worse in every facet and he ended the season struggling. Overall Janas finished the season hitting .283/.365/.376 (114 wRC+) and finished third in the system in batting average.
Cal Conley, 2B
It was a rough year at second base in the system as none of the candidates finished with an above average wRC+. Conley was coming off of a huge season in Rome which vaulted his prospect status, but the Southern League air killed his power numbers this season and overall he struggled along with the other candidates. Conley’s 32 stolen bases ranked third in the system and first among infielders and he led all batters in plate appearances. He also came in at fifth in runs scored.
David McCabe, 3B
David McCabe was the only unanimous all star in the system, and it was a rightfully-earned title for him. McCabe ranked second in the system in wRC+, blowing the others at the position out of the water as he raked through Single-A and High-A. McCabe finished the season with a 144 wRC+ across the final 100 games, hitting 15 home runs in that span. He finished the season with a strong showing in Rome, posting a 128 wRC+ in 81 games and cutting his strikeout rate from 26.7% in Single-A to 19% in High-A. Overall McCabe led the system in runs batted in and finished tied for third in home runs.
Vaughn Grissom, SS
Grissom was our player of the year, so him also being the all star pick at shortstop was a given Grissom would have been the all star at any position you chose to place him at, as he led the system with a 135 wRC+. a .328 batting average, .418 on base percentage, .917 OPS, and 33 doubles. Grissom had a lot of competition as the shortstop position is the strongest in the system, but his offensive performance at every level in his career has been astounding. Grissom remains the system’s top piece despite no longer having prospect status.
It’s worth shouting out others at shortstop as well who did not make it. Ignacio Alvarez Jr. won our defensive player of the year award, and Luke Waddell led the system in hits while drawing more walks than strikeouts.
Forrest Wall, OF
Jesse Franklin V, OF
Cody Milligan, OF
Typically the strength of the system the outfield crop was weaker than normal this year, with most of the top prospects sitting down in rookie ball. However among that ground Forrest Wall certainly stands out, as the veteran outfield ran wild for Gwinnett. Wall played 90 games for Gwinnett, primarily hitting leadoff, and in that time posted a .372 on base percentage along with stealing 52 bases. That total easily led the system, and he finished third in the international league in stolen bases despite spending a significant portion of the season on Atlanta’s bench. Wall should have an inside track to the postseason roster, giving the Braves defense and speed off of the bench.
Jesse Franklin V may not have great numbers overall, but his performance late in the season boosted his overall look as he finished on a solid run in Double-A. Franklin missed most of 2022 following Tommy John surgery, and after a late start to this season it took a bit of time to get going. Franklin had a strikeout rate teetering around 35% through mid-July, but an approach shift changed his season and had him looking strong to finish the year. Franklin cut his strikeout rate below 25% the remainder of the year, doubled his walk rate to over 11%, and finished the final 48 games with a 103 wRC+. Franklin also homered in his final game of the year, finishing with 15 home runs and 25 stolen bases in 94 games.
Cody Milligan missed a lot of time due to injury, but when he was on the field for Mississippi he was among their best hitters. Milligan finished the year with a 114 wRC+ and also stole 23 of 27 bases in just 69 games. His speed also made him one of the better defenders in the system, as he had no trouble patrolling the Trustmark Park outfield while also getting a handful of games at second base. Milligan doesn’t have much power, but in the pitcher-friendly Southern League managed to post his career-best with a .134 isolated power.
Drew Lugbauer, DH
Two disclaimers are important here. One, no one in the minor leagues is a full-time designated hitter, so I had to pick those that just played the most games at DH for the ballot. Two, I forgot to put DH on the initial ballot, but in talking to those polled Drew Lugbauer was going to win if the position was properly placed on the ballot to start.
Drew Lugbauer had a massive season for Double-A Mississippi, setting the franchise’s career home run record while posting power numbers the likes of which the team has never seen. Lugbauer led the system with 25 home runs in 94 games, but the bulk of his production was his 69 game run in Double-A. In that time Lugbauer posted a 162 wRC+, with 22 home runs and an absurd .356 isolated power. Despite only playing 69 games he still finished fourth in the Southern League home run race, though in closing the season in Gwinnett he struggled mightily. Since being drafted in 2017 Lugbauer ranks seventh among all minor leaguers with 112 home runs.
AJ Smith-Shawver, SP
Allan Winans, SP
Spencer Schwellenbach, SP
There is some obvious overlap here as these are the pitchers who finished 1st through 3rd in our pitcher of the year voting, but the names bear repeating. The Braves in recent drafts have focused on adding more and more depth to their churn of pitching, and these three have each set themselves up well. AJ Smith-Shawver was our winner of pitcher of the year, and he is the current top prospect in the system by a fairly large margin. He led all starters in the system with a 3.48 FIP, striking out 11.25 batters per nine as he trotted all the way from High-A Rome to Atlanta in a few short months. Smith-Shawver has settled in as the International League’s youngest pitcher, and has maintained a 26.5% strikeout rate at the level.
Allan Winans has come out of nowhere in his own right, going from minor league rule five pickup last year to major league starter in 2023. Winans threw 126 1⁄3 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett this season, and was by far their most effective pitcher as he put up a 2.85 ERA and 3.86 FIP. Winans also has made four starts in Atlanta, and although he has had mixed results the underlying numbers suggest small sample success with a 2.76 FIP and 3.19 xERA. Winans led all qualifying International League pitchers in ERA, nearly a run better than second place’s 3.79 ERA, and finished fourth in total strikeouts.
Spencer Schwellenbach has taken patience to see at every level, but when on the field his performance has supported the Braves faith in taking him in the second round in 2021. Schwellenbach struggled to miss bats, especially early in the season, but he produced consistent ground ball contact and had a lot of success in Single-A Augusta. After thirteen starts of a 2.63 ERA he was promoted to High-A Rome, but immediately went on the injured list again necessitating that patience. When Schwellenbach did return his numbers were even better than in Augusta, and across three starts he struck out 30% of batters, walked just 2.2%, and had a 2.12 FIP. A year further away from Tommy John surgery, 2024 looks to be promising for Schwellenbach.
Hayden Harris, RP
Minor league relief pitchers are a dime-a-dozen, but few can put up the sort of absurd numbers that Hayden Harris did this season. Among the 1349 minor league pitchers to throw 50 or more innings Harris ranked 19th striking out 36.8% of batters faced. His 27.1% K-BB% also ranked 16th, and the undrafted free agent pickup may have a chance to contribute in Atlanta next year. He needs to clean up his command, but his stuff plays well above its velocity. Harris misses bats, especially to left handers, with a low-90’s fastball that features high spin rates and a flat vertical approach angle. He also mixes in a slider as his primary secondary pitch.