The second tier of Atlanta Braves prospects has seen tremendous overturn in the last calendar year, and we’ve reached the point in the list where pitching really starts to take over. The 2022 draft has produced five of our top ten prospects in the system, proving the ability of the team to spread out money effectively in acquiring amateur players. Every player from here forward has a clear path to a major league future, although in some cases these players are certainly in need of significant improvement to get there. We thank you all for your interest in this list as always and hope you enjoy.
12. Drue Hackenburg - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 2023 MLB Draft — 2nd round
It’s not often you see a pitcher who posted a 5.80 ERA and 1.63 WHIP in college get drafted in the second round that same spring, but that’s what happened when the Braves selected Drue Hackenberg - brother of former NFL quarterback Christian Hackenberg, out of Virginia Tech. Hackenberg has a couple of other brothers who are pro athletes, including Adam Hackenberg in the White Sox system.
Despite his less than stellar numbers this spring and being more of a sinker/slider guy who forces ground balls than a guy with elite stuff, the Braves fully bought in on Hackenberg. The reason for that is the Braves front office relies heavily on analytics, and that’s one area where Hackenberg does stand out with great movement on his pitches.
Hackenberg made three appearances after signing, two in Low-A and one in Double-A to end his season. Between the three outings he struck out 13 against six walks in just 6.1 innings of work. Since he did walk one per inning after making his debut it should be pointed out that walks were not an issue for him in college, walking a combined 45 in 178 innings over two years there. Hackenberg will need to refine his command a bit going forward, but he generally has good control.
Based on his reaching Double-A, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him open the 2024 season there, but starting in High-A will also be a possibility for him. Hackenberg is a guy who the Braves bought in on the analytics and are believing that their coaching staff is able to maximize what he does bring to the table. That would give him the potential to be a middle of the rotation innings eater if everything went according to plan, but he would also come with a floor of being a reliever who can come in and generate ground balls.
11. Jhancarlos Lara - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 2021 International Free Agency
Lara came into this year as an unknown for Braves fans, but as the year went forward he slowly separated himself as a top prospect in the system. Lara was a later signee as an international prospect, and didn’t join the system until June of 2021 after he had already turned 18 years old. He was sent to the Dominican Summer League next season, and while he had a 1.78 ERA his 26 walks in 30 ⅓ innings were enough to make his performance overall unremarkable. Surprisingly the Braves sent him directly to full season ball to kick off the 2023 season and through the year he built himself from an intriguing flamethrower into one of the system’s most highly-regarded arm talents. Early in the season he split time coming out of the bullpen and starting, and through ten games walks plagued him as he posted a 5.61 ERA, 28% strikeout rate, and 15% walk rate. Still there were interesting flashes of ability and that all came to a head when he struck out 10 batters in just four innings on June 22nd. He was arguably the best pitcher in the system for the remainder of the season, and in his final ten outings finished with a 37.2% strikeout rate and cut his walk rate to 9.9%. He earned two starts at the end of the season with Rome and struck out 18 total batters in 9 ⅓ innings and his 33.1% strikeout rate led all Braves minor leaguers with 60 or more innings pitched.
Lara primarily operates with a two pitch mix, and his combination of velocity and spin were too much for A-level hitters to handle. Lara sat in the mid-90s for most games, but could dial it up to the upper 90’s and would have games where he would sit in the 96-99 range. His fastball blew away some batters, though its just average shape and spin made it where he would get hit especially when his velocity dipped. His primary weapon is a hard vertical slider, which produced most of his whiffs and put aways. The pitch sits in the upper 80’s and much of his development throughout the season was just from locating the pitch more effectively. Lara is athletic and smooth on the mound, but it is clear that his primary development will be his command. Like most young pitchers he struggles to command his fastball and even with some improvement throughout the year his command is still far from what he needs to even succeed at the upper levels. He also lacks a go-to third pitch, though he has tinkered with a changeup in games that could be serviceable in low usage. The reliever risk is significant and overall Lara is raw, but possesses an undeniable talent and has already shown rapid development in just one and a half professional seasons.
10. Darius Vines - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 7th round pick, 2019 MLB Draft
One of the longest-tenured members of our top prospects lists, Vines finally made his MLB debut last season. Vines’ 2023 got off to a slow start as he battled an injury to begin the year. He finally made his season debut with the FCL squad where he appeared in two games before getting the bump to Rome as he worked his way back from injury. With Rome, he again made just two starts while striking out 14 batters across 9 innings. Vines then got promoted back to Gwinnett, which is where he ended his 2022 campaign.
At Triple-A, Vines dazzled. In six appearances — five starts — the 25-year-old spun a 2.36 ERA to go along with a 9.4 percent walk percentage and struck out over 20 percent of the batters he faced. Those numbers were good enough for Vines to finally get the call, as he was promoted to join Atlanta in Colorado in August for his first start where he tossed six innings of two-run ball with five strikeouts. All in all, Vines had a productive — albeit short — stint in the big leagues. In five appearances (two starts), Vines posted a 3.98 ERA and a 4.98 FIP. While Vines’ walk rate dipped to 8.3 percent, his strikeout rate also took a dive to just 16.7 percent as well. Vines has a legitimate shot to become a mainstay with the big league club, whether that be in the rotation or in the bullpen. He’ll head into spring training with an outside chance to win the 5th rotation spot, but he’s likely to start the season in Gwinnett. However, he’ll probably be the first call-up in the event of an injury, so there’s a good chance his prospect status expires by the time our mid season rankings come out.
9. Drake Baldwin - C
How he got to the Braves: 2022 MLB Draft — 3rd round
Baldwin was the first position player taken by the Braves in the 2022 draft, and despite mixed opinions on his future he has since proven worthy of that selection. Baldwin spent three seasons as the backstop for Missouri State and this culminated in a 19 home run season that launched him to draft-worthiness. Baldwin had mediocre numbers against poor competition in his professional debut following the draft, then got off to a rough start in 2023 with a 30% strikeout rate and 92 wRC+ for Rome through the end of April. He steadily improved at the plate throughout the season, and in his final 79 High-A games Baldwin had a 142 wRC+, cut his strikeout rate all the way to 19%, and still walked 14.6%. He earned time in Double-A where he posted a 117 wRC+ that was aided by a high BABIP, but he still handled his own and had an 18.6% strikeout rate there. He also had a brief stint in Gwinnett to end the season, though it seems likely this was more to just get him extra game time and he will likely start 2024 in Double-A.
Baldwin’s early returns were so concerning, but much of his improvement at the dish came by simplifying his approach and annihilating fastballs. The upper levels are rife with pitchers with better breaking stuff, so 2024 will be a test, but if he proved anything in 2023 it’s his ability to make adjustments. He has a patient approach at the plate and solid raw power, so the prospects of a catcher with the ability to run a high on base percentage and provide slugging is intriguing. Baldwin has a solid arm behind the plate but can be slow out of his crouch, resulting in mixed success with throwing out runners. However, his receiving showed notable improvement in 2024 and he seems capable of handle a pitching staff well. Baldwin’s current projections set him up to be a back up or every day player for a bad team, but his progress at the plate in 2023 was encouraging and if he can improve results against secondary offerings he could quickly turn into a find for Atlanta.
8. David McCabe - 3B/1B
How he got to the Braves: 2022 MLB Draft — 4th round
The Braves used their fourth round pick in the 2022 MLB Draft to take Charlotte slugger David McCabe. McCabe was seen as a potential middle of the order bat with a feel for hitting and significant raw power, but came with a pair of question marks. The biggest question with him would be how he would handle elite velocity, as playing at Charlotte wasn’t the same as playing in the SEC and there were concerns that he wouldn’t be able to get the bat around fast enough against upper 90s stuff high in the zone. The other concern is his defensive position, as he was drafted as a third baseman - though most don’t think he has the glove to remain there and instead project him as a first baseman.
McCabe spent this year split between Low and High-A, with the bulk of his time coming in High-A, and slashed .276/.386/.450 with 17 homers among his 41 extra base hits and 80 walks against 113 strikeouts over 524 plate appearances combined between the two levels. Defensively he played all but one inning at third base and as the designated hitter.
McCabe was always expected to produce at the lower levels with Double-A likely being his biggest test to determine if the bat would in fact play against top pitching. He will get there this year, though we did get a small preview when he went to the Arizona Fall League. In 96 plate appearances in the AFL McCabe hit .278/.448/.361 with six doubles as his only extra base hits, drawing 23 walks to 29 strikeouts.
It goes without saying this is going to be a big year for McCabe and his prospect status, but if he is able to make enough solid contact the power is there and he is able to draw a lot of walks with his approach, and he could end up being the Braves best slugging prospect since Austin Riley.
7. JR Ritchie - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 2nd round pick, 2022 MLB Draft
Part of a core of high school arms taken in the 2022 MLB Draft, Ritchie perhaps holds the highest upside of all the Braves’ selections. The 6’2, 185-pound right-hander possesses an upper-90’s fastball to go along with three other quality pitches in his arsenal. The downside with Ritchie thus far, has been the fact he has only appeared in nine total games since being drafted. Ritchie made two starts for the FCL squad shortly after being selected where he tossed 4.1 innings and struck out four batters. After getting promoted to Low-A Augusta to end the 2022 campaign, Ritchie made three starts for the GreenJackets. In those appearances, Ritchie was great, tossing ten innings to the tune of a 2.70 ERA. The 20-year-old walked just 10.5 percent of the batters he faced while striking out 26.3 percent.
In 2023, Ritchie was expected to really further cement himself as one of the top pitching prospects the Braves had. And while he made four starts for Augusta, Ritchie fell victim to Tommy John surgery, which ended his season prematurely. In those four starts, Ritchie spun 13.1 innings while striking out an eye-popping 25 batters, good for a 47.2 percent K rate. Those numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, given the small sample size, however. Ritchie will most likely not see the mound in 2024 due to undergoing Tommy John. The best case scenario is his rehab goes well enough for him to make an appearance or two late in the season. However, that’s very unlikely as the Braves will probably be cautious with him and delay him returning to pitch until 2025.