Well, we have reached the end...the last installment of the Talking 2021 Top 30 Braves prospects midseason update. Thanks again to all of our readers for supporting us this year and in years past. This is a big project and we wouldn’t do it except for all of the support we get from you guys. I also want to take another moment to thank my staff on the minor league side of the Talking Chop operation: Garrett Spain, Gaurav Vedak, Wayne Cavadi, and Matt Powers. These guys work their butts off constantly to cover the minors and I am thankful each day that I can lean on them to do what they do. You guys are the best.
With that said, if you need to get caught up on the rankings so far, here are some links for ya.
Our top six prospects saw some changes from the preseason edition of our list which is always a thrill for us. At the end of the day, we want all the players in the minors to do well and we take special pride in doing our best to highlight the cream of the crop. So here they are....our top six Braves prospects at midseason 2021. Enjoy!
6.) Spencer Strider - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 4th Round pick in the 2020 MLB Draft
If you re-do the 2020 draft it’s safe to say that Spencer Strider does not go in the fourth round in a five round draft. Going into the draft Spencer had 63 innings pitched in college, while sitting out 2019 getting Tommy John surgery. The Braves liked what they saw enough to take him in the fourth round and give him $450K and it’s safe to say they made out like bandits.
In his professional debut year, Spencer has pitched at three levels already with just four games in Augusta, three games in Rome, and now seven games in Mississippi. While in Augusta Spencer put up a 0.59 ERA and 0.72 WHIP along with an 18.8 K/9 rate. He headed to Rome where he had a 2.45 ERA and 1.02 WHIP as well as a 14.7 K/9. Over seven games for Mississippi he’s struggled just a bit with his command sporting a 5.5 BB/9 rate and 6.75 ERA but still is striking hitters out at an elite rate of 13.5 per 9.
How does Spencer get it done? He’s got a good fastball that sits in the mid-90s, but can touch up to 99. He combines that with a good curveball that he can throw to both rightys and left handed hitters, and a fast developing changeup that he has thrown a lot more in Mississippi.
And now the changeup by Spencer Strider. He might be my favorite pitcher in the organization and he's done it in less than half of a season pic.twitter.com/jp4NATQMpM— Gaurav (@gvedak) July 1, 2021
He has quickly won us over because of his ability to repeat his mechanics, his willingness to throw any pitch at any time, and his mustache. It wouldn’t be farfetched to believe that in 2022 Spencer could be making his case for Triple-A, two years out of college.
5.) Shea Langeliers - C
How he got to the Braves: 1st-round pick in the 2019 MLB draft
You could make the argument that no catcher made a larger jump than Langeliers made in 2021. Drafted as one of the top glove-first catchers in the draft, Langeliers is showing that the bat can in fact play.
Langeliers had a decent go in his pro debut for Rome in 2019. He hit .255 with a .653 OPS, but a .325 BABIP and a 92 wRC+ led to plenty warranted questions about how the bat will play. He headed to the alternate site where there were positive reviews about his bat developing. Yes, he was facing advanced pitchers, but alternate site “games” and live, meaningful baseball are two different scenarios. While Langeliers left no questions on his defense, it was fair to have some on his hit tool.
He’s answered those in 2021. The 23-year-old right-handed hitter is tied for the Double-A South lead in home runs, behind an impressive .263 ISO, up from .088 in his Rome debut. His .517 slugging percentage is second in the league. While his strikeout rate has increased, so has his walk rate, up to nearly nine percent while posting a .329 on-base percentage. These are all positives because even in his time at Baylor when he was widely regarded as one of the top catchers in the nation, power was not his calling card.
Defensively, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better catching prospect in the high minors. Langeliers has thrown out an absurd 23 of 51 attempted base runners, so not only does he have a cannon, but a quick and accurate one at that. He’s made just six errors and allowed six passed balls in his pro career, so there is little reason to doubt his receiving ability.
He is pull-happy, but he has also shown the ability to launch balls to the opposite fields with authority, making him possibly an even more complete hitter. While we should never expect Langeliers to be a .300 hitter as a free swinger, the increase in power for the position is exciting to see. The more the bat catches up with the defense, the better position the Braves are in behind the plate.
4.) Kyle Muller - LHP
How he got to the Braves: 2nd Round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft
The 44th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, hard throwing lefty Kyle Muller feels like he’s been around for a lot longer than that as he has for a while been the highest ceiling pitcher among the Braves talented group of young arms. However the big Texan only made his debut this summer.
Muller has seen his share of ups and downs in the Braves system, pitching to a career 3.13 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with flashes of greatness mixed with some very tough stretches of command- though things have seemed to progress since reaching Double-A at the end of the 2018 season, despite higher walk rates during that time. This year in his first taste of Triple-A he had a 3.92 ERA and 1.36 WHIP over 41.1 innings in 9 starts with 56 strikeouts.
Speaking of his debut Muller was thrust into an impossible situation in that game, coming into a tight game in relief to face the Red Sox best hitters(Bogaerts, Devers, Martinez)- despite the fact he only had one previous relief appearance as a pro, back in the 2016 GCL. He predictably struggled, giving up two runs on four hits in that inning of work at Fenway, but has been lights out in the six starts he has made since. Excluding the big league debut Muller has pitched to a 1.88 ERA and 1.05 WHIP with 32 strikeouts over 28.2 innings.
Muller’s stuff is still the stuff that gives him legitimate ace potential if he is able to command it- his biggest question mark still. His fastball has averaged 93.5 MPH at the big league level from the left side, but can hit 100 MPH with it when he really lets it go. Then his two breaking balls, then a slider he can throw against hitters from either side, a nasty curve that’s used mostly for right handed hitters, and a very lightly used changeup that he hasn’t thrown to a single left handed batter at the big league level yet.
Kyle Muller, Wicked 81mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/6pvbmQqIKj— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 26, 2021
Muller looks like he may be here to stay, or at the very least has himself pencilled in for 2022 depending on who gets bumped from the rotation once Ian Anderson returns from injury. As long as he can keep effectively commanding his stuff, Muller has a bright future as a middle to top of the rotation guy.
3.) Michael Harris - OF
How he got to the Braves: 3rd Round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft
Taken in the third round of the 2019 draft, Harris has quickly vaulted into our top 3 and he’s done it with an outstanding approach at the plate, a hit tool that plays much higher than expected, and an incredibly high baseball IQ. He hasn’t just caught the eye of the TalkingChop crew, as his abilities are recognized across minor league baseball which resulted in him being included in the Futures game roster in just his second season as a professional.
In his rookie year, Harris hit .277/.344/.393 in 53 games with 8 stolen bases across two levels of play (GCL, A-ball). After getting a Spring Training invite in 2020 it was clear that the Braves thought extremely high of him and while most players went home, he was invited to the alternate training site where he opened a ton of eyes, highlighted by a mammoth homer against Ian Anderson who would later go on to have a sensational year.
Fast forward to this season where Harris was assigned to High-A Rome, a league in which he’s 3 years younger than the league average age. Through 69 games, he’s batted .295/.344/.433 with 5 homers, and 19 stolen bases (1 caught stealing). He sports an outstanding 18.7% K%, and is walking 6.5% of the time. A lot has been made of his walk rate, and while you do want to see it slightly higher, earlier in the year he was almost never walking because he boasted one of the highest strike rates in minor league baseball.
Harris is a five tool player that excels at almost all of the attributes. He has shown tons of defensive versatility this year, having played all over the outfield, and playing each one very well. He’s taken a serious step forward in his routes in the outfield, and he’s shown off his arm a few times. The Braves have a serious prospect on their hands and one they will take their time developing. It will be interesting to see if the Braves try to see him tap into his power a little bit more by making minor changes his to already fantastic swing, because he’s surely capable of hitting for more power, but as is it’s almost an embarrassment of riches to be able to have him, Drew Waters, and Cristian Pache as well as Ronald Acuna Jr, at just 23 years of age, all coming out of the system.
2.) Drew Waters - OF
How he got to the Braves: 2nd Round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft
You can probably have predicted this top three coming from a mile away, and Drew Waters is right back in the number two spot in the system. Waters has been at the top of this list for quite awhile and now seems to be knocking on the door of Atlanta for the first time. He broke into the professional ranks as a second rounder in 2017, and immediately showed his offensive ability with a 1.020 OPS in 14 Gulf Coast League games. He held his own in Danville to end the season, and then went to Rome in 2018 for his breakout campaign. Waters showed his offensive acumen by hitting .303/.353/.513 in 84 games with Rome, consistently producing extra base hits and stealing 20 bases. He repeated that success in 2019, winning Southern League MVP for the Mississippi Braves while hitting .319/.366/.481. This earned him his first taste of Triple-A where his flaws started to be exposed. He got off to a hot start but strikeouts piled up down the stretch and he finished with a wRC+ of 84 and 36.1% strikeout rate. Still, a fantastic season for a 20 year old. Hopes were high coming into 2021 that he would push the Braves to bring him up to Atlanta, but an oblique injury in spring training limited him to 5 plate appearances.
Following the COVID layoff and the oblique injury Waters struggled out of the gate in 2021 and many unfairly soured on him quickly. He did struggle hitting .218/.327/.320 in his first 38 games, but it was clear throughout that he was limited from the left side of the plate and some of his explosiveness was not there. He also missed time in June with an unknown injury. As he struggled he started to press at the plate, and while he had drawn a bunch of walks early in the season he was not seeing the zone well through the middle portions of the season at all. He missed on fastballs down the middle and was being brutalized by curveballs on the inner half and he desperately needed some adjustments. He made those, and throughout July has looked like a completely different player. Waters hit .319/.373/.617 over his final 22 games with 17 extra base hits and a more respectable 26.5% strikeout rate. More importantly, he began to drive the ball again from the left side as he made some small tweaks to get himself out in front of fastballs more often and made the mental adjustment to not chase as many breaking balls. This has the 22 year old once again looking poised to make a run at Atlanta, with that chance likely coming in 2022.
Waters has always had elite batted ball ability, and as he’s gotten healthy and gotten his swing right he’s begun to really jump on pitches more often. He has plus raw power, but a ground ball-centric swing that may not lend itself to elite home run production at the next level. He always produces a large number of doubles and certainly has the power to be a masher, and he’s added a lot of strength to his swing and has been lifting more consistently of late. His approach at the plate is really his most glaring flaw and it’s an interesting one in the way it plays out. Often when he struggles is when he draws the most walks, as he isn’t making contact as early in counts and works deeper into them. When he hits well it’s often the first or second pitch of a plate appearance and he will see his walk rates dip. He’s made definite strides in pitch recognition and he has the zone recognition to draw walks, but his struggles with curveballs and general aggression will likely keep his walks and on base percentage lower than it could be.
Assuming he can keep the strikeouts limited, his elite batted ball quality and his ability to consistently produce extra base hits would still make him an above average MLB hitter. Add in plus defense and speed, and a player who has learned to use that speed more effectively on the base paths and you have a guy that can impact the game in a lot of ways. He’s shown an ability to make adjustments this season that is eye opening and gives even more confidence he can do what is necessary to stick in Atlanta. Hitting is not a guarantee for Waters, but he is pushing closer and closer to Atlanta and as long as his bat progresses as it has this season he should be a centerpiece to this team for years to come.
1.) Cristian Pache - OF
How he got to the Braves: IFA signee from July 2015
This is not going to be a surprise to many out there, but number one on our Top 30 Braves prospect rankings is outfielder Cristian Pache. Signed as an international free agent back in 2015, Pache was a kid that oozed athleticism, but was quite skinny, had a funky hitch in his swing, and it wasn’t even clear if he was going to be a better player than his IFA classmate Derian Cruz. These days, he is considered incredibly toolsy, one of the best defenders in all of the minor leagues, among the best prospects in all of baseball, and hopefully a part of the Braves’ future in their outfield.
Pache’s best tool at the moment is without question his defense in center field where he will be a Gold Glove contender from the moment he get regular playing time there. He has a plus arm, is a plus runner, and takes great routes to get to balls that drop if almost anyone else is playing out there. He can play the corner outfield spots as well in a pinch, but it would be a waste to do so very often given his defensive acumen.
Offensively, he is still a work in progress. He has all the physical tools including the raw power to be an impact bat in a major league lineup. However, the hit tool has left something to be desired this year as he struggled famously when he was given the opportunity to start in the big leagues this year and his time in Gwinnett has shown flashes of ability at the plate, but also some maddening inconsistency. He struggles to keep his hands in to put the barrel on the ball on the inner half, hits a bunch of groundballs, and can sometimes get away from his approach which has impacted his ability to get on base at times in his career.
While you can count us among those that think that Pache will work things out, this #1 ranking does feel pretty tentative given the issues Cristian has had this year at the plate. He is still just 22 years old, so he has plenty of time to figure things out, but we need to see him impacting the ball consistently at the plate. This final weeks of the minor league season as well as potentially a winter ball stint (which I think most of us here would be in favor of) should do him some good to help make up for the lost time he had from 2020 as well as due to injury this year. If he continues to struggle like this in 2022, we may need to adjust our expectations more.