Hello to all and welcome to the Talking Chop 2022 Preseason Top 30 Prospects list. For the uninitiated, our staff puts out two Top 30 Atlanta Braves prospect lists each year...well, most years anyways: one before the season begins and one at the All-Star break to incorporate new draftees, account for graduations, and to make adjustments based on what we are hearing and seeing. Before we get rankings, here are some things you all need to know about how we do things:
- Our top 30 is derived from a composite of all of the personal rankings from the Talking Chop minor league crew (this time, that includes Eric Cole, Garrett Spain, Matt Powers, Wayne Cavadi, and Gaurav Vedak). After we all get our personal rankings together, we make a composite of said list, and then we double check to make sure that nothing appears to be super wonky. An important note for our rankings: we dropped the highest and lowest rankings for each player before calculating their composite ranking to try and remove outlier rankings that have, at times, led to some less than desirable results. With all of the turnover on the list in the past few years, we just wanted to make sure the resulting composite was as consistent as possible and lessen the influence of outliers.
- We loosely use the MLB rookie eligibility requirements to see who is and who isn’t eligible for the list, although we are completely fine with removing a guy if he is relatively close to losing eligibility and has an established role in the major leagues (we did this with Dansby Swanson in the past and elsewhere). When in doubt, we will err on the side of getting new blood on the list for no other reason than our preference.
- These are just our rankings and each one of us is different. Depending on who you are talking to, you will get differing opinions on what we like and don’t like in prospects and that is, for us, desirable. If you are looking for an overriding philosophy present in our list, you are unlikely to find one other than we all talk to each other a lot and that all of our rankings are very fluid. There are those that will be bold and rank lottery ticket prep guys higher while others weigh proximity to the majors and sample size more, etc, etc. That is just the nature of the game and having those variances in opinions makes our list varied and insures that all kinds of players get exposed and advocated for.
- Don’t get hung up on specific ranking spots. If one guy is ranked 13th and another is 11th for example, it is likely that there were some that had those guys flipped in their personal rankings and it is even more likely that we don’t see a huge difference between those two players. It is best to think of our list in terms of tiers... not hard and fast rankings. Same goes for guys that were in the honorable mentions and didn’t make the top 30. We have to draw the line somewhere, but it isn’t like those guys have zero chance of ever being big leaguers or even being on the list at midseason. We are always willing to adjust our rankings fairly quickly on a guy if the information or what we are seeing changes. In fact, it is probable that our midseason list will look quite different than this one. That is okay.
- Like all things with prospects, these rankings are subject to change and they do, in fact, change quite a bit. This is more of a snapshot of this moment in time than anything. Guys improve and regress and/or get hurt or get healthy and when they do, we are happy to alter our thinking. Prospect development is not a linear path... so prospect rankings shouldn’t be either. If you think a guy is turning a corner or over-ranked based on his recent performance, check back when we do the next list rather than try to set us on fire in the comments section. I fully anticipate a lot of changes during the midseason list and you should, too.
- Be kind and understand that just because you hold a different opinion doesn’t mean you need to yell/cuss/place a voodoo curse on us. Prospect rankings seem to really get folks in their feelings at times when, in reality, they are just a fun thought exercise that mean very little in the grand scheme of things. We are proud of the work we do on these, but none of us think we have all of the answers and it is really interesting to see how our rankings change as well as seeing when we are right or wrong. I am also famously pretty intolerant of folks being jerks, particularly in the comments section or on Twitter... so be one at your own risk.
As is customary, Garrett went over a few of the names that just missed our list this go-around, so take a look at our honorable mentions before you read this installment. Below, you will find the first six prospects from our top 30 with four more such installments to come. Enjoy!
30) Justyn-Henry Malloy - 3B
How he got to the Braves: 6th round pick in 2021 MLB Draft
A sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, Justyn-Henry Malloy quickly showed the Braves why he was a highly touted high school player that played for two prestigious baseball programs. He came into professional baseball and went on to accumulate an .822 OPS over 37 games played for the Augusta GreenJackets.
Malloy played primarily third base and did well for himself, likely earning a chance to stay at the position. His impressive approach at the plate gave him a walk rate of 16.3% and a K-rate of just 20.4%. Should he continue to walk and strikeout at that rate while maintain a batting average around the .250-.270 range, he will quickly rise up the ranks and provide the Braves with another dynamic third base bat in the minors.
Malloy will likely begin next year in High-A, though due to his age (21), and experience may find himself in Double-A sooner than later should he perform at the same level.
29) Adam Shoemaker - LHP
How he got to the Braves: 11th Round Pick in the 2021 MLB Draft
Adam Shoemaker was he Braves’ 11th round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft and is a big (6’6”, 205) and super projectable prep lefty out of a Canadian high school.
Shoemaker is a project, but as a lefty who already touches 95 MPH with plenty more in the tank and some pitchability, he is certainly the kind of project that teams want to take on.
Shoemaker made his debut in the FCL and pitched 5.1 innings over three appearances, posting a 6.75 ERA in an incredibly small sample size. It’s hard to take much of anything from his debut other than that he will need to work on his command and that he is able to get some swings and misses.
Shoemaker will need a few years to fill in his body and adjust to it, which is typical for a pitcher who is so tall. He will also need to improve his command and develop his secondary offerings as his breaking ball and change are both works in progress at the moment.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he didn’t open the 2022 season on a team as he is the kind of prospect who could benefit from some time in extended spring training, barring an impressive showing during the spring to force his way to Low-A. I wouldn’t expect to see him in Atlanta until mid-2025 at the earliest.
28) Luke Waddell - INF
How he got to the Braves: 5th Round Pick in 2021 MLB Draft
The Braves fifth round pick in the 2021 MLB draft had a strong debut season and hopes to put himself within spitting distance of Atlanta during the upcoming season. After a solid college career at Georgia Tech, Luke Waddell came into the Braves’ system as an afterthought and very early in his professional career hit like one. After 13 games he had a sub-.500 OPS at High-A Rome but turned on the jets with an unbelievable six home run week that bumped his High-A OPS all the way to .954 and earned him a call up to Mississippi. Waddell struggled down the stretch at Double-A, but was also hampered by a .219 BABIP. His stint in the Arizona Fall League started poorly as well but he became one of the league’s best pure hitters down the stretch and finished his fall with more walks than strikeouts and a .394 OBP.
Waddell is limited in his ceiling as a player, but his pure contact skills give him a high likelihood of reaching the major leagues. He consistently makes line drive contact to all fields and has a patient approach at the plate that helps him reach base despite his other shortcomings. He’s a decent runner but not a threat to steal bases and he lacks real home run pop despite that tremendous week. If he can produce a little bit of gap power, his on-base ability may push him into a low-end starting role. More than likely he’ll be a solid utility infielder off of the bench who can play all across the infield at a serviceable level and give consistent at-bats while spelling other players. Waddell isn’t one with the sexiest profile, but guys that can hit and play the infield generally find themselves with a lengthy major league career.
27) Mahki Backstrom - 1B
How he got to the Braves: 18th Round Pick in the 2019 MLB Draft
Coming in at No. 27 on our preseason Top 30 is first base prospect Mahki Backstrom. If not for some struggles during his draft year, it was likely that Backstrom would not have been available on Day Three of the MLB Draft where he ended up being picked. He is a physical specimen with a ton of raw power and a swing that you can dream on. Backstrom is athletic for his size (listed at 6’5, 220 pounds) and has a chance to be a good defender over at first base, but he is likely strictly a first base or DH type of player. When he made his pro debut down in rookie ball, he seemed to vindicate the Braves’ decision to draft him with a .300/.402/.457 slash line in 23 games.
Conversely, the 2021 season was not particularly kind as he posted a .621 OPS while repeating rookie ball over 41 games. He only connected for three homers although when he DOES hit them, they are not cheapies. It is really hard to evaluate guys like Backstrom who were prep players that were drafted and then missed the 2020 season because of COVID. It feels like a LOT of those types of players across the league were very rusty and behind this past season. Objectively, the strikeout rate from last season was unsustainably high and hitting .172 is never a good sign even with a bunch of walks mixed in. We aren’t writing Backstrom off because of a rough 2021 season as a result, but we are tempering our expectations for the next couple of seasons as he catches back up developmentally while acknowledging that he is very raw despite how much we love the upside.
26) Cal Conley - SS
How he got to the Atlanta Braves: The fourth round of the 2021 MLB draft
Cal Conley is another one of the experienced college players the Atlanta Braves have been targeting in the MLB Draft over the past few seasons. Conley played at a strong program, put up good numbers and showed he is a versatile defender.
The 22-year-old-infielder is listed at 5’10 and 185 pounds. He is a switch-hitter that primarily played shortstop at Texas Tech, but split time in Augusta last season between short (20 games) and second base (15).
Conley began his collegiate career with Miami (FL) after a standout high-school career, but quickly transferred to Texas Tech. Despite not having an elite tool, he made an instant splash in his freshman season which carried over to his 2021 sophomore campaign. Conley finished his career with a .339/.405/.600 slash line to go with 21 doubles and 18 home runs in 295 at-bats.
The Braves took Conley in the fourth round and he headed to Augusta where he played 35 games in his pro debut, slashing .214/.304/.307. He walked a fair amount of the time (8.7%) while striking out 20.5% of the time, slightly below, but on par with what we saw in college. He was very ground ball heavy in his first 140 at-bats, which is interesting. While power isn’t Conley’s forte, he does seem to hit the gaps well.
It’s also worth noting that Conley performed better from the left-hand side, hitting .227 with a .666 OPS and both of his home runs against right-handers while hitting .162 with a .409 OPS against lefties. He has the tools to move up the ladder and provide depth, and has shown the versatility to play both middle infield positions. If he can show he can hit as he moves up, he can be a valuable piece to the Braves’ organization. There is no reason to expect Conley’s fast rise in the system as the Braves can be patient with his progress. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a few games at Augusta in 2022 before settling in at Rome.
25) Indigo Diaz - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 27th round pick in 2019
Not a story you hear too often, but it’s the former 27th round pick out of North Vancouver, British Columbia, relief pitcher Indigo Diaz coming in at No. 25. As we said last year, we don’t typically rank relief pitchers in the top 30 but Diaz forced his way in with a magical 2021 campaign.
Indigo began his sophomore campaign in High-A where he appeared in 18 games, had a 1.00 ERA, 0.65 FIP, to go along with an absurd 18.0 K/9, and 41% GB%. That was all it took for the Braves to move him up to Double-A where he appeared in 14 games with a 14.5 K/9, 1.50 ERA, and 2.57 FIP. His walk rate did rise to 4.5 BB/9 after the promotion so that is something to watch closely in 2022. The last thing Diaz needs to prove is that he can consistently throw a sharp curveball as it tends to get loopy. It would go extremely well with his high (97+) velocity, high spin rate fastball.