Welcome back to the third installment of our Atlanta Braves 2022 Preseason Top 30 Prospect List! We appreciate all of the support on the list so far. If you happened to miss the first few articles, fear not...here are some links to get you caught up. If you are unclear on how we create our list and want some general tips on how to digest our thinking, the 25-30 article has an extensive explanation right at the top.
This update features several of the higher draft picks that the Braves have made in recent years. Some are newer faces than others and their trajectories are pretty different, so this may be the section of the list where we could see the most changes over the next 12 months. Enjoy!
18) Justin Dean - OF
How he got to the Atlanta Braves: 17th round of the MLB draft
At this point of his still young career, we know just about everything we need to know about Justin Dean. Considering he has hovered in the 15-20 range the past three seasons, that which we do know is good. It is just a matter of putting it all together.
Dean capped a stellar career at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, showing off his abilities across the board. He slashed .398/.498/.640 with 13 doubles, seven triples, six home runs and 34 stolen bases in his final season. The Braves drafted him that summer in the 17th round and Dean hit the ground running… literally. In his two full seasons since, Dean has shown he’s a toolsy outfielder with sneaky pop and speed that is rivaled by few in all the minor leagues.
Dean, who has now led his level in stolen bases two years in a row, was a little rusty after the 2020 layoff but played best when the Mississippi Braves needed him most – down the home stretch on their Southern League title run. Overall, he hit .237 with a .709 OPS with 28 extra base hits and 29 stolen bases. The strikeout rate was alarming after Dean’s impressive 2019, but this could have been caused by being away from the field for so long as he seemed to settle in towards the end of the season.
Just 5’6, Dean’s best tool is his speed and he uses it to his advantage from the leadoff spot and from center field. Despite not having a cannon for an arm, his defensive IQ is strong and paired with his speed, he positions himself well to make most plays. At the plate, he was a little swing happy in 2021, but still walked nearly 10% of the time, allowing him to get on base and do his thing. While his swing got big at times, it’s generally smooth and quick, generating more gap power than over-the-fence power, which is fine for his skill set.
Talent isn’t holding Dean back as much as the depth in the system. He may start the season in Double-A to get reps depending on what happens with Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, but expect Dean to be roaming center in Gwinnett at some point in 2022.
17) Braden Shewmake - SS
How he got to the Braves: 1st Round Pick in the 2019 MLB Draft
Braden Shewmake is perhaps the most frustrating player on this list to evaluate as his performance this season fell well short of expectations despite strong flashes of the player we thought him to be. To say the 2021 season was a disappointment would be an understatement as he hit just .228 with a .271 on base percentage. This is a player whose top tool coming out of college was his hit tool and he just never seemed to put up a consistent stretch at the plate to answer the questions that popped up. Even casting aside his horrendous first month of the season, in which he was the worst hitter in minor league baseball, his on base percentage is a disappointing .300. Shewmake set a career-high with 12 home runs, the highest of his career including college, but even so for his bat to make a significant impact he will have to advance his power quite a bit.
The frustrating bit with Shewmake is deciding whether we still believe that bat is average to above average or if what we saw in 2021 is truly what he is as a player. It’s not uncommon for college guys to fall short of their expectations, but being this bad as a pure hitter when he was always well above average in college is concerning. He has a lot to prove in 2022 and with a resurgence could find himself right back at the top of this list. The power taking a step forward is a nice sign especially given how his home field in Mississippi plays historically and it’s no secret the Braves are hoping to unlock more from his 6’4 frame. The thing keeping him this high up the list is the one positive he showed all season and that was his defense. The major question out of college was whether he was going to stick at shortstop long term and it’s clear he put in major work with the Braves defensively and has taken significant strides. He will play shortstop if he reaches the major leagues and if he can hit anything like he did in college that could be a really solid piece up the middle for Atlanta.
16) Spencer Schwellenbach - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 2nd Round Pick in 2021 MLB Draft
The Braves were long linked to Nebraska two-way star Spencer Schwellenbach with their first round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft, but decided to pass on him there only to end up seeing him available for their second round selection.
The Husker shortstop ended up a huge riser in this draft as his power at the plate took a big step forward and he made his debut as a pitcher, closing games after starting them at short. At the plate, Schwellenbach hit .284/.403/.459 with six homers included in his 19 extra base hits over 223 plate appearances. He would profile as a potential shortstop, though he may not have the foot speed to stick there and would likely be best at third base where his glove and arm could make him a plus defender.
However, the Braves drafted Schwellenbach as a pitcher despite him not throwing an inning in college before this spring. Over 18 games, he tossed 31 2/3 innings, posting an 0.57 ERA and 0.95 WHIP with 9.7 K/9. When you consider that he hadn’t pitched before and also wasn’t throwing bullpens and was coming into the mound from shortstop, it was particularly impressive.
It can be argued that if he was only a bat, Schwellenbach would have been drafted in the first three rounds, so one can’t forget the fact that he is that talented and has that as a fallback option. However, Atlanta likes him more on the mound as a raw arm without a ton of mileage who has a plus fastball that can hit 99 MPH along with a plus slider. Add in the potential for an above average changeup with at least average command and the potential to unlock a lot more as he gains more experience as a full time pitcher and it is easy to be excited.
Unfortunately there are some injury concerns that come along with him, which is why he wasn’t throwing bullpens while at Nebraska this year. Shortly after signing he ended up hurting his arm a little more than it already was (which teams knew and why he was still available in the second round), and he underwent Tommy John surgery before making his pro debut.
When Schwellenbach returns, he will be a bit of a mystery because he has 31 2/3 innings of pitching on his resume beyond high school and he’ll still be fresh off of TJ surgery. It is likely the team is careful with him. He will require more time than most college arms, but he has huge upside if it all comes together and he can stay healthy. He’s been compared by some to Jacob deGrom, another former college shortstop who was drafted without a ton of mileage on his arm, so he will be one to watch when he does return in 2022.
15) Victor Vodnik - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 14th Round Pick in 2018
As tumultuous as the path has been for Victor Vodnik to this stage, the future’s still bright for the 21-year old flamethrower. Vodnik’s placement in Double-A as a starter to open the season was an eye-opening surprise, but unfortunately we never got a real chance to see if he deserved it. He opened his season tremendously with a 2.57 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 14 innings, but an injury early in his next start set off a chain of problems that limited him to only 19 more innings. After more than a month off, he came back clearly not as sharp as he was before injury and after a tremendous five-inning, nine strikeout, no hit performance on August 13th, he was shut down for the remainder of Mississippi’s season. He got a chance to make up innings in the Arizona Fall League, and he wavered between unwatchable and unhittable dependent solely on whether he could get his fastball within a foot of his target.
If you’re judging on pure talent, you can put Vodnik right up there with any starter in this system, but unfortunately he’s yet to have that breakout we were hoping for. Vodnik’s health is a major question given he stands only 5’10, and his command has been a problem his entire career. When he has command he stands out above anyone else on the field, but when he doesn’t, he struggles to make what he does have work and is prone to implosions. Vodnik’s upper-90’s fastball can be put side-to-side with nearly any fastball, and his lack of height helps it play up as the lower angle of delivery helps vertical movement up in the zone. His wipeout slider gives him a one-two punch that could make him a closer even if health prevents him from starting. He mixes in a changeup that is good enough to get outs although I would not yet call it an average pitch. Vodnik could be 10 spots higher on this list by the end of the year if he can show health, as the more he pitches the more he dials in his stuff and command.
14) Jared Shuster - LHP
How he got to the Braves: 1st Round Pick in the 2020 MLB Draft
Coming in at No. 14 on our preseason Top 30 Braves prospects list is left-hander Jared Shuster who had an interesting 2021 season that has seemingly raised more questions than it answered. The Braves used their first round pick in the abbreviated 2020 MLB Draft on Shuster who hailed from Wake Forest after raising his stock in a big way thanks to a jump in fastball velocity and one of the best changeups in the entire draft class. The changeup remains his best pitch as a pro as it has excellent fade and gets plenty of swings and misses. The issue currently is that his fastball took a step back this season as it sat more in the low-90’s and wasn’t exactly fooling batters which led to longer at-bats and less than desirable results at times. He also has a slider, but has had issues commanding it and it needs work before it is a major league pitch.
Shuster is a tough one because his changeup is honestly one of the best pitches in the system in a vacuum. The issues here are that there were whispers that Shuster was not healthy at the alternate site in 2020 and to start this season combined with his fastball not being of sufficient quality. The changeup is a legit plus pitch and if he could find just another half a grade on his fastball, it could play up even more. As it stands, he gets hit more than he should and gets into these grindy at-bats despite the ability to throw strikes which shorten his outings. Combine that with some intermittent issues with the long ball along with struggles from a very small sample after he was promoted to Double-A and we openly wonder if he will find success against more advanced hitters without some real changes to the status quo.
13) Ryan Cusick - RHP
How he got to the Braves: 1st Round Pick in 2021 MLB Draft
The final player from this installment of our Top 30 is Ryan Cusick who the Braves drafted out of Wake Forest in the first round of the 2021 MLB Draft. The big draw with Cusick without question is his fastball which hits triple digits with regularity and is a pitch he leans on to get a healthy amount of strikeouts. His breaking stuff is a work in progress, particularly from a command perspective, but he throws them with intention and at a velocity that if he can hit his spots, he will get some silly swings. We were fortunate enough to interview Ryan this offseason on the R2A podcast and if you want to hear him talk about the lead up to the draft as well as his pro debut, make sure you listen to that episode right here.
The only real concern with Cusick right now is the reliever risk that he currently possesses. He hasn’t demonstrated that he has that third pitch (preferably a changeup) that we like to see from starting pitching prospects and that combined with some skepticism that his command will hold up over longer starts gives us pause. That said, his pro debut was dominant and if he continues to progress and adds a third pitch, he could jump up in a hurry and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him move quickly through the Braves’ farm system. Worst case scenario, Cusick ends up as a reliever where he could end up as a high leverage arm. However, the Braves are betting on his upside as a starter and the payoff could be huge if he gets there.