June 17, 2021
It’s safe to say that, entering the 2021 campaign, the Braves farm system was on the decline — at least that was the general consensus among experts in the industry. And at the time, I have to say that I somewhat agreed.
According to MLB.com’s annual farm system report, Atlanta had fallen another seven places among its list of 30, going from eighth on the site’s 2020 preseason list to 15th back in March of this year. Numerous graduations, coupled with a few top-tier guys seemingly unable to deliver following their respective promotions — in some cases, perhaps due to unrealistic expectations — has ultimately resulted in a thinner Braves system.
Jonathan Mayo over at MLB.com wrote up the Braves 2021 prospect rankings in mid-March, and his analysis was fair. Coming into the season, obvious guys like Bryce Ball and Alex Jackson were featured in his “Biggest Jump” blurb as both hitters seemed to have flourished at the plate in both 2019 and ’20, respectively. Third baseman CJ Alexander was understandably Mayo’s choice for “Biggest Fall“, thanks to a down-year and an elbow surgery that combined with a non-existent 2020 season. In a nutshell, this was no longer a talent-churning Braves farm system; and though that’s both rather understandable (given the organization’s penalties regarding international signings) and perhaps even expected (due to big league team’s win curve over the last three seasons), it was still a bit of an unfamiliar development. I mean, this is the farm system that developed guys like Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman… and so many more generational players.
But to me, despite a 2020 MLB Draft that was dramatically shortened, the downward trend of the farm system mentioned above appears to be on its way to a possible inflection point. Obviously there’s an incredibly small sample of data to pull from regarding those players since last year’s canceled campaign, but so far this season the system-wide performance of the Braves top 30ish prospects is almost unprecedented. Seemingly every player is reaching or exceeding preseason expectations.
This month I put out my own Top 30 rankings for the summer, published at SportsTalkATL, and when it comes to players on that list who are trending in the right direction… the amount is staggering.
As part of my rankings this season, I’ve added “trend” symbols (or arrows) to represent the ascent, decline or no change in each player’s stock as a prospect, based on my subjective opinion of their performance, skill improvements and abilities relative to their age and current level within the minors. Of those 30 players on my list, 20 are currently tagged with arrows (or roughly 66%), four with arrows, and there are six found wit
h arrows showing no change. Now of course this is just my opinion, and I’m sure others would have different thoughts on some of these players. However, I believe even if you accounted for differing views, the general point will still remain: most of the prospects in the Braves system are performing exceptionally well right now.
I’m not going to make this a “who’s hot?” post, and this could get extremely lengthy if I discussed all 20 players. But with those “trending up” players separated in groups based on projected upside or ETA to the majors, there are a few Braves prospects that stand out (and have been for a few seasons now).
20 prospects that are trending upward
On the cusp
▪︎ Drew Waters (OF)
▪︎ William Contreras (C)
▪︎ Tucker Davidson (LHP)
▪︎ Shea Langeliers (C)
▪︎ Michael Harris (OF)
▪︎ Kyle Muller (LHP)
Harris — primarily because of how he’s performed even with the massive amount of hype coming into the season — is of course the most obvious player of the group of six prospects above, though in terms of ETA you could probably pick any of them for their own specific reasons.
Contreras’ MLB apprenticeship is noble and extremely valuable to his development, but I have to say Langeliers’ evolution into a complete player — especially on offense — this season has been just as exciting.
▪︎ Bryce Elder (RHP)
▪︎ Trey Harris (OF)
▪︎ Jared Shuster (LHP)
▪︎ Victor Vodnik (RHP)
▪︎ Daysbel Hernandez (RHP)
Elder and Shuster — two of the three pitchers the Braves drafted in 2020 — have started their pro careers about as perfectly as an organization could ask, and BOTH have already received promotions from their initial assignments in the minors.
While dealing with an injury, Vodnik has just continued what he’s done since he was drafted three years ago… and that’s to overpower opposing batters despite being undersized. And to add to the value, the Braves are finally deploying him as a starter.
NEXT next wave
▪︎ Spencer Strider (RHP)
▪︎ Ricky DeVito (RHP
▪︎ Jesse Franklin V (OF)
▪︎ Vaughn Grissom (SS)
▪︎ Joey Estes (RHP)
▪︎ Kasey Kalich (RHP)
As of Thursday morning, Strider had a 1.50 ERA between both Augusta and Rome, so I’d say he’s finding his bearings. In fact, every pitcher listed in the group above is absolutely dominating the opposition.
Even though he may wind up being a platoon player in the majors, I’ve been really impressed with Franklin’s overall profile at the plate, especially of late as he’s sporting an eight-game hitting streak entering Thursday.
Grissom is a much-needed shortstop for this system and one who’s having a great pro career so far.
▪︎ Justin Dean (OF)
▪︎ Willie Carter (OF)
▪︎ Nolan Kingham (RHP)
Dean has been this speedy, do-it-all center fielder for a few seasons now, and he’s currently one of the leaders in Mississippi’s lineup and is tied for the second-most doubles in Double-A as of Thursday.
Carter is a bit old for his level (Single-A), but he’s hitting nearly .350 through 30ish games, and he comes with plenty of other tools like defense and speed.
He’s not doing it in an ordinary way, but Kingham has simply gotten better over the last couple of seasons as a pitch-to-contact starter. At 24-years-old he’s pitching the best of his pro career with Mississippi right now.
Now just as significant as the 20 players above that are developing and performing well, the 10 others that are either going the opposite direction or simply haven’t moved much can be just as crucial (this season’s regressors like Ball, Braden Shewmake and Greyson Jenista). But over the several years that I’ve been following Braves prospects, I don’t believe I’ve seen the farm system as a whole look this impressive. There have certainly been more skilled systems for the Braves, but in terms of the organization simultaneously performing this well… this is a first for me.
This will make the upcoming MLB Draft that much more important for the Braves. If this season ends the way it has started for the big league team, it’s absolutely critical that the organization continues to replenish its system. And though annual farm rankings aren’t necessarily life or death, oftentimes mid-season trades are heavily influenced by how prospects are perceived throughout the industry.
We’ll see if this trend continues for the rest of 2021 and whether or not this year’s crop of draftees can keep the momentum going. For an organization so used to pacing the sport with its farm system, I’m sure the Braves are determined to return to the top. If the first couple of months of the current campaign are any indication of what’s to come, I firmly believe they will in fact be back there soon.