Braves Prospect Primer: Growth, graduation
Albies, deep group of pitchers racing to join Swanson in Major Leagues
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2017 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.
Major League-ready: Dansby Swanson, SS
This feels a little like cheating, but no Primer would be complete without a system's top prospect -- and the No. 4 overall prospect, to boot.
The reason it feels like cheating to put Swanson in this category is because he needs one more big league at-bat to lose his prospect eligibility. Following a promotion from Double-A Mississippi on Aug. 17, the 23-year-old shortstop held his own at the game's highest level with a .302/.361/.442 line, three homers and three steals in 38 games.
Because of his ability to hit for a high average while providing solid defense at shortstop and adding value with his speed, Swanson enters the season as perhaps the favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. Even if that doesn't materialize, the Braves expect Swanson to be a key cornerstone, or perhaps even more likely the face, of their rebuild entering the SunTrust Park era. In an era where Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and others are poised to make this a golden age for shortstops, the Braves appear to have a special one of their own in Swanson.
Shining star: Ozzie Albies, 2B
While Swanson is undoubtedly the star of the system, Albies will take that mantle when Swanson graduates, and truth be told, he would be the shining star in most other systems anyhow.
MLB.com's No. 10 overall prospect was aggressively pushed to Double-A Mississippi for his age-19 season in 2016 campaign and even Triple-A Gwinnett by the end of April, when it became clear Swanson had to be tested in the Southern League and Atlanta wanted to get both time at shortstop. When the switch-hitting Albies hit .248/.307/.351 in 56 games in the International League, it was clear it was time to put him back in Mississippi, where he'd slide over to second to form the Minors' most exciting double-play duo with his fellow top-10 prospect.
All that movement aside, it's clear Albies is ready for a return assignment to Gwinnett after he led the Southern League in average (.321) and OBP (.391) while adding 33 extra-base hits and 21 steals in 82 games. The Curacao native has the speed and defensive skills even at a new position to be of value in the Majors right now, but having experienced his first professional struggles in Gwinnett, the Braves want him to thrive at Triple-A before getting the Swanson-Albies band back together for good in the Majors. Despite surgery to repair a fractured elbow suffered in September, Albies has returned with all things looking full speed ahead toward Atlanta.
"You talk to him, he's a real articulate young man, and ask him what's the difference between Double-A and Triple-A, he'll say they don't throw you 1-0 fastballs, 1-1 fastballs," Braves director of player development Dave Trembley said. "You've got to learn to hit the off-speed pitch. You've got to learn to set up guys a little bit. That's all Albies needs. He needs to play a little bit. I think it's to our organization's benefit that we have Brandon Phillips. He's going to be the guy, and Albies knows that, so we're not going to have to rush him. After he plays in Triple-A a little while, he'll be ready. He's a real smart kid."
Full-season debutant: Ian Anderson, RHP
A lot has been and will be made about the Class A Advanced Florida rotation, with so many holdovers from last season's South Atlantic League-winning Class A Rome staff. But don't sleep on this year's version of the R-Braves starting group, led by Anderson.
The Braves took the 6-foot-3 right-hander with the third overall pick in last year's Draft out of an upstate New York high school because of his projection, plus fastball and above-average slider. Anderson didn't disappoint in his pro debut with a 2.04 ERA, 36 strikeouts and 12 walks over 39 2/3 innings between the Gulf Coast League and Rookie-level Danville, although eight of his 10 starts lasted no longer than four innings.
The big test for Anderson in his first full season could be durability in trying to hit -- or get close to -- triple digits in innings, given his pedigree as a cold-weather pitcher who wasn't as stretched in high school as perhaps some of his southern peers. The Braves say they've already taken the necessary steps.
"We brought him in to instructional league," Trembley said. "We brought him here to mini-camp early. He's gotten bigger. We brought him down here early with the mini-camp early, so we put him under the watch of our pitching people. We'll get him stretched out here. We'll monitor his innings and monitor his pitches. But we expect he's going to go to Rome and pitch there. So what's important for us is he begins the season and ends the season still being able to pitch. We don't like to shut guys down in August because they've reached their innings limit. For us, we manage their innings, so if we have to pitch them later in the year or go to every six days instead of every five, that's how we'll do it."
Fellow top 2016 picks Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller and Bryse Wilson are expected to join Anderson in the Rome rotation.
At the crossroads: Sean Newcomb, LHP
The No. 6 Braves prospect's stuff remains perhaps the best in the system. MLB.com gave Newcomb a plus-plus 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale for his mid-90's fastball and a plus 60 for his curveball. That was good enough to help him lead the Southern League with 152 strikeouts over 140 innings. The problem was the 23-year-old left-hander also posted the circuit's third-highest walk rate with a 4.6 BB/9. That's one season after Newcomb averaged 5.0 BB/9 across three levels in the Angels system.
That's a moderate year-to-year improvement, but Newcomb fell from No. 47 in MLB.com's overall prospect rankings at the end of 2016 to his current spot at No. 80. He's also been surpassed by Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka for the title of top Braves pitching prospect.
With Newcomb ticketed for Gwinnett, the hitters are only going to be more patient at the Minors' highest level. If the southpaw can't iron out those control issues, it might make sense to move him to the bullpen, where his stuff would play in shorter stints, especially with other starting options surging up the system. For their part, the Braves emphasize that Newcomb is still going through his development and needs time before he can be judged a finished product.
"With Sean Newcomb, it's just like every young pitcher -- he just has to repeat his delivery," Trembley said. "He repeats his delivery, he gets reps and more innings and he'll be fine."
Breakout prospect: A.J. Minter, LHP
We define someone with breakout potential as any prospect ranked outside the organization's top 20, and Minter fits that bill at No. 22. But beyond that, the 23-year-old left-handed reliever could be primed for a big season as he gets another step away from 2015 Tommy John surgery. The Braves carefully laid out Minter's appearances out of the bullpen last season, typically giving him between three and five days between outings, and he had few issues under those conditions with a 1.30 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 47 strikeouts and .149 opponents' average over 34 2/3 innings across three levels, more than half of which came at Mississippi.
The Braves were hoping to take the shackles off Minter this year, but a nerve issue in his throwing arm kept him from seeing any Grapefruit League action during his time in big league camp. Trembley didn't seem overly concerned about the issue last week, and Minter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he expects to be ready for Opening Day.
Minter has the offerings to make it as a Major League reliever with a 65-grade fastball and 55-grade cutter, and with the way the game is evolving in its valuations of relievers, the Texas A&M product could be a much more valuable piece by the end of the 2017 season. But he'll have to prove his health first and his ability to get on -- and thrive on -- the mound in non-scheduled situations next.
"He's a legitimate back-end-of-the-bullpen piece," Trembley said. "He's not a situational pitcher. He's got two different types of breaking balls. He's got a putaway pitch -- one of them that's really hard -- and he's got a get-them-over. Good delivery, very compact, good command. He needs to be tested before he goes to the big leagues. He's got to check all the boxes. We've got to get him in a situation where he can pitch a back-to-back. We've got to get him in a situation where he gets the third out of an inning, sits down, goes back out. We've got to see if we can pitch him three times a week."
Others to keep an eye on: From that standout Rome rotation, Allard, Soroka, Touki Toussaint and Ricardo Sanchez are likely to keep part of the band together at Class A Advanced Florida, while Max Fried and Patrick Weigel are scheduled to start in Mississippi. ... Acquired from the Mariners, 2014 sixth overall pick Alex Jackson also could be headed to the Florida State League, though that will depend on how he handles his move from the outfield back to catcher. The Braves believe the switch will speed his path to the Majors, given the lack of catching depth in the organization. ... The Braves also are hoping for big things in a full season for No. 8 prospect Ronald Acuna. The 19-year-old outfielder played only 40 games for Rome due to a broken thumb but hit .375/.446/.556 with 13 steals in 20 games in the Australian Baseball League this offseason. As Atlanta's highest-ranked non-top-100 prospect, don't be surprised to see him jump into that fray with a healthy 2017.