**If you’ve followed our work from the very beginning, and I mean the “very” beginning, when Jim and I contributed to MLBDepthCharts.com, you’d recall that each week, every Friday to be exact, MLBDC would publish our “National League Hitters and Pitchers of the Week.” We were basically given a platform to highlight players that we needed so to speak to stay ahead of the competition in an N.L.-only fantasy baseball league that Jim and I have been a part of for a combined 35 years. Now we do it for both the N.L. and A.L., but the National League will always feel like home. One question we’ve been posed with a lot over the years is “How long is it until Player X reaches the majors?” That’s incredibly difficult to predict. And I think, aside from a player’s own level of play, a players ascension to the majors has a lot to do with who’s ahead of him.**C –William Contreras – In the case of catcher, the Braves have a lot of moving parts. In fact, it looks like a manufacturing flow chart, with 35-year-old and future Hall-of-Famer Brian McCann as the Braves opening day starter and veteran Tyler Flowers as his backup. Then you have Alex Jackson who struggled mightily last season between Double and Triple-A, with defensive-minded Jonathan Morales wedged between them. Carlos M. Martinez will be entering his seventh season with the organization, will turn 24 in May, and his highest point of play was 45 games with AA Mississippi last season. All of this leads us to Venezuelan native William Contreras, the gold nugget underneath all of that organizational hard pack. The brother of Chicago Cubs catcher Wilson, the 6’0”- 180 lb. righty is the eventual successor to the position and he proved it even more last season between LoA Rome and HiA Florida. With Rome, he batted .293, hit 17 doubles, 11 home runs, scored 54 runs and drove in 39 in 82 games, while posting a .970 fielding percentage. The organization promoted him to HiA Florida and the Florida State League pitching sapped him of all his extra base hits, as he hit only seven doubles, yet still batted .253 with 10 RBi in 23 games. Aside from the HiA struggles, the organization believes his raw power, plate discipline and athletic defense will translate well as he continues to move up the ladder. Some scouts call him a rarity: a catcher who can handle the everyday rigors of catching while contributing potent offense. Braves fans need to be patient because it could really pay off.1B – Ray Hernandez – No matter what anyone says, even with the 2018 arrival of phenom outfielder Ronald Acuna, the presence of stud second baseman Ozzie Albies or the free agent addition of former MVP, third baseman Josh Donaldson, the true heartbeat of the Braves roster is first baseman Freddie Freeman. The three-time All-Star has been the backbone of the offense since he took over the starting first base job in 2011, hitting a career .293 with 189 home runs, 684 RBi and 685 runs scored. The 29-year-old is signed through the 2021 season, and until then, there is zero reason to think he won’t continue to be the lifeblood of Atlanta’s lineup. Now, for OAS, I could have chosen former first round draft pick (2014) Braxton Davidson here, but wow, is this kid Chris Carter re-incarnated or what? He repeated the Florida State League in 2018 and didn’t improve. Sure, he tied for second in the FSL with 20 home runs, and hit 19 doubles, but a .171 batting average with 213 strikeouts in 121 games? This is why we dig deeper, and first year pro out of Alabama State University Ray Hernandez slots in nicely as this year’s Braves UTR OAS. Hernandez came to the Braves out of the 29th round, bringing with him a strong arm, big power potential, good bat speed and a plus-hit tool. He showed off all of it in the Gulf Coast League last season to the tune of a .283/.357/.486/.843 slashline along with 17 extra-base hits (5 home runs), 25 RBi and a .992 fielding percentage. He led the GCL Braves in doubles (11) and ranked second with 15 walks. The 6’3”- 220 lb. righty is no world beater. He was old for the level, but he could provide more than just organizational depth, which is more than you’d normally expect from a 29th round draft choice.2B – Greg Cullen – One of the many common phrases readers see here is “a formality.” How placing a player on our OAS lists is a formality, and it’s used when in the example of the Braves, you have 22-year-old Ozzie Albies now manning second base in the majors. A now and future stud who won’t see arbitration until the year 2021. If he maintains his statistical pace until then, guys like 2018 – 15th rounder out of Niagara University Greg Cullen will be a formality placement on this list. However for Braves fans or fans of those deep leagues, it’s a good thing to point out solid performers and/or simply keep tabs on the “who’s who” within your favorite organization. Cullen, a 5’10”- 190 lb. lefty, hails from Penfield, NY, a mere 25 minute drive from where I’m sitting as I write this. However, Baseballdraftreport.com listed Cullen as “a hitting machine”, as he batted a smoking .364 in three years with Niagara. He stole 30 bases and posted a .443 on-base percentage before the Braves selected the junior and shipped him to Rookie Danville of the Appalachian League. He didn’t slow down. There, he led the team in hits (58), runs scored (30), RBi (33), walks (29), OPS (.770) and total bases (82). The term formality is never intended to assume that the player at the core of the term is inadequate. Cullen is Anything but. However, with Albies at the top of the second base heap, Cullen will have to not only sustain his offensive charge, but outdo it again and again to gain (any or more) attention. 3B – CJ Alexander– Looking at the 2018 season and going into 2019, all Braves third base prospect talk begins and ends with Austin Riley. Sure, the Braves signed Josh Donaldson to a 1-year deal for 2019, but if he can stay healthy and produce even close to what he did when he won the A.L. MVP award with Toronto back in 2015, the Braves can simply give Riley reps in Triple-A until he sorely forces the organizations hand. So, CJ Alexander slots into that formality group that houses Greg Cullen listed above. However, like Cullen, Alexander is absolutely no slouch. In fact, some scouts said Alexander was a 4th or 5th round talent, but slipped all the way to the 20th round, and what fell in Atlanta’s lap was plus-plus raw power, a plus arm and average speed. The 6’5”- 215 pound lefty made his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League where in nine games before a promotion to Rookie Danville, he batted .412 with a homer, two triples, and six walks to four strikeouts. Alexander moved to Danville and in only 22 games in Danville’s 68 game season, he led the team with four triples and batted .354. Alexander packed his bags once again in early-August, heading to HiA Florida, and despite the league’s reputation of being a pitcher’s league, Alexander had seven extra base hits (including his second pro home run), drew eight walks to 17 strikeouts and still registered a .325 batting average. I’ll take this out of the 20th round every single year. SS – AJ Graffanino – Continuing with the high-floor prospects, AJ Graffanino not necessarily wrestled the OAS spot from his organizational mates. He earned it with good play, but of all the infield positions in the organization, shortstop appears to possess the least amount of flair. The son of former major leaguer Tony, Graffanino was a 2018 draft pick out of the University of Washington, where the 6’2”- 170 lb. lefty was a three year starter for the Huskies, but played only 29 games his junior season due to a hamstring injury. He flashed good athleticism, above-average defense, plus-speed and an above average bat, and that was good enough for the Braves to select him in the 8th round. He began his pro career with Rookie Danville and went on a week-long tear batting a robust .407 in six games, earning him a quick promotion to LoA Rome. His bat (obviously) cooled off, but the Wilmington, Delaware native still batted over .300 (.301), scored 19 runs, drove in 11 and stole four bases in 37 games. Overall, a good season from a kid who has great bloodlines, but has to stare up at a list of other prospects, veterans and Dansby Swanson, who projects to sit at the top of the heap until arbitration, then his free agency in 2023. LF – Jefrey Ramos – The 6’1”- 185 lb. Dominican Republic native may very well be the most un-talked about hitting prospect in the Braves minor leagues. When you’re looking up at guys like Drew Waters, Cristian Pache, Travis Demeritte, to name a few, you have to work harder right? Ramos spent all last season with LoA Rome and you could say he had quite a breakout season. Sure, his batting average dipped to .245, the lowest since his tooke season in 2016 with the DSL Braves (.230), but the power arrived in big fashion, as Ramos clubbed 24 doubles, legged out six triples and his 16 home runs tied for third in the entire organization from Triple-A down to the DSL. His 115 hits (also) ranked third among true 2018 minor league Braves prospects. With more seasons like this from recently turned 20-year-old, Waters and Pache may have new company in top prospect talk. CF – Drew Waters – We’ll make this short. When it’s all said and done, 2017 – 2nd rounder Drew Waters is the next great Atlanta Braves outfielder. I’ll go out on a long limb and predict this: With Cristian Pache a level ahead of Waters, Once Waters hits Atlanta, the Braves will boast the most athletic outfield in all the majors with Waters in left field, Pache in center and Acuna in right. Waters is the more polished hitter, Pache’s defense could play in the majors now and Acuna has all five tools. The Braves #7 prospect (BA) could take his game back to HiA to start 2019, but it wouldn’t surprise to see him receive a rapid promotion to AA Mississippi, inching him closer to his major league debut, possibly in 2020. RF – Trey Harris – As much as it’s obvious that Atlanta has some sorting out to do with its glut of centerfield prospects, it’s good to go back to the fundamentals to help make OAS selections. That’s how Harris got here. Now, looking at the landscape of outfielders in the system (like top prospects Drew Waters, Cristian Pache and several others, if guys like Waters and Pache continue to project, potentially joining superstar Ronald Acuna in Atlanta), where would Harris play? For now, within the annual OAS scope, it doesn’t matter. For a 32nd rounder, he performed fairly well in his debut in the GCL. As a four-year starter for the University of Missouri, he played mainly second base, and in 214 collegiate games, the 5’10”- 220 lb. righty batted .267 with 28 home runs, 156 RBi and 37 stolen bases. His bat translated well to the pros, as he registered a .314/.450/.467/.917 slashline with 12 extra-base hits, 24 runs scored, and a 21:13 walk-to-strikeout ratio, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since he came out of college with a scouting report of having a great approach at the plate. Harris finished the season with LoA Rome and in 22 games batted .286 with nine doubles, three stolen bases and seven walks. Like several prospects above Harris, unless he breaks out in a huge way and sustains that success, I just don’t see him bypassing the likes of Waters and Pache on the depth chart. Top 5 Starting Pitchers – (Factor Score) / Highest Level Attained
1. RHP Ian Anderson – (20.5) / Double-A Mississippi “Solid Stash”
** This is Anderson’s first mention as a UTR-OAS. He was absent not because of performance, but mainly the lack of innings to acquire the needing score. The top round pick in 2016 only saw 39.2 rookies innings during his debut and only 83 innings in 2017 with LoA Rome. During his first full season, the 6′ 3″ 170 lb right-hander only surpassed more than 5 innings of work three times in 20 starts. Its his pedigree and improving peripherals over three seasons that earns him the “Solid Stash” title. I believe the battle as to who will be the future stud in Atlanta, will spike Anderson’s trajectory in 2019. Three outstanding right-handers top the Braves prospect list in Anderson, Mike Soroka (2016 #1 UTR-OAS), and Kyle Wright. Anderson possess the best pure stuff amongst those, and may find his way to Atlanta later this season. He throws his mid-90’s fastball around all points of the zone with ease, and follows-up with a 11-5 curve and change-up that rounds out three plus offerings.
2. RHP Jeremy Walker – (13) / Triple-A Gwinnett “Legit UTR
** This spot would have been occupied by a UTR favorite of mine, in Bruce Zimmermann (19). Zimmermann was traded to the Orioles at the deadline last season. Walker, a 5th round selection in 2016, ended last season on a high by getting a call-up to Triple-A Gwinnett. He threw eight scoreless innings, giving up 3 hits and striking out six. This after posting mundane numbers at HiA Florida in 135 innings over 25 starts. The 6′ 5″ 205 lb righty has a 4-pitch repertoire of a low-90s fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a change-up. None of his pitches scorch the grading chart, but Walker is a pitch-to-contact type that could be a future back-end innings eater.
3. LHP Joey Wentz – (19) / HiA Florida “Legit UTR”
** Wentz topped this list last season, and possibly could have returned if he could have stayed off the disable list last season. An indication as a top arm was his final 9 starts since returning from the DL. The former 1st rounder (2016) only allowed 5 earned runs over 38.1 innings, with 28 hits, 5 walks and 30 strikeouts. Another big-bodied pitcher (6′ 5″ 210 lb) in the Braves stable, Wentz’s setback may have dimmed his radar somewhat, but watch for his return in 2019 and re-join the ranks of the top arms listed above.
4. RHP Huascar Ynoa – (12.5) / HiA Florida
** This 20-year old took a huge step on the Braves prospect radar in 2018. The 6′ 3″ 175 lb Dominican native was an international signee with the Twins and then traded to Atlanta in 2017. After 159 rookie league innings over three seasons, Ynoa found himself at HiA Florida posting a 11.9 K9 rate in nine late season starts.
5. RHP Odalvi Javier – (11.5) / LoA Rome
** The 2017 UTR “One to Watch” for the Braves saw his first full season at Rome in 2018.
Top 3 Relief Pitchers – (Factor Score) / Highest Level Attained
1. RHP Brandon White – (10) / HiA Florida
2. LHP Thomas Burrows – (7) / Double-A Mississippi
T3. RHP Connor Johnstone – (6) / Triple-A Gwinnett
T3. LHP Kelvin Rodriguez – (6) / LoA Rome