Prospects To Watch
It is no secret that the Braves have improved their farm system over the past 16 months, and while their barrage of trades has created a stunning amount of turnover at the major-league level, the Braves stand to benefit in the future if some of the highly regarded prospects they have acquired are able to fulfill their potentials in Atlanta. The most-coveted player acquired by the Braves over the course of their overhaul is almost undoubtedly shortstop Dansby Swanson, who was acquired as part of the trade that sent Shelby Miller to the Arizona Diamondbacks. But while Swanson figures heavily into the Braves future plans, his time in Atlanta may have to wait considering his most advanced level to this point has been Low-A (despite being invited to big league camp next month).
Swanson may be the crown jewel of the Braves system at the moment, but there is no question that the Braves have a bevvy of talent around him, with some of it being close to major-league-ready. So let’s take a look at some of the most advanced prospects in the Braves upper minors who could figure into the Braves plans this season.
When the Braves acquired Mallex Smith as part of a package that sent Justin Upton to San Diego last offseason, he was regarded as a raw speedster with a lot left to prove before being considered a legitimate prospect. Smith wasted no time silencing his critics in his first season with the Braves organization, hitting .306/.373/.386 with 57 steals across two levels, and reportedly improving his defense in center field. As an 80-grade runner on the 20-80 scouting scale, Smith possesses blazing speed, but it was his progression with the bat last season that has given the organization so much hope for the future.
Smith will be in major-league camp this spring, and if he performs well it is possible that he could win a starting spot in Atlanta’s outfield. One complication to the matter, however, is the presence of Michael Bourn, who is owed $14 million in 2015 and is likely a lock to fill a roster spot in some capacity, despite the possibility that Smith outplays him in spring training. Regardless of the outcome, Smith will undoubtedly be a player to watch next month as he battles to break camp with the big club while showcasing what could be the Braves future in center field.
Perhaps no player in the Braves system is as close to being major league as Blair, who logged 77 innings in Tripe-A in 2015 as part of the Diamondbacks organization. Blair was also part of the Shelby Miller deal, along with Swanson and Ender Inciarte, and could be ready to contribute at the major-league level as early as this April. Last season Blair posted a 3.31 ERA between two levels, with a 2.4 K/BB ratio. Blair is praised for his command and is regarded as one of the more polished pitching prospects in baseball, featuring a sinking fastball that is complemented by a plus changeup and a developing curveball.
If he is able to showcase his talents enough in spring training it is possible that Blair could break camp with the major-league team. However, even with a strong performance in Orlando, Blair’s arbitration clock could entice the front office to hold off on his promotion until June, which would allow the Braves to maintain a full six years of contractual control beyond this season. Whether he debuts in April or June, there is no doubt that both the Braves organization and its fans are excited to see what Blair has to offer.
Since being taken in the first round of the 2012 draft, Lucas Sims has been one of the Braves most unpredictable prospects. In Sims’ first full season of professional baseball he posted an impressive 2.62 ERA at Rome, the Braves Low-A affiliate, striking out 134 batters in 116.2 innings. At just 19 years old, Sims had already shown signs of becoming the frontline starter the Braves envisioned when they drafted him 21st overall, and the hype around him began to grow. However, in the two seasons that have followed Sims has been much less impressive, with many of his rate stats regressing considerably. Following an up and down 2015 season Sims was invited to participate in the Arizona Fall League, where he seemingly regained whatever he had been missing since his inaugural campaign as a Brave. The velocity of his fastball was as high as it had ever been since being drafted, and his highly-regarded curveball once again became a legitimate out pitch.
With some momentum being carried into spring training in 2016, it is possible that Sims could make the roster in some capacity, despite never pitching above Double-A. Regardless of his team to begin the regular season, Sims will be one to watch in spring training as he attempts to permanently regain the form that allowed him to vault up prospect rankings in 2013.
As one of the Braves oldest and most advanced legitimate prospects, Tyrell Jenkins has more than earned his way onto the list and possibly the Braves roster. Jenkins was originally introduced to Braves fans as the secondary piece in the return for fan favorite Jason Heyward, and in his first season with the new club Jenkins performed very well. Across two levels in 2015, Jenkins posted a 3.19 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 138.1 innings pitched, and potentially placed his name in the mix for a rotation spot this spring.
Jenkins has never been a high strikeout guy, but his ability to throw a heavy sinker in the low 90’s allows him to keep hitters from making solid contact. Jenkins also features a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90’s, and if he is able to improve his command, it is very possible that Braves fans could be watching Jenkins in Atlanta this season.