5. Aaron Blair– Right-Handed Pitcher
Date of Birth: 5/26/1992
Acquired: Acquired by the Braves in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks along with OF Ender Inciarte and IF Dansby Swanson for RHP Shelby Miller and LHP Gabe Speier
Coming into camp this spring, Blair is likely to be a dark-horse rotation candidate for the Braves. He already has 77 innings in Triple-A under his belt and is one of the most polished prospects in the system. Blair features a low-90’s fastball with good late movement, complemented by a sinking changeup and an average curveball, all of which he commands well. Blair’s greatest asset is his control, as evidenced by his low walk total in 2015, when he allowed just 50 free passes in 160 innings. While he may not miss a lot of bats, Blair’s ability to induce groundballs with the late life on his fastball and the sink of his changeup should allow him to be effective in the big leagues. Blair does not project to be a future ace, partially due to his tendencies to pitch to contact, but he should be a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm for the Braves at some point in the very near future.
Projected Highest Level in 2016: MLB (Atlanta)
4. Kolby Allard- Left-Handed Pitcher
Date of Birth: 8/13/1997
Acquired: First-round (14) draft selection in 2015
The Braves took Allard with their first pick in last year’s draft despite some back issues that caused other teams to shy away. Prior to the draft, Allard was billed as the top prep arm available according to some publications, and the Braves had to feel fortunate that he lasted to their pick at number 14. Once he was in tow the Braves sent the former UCLA commit to the Gulf Coast League, where he allowed one base runner in 6 innings, striking out 12. It was quite a debut for Allard, who features two plus pitches, a fastball that sits in the low-90’s but can reach 96 and a hard curveball. These two offerings along with a developing changeup give the young left-hander a lot to work with, especially at just 18 years of age. One area of concern with Allard, however, is the back issue that plagued him in high school. Despite his highly impressive stint in the GCL in 2015, it was believed that his abbreviated workload may have been a product of some recurring back pain. Allard elected to undergo minor back surgery this offseason to correct the issue, which is a concern going forward, despite general manager John Coppolella’s assertion that his prized young lefty would be ready for the start of spring training. His back will be something worth monitoring as he progresses, but Allard has all the talent and the makings of a future star.
Ranking him ahead of Blair may be a tad aggressive given that Allard has just 6 professional innings under his belt, but the stuff is there to suggest that Allard has ace potential if he is able to stay healthy. Once Allard takes on a larger innings total we can get a better idea of how he profiles against professional hitters, but I feel comfortable ranking him this high even with such a small sample size.
Projected Highest Level in 2016: Low-A (Rome)
3. Sean Newcomb- Left-Handed Pitcher
Date of Birth: 6/12/1993
Acquired: Acquired by the Braves in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels along with RHP Chris Ellis for IF Andrelton Simmons and C Jose Briceno
Among the high-profile arms the Braves have acquired since the start of their rebuild, Newcomb was the most expensive, but given his immense potential he could be the best. Standing at 6’5″, 245 lbs., Newcomb is an imposing figure on the mound, creating easy leverage to allow his fastball to reach 98 at times. He is also armed with a curveball and changeup, both of which are still works-in-progress, but have the potential to be plus offerings in the future. Newcomb’s arsenal has aided him in tallying high strikeout totals at every stop, from his college days at Hartford to his impressive work as a part of the Angels organization, where he struck out 168 batters between three levels in 2015.
In spite of Newcomb’s high upside, one thing has held him back from truly maxing out his potential: control. Last season he walked 76 batters in 136 innings, which suggests that his mechanics could be an issue. Some analysts suggest that Newcomb’s repeatable delivery is not the root of the problem, and it is instead a question of mindset and focus. This issue could be much more difficult to remedy, which raises some question as to how much improvement can be made in regard to Newcomb’s control. If he can find a way to improve his control, the sky is the limit for what he can accomplish as a starting pitcher. It will be interesting to see if a change of scenery has any effect, especially given the Braves track record with young pitchers. He still has some work to do before he’s ready for a spot in Atlanta’s rotation, but Newcomb could very well start the 2017 season in Atlanta if he is able to make the necessary adjustments to improve his control over the next year.
Projected Highest Level in 2016: Triple-A (Gwinnett)
2. Ozhaino Albies– Infielder
Date of Birth: 1/7/1997
Acquired: Signed in 2013 as an international free agent
Since signing with the Braves as an amateur free agent at just 16, Albies has been nothing but impressive. The young Curacao native made his professional debut in 2014, splitting time between the GCL and Danville Braves, and posted a .364/.446/.444 at just 17 years of age. Albies impressed once again in his sophomore campaign, batting .310/.368/.404 for Low-A Rome despite a nagging thumb injury that would eventually require surgery and end his season in early August. Albies has a short, quick swing that produces a lot of line drives, thanks to his uncanny bat control, and it allows him to utilize his 70-grade speed on the basepaths. This line-drive approach has helped Albies produce some impressive on-base percentages early in his career, and has given many reason to believe that he could eventually serve as the leadoff hitter in Atlanta. Though his power is almost non-existent from a home run standpoint, Albies does possess good gap power, as evidenced by the 40 extra-base hits he has collected in his first two seasons. He is currently a shortstop, and reports indicate that he has all the tools necessary to stay there long-term, except that the presence of another newly-acquired shortstop may inhibit those plans; more on that in a moment. Albies possesses a strong arm and solid range, and if he were to make the move to second base, he could be a potential plus defender there long-term as well.
As an all-around talent, Albies has the potential to make a huge impact in Atlanta if he continues his current progression. He has already drawn comparisons to another diminutive middle infielder, Jose Altuve, who is a 3-time all-star with the Houston Astros. There has even been talk this offseason about the Braves possibly promoting Albies to Atlanta this year, much like they did with Rafael Furcal in 2000, but that is unlikely given the presence of Erick Aybar at shortstop and an array of candidates at second base. While Albies will likely have to wait his turn, the Braves should be very excited about the future of their middle infield. If Albies continues to impress this season, he could be knocking on the door when spring training arrives in 2017.
Projected Highest Level in 2016: Double-A (Mississippi)
1. Dansby Swanson- Infielder
Date of Birth: 2/11/1994
Acquired: Acquired by the Braves in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks along with RHP Aaron Blair and OF Ender Inciarte for RHP Shelby Miller and LHP Gabe Speier
Swanson may be the most anticipated prospect for the Braves since Jason Heyward, with much of the fanfare stemming from the fact that just last June the Diamondbacks selected Swanson with the first overall pick in the draft. The Braves were able to acquire Swanson as part of a package for right-hander Shelby Miller, and since then the fan base has been abuzz about what Swanson could mean for the Braves future. With his surprising acquisition, many believe that the Braves rebuild could now be over and that Swanson may be the final piece of the puzzle in regard to roster overhaul. Considering all the hype surrounding him, it would be easy to have concerns about how the former Vanderbilt star might handle himself, but based on all the reports about his makeup, Swanson seems up to the task. Swanson is a very polished player at this point, with a solid approach at the plate, 60-grade speed, and the tools to remain at shortstop once he reaches the major leagues. The physical tools combined with what many scouts consider plus makeup are a big part of why Swanson was the first overall pick and why MLB.com ranks him as the number 8 prospect in baseball.
During a stint with the Diamondbacks Low-A affiliate Hillsboro Hops, which was cut short due to Swanson being hit in the face with a pitch, the Marietta, Ga. native posted a .394 on-base percentage. While the sample size of only 83 at-bats leaves many questions unanswered in regard to Swanson’s abilities as a professional, the belief is that he will have solid on-base ability at every stop because of a refined approach and good pitch recognition. An aggressive estimate for Swanson might have him reaching the majors in some capacity during the 2016 season, but in a likelihood the Braves will elect to wait and allow their young phenom to enjoy a natural developmental curve. Penciling Swanson in as the 2017 opening day shortstop may not be a stretch however, and that would make for good publicity to have a Marietta native playing shortstop in the team’s first game at its new stadium in Marietta. The story lines are all there, but Swanson still has a lot to prove before any of them can come to fruition. For now, Braves fans can be excited about the possibility of having a cornerstone type player like Swanson in the organization.
Projected Highest Level in 2016: Double-A (Mississippi)