It’s always hard to put together a top prospect list. Whether a farm system is strong or weak, it’s never easy to slot players according to their potential.
If you had put together a prospect list for the Braves at the end of last season, it would have been, well, depressing. You would have realized how bad the organization’s depth was and how different it was compared to the glory years when the Braves were regularly graduating legit prospects to the big leagues.
It’s even more difficult now to put a list together, as the Braves have made a significant makeover with numerous trades this offseason to improve the organization.
Atlanta’s farm system was a mess, but it certainly looks much better now.
The latest haul was three players – pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman and third baseman Rio Ruiz. Foltynewicz (number two) and Ruiz (number six) were immediately placed in Atlanta’s Top 10 prospect list by MLB.com. Seven of the Top 20 on that list are players acquired by the Braves this offseason.
Think about that for a moment. That’s 35% of the top players in the organization that are brand new. That’s impressive. It tells you how much better the farm system is now compared to when the offseason began, regardless of the debate about where to slot each player in such a list.
The Braves have done this with pitching. Amen and pass the biscuits. Yes, that’s what they had to do. They had to go out and make the organization stronger by bringing in more arms – more young impact starting pitching prospects.
That’s what the Braves have targeted. They got two in the Jason Heyward trade, with Shelby Miller ready to join the Atlanta rotation this spring and Tyrell Jenkins headed to Double-A. They got one in the Justin Upton deal, with Max Fried recovering from Tommy John surgery and expected to get back on track in 2016.
They traded two fringe relievers for Manny Banuelos, who was one of the top prospects in baseball three years ago before having TJ surgery. After seeing him hit in the mid-90s in the Instructional League, the Braves believe Banuelos can bounce back and again be a solid prospect.
They traded a third base prospect, Kyle Kubitza, to the Angels for a young lefty named Ricardo Sanchez. He’s more of a long-term prospect, but the Braves feel his upside is tremendous.
The trade with the Astros was a no-brainer. Look, people loved Evan Gattis. It’s understandable. He had a great story and did very well for the Braves for two years. But let’s be honest. This guy is an American League player. He belongs in the AL with a bat in his hand. The Astros should make him burn his fielding glove and just go hit.
The Braves were worried Gattis was going to break down physically. He had a laundry list of ailments last year, so many that the Astros required him to take a physical before the trade was finalized. That never happens. But he’ll have a better shot at staying healthy if all he has to do is hit.
James Hoyt was included in the trade. Who cares. Seriously, and this is no knock on Hoyt, but he’s an interchangeable reliever the Braves signed out of the Mexican League a few years ago. Yes, his numbers have been good, but the Braves have several very similar relievers that might make it.
In exchange, the Braves loaded up. Foltynewicz (forget about saying it, try spelling it) is a hard-throwing right-hander with a great frame. The Astros brought him up to the big leagues late last season and placed him in the bullpen. But the Braves want to see if he can start, which is what he mainly did in the minor leagues.
Folty, as he will be nicknamed, throws gas. The Braves tried to get hard-throwers in every trade. They want power arms. That’s what wins in October. He needs to improve his control a bit. Foltynewicz had 52 walks in 102.2 innings in Triple-A last year. If he can do that, this kid will have a shot at being an Atlanta Braves starting pitcher.
Now, as a scout told me Wednesday night, “If he doesn’t make it as a starter, just put him in the bullpen. What is he? Maybe Mark Wohlers?” Well, that’ll do. Folty was throwing consistently in the upper-90s out of the bullpen last season with Houston. But they want to see if that arm can be a starter first.
Folty is almost ready. He’s got 562.2 minor league innings, so he’s close. The Braves may let him battle for the fifth starter’s job this March with Banuelos and Wandy Rodriguez. But if not, Foltynewicz will likely go down to Triple-A Gwinnett and get ready for the big leagues.
Thurman saw an increase in his velocity last summer, but his statistics suffered for it. This kid was a polished college arm drafted almost two years ago. So far in 155 minor league innings in his two seasons, Thurman has 150 strikeouts in 155 innings. But his ERA is 4.99.
Thurman looks like a candidate for the Carolina rotation this season, or maybe they’ll push him up to Double-A Mississippi. The Braves will want him to be a starter, but at worse he could be a reliever and if the fastball continues to improve that might be his spot.
Ruiz may be the most interesting prospect. One scout who saw him more in high school said Wednesday night he’s a cross between Robin Ventura and Eric Chavez. “He’s somewhere in between that for me,” said the scout.
Well, that’s pretty good. The Braves need a third base prospect. They have two now with Ruiz joining Dustin Peterson, who came over from the Padres in the Justin Upton trade. Ruiz will likely go to Double-A Mississippi, while Peterson will probably start the year in Carolina.
There are questions if either player will stay at third, as seems to be the case with more players that play that position for some reason. But the Braves now have two legit third base prospects. These two seem like better prospects than Kubitza, who was the best prospect at that position for the Braves before he was traded to the Angels.
Not many people believed the Braves would trade Heyward, Upton and Gattis in one offseason. But look at the return for those three players (and the three pitchers – Jordan Walden, Aaron Northcraft and James Hoyt – also included in the trades):
Shelby Miller - RHP
Tyrell Jenkins – RHP
Max Fried – LHP
Jace Peterson – 2B
Dustin Peterson – 3B
Mallex Smith – OF
Mike Foltynewicz – RHP
Andrew Thurman – RHP
Rio Ruiz – 3B
That’s three players who did not have long-term futures in Atlanta for nine players – one will immediately go into the major league rotation while six are now Top 20 prospects for the Braves.
And that’s only two players – Miller and Jace Peterson – certain to be on the Atlanta roster this season. Maybe Foltynewicz makes it at some point. But this shows these moves were not about putting a Band-Aid on scratch. This is about repairing something that needed help.
I can’t repeat this enough: this franchise was broken. It had to be fixed. It wasn’t broken overnight and won’t be fixed overnight. But the moves like the one made Wednesday night, along with all the others this winter, are what has this organization back on track.
Last week there was a report by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal that rival executives were questioning John Hart’s moves as the new man in charge by the Braves. How can they not look at how the farm system has gotten better and realize why the Braves are doing what they’re doing?
Yes, like it or not, this is about 2017. It is about this new stadium. It is about constructing an organization that is rich in talent and provides the front office with options, the most important word for any baseball executive.
The Braves are going to struggle in 2015. They would have even if they had only made marginal improvements to a 79-win team from a year ago. But it’s more about the fact that the Marlins are going to be very good. The Mets could be much better with the talented pitching. And the Nationals are likely the team to beat once again in the NL East.
But this is okay. We realize it might be a challenging year. But it can’t be worse than last year. Nothing can be worse than last year. The Braves this season could lose more than 83 games and there’s no way it will be worse than last season. That’s why they had to do this – to prepare for this team to be relevant again when those doors open up at Sun Trust Park.
Trades like the one with the Astros were critical to getting this thing turned around. It is a process, and the process is working to perfection thus far.
The Braves are better today than they were yesterday. It’s a trend that much continue, and the front office is giving us every indication they will slowly but surely right this wayward ship.
And that prospect list? Yeah, it’s better. Way better.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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