2019 Braves’ prospect rewind: Ian Anderson’s ascent to the top

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The 2019 season was an incredible year for numerous Braves’ prospects. From top to bottom, several players within the organization’s farm system boosted their stock and created excitement regarding their path to the major leagues.

In this offseason series, we’ll take a look at the Braves’ prospects that flourished in 2019 and are set up to have an even better 2020 season. These columns will cover youngsters that are currently ranked in the Braves’ system, using FanGraphs’ THE BOARD as our model for prospect rankings. My goal is to cover every Braves’ prospect that received an “up mark” beside their name (FanGraphs’ way of saying a player’s stock is rising), as well as any other players I feel are on the right trajectory; though, the releasing of each “rewind” is in no particular order. Enjoy.

(Note: The guys at FanGraphs are actually in the process of updating THE BOARD for the 2020 season. It appears they’re releasing their rankings in alphabetical order — the Arizona Diamondbacks’ list was posted last week — so the new Braves’ list will probably be available soon. Until that is released, I will be going by the final version of the 2019 prospect rankings. However, once the 2020 version comes out, I’ll share each player’s respective rank from BOTH sets of lists to illustrate the sort of before-and-after analysis we’re trying to achieve in this series, in terms of each player’s performance trend within the organization.)

To jump to previous rewinds, here’s who we’ve covered thus far:

 

No. 3: RHP, Ian Anderson

2019 stats: 26 starts, 135.2 IP, 8-7, 3.38 ERA, 11.4 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 13 HR

2019 levels: AA, AAA

Projected 2020 levels: AAA

The first pitcher in this series starts with 21-year-old Ian Anderson, now the top pitching prospect within the Braves’ organization. The former 1st round pick (2016) deserves recognition for not only putting together an incredible 2019 campaign but also for how consistent he has been since starting his pro career in the Braves’ system.

Consider Anderson’s first three pro seasons (2016-18), where he accumulated 242 innings (54 starts) and maintained a 2.55 ERA, 9.96 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9 between the GCL Braves up to Double-A Mississippi. Since Day 1, Anderson has done nothing but succeed while in the Braves’ system, and for much of this past year, that trend continued.

Anderson’s 2019 season started in Mississippi, as the M-Braves featured a loaded Opening Day rotation that consisted of all ranked prospects: Anderson (No. 3) and lefties Tucker Davidson (No. 14), Kyle Muller (No. 7) and Joey Wentz (No.11) — who was later traded to the Detroit Tigers. Still almost 3.5 years younger than the average Double-A player, Anderson didn’t waste any time becoming the Ace of the Mississippi staff. The New York native was eased in quite carefully in those first four starts of the season — none of them lasting five innings — but even as Anderson only averaged a tad over four innings per start during April, he still managed 10+K/9 as opposing batters slashed just .200/.317/.294 with 4 XBHs. 

Anderson’s May was even better, beginning with his very first start of the month (May 4) when he K’d eleven and tossed a six-inning two-hitter versus the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. That torrid May (6 starts) would be Anderson’s jumping-off point, and his 12.4 K/9 rate during the month wouldn’t even be his best yet.

This past June was more than likely the most remarkable month of Anderson’s professional career, as the righty was all but untouchable during his five starts for Mississippi. In 30.2 innings pitched during June, batters hit a measly .165 as Anderson struck out 43 (12.6 K/9) and paced the entire Southern League in strikeout rate. His last start of the month (June 28) would be his best of the season (89 Game Score), as Anderson struck out 14 Jackson Generals in a win, his fourth in five June starts. Even better, the 6-foot-3 hurler didn’t allow a single hit and was only taken out due to his rising pitch count (103 pitches / 66 strikes). Reliever Jeremy Walker came in and pitched the 8th and 9th innings, finishing off Mississippi’s no-hit bid and punching out two of his own in the process. 

By now, Anderson’s performance was garnering all of our attention, and requests for his promotion were growing. As the righty led the league in K rate, his rotation mate and lefty (Tuck Davidson) was pacing the Southern League in ERA. The month of July would be Anderson’s last in Double-A, but not before finishing off his Mississippi tenure with a bang. In those final five starts with the M-Braves, Anderson went six or more innings AND struck out nine or more batters in all but two outings. Of the 102 batters he faced in that final stretch, only one connected for a home run. Anderson was locked in and ready for a new challenge.

Anderson’s final 2019 Double-A stats

21 starts, 111.0 IP, 7-5, 2.68 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 8 HR

 

August 5 was a busy day for the Braves’ organization and an exciting one for those of us that closely follow the team’s top prospects. Anderson, along with Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, and Davidson were all promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett. The Stripers wasted no time throwing Anderson in the fire, as the very next day, he was tasked with a start versus Triple-A Rochester. It didn’t go well. Anderson lasted just three frames, allowing five runs on six hits, including a home run, and walked four. He did manage to strike out five batters, but his first start at the highest minor league level was a clunker — his third-worst outing of 2019 (28), according to Game Score.

Anderson would earn his first Gwinnett win in his next start — a six-inning 3-hitter over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre — though his final three Gwinnett outings consisted of three or more earned runs, including an August 30th drubbing in which Anderson allowed five runs and walked six against the Durham Bulls. 

It was odd seeing Anderson scuffle the way he did in Gwinnett, but for the first time in his pro career, the superstar prospect went through some real adversity on the mound. However, 5 starts and 24.2 innings of Triple-A experience should in no way be enough of a sample-size to jump to any conclusions. I mean, just look back at his final numbers up above. 

And in the end, it wasn’t just great stats that illustrated how fantastic Anderson’s 2019 season was. In a year, the righty went from the Braves’ No. 5 prospect — behind Kyle Wright on Atlanta’s prospect list — to the third-best prospect in the organization and top pitcher in the system; that’s what happens when you cap off the year as the Braves 2019 Minor League Pitcher of the Year and leader of the “next wave” of young starting pitchers in this loaded class of prospects. We should celebrate the numbers Anderson posted this past season, but perhaps his ability to remain such a consistent force on the mound provides even more excitement. The Braves really hit it big when they took this guy as their first pick in the 2016 MLB Draft.

 

2020 Outlook 

I’ll probably get a lot of boos for my somewhat conservative outlook regarding Anderson’s 2020 season, but I think the Braves should keep him in Gwinnett the entire year. 

As the big league rotation stands, Atlanta has one spot open, and that will likely be filled by Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright, or Bryse Wilson (and that’s IF the Braves don’t sign or trade for a second pitcher). With only 130 innings in Double-A and just a smidge over 20 frames in Triple-A, there’s no advantage in expediting Anderson’s MLB debut. He’s still roughly five years below the average age of a Triple-A player (at the end of the 2019 season), and he needs to log more innings in the upper realms of the minor leagues. Perhaps it would be best to allow Anderson to work on his weaknesses for one more full season and then reevaluate next winter. 

Long gone are the rebuilding days of the Braves. This current team is now a playoff contender every year, and it needs to operate like one moving forward. No more shoring up the rotation with prospects or fringe Quad-A players. If something goes wrong in the rotation during the 2020 season, then it’s GM Alex Anthopoulos’ responsibility to go out and acquire the appropriate reinforcements (as he did with the three relievers he brought in at the deadline this past season). The performance or health of the Braves’ starting staff in 2020 shouldn’t impact Anderson’s place in the organization… at least I don’t believe it should.

Of course, there’s always that period near the end of the season. If the Braves find themselves with a sizable lead in the division and are looking to rest their starters, an opportunity for an MLB debut by Anderson could present itself. As long as he doesn’t receive what I call the “Max Fried treatment” (where he’s used as a shuttling reliever) then I don’t see the harm. Exposing Anderson to the majors in 2020 for a few late-season starts — with no strings attached — could be good for his growth as a pitcher, but there’s a rather slim chance that the perfect scenario will present itself. Like I said, there’s absolutely no need to yank the guy back and forth. 

The most realistic hope for Anderson this coming season is a full and healthy year with Gwinnett. The scuffling he went through at the tail end of 2019 could’ve simply been that of a tired pitcher. His 135.2 total innings this past season was a career-high, coming after 119.1 in 2018 and just 122.2 innings combined in 2016 and 2017. Another 130-150 innings in Triple-A will help build his stamina, allowing him to almost instantly become a rotation-regular once the time does come for him to contribute at the big league level.

Regardless, the Braves should rest easy knowing that decisions made several years ago are paying off tremendously. Taken in the first few rounds of that 2016 draft, Anderson and Muller — and even Bryse Wilson in the 4th round — have developed about as good as any organization can ask for. By this time next year, counting Wilson and Wright, the Braves will have essentially a full rotation of prospects potentially ready to log major league innings. That four-year “rebuild” did in fact do some good.

 

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