It’s been a long layoff, but beginning on May 4, all four full-season levels of Minor League Baseball will start the 2021 regular season. Sure, it’s roughly a month later than originally intended, but man will it be great to follow once again some of the Braves’ most talented up-and-coming stars this summer. From now until opening day, here at SportsTalkATL, I’ll preview all four of the Braves full-season minor league clubs, detailing the players we should follow the closest during this 2021 season.
Predicting which minor league level each player will start the year at is oftentimes a tricky exercise, and even at this point, many of Atlanta’s prospects have yet to be assigned a starting point for 2021. Plus, along with the continuation of alternate sites and added safety protocols, minor league rosters have increased this season to 28 players. So this series is less about the specific team or exactly which players are where and more about the players themselves.
So starting with the Braves Triple-A squad, the Gwinnett Stripers, here are the players to follow closest this coming minor league season…
Gwinnett Stripers — AAA
Highest level — AAA-Gwinnett
If you’ve been following the Braves at all over the last 3-4 years, you’re certainly aware of how crucial the 2021 campaign is for the 22-year-old Waters, who performed poorly during his first taste of the highest level of the minors two seasons ago. Following an incredible 108-game stint at Double-A Mississippi, in which Waters posted a 144 wRC+, the former second-round pick took a nosedive at the plate while with Gwinnett.
Again, spring training stats, but Drew Waters is 1-for-11 with 8 strikeouts. Not the impression he was hoping to make so far this Spring. #Braves
— TomahawkTake (@TomahawkTakeFS) February 28, 2020
Waters’ approach was a mess, causing his K rate to spike to 36.1%, and in 26 games with the Stripers during the stretch run of 2019, Waters managed an underwhelming 84 wRC+ (despite a respectable .271 AVG). Those that are higher on him say Waters could debut with Atlanta as early as this season. Those that are less optimistic predict an ETA of 2022. And then there are also those that — given the Braves surplus in talented young outfielders — claim Waters is purely trade bait at this point. The consensus regarding his future seems to be all over the place right now. But one thing’s for sure, by the end of this season, we should have a much better idea of which direction Waters is headed.
Highest level — MLB (Tigers)
Once upon a time, Demeritte was looked at as a top 30 prospect in the Braves system. His .286 AVG to go with 20 home runs leading up to the MLB All-Star break in 2019 only helped build on that narrative, as Atlanta cashed in on the outfielder’s break-out performance and included him in a trade — along with prospect pitcher Joey Wentz — with the Tigers to net the team MLB reliever Shane Greene. However, Detroit’s lack of depth meant Demeritte was quickly thrown into the MLB fire, and following two seasons up north with the Tigers, his stock as a potential big-league outfielder took a serious hit. Demeritte’s combined 219 PA in 2019 and ’20 resulted in just a 61 wRC+.
Travis Demeritte collected his first Major League hit!
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) August 3, 2019
Demeritte is now back with the Braves. I wouldn’t necessarily say he is a potential under-the-radar player for the major league team; even with Cristian Pache, Ender Inciarte, and Ronald Acuna Jr. currently banged up, Atlanta still chose to go with Guillermo Heredia as the temporary fill-in (which has worked nicely so far). But at 26-years-old, I believe there’s still some potential left for Demeritte, and I don’t think his time in the majors will end with only his 60-ish games in Detroit to show for.
Highest level — AA-Mississippi
Like Waters above, Jenista is a former second-round draft pick. However, unlike Waters, Jenista has nowhere near lived up to the hype so far. He was certainly on his way in 2018 when he posted a .839 OPS and hit 10 XBH with 30 RBI in a combined 42 games with both Danville (Rookie-Advanced) and Single-A Rome. But once Jenista was challenged with High-A pitching that same season, his hitting came to a screeching halt as he posted just a .457 OPS in 19 games with the Florida Fire Frogs.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 4, 2020
Sure, the Florida State League was an incredibly tough league to hit in, and Jenista also had to deal with injuries, but now entering his age-24 season, it’s time to see what the Braves have with 2018’s 49th overall pick. It’s put up or shut up time for Jenista in 2021, and given the organization’s surplus in young talented outfielders, he’ll most likely see reps at first base from here on out.
Highest level — AAA-Gwinnett
Unroe has been a borderline top 30 prospect throughout his entire time in the Braves system, and he peaked two seasons ago when he hit .281 with 31 XBH (9 HR) and 60 RBI in a combined 128 games between Florida, Mississippi, and Gwinnett. Sure, his performance took a hit as he progressed up the ladder, going from a 155 wRC+ in High-A to a 119 in Double-A, all the way down to a 50 in Triple-A. However, as a versatile infielder who can play strong defense and get on base at a decent clip, it seemed like 2020 was Unroe’s year to elevate his stock.
— Mississippi Braves (@mbraves) April 10, 2020
With Ozzie Albies entrenched as Atlanta’s second baseman for at least the next decade, and guys like Ehire Adrianza seemingly always available on the MLB market, Unroe’s chances at debuting in the majors are probably slim. But a big year with the Stripers in 2021 could move him next in-line as a potential bench option for the Braves infield in the near future.
Highest level — MLB
I know it feels like so long ago, but it was just 2018 when Camargo hit .272 with 19 home runs and 76 RBI — a 115 wRC+ — in 134 games for Atlanta. Following his performance three years ago — before the team signed free agent Josh Donaldson, of course — it seemed a given that the only way was up for Camargo as the then-24-year-old quickly turned into a fan favorite.
Johan Camargo? Johan Camargo. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. pic.twitter.com/LaRK0UrHwa
— hashim (@___hash___) February 7, 2021
Fast-forward to the present, and boy has Camargo’s career taken a turn for the worse. The super-utility experiment was a disaster in 2019, last season was even worse, and after a recent spring camp in which Camargo hit just .186 in 18 games for the Braves, the current trend isn’t any better (he’s hitless in his first eight at-bats so far in ’21). Camargo being included in this preview isn’t because of excitement or optimism… but more because I still just can’t get over how much he’s fallen off. Atlanta’s bench is too thin this season for Camargo to play all year in Gwinnett, but with still two options left, he’ll most likely log some time with the Stripers. I’m following Camargo closely with hopes that he can somehow turn this around.
Highest level — MLB
It’s essentially Contreras and Jonathan Morales in Gwinnett this season at catcher. However, it’s the former that everyone is anxious to see perform at the minors’ highest level. The fact that Contreras looked really comfortable in North Port this spring — hitting .350 with a home run — increases the excitement even more.
Evolution of #Braves catching prospect William Contreras' swing:
I took the one on the left in February 2018. The one on the right is from this week. It's reminiscent of Ronald Acuña's throughout. pic.twitter.com/m6PH5aGiez
— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) July 11, 2020
I’ll admit that I’ve always been much lower on Contreras than most writing about the Braves. Even though he played well in rookie ball in 2017 before breaking out during an 82-game stretch with Mississippi in 2018 (featuring 11 homers and a 136 wRC), I wasn’t impressed with how much his numbers dropped off once challenged against High-A pitchers; his wRC+ dropped to 83 while with the Fire Frogs during the final 23 games of the ’18 season. Maybe I was just too accustomed to guys like Pache and Waters posting huge numbers that I had set my expectations too high. Regardless, I was pretty much just… wrong. Contreras only managed a 90 wRC+ in 60 games in Mississippi two seasons ago, but his plate discipline has barely moved an inch ever since his second year in the organization (2016). This is a huge year for the Braves’ future starting catcher, so keep an eye on Gwinnett’s box scores in 2021.
Highest level — MLB
Through 21 starts in Mississippi in 2019, Davidson was on the FastTrack to the majors as he dominated the Double-A level with a 2.03 ERA in 110 ⅔ innings. A promotion to Gwinnett at the end of the year — which featured a drastic decline in strikeouts — stunned some of the momentum. However, Davidson still managed a sub-3.00 ERA in Triple-A, setting himself up perfectly for a debut with Atlanta last season. While former minor league teammate Ian Anderson flourished with the major league Braves, Davidson was knocked around in his first career big league outing, allowing seven runs (2 ER) in 1 ⅔ innings in an outing versus the Red Sox. The former 19th-round pick also had somewhat of a rough spring recently and wasn’t in the running for Atlanta’s fifth-starter slot.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 26, 2020
Not every prospect pitcher does what Anderson did in 2020, and the 25-year-old Davidson really could use more innings in Gwinnett. That sub-3 ERA I mentioned above from during his time with the Stripers two seasons ago… well, that’s also featuring a 5.82 xFIP. The Braves will most likely have more injuries within the starting staff, and the organization needs Davidson ready. This guy is mandatory viewing all season long in 2021.
Highest level — AA-Mississippi
I’m assuming that given the left-handed Muller amassed 22 starts with the M-Braves in 2019, Atlanta will want him in Gwinnett this season. At 23-years-old and looked at by many — including FanGraphs — as the top pitching prospect in the organization (behind Anderson), it’s time to see exactly what the team has in its former second-round draft pick. And like Anderson and Davidson a couple of seasons ago, Muller was trending up as well. He rose from Rome all the way to Mississippi in 2018 and literally got more and more dominant as he progressed that season. But a repeat of Double-A ball in 2019 showed some warning signs regarding Muller, mostly concerning his walk-rate, which rose from the 2.40, 3.57, and 1.86 walks per nine he posted at each level in ’18… all the way up to an unacceptable 5.48 in ’19.
Kyle Muller gets Cristian Pache with the high heat 🔥 pic.twitter.com/FdNYbemJiJ
— Bally Sports South (@BallySportsSO) August 15, 2020
Muller didn’t really get enough looks during spring camp recently — only logging two innings — so it was clear from the get-go, despite some speculating whether or not he would get a debut this season, that Atlanta never planned to use him in the big league bullpen. This is still a potential frontline starting pitcher from where I’m sitting, and seeing the 6-foot-7, 250-pound southpaw throwing 96-MPH darts during Spring Training this year has me really excited about Muller’s future.
Highest level — AA-Mississippi
De La Cruz actually showed more stability in Mississippi in 2019 than Muller did, though with lesser stuff strikeout-wise. Following a so-so year in 2018 with Rome, where he logged 69 innings and put up a 4.83 ERA, De La Cruz repeated Single-A in 2019 and only lasted four starts there before earning a promotion to Florida. In the FSL, his dominance continued, featuring a no-hitter and a four-start stretch in which De La Cruz pitched to a 1.93 ERA. Again… a promotion led him to Double-A, and damnit if he didn’t continue to pitch well. With the M-Braves, De La Cruz went from a power-pitcher to a pitch-to-contact guy, but he more than held his own as a 22-year-old; the righty managed a 3.83 ERA in 87 innings there.
Get ready for some gas 🔥🔥🔥!!!
𝙒𝙀𝙇𝘾𝙊𝙈𝙀 𝙏𝙊 𝙏𝙃𝙀 𝙎𝙃𝙊𝙒, Jasseel De La Cruz!
Rome➡️Florida➡️Mississippi▶️The ATL pic.twitter.com/mKSYJVsdqT
— Mississippi Braves (@mbraves) September 15, 2020
The big question now that he’s in the upper-minors is, can De La Cruz return to that 8-9 strikeout-per-nine type pitcher. He certainly has the stuff — including a 95-97 MPH fastball and above-average slider — to pitch in the majors soon, hence his invite to spring camp this year (albeit, he allowed 7 runs in 2 1/3 IP). With no time in Triple-A, though, De La Cruz must be able to log a full season of innings in 2021, and he’ll do that as one of the Stripers’ key starters. You never know, if he continues to perform well, a 2021 MLB debut is always possible.
Highest level — A+
After a mediocre 2018 campaign, in which Hernandez logged a 4.50 ERA combined in Rome and Florida, the then-22-year-old righty came out of practically nowhere and dominated as a reliever in 2019. The Cuban spent his entire ’19 season with the Fire Frogs, putting up crazy numbers that featured 12 strikeouts per nine and a 1.71 ERA in just over 50 innings, earning himself a place in the Arizona League that fall.
Hernandez may begin 2021 in Mississippi, but given Atlanta brought him to Spring Training this year and the fact he’s entering his age-24 season as a reliever, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he just simply skips Double-A altogether and becomes an under-the-radar late-addition to the MLB Braves bullpen. Follow Hernandez closely in 2021 because if he handles Triple-A well, you can bet he’ll be in Atlanta real soon.
Be sure to stay tuned for our future installments. Next, I’ll preview Atlanta’s Double-A club, the Mississippi Braves — a team many of the organization’s most talented prospect hitters will play within 2021.