Braves: Prospects that need a bounce-back season in 2020

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With this month being quite a popular time for the publishing of various prospect rankings around the industry — including MLB Pipeline’s numerous top-10 lists, Jim Bowden’s top-50 list at The Athletic (subscription required), and FanGraphs’ THE BOARD updating for the Braves coming early next week — it’s a great time to start talking Braves’ prospects as we begin to see where some of the organization’s talent stands amongst the rest of the sport.

Looking specifically at the Braves and its 2020 class, there appears to be a slight improvement overall relative to last season, as the 2019 class was tasked with topping a 2017 and 2018 prospect group that each featured nine(!) players within baseball’s top-100 list (via FanGraphs), as guys like Cristian Pache, Mike Soroka, Austin Riley, and Kyle Wright headlined the class in 2018, and now-regulars like Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies led the list the year before. These last several seasons’ worth of Braves’ prospects have been unlike any other in franchise history, and when looking at how well the organization drafted in 2019, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of slowing down.

However, for every prospect that’s flourishing down on the farm, there’s always those that take a step back or fail to improve their stock from year-to-year, as not every prospect is a Pache or a Drew Waters. Even the most talented players experience hills and valleys in their performance, as learning to adjust to each new level of competition in the minors is far from a linear process. Every year there are prospects that are trending up, just as there are ones that are trending down. Today, let’s look at those Braves’ prospects that went in the wrong direction and need to turn things around in 2020:

(For each player, I’ve included their prospect ranking according to our list published last August, which you can take a look at, here.)

 

(No. 7) William Contreras, C

2019 stats: 110 games, .255 AVG, .669 OPS, 6 HR, 20 2B, 39 RBI

Highest level reached: Mississippi (AA)

Immediately after selecting college catcher Shea Langeliers as the team’s first pick in the draft last June, the Braves decided to challenge Contreras and move the then 21-year-old (he turned 22 last month) up to Double-A Mississippi after he hit a respectable .263 with three homers in 50 games with High-A Florida. Once there, Contreras struggled as he never could get things going with the bat, and wound up posting a .246 AVG with just a .306 OBP. It was a far cry from the .285 AVG and 11 home runs he hit in 2018, but there’s still room for growth, considering Contreras was essentially three years younger than the average Double-A player in 2019. Fortunately, the young Venezuelan — and younger brother of Cubs’ catcher Willson Contreras — made some impressive strides behind the plate, increasing his caught-stealing rate by a whopping 11% compared to just a few years ago (33% CS in 2019 / 23% in 2017), as he threw out 16 of 49 would-be base-stealers. The Braves will have an interesting decision to make regarding the organization’s depth at catcher. The team currently has Contreras and the newly-drafted Langeliers, as well as Alex Jackson and Logan Brown, who both had solid 2019 campaigns. I expect the first two of those four to compete for reps in Mississippi this coming season; that’s IF the Braves don’t include one of these players (except Langeliers) in a trade.

 

(No. 14) Greyson Jenista, OF

2019 stats: 130 games, .233 AVG, .667 OPS, 9 HR, 18 2B, 55 RBI

Highest level reached: Mississippi (AA)

I have purposely listed Jenista and Contreras next to each other on this list, as they both were promoted together last June right after the 2019 MLB Draft. To me, the intentions were the same here with Jenista: the Braves wanted to challenge a prospect that many believe to be a future major league contributor. Though unlike Contreras, Jenista didn’t perform well in High-A Florida before his promotion, only hitting a measly .223 with four home runs and ran a bloated 34.6% strikeout rate in 54 games with the Fire Frogs. His play didn’t get much better once in Mississippi, either, as Jenista still hit just .243 with five homers and a 33.7% K rate.

It was just a disappointing season for the former 2nd round pick (2018) out of Wichita State, especially considering other outfielders in the system like Trey Harris, Justin Dean, and even Jefrey Ramos had themselves big years. Still, Jenista earned himself an invite to the Arizona Fall League (along with Harris and Dean, among others), though the struggling continued as he slashed just .214/.313/.262 with two XBHs in 12 games last fall. Hopefully, Jenista can get back to the player he was when he was drafted in 2018, but it’s rather apparent that he struggled once tasked with tougher competition. He’ll most likely be back in Double-A to start 2020.

 

(No.5) Kyle Wright, RHP

2019 stats (overall): 25 starts, 3 app., 11-7, 6.43 ERA, 131 IP, 8.7 K/9, 4.3 BB/9

Highest level reached: Atlanta (MLB)

It’s no secret that Wright struggled in 2019. From that very first start on a cold and wet night against the Phillies, throughout the season, the former 1st round pick never could maintain anything consistently good on the mound (though he did pitch better at the end of the season). There were reports in May that Wright had been tipping pitches, as well as dealing with a few different mechanical issues, but in a nutshell, it wasn’t the right-hander’s year.

By the middle of April, Wright had already been demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett, where things didn’t go much better for him. It took him five starts to pass four strikeouts in a game, and during that first handful of outings, Wright ran a 7.23 ERA, allowing opposing batters to hit .263 with five home runs. However, as the season progressed, the Alabama native started settling down after his 9.74 ERA in April, posting a 4.19 mark in May, all the way down to a strong 3.10 ERA in five starts in August. As it currently stands, Wright has a chance at redemption this Spring. As we all know, the Braves still have one spot open in the starting rotation, and the plan is to run a competition between Wright, Bryse Wilson, and Sean Newcomb during Spring Training. If Wright can flash his above-average fastball and filthy breaking ball while down in Florida, Braves’ fans will forget all about his underwhelming 2019 season.

 

(No. 6) Bryse Wilson, RHP

2019 stats (overall): 27 starts, 2 app., 11-8, 5.31 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 3.2 BB/9

Highest level reached: Atlanta (MLB)

Like with Contreras and Jenista above, Wright and Wilson are in the same boat as well. The two right-handed pitchers both regressed at a very similar level in 2019, pitching terrible in the majors and inconsistently in Triple-A Gwinnett. Wilson also got a start in that first Braves’ series against the Phillies, and his outing was just as poor, lasting only 3.1 innings and allowing four runs with four walks, before also being demoted. In Triple-A Gwinnett, Wilson totaled three starts before earning a one-game call-up (a 9th-inning appearance versus the Rockies, that went well), but he didn’t really deserve it after allowing 19 hits and ten runs in 16.2 innings with the Stripers. As mentioned, Wilson will join Wright and Newcomb in the competition for the Braves’ fifth starting spot this Spring, but my assessment is that The Bulldog is the underdog in this fight, as his secondaries still have a ways to go (he depends on his fastball too much). Honestly, I think Wilson would make for a dominant closer.

 

(No. 10) Huascar Ynoa, RHP

2019 stats (overall): 17 starts, 11 app., 4-8, 11.54 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 3.6 BB/9

Highest level reached: Atlanta (MLB)

It’s hard to call Ynoa’s 2019 season a “step back,” considering the 21-year-old made it to the majors after just 24 starts above rookie ball since the Braves acquired him in 2017 as part of the Jaime Garcia deal. Also, Ynoa’s overall numbers can be misleading a bit, considering his two major-league relief appearances for the Braves featured six earned runs in just three innings of work — good for an 18.00 ERA in the big leagues. Even so, Ynoa’s numbers in Triple-A Gwinnett last season don’t exactly impress, either, as the right-hander posted a 5.09 ERA in 17 starts and 9 relief appearances. Home runs were a bit of an issue for him too, considering he had never allowed a double-digit total in his minor league career, though last season his home runs allowed surged to 16 with the Stripers.

Going into 2020, Ynoa should be able to turn things around. He’s a very hard thrower (averaged 97 mph with his fastball in the majors), but his two secondaries (curveball and changeup) are still a ways behind. Like Wright and Wilson above, Ynoa is on the Braves’ 40-man, but I see Ynoa getting a ton of reps in Gwinnett in 2020 with the expectation that he reaches the majors again towards the end of the season.

 

(No. 17) CJ Alexander, 3B

2019 stats: 43 games, .117 AVG, .425 OPS, 2 HR, 2 2B, 8 RBI, 3 SB

Highest level reached: Mississippi (AA)

(video from 2018.)

Even as a 20th round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, there was a lot of excitement regarding the 6-foot-5, 215-pound, Alexander, as he looked to be the prototypical major league corner power-hitter. His talent was certainly more than that of a guy taken after almost 600 other players in the draft. The lefty-hitting Alexander (he throws right-handed) was arguably the biggest power-hitter in his draft class, and he showed signs of a nice hit-tool in his first 52 games as a pro, slashing .352/.429/.495 with two homers and 27 RBIs in 2018, making it to High-A Florida.

He started 2019 in Double-A Mississippi, but by late-April last season, Alexander went on the team’s 7-day IL and didn’t return until July 5. Once back from injury, Alexander was immediately sent back down to Florida, where he hit just .138 in 19 games before being brought back up to Double-A. Alexander finished off the 2019 season with Mississippi, slashing a pathetic .075/.098/.225 with two homers in 13 games down the stretch, ending quite a forgettable year for the 23-year-old. The 2020 season will be a big one for Alexander, as he needs to build back up his stock. Most importantly, the young third baseman needs to stay healthy. Alexander will most likely be in Mississippi to start the season, considering he’ll turn 24 in 2020.

 

(No. 22) Trey Riley, RHP

2019 stats: 12 starts, 5 app., 2-7, 7.67 ERA, 6.3 K/9, 7.1 BB/9

Highest level reached: Rome (A)

Riley was a big-time pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, showing up in the 5th round for the Braves. The 6’3″, 205-pound righty was known for his high leg kick and long stride, as he’s a guy that can stay in the mid to high-90s with his fastball while also featuring two solid secondaries (slider and curveball). But after a rough start in 2018 with Rookie-Advanced Danville (8.00 ERA / 8 games), Riley had a tough time again in the Braves’ system in 2019, struggling mightily in Single-A Rome. He allowed 71 hits in 58.2 total innings pitched, while also having all kinds of trouble with walks (as you see above). With Riley turning 22 right after Opening Day this season, he needs to start showing why he was taken so early in the draft. I expect the Braves to start him Rome again and hope that he progresses well enough to move up to High-A Florida by midseason.

 

(No. 30) Beau Philip, SS

2019 stats: 55 games, .193 AVG, .577 OPS, 4 HR, 6 2B, 20 RBI, 5 SB

Highest level reached: Danville (RK-Adv)

(only college video.)

It’s unfortunate Philip had such a poor first-stint in the pros in 2019, considering the Braves caught a lot of flack for taking him as their third overall pick in the draft last June (though the Braves caught flack for almost every pick they made). Coming out of Oregon State, Philip was a strong defensive shortstop with a little speed on the base paths and a good enough bat to hit .300+ for the Beavers in his last collegiate season. However, his first look in Danville wasn’t too inspiring, even though he almost matched his home run total from his ’19 season with Oregon State.

The good news is that Philip didn’t show any terrible plate discipline issues last season, maintaining a strong strikeout and walk rate in his first taste of professional baseball (24.6 K% / 12.5 BB%). He won’t turn 22 until October, so the Braves could be a little more conservative with Philip’s development in the system, though they probably need to go ahead and move him up to full-season ball, considering Danville doesn’t start its season until mid-June. Expect to see the shortstop in Rome come Opening Day.

*Be sure to look back at Chase’s five prospects that could break-out in 2020.

 

 

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