Leading up to the 2017 season (the final year of the rebuild), according to the folks at FanGraphs, five of the Braves ten-best prospects at the time were pitchers: #4 Kolby Allard, #6 Ian Anderson, #7 Max Fried, #8 Luiz Gohara, #9 Mike Soroka.
Since then, three of those arms above have paid off and logged above-average innings for the big league team (Anderson, Fried, Soroka), one was used in a trade that netted a key reliever last season (Allard), and the other battled injuries and weight before ultimately busting (Gohara).
When considering the crazy risk involved with young pitchers, Atlanta has received a solid return of investment from its top-tier prospect pitchers. Hell, Anderson just joined a group of only three other Braves on Thursday, when he lasted at least six innings in his first postseason start against the Reds — an outing in which he struck out nine batters, leading the team to a two-game sweep in the Wild Card Series round. The 22-year-old righty — after just 24.2 innings at the Triple-A level last year — has officially arrived. And even better, there are still more like him to come.
Which begs the question… who’s next?
The following list features a look at my choices for likeliest Braves prospect pitchers to soon develop into an Ian Anderson-like star in the majors. I’ve included career minor and major league stats (where applicable), plus my own take for each player. However, I’ve also inserted scouting reports and grades from analysis found at Baseball Savant.
*I’ve also included each prospect’s ranking within our own Braves Top-30 list, found here.
#5) Tucker Davidson, LHP
- MLB – 1.2 IP, 10.80 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 21.6 BB/9
- MiLB – 381.1 IP, 2.86 ERA, 8.64 K/9, 3.44 BB/9
It wouldn’t have mattered how bad Tuck’s big league debut was versus Boston late last month; I’m not giving up on the hard-throwing lefty after just one start. And if you want to get technical about that outing, it wasn’t really all that bad:
Davidson vs. BOS (9/26/20)
- Strikeout swinging
- Strikeout swinging
- Home run
- Reached on E5
- Single to CF
- Groundout (unearned run scores)
- Single to LF (unearned run scores)
Sure, Davidson’s second inning was far from ideal, but the real damage came when reliever Grant Dayton replaced him and immediately served up a grand-slam to Christian Vazquez.
However, Davidson’s two punch outs were still impressive (both with his mid-90s mph fastball), especially his very first one, which came against the first batter he faced.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 26, 2020
But like I said, ONE start doesn’t mean much, not when there are four seasons of proof that Davidson is a top-tier starter.
Last season, while primarily pitching in Double-A Mississippi, the former 19th round pick out of Midland College (Texas) was absolutely untouchable right out of the gate while carrying a 1.61 ERA and allowing just a .206 AVG through his first 13 starts with the M-Braves. That success carried on all the way to a promotion to Gwinnett in early August last year as Davidson wrapped up his Double-A season with a 2.03 ERA overall, including 9.92 strikeouts per nine over 21 starts (110.2 innings).
But it was in Gwinnett that Davidson showed his ability to soon become a big league starter. There was time for only four starts while with the Stripers in 2019, and his numbers weren’t necessarily jaw-dropping (his K rate plummeted, and he posted a 4.00+ FIP), but Davidson simply continued to go against the grain when it came to containing opposing batters with the platoon advantage. In Mississippi, he held a 1.67 ERA versus righties, compared to a still-strong 2.83 mark against same-handed batters, and in Gwinnett that pattern carried on and was even more prevalent as he posted a 2.45 and 4.15 ERA, respectively.
On the final day of the regular season, Davidson was optioned to the Braves alternate site, though currently a member of the team’s 40-man, there’s a chance he winds up on the NLDS roster as a depth player in the bullpen during the postseason.
Grades: Fastball – 60 / Curveball – 50 / Changeup – 45 / Command – 50 / Overall – 45
#9) Kyle Muller, LHP
- MLB – NA
- MiLB – 326.2 IP, 3.03 ERA, 9.3 K/9, 4.0 BB/9
Muller is another lefty here, a big man who throws hard (touches 96-97 mph) and perhaps wields the highest ceiling of any non-Anderson pitching prospect in the Braves organization. Like Davidson, Muller benefited greatly velocity-wise from a trip to Driveline, and at 22-years-old he has progressed nicely through the system.
The real test, though, will be how Muller handles the Triple-A level in 2021, given he was deprived of that chance this year. Plus, a calf strain at the tail end of the 2019 season didn’t allow him to finish strong in Mississippi. Muller struggled with walks, ending the campaign with 5.5 of them per nine innings but still managed 9.7 strikeouts per nine as well as a cool 3.14 ERA over 22 Double-A starts.
At 6-foot-7, Muller’s length can hurt him as he oftentimes loses control of his stuff, hence the spike in walks last season. However, if he can bring the walk-rate down while with the Stripers next season, there’s no doubt he’ll earn a big-league debut soon after.
Muller is also at the Braves alternate site, but not currently listed on the 40-man. He’ll have to watch the big league club battle it out in the playoffs this year, though this time next season, he may play an integral part in Atlanta’s pitching attack, whether it be in the starting rotation or bullpen.
Grades: Fastball – 60 / Curveball – 55 / Changeup – 50 / Control – 50 / Overall – 50
#15) Jasseel De La Cruz, RHP
- MLB – NA
- MiLB – 292.1 IP, 3.63 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 3.8 BB/9
A candidate to move up within the Braves’ prospect rankings (whenever we here at SportsTalkATL get around to updating ours), for me, Cruz has pushed himself into top-ten territory in the organization (now that both Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have graduated from the prospect ranks).
The 2019 season was the 23-year-old’s best yet as Cruz pitched at three different levels (A, A+, AA), even throwing a no-hitter while in High-A Florida. Altogether, the righty totaled 133 innings (24 starts) last season and posted a 3.25 ERA to go along with 8.2 strikeouts per nine and 3.3 walks. His overall performance didn’t dip either, jumping from Single-A to Double-A in the span of roughly a month and a half (he pitched just four games in High-A).
Next season will be a crucial one for Cruz, though. After struggling in his Mississippi debut last year, the Dominican ripped off a five-start stretch that featured a 2.39 ERA as opposing batters hit just .185. Cruz ended up making 16 starts altogether with the M-Braves in 2019, and barring about a strikeout less per nine, his numbers there matched up well with what he did in Rome and Florida. Maintaining consistency with each promotion is something even Anderson struggled with as he scuffled a bit when jumping from Double to Triple-A. If Cruz can keep up that kind of steadiness during the 2021 season, he’ll be pitching in the majors much sooner than originally anticipated.
Although he never received an opportunity, Cruz was promoted to the majors on September 15th this season, replacing Touki Toussaint on the roster for a time. The Braves needed bullpen depth, and Cruz’s high-90s mph heat, as well as his improved secondaries, presented the team with a viable option down the stretch. A day later, he was optioned back to the Braves’ alternate site, though as of September 29th, Cruz was reassigned to the minors, where he’ll prepare for next season.
Grades: Fastball – 60 / Slider – 50 / Changeup – 45 / Control – 40 / Overall – 45
Perhaps a few more years…
Here are a few more prospect pitchers that appear to have the talent to one day star in the majors, though clearly still have a couple more years of development left to go.
#17) Daysbel Hernandez, RHP
MiLB – 90.2 IP, 2.88 ERA, 10.5 K/9, 4.6 BB/9
We never specified that the pitcher necessarily has to be a starter, just that he’d have a similar impact in the majors that Anderson has had. Well, if he keeps it up, I believe one day we could see Hernandez turning heads in a Braves uniform. In High-A Florida last season (as a 24-year-old), the Cuban struck out 12 batters per nine and allowed just two home runs over 52.2 innings of work, good for a 1.71 ERA.
NR) Jared Shuster, LHP
MiLB – NA
The lefty from Wake Forest and the Braves first pick in the 2020 draft back in June, is ranked 11th on FanGraphs‘ list for the Braves in their updated 2020 rankings. I’m not sure I’d put him so high just yet, but it’s hard to ignore his 14.7 strikeouts per nine versus Power 5 opponents in 2019. He’ll wind up somewhere on our top-30 list when we revisit our rankings, and given he’s already 22-years-old I wouldn’t be surprised if he begins 2021 in Rome with a rather quick promotion to Mississippi sometime after the second-half (assuming he performs as expected).
#24) Victor Vodnik, RHP
MiLB – 72 IP, 3.38 ERA, 9.8 K/9, 3.1 IP
Yep, another reliever here, though this isn’t your typical lower-ranked prospect relief pitcher as Vodik has essentially wielded four solid pitches from the get-go. As a small-framed pitcher with a big-time fastball (upper 90s mph), I’ve always been a fan of Vodnik, since he was drafted as a bargain pick in the 14th round in 2018. He struck out over 9 batters per nine and posted a sub-3.00 ERA over 67.1 innings in Rome last season, and at just 21-years-old, he’ll be Mississippi bound in 2021.