Atlanta's youth movement in the outfield has been well-documented. Ronald Acuña Jr. is already one of the best players in baseball, and he’s just 23. Top prospect Cristian Pache, 22, is scuffling a bit in the big leagues, but is just establishing himself. A step behind is Braves’ No. 2 prospect Drew Waters, also 22 years old, who should get a chance to show what he can do at some point soon.
In a perfect world, that assembly of talent will be roaming the outfield in Atlanta for a long time. But just in case, there are more waves of young outfielders beginning to form. There’s Trey Harris and Justin Dean, 2018 draftees from the college ranks with some interesting tools, but a rung or two below them are a pair of high school draftees from the class of 2019 starting to make some noise.
Michael Harris, the club’s third-round pick that June from the Georgia high school ranks, is now its No. 10 prospect. A two-way player in high school who many teams liked better on the mound, Harris has been an outfielder only with the Braves and has seen his profile skyrocket after making it to full-season ball in his first summer of pro ball, playing well at the Braves’ alternate training site in 2020 and then holding his own in big league camp this spring. He’s kept it going as he prepares for what will be his first real full season.
“He’s had a very good camp,” Braves farm director Ben Sestanovich said. “He’s here from big league camp, where he was being talked about a lot. He’s been very impressive. He’s a super even-keeled player; he’s never too high or too low. There’s a good hitter in there, he has power. There are big tools there that maybe you don’t see upon first glance. We’ve been running him out in center field. Every day he’s making a good play, impacting the game defensively with his glove and he can throw.”
Steven Paolini was taken two rounds later from the Connecticut prep scene and the Braves went above slot to sign him. He didn’t make the same immediate splash as Harris, with a .556 OPS in the Gulf Coast League after signing, but he’s made strides since then and has hit a few balls out this spring, showing off plus athleticism.
No one is trying to say Harris and Paolini will be the next Acuña and Pache, but there is one similarity with this duo: They are pushing each other similarly to be the best players they can be.
“Internal competition is fantastic,” Sestanovich said. “We saw it last summer with the pitchers at the alternate site. They’re both pushing each other, rooting for each other and competing with each other. It helps create a good culture without our staff having to do much.”
The Braves had just four selections in the truncated 2020 Draft and took four college players, three of them pitchers. The last two, Spencer Strider in the fourth and Bryce Elder in the fifth, have performed very well this spring, albeit in much different ways.
Strider, No. 21 on the Braves’ Top 30, is all about power. The Clemson product had missed 2019 following Tommy John surgery and the Braves were intrigued by his velocity gains upon his return in 2020, when he was up to 95 mph before the shutdown. That continued during his work at the alternate site and instructs last year, and he’s proving so far this spring that perhaps it’s not an aberration.
“We’ve seen his velocity tick up again,” Sestanovich said. “Now it’s mid-to-upper 90s and the slider has taken a step forward. The scouting group identified an interesting guy and we’re excited about him.”
Elder, No. 12, is more about command than lighting up the radar gun. He does have a legitimate four-pitch mix, with a low-90s fastball and a plus slider leading the way, with an idea of how to mix all four well.
“He has an advanced feel to pitch, which has been good to see,” Sestanovich said. “It’s not the huge stuff, but he has plus control. He really can do some things with the ball. He’s missed some bats here with his secondary stuff.”
Alternate training site update
Last summer, the Braves’ alternate site roster was filled with a lot of super-young players. This time around, it’s a more veteran group built to provide big league depth in advance of the Triple-A season. That doesn’t mean it’s devoid of prospects, however, with lefties Kyle Muller and Tucker Davidson leading the way.
Both were at the alternate site last year and they’re there again. Given that the alternate site is in Gwinnett, the Braves’ Triple-A home, it will be easy for the southpaws to transition to the Minor League season.
“They’re continuing to refine their big stuff while facing good competition,” Sestanovich said. “There’s a good amount of big league experience there, so that’s been good for them in intrasquads.
“They were both in pitch/stuff development mode and they have real pitches. Now it’s a matter of going out and using them every fifth or sixth day and getting feedback from advanced hitters. Figuring out how they’re going to attack and end at-bats will be huge. They have the weapons to do it and now it’s go time.”
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2022
He’s not on the Braves’ Top 30 yet, but keep an eye on right-hander Joey Estes. The Braves went over slot to sign the California high schooler for $500,000 in the 16th round of the 2019 Draft and he has just 10 GCL innings on his official professional resume, though he did pitch briefly at instructs. He’s come to camp throwing harder than when the Braves last saw him.
“He showed up and we’ve seen a velocity bump, in the 94-96 mph range now,” Sestanovich said. “It’s exciting to see from a high school kid. He came in here in good shape and he’s throwing hard. He has a slurvy low 80s breaking ball that will need some development, but we think it will progress.”