How do Braves' top prospects fit Atlanta's needs?
This series is designed to evaluate the role prospects play in each Major League organization, looking at the short- and long-term needs of each club and illustrating how prospects fit in both scenarios.
Here's my look at the Braves:
The Braves have been built around pitching for years. While they no longer boast pitchers like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, they certainly have some starters and relievers who can carry the club to consistent competitive status.
However, some of the current crop of starters have faced recent injury. Should any of the starters falter or suffer time away from the game due to injury, the Braves have young prospect arms waiting.
Right-hander J.R. Graham has an outstanding fastball/slider combination that allows him to control innings. Graham was a closer at Santa Clara University, but he has been converted to a starter. He has a heavy, late-life fastball that can vary from 93-97 mph, and it isn't unusual for him to even take it up a notch when needed. Coupled with the slider, the combination of pitches bursts upon the hitter. The sink Graham gets on pitches induces ground balls.
Graham has an intense presence on the mound. What he lacks in size (he's 5-foot-10, 195 pounds), he makes up for in his competitive nature. A shoulder injury limited him to eight starts in 2013. We have to see how Graham performs in Spring Training to determine if he is a viable option as a replacement starter.
Projected 2016 braves lineup
|2B||Tommy La Stella|
Aaron Northcraft is a big 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander who might be ready to step in if needed. The 23-year-old starter has completed parts of five Minor League seasons, compiling a 3.71 ERA over 509 innings. He doesn't have the velocity of Graham, throwing from a low three-quarters arm slot and inducing lots of ground balls.
Northcraft had a miserable Arizona Fall League season, pitching to an ERA of 8.00 with a WHIP of 2.11 in seven starts. He yielded a whopping 15 walks to go along with 23 hits and finished the fall with a 1-5 record.
Right-handed starter David Hale has a solid fastball, an excellent slider and a changeup in progress. He is another starting-pitching option. The 26-year-old, 6-foot-2, 205-pounder threw 11 innings for the parent Braves last season, starting two games and pitching to an ERA of 0.82.
Right-hander Jason Hursh is just beginning his development. He's a former first-round Draft selection (from 2013) worthy of watching carefully.
In the event the Braves seek help at second base, Tommy La Stella is an impressive prospect option. While the team may first turn to Tyler Pastornicky, La Stella has the type of "gamer" mentality and approach that endears him to scouts. He has a fantastic .327 Minor League batting average over parts of three seasons in the Braves' system. The guy can hit. And La Stella has some gap pop in his bat.
An outstanding contact hitter, the 25-year-old La Stella has struck out only 88 times in 999 career plate appearances. He plays solid defense and runs well enough to steal an occasional base. But it's La Stella's solid and consistent bat that will dictate his future.
One of the Braves' best prospects knocking on the door is 22-year-old catcher Christian Bethancourt. While the club appears set behind the plate this year with Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit, Behtancourt has all the ability to become a long-term answer at the position.
Bethancourt improved at the plate in 2013 while playing at Double-A Mississippi. He raised his average to .277, an increase of 34 points, and hit 12 home runs. Bethancourt is also an outstanding defensive catcher.
Further from the big leagues than Bethancourt, right-handed pitchers Lucas Sims and Mauricio Cabrera are two very talented pitching prospects. Both have gifted arms, with Cabrera having more velocity. Both have the potential to be a No. 2 starter.
Sims has a natural, easy fastball delivery that is complemented by a curveball and slider. Cabrera is explosive, mixing in a changeup that buckles knees and changes the balance of the hitter. Both Sims and Cabrera are works in progress. Cabrera is still a bit raw.
Though the Braves are set at shortstop with Andrelton Simmons, Jose Peraza is someone to remember. Peraza, while not as polished as Simmons, is a solid defensive shortstop. He has superb upside in all phases of the game. Only 19, the Venezuelan has a .288 average over parts of three Minor League seasons. That's exactly what Peraza hit last year at Class A Rome.