When the Braves announced their players and pitchers of the year at each minor league level Thursday, what stood out was how many were genuinely elite prospects from a baseball-industry perspective.
That hasn’t been the case in most recent years, when the Braves’ minor league award winners often included a few legitimate top-shelf prospects mixed with a lot of guys who might never be more than fringe major ,if they made it to the majors at all.
Improving the minor league system was priority No. 1 in an ongoing organizational rebuild. Nearly three years into the project the results are evident in a Braves farm system rated as baseball’s deepest by most experts and in the list of Braves award winners that includes at least six or seven who’ve been in recent Baseball America Top 100 lists or could be in 2018.
Even more a sign of the Braves’ greatly increased prospect depth is the fact that so many who might make Baseball America’s and other Top 100 prospect lists next spring weren’t even Braves minor league award winners, including third baseman Austin Riley and pitchers Luiz Gohara, Joey Wentz and Kolby Allard, among many others. (The Braves could have a record number of prospects in Top 100 lists.)
Some believe Riley, 20, can become the power-hitting third baseman the Braves have lacked since future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones retired, though the Mississippi native and 2015 first-round draft pick probably is still at least a year away.
He hit .275 with 20 home runs and a .786 OPS in 129 games in high-A and Double-A, and most encouraging was the improvement Riley showed at the higher level: .315 with eight homers, a .389 OBP and .511 slugging percentage (.900 OPS) in 48 games at Double-A Mississippi.
Gohara, a hard-throwing left-hander acquired from the Mariners in a January trade, started the season in high Single-A, pitched at three minor league levels and beat the Nationals on Tuesday in his second major league start.
Allard, another lefty and a first-round draft pick in 2015, had a 3.18 ERA with 129 strikeouts in 150 innings in Double-A and will almost certainly make BA’s preseason Top 100 for the third straight year.
Wentz, a first-round draft pick in 2016, was 8-3 with a 2.60 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 131-2/3 innings at low Single-A Rome and made Baseball America’s low Single-A classification All-Star team along with Rome Pitcher of the Year Bryse Wilson. Both Wentz and Wilson are 19, the youngest of the five pitchers named to BA’s low Single-A All-Star team that consists of players from two leagues.
But again, Riley, Gohara, Wentz and Allard didn’t even win Braves honors for their respective teams this season.
Triple-A award winners Ozzie Albies and Lucas Sims were in past Baseball America Top 100s; Albies was No. 8 in the 2017 preseason Top 100, but has played second base for the big-league Braves since the beginning of August and will have too many major league at-bats to be eligible for prospect rankings next season.
Sims fell out of the Top 100 last winter, but had a strong minor league season and has been in the majors since Aug. 1.
Double-A Mississippi Player of the Year Ronald Acuna is the top-rated prospect in the Braves organization and could be the No. 1-rated prospect in all of baseball entering the 2018 season. He turns 20 in December and might win a spot in the Braves’ outfield on opening day in 2018.
Acuna could have won the Braves’ top-player award at any of three levels he played at – he started the season at high-A and finished at Triple-A – and has already won Baseball America and USA Today Minor League Player of the Year awards. It would be a stunner if he doesn’t get the Braves organization overall minor league player award when it’s announced Friday along with the overall pitcher award.
Wilson and catcher William Contreras, award winners at low Single-A Rome and rookie-league Danville, could vault into BA’s Top 100 this winter.
Wilson, a fourth-round pick in 2016 out of Orange High in Hillsborough, N.C., is a thickly built former linebacker with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and good breaking ball. He was 10-7 with a 2.50 ERA in 26 starts at Rome and had 139 strikeouts with 37 walks and eight homers allowed in 137 innings.
High-grade catching prospects have been sorely lacking in the Braves’ minor league system for the past few years, and Contreras might give the Braves their first Top-100 type prospect behind the plate since Christian Bethancourt, who never came close to fulfilling expectations.
Contreras, a 19-year-old Venezuelan and younger brother of Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, hit .290 with a .379 OBP and .811 OPS in 45 games for rookie-league Danville, with 15 extra-base hits (four homers) and almost as many walks (24) as strikeouts (30) in 198 plate appearances.
He might be the most talented among a trio of promising catching prospects that also includes power-hitting Alex Jackson, 21, this year’s Player of the Year at high-A Florida, and Brett Cumberland, 22, who had 11 homers and an .855 OPS in 11 games this season between low-A and high-A.
Below is a complete list of the Braves’ pitchers and players of the year at each minor league level. They’ll be presented their awards by Braves general manager John Coppolella in a ceremony before Friday night’s game against the Marlins at SunTrust Park, and the players will sign autographs in the plaza at The Battery from 5:45 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.
The organizational player of the year and pitcher of the year winners will be available for photos from 6:30-6:45 p.m. at the Chophouse Gate and Third Base Gate, respectively.
Braves minor league Pitchers and Players of the Year:
Triple-A Gwinnett: pitcher Lucas Sims, second baseman Ozzie Albies
Double-A Mississippi: pitcher Mike Soroka, center fielder Ronald Acuna
High Single-A Florida: pitcher Touki Toussaint, catcher Alex Jackson
Low Single-A Rome: pitcher Bryse Wilson, center fielder Cristian Pache
Rookie-league Danville: pitcher Odalvi Javier, catcher William Contreras
Gulf Coast League (rookie): pitcher Miguel Jerez, left fielder Jeffrey Ramos
Dominican Summer League (rookie): pitcher Gabriel Noguera, center fielder Juan Carlos Negret