Former Braves general manager Frank Wren botched some big free-agent deals before he was fired in September 2014, but he did plant the seeds for a good farm system. Successors John Hart and John Coppolella kept growing the farm before a rules-breaking scandal cleared out the front office. Current general manager Alex Anthopoulos protected those prospects in trades as the Braves won back-to-back NL East titles.
The core of the team includes young stars Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka. The next wave of top Braves prospects features right-hander Ian Anderson and outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. But after that crest, there could be a dry period for Braves prospects, according to the experts who closely follow what's happening in the minor leagues.
One of them, ESPN analyst Kiley McDaniel, recently ranked the Braves' farm system third among 30 MLB organizations. He praised their 2019 draft class and noted that the MLB-imposed limits on Braves international signings are ending. However, McDaniel wrote that "this system will tumble when all of the upper-level talent has graduated, probably by the end of 2021."
Baseball America reached a similar conclusion while ranking the Braves' system No. 4: "The fall is coming. Two years from now, the Braves will likely rank among the bottom third in terms of farm system talent." MLB.com's experts, citing a decline in system depth, dropped the Braves from third in its 2019 preseason rankings to eight for 2020.
If all goes as planned, the projected lull in farm talent won’t matter much for the Braves. Acuna, Albies and Soroka already are key pieces for a winning team. Pache or Waters (or both) will play alongside Acuna in a potent outfield for years to come. Anderson will join Max Fried and Soroka to form a fine starting rotation of young arms.
Things don't always go as planned in baseball, though, especially when it comes to projecting young players. The Braves have had a great hit rate on prospects so far, but a regression to the mean is likely. A statistical study by Matt Perez found that, among Baseball America's top 100 prospects, three out of every four pitchers and two out of every three position players don't pan out.
The Braves have had more chances to get it right because of the depth in their farm system. It might get thinner soon. It’s already affecting the big-league club this season (whenever it starts). The Braves are hoping unproven young players can fill holes at third base and the starting rotation.
Austin Riley's rookie season was boom-or-bust (this year, he was having a good spring at third base before the novel coronavirus canceled games). Pitching prospects Kyle Wright (also good at spring camp) and Bryse Wilson had a rough go in their brief taste of the big leagues. Soon we'll see if Pache, Waters and Anderson can do better.
The budding talent in the minor leagues is a big reason why Anthopoulos has resisted acquiring veteran players with long-term contracts. The landscape shifts if the prospect well starts to run dry. The Dodgers and Yankees can supplement good farm systems with big spending at the big-league level. Anthopoulos must be more selective with his salary outlays.
The strong farm system was a selling point for the Braves when they lured Anthopoulos in November 2017 in the wake of the cheating scandal. He had been a successful GM for the Blue Jays and a top executive for the Dodgers. With the Braves, Anthopoulos inherited lots of top prospects and star slugger Freddie Freeman, who had five seasons left on his bargain contract.
Anthopoulos resisted the urge to include the best prospects in trades. He supplemented the core of Freeman and young players with deals both big (Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel) and small (Charlie Culberson and Anibal Sanchez). The Braves are in good position even if most of the top prospects in the pipeline never reach their potential.
Not long ago their farm system was in bad shape. Baseball America ranked it 29th before the 2015 season. The Braves no longer were good on the field, and help was not on the way. Hart and Coppolella restocked the minor leagues by swapping veterans for prospects and and draft picks. By 2016 the Braves had one of MLB’s better farm systems.
It’s still good at the top with Pache, Waters and Anderson. It’s not as deep as it was before Acuna and Co. graduated. If the latest crop of top prospects is good enough, it will be a while before the Braves need their farm to feed the big-league club. That’s the plan.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com