Ben Sestanovich Q&A: ‘We’re not afraid to push guys’ through the system

The Braves’ minor-league system no longer is the envy of baseball, but their major-league club is. After years of assembling top young talent, the Braves are once again experiencing sustained success. They’ve won four consecutive division titles and, of course, just earned their second World Series championship since moving to Atlanta.

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As prospects graduate and get traded for immediate help, a once-rich farm system has tumbled down the rankings. Baseball America had the Braves’ system No. 22 overall in February – before president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos made a blockbuster deal for All-Star Matt Olson that required sending out three of his top prospects (catcher Shea Langeliers, outfielder Cristian Pache, right-hander Ryan Cusick).

The AJC recently spoke with Ben Sestanovich, Braves assistant general manager of player development, about the state of the system and what’s ahead (the interview was edited for clarity):

Q: This was a top-five-or-six farm system for five years. Naturally, there was going to be a drop-off as players moved up. Now there’s the Olson deal. How would you assess the state of the system right now?

A: Alex has said it, it’s really hard to trade young players. So that’s going to affect the state of the system. But I think we still feel really good about the players we have. We’re excited about a lot of the guys taking big steps forward this year. We’ve already seen one guy come up and make a big-league start (Bryce Elder) seven games into the season. I think having players in the system that we think highly of is obviously always going to be really important.”

Q: You mentioned Elder. That 2020 draft class is looking pretty good (pitchers Elder and Spencer Strider are in majors, first-round lefty Jared Shuster and outfielder Jesse Franklin are showing promise). How satisfied are you with how those guys are coming along?

A: Oh man, I mean, that group that you alluded to, Shuster, Strider, Elder, Franklin – it was my first full year in the organization. You can’t say enough about the amateur scouting group and (scouting director) Dana (Brown), and all the work those guys do identifying these guys for the draft. And obviously, so far, those four guys have gone out and done really well. And two of them are already pitching in the big leagues, which I don’t think any of us ever expected. So that’s been awesome to see.

And really a credit to those players. They got into pro ball, and there was no minor league baseball (because of the pandemic). We were able to get them all going out to the alternate site for varying amounts of time. I think that was valuable. But despite the weirdness of it, you never would have guessed that they really only have had one true professional season under their belts. So credit to those guys for all their hard work and putting themselves in a position to help us at the big-league level.

Q: Obviously you’re back in the international market (after MLB-issued penalties for infractions committed by the previous regime are now over), but the system has lost depth and you’re likely going to be drafting later in rounds (because of the major-league team’s success). Anthopoulos will probably trade some depth every July, too. How challenging will it be building a good talent base in the system?

A: It’s an enviable challenge to have, right? It means you’re picking in a part of the draft that is related to having a successful major league team, which is obviously what we’re all trying to do. So yes, it’s challenging, but we’ve got, probably as evidenced by the ‘20 draft, we have a ton of confidence in the scouting groups and from a player-development standpoint. We’re just excited with all these guys we get, to start to form relationships with and help hopefully get to the highest level. So frankly, I think it’s part of the structure of how things work. It’s not something we spend a ton of time talking about because there’s not really much we can do about it. I think we’re just excited whenever we get new players in the system and get a chance to hopefully help them on their own way to the big leagues.

Q: I have to ask about outfielder Michael Harris (the Braves’ top prospect). Is he a guy you could see being capable of playing in the majors as early as this summer? And what are you hoping to see from him as he continues growing?

A: I’m always a little cautious to put timelines on anybody. I think these guys their performance dictates that obviously. I think what Michael’s done over the last couple of years makes it even a conversation you could think about having, which is a huge compliment in and of itself. Michael is off to a nice start in Double-A and playing at the highest level he has, and he’s gaining experience. Sometimes we can sort of forget that. He was a high school pick in 2019. Then we missed ‘20. He’s going through his second full minor-league season right now and learning a ton along the way. We’re just looking to have him carry over the success he had last year in (High-A) Rome to a higher level against better competition. Excited to see where that goes.

Q: Another player who’s created buzz is infielder Vaughn Grissom. How excited are you about how he’s developing?

A: Performance-wise, he kind of put himself on the map last year. Then we had him in big-league camp this spring, though not for a super long period. But I think he’s in a great spot. Finished last year in Rome and is starting there again this year. And sort of like Michael, he falls into this bucket of players that, you know, high school kids drafted in ‘19, sort of their normal progression interrupted in ‘20. They have their first full seasons now and in ‘21. And then, you know, this is kind of their sophomore year of pro ball, even though they were drafted a few years ago. For all these guys, I think it’s just gaining experience in higher levels and through the system. It’s something we’re really excited to watch.

Q: Is there a prospect or two you feel is somewhat under the radar?

A: Just talking about the 2020 draft, through no fault of his own, I think Jared Schuster probably gets a little bit overlooked at times, given that the other two pitchers have reached the big leagues. Shu got all the way to Double-A last year, started Game 1 of that playoff series there in Mississippi. I still think it’s the best change-up in the system. We’re excited for Jared. So that’d be one.

I think maybe one guy to highlight who is off to a nice start in his own right is (shortstop) Cal Conley, our fourth-rounder last year from Texas Tech. He really impressed our group in spring training. He’s going to be the every-day shortstop there and in (Low-A) Augusta to start the year, and we’re excited to see a full season worth of Cal. We draft these college kids, and they get to play a little bit, they get their first taste of pro ball, but I really think it’s, to some degree, you close your eyes and wait for the next spring training. That’s really what we’re working towards when these guys get drafted that first year anyways. So just excited to see him get going here after his first little taste of minor-league baseball last summer.

Q: The Braves have a reputation for being willing to push guys through the system. Strider leaped from Low-A to the majors last year. How much pride do you take in that?

A: We’re not afraid to push these guys. We’re very open about that. Again, it all comes back to the players. These guys put themselves in a position to be challenged by better competition, higher levels, etc. It’s mainly a tribute to them and their performance. And yeah, it does help that I think our players know that. We’re not going to shy away from promoting them if they’re playing well. That’s something that hopefully motivates our guys and is a positive. But at the same time, I think we also have to carefully weigh when it is the right decision to potentially keep a guy at a level for a whole year and let them gain the experience of maybe facing teams for the second and third time.

As much as we’re willing to promote guys rather quickly, I think we also see the advantages in certain instances of maybe staying at a level for a more prolonged period. I think it’s something that certainly we’re willing to do, but it also has to make sense from a big-picture standpoint.