Will Braves’ top pick be Mercer’s Kyle Lewis?

Mercer outfielder Kyle Lewis was named Baseball America’s college player of the year Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Mercer Athletics)

Mercer outfielder Kyle Lewis was named Baseball America’s college player of the year Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Mercer Athletics)

The Braves own the third pick in the MLB draft, which commences Thursday night. That’s the loftiest selection this franchise has had since 1991, when they took outfielder Mike Kelly of Arizona State No. 2 overall. It’s the second time in 25 years the Braves have had a top-10 pick. (Mike Minor was the seventh player drafted in 2009.)

Department of Duh: If you're a team on pace to lose 117 games, you probably shouldn't whiff with your highest pick in a quarter of a century. But it's not as if the Braves haven't leveraged their bets. They've accumulated five of the draft's first 80 picks. In a sport where uncertainty reigns, what works best is volume.

Philadelphia and Cincinnati hold the draft’s first two picks. (The rascally Reds stole No. 2 overall by losing 14 of their final 15 games last season.) It’s generally assumed that A.J. Puk, the Florida Gators’ lefthander, will go No. 2 if not No. 1. And here we turn to J.J. Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, for some handicapping of what he describes as “a crazily fluid draft.”

“You figure Puk won’t make it to No. 3,” Cooper said. “You figure one of college bats goes No. 2, maybe (Tennessee infielder) Nick Senzel. The Braves could be more conservative and take one of the college outfielders. That would be a very logical pick — a draft for need.”

In this space two days ago, general manager John Coppolella said the Braves wouldn't draft for need. He also said: "The biggest thing for me in a perfect world would be to draft a college bat."

Assuming Cooper’s scenario holds, the Braves could pick, at worst, the second-best college bat. (Because there’s a larger body of work, college hitters tend to project more accurately than high schoolers.) Cooper believes the Braves’ choice could be between Kyle Lewis of Mercer and Corey Ray of Louisville. Ray played in a better conference and is regarded as the more polished hitter. Lewis, who’s from Snellville and who graduated from Shiloh High, is seen as having the greater potential.

Said Cooper: “Lewis would be the outside version of taking a college player. He didn’t play in the ACC. Ray’s hit tool is further along. Lewis has a swing-and-miss issue. He takes big swings. He can also hit the ball 450 feet. … Corey Ray is the safe pick.”

Then again, the Braves under Coppolella haven’t exactly erred on the side of safety. “This front office loves upside,” Cooper said. “Jason Groome (a lefty from New Jersey) could be best player in draft, or he could one of those high school pitchers who have a frightening track record.”

As for overall state of the Braves, Cooper said: “What they’re building in the minors has had definite ups and downs, but it’s pretty impressive, pretty imposing. Getting Dansby Swanson is a move that will pay off for years to come. They’ve gone so upside, so high-risk, that some of these guys are going to fail. But if you look at the volume of guys they have, it’s hard to believe some aren’t going to pan out. Look at low-A (the Rome Braves). Austin Riley hasn’t been very good; Ronald Acuna has been very good. Touki Toussaint hasn’t been very good this year; Mike Soroka has been very good.”

Then: “They look like they’re going to be good up the middle with (Ozzie) Albies, Swanson and Mallex Smith. But you ask: Where’s the thump going to come from?”

From the third pick in this draft, maybe? Said Cooper: “It wouldn’t shock me if they took Corey Ray; it wouldn’t stun me if they took Jason Groome. But guessing right now, I’d say Kyle Lewis.”

There’s late buzz that Lewis, just named Baseball America’s college player of the year, could go No. 1 overall. But say he’s available at No. 3. In 61 games for Mercer this season, Lewis hit 20 home runs. In 58 games, the Braves have 23 home runs. Yeah, there’s need there.