2021 Atlanta Braves Midseason Top 30 Prospects Update
The Braves entered the 2021 season as division favorites after winning the NL East in three straight years, but through 98 games the team is fighting for a .500 record and five games back from the Mets for the division lead.
Once again, Atlanta has had to deal with a season-ending injury to a star young player, this time 40-40 threat Ronald Acuña Jr..—who still leads the team in fWAR (4.3) by a sizable margin.
While it’s impossible for the Braves to replace what Acuña Jr. brings to the table, their internal replacements haven’t stepped up just yet. Most notably, top prospect Cristian Pache has looked overmatched offensively despite his defensive prowess in center field, and still needs reps in Triple-A before getting another everyday shot at the big league level.
Preseason No. 2 prospect Ian Anderson has continued to shine after a breakout rookie campaign in 2021 and has joined free agent righthander Charlie Morton at the front of the rotation, but Atlanta’s relievers have regressed in a big way after a 2020 season with the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball. The 2021 unit has posted a 4.53 ERA—21st in baseball—and has struggled to support a top-10 offense and solid starting rotation.
While the Braves don’t look like the same sort of threat they were in 2020, the team is still solidly in the hunt thanks in part to a division that seems to be among the least top-heavy in the game.
The Braves’ farm system is still solid, and big steps forward from recent draftees—most notably Michael Harris and Spencer Strider—give them new names to watch beyond the Cristian Pache/Drew Waters duo that sits atop the system but still has some offensive question marks.
Savvy late-round drafting (and especially from the 2019 class) keeps the organization interesting further down the list, but it’s still quite obvious this is a team that hasn’t been able to add much at all in the way of impact international talent in recent years.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Cristian Pache, OF
Age: 22. Team: Triple-A Gwinnett
Atlanta’s preseason top prospect didn’t establish himself as an everyday regular on the big league roster thanks to minor injuries and a bat that didn’t look quite ready. Scouts and team officials alike raved about Pache’s defensive ability in center field, but a lost 2020 season clearly hurt his offensive development and while the 22-year-old was making plenty of contact, he struggled to consistently square up baseballs.
2. Drew Waters, OF
Age: 22. Team: Triple-A Gwinnett
Waters logged over 100 innings in all three outfield spots in 2021 in his second stint at Triple-A Gwinnett, and while his strikeout rate still hovered around 30%, he cut the rate from the 36.1% mark he had in 2019 and managed a 110 wRC+ through 56 games with power (eight homers) and speed (16 stolen bases). He’s been particularly hot in July.
3. Michael Harris, OF
Age: 20. Team: High-A Rome
Harris was one of the organization’s most impressive prospects in 2021, earning an appearance in the Futures Game (where he wowed in batting practice) and posting a .751 OPS in High-A East—the second-best mark from a 20-year-old hitter after Gunnar Henderson. Scouts believed Harris might have the best pure feel for hitting in the system and he earned high marks for his center field defense, power, speed and pitch recognition. He could stand to walk more and tended to give away at-bats given his impressive coverage of the plate and aggressive swing decisions, but has real five-tool, everyday upside.
4. Shea Langeliers, C
Age: 23. Team: Double-A Mississippi
Two years removed from a hamate injury he suffered in college, Langeliers showed impressive power (15 homers, eight doubles) in one of the least hitter-friendly environments in the minors. He was still working on the nuances of framing, but pitchers loved throwing to him, he blocked well and was throwing out 50% of basestealers.
5. Kyle Muller, LHP
Age: 23. Team: Atlanta
Muller got off to a rough stretch in Triple-A Gwinnett—walking 15 batters in his first four starts—but made a few mechanical and mental adjustments, which included him no longer going over his head in his windup. After his fifth outing of the season, he did a better job attacking the zone, striking out 58 batters and walking 18 between Gwinnett and Atlanta.
6. Spencer Strider, RHP
Age: 22. Team: Double-A Mississippi
The biggest up-arrow arm in the system, Strider dominated Low-A East and High-A East thanks to a fastball that sat in the 95-96 mph range in a starting role and deep into his outings. Strider hides the ball well in his delivery and the pitch has standout spin metrics that allow it to play up in the zone, and he worked on a vertical slider in the mid 80s to complement the pitch down in the zone. In Double-A he started to focus on refining a changeup as well.
7. Braden Shewmake, SS
Age: 23. Team: Double-A Mississippi
Shewmake had a dreadful May (.099/.158/.183) but rebounded offensively after the first month (.279/.318/.484) and struck out at just a 16% rate between June and July. Shewmake was impressive defensively and looked like a real major league shortstop, though not the caliber of glove that will push Dansby Swanson off the position any time soon.
8. Ryan Cusick, RHP
Age: 21. Team: Rookie-level Florida Complex League
NEW The Braves went back to Wake Forest for another pitching prospect with their first-round selection in 2021, though Cusick is a different type of pitcher than his teammate Jared Shuster. His fastball was one of the loudest in the draft class and he’s worked on both a curveball and slider that have flashed above-average.
9. Jared Shuster, LHP
Age: 23. Team: High-A Rome
Shuster didn’t continue to pitch with the 92-95 mph velocity he showed a year ago and in 2021 was in the 89-93 mph range he pitched more consistently in throughout his college career. With High-A Rome, he posted a 3.16 ERA with 40 strikeouts (11.5 K/9) and just nine walks (2.6 BB/9) through nine appearances (eight starts) while sporting one of the better changeups in the organization.
10. Tucker Davidson, LHP
Age: 23. Team: Atlanta (injured list)
Davidson pitched well in Triple-A Gwinnett and then made three solid starts for the Braves before going down with a left forearm injury on June 15 in his fourth start of the season. It sounds like he’ll avoid Tommy John surgery, but he’s currently on the 60-day injured list.
11. Spencer Schwellenbach, RHP
NEW Schwellenbach was the top two-way player in the college class who played shortstop for Nebraska and then rolled out to the mound and sat in the 94-97 mph range with ease and with very little preparation or attention to the pitching process. The Braves are thrilled with the upside potential he has as a pitcher when he pairs his immense natural talent, athleticism and strike throwing with a more focused approach.
12. Jesse Franklin, OF
13. Jasseel De La Cruz, RHP
14. Bryce Elder, RHP
15. Vaughn Grissom, SS/3B
16. Freddy Tarnok, RHP
17. Joey Estes, RHP
NEW Drafted in the 16th round out of high school in 2019, Estes was one of the younger pitchers in Low-A, and he was an impressive strike thrower over 13 starts, with a 2.98 ERA, 79 strikeouts (11.2 K/9) and 16 walks (2.3 BB/9). He throws a three-pitch mix with a fastball that could be a future plus offering, and a solid slider and changeup. Estes is undersized and has some stiffness in his delivery, but it’s hard to not like his advanced feel for pitching.
18. Indigo Diaz, RHP
NEW Diaz posted the best strikeout rate in High-A East (18.0 K/9) before being promoted to Double-A Mississippi, and posted a 0.83 ERA with 63 strikeouts and just nine walks in 32.2 innings at the two levels. Diaz was an unheralded 27th-rounder out of Michigan State but worked on his body and his fastball ticked up in response, with a vertical slider that pairs nicely with it out of the pen.
19. Darius Vines, RHP
NEW The 2019 draft is shaping up like a strong one for Atlanta, and Vines is another reason why. He was more advanced than the hitters he faced in Low-A and High-A, with a four-pitch mix he showed excellent feel for. His fastball was just average, but his secondaries played up thanks to his ability to land them. Seeing how his stuff plays against more advanced hitters will be telling for the seventh round Cal State Bakersfield product.
20. Daysbel Hernandez, RHP
21. Victor Vodnik, RHP
22. Cal Conley, SS
NEW Conley was a standout performer this spring for Texas Tech, hitting .329/.393/.587 with a career-best 15 home runs while playing most of his games at shortstop. He has a solid all-around tool set with perhaps his speed and contact ability at the forefront of that package.
23. William Woods, RHP
24. Jared Johnson, RHP
NEW The Braves were careful with Johnson’s workload and pitch count, throwing him once a week or so and never letting him throw more than 69 pitches in an outing in 2021. His results were mixed as his command was very much still a work in progress, but when his stuff was over the plate it was impressive, with a fastball in the 95-100 mph range and a hard slider in the 87-92 mph range.
25. Trey Riley, RHP
NEW Riley always showed big pure stuff going back to his time with Logan (Ill.) JC, but this spring he took a step forward with his control in a full-time reliever role. He threw his fastball in the 94-98 mph range with a good slider, but was walking a career-low 2.5 batters per nine over 25.2 innings of work with High-A Rome.
26. Justin Dean, OF
NEW Dean’s strikeout rate ballooned a bit in Double-A, but his speed and solid walk rate at the plate allowed him to get on base at a solid clip (.367) in his first stint at the level, though that was supported by a .403 BABIP. Dean played almost exclusively in center field and is a good defender there.
27. Trey Harris, OF
28. Luke Waddell, SS
NEW Taken in the fifth round of the 2021 draft, Waddell doesn’t have the most eye-popping tools, but he can play shortstop and was one of the better hitting prospects on the Collegiate National Team in 2019. He’s an older player (2021 was his third year draft-eligible) with bat-to-ball skills and a sprinkling of other skills without a true standout tool.
29. AJ Smith-Shawver, RHP
NEW Smith-Shawver was selected in the seventh round of this year’s draft out of high school in Texas. He’s a physical righthander with a fastball up to 96 mph and the athleticism that comes from a multi-sport history. He backs the fastball up with a mid-70s curveball. He’s a long-term projection play, but the Braves are happy to take the time to mold him.
30. Dylan Dodd, LHP
NEW Dodd was taken by the Braves in the third round of the 2021 draft out of Southeast Missouri as one of the better senior signs available. Dodd transferred to SEMO from Kanakee (Ill.) JC and struck out 120 over 96.2 innings. He brings a low-90s fastball and a potentially plus changeup as the best parts of a four-pitch arsenal.
Minor League Offensive Data Standouts For April
The group of players highlighted below showed an impressive blend of power, contact skills and production.
Outfielder Michael Harris showed a solid tool set across the board, with better pure hitting ability than the Cristian Pache/Drew Waters duo at the top of the organization and loud exit velocities that could give him exciting power upside.
Righthander Spencer Strider’s fastball velocity and spin profile give him an excellent starting point and he seems to be the sort of cerebral mind who will make the most of his natural talents.
OF Jesse Franklin tweaked with his hitting stance. He stood taller in the box and let his body move more naturally to tap into a ton of power in a home park that suppresses homers. Franklin didn’t homer at all in May but hit .268/.358/.654 with 15 homers between June and July.
Righthanders Indigo Diaz, Joey Estes and Darius Vines were all impressive during the first half of the season, showing some combination of improved pure stuff and impressive command.
Righthander Daysbel Hernandez started the season in Triple-A Gwinnett but struggled to a 9.64 ERA in just five outings and 4.2 innings before he was moved back to Double-A Mississippi, though this is his first season at either level.
Shortstop Beau Philip struggled with High-A Rome as a 22-year-old, slashing .186/.274/.284 with a 35% strikeout rate and with 17 errors at shortstop in 56 games.
Outfielder Stephen Paolini showed some raw power and played solid defense in center field with Low-A Augusta, but he struggled mightily with the bat, hitting .161/.263/.252 with a 44% strikeout rate.
Preseason No. 2 prospect Ian Anderson has continued to be one of the most reliable arms for the Braves, though he is currently on the 10-day injured list with shoulder inflammation.
Catcher William Contreras received the most playing time of the six catchers the Braves used this season after Travis d’Arnaud’s thumb injury.
Righthander Bryse Wilson shuffled between the starting rotations for Triple-A Gwinnett and the big league club. He was hit around a bit at the big league level, with an 11.6 H/9 and 5.34 ERA.
Righthander Huascar Ynoa started the season well for Atlanta, posting a 3.02 ERA over 44.2 innings and eight starts, with 50 strikeouts and 11 walks before fracturing his hand and going on the 60-day injured list.
Lefthander Tucker Davidson’s timetable still wasn’t clear as he continued to recover from forearm inflammation, but avoiding Tommy John surgery seems like good news at this point.
Righthander William Woods hadn’t pitched in a game this season and was dealing with an injury, but he was throwing bullpens so he could be back at some point in the second half of the season.
Righthander Victor Vodnik spent time on the injured list this spring and missed all of June but in July he was activated for Double-A Mississippi.
Infielder Vaughn Grissom’s playing time was cut into a bit thanks to a few minor injuries, but it didn’t sound like anything too serious.