The Atlanta Braves farm system, which has been the talk of the town the past few seasons, was in the news for all the wrong reasons this winter. Because of that, the Braves have a new look to their prospect rankings.
Our own John Sickels began his Top 20 Preseason rankings, and named Ronald Acuña (surprise, surprise) the No. 1 overall prospect and Luiz Gohara the No. 2 — and top pitching prospect -- in a system loaded with young and exciting arms.
With trade of Matt Kemp, the expectations are the Acuña will be in the Opening Day outfield somewhere, most likely left field if the current roster stays as is. While Luiz Gohara wasn’t at his best in his MLB debut, the 21-year-old southpaw successfully climbed three levels all the way to SunTrust Park. He could very well land a spot in the Opening Day rotation.
So, if the top hitting and pitching prospects on the Braves’ farm could very well be full-fledged graduates come May, who would be the Braves top prospect on the bump and at the plate?
MIKE SOROKA, RHP
Most will tell you the Kyle Wright and Kolby Allard have higher ceilings, and they just may. But Soroka has done nothing but prove himself for the past two seasons. He was one of the Big 5 in the 2016 Rome Braves championship rotation, and was one of the best pitchers in the minor leagues last season.
All of the minor leagues. As a 19 year old for most of the season. Skipping over High A and pitching the entire season in Double-A.
The numbers speak volumes. Soroka pitched to a 2.75 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. While names like Wright and Allard and Anderson may pump out higher velocities and strikeout numbers before it’s all said and done, Soroka’s command is second to none. He followed up a 2.01 walks-per-nine campaign as an 18 year old with a 1.99 walks-per-nine as a 19 year old.
Soroka’s mechanics are just fine, and he has shown an uptick in velocity here and there, especially in his curve. He doesn’t allow a lot of home runs, and that’s thanks to a usually high ground ball rate (46.2 percent in 2017) and a little sink he gets on his fastball, a fastball that he can manipulate almost as two different offerings.
In this era of big strikeout numbers and mind-boggling radar gun numbers, Soroka may be a bit behind. But if you want a guy that has done nothing but prove he can control a game — and go deep into those games regularly — than Soroka is your guy.
That’s precisely why he is mine.
AUSTIN RILEY, 3B
People still don’t believe in Austin Riley. The 20-year-old, hulking righty has his flaws. But he’s also improved on almost all of them over the past two seasons.
Riley could be the best straight up power bat in the system, especially with Kevin Maitan no longer a Brave. He was also arguably the worst disciplined hitter in the 2016 Rome Braves lineup in the first half of the season.
That’s when he learned — as a teenager mind you — that the days of waiting dead red were gone and he had to improve his approach and recognition of breaking balls. Is he there yet? Not completely, but as he did in 2016, Riley showed tremendous adjustments in the second half of 2017.
Riley struggled with the Florida Fire Frogs to start the season. He actually lowered his strikeout rate from the season prior while keeping the walk rate relatively the same. The contact, and thus the power, took a bit to come along, but by midseason Riley was rolling once again. Pair it with a .289 BABIP in the Florida State League and it all kind of makes sense.
He finished the season in Double-A. Once he got there, he found his stroke, slashing .315/.389/.511 in 48 games. He walked at the highest rate (9.9 percent of the time) against the most advanced pitching he had ever faced. The power returned as well as he raked eight home runs and nine doubles in just 178 at bats.
There were question marks about his defense, and they were deservedly so. But he has even shown the range required of the hot corner, and he always had the rifle, a pitcher in his past life in high school. He just had to put it together consistently. He seemed to do that in Florida, but struggled again in Mississippi.
Riley isn’t the perfect prospect, but he has continually shown the ability to make the adjustments asked of him. There’s no reason to not expect to see him in Gwinnett next season. The Braves are in desperate need of an everyday third baseman. If they can be patient, Riley could very well be just that.