In this series dubbed “French’s Favorite MiLB Sleepers: (Your Favorite Team Here)” I will take a look at one pitching and one hitting prospect who I think have either flown under the radar or have yet to receive much in the way of notoriety. In the end we will have a list of 60 players that I think will blossom into legitimate prospects and have the potential to contribute in the MLB within the next few years. In the second of what will eventually be 30 reviews I will now take a look at the Atlanta Braves sleepers who have caught my eye.
Historically, the Atlanta Braves are one of the model franchises that incorporate excellent scouting, drafting, and player development tactics to turn out some of the best pitchers and hitters of any generation. The Braves are almost always contending for playoff spots and effectively develop both hitting and pitching prospects who contribute on the MLB level regularly. To put it simply you don’t win 11 straight division titles (1995-2005) by not being a good team. If you are still not convinced that the Braves are one of the best teams developing minor league talent just take a look at their current roster. Players like Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Brian McCann, Martin Prado, and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones highlight a list of offensive players that the Braves have either drafted or signed as international free agents but it doesn’t stop there. The Braves are not limited to developing only hitters as they are equally as good at drafting and developing pitchers. On their 2012 team alone they have homegrown talent like Craig Kimbrel, Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Jonny Venters. Some other players they have drafted that have found success on other MLB teams include Adam Wainwright, Jeff Francoeur, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
So knowing how effective the Braves are in developing talent let’s take a look at two players currently down on the farm who I think have gotten little fan fair and could very well add their names to lengthy list of Braves draft and development successes.
Pitching: J.R. Graham
The right-handed J.R. Graham was drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft from Santa Clara University. He has the ability to dial his power fastball up to 100 mph and sits comfortably in the upper 90’s mph. He is still continuing to refine his secondary offerings, which include a slider and change-up, to make sure his live fastball plays up even more and while many believe he is going to move to the bullpen the Braves have been richly rewarded for keeping him in the rotation as he develops. Standing at only 6’0, Graham is often praised for his electric fastball and criticized for his lack of ideal pitching size. One thing that can’t be criticized are his results. In 2011 he was assigned to the Appalachian Rookie League and proceeded to post a very strong 1.72 ERA with a 52:13 K/BB ratio over 57 2/3 innings. He moved up to Class-A Advanced Lynchburg of the Carolina League to start the 2012 season a posted an outstanding 9-1 record with 2.63 ERA and 68:17 K/BB rate over 102 2/3 innings earning himself a All-Star selection and a promotion to Double-A Mississippi of the Southern League. While a member of the Mississippi Braves rotation Graham continued to have success posting a 3.18 ERA and 42:17 K/BB rate over 45 1/3 innings. When all was said and done Graham posted a 2.80 ERA with a 110:34 K/BB rate over 148 innings in his second professional season and is poised to continue that success in 2013 and beyond. I believe that he will likely return to Double-A in 2013 and look to log some more innings, and work on his secondary offerings, with a chance to move up to Triple-A by mid-season and could appear in Atlanta as early as 2014 in a bullpen capacity (similar to Cardinals prospect Trevor Rosenthal) with a shot to join the rotation by 2015.
Hitting: Tommy La Stella
Second baseman Tommy La Stella was drafted in the eighth round of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft from Coastal Carolina University. Evaluators often praise the left-handed hitting La Stella for his hard-nosed play and internal motor which allow his tools to play up. Already 23 years old, La Stella has to move at a good pace through each level to still garner the ever important prospect buzz and so far he has done just that. He signed quickly enough in 2011 to play in 63 games for Class-A Rome of the South Atlantic League and posted a very strong .328/.401/.543 slash line along with nine home runs and a very impressive 26:28 BB/K rate. His defense was a little shaky as he posted a .957 Fld% but it was serviceable enough to merit him sticking at the keystone position as he progressed. Critics will sight his advanced age as a factor in his success and I would agree to an extent as he was a polished college bat however, it is worth noting that he because he initially started his college career at St. John’s University and transferred to Coastal Carolina he had to forgo playing in any games his sophomore year of college so he is not as far ahead of his competition as it would seem on the surface. He followed up his strong debut in 2011 with an even more impressive 2012. As part of Class-A Advanced Lynchburg’s roster he posted a .302/.386/.460 slash line with five home runs, 13 stolen bases, and a very impressive 36:24 BB/K rate over 85 games. Overall he finished his 2012 season with a .299/.389/.466 with six home runs, 13 stolen bases and a 40:25 BB/K rate between Lynchburg and the GCL. His 2012 was a bit injury plagued as he missed time with various injuries, the biggest being a broken fibula in July, but continued to improve upon his draft stock and turned in another outstanding season. La Stella was initially regarded as a bat-first prospect when he was drafted and while his bat has remained a big part of his game he has shown the unique ability to hit for both average and a little power while maintaining excellent plate discipline and on-base percentages. La Stella also improved in the field as he turned in a decent .975 Fld% playing only second base and contributed on the base paths with 13 stolen bases despite most scouts grading him as a below average runner. I would expect the Braves to move La Stella up to Double-A in 2013 and see how he develops before considering moving him off of second base as I am not 100% sold that he will enough power to hold down a corner outfield spot. The biggest thing for La Stella will be to work on his defense and to stay healthy. He has the potential to be the long term answer for Atlanta at second base as early as 2015- just in time to replace the declining Dan Uggla.
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