Recapping the Braves Drafts: 2019
Harris II, Grissom, and a Kiwi - What a class!
The year of 2019 was such a simpler time. No pandemic, no lockdowns, no spraying groceries with hand sanitizer. It seems like twenty years ago, but it was just three.
In June of that year, the Braves finished up their draft. It was the first draft since getting good for the Braves and the string of late picks in the first round started with this one. Except the Braves also had the ninth pick thanks to Carter Stewart not signing the previous year. I'll have more on him next week, I'm sure.
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The Braves made 41 selections, signed their first 26 picks, and 36 picks overall. Briefly, of the five who didn't sign, 35th-rounder Anthony Hall was later a 4th-round selection by the Yankees this year while 39th-round infielder, Josh Rolling, is a junior at Sacramento State. The other three were never drafted again and haven't signed with a major league club.
So, let’s look at who did sign. Again, the first number is the round they were selected while the second number is their overall draft spot.
1.9 C Shea Langeliers - When the Braves took the Baylor product with the ninth overall selection, the belief was that they had found their future fixture behind the plate. The defensive-first backstop hit well enough to earn the top ten selection. He struggled some with Rome after the draft and then lost a year to the pandemic - though he was at the alternate site. In 2021, he belted 22 homers for Mississippi with a .836 OPS while appearing five times for Gwinnett. The prevailing wisdom was that Langeliers was the better bet to be a star than William Contreras, Atlanta's other big prospect catcher. And maybe that's why the A's wanted Langeliers in the Matt Olson trade. He excelled in the hitter's paradise of the Pacific Coast League, but a 40-game run in the majors made A's fans preach patience as he hit .218/.261/.430. Langeliers is obviously an intriguing catcher and should be good for the long-term, but if there were ever whispers of concern, it was that his bat wouldn't be good enough to allow him to run with the better catchers in the majors. We'll see how that plays out, but not in Atlanta where Contreras hit his way onto the All-Star team.
1.21 SS Braden Shewmake - Atlanta stayed with Texas schools, selecting the A&M shortstop, Shewmake, next. The similar characteristics didn't end there, either. Shewmake was considered a good defensive player with questions about his bat. His professional run has done little to address the latter. He's hit just .259/.316/.408 over 224 games. To his credit, the Braves have been aggressive with him, giving him just 51 games below Double-A. Part of that is because he turns 25 in a month and the Braves want to get value out of him before he ages out. Last year, he nearly nailed his career slash while with Gwinnett. Injuries have also limited him to 83 games in 2021 and 76 last year. Shewmake has long been compared to Dansby Swanson and there's some reason beyond just a physical resemblance for that. While his ceiling has never been as high as Swanson's, Shewmake is a heady player whose skills play higher because of his intelligence and willpower. That said, the hit tool needs to be better before Shewmake looks like anything more than a utility player in the majors.
2.60 SS Beau Philip - The selection of Philip was questioned from the beginning. The reason Philip was picked was nearly entirely financial. The Braves wanted to save slot money for later picks. Sadly, Philip has only looked like a bad second-round choice. In 1068 professional at-bats, the former Oregon State player has hit just .202. He takes his walks and has some pop, though not enough to overcome the poor hit tool. He also is athletic, but you just need to get more value for the 60th pick of the draft regardless of whether or not you are trying to save money for a deeper class.
3.98 OF Michael Harris II - Known more as a pitcher, the Braves gave the young man out of Stockbridge High School a chance to play the outfield and have certainly had no regrets. In his rookie season of 2022, Harris II had a bWAR of 5.3. Only 11th overall, Alek Manoah, has a higher bWAR and Harris II did all that in one season where he started the year in Double-A. Not so bad for a guy who cost $150,000 less than Philip to sign.
4.127 RHP Kasey Kalich - The Braves grabbed Shewmake's teammate with the Aggies next. A relief-only option, Kalich was dominant after the draft. Following the no-season of 2020, Kalich struck out 35 in 30.1 innings for Rome prior to being shipped off to the Royals. His progression since then hasn't been quite as swift. He looked decent for Quad Cities earlier this year, but really struggled in brief runs with Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha. Regardless of how Kalich turns out, the Braves have no regrets trading him because, in exchange, they got Jorge Soler.
5.157 OF Stephen Paolini - Atlanta went back to the high school ranks to grab another outfielder, this time from Connecticut. Unfortunately, Harris II is the unicorn and Paolini has yet to display more than flashes of the player he could be. The hit tool has simply lagged behind and it's keeping him from really tapping into the raw potential the Braves loved enough to spend a high-round selection for him. In his favor is that he can handle center field and he has definitely progressed from 2021 to 2022. Both were spent at Augusta, but he walked at a nearly 14% clip after 10% the previous season and massively cut into his K's (43% to 27%). He's likely done enough to warrant a promotion this year. What he does next will depend on how much he progresses as a hitter.
6.187 RHP Tanner Gordon - What's to like about Gordon is his K/BB rate. It's quite good. Gordon has good deception and a quirky low-to-mid 90's fastball. He displays a good feel for his secondary pitches, a slider and changeup. Gordon is another high-floor college arm that the Braves were hoping to add some velocity or more movement. The good thing there is if the Braves aren't able to help him with that, the floor might be good enough to get him to the majors as rotation depth or long relief. I expect a return trip to Mississippi after his struggles there.
7.217 RHP Darius Vines - It took being drafted three times in four years for Vines to sign, passing on late-round selections by the Astros and Cubs prior to the Braves grabbing him. He's handled all the challenges the Braves have thrown at him, posting a 3.77 ERA in 284 career innings. He sticks around 92 mph, but more is there when he reaches back. His changeup and slider have similar grades, though the former is a bit more advanced right now. He'll even toss a slow, looping curve in there. I know this gets tiresome, but Vines is yet another high floor guy. I'd argue that the floor is higher than Gordon's and the ceiling as well. Vines is going to be a name to watch this offseason not only because of his rise to Gwinnett late last season, but his Rule 5 status.
8.247 RHP Ricky DeVito - A bad 2019 campaign sent DeVito down the draft rankings after he was Big East Pitcher of the Year the previous season. Braves took a chance they could reset him, but his command issues continued to dog him. At the deadline in 2021, the Braves sent the injured pitcher to the Pirates in the Richard Rodriguez deal. The trade did little for Atlanta, but has yet to hurt the team either as Bryse Wilson has struggled in the bigs while DeVito struggled badly with his control this season in High-A ball. DeVito was expected to be a fast riser, but injuries and an inability to throw quality strikes have kept the righty from advancing.
9.277 2B Cody Milligan - Originally from the Denver area, Milligan was a catcher at Cowley College where he was a driving force behind their Junior College World Series appearance in 2019. That came after a brief cameo with Oklahoma State in 2018. Milligan's professional experience was fairly unnoteworthy until last season. Repeating at Rome, Milligan slashed .329/.458/.452 with 49 walks to 46 K's. It garnered him a well-deserved promotion to Mississippi where he cooled off some, was still a productive .271/.345/.326 at the plate. Milligan is a slap hitter (his 45% groundball rate was actually roughly 10% lower than 2021). Because of that, the ceiling is real low. That said, if the hit tool remains useful, he makes the most of his limited skills. He walks, uses the whole field, and adds value on the bases where he was 21-of-22 in steals last year. Defensively, the Braves believe he has the speed to play center and used him there 63 times last year. He's also played a little at the corners, though he's largely been a second baseman. Future-wise, hard to see a major league talent here considering his zero pop. That said, maybe a swing change can help produce a bit more power if he can lower the groundball rate a bit more.
10.307 OF Brandon Parker - Like Milligan, Parker had a big 2022 after struggling as a pro prior. He hit .282/.423/.507 for Augusta with 10 doubles and 10 homers over 65 games before a late-season promotion to Rome. He'd struggle there, but considering hitting his weight was a real difficult challenge prior to 2022, we'll take whatever good we find. Parker will strikeout, but he'll also take his walks. That helped to supplement what was a substandard batting average. There's good pop in his bat and the heavy-pull hitter might have found more green last season with the ban on shifts at both A-ball levels. Defensively, Parker is an average or maybe even below-average fielder so he's going to have to hit. More of what he did at Augusta would help. To be fair, Parker did almost all of his damage against pitchers that were younger than him. He turns 24 next May and the clock's definitely ticking.
11.337 SS Vaughn Grissom - I don't think many people saw this coming. Grissom certainly was rising as one of the top prospects in the system even prior to this season after hitting .329/.418/.464 in 2021. He then crushed both the South Atlantic League and Southern League to the tune of .324/.405/.494 before a promotion to the majors followed. He got off to a quick start, hitting .420 in his first 14 games. Things calmed down big time after that torrid start as he hit two hundred points less over his next 27 games. Nevertheless, when a 21-year-old bats .291/.353/.440 over 156 PA with little experience above A-ball, you better take notice. Grissom fills out a scouting report with several tools that pop. Drafted as a shortstop, the prevailing wisdom is the position is just not a good fit for him. He wasn't great at second base (-3 DRS, -5 OOA), but with increased reps - he only played 12 games there in the minors - the hope is he'll improve there. His future is a bit cloudy, especially in an organization with long-term fixtures at second-and-third. That's why Grissom practiced in left field as well. It's easy to kind of see a Mark DeRosa type here - a guy who can play all over. For the Braves, that could be a great asset, allowing Brian Snitker a chance to rest key guys and play the solid Grissom instead.
12.367 LHP Andy Samuelson - The Wabash Valley College JUCO southpaw was known to have a good curveball. Unfortunately, he struggled badly to throw strikes. After six walks in 12.2 innings in 2019, he walked 24 in 25.2 innings during 2021. After failing to make the Augusta roster, he made one appearance this year where he walked five and retired one. After that, he decided to retire. He never made it out GCL/FCL level.
13.397 RHP Tyler Owens - The first high school arm taken, Owens has struggled with command since he was picked. Fun fact - Owens got the same exact bonus Harris II did. He can pick up the K's, but two seasons at the Augusta level have shown out how much refinement his game needs. He's undersized, but has a good secondary option in his slider and a nice fastball. When he's good, he tends to be REAL good. It's finding the consistency that the Braves are struggling with. Owens could easily become a rising prospect next year if he takes a step forward with his command.
14.427 RHP Jared Johnson - Back-to-back high school pitchers! Johnson has a big arm to match his big 6'2" frame. The question many had when he was selected was whether he would be better off going to college and developing further. The Braves gave a slightly elevated signing bonus and looked at Johnson as a project. So far, nothing has changed on that front. He has 81 career strikeouts in 66.2 innings, but the walks and a surprising amount of homers allowed have delayed his progression. And then, he missed all of 2022 on the IL which was unfortunate. That said, it's easy to see why the Braves went for him. He can hit the upper 90's and his slider gets a lot of swings-and-misses. He remains raw and it'll be interesting to see how he responds to the lost year in 2023.
15.457 OF Connor Blair - The Washington product just never hit. A top JUCO prospect prior to transferring to UW, Blair hit eight homers in 37 games in his junior year. He did miss time due to a broken wrist. The Braves hoped he could translate that power into pro ball, and to a degree, he did. Of his 67 hits, eleven left the yard. The problem was in so many of his other 450 at-bats plate appearances, he headed back to the dugout, hitting just .178. The Braves released Blair in early August as he became the highest draft choice from 2019 to be released. He finished the year in independent-league ball.
16.487 RHP Joey Estes - Another of the high-end prospects the Braves splurged for in the Round 11-20 range, Estes received nearly half-a-million in signing bonus to not go to college. He displayed a good fastball along with an advanced feel for his changeup and curveball in high school. After a forgetful cameo in the Gulf Coast League in 2019, Estes balled out in Augusta in 2021. Still just 19, Estes struck out 127 in 99 innings with only 29 walks. He was cruising up the prospect ranks prior to the Braves including him in the Matt Olson trade. This year, he struggled some with all of his marks going the wrong way for Lansing in the Midwest League (advanced A-ball). That said, he still remains an intriguing prospect with starter-potential in the majors.
17.507 RHP Alec Barger - Originally a two-way player at Northern Illinois, Barger transferred to NC State and focused only on pitching. The results were, well, not great. The year before, he was a 16th-round pick of the Brewers. After not signing, he lasted into the 17th-round when the Braves took him. Barger continues a trend the Braves have shown for high-strikeout guys in hopes they can round the rest of their game into shape. The progress with Barger has been slow on that front. He still walks too many guys and, when he doesn't miss bats, too many reach base. That said, his final dozen appearances are hopefully a springboard. The Rome arm went 14.1 innings, walked just four, and struck out 21. More of that in 2023 will be needed for the nearly-25-year-old.
18.547 1B Mahki Backstrom - One of the most exciting picks of the '19 draft, Backstrom is a tall force-of-nature at the plate. After the teenager hit .300 in 23 games in the GCL during his first summer, people were understandably really enthralled. Sadly, the pandemic may have delayed his progression because when he returned to the re-named FCL in 2021, he hit just .172 with three homers. He rebounded some in 2022 with Augusta, on-basing .355 with 10 homers in 79 games. That said, you need to see more than a .205 average. Still incredibly young (literally turned 21 just days ago), Backstrom has plenty of time to develop.
19.577 OF Kadon Morton - A gifted athlete with a big arm, Morton is a yearly fixture on the list of guys who could break out in a big way. Toolsy and raw, Morton's hit just .207 in the minors, though his 107-game run with Augusta this year was his most successful professional experience. He hit .227/.341/.384 with a dozen homers and just as many steals. Morton's a boxscore filler with plenty of pop and speed to go extra bases. The biggest problem is contact. In 723 career plate appearances, he's struck out in 35% of them. His tools will be buried behind that problem unless he can make more meaningful contact. He has enough speed to handle center and his arm has to be respected. Whether he has the instincts is another question. The ideal solution is for Morton to develop into Jordan Schafer without the drama. When the light came on for Schafer in '07, his OPS shot up 200 points. The hope is that Morton can have a similar season.
20.607 RHP Peyton Williams - Plucked out of Catawba College, Williams was a relief-only player from a small school - one of the Braves' favorite sources for cheap talent. Overall, as a professional, he's racked up plenty of strikeouts to mimic his college exploits. Really, the only difference is that he's given up more hits against stiffer competition, which highlights some underwhelming walks and homers surrendered numbers. At nearly 25 and with no innings above low-A ball, Williams is likely a bubble player who needs a big spring to stick in the system.
21.637 C Javier Valdés - A Miami native who stayed home to attend Florida International, Valdés was just a dude in the organization prior to 2022. He hit an abysmal .088 in 2019 and then .232 in 2021 with a .618 OPS. He had yet to homer. And then, this year just happened. Opening the season in Rome, Valdés hit .263/.376/.479 over 221 PA with eleven homers. That earned him a promotion to Mississippi and while he hit just .231 there, he took his walks and had enough pop to finish with a .750 OPS in 23 games. Overall, he set new personal-bests in every category except steals. Now, he hasn't shown much of an arm (11% of 209 base stealers have been caught), though I've seen scouting reports that speak highly of his arm. Either way, the fun part begins now. Can Valdés do it again and climb the prospect boards? It would be a great value play from a 21st-rounder if he does.
22.667 LHP Alex Segal - A reliever out of Wichita State, the rub on Segal was that he had a big arm and struggled to get control of it. After a season in Danville, the pandemic hit which cost Segal the 2020 season. Injuries kept him off the mound in 2021 and we didn't see him pitch again until June when he began a five-appearance run in the Florida Coast League. Promotions to Augusta and Rome followed. Overall, he finished 2022's regular season with 21 appearances, 26 innings, and 34 K's. Of note, he only walked eleven guys. He went to Scottsdale to finish the year and control problems have really plagued him in Arizona. His fastball and slider are both major league quality when he can control them.
23.697 OF Drew Campbell - Just 5'11," Campbell chose to sign rather than return to Louisville for another year. Quick and athletic, he can play all three outfield positions, though is a better fit in the corners. Will he hit? Well, after injuries limited him to just 27 games in 2021, Campbell hit .271/.340/.377 with Rome in 2022. At the point, he looks more like organizational depth than anything.
24.727 1B Bryce Ball - After being selected in 2019, Ball wrecked the Appalachian League for 13 jacks in 41 games. He looked like a man among boys. He continued with four more homers in 21 games with Rome, hitting .329 with a 1.023 OPS across the two levels. Not a bad introduction. But pitchers adjusted and with Rome now High-A, Ball's return to the city went poorly over 54 games to open 2021 prior to being dealt to the Cubs for Joc Pederson. And that's really all you need to know. Okay, if you're curious, Ball hit .265/.357/.405 with 11 homers in Double-A last year.
25.757 RHP Chad Bryant - Drafted in the 39th and 36th rounds in consecutive years prior to 2019, Chadwick Scott Bryant was another JUCO guy with raw potential, but short on command. Injuries and the pandemic have limited him to just 73.2 innings since he was picked. Unfortunately, the performance side of things have lived up to what you'd expect out of the 25th round. Bryant has a low 90's heater and a breaking ball that can get some swings-and-misses.
26.787 3B Riley King - Did not sign.
27.817 RHP Indigo Diaz - Few minor league relief pitchers can have a better season than Diaz had in 2021. Over two stops, he threw 45 innings with a 1.20 ERA and 83 K's. The dominance led the Braves to challenge him in the Arizona Fall League, but he pitched with little no control. This season, he was good, but it was clearly a step back. He did get on a roll toward the end of the year with Mississippi. After the end of June, Diaz had a 1.57 ERA over 23 innings with 30 K's. hitters managed just a .555 OPS. He's not going to compete with the harder throwers in the system, but has nice life on his low-to-mid 90's fastball (that can explode for more velocity when he reaches back for it). The breaking pitch can lose consistency, but when he's throwing it well, it induces a ton of whiffs. Overall, Diaz has a major league arm if he stays healthy and improves just a bit more.
28.847 RHP Ben Thompson - Originally out of New Zealand, Thompson had nice physical attributes despite a fairly raw background. Unfortunately, the dream to have a Kiwi in the Braves bullpen appeared to come to a halt when he was released in June. Recently, he pitched for Team New Zealand in an unsuccessful qualifying bid for the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
29.877 RHP James Acuña - No, he's not related to Ronald. The former Oregon and Azusa Pacific starter has been a relief option for the Braves since signing. Control will, shockingly, be the biggest issue for Acuña moving forward. He did cut his walk rate a bit last year, but still walks too many hitters. That said, the K's are there and he can be difficult to square up. If he is able to command the zone more, he could be a surprise with his fastball/slider.
30.907 C Mitch Calandra - The undersized catcher out of Eckerd had a decent debut, hitting .271 with Danville, but was pushed out by other options during 2021 with just ten games played. He landed in the Atlantic League briefly during 2022, playing three games with Long Island.
31.937 RHP Greg Leban - Like Calandra, the clock was ticking for the older Leban and he wasn't able to stick in the system for long. He pitched a little in the Pioneer League for the 2021 season, but did not pitch in affiliated ball last year.
32.967 2B Cody Birdsong - Becoming a bit of a broken record. Birdsong was another older signing. These players really hurt by a pandemic and a lost minor league season because they already have so many things to fight against. Birdsong was released in 2021.
33.997 RHP Justin Yeager - Of the Braves final dozen choices, eight signed with the Braves. Only one received more than $20,000 - Mr. Yeager, a hard-throwing righty who was very difficult to square up against. So far, the Illinois native has looked like a bit of a find. Yes, the walks remain a problem (5.0 BB/9 career, 5.5 last year), but he strikes out a ton of hitters and gives up precious few hits along the way. If the control takes a step forward, Yeager would be a hell of a find in the 33rd round.
34.1027 OF Willie Carter - The Florida native showed great bat speed and power in college. He also showed good speed in general. Since moving to the pros, the hit tool has, in general, struggled to get the ball in the air enough to let that raw power flash. After a 117 wRC+ with Augusta in 2021, Carter did up his flyball rate in 2022 prior to an injury that ended his campaign after 198 plate appearances. He's coming up on his age-26 season so the clock is really ticking.
35.1057 1B Anthony Hall - Did not sign.
36.1087 RHP Mitchell Jackson - Did not sign.
37.1117 LHP Davis Schwab - The big-bodied southpaw had a fairly unnoteworthy run in college, first with Kansas State and then Missouri State, prior to the Braves taking him. Lefties that can get outs always have value, but Schwab has really struggled to throw quality starts. In his two years at Rome, he has a 4.87 ERA in 66 games with 74 walks in 92.1 innings. Schwab lives off deception to mask his below-average velocity. His secondary options are decent when he can locate them. Obviously, being left-handed has helped keep him around, but he turns 26 in January and hasn't thrown a pitch above A-ball.
38.1147 OF Grant Mathews - Did not sign.
39.1177 SS Josh Rolling - Did not sign.
40.1207 2B Cade Bunnell - A former Hoosier, the final Braves draft pick of 2019 has been a shocking source of power. After just eight homers combined between stops at Kansas State, Indiana, and three years of summer ball, Bunnell belted 17 jacks in 2021 for Augusta. He then followed that up with 15 more last season, including eight with Mississippi. Bunnell is a three-true-outcomes player. In 1043 career PA, he's hit 33 homers, walked 203 times, and struck out 365. All the while, he's shown some good utility player skills, playing over 400 innings at all four infield spots. He even grabbed an inning in right field for Rome. After the season, he kept his 2022 going with the Arizona Fall League. He's only picked up a pair of singles in twenty trips to the plate so far, but has walked five times while striking out nine times. Considering he's a 40th-round talent that signed for $5,000, anything you can get is bonus. The strikeouts probably will keep him from reaching the majors, but if the hit tool can come along just a bit more, that could change.
I miss the twenty-pick draft classes already. This class has already paid off huge dividends for the performance of Harris II, the potential of Grissom, the trades for Jorge Soler and Joc Pederson, the 2022 addition of Matt Olson, and the fact that I got to talk about Team New Zealand. Will Shewmake be the cherry on the top of this class? Will Vines or Gordon become rotation arms? Can Diaz put it back together? And what about Backstrom and Morton?
Overall, this class is already a success. How good it can become is the question.
Next week - hopefully Friday - I'll tackle the 2018 class.
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