Hitter of the year: OF Ronald Acuna
2017 stats: .326/.374/.520 with 9 HR, 19 SB and 159 wRC+ in 57 games
Plate discipline: 7.4% BB rate, 23% K rate
Disclaimer: You could make a case for Acuna to be the MVP on 3 different teams in 2017, so instead of giving him all 3 I picked the team he played the most games with.
There’s not much to say about Acuna that you don’t already know. He’s the best player in the Atlanta system. He may very well be the best player in any system. Needless to say, he’s a can’t-miss prospect. He played for Florida, Mississippi and Gwinnett in 2017, and in 139 games, he posted a .325/.374/.522 slash line. On top of that, he hit 31 doubles, 21 home runs, and added 44 steals on the base paths. Oh and his 181 hits led all of the minor leagues. He is a true five-tool talent and will almost certainly open the 2018 season in Atlanta’s outfield. Will it be LF or RF? Who knows? We will have to wait and see if Atlanta can find any takers on parts of Matt Kemp’s and/or Nick Markakis’ contracts. Atlanta fans love to throw out the Andruw Jones comparisons (and rightfully so), but he reminds me an awful lot of a younger Andrew McCutchen. Either way, it’s hard not to get excited about Ronald Acuna joining the Atlanta lineup in the near future.
Pitcher of the year: RHP Mike Soroka
2017 stats: 2.75 ERA, 3.19 FIP in 26 starts and 153.2 IP
K/BB rates: 7.32 K/9, 1.99 BB/9
The 6’5 Soroka was one of the youngest players in all of the Southern League in 2017 (didn’t turn 20 until August). Despite being much younger than most of his competitors, Soroka was downright dominating. He throws a two-seam and a four-seam fastball, both of which stay in the low 90’s while occasionally touching 95-96 MPH. He gets excellent sink on his two-seamer and has produced a ground ball rate north of 50% over the course of his minor league career. He has an outstanding changeup that is tough for hitters to get a good read on out of his hand. He also has a slurvy-type breaking pitch that he mixes in. Even though the breaking ball is probably his least effective pitch, he’s still able to induce many swings-and-misses with it. Of all of the big-time pitching prospects in the Atlanta system, Soroka likely has the highest floor. He has MLB-level command to go along with an ability to get plenty of ground balls. Should his fastball add a tad more velocity as he continues to fill out, Soroka could end up becoming a #2 caliber starter at the big league level. And if the stuff remains about the same, he’s got a floor of a #4 or #5 starter. Soroka will likely open 2018 with Gwinnett, but we will definitely see him in Atlanta at some point in the 2018 season.
Name to watch: 3B Austin Riley
2017 stats: .315/.389/.511 with 8 HR and a 162 wRC+ in 48 games
Plate discipline: 9.9% BB rate, 24.6% K rate
Like Acuna and Soroka, Riley was also one of the youngest players in the league. Riley opened the season with Florida, and although his .252/.301/.408 slash line didn’t jump out at you, the Braves could tell he was ready for the next step. 2017 was the second straight year that Riley produced 20 HR, making him one of the top power hitters in the Atlanta system. Already blessed with a strong arm, Riley also played this season much leaner than the Braves had seen from him in ’15 and ’16. As long as he can keep his weight in check, he should be fine at third base moving forward. A strong showing to start next season could put him in line to join Atlanta at some point in the second half of the ’18 season.
Others of note:
-LHP Kolby Allard: Right up there with Soroka as one of the top arms in the system, Allard was strong yet again in ’17 (3.18 ERA, 3.27 FIP). Will open ’18 in Gwinnett, but Braves won’t hesitate to bring him up if could help the big club.
-LHP Max Fried: The stuff is filthy with a mid 90’s fastball and arguably the top breaking ball in the system, but control issues continue to keep Fried from taking that next step in his devlopment. If he can improve the command, he’s got as much upside as anyone in the system. If he can’t, he may end up in the ‘pen.
-LHP Luiz Gohara: Just as Acuna could have been MVP for 3 different teams, you could make the same case for Gohara in ’17 (and he even took it a step further, joining Atlanta this week). Looks like a C.C. Sabathia clone on the mound, and blows away hitters with mid to high 90’s fastballs and a devastating slider. Had a 10.7 K/9 rate to just 3.2 BB/9.
RHP Wes Parsons: Has been in the Atlanta system since 2013 but dealt with injury issues much of 2015 and 2016. Was healthy once again in 2017 and was very effective as both a starter and a reliever. Had a 2.71 ERA over 103 innings in Mississippi in ’17. Leaves Braves with interesting choice regarding a 40-man roster spot this offseason. Could very easily be claimed in the Rule V draft if not protected.
LHP Phil Pfeifer: Yet another Vanderbilt LHP that has pitched well as a pro, Pfeifer could be in the Atlanta bullpen at some point in 2018. Had 68 K’s in just 44.1 IP for the M-Braves.
-OF Jared James: Somewhat similar to Tyler Neslony, James has a solid hit tool that could eventually provide a path to the majors as a 4th OF type. Despite skipping high-A in 2017, James posted a 122 wRC+ in his first taste of upper minors.