John Coppolella and the Braves’ front office sent signals leading up to the first-year player draft that they preferred to take a college bat with the #3 pick. The organization has stockpiled arms throughout the rebuild and it seemed they were looking to get some hitters into the system, with the draft and with this year’s July 2 international signing period.
The Braves instead took three pitchers with their first three picks, including high school righty Ian Anderson at #3. Their top three picks, again all pitchers, all ranked in the top 24 of MLB.com’s pre-draft rankings, though two of those picks were pick 40 (high school lefty Joey Wentz, ranked #16) and pick 44 (high school lefty Kyle Muller, ranked #24). Six of their top seven picks were pitchers. The Braves didn’t do what they indicated they might do or even wanted to do. Now the organization is loaded with even more talented, young pitchers (assuming they sign most of their picks) and has only a couple of position players who are fairly close to the big leagues and are expected to make an impact in the majors (in shortstops Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies). How are the Braves going to score enough runs to support their pitchers? What are they thinking?
Part of the plan is clearly to develop pitching and trade it for position players. Pitching is unique in that teams usually carry 12-13 pitchers at a time. They need 6-7 viable starters to get them through a big league season. Teams are always going to want to get their hands on as many pitchers as they can find. There are only so many jobs available for players who fit the profiles of other positions. With pitchers, the need is pretty much limitless. For the Braves, it’s just a matter of figuring out which pitchers to trade and which offers of position players to take. Once there is hype around some of the pitching prospects, they should be able to deal them for hitters, at least in theory. There’s been a lot of talk around Julio Teheran this season. He’s an established but young pitcher with a team-friendly contract, so there’s a good chance he brings back a very good hitting prospect or two, if the Braves can find the right fit. And they seem to have enough pitching in the system that they wouldn’t be shy about pulling the trigger on the right deal for Teheran.
But the thing that threw a wrench in their draft preferences was the lack of legit, low-risk hitters. It was either take a low-risk hitter with a limited ceiling, take a high-upside position player with risk and question marks, or take a pitcher with fairly high upside and some polish.
Leading up to the draft, a lot of the mock drafts had the Braves taking outfielder Kyle Lewis of Mercer with the #3 pick. Lewis is a 6’4″ outfielder (likely a rightfielder in pro ball) with plenty of raw power and athleticism, but questions about his ability to hit. He struck out a lot against pitchers in the Southern Conference, not exactly the SEC, and there’s a lot going on mechanically in his swing. Lewis slipped to the Mariners at #11 in the draft, although some thought he’s talented enough to have been the top pick.
Some reports had them interested in Louisville outfielder Corey Ray. Ray is a 5’11” speedy centerfielder with some pop, but most reports indicate his future is as a leftfielder. He performed in well in the ACC and doesn’t have the question marks about his ability to hit that Lewis has. But if things go reasonably well for him, he’s probably some combination of Brett Gardner, David DeJesus, perhaps Ray Lankford. He’s a nice player but nothing spectacular. The ceiling is limited, even if the risk is low.
The Braves were reportedly interested in University of Tennessee thirdbaseman Nick Senzel, perhaps the best hitter in the draft. There were questions about Senzel’s defensive abilities but he played shortstop for a few games this spring and most evaluators think he can handle thirdbase well enough to play everyday, considering his offensive upside. It’s possible the Braves would have taken Senzel but the Reds nabbed him with the #2 pick.
Probably the best combination of offensive talent, limited risk, and ability to play a premium position (centerfield) on the high school side, among position players, was the #1 pick, California outfielder Mickey Moniak. If the Braves wanted to go the high school route with a hitter, Moniak was already off the board. Another California high school outfielder, Blake Rutherford, was an option but he was 19 on draft day, old for a high schooler. It seems evaluators wanted to see more from a player playing against mostly 18-and-under guys. Plus he likely doesn’t have the tools to stay in centerfield.
As far as the other pitchers most outlets ranked ahead of Ian Anderson, they would have required the Braves to pay larger signing bonuses. It seems the Braves felt Anderson wasn’t any less talented or risky than those possibilities. Many outlets ranked New Jersey high school lefty Jason Groome (#12 to the Red Sox) the top talent in the draft but he reportedly has high bonus demands and there are make-up concerns. Kansas high school righty Riley Pint (#4 to the Rockies) topped out at over 100 mph but there are mechanical concerns and it’s always scary to see a high schooler throwing that hard. Some thought University of Florida’s A.J. Puk (#6 to the A’s) would go #1 overall but he had some back issues and he wasn’t the kind of dominant college starter you typically see going first overall in a draft.
Puerto Rican shortstop Devlin Perez (#23 to the Cardinals), who had as much upside as any player in this year’s draft, failed a PED test just before the draft plus there were questions about his make-up and his ability to develop as a hitter. And there were signability questions around the pitchers generally ranked in the same range as Ian Anderson. Reports are they agreed to a deal with Anderson before the draft, so obviously if that’s the case, signability wasn’t an issue when they took him.
The Braves could have forced the issue and drafted a hitter because they felt the need to draft a hitter. Sure, ideally there would have been a better player than Ian Anderson at #3. But this year’s draft lacked impact talent that is about as sure as you can get. There were no Kris Bryants or Carlos Correas, and certainly no Bryce Harpers. That’s not to say some hitter the Braves passed on won’t turn into a superstar. But Bryant and Correa (and Harper, of course) were about as close to sure things as you can get. The Braves strategy to focus on a quantity of talented players regardless of position was a wise one in this year’s draft in particular. Now the onus is on these players, player development, and the front office to execute a plan that will not only turn these players into major league pitchers but also into trade chips for major league hitters.