Late Monday, the Atlanta Braves announced they had traded right-handing pitching prospects Rob Whalen and Max Povse to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for outfield prospect Alex Jackson and a player-to-be-named-later.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) November 29, 2016
This trade is somewhat rare in that it deals completely with prospects (pending the player-to-be-named). In this case, Atlanta is using its surplus of pitching prospects to help a position of need — high-ceiling power hitting prospects.
Whalen was a 12th-round pick for the Mets in 2012, and was acquired by the Braves along with RHP John Gant in 2015 for 3B Juan Uribe and IF Kelly Johnson. Following his trade to the Braves, Whalen started 3 games for the Carolina Mudcats before knee problems knocked him out of the rest of the season. Whalen ended up having surgery on both knees in the offseason, but had a strong spring and was aggressively assigned to class AA Mississippi. After knocking off the rust in April, Whalen pitched very well from May through July (2.10 ERA in 14 starts), earning him a promotion to class AAA Gwinnett. After three quality starts in Gwinnett, the Braves promoted him to Atlanta in the midst of mid-season rotation turmoil brought on by injuries and ineffectiveness. At the time of his promotion, Whalen had nearly set a career high in innings pitched, and was admittedly gassed when he arrived in the big leagues. In 5 starts with Atlanta he pitched to a 7.30 ERA. After allowing only four HR in the minors all season, he allowed four in his short stint with Atlanta. While getting high marks for gutting out some tough starts, Whalen was put on the disabled list late in the season with “shoulder fatigue”.
Whalen, 22, was expected to enter in 2017 spring training as a dark horse candidate for the 5th-starter role in Atlanta. Instead, he will make his way to the Pacific Northwest, where he will be a dark horse candidate for Seattle’s 5th-starter spot. Whalen was #19 on my list of Braves prospects.
Povse (pronounces like Posey) was the Braves’ 3rd-round pick in the 2014 draft out of UNC-Greensboro. Povse started the 2016 season in class high-A Carolina and was easily the Mudcats’ best starter in the first half, which lead to a midseason promotion to Class AA Mississippi. Despite the advanced level, Povse actually ended up lowering his ERA, walks, and hits allowed in AA despite striking out 3 fewer batters per 9 IP. Even in a Braves system full of tall pitchers, Povse stood out at 6’-8”, 185 pounds.
Povse, 23, will likely start the 2017 season back in AA, but he’s knocking on the door. If he can’t get the change-up working consistently to be a starter, his other pitches will be good enough to be a major league reliever. If he can make further refinements, he should be a solid workhorse in a rotation. Povse was #22 on my list of Braves prospects.
Jackson, 21, was a high school standout in California, including leading the entire state in home runs his sophomore season. Jackson played primarily catcher, but when Seattle drafted him with the sixth-overall pick in the 2014 draft they immediately switched him to the outfield in anticipation that his power bat would allow him to move quickly through the organization. MLB.com’s Jim Callis tabbed him as the #28 overall prospect before the 2015 season and Mariner fans entertained the idea that they had a right-handed Bryce Harper on their hands.
As often the case with prospects, their development doesn’t always mesh with organizational plans. Jackson battled shoulder and hand injuries and perhaps related mechanical issues at the plate throughout the 2015 season, and he delivered a disappointing .207/.318/.365 performance over two low-A levels.
Still rated the Mariners’ #1 prospect by Baseball America going into the 2016 season, Jackson was held back in extended spring training to iron out his hitting mechanics. When he finally debuted in class-A Clinton in May, he showed a smoother swing with a cleaner plane. After a slow start, he heated up in the second half of 2016.
Interestingly, Mark Bowman of MLB.com speculated after the trade that the Braves will consider moving Jackson back to catcher. This would be an unusual move for a highly-ranked prospect going into his third professional season, but would increase the avenues for his advancement in the long-term.
The Bottom Line
Throughout the course of the rebuild, Atlanta has sought out opportunities to bring in high-ceiling talent to the organization, regardless of how close that talent is to the major leagues.
Despite only having the #32 pick in the 2014 draft (which the Braves used on high-ceiling outfielder Braxton Davidson), the Braves have now added to the system through trades the #6 pick (Jackson), the #15 pick (Sean Newcomb), and the #16 pick (Touki Toussaint).
This type of trade is not for the weak-hearted. Whalen has already reached the major leagues, and Povse has a very good chance to do so as well. Neither however is likely to be an impact player. Jackson, if he makes it, has the potential of being an impact player, but his chances of actually making it to the big leagues are much lower at this point.
Still, it’s rare in any sport to turn a 3rd and 12th-rounder into a 1st-rounder.