In the second installment of our look at system depth by position, we are skipping on to centerfield, because thanks to the 5-year contract extension to Ender Inciarte back on Festivus this is looking like a position of relative stability going into the back-half of the off-season. The drama comes more in the form of who will be the back-ups.
STARTER: Ender Inciarte
In 2016, Inciarte lived up to his defensive reputation with a Gold Glove campaign in his first season in Atlanta. At the same time, Inciarte showed he could be a credible lead-off hitter, going .308/.372/.418 when given the opportunity. In his career he had also showed a severe lack of production against lefties, but in 2016 he turned that around (104 wRC+ vs. LHP, 94 wRC+ vs. RHP). All this lead to a five-year contract extension. While that extension could make him even more attractive in a trade, it seems more likely that Inciarte will remain the starting centerfielder in Atlanta for some time.
BACK-UP: Sean Rodriguez
With rumblings that Mallex Smith may start the season in AAA Gwinnett after missing much of last season with a broken thumb, Sean Rodriguez would likely be the back-up. Rodriguez has played 16 games in centerfield, including 5 last season for the Pirates in defensive substitution situations. Infielder Jace Peterson made one start last season in center for the Braves and produced this memorable catch.
GWINNETT BRAVES (CLASS AAA)
STARTER: Mallex Smith Unless the Braves elect to keep him in Atlanta as the fourth outfielder, Smith will start in Gwinnett. Smith only played 3 games in Gwinnett in 2016, getting called up immediately after Inciarte was disabled with hamstring problems in the first week of the season. Likewise, Smith will be on the first flight back to Atlanta if Inciarte had to miss any time (or the first 90 minute car ride, if both teams happen to be at home). Smith will be looking to rebuild value after an essentially lost season that saw him break a thumb on a hit-by-pitch just as it seemed he was about to hit his stride in the majors. Smith has hit .308/.375/.398 the last two seasons in the minors split between AA and AAA, good for a 124 wRC+.
STARTER: Emilio Bonifacio
Bonifacio was the primary centerfielder in Gwinnett in 2016. Pressed into service when Smith was promoted, Bonifacio hit .298/.356/.369 with 37 stolen bases. A ten-year major league veteran, Bonifacio is the classic AAA stash that you hope you never have to give big-league at-bats to.
BACK-UP: Lane Adams
Adams was signed as a minor league free agent by the Braves last month. The 27-year-old bounced between AA and AAA last season for two different organizations, the Yankees and then the Cubs. Adams was once a top 20 prospect for the Royals and got a taste of the majors in 2014 with them, but so far he hasn’t made it back. Speed and defense are Adams’s calling cards, but he hasn’t demonstrated the OBP to stick in anyone’s line-up.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER: Keith Curcio
Curcio was called up to Mississippi to provide outfield depth for the playoffs last season, playing behind the rehabbing Mallex Smith. While it’s possible that Connor Lien may start in centerfield, it seems more likely that it will be Lien in right field to take advantage of his superior arm. Curcio hit a respectable .271/.352/.389 for Carolina in 2016 with 26 stolen bases.
BACK-UP: Connor Lien
Lien would move from right field to centerfield as necessary on days Curcio does not play. Lien is in the argument for finest defensive outfielder in the system, but he lost half of the 2016 season in his first call-up to AA due to a hand injury suffered on Opening Day. Since I am projecting Lien as a starting corner outfielder, I will save more comments on this intriguing player for that installment of the series. Utilityman Erison Mendez could also see some time in center as well after starting 26 games there for the Carolina Mudcats.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Ronald Acuña
Nobody in the Braves organization seems to have more attention on him right now than Acuña, and for good reason. In his two years of pro-ball over three levels, the 19-year-old has hit .287/.385/.434 while demonstrating all of the proverbial five tools – hitting, power, speed, defensive, and arm. The only thing that slowed him down was a hand injury that robbed him of nearly four months of his 2016 season. Acuña has spent part of his off-season making up some of those at-bats in the Australian Baseball League, where he hit .375/.446/.556 in twenty games.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT ** BACK-UP (Promotion): Ray-Patrick Didder
If Acuña and Didder play the outfield at the same time, Didder will play right field due to his superior arm, similar to the situation in Mississippi with Curcio and Lien. When discussing the best defensive outfielder on the Braves farm it really comes down to Lien and Didder. Didder and Lien are also close in age, and it should surprise no one if Didder got a quick promotion to Mississippi if Didder starts out hot. 2016 draft pick Jared James would also be a reserve, but is strong enough defensively to start in center as necessary.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT ** STARTER (Promotion): Cristian Pache
Pache hit .309/.349/.391 over two rookie-league levels and just turned 18 years old. If Ronald Acuña wasn’t drawing so much attention, everyone would be talking a lot more about Pache who has similar strengths as Acuña but may be a little faster.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Matt Hearn
Hearn was a 24th-round pick in 2016 out of Mission College in California. He has a good defensive reputation and some speed, but somehow managed to not have an extra-base hit in 102 plate appearances in Danville last season. Needless to say, a promotion is not a given here, and it’s possible that Hearn may be held back. If so, Jared James could remain in Rome to start in one of the corners and to be the centerfield back-up. Bradley Keller could also see some time in centerfield for Rome.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER: Isranel “Izzy” Wilson
Wilson caught some eyes when he hit 10 homers in 48 games for the Gulf Coast Braves in 2015. Promoted to Danville, Wilson’s 2016 season was pretty much a dud as he saw his power evaporate, his walk rate crater, and even his strikeout rate, already very high in 2015, tick up. On top of that there were rumors of maturity issues, and he was suspended the last week of the season for violation of unspecified team rules.
That all said, the total package of tools that Wilson possesses is intriguing. He has some speed, plays a fantastic outfield, still has power that remains untapped, and hasn’t shown a discernible platoon disadvantage. The Braves are one of the most aggressive when it comes to prospect placement, and usually it works out, but perhaps Wilson could have benefited from another season in the complex leagues. Wilson doesn’t turn 19 until March, so he still has plenty of time and room to figure things out.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Randy Ventura
Ventura had a monster season for the Braves’ Dominican Summer League (DSL) team in 2015, stealing 55 bases in only 58 games. When asked about Ventura that year, then Fangraphs Lead Prospect Analyst Kiley McDaniel (who now has a front office position with the Braves) gave Ventura an 80-grade speed tool rating (scouts rate player tools on a 20-80 scale, with an 80-grade reserved for only extraordinary talents). It’s notoriously difficult to get an accurate read on talent level based on DSL performance, and many were eager to see what Ventura would do in 2016 in the Gulf Coast League. For the most part Ventura didn’t disappoint, putting up good numbers overall, if not the eye-popping stolen bases of his DSL season. Even so, his 15 stolen bases was tied for 3rd in the league. It’s possible that Ventura could start in centerfield with Wilson taking one of the corners or vice versa. Another possibility is Shean Michel, a slick-fielding, speedy 18-year-old who got a late-season promotion from the DSL to the Gulf Coast League last season.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Like so much of the Braves system, centerfield is a position of strong depth, especially at the lower levels. With Inciarte ensconced in Atlanta for the foreseeable future, there isn’t a big rush for the best of the prospects, many of whom are still in their teens, to get to the Show right away. That said, it would not be surprising to see Acuña and perhaps Pache push their way up faster than expected.
OFR TOP 5 CENTERFIELD PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Ronald Acuna
- Cristian Pache
- Ray-Patrick Didder
- Connor Lien
- Randy Ventura
Other entries in this series:
Starting Pitching, Part 1 (Atlanta/Gwinnett)
Starting Pitching, Part 2 (Mississippi/Florida)
Starting Pitching, Part 3 (Rome/Danville)