After a season where Braves shortstop was one of the most unproductive positions in all of the majors, the team goes into 2017 with the hope that their shortstop woes may be resolved for the foreseeable future.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT ** STARTER: Dansby Swanson
Swanson will be the first Braves rookie to start at shortstop on Opening Day since Tyler Pastornicky in 2012. Needless to say, expectations are much higher for Swanson than they were for Pastornicky. Swanson will begin the season as a consensus Top 10 prospect in baseball and a potential Rookie of the Year candidate, especially after hitting .302/.361/.442 for Atlanta over the final six weeks of the season. It may be unlikely that he will continue with that kind of slash line over the course of a full season, but he should provide good defense and solid hitting for 2017.
BACK-UP: Chase d’Arnaud
I could have gone with Sean Rodriguez again here, but let’s give a nod to d’Arnaud, who as of now still looks ticketed for utility infield duty in Atlanta. d’Arnaud enjoyed his finest major league season last year with Atlanta, though his .245/.317/.335 slash line is nothing particularly special. What d’Arnaud provides is flexibility, as he is competent at second, third, and shortstop and can fill a gap in the outfield as well if needed. However, so can Jace Peterson and Rodriguez so d’Arnaud’s place on the 25-man roster is precarious.
GWINNETT BRAVES (CLASS AAA)
STARTER (Promotion): Johan Camargo
Camargo had his best pro season for AA Mississippi in 2016, hitting .267/.304/.379 and playing all over the diamond. A switch-hitter, Camargo has good bat control and can spray the ball to all fields, but has hit much better against left-handed pitchers (.753 OPS vs .668 against righties). Camargo registered career highs in both doubles (26) and home runs (4) last season. While he’ll never be an big offensive threat, his performance does raise the hopes that Camargo will develop reliable gap power. Camargo is defensively gifted with an especially strong throwing arm. Camargo was added to the 40-man roster to keep him from being selected in the Rule V draft, so the Braves clearly liked his progression last year.
BACK-UP: Sean Kazmar
The 13-year minor league veteran will likely return for a fifth tour of duty with the G-Braves. Kazmar can handle all four infield positions competently, and made double-digit appearances at them all in 2016. Veteran players like Kazmar are worth their weight in gold to AAA managers who have to deal with constant roster turnover and need players who can step up and fill sudden holes in the line-up and not miss a beat. Kazmar will compete for appearances with 27-year-old Emerson Landoni, who split time between AA and AAA last season, but has more experience at 2nd and 3rd base and seems somewhat stretched as a shortstop.
**TOP 30 PROSPECT ** WILD CARD: Ozzie Albies
In spring training of last season, one of the predominant questions facing the organization was who would play shortstop and who would play second base in the event that the team’s top 2 prospects, Albies and Swanson, should find themselves on the same diamond. This was apparently debated by team scouts and the front office for some time. Swanson demonstrated the surer hands and more accurate arm of the two. Albies showed better range and a stronger arm. Both were rated well above-average defensive shortstops. The team made the decision to keep Swanson at short and move Albies to second, and brought the two of them together at AA Mississippi for six magical weeks in the middle of the summer.
There is absolutely nothing to say that arrangement won’t continue into 2017, and it likely would. However, as a shortstop Albies could actually still be the best defensive option in the whole system. I think it’s unlikely that the team would change it’s mind at this point, but if for some reason Swanson has to miss time, it would not surprise me in the slightest if Albies was shifted back to shortstop.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER: Dylan Moore
Moore joined the Braves organization in the three-team trade that sent Jeff Francoeur to Miami. The Braves have consciously been attempting to bring in versatile players to the organization, and Moore fits that bill; in 2016 he played every position on the diamond except catcher at least once, including pitching an inning for the Hickory Crawdads in an epic 19-inning game in May against the Rome Braves (Rome won 9-2 after scoring 7 unearned runs in the top of the 19th off Moore). The Braves assigned Moore to A+ Carolina when they traded for him, and when 2B Ozzie Albies was injured in the playoffs for AA Mississippi, Moore was promoted to fill his roster spot, and he acquitted himself well in limited time. Moore then did well in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .317/.378/.537 with 2 homers in 11 games.
Defensively, Moore has the range to play short, but his arm is fairly limited, so mark Moore’s name down here in pencil. I am projecting Travis Demeritte as the starter at second base for Mississippi, but there’s a possibility that Moore could get time at second and Demeritte time at shortstop or third base.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Omar Obregon
One of Obregon or Luis Valenzuela will be the primary back-up at shortstop, and my guess it will be the rangier Obregon. Obregon is a speed-oriented middle infielder who doesn’t actually steal bases very well. He has a decent hit tool, but extremely little power. His arm doesn’t play up at shortstop, but he’s got above average range and instincts.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
STARTER (Promotion): Alejandro Salazar
Salazar was aggressively promoted from the Gulf Coast League to Rome at the start of the 2016 season and he wasn’t overmatched, hitting .278/.307/.309. Salazar makes good contact and his strike zone judgement shows signs of improvement. He has no power to speak of, and while very quick he is a poor base-stealer. Defensively he’s got good range and a very strong arm. The one knock on him is that he hasn’t always figured out that there’s a time for not trying the off-balance throw to first; twice I saw him uncork a throw well up into the stands when he should have just pocketed the ball.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Marcus Mooney
I’m predicting that the former University of South Carolina senior and 10th-round draft pick gets bumped up two levels to class high-A Florida. Mooney will be 23 years old at the start of the season, which would probably make him the old man in the Fire Frog clubhouse. Mooney bounced around the infield for Danville last season, but is by far most comfortable at shortstop. Mooney should be a stabilizing force on the bench or in the line-up. For Danville last season, Mooney hit .264/.356/.326 for a wRC+ at exactly 100. If Mooney doesn’t get the double bump, I would guess that one of Omar Obregon or Luis Valenzuela would begin the season back at the A+ level to be the primary back-up infielder.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
**TOP 30 PROSPECT ** STARTER (Promotion): Derian Cruz
Cruz had mixed success in his first pro season in 2016, dominating in the Gulf Coast League but struggling in Danville after a promotion. That said, the Braves have been very aggressive in their lower-level promotions, especially with their higher-rated position players, so I would say it’s a 50/50 proposition that Cruz starts the season in Rome. If Cruz does start out in extended spring training, that could lead to Marcus Mooney starting in Rome or open up playing time for someone like Kurt Hoekstra.
BACK-UP: Yeudi Grullon
Grullon is a light-hitting middle infielder, but is very capable at all infield positions. Grullon only hit .219/.287/.244 in 180 plate appearances in Rome and only owns a .235/.323/.260 batting line through four minor league seasons. Still, as I said about Sean Kazmar, minor league managers will always find use for guys that are competent at multiple positions, and Grullon is better than average defensively. If the Braves decide they want more pop out of their bench, they could go with Kurt Hoekstra, who missed all of 2016 with an injury. Hoekstra had a solid first pro season with Danville, hitting .257/.344/.383. Infielder Kevin Josephina may also get some looks at shortstop.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
STARTER (Promotion): Nicholas Shumpert
Again, the usual caveat that the results of the 2017 draft will have a big impact on the Danville roster applies, but right now Nick Shumpert looks like the most promising bet to start at shortstop. Shumpert signed right at the deadline last season after being drafted in the 28th round by Atlanta so he didn’t get game action until late July. Despite poor results in the Gulf Coast League, Shumpert is a very intriguing talent with potential above average power, and will likely be given an extended look at an infield position.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Alex Aquino
Aquino has hit well in stops in the DSL and GCL and the 20-year-old may be in line for a starting job at third base for Danville or a back-up infielder spot in Rome, but for now I am slotting him as the primary back-up in Danville. Aquino hit .274/.329/.378 for the Gulf Coast Braves in 2016.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Braves have a number of interesting possibilities at the shortstop position in the minor leagues, and I haven’t even touched on Kevin Maitan, Yunior Severino, Yenci Peña, Livan Soto, or Braulio Vasquez from this 2016 international amateur signing class. Of these, only Vasquez got any pro game action in 2016 as a slightly older signee. It’s almost certain that at least Maintan, Severino, Vazquez, and Peña will start stateside. That’s a lot of infielders to cram onto the Gulf Coast League roster, and that’s not counting guys drafted in 2017. It’s possible that one of these players may start their season in Danville. This is officially known as a “problem that is good to have”.
So for a franchise that has had a clear run of solid shortstop play from Rafael Belliard and Jeff Blauser through Andrelton Simmons, the future looks bright as we march boldly, flowing locks behind us, into the Dansby Swanson era.
OFR TOP 5 SHORTSTOP PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Dansby Swanson
- Ozzie Albies
- Kevin Maitan
- Yunior Severino
- Derian Cruz
Other entries in this series:
Starting Pitching, Part 1 (Atlanta/Gwinnett)
Starting Pitching, Part 2 (Mississippi/Florida)
Starting Pitching, Part 3 (Rome/Danville)