Near the trade deadline in 2016, the Braves hoped they had stopped the merry-go-round of mediocrity in left field when they traded for Matt Kemp from the San Diego Padres. Kemp provided a much-needed power infusion to the Braves offense, and from the time of the trade through April 7, 2017 Kemp hit .296/.349/.561 with 14 home runs in 60 games. Unfortunately on that day, Kemp suffered the first of several hamstring problems during the season. Already a liability on the bases and in the field, Kemp’s offensive production nose-dived, and the $43 million remaining for the last two seasons of his contract looked like an albatross around the neck of the rebuilding franchise.
The Braves were able to trade Kemp in December to the Dodgers in an exchange of problematic contracts. This front-loaded the Braves contract obligations into the 2018 season, and opened up left field for consensus top prospect in baseball.
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Ronald Acuña
The 20 year old Acuña rocketed through the farm system in 2017, leaping from high-A to AA to AAA and while getting better at every level. Acuña then capped off a whirlwind season with an MVP performance in the Arizona Fall League. Capable of hitting for average and power and providing value on the bases and in the outfield, Acuña seems to be ready to take the leap to the major leagues.
The only question is if the Braves are ready for Acuña. It is possible, and even probable, that the Braves will keep Acuña at AAA to start the season for at least a couple of weeks in to order to delay the start of his service time, in order to maintain control of his rights through 2024 season; having him start on Opening Day, and presuming he’s not sent back down to the minors, would mean he would be a free agent after the 2023 season.
That said, whether Acuña starts the season with Atlanta or is promoted a few weeks later, he projects to receive the most playing time in left field. While his fielding prowess and arm strength would make him a fine choice for either centerfield or right field, as of now the Braves have two established veterans at those positions in Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis respectively. There’s also the case to be made that an outfielder with greater range would better serve the team in the more spacious left field of SunTrust Park.
BACK-UP: Lane Adams
Adams was signed as a minor league free agent before the 2017 season and received his first major league playing time since 2014 after Kemp was disabled for the first time in April. Adams had a good season off the bench and is in line to possibly the start in left field if Acuña is returned to AAA to start the season. Other contenders for playing time include Preston Tucker, Dustin Peterson, and Danny Santana, but Adams has the advantage of having played well in 2017. Adams is also a strong defender and baserunner.
GWINNETT STRIPERS (CLASS AAA)
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** STARTER: Dustin Peterson
Peterson was dealt a bad hand (ba-dum) when his hamate bone was broken by a pitch in a Grapefruit League game last year. While he returned by mid-May, as is typical with the injury he didn’t get full strength back before the end of the season. Peterson will likely return to AAA to rebuild value. He seemed to be on a trajectory to break camp with Atlanta before the injury, and a good spring could put him right back on the path.
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** BACK-UP (Promotion): Jared James
James quietly had the best non-Acuña season for an outfielder at Mississippi after a tough start to the season. As the season went on, more of his hits started finding gaps, and more of his fly balls started finding the wall. He’ll face another adjustment against AAA pitchers, but he’ll likely find the more hitter-friendly environment of Laurenceville’s CoolRay Field to be to his liking over sprawling TrustMark Park. James could also get significant time as the designated hitter. Major league bench options who don’t get the job out of spring training, such as Danny Santana or Preston Tucker, could see time in left field as well.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** STARTER: Tyler Neslony
The most successful of the Braves “senior signs” in the top 10 rounds of the 2016 draft to date, Neslony has shown good contact skills and improving power since joining the Braves, and has had an exceptionally good run in the Australian Baseball League this winter. Keeping the ball off the ground will go a long way to improving Neslony’s offensive profile, and he looked to be taking steps in that direction last season. He has average range and an above average arm for left field, and he was even playing some center field in Australia.
BACK-UP: Keith Curcio
Curcio started most of the season for Mississippi last year to limited success. However, he’s a high-motor player that is credible defensively at all three outfield spots. Curcio will likely have to fight off challenges to his roster spot from fellow 2016 Mississippi outfield-mate Connor Lien, Ray-Patrick Didder, and perhaps infielder/outfielder Matt Gonzalez.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
**TOP 50 PROSPECT** STARTER (Promotion): Leudys Baez
There’s a lot of ways managers in the lower minors could deploy their corner outfielders, so in both Florida and Rome there likely will be a good bit of mixing and matching. I’m going with who I think will get a plurality of the playing time.
Baez had a nice 2017 campaign with Danville coming off a bad knee injury in the closing weeks of the 2016 season. He was bumped up to Rome (his third stint with the club) late in the season, and while the numbers don’t pop out he wasn’t as overmatched as his previous stops. Baez will be turning 22 soon, and the team will likely want to see what he can do at the higher level in what will be his fourth year of pro ball.
BACK-UP: Justin Ellison
After three seasons with the Braves organization since being drafted in the 12th round of the 2015 draft, Ellison still is having problems converting his considerable athletic tools into baseball skills. Ellison will need to have a good spring to fend off other possible fourth outfielders, like Gary Schwartz, Matt Gonzalez, Justin Smith, and Anthony Concepcion.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
STARTER: Bradley Keller
Speaking of considerable athletic tools, Keller finally brought his out to the field in an impressive run for Danville last season. His production took a nosedive when he was bumped up to Rome in August, but he didn’t look nearly as lost as in extended time with the team in 2016. Look for Keller to get the first shot this season back in Rome.
BACK-UP (Promotion): Gary Schwartz
A stand-out senior from Grand Canyon University, Schwartz showed decent power and selectiveness with Danville, and it would not be a surprise to see him skip Rome and go straight to Florida. If that occurs, Justin Smith, Anthony Concepcion, or Shean Michel could fill in this spot.
DANVILLE BRAVES (Rookie League)
**TOP 50 PROSPECTS** STARTER: Jefrey Ramos
Ramos has been getting a decent amount of attention after a solid run in the rookie leagues that had him playing in left field for Danville by the end of 2017. There’s a solid chance the organization pushes him to Rome to start the season, but there’s enough intriguing outfielders ahead of him for now that I think he’ll start the season in extended spring training. The question is, will he remain there until the short-season Danville Braves begin their schedule in late June?
BACK-UP (Promotion): Jackson Pokorney
Pokorney didn’t play the entire 2017 season after an undisclosed injury in extended spring training. An athletic high school pick in the 29th round of the 2016 draft, Pokorney is a project player, in the same vein as Bradley Keller, and is still very young and raw.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Outfield as a whole is a position of relative depth for the Braves, and the organization has a high number of surprisingly athletic prospects that will be vying for playing time in 2018. The risk of flame-out is high with the likes of Leudys Baez, Bradley Keller, Jefrey Ramos, but they all also are athletes of high caliber. At the top of the chart, the question is not who will be the left fielder, but when Ronald Acuña will make his major league debut, and who will get to fill in before that happens.
OFR TOP 10 LEFT FIELD PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Ronald Acuña
- Dustin Peterson
- Tyler Neslony
- Leudys Baez
- Jefrey Ramos