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Swanson, Albies lead rich Braves system

Atlanta stocked with strong arms, but not short on position prospects
October 5, 2016

This offseason, will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball.

The Braves' recent buildup of promising pitching prospects hasn't been a coincidence -- for the past few years, the front office has prioritized acquiring projectable young arms.

"No question," Atlanta assistant director of player development Jonathan Schuerholz said. "You look at what free-agent pitching goes for on the market and you know you can never have enough pitching. That's the way this organization was built during its heyday. Developing young pitching is a big key to success, and we've made a conscious effort through [general manager John Coppolella], through [president of baseball operations] John Hart, [director of scouting Brian] Bridges and the like."

It's working. Look no farther than Class A Rome, which won the South Atlantic League crown with a staff that featured Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint, Ricardo Sanchez and Patrick Weigel, all of whom rank among the Braves' Top 20 prospects.

That organizational pitching depth, however, shouldn't suggest that Atlanta lacks for strong prospects elsewhere. In many positions, multiple Braves Minor Leaguers had impressive seasons.

Braves Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Jonathan Morales, Rome (113 games): After splitting his time behind the plate and around the infield in college, Morales switched to catching full time for his first pro season last year. He also earned Organization All-Star honors then, and the Braves think his defensive game grew "tremendously" over the course of this season, when he threw out an astonishing 53 of 106 would-be thieves.

"He's still new to the catching position and you wouldn't know that at all looking at him behind the plate," Schuerholz said of the 2015 25th-rounder. "That's a testament to how hard he's worked to get where he is. His energy and his leadership behind the plate every game have been excellent.

"He's one of the guys you look at and think back to the Draft and go, 'We got him where?'"

First baseman -- Carlos Castro, Rome (84 games): After opening the season in extended spring camp, Castro needed just 84 games to belt 17 homers -- second-most in the system. He also finished with a .301 on-base percentage.

"We always knew the power was there, but to do what he did … I'd be lying if I said we expected that out of him," Schuerholz said. "And now, it's a case where we say, 'Hey, you know what? There are not a lot of right-handed power hitters in baseball. We may really have something special here.'"

Second baseman -- Ozzie Albies, Mississippi (82 games), Gwinnett (56 games): The 19-year-old switch-hitter and No. 12 prospect overall excelled despite transitioning to second base and also taking on not one but two aggressive assignments, skipping the A Advanced level out of the gate and then getting a bump to the International League by the end of April before returning to the Southern League for the second half.

"This guy's always been somebody who's risen to every challenge we've presented to him. We have every ounce of confidence in him," Atlanta's director of player development said. "You never send somebody up [a level] expecting him to fail. However, you do have to be diligent and ask yourself, 'Can he handle it if he does?' We knew he could.

"Then he was tearing the cover off the ball in Double-A, so we moved him up. After a little while, we really wanted to get he and Dansby [Swanson] together. He was OK in Triple-A -- we didn't move him down for performance reasons. We just wanted to get the two of them together."

He had 49 extra-base hits and batted .292 -- the second-highest average among Atlanta's full-season Minor Leaguers -- with 30 stolen bags -- third-most in the organization. Albies suffered a broken elbow while swinging a bat during the Southern League playoffs.

Austin Riley recorded 237 total bases. (Chris Robertson)

Third baseman -- Austin Riley, Rome (129 games): Riley, who turned 19 in April, led the system with 20 home runs, with nine of those jacks coming in August. Clearly, the 2015 competitive balance pick didn't wear down late in his first full season.

"Three home runs first half, 17 in the second half are his splits," Schuerholz said. "[Thirty-nine] doubles, 80 ribbies. That's darn good for a hitter in [Class A], and now, watching him hit batting practice in instructs, it's special. He was pitched to differently early on, and he was probably trying to do too much, but it's to his credit that he made the adjustment he needed to make to get to where he is."

Honorable mention: Rio Ruiz hit .271/.355/.400 over 133 Minor League games before making his debut in The Show in September.

Shortstop -- Dansby Swanson, Carolina (21 games), Mississippi (84 games), Atlanta (38 games): Ranked the No. 8 prospect overall entering the season, Swanson lived up to the billing and then some, reaching the big leagues after 105 pro games and hitting around .300 for his first 35 or so games there. The Braves front office was hardly shocked by his fast ascent.

"It was not a surprise at all for me," Schuerholz said. "Coming into [his pro career], I didn't know him from Adam. I'd just read articles about him, heard about him from scouts who saw him as an amateur. Then you meet him and you realize this guy has off-the-charts makeup, personality, competitiveness, desire to win."

Outfielders -- Dustin Peterson, Mississippi (132 games): Acquired from the Padres as part of the package the Braves got for Justin Upton and Aaron Northcraft in December 2014, Peterson moved to the outfield last year. This year, he had his best pro season, leading the Southern League with 38 doubles, coming in second with 226 total bases and tying for second with 88 RBIs, which led the Atlanta system. It's his defense that's improved most.

"We transitioned him from third base to the outfield, and what he's done in a short period of time and to be an average to slightly-above-average outfielder already [reflects] his character and what he can do," Schuerholz said.

Ray-Patrick Didder, Rome (132 games): Didder led the South Atlantic League with 95 runs scored, tied for fourth with 37 stolen bases and was second with a .387 on-base percentage -- in part because he also led the Minors in times plunked, getting hit by a pitch 39 times.

"He's fearless and that shows with that number," Scheurholz said. "He dives in and he doesn't always get out of the way. He'll take a hit-by-pitch if he needs to. That speaks to how he goes about his business."

The 21-year-old Aruba native also recorded 20 outfield assists -- 19 of them from center field.

Emilio Bonifacio, Gwinnett (107 games), Atlanta (24 games): The Major League veteran made the most of being relegated to Triple-A for the bulk of the season. Bonifacio led full-season hitters with a .298 average and paced the International League with 37 steals to tie Didder for the system lead.

Honorable mention: Although Ronald Acuna was limited by a thumb injury to 42 games, when he was on the field, he was unstoppable. He batted .312/.392/.429 with 14 stolen bases.

Utility player -- Keith Curcio, Carolina (124 games): A fourth outfielder rather than a true utility player, Curcio saw time in left, right and center for the Mudcats this year. At the dish, he posted a .352 OBP while stealing 24 bags in 30 tries and collecting 40 extra-base knocks.

"He's never going to be a guy that jumps off the page and wows you," Schuerholz admitted, "but when you watch this guy consistently, you see he performs every day. You know what you're going to get every game from him."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Patrick Weigel, Rome (22 games, 21 starts), Mississippi (three games, three starts): The Braves' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Weigel put up a 2.51 ERA in the South Atlantic League and lowered his season ERA to 2.47 with his first three starts in Double-A. That number ranked second in the system (Rob Whalen sported a 2.40 mark across two levels), and he struck out 152 in 149 2/3 innings.

"He's pretty much turned into a four-pitch pitcher with a slider, breaking ball, changeup and fastball. That fastball, just about every outing he hit 97 or 98 [mph] with it at some point and 92-93 consistently," Schuerholz said. "He knew how to go get it. That's one of the nuances in pitching that isn't done enough. Guys want to throw hard, hard, hard all the time. It's to [Weigel's] credit that he goes and gets it when he needs to."

Weigel also led the Sally League with a .206 average against.

More Organization All-Stars

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Sean Newcomb, Mississippi (27 games, 27 starts): Part of the deal that sent Andrelton Simmons to the Angels last November, Newcomb didn't match his 2015 performance, but to expect him to do so would have been asking a lot. His 3.86 ERA did lead all Braves lefties who made more than a dozen starts while his 152 strikeouts, amassed over 140 innings, topped the Southern League. He also tied for second-most walks there with 71.

Sean Newcomb collected 10 strikeouts over 6 2/3 innings at Pensacola on Aug. 4. (Ed Gardner/

"He's never going to be a pinpoint guy, never a guy who walks one per nine innings, but if we can lower that walk rate a little bit, eliminate one, one-and-a-half per game, he's going to be a top-of-the-rotation kind of pitcher," Schuerholz said.

Relief pitcher -- Stephen Janas, Mississippi (18 games), Gwinnett (26 games, one start): With a 1.69 walks-per-nine-innings rate and a .229 average against, Janas meant late-inning frustration for opponents across the top two levels of the Minors. He put up a 2.75 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP over 85 frames and converted all four of his save opportunities.

Josh Jackson is a contributor to Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.