This is the second in a six-part series that uses FanGraphs' Steamer600 projections to look at how prospects would fare over a full Major League season. The system bases its forecast on 600 plate appearances for position players, 450 plate appearances for catchers, 200 innings for starting pitchers and 65 innings for relievers -- taking into account age, past performance and previous Minor League levels, among other factors.
Last spring the Braves talked about potentially having a modern-day version of famed Tigers double-play duo Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker in Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies after acquiring the former from the D-backs in a deal for Shelby Miller . A year later, Swanson is already a promising Major League piece for Atlanta and Albies, MLB.com's No. 12 overall prospect, may not be far behind.
The Braves faced an interesting question entering 2016 of where to start Swanson and Albies, given each one's history of solid play at shortstop. Both moved between short and second base during their non-roster invitations to big league camp, and it was determined they'd split up to start the year with Albies, the more experienced pro, going to Double-A Mississippi and Swanson to Class A Carolina.
It didn't take long for Albies to thrive in the Southern League, and after hitting .369/.442/.512 in 22 games, the 19-year-old switch hitter was moved to Triple-A Gwinnett in late April. (Swanson got bumped to Mississippi at the same time.) It was there he saw his first real struggles as a professional, failing to hit higher than .257 or produce an OPS higher than .672 in either of his first two months in the International League. It's worth noting that Albies was the only teenage position player to get regular playing time in the circuit last season, and the Braves don't regret the decision of seeing what the Curacao native could do when thrown in the deep end.
"He went to Triple-A looking for the fastball because that's what young players do. They want the velocity," said Braves director of player to development Dave Trembley. "But that's where he really learned how to make adjustments and how to get pitched to. When you fall behind in the count, that's when you're going to see the secondary and off-speed stuff. So he learned from that, and that was very important."
In the midst of his struggles, the Braves threw Albies another curveball. On June 3, he started his first game at second base, moving over for the rehabbing Erick Aybar and remaining there for 83 of the next 85 games. Atlanta had, in essence, decided Albies was going to be their Whitaker.
"I think, number one, he wanted to do it," Trembley said. "It can be difficult to talk somebody into it when they're reluctant, but he never was. I think a year or two ago at a winter camp, he was asked what he'd do to play at the Major League level, and he said, 'If they need me to catch, I'll do it.' Number two, he's got the right skill set. He's got the quickness that everyone knows, the agility and even the arm strength from second base. I think he has the ability to throw from three or four arm angles. It all adds up."
The Braves moved Albies back to Mississippi on June 30 to allow him to develop a partnership with Swanson, and despite the defensive change, he returned to his hitting ways. Following his Double-A return, Albies produced a .305/.373/.451 line in 60 games with the M-Braves. Even after Swanson made the jump to the Majors in mid-August, Albies remained at second in preparation for his own Major League call that never quite came in 2016.
The 2017 season, however, may be a different story. Steamer600 has Albies down for a .262/.315/.367 line with six homers and an 82 wRC+ if given 600 plate appearances in the Majors. That pegs him for a 1.1 WAR, though it assumes average defense because Steamer doesn't have adequate fielding data on the 20-year-old yet. It's likely that number would be higher if it did, given the glowing reports on Albies' move to second, including his placement on MLB Pipeline's All-Defense Team.
But even if we take the WAR evaluation at face value, Albies might still be the Braves' best option at second base on Opening Day. Sean Rodríguez
(85 wRC+, 0.3 WAR), Jace Peterson
(84 wRC+, 0.0 WAR), Chase d'Arnaud
(68 wRC+, -0.9 WAR) and Micah Johnson
(72 wRC+, -1.2 WAR) are all second-base options on the 40-man roster, but none of their Steamer600 projections quite stands up next to Albies'.
That aside, the Braves will likely want to see the youngster bulk up his Triple-A numbers with a return trip to Gwinnett. If there's one tool that could play in the Majors from day one though, it's Albies' speed, which earned a 70 on the 20-80 scale from MLB.com. The 5-foot-9 speedster has stolen at least 22 bases in each of his three Minor League seasons and would be pegged for 23 steals over a full Major League campaign, per Steamer600.
"I think it's a weapon," Trembley said of Albies' speed. "You see how important it can be at the Major League level. Just watch Dee Gordon
in Miami. With the ability to steal bases, that can affect how they pitch to the guy behind you. He's a force to be reckoned with in that way. Teams have to plan their positioning, how they're going to hold the runner, and even then, he can score from first on a double.... Good teams put pressure on their opponents that way, and you can see Ozzie has a chance to be one of the guys who does that for us."
With his set of tools and little blocking his way in terms of the Major League roster, Albies has a clear road to Atlanta in 2017, if he hits at Gwinnett like he has everywhere else. The Braves' dream of a Swanson-Albies pairing at the new SunTrust Park might come true sooner rather than later.
"They're two peas in a pod," Trembley said. "You watch them, and they're joined at the hip. You can tell they care about each other, but more than that, they challenge each other, encourage each other. We think they're going to be playing together for a long time with the Braves. That's because they're quality people and team players. They do things that don't show up in the box score.... Swanson's going to be a special player, and Ozzie is right there with him."
Most ready: Swanson. If he can beat the projections and put up something close to his Major League slash line from 2016 of .302/.361/.442, he'll challenge for the National League Rookie of the Year award. As it stands, Cardinals right-hander Alex Reyes is likely his biggest competition for the honor.
Give it time: Parts of Sean Newcomb's game are enticing. The 6-foot-5 left-hander has the size and durability to churn out innings. With two plus pitches in his fastball and curve, he has the stuff to rack up strikeouts, evidenced by his 9.8 K/9 average over 140 innings in Double-A last season. But there are also the walks. Newcomb issued 71 free passes in his first season as a Brave, a hair more than one every two frames. Perhaps that alone kept him in Mississippi for the duration of 2016. As fun as it would be to see how his stuff compares in the Majors, he'll have to show more control at Triple-A before that call can come.
Wild card: A.J. Minter, the 75th overall pick in 2015 out of Texas A&M, joined MLB.com's top 30 list of Braves prospects with a stellar first season, posting a 1.30 ERA and 0.84 WHIP with 47 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings across three levels. For that reason, Steamer thinks the lefty reliever could be an asset in the Atlanta bullpen at some point in 2017. What the system doesn't know is Minter underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and had other issues with thoracic outlet syndrome during his collegiate days. If healthy, Atlanta's No. 27 prospect could be an impressive southpaw option out of the bullpen as early as this summer.
Top-100 talent: Beyond the top three, it's a young batch of top-100 talent in the Braves system. Kolby Allard (No. 61) and Mike Soroka (No. 90) both topped at Class A Rome last season, and 2016 first-rounder Ian Anderson (No. 77) and international signee Kevin Maitan don't have enough experience to warrant projections.
Most ready: Tomas Telis has 119 Major League at-bats on his resume already between the Marlins and Rangers, but that's still 11 at-bats below the graduated-prospect threshold, so we'll take what we can get from a rough Miami system. The 25-year-old was solid with a .310 average, six homers and a .791 OPS in 91 games at Triple-A New Orleans and is considered a fairly average defender behind the plate. That, along with Steamer projections, would have you believe he could handle backup duties behind J.T. Realmuto next season, but the Marlins signed A.J. Ellis in December to fill that role. It's likely Telis will head back to New Orleans to start 2017 and will need injuries or rough production from Ellis to get the call.
Give it time: Based on Steamer's WAR projections, left-handed starter Jarlin Garcia could have slotted into the category above. Instead, he's here as a reminder that he only threw 39 2/3 innings for Double-A Jacksonville last season due to a triceps injury that kept him out all of June and July and most of August. (He has since tried to make up for those lost innings with stints in the Arizona Fall and Dominican Winter Leagues.) With a career 4.72 ERA in 16 Double-A starts dating back to 2015, the 23-year-old has plenty to prove at that level before anyone can deem him ready. That said, Garcia is on the 40-man roster and was even called up to the Majors for four days last May but did not pitch before being sent back down.
Wild card: A 6-foot-5 reliever with a plus fastball and a solid slider can be a good player to dream on, and Drew Steckenrider looked the part in 2016 by putting up a 2.08 ERA with 71 strikeouts and a .141 average-against in 52 innings across three levels. A trip to the AFL, where he fanned 15 in 13 innings, helped in this regard as well. Added to the 40-man in November, the 26-year-old right-hander will have a fighting chance to crack Miami's bullpen this spring.
Top-100 talent: 2016 first-rounder Braxton Garrett is the Marlins' only top-100 representative at No. 37 but has yet to make his Minor League debut.
New York Mets
Most ready: The Mets weren't in dire need of another impressive starting pitcher, yet they have one in Robert Gsellman. The 23-year-old right-hander joined New York in August after posting a 3.99 ERA in 115 innings between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Las Vegas and was even better with the big league club with a 2.42 ERA, 42 strikeouts and 15 walks in 44 2/3 frames. Aided with a fastball that averages 94 mph and an impressive slider, Gsellman's rise helped the Mets feel comfortable allowing Bartolo Colon to leave via free agency this offseason. He slots in at No. 5 in the rotation, and Steamer projects to him to be the club's fifth-best pitcher as determined by WAR over 200 innings behind Noah Syndergaard (5.7), Jacob deGrom (4.1), Steven Matz (4.1) and Matt Harvey (4.0).
Give it time: Amed Rosario might be the most exciting position-player prospect the Mets have had in the last decade. The 21-year-old shortstop is coming off a season in which he made a huge offensive leap with a .324/.374/.459 line in 120 games between Class A Advanced St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton and is considered a plus defender at one of the game's toughest positions. There is a legitimate case to be made that he'll be the Minors' best shortstop prospect on Opening Day. Pump those brakes, though. That's not enough to push him straight to the Majors. Steamer sees Rosario as a below-average Major League hitter right now, and it should given his experience level and age. With Asdrúbal Cabrera signed through 2017, the Mets don't need to push Rosario, and certainly don't plan to do so.
Wild card: The Mets have a good amount of talent with Major League experience among their top 30 prospects. Gavin Cecchini, T.J. Rivera and Brandon Nimmo each climbed to the game's highest stage after successful seasons at Triple-A. However, the Mets' middle infield and outfield situations are already crowded, and none of the three have noteworthy-enough projections to force their way into prominent roles on Opening Day. In fact, left-handed reliever Josh Smoker -- fresh off the heels of a season in which he fanned 106 batters in 72 1/3 innings in the Minors and Majors -- has perhaps the rosiest projections for his position and stands out as a potential impact arm if everything goes right.
Top-100 talent: Outside Rosario, No. 55 overall prospect Dominic Smith is the only other Mets representative among the top 100. If you've followed Smith through his career, you know the story. A career .294 hitter, the 21-year-old first baseman has always shown a good ability to hit the ball but hasn't shown the pop usually displayed at the position. Fourteen of his 24 career homers came in 2016 alone. Without a high projected average to save him, Steamer has Smith as below replacement-level for a first baseman over a full Major League season. He'll get a chance to show more power at Triple-A this spring.
Most ready: To call anyone in this group particularly ready based on their projections would be misleading. However, either Andrew Knapp or Jorge Alfaro is going to serve as deputy to Cameron Rupp behind the plate on Opening Day. Steamer has a slight preference for Knapp based on offensive performance, and that makes some sense given he's the one with significant Triple-A experience. Alfaro, however, did play six games with the Phillies after making the jump from Double-A Reading last September and is considered the better of the two defensively.
Give it time: It's easy to get excited about Thomas Eshelman's projections. Despite a 5.14 ERA in 59 1/3 innings at Double-A Reading from June 21 through the end of the 2016 season, the 22-year-old right-hander earned a promising 2.3 WAR projection as it appears Steamer is willing to give him credit for his favorable peripherals, namely a 3.29 FIP and wacky .373 BABIP. Because of that, Steamer pegs Eshelman to be the Phillies' sixth-best pitcher right now, ahead of fellow prospect Mark Appel (1.7 WAR) and 2016 big league debutants Zach Eflin (1.3) and Jake Thompson (1.1). Don't bet on that happening right away. Eshelman is likely headed back to Reading to start 2017 and will have plenty of work ahead of him to clear a path to Philadelphia this year.
Wild card: The race between Dylan Cozens and Rhys Hoskins at the top of the Minor League home run leaderboard was one of the most entertaining stories of 2016. Although Cozens came out on top, it's Hoskins that might have the clearest route to the Majors, following Ryan Howard's departure at first base. He's one of only three Phillies with a projected wRC+ in triple digits behind Maikel Franco (109) and Tommy Joseph (108). Joseph will be Philadelphia's Opening Day first baseman following his breakout 2016, but if he should falter, Hoskins won't be far away at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Top-100 talent: J.P. Crawford (No. 2) and Nick Williams (No. 49) both played the majority of 2016 at Lehigh Valley, but Steamer evaluates their Major League chances for 2017 quite differently. Crawford actually received the highest WAR projection for Phillies shortstops, and that's without the system having any data on his impressive defense. Williams can't even scratch replacement level after putting up a .258/.287/.427 line with 13 homers, 136 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 125 games. The 23-year-old outfielder has the bat speed to perform at the game's highest level, but he's going to need to show he can be more selective to crack the Majors this season.
Most ready: A few months ago, 2016 debutants Lucas Giolito or Reynaldo López would've made for more attractive selections here, but they're now with the White Sox. Instead, the pick will be right-handed reliever Koda Glover, who used a high-90s fastball and an above-average slider to climb to the Majors in 2016. He was impressive in his first 12 outings (13 2/3 innings) with Washington with a 2.63 ERA but saw that stat balloon to 5.03 through 19 2/3 frames by season's end following some rough September outings. With the Nationals bullpen being their only glaring weakness, Glover should head into 2017 with every opportunity to crack a Major League role for Opening Day. Steamer believes in him with a 3.54 FIP and 0.6 WAR projection that rank fourth-best among Nats relievers.
Give it time: Andrew Stevenson has speed to burn. The 2015 second-rounder has stolen 62 bases in his first two professional seasons, and those wheels make him an especially good defender in the outfield as well. Just don't expect him to run his way to the big leagues too quickly just yet. The 22-year-old hit just .246 with a .630 OPS in 65 games at Double-A Harrisburg last season. That's holding Steamer back from projecting him as replacement-level over a full Major League season. With Adam Eaton taking over in center for the long haul, the Nationals won't be pushing Stevenson all that aggressively this year.
Wild card: A.J. Cole's 47 2/3 Major League frames fall just below the 50-inning threshold needed to lose prospect eligibility. The 2016 season wasn't a banner one for the 25-year-old right-hander with a 4.26 ERA in 22 starts (124 2/3 innings) for Triple-A Syracuse and a 5.17 ERA in eight starts (38 1/3 innings) with the big club. Using that and the rest of his six-year pro career, Steamer projects Cole to post a 4.49 ERA and 4.45 FIP over 200 innings, making him worth a projected 2.2 WAR, sixth-best among Nats starters. He'll likely be the first up from Syracuse when the Nationals need a starter, but he could easily be replaced in that role if he can't find better form.
Top-100 talent: With Giolito and Lopez gone, Victor Robles (No. 10) and Erick Fedde (No. 75) remain Washington's only two top-100 prospects on MLB.com's current list. Robles is perhaps the toolsiest outfield prospect in the Minors but is too far away to get on Steamer's Major League radar, having just played 41 games at Class A Advanced Potomac. Fedde is a little closer with five Double-A starts in his first full season following 2014 Tommy John surgery but has a ways to go, experience-wise, before he can crack a loaded Nats rotation.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.