Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlighting prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offering a peek at 2021.
The Braves’ playoff run this season seemed to mark the beginning of what is widely considered to be one of baseball’s budding dynasties finally coming to fruition. While Atlanta ultimately was defeated in the National League Championship Series, the club’s core of Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman and more has the Braves faithful dreaming about dominating for years to come.
And while the current roster features plenty of cause for excitement, there are also several reasons to believe that success can be extended across the entire next decade and many of those reasons have already reached The Show.
A handful of Atlanta's top youngsters arrived in the big leagues this past season, some in brief fill-in appearances, but many in extended full-time stays. One common thread among almost all of them, however, was success in the postseason, as players like the club's No. 1 prospect Cristian Pache and third-ranked Ian Anderson contributed mightily to the Braves' playoff push. And after what was arguably the wildest and most unique season ever, that was both a reward and a relief.
“The days got long in Gwinnett. It felt a little bit like 'Groundhog Day,'” joked Braves assistant general manager of player development Ben Sestanovich. “So you know, I think for everyone in the organization, to see those guys go out and perform well was really cool."
Heading into 2021, the Braves have their sights set on leaping past where they landed in 2020 and capturing a World Series title. And with Pache, Anderson and more ready to contribute in earnest, it’s not unreasonable to think they can do so.
System strengths: As displayed during the playoffs, Atlanta appears loaded with top-level Major League-ready talent.
The most obvious example is Pache, who finishes the year as MLB Pipeline’s No. 10 overall prospect and top dog in the system. His place as one of the game’s brightest young stars was no secret going into the year, but with no Minor League games in 2020, he didn’t get the chance to remind everyone how special he is.
That is, until October. Pache played sparingly for the Braves throughout the postseason, but when he did, he showcased what makes him such an elite prospect. Sestanovich was pleased to see that, and thinks part of his immediate success came from how the team prepared him over the summer at the alternate site in Gwinnett.
"Without a Minor League season, I think a big challenge was making sure that these guys were ready if and when they were needed in the big leagues. So I think that was the main focus for Cristian honestly,” Sestanovich said. “He's a pretty polished player, obviously a great defender and has made real strides with the bat over the course of the last few years. ... We were all very impressed by the quality of the ABs and how he handled himself on a big stage."
Another prospect who had an even more pronounced impact on Atlanta's success was right-hander Anderson. He had as impressive of a rookie campaign as anybody in 2020. Over six regular-season starts, he logged a 1.95 ERA and struck out 41 in 32 1/3 innings. The No. 34 overall prospect was somehow even better in the playoffs, posting an 0.96 ERA in four starts that, coupled with his regular-season dominance, exceeded the already-lofty expectations Braves brass had for him.
"I don't think you ever expect rookies to get to the big leagues and pitch as well as he did right off the bat. ... Any rookie who goes out and puts up a sub-2.00 ERA early on is exceeding expectations,” Sestanovich said.
But not every stud in the system has already cracked The Show. No. 2 Drew Waters spent the entire summer at the alternate site, and while he didn’t get to face Major League talent, he got very close by squaring off against other premier pitchers in Gwinnett.
"From an offensive standpoint, I think it was a really good experience for him facing some of our sort of upper-end arms that were in Gwinnett for a lot of the alternate site,” Sestanovich said of the No. 22 overall prospect.
Areas for growth: With Pache and Waters roaming the outfield and Anderson and others holding it down on the mound, the only area for improvement on the diamond for the Braves is in the infield.
Fifth-ranked Braden Shewmake looks to be a strong shortstop-in-the-making. He possesses solid tools across the board both offensively and defensively and received valuable reps in Gwinnett this year. But after that, you have to go all the way down to No. 18 on the list of the club’s top prospects to find another infield piece.
That’s not to say there’s a complete absence of talent, though. No. 18 CJ Alexander and No. 19 Bryce Ball offer potential at the corners, and No. 22 Vaughn Grissom turned heads at shortstop at the alternate site this summer. Grissom may be the one who excites Sestanovich the most, as he was able to see him -- along with Shewmake -- progress against talented arms in what could’ve been a setback year.
"Just watching him compete against, you know, the pitching that we had at the alternate site was pretty fun,” Sestanovich said. “He's facing guys that pitched in the big leagues for us. You know, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright. It was obviously a very disappointing year to not have kind of normal development … they were able to face competition of some sort that they wouldn't have under normal circumstances, which I think has a chance to really accelerate their development."
What’s changed in 2020: Pache and Anderson may have cracked the big leagues, but they weren’t the first Braves youngsters to do so. Right-handers Wilson and Wright graduated from the prospect ranks in 2020, heralding the arrival of the next wave of youthful talent in Atlanta.
Both twirlers had appeared briefly in the Majors before this season, and neither remained in the bigs for the entire year. They both had their share of struggles during the regular season, but also turned in epic performances on the biggest stage when their respective numbers were called.
For Wright, it was an National League Division Series outing in which he threw six scoreless innings against the Marlins to help complete the three-game sweep. And Wilson allowed one run over six frames in Game 4 of the NLCS in his postseason debut.
"Just seeing these young guys step up in big situations was huge, right?” Sestanovich said. “I mean, not only are these guys getting called up and playing in the Major Leagues, but they're playing under the brightest lights in October -- a great experience for them, I think a huge testament to kind of how they're wired and to the hard work of all of our coaches and the group that was in Gwinnett during the year.”
Alternate site standouts: A handful of Braves prospects performed well in Gwinnett this summer, but Sestanovich was drawn to a trio of backstops in reflecting on which ones shined the brightest.
Leading the way was the club's No. 4 prospect, Shea Langeliers. He ranks as the game's No. 65 prospect and fifth-best catcher, and according to Sestanovich, made as much progress as anybody at the alternate site.
"Offensively, I think he probably took as big of strides as anybody with the bat ... just the power he showed to all fields was quite impressive. The work that he's put in with our hitting coordinator, Mike Brumley, has certainly started to pay dividends over the course of the summer,” Sestanovich said.
Behind Langeliers was seventh-ranked William Contreras, who made progress offensively and improved rapidly behind the plate, and No. 21 Alex Jackson, whose performance continued to exemplify why he was a first-round pick in 2014. Sestanovich commended all three catchers for their ability to perform so well given the fact the unorthodox alternate-site environment, at times, could be especially unusual for backstops.
Part of the reason they were able to thrive despite the circumstances was the fact that they were all able to feed off of each other throughout the summer, both in terms of on-field play and off-the-field interactions.
"We're lucky to have a good amount of depth organizationally at the catching position, and I think all of those guys not only pushing each other, but learning from each other and kind of sharing their thoughts on all that goes into that position was a pretty cool thing to watch happen on a daily basis,” Sestanovich said.
Impact rookies: Wright and Wilson’s impact was undeniable and Pache certainly made waves as well, but no Atlanta rookie stood out more than Anderson this season.
The 22-year-old didn’t get much Rookie of the Year buzz due to sample size. He spent the first month or so at the alternate site as the team wasn’t sure he was ready for the big leagues -- a reading that was harder than usual to take this year.
"What was always tough was getting a real gauge of where guys were at and how ready they were for the big leagues, considering that we're playing sim games, they're facing the same hitters they faced five or six days earlier,” Sestanovich said. “I think it was just a tough environment to really get a gauge.”
They could only keep Anderson in Gwinnett for so long, though.
“It became very clear he was ready for the next step,” Sestanovich said. “I mean, he had a run of a handful of starts in Gwinnett right there before he got called up where -- I mean, it was something absurd like he punched out 24 guys in 12 innings across two starts and walked three or something like that, and it was just like, 'OK, I think this guy -- I think we should see what this looks like [in the Majors].’”
It definitely looked good once the righty got to The Show. Rookie pitchers understandably can be prone to shellackings, but that wasn’t the case for Anderson. He never allowed more than three runs in a game over six regular-season starts, and three of his four outings in the postseason were scoreless ones.
So while he only garnered one Rookie of the Year vote this time around, he’ll still be eligible for the award next season. And if the recent past is any indication, it could be his award to lose.
Next big thing: It’s clear the Braves are in good shape moving forward. But looking ahead as the team is poised to contend for a championship for the next decade, the picture is currently incomplete. While several young stars are beginning to blossom in Atlanta, many more are just beginning to sprout, leaving Braves fans -- and management -- excited for what's still to come.
"It's always great to feel you've got players that are developing at a rate that means they're ready to contribute in the big leagues and that you have a guy or two a year who's kind of coming onto the scene,” Sestanovich said. “Obviously that's a very enviable position to be in. ... It's a luxury. ... The upper-level talent that was in Gwinnett ... I think it's a result of really strong work by the scouting department and the development staff and kind of everybody that's kind of been a part of these guys' success."
Jordan Wolf is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter: @byjordanwolf.