With Marcell Ozuna likely having played his last game in 2021, the Braves are faced with a glaring hole in left field that to this point they've seen fit to fill with 31-year-old journeyman Abraham Almonte. Clearly, he's not the final answer there.
But couldn't Cristian Pache come back to claim the spot once he gets his act together at Triple-A Gwinnett? Sure, but after a 7-for-63 start at the major-league level, it's more like if he gets his act together. And who's to say left field is where he's most needed anyway? Note that the player the Braves are currently starting in center field, 30-year-old Guillermo Heredia, likely doesn't have much staying power either.
The most logical place to turn our attention, then, is Drew Waters, a 22-year-old lauded more for his projection than his production as a premier athlete with a natural ability to manipulate the bat in the zone. After a slow start at Triple-A Gwinnett this year, he's been better over his past 15 games, batting .321 (18 for 56) with three homers and five steals. His strikeout rate is a respectable 23.5 percent during that stretch, an improvement over his 28.6 percent rate between Double- and Triple-A in 2019.
Despite that high strikeout rate, Waters put up fine numbers two years ago, batting .309 with seven homers, 16 steals and an .819 OPS in 527 at-bats. They were particularly acceptable for a 20-year-old playing at the highest levels of minor-league ball. You'll notice, though, that the batting average did the heavy lifting. Waters does have a plus hit tool built on line drives and an all-fields approach -- the kind that lends itself to a high BABIP, in other words -- but there's of course no repeating the .435 BABIP he had in 2019. To make the leap to major-leaguer, he would have to cut down on his strikeouts, if not also grow into some power and tap into his speed more.
Maybe these past two-plus weeks are the start of it, but that's all they can be: a start. You'll notice his season-long numbers are actually worse than that 2019 campaign. So far, he's batting .273 with an .804 OPS.
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Bottom line is it's too early for the Braves to take the plunge on a potentially high-end prospect who may be just beginning to come into his own. Waters is trending the right direction and probably will be ready to join them at some point this season, but the Braves risk unraveling him if they force the issue at this critical stage of his development. Chances are he'd flounder anyway. They need these gains to stick, and it'll take more than a couple weeks' time to reveal whether they have.
So for now, I'm leaving Waters out of my top five prospects to stash. Let's see who I have there instead.
Five on the verge
(These are the prospects most worth stashing in redraft leagues.)
Wander Franco, SS, Rays
2019 minors: .327 BA (425 AB), 9 HR, 18 SB, .885 OPS, 56 BB, 35 K
2021 minors: .314 BA (102 AB), 5 HR, 4 SB, .940 OPS, 9 BB, 11 K
There's little new to report on the Franco front. The most notable development is that Taylor Walls, who cut Franco in line for the shortstop job after the Rays traded Willy Adames, has been mostly a dud at the plate, going 6 for 27 with two doubles. He has reached base at a .382 clip, though. As for Franco himself, seven hits in two games has done wonders for his batting average, and he hasn't struck out in his past eight games. Is it enough to rattle the cages of a particularly stubborn Rays front office? Hard to say, but I'd still bet on him being up before the end of June.
Vidal Brujan, 2B, Rays
2019 minors: .277 BA (383 AB), 4 HR, 48 SB, .735 OPS, 37 BB, 61 K
2021 minors: .309 BA (97 AB), 7 HR, 11 SB, .964 OPS, 16 BB, 19 K
After an early power surge, Brujan has relied on his feet more lately, swiping two bases Wednesday and four over the past week. His speed has long been his calling card, earning an 80 grade from Baseball America this offseason, and so this past week was a good reminder that even with his newfound power, his best tool remains too good to box up. Having gotten familiar with the outfield this year, he's a reasonable bet to beat Franco to the big leagues due to both his versatility and age. As with Franco, though, the Rays are being careful not to tip their hand.
2019 minors: .289 BA (305 AB), 10 HR, 27 2B, .834 OPS, 30 BB, 94 K
2020 majors: .161 BA (124 AB), 3 HR, 4 2B, .478 OPS, 7 BB, 55 K
2021 minors: .238 BA (101 AB), 12 HR, 3 SB, .927 OPS, 6 BB, 36 K
Adell's past week is Exhibit A for why the Braves would be unwise to rush Drew Waters. At this time last week, remember, Adell had just hit six home runs over a five-game span, giving the outfielder-deprived Angels every reason to call him up. Since then, though, he's been buried by strikeouts again, piling up nine of them over a six-game span while going 4 for 27 (.148). His 12 home runs still lead all minor-leaguers, so he's clearly doing something right. Still, the Angels are probably wise to wait him out, particularly after such a disastrous debut last year.
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Jesus Sanchez, OF, Marlins
2019 minors: .260 BA (415 AB), 13 HR, 14 2B, .723 OPS, 39 BB, 100 K
2020 majors: 1 for 25, 2B, 4 BB, 11 K
2021 minors: .396 BA (91 AB), 7 HR, 3 3B, 3 2B, 1.164 OPS, 5 BB, 18 K
Sanchez has finally hit a wall, it looks like, going just 6 for 27 (.222) over his past eight games. Yet only Wednesday did his batting average drop below .400, which tells you the kind of run he was on. It was good enough to earn him Player of the Month honors for Triple-A East (formerly known as the International League), and it's a wonder the offensively challenged Marlins have resisted the urge to call him up. "We just want to make sure he's getting his at-bats," GM Kim Ng said. "I don't have any timetable on when we expect to see him up here."
One bit of encouragement during this recent downturn is that Sanchez has struck out just five times in 29 plate appearances, a rate of 17.2 percent. Contact is usually the biggest obstacle for players who've shown an ability to impact the ball like he has, so if he's still putting the bat on the ball at his worst, I trust that Triple-A won't be able to contain him much longer.
Jackson Kowar, SP, Royals
2019 minors: 7-10, 3.52 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 148 1/3 IP, 43 BB, 144 K
2021 minors: 5-0, 0.85 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 31 2/3 IP, 10 BB, 41 K
Just as Jesus Sanchez was named Player of the Month for Triple-A East, so Kowar was for Triple-A West (formerly known as the Pacific Coast League). Has it moved the 24-year-old any closer to joining the big-league club? Well, he continues to make it look easy at Omaha, striking out five over five one-hit innings in his latest outing Wednesday. On the strength of his trap-door changeup, he's thought to have the most strikeout potential of any of the Royals' four first-round hurlers from 2018 -- three of whom (Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic) we've already seen in the big leagues -- and it doesn't appear there's anything more for him to gain at Triple-A.
One big obstacle, though, is that he's not on the 40-man roster yet. The Royals turned to veteran Ervin Santana to fill their rotation opening last time through and may be inclined to turn back to Lynch, who has looked good since returning to Triple-A, should the need arise. Shoot, it's possible Danny Duffy makes it back before the Royals are ready to promote Kowar, but I'll keep faith alive for now.
Five on the periphery
(These are some other prospects doing something of note)
Bobby Witt, SS, Royals
2019 minors: .262 BA (164 AB), 1 HR, 9 SB, .670 OPS, 13 BB, 35 K
2021 minors: .245 BA (98 AB), 8 HR, 6 SB, .818 OPS, 10 BB, 33 K
In retrospect, the Royals were wise not to include Witt on the opening day roster given how much he's been striking out at Double-A, but the 20-year-old is nonetheless flashing plenty of upside for Northwest Arkansas, homering for the fifth time in four games Tuesday. The Double-A assignment was an aggressive one for a player his age, so it's comforting to see that his skills are playing up even if he's still a little rough around the edges. I wouldn't say there's much incentive to stash him in re-draft leagues right now, though.
Cal Raleigh, C, Mariners
2019 minors: .251 BA (455 AB), 29 HR, 25 2B, .820 OPS, 47 BB, 116 K
2021 minors: .375 BA (88 AB), 5 HR, 11 2B, 1.119 OPS, 7 BB, 13 K
Raleigh has always profiled for good power at the catcher position, but there are signs of him rounding into a more complete hitter after working to shorten his swing in the instructional league last year. Not only is his strikeout rate down from 22.9 percent in 2019 to 12.9 percent this year but he's also riding a 14-game hitting streak and a five-game multi-hit streak in which he's hit three home runs. His improvement as a receiver, though, might be the biggest reason the 24-year-old gets the call, presuming he does. Both Tom Murphy and Luis Torrens (recently demoted) have been such disappointments so far.
Brandon Williamson, SP, Mariners
2019 minors: 0-0, 2.35 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 15 1/3 IP, 5 BB, 25 K
2021 minors: 1-0, 2.25 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 20 IP, 7 BB, 39 K
The Mariners really know how to pick 'em, don't they? Their second-round choice from 2019 blew away short-season Class A that year and has kept it going at high A this year. His first three outings were all less than five innings, but he was just as dominant stretching out to 7 1/3 innings Saturday, allowing just two hits and striking out 13. The left-hander has a fastball that touches 97 mph with plenty of life, a knockout curveball and a little bit of deception in his delivery. It's worth noting, though, that at 23, he's probably too advanced for his level.
Greg Jones, SS, Rays
2019 minors: .335 BA (191 AB), 1 HR, 19 SB, .874 OPS, 22 BB, 56 K
2021 minors: .320 BA (50 AB), 4 HR, 10 SB, 1.033 OPS, 12 BB, 19 K
How is it possible that the Rays have yet another middle infield prospect turning heads in the minors? Jones is one that left much to interpretation when we last saw him play minor-league ball two years ago. The athleticism was obvious, but how it would manifest was anybody's guess. The safe bet was that he'd be a speedster with pretty good on-base skills, but it looks like there may be some power as well. As with Williamson, though, he's old for his level, having already turned 23.
Mitchell Parker, SP, Nationals
2021 minors: 2-2, 2.92 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 24 2/3 IP, 11 BB, 43 K
Only one minor-league pitcher, fellow Nationals prospect Cade Cavalli, entered play Wednesday with more strikeouts than Parker, who is looking like quite a find in the fifth round last year. It may be another case of an older player (21) beating up on younger competition (low Class A), but he has a funky delivery and a well developed arsenal that includes a high-spin fastball, a curveball and a splitter. He has allowed a combined one hit over his past two starts, each six innings, with a combined 22 strikeouts between them.