Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camp, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Atlanta Braves.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Want to get excited about the Atlanta Braves? Head to the back fields at their Spring Training facility.
President of baseball operations John Hart and general manager John Coppolella have completely transformed the Braves farm system, trying to return to the Braves way of doing things: A focus on Minor League talent to develop and bring to the big leagues that led to all those NL East titles in the past. That work has resulted in a system ranked as the second-best in baseball, according to MLBPipeline.com.
"What Coppy and Hart have done is remarkable, in the amount of time they've done it, infusing our system with talented young players," assistant director of player development Jonathan Schuerholz said. "The first meeting we had with the staff, we're back where we were in the '90s and the early 2000s, where we have an obligation to the organization to develop these guys into Major League talented players that will compete for a championship at the big league level.
"You have to love that responsibility. It's fun coming to work every day and seeing the kind of clay we have to mold and watching our staff develop these guys. "
Of course, with great talent comes great responsibility. The onus is now on the player development side to shape that clay like Michelangelo and reshape a winning franchise. Schuerholz and those who work on that side are relishing the opportunity.
"We have instructors, we have staff members, we have front office guys who embrace that, who want that obligation and challenge," Schuerholz said. "As competitors, that's what you want. We know we have an opportunity to develop these guys. What's cool for us, we still have a lot of staff members who have been in this organization through the run we had in the '90s and 2000s and are here still. They're able to go back into their notes and what we did to develop those guys. We're back and get to do it all over again."
Much of the talent has come via recent trades and the player development staff has definitely enjoyed having everyone in camp together, to get to know everyone in addition to evaluating them talent-wise. The influx has given Spring Training a much different vibe. No longer will players move up simply because they played at a certain level. Promotions will not just be handed out.
"There are going to be some disappointed players at the end of camp this spring because they think they've earned the right to go to the next level, but we're operating under different circumstances at this point," Schuerholz said. "We now have a difficult task ahead of us in terms of filling rosters, in a good way."
Rio Ruiz's first season in the Braves organization did not exactly go as planned. Acquired from the Astros in the Evan Gattis deal in January 2015, The Braves' No. 16 prospect hit just .233 with a .657 OPS in Double-A. He did perform much better in the second half and it's clear that the third baseman wanted to come into camp showing he's ready to put that behind him. He reported in tremendous shape and the work is paying off.
"He's primed for a big year," Schuerholz said. "He looks really good physically and his swing has looked really good."
Schuerholz has also been impressed with No. 23 prospect Ronald Acuna. The outfielder is just 18 for all of 2016, coming off a solid United States debut last year that saw him earn a bump from the Gulf Coast League to the Appalachian League. Like with many young players, Acuna needed to pay more attention to work habits in order to maximize his considerable raw tools. It's looking like he's buying in this spring.
"We have to make sure he's on board, but he's been outstanding in camp," Schuerholz said. "He's been one of the first to the ballpark each day, one of the first ones out doing drills. We really like what we're seeing from him."
With so much high-end talent, it might be hard to find under-the-radar type prospects who fit the "breakout candidate" profile. But there are some guys just getting started who are definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Catcher Jonathan Morales was a 25th-round Draft choice out of Miami Dade College. The Puerto Rican native went to the Gulf Coast League for his pro debut at age 20, as a late-round pick needing to prove himself. He did just that, finishing with an .889 OPS thanks to seven home runs in 135 at-bats. He also threw out 44 percent of would-be basestealers. The Braves think maybe they have a Draft steal on their hands.
"He's energetic behind the plate," Schuerholz said. "Value-wise, that's a tremendous pick where we got him."
Also from that GCL team, keep an eye on shortstop-turned-outfielder Isranel Wilson. There was a lot of swing and miss to his game in 2015, but he also homered 10 times in 144 ABs.
The Braves also got a pair of left-handers in the 2015 Draft who Schuerholz feels could be primed for big first full seasons. A.J. Minter has yet to pitch competitively as he had Tommy John surgery during his junior year at Texas A&M. The Braves don't shy away from rehab cases and nabbed him with the 75th overall pick. He was back on the mound on the back fields and he could move quickly once he shakes the rust off. So could Chase Johnson-Mullins, a junior college product taken in the 13th round last June.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow @JonathanMayo on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.