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Jason Parks on the Braves' Prospects

Jason Parks heads up the prospect team at Baseball Prospectus.  He has been part of the BP writing team since 2011 and has background in scouting.  He graciously agreed to discuss the recently-released Braves organization prospect list and review (subscription required for the full article).  Enjoy the interview!

Benjamin Chase: Jason, first, thanks a ton for taking the time with Tomahawk Take and I to discuss the Braves.  I’ve personally been a big fan of yours as a now-double point-niner and a regular listener to you and Mike on the Fringe Average podcast.  One thing I’ve appreciated about your work both in writing and on your podcasts is your candidness, which often leaves listeners and readers in stitches, and it’s much appreciated.  No real question there, just a statement of appreciation for the insight and humor/humanity you bring to your posting and podcasts.

You’ve recently posted your Braves top prospects list on Baseball Prospectus.  You have #1 Lucas Sims very high in the top 101 – number 40 overall – and he gets a very good write up here.  He has certainly given the Braves a big shot in the arm only ~20 months removed from his drafting.  How much further can Sims grow after jumping up so much in two seasons?

Jason Parks: Sims is a much better pitching prospect than people realize, a legit #2/3 starter type in the making. When I’m scouting a pitcher, one of the first things I look for is athleticism. While its true that body scouting isn’t always the best approach, I’m always more concerned with how the body moves than how it actually looks. Sims is a highly athletic pitcher that repeats his coordinated movements and actions, which allows for more consistency than you normally see in such young arms. Now for the body: As much as people [read: me] wax on about pitchers that fit that prototypical mold of 6’4” 185, more scouts will tell you that those highly athletic 6’2” 200 lbs. types are even more ideal because they often have better control over their length and can find more consistency in their mechanics. Sims has some projection, which is the big selling point with the aforementioned ideal pitcher’s body, but he offers more strength and physical polish than most his age, and it helps him bring stuff and a level of refinement. 

Right now, Sims is a 91-95 type that can touch a little higher in bursts, showing a hard upper-70s curve that he can manipulate to be a little longer or a little sharper; a legit plus offering with hammer qualities. The arm speed, clean action, and mechanical repeatability help the changeup play to solid-average and could eventually be plus, giving him three plus pitches to go along with feel and command. The Matt Cain comps are fun but not completely ludicrous. As he continues to gain strength and experience, he’s only going to improve. This guy is legit.

Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

BC: Your top 10 under-25 list has Andrelton Simmons at the top, and Christian Bethancourt is ranked as the #2 prospect in the system after his bat came through some at the AA level in 2013.  Is this a point where the level of defense of these two guys is so extremely high that their offense could even be sub-replacement and they’d still be high-level players?

JP: Ethan Purser put together the U25 for the Braves list, but I completely agree with his rankings. Even though both players have glove-first profiles, I don’t think we can lump Simmons and Bethancourt together. I don’t need to tell any Braves fan how good Simmons is with the leather. Simply put, he’s one of the best all-around defenders I’ve ever seen, and I cut my teeth watching a young Elvis in the minors. Simmons smokes him. But his bat is a very good weapon, and as he gains experience at the plate, he’s going to become a very good offensive player at the major league level. He has such elite hand/eye coordination and hand speed that once he learns what he can do and when he can do it, he’s going to hit for average and I wouldn’t be shocked if more power creeps into his game when he actually learns how to leverage the ball a little more. Bethancourt–on the other hand—has an elite arm but is far from an elite all-around catcher, and I don’t have the same faith in the bat. He has very good hand/eye and some bat speed, but his baseball IQ isn’t on the same level as Simmons, and I don’t see the same adjustment ability or overall feel for hitting. I think his arm makes him a weapon, and as he refines his glove and game calling ability, he could be a very good all-around backstop, the kind of player that can have value without much stick. But not Simmons level value. I think Bethancourt is a .250 type with 10 bombs, a down the lineup glove-first player that will likely offer more frustration than anything else because the ceiling is much higher than the production he will offer.

BC: One of the things the Braves have been able to do that gets some recognition (but not enough for this writer!) is finding guys who are non-traditional finds.  Guys like Brandon Beachy and Evan Gattis are contributing heavily for the major league club, but you have pitcher Wes Parsons on your list at #7 as another guy who was an outside-the-norms find.  Is this more a scouting or a development thing that the Braves are doing so well (or a bit of both)? Also, what are your thoughts on the possibility of Parsons taking yet another step toward a possible mid-rotation or even #2 sort of projection as a starting pitcher in the majors?

JP: Parsons is a legit prospect. Excellent size; excellent makeup; pitchability; sharp breaking ball that he can manipulate; some meat on the heater; more to come as he matures. Mid-rotation ceiling for me; number three starter if everything remains on track. Wasn’t heavily scouted, and kudos to the Braves for doing their homework and stepping up to the plate (financially) when it was time to acquire a player with a mid-rotation projection despite not having a crazy amateur pedigree. The Braves have talented scouts, but the financial restrictions of the organization can often put them in situations where that doesn’t really shine early on in drafts. But organizations are built on the unexpected finds in later rounds or low-dollar signee, and the Braves are one of the best at turning over talent that others have passed on or ignored.

Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

BC: Among prospect writers, many refer to BP’s coverage as the most upside- or potential-focused.  The Braves have been knocked on their drafting recently (and this is noted in the parting comment of the top prospects list), but they seem to have a top 10 loaded with upside guys who have some significant differences between their potential and realistic role projections. Do you agree that there are a number of “dream on them” sort of guys in the Braves’ system, and how much do you trust their organization to get their upside realized through development?  Also, are there certain organizations who do better at getting the absolute most from their players who may not be “elite” prospects?

JP: I love tools and ceiling. I cut my teeth under guys like Don Welke and AJ Preller with the Rangers, so I was surrounded by players that fit their particular tastes, the high-ceiling middle-of-the-diamond types that often come at a very high risk but could change the fortunes of a franchise if they fully blossom. I understand why some in the industry play it a little safer, and I’m not faulting that approach as its less likely to bite you in the ass and you can be “right” a little more than wrong. But I don’t really care about that stuff. Its my job to watch talent (or acquire information about talent) and pass that information along in a pleasing or stimulating manner, and I’m unapologetic when it comes to my particular taste for high-end tools or high-end projections. If you want to rank relievers in their mid-20s on top ten lists, that’s Kool and the Gang. But I’d rather rank a high-ceiling teen-aged Latin American kid with short-season experience over that profile every day of the week because nondescript relievers are easy to find and role 6 and 7 talents are highly sought after and more than half of the teams in baseball can’t afford to find them on the open market once they mature.

To answer your question: the Braves have a mix of high-ceiling dreams and low-ceiling reality in their system. I’ll give them a lot of credit for targeting toolsy Latin American types but fault them for often going cheap in drafts and popping average at best collegiate arms instead finding fruit in the high-ceiling high school ranks like in decades past. Sims was a nice piece and I would like to see more of those types and far less of the Gilmartin or Hursh types. Personally, I don’t think safety puts flags in the rafters. I don’t think drafting #4 starters in the first round puts you in October baseball. I think you have to show a little more sack and go for ceiling when its available, especially when you proven to be adept at finding gems in later rounds and in various markets.

BC: Last question for you: with a guy like Wes Parsons emerging with some definite #want, and Lucas Sims exhibiting some serious #rig, what on earth do we assign as a hashtag for the enigma that is Evan Gattis?!

JP: Gattis confuses me on every level, and I love it. I really don’t know what to expect. #Bemuse

BC: Thanks again for your time, and keep up the good work with your revamped prospect crew at BP.  I’ve personally really enjoyed the work that you and your crew have done since you took over at the helm of the area after Kevin Goldstein’s departure!

Tags: Atlanta Braves Tomahawk Take

  • fireboss

    Interesting look at an outsider’s view of the Braves system. I was surprised when the Braves took Hursh last year over other higher upside prospects. What was kind of confusing was how Gattis’ bemused him. Gattis is no kid and not likely to have the ups and downs associated with young players finding their way after the life journey he had to get where he is. I see him as a competent to above average backstop with a better arm than many give him credit for. His catch and release negates some of that value or put another way his arm hides a bit of his catch and release issue. At the plate he’s a 20 homer 30+ double guy. He hits a lot of line drives and doesn’t walk as often as he could. He’ll settle in to a 270 or so avg eventually but his bat may not age well. He gets on top of shoulder high heat now, something that might well diminish as he passes 30. Th eone worry I have is game calling with young pitchers. How well he’ll do that will determine how good he really is behind the plate.

    • Chris Headrick

      I get what Jason is saying about being bemused, sort of. It’s wearing off for me some, but I still think of Evan, long term, as a kind of unknown factor. This will only be his 2nd full year as a professional baseball player, and while he has tons of tools to recommend him, he has a past that gives some pause wondering where his head is at, at any given time. I think the bemusement (puzzle, bewilder) factor comes just in his overall story, which is fascinating even without baseball in the mix. I have complete confidence that Evan has gotten past his former struggles, is more steady now, and will be a factor for a long time to come, but I am still a bit in that bemused or cautious optimism camp myself.

      • Benjamin Chase

        Remember also that Jason is a big Texas guy, so any Texan that’d choose ski lifts over baseball may alone be bemusing!

        Seriously, though, there’s a lot of unknown with where Gattis could go. If Gattis came out with a .240/.300/.460 line this year or a .280/.340/.520 line, I don’t think either result would be out of line with what could be possible. That’s the bemusement is that for a guy going into his second major league season, the range of outcomes is as wide as a typical A-ball player.

  • carpengui

    Good read: he’s got a good point about drafting safely. The philosophy used to be ‘draft the really good upside high school pitchers’ first and foremost. But lately it’s been ‘draft a more certain guy early.’ It’s easy to see _why_: high school pitchers are a long way from the majors and are very risky… maybe only 25% pan out for you: even the best ones no more than 35-40%. So if you’re gonna spend 1st/2nd round money, spend it on somebody who’s gonna give you _some_ payback. I’m not suggesting this is going to get you better pitchers, but it will give you some return on investment, and yes – like it or not, that’s where the Braves are now.

    Jose Peraza is getting a ton of notice all of a sudden: showing up on Top-100 lists. I had him 5th, but it sounds like many others are putting him 2nd or 3rd behind Sims. Parks also has him 5th, oddly enough. Would like to have his take on him.

    Guess I should revisit Parsons on my list, though :) – not sure how I missed his K/BB ratio, which is what I usually look for in determining whether a pitcher is an up-and-comer.

    • Benjamin Chase

      What I think is interesting is the Braves’ approach in drafting safe and going high-upside internationally. They’ve seemed to balance very well with that as you look at an entire bullpen that soon could be made up of the 2011 draft class along with undrafted free agents and international signings who could occupy 3 of the 5 rotation spots by 2016 or so. It’s an interesting combo.

  • carpengui

    Also interesting to see the progression in BP’s prospects list for the Braves from year-to-year. Here’s a comp between the 2013 and 2014 lists.

    1. Lucas Sims (was Julio Teheran in 2013; Sims was 3rd then)
    2. Christian Bethancourt (was 5th last year)
    3. Mauricio Cabrera (was 4th last year; still not sold on him myself)
    4 J.R. Graham (was 2nd last year – injury dropped him)
    5. Jose Peraza (was 7th)
    6. Tommy La Stella (was 9th)
    7. Wes Parsons (newcomer on the list)

    8. Victor Caratini (newcomer on the list)
    9. Jason Hursh (newcomer on the list)
    10. Victor Reyes (newcomer on the list)

    Of the rest, Teheran ‘graduated’ off the list (of course), Gilmartin (6th) is now a Twinkie, Alex Wood graduated (8th), and Luis Merejo (10th) dropped due to injury – but could return next year.

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  • Benjamin Chase

    For anyone wanting to hear from Jason on his thoughts about the Braves system, check out the most recent episode of the Fringe Average podcast from Baseball Prospectus with Mike Ferrin and Jason as they spend a significant chunk of time talking about the Braves as they discuss BP’s organizational rankings that Jason wrote up.