By Jim Pratt
The weakest link in Atlanta’s pipeline from the minor leagues is undeniably the outfield. With seemingly no immediate help on the way and possible vacancies in both left and center field for the 2013 season, the Braves will be forced to fill those voids through trades or free agency. Most notable is the impending loss of center-fielder Michael Bourn, who will be a free agent at season’s end and will likely price himself out of the Braves’ plans.
Potential replacements Matt Lipka and Mychal Jones are both more athlete than baseball player at this point in their development.
The following is a look at the top five outfield prospects in the Braves system.
Matt Lipka (Grade: B) – This former shortstop shifted to the outfield prior to last season, remaining in one of the premium up-the-middle spots as a centerfielder where the arm-strength is above-average. Without labeling him an athlete-only prospect, he has displayed more athletic ability than baseball skill thus far. His speed is plus, but he still needs to learn how to ply that quickness on the basepaths. His contact skills at the plate have yet to turn into the elevated average he will need to display to continue climbing the ladder within the Braves’ system. He could have double digit power potential as his body continues to mature. Look for Lipka to start 2012 at the High-A level where he needs to take another step in his development as a baseball player.
Mychal Jones (B-) – Jones can best be described as “toolsy”. In the field, he is flexible enough to play either middle-infield position in addition to the outfield. Offensively, his numbers weren’t overly impressive, but it was a solid year overall considering he was making the full-time jump to Double-A. Playing most of 2012 at age 25, time is becoming a factor in Jones’ progress to become more than just another minor league filler and occasional call-up.
Adam Milligan (C+) – Milligan’s biggest crutch has been his inability to stay on the field, injuries have limited him to 152 games since being drafted in 2009. When healthy, he has displayed a high ceiling offensively. Limited to 64 games in 2011, he hit .291/.345/.557 with 12 home runs and 40 RBI. His strikeout rate of 29.5 percent is a concern and it will be interesting to see how he handles the likely jump to Double-A in 2012. It would also be refreshing to see what Milligan could do with a full season of at-bats.
Todd Cunningham (C) – Cunningham’s potential needs to translate into production at some point in 2012 or he could be in jeopardy of non-prospect status. Granted, injuries did limit is playing time to 87 games last year, so there is still some projection there albeit most likely as a fourth outfielder. He has solid contact skills and plate discipline, but until he begins to provide some power with his swing his sole value lies in his ability to play all three outfield positions.
Cory Harrilchak (C) – At best, Harrilchak also projects as a fourth outfielder in the major leagues. He can play solid corner outfield defense with an above-average arm. Good strike-zone judgment suggests he can eventually hit for average, but he has yet to produce the power needed from a corner outfielder. He should start the 2012 season at Triple-A Gwinnett and might be in line for a September call-up as a bench player if he can prove the progress he seemed to make with the bat in the second half of 2011 was no fluke.
Overall outfield Grade – C+
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