Along with my daily recaps and weekly series previews, here at Braves Farm I plan to also write a reoccurring column examining the top performers in the Atlanta Braves minor league system. Each post will look at the two best players in the system at any given time – one hitter and one pitcher – with the former quantified by wRC+ and the latter by ERA. I’m going to try and do these every few weeks or so, to give enough time to cycle in new players. So let’s get started…
Be sure to check out my previous installment, where I profiled a pair of former UDFAs, in first baseman Landon Stephens and righty pitcher J.J. Niekro
Hitter: Brandol Mezquita (OF)
Pitcher: Jared Shuster (LHP)
One of these two names is probably someone you would expect as a Braves Farm Leader, though the other… well I’m pretty sure there are many in Braves Country that has never heard the name before. Either way, though, both Brandol Mezquita and Jared Shuster are having amazing seasons so far, and as of Sunday, they lead the way in their respective roles, with Mezquita sporting a 157 wRC+ and Shuster a 1.84 ERA.
Who is Mezquita? I’m sure you’ve heard of Kevin Maitan, right? He was a top-tier international prospect the Braves signed back in 2017, but then lost because of the infamous Coppy Gate. Well, it wasn’t just Maitan that Atlanta lost because of that scandal – the org also lost 12 other international signees, including Mezquita, who’s $300K signing bonus was deemed an “inflated bonus”. Essentially, those 13 players’ contracts were voided, and as a result they were each free to sign with other teams. Maitan wound up with the Angels organization, where he’s flamed out as a prospect, currently struggling in Double-A (with my hometown’s Rocket City Trash Pandas). And Mezquita… well… he later signed with the Braves.
I mean, Atlanta had to eat nearly $16.5 million due the lost bonuses from those players, but it appears at least one of those guys is real pro hitter.
Which brings us to Mezquita. This kid is doing everything right. For the last three seasons he has played well, but as a teenager in rookie ball, it was always difficult to determine how real any of it was. Regardless, though, with 129 career games in the Braves system, Mezquita carried a 110 wRC+ as a pro, to go with eight home runs and 27 stolen bases entering 2022. His defense had been solid, and his speed on the bases made him seem like a rather toolsy player. But none of that was really going to mean anything unless he could translate that performance into full-season ball. But as you know now, it did translate. So far, in 20 games with Single-A Augusta, the kid has raked, currently sporting a .352/.439/.477 slash line, with six XBH (2 HR) and 18 RBI – good for that Braves minors leading 157 wRC+ entering Sunday. And entering today’s series finale versus Carolina, the GreenJackets outfielder is the midst of a 19-game on-base streak. Sure, not as impressive as Michael Harris’ 26-gamer, but pretty damn good for Mezquita, who’s competing against players nearly a year older than him (on average). There hasn’t been any signs of slowing down either. Mezquita was hitless in Saturday’s game (though he did draw a walk), but the kid is hitting .375 over his last eight games, including five multi-hit performances in that span. And it wasn’t too long ago that he snapped an eight-game hitting streak in which he hit .414 (from April 13-23). Mezquita doesn’t slug for much power yet (shown by just the six XBH), but he doesn’t shy a way from making pitchers pay when they make mistakes, which is all you can really ask for at this point in his development.
There’s two Mezquita splits I really like so far in 2022: 1) he’s hitting same-handed pitchers really well, sporting a an OPS nearly 300 points higher so far against righties (.958), including all of his XBH… and 2) his numbers with two outs and runners in scoring position are video game-like, as the outfielder is slashing .450/.522/.650 in 23 PA in that situation. Those aren’t necessarily predictive stats, but they at least illustrate that Mezquita isn’t just taking advantage of a platoon advantage, or racking up numbers in low-leverage situations, which makes his incredible start to the season that much more special.
It’s odd, but sometimes I forget Shuster was a first-round pick by the Braves. For whatever reason, it seems like he gets overlooked. But regardless, his stock as a prospect has never been higher than it is right now. The 23-year-old lefty is coming off yet another impressive outing for Double-A Mississippi this past Thursday, featuring 5 1/3 innings of three-hit, one-run ball, in which he struck out six and walked none. Those types of starts have come in bunches for the Wake Forest product, who has yet to allow more than five hits in a single outing in 2022. Through those five games pitched, Shuster owns a miniscule 1.84 ERA, and while no one’s ever expected to maintain such amazing run prevention over a full season, it’s not as if it’s simply all luck; FanGraphs gives him a 3.00 FIP and 3.11 xFIP.
Like with Mezquita above, fortunately there appears to be evident signs of sustainability for Shuster as well. Not only is he holding righty batters to a .435 OPS so far this year (compared to a .681 vs. LHB), but his situational splits are exactly what you want, as he has held opposing batters to just a .088 AVG and .315 OPS when runners are on base. Essentially, Shuster is in shut-down mode whenever there’s any traffic on the bases, which probably explains why he’s maintained such strong numbers this season. And from an anecdotal standpoint, given it’s impossible to analyze pitch-specific results in the minors, it appears Shuster’s changeup has gotten even better, which is certainly dangerous for the opposition. This isn’t his first rodeo in Double-A, for the lefty prospect made his final three starts there to end 2021, but it would seem fair to assume that the Braves are in no rush with Shuster. Sure, he’ll turn 24 in August, but even at that age he’s still considered right on track in terms of the average age for a Double-A player. Plus, we probably shouldn’t completely get ahead of ourselves – it’s important to remember that this is only Shuster’s second full season as a pro pitcher, and his small sample with the M-Braves last season wasn’t all that inspiring (7.36 ERA / 14 2/3 IP). But regardless, if he keeps this up, I don’t see any reason why Shuster couldn’t earn a Triple-A assignment at some point in 2022.
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