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 camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com is visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Atlanta Braves.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- No matter who you talk to or where you look this spring in Atlanta Braves camp, it's clear that there's a special atmosphere, one of both excitement and eagerness, shared by the entire organization, perpetuated from its front office down through its newest and youngest players.
Owners of MLBPipeline.com's No. 1-ranked farm system, Atlanta has assembled an impactful crop of prospects through shrewd trades, strong drafts and high-profile international signings. They enter the season with seven players on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list, tied with the Yankees for the most in the baseball, and have several more that just missed the cut.
"I'd be lying to you if I said we weren't aware of it," Braves director of player development Dave Trembley said about having baseball's top-ranked farm. "I think our organization is very proud of that; there's a lot of people behind the scenes who deserve a lot of credit for that -- our scouts, front office, coaches, managers -- but what it really comes down to is our players. Our players have been outstanding in their effort and cooperation.
"We know we don't have to spin it, and if anything we probably downplay it a little bit because we know the expectations and stakes are very high," he continued. "This game is in cycles, and this cycle now is the Braves' time. So it's our time with the players we have now to get it right -- to make sure we develop them and move them along accordingly. But also I think it's our job to push people a little bit and see how quickly we can get them to where they need to be."
Challenging players will be a theme this season throughout Atlanta's system, according to Trembley, though it doesn't stem from a lack of patience or pressure from within the organization to compete at the highest level.
"There's some competition now in our system because we have depth, which wasn't the case several years ago," said Trembley. "What we've done is bridge the gap. A few years ago we had a lot of six-year free agents playing in Double- and Triple-A. That will be diminished this year, because we'll have a greater number of younger Braves players playing at those levels. When you have that pipeline coming, you have more 21- to 23-year-olds playing in Triple-A rather than guys signed at 28 or 29."
"I think we're in a good position right now, particularly in the pitching department," Trembley said. "We've got some guys who I think are going to be ready to be challenged this year, guys who we'll move up."
When the Mariners drafted California prep standout Alex Jackson with the No. 6 overall pick in 2014, they opted to move him from catcher to the outfield based on his offensive potential. Free from the challenges of developing behind the plate, Jackson seemed destined to hit his way up the Minor League ladder.
But after parts of three disappointing seasons in Seattle's system -- during which he failed to advance beyond the Class A level -- and a new front-office regime in place, Jackson was dealt to the Braves for right-handers Rob Whalen and Max Povse in November.
Now with the Braves, Jackson, the club's No. 24 prospect, is back behind the plate, catching for the first time since his senior year of high school.
"After we traded for Alex, Jeff Datz, our catching coordinator who lives in Sacramento, went down to San Diego and worked out with Alex every week for a month at his high school, doing drills and getting him into the catching mode and mindset. He could really be a diamond in the rough for us in the catching department, and he's all for it," Trembley said.
"We're not going to overload him," he continued, "but I think we'd be happy if we could get 65-70 games from him behind the plate, and have him DH when he's not catching to get him 450-475 at-bats. He has a lot of thunder in that bat and very good power potential."
Meanwhile, Jackson's potential Opening Day assignment is an ongoing discussion among the Braves staff. They'd like to see him continue progressing through the Minors given his experience at the Class A level but also acknowledge that he's now behind the curve after returning to catching.
"We're going to see how it goes in Spring Training, but we'd like to a challenge him a little bit," noted Trembley. "Hopefully we can move him along as quickly as possible."
It may seem odd to talk about a player with as much hype as 19-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna has as a potential breakout candidate, but in a system this deep, and considering the Braves' No. 8 prospect missed time in 2016 due to injury, exceptions can be made.
Acuna was in the midst of a breakout campaign last season at Rome when thumb surgery forced him to the disabled list for three months. He still batted an impressive .311/.387/.432 at the level, with eight extra-base hits and 14 steals, despite appearing in just 40 games. He continued to make up for the lost time with an outstanding offseason performance in the Australian Baseball League, hitting .375/.446/.556 with eight extra-base hits and 13 stolen bases in 20 contests for the Melbourne Aces.
Needless to say, Trembley and the rest of the Braves' front office have high hopes for the ultra-toolsy Acuna in 2017.
"Acuna is going to be a special player," said Trembley. "Things come quick for him and he's a really good learner. He can really hit, throw and run, and I think it's going to be a big debate come the end of Spring Training about what to do with him, where to send him."
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.