The Chicago Cubs started making trades last night, with a traditional sell-type-trade, sending Joc Pederson to the Atlanta Braves for Bryce Ball. A new prospect enters the Cubs’ farm system, and thus we should get to know him a bit, yes?
Ball, who just turned 23, is an absolute monster of a dude, listed at 6’6″ and 240 lbs. He is a true first base prospect, who isn’t going to play anywhere else, isn’t necessarily going to have to become a pure designated hitter (but might). When you evaluate him as a prospect, you have to keep that in mind, because it depresses the value significantly – not all big league first basemen were first basemen in the minors. They move there eventually because their bats are so good, but their ability to stick at their original position fades as they rise. That means more and more good bats start to “compete” at first base, so to speak, and the guys who are solely first basemen really have to rake to make it to The Show. It’s why the Cubs got a guy like Alfonso Rivas for Tony Kemp, and a big part of why the Cubs could get Ball right now for a (down) Joc Pederson rental.
The other big reason Ball was available in a trade like this is because he’s already 23 in High-A, and he’s not destroying the league (.206/.350/.394, 110 wRC+, 18.7% BB rate, 27.6% K rate).
Obviously there are ways to explain his age, and he’s moved as steadily as he could since being drafted out of college. But many believe there is a prime development window, after which it is very difficult to maximize performance. So if Ball is not, on his own, blowing High-A pitching out of the water this year, it makes you much less optimistic that he can do it at Double-A later this year, and then at Triple-A next year, and then succeed in the big leagues – for the first time – at age 25/26.
You would not bet on Ball becoming an impact big league bat for those reasons.
But the Cubs were shooting for upside in a deal like this, and when you have a carrying tool as loud as Ball’s power, sometimes that’s enough for a massive breakout in a new organization. I really like that the Cubs took a shot in this way. In fact, I gotta tell you, the Cubs beat me to the punch, but here’s something I was mulling yesterday when writing up the Buyer’s Guide: if you can’t get a top prospect at this moment, maybe what you should shoot for is a guy who was a top prospect in 2019 and has had a rough start to 2020. My thinking was, yes, there’s risk that the lost development year just crushed and exposed that player, but it’s also possible he just needs time to adjust after such a long layoff in competitive games. Maybe that’s how you can get yourself a relative steal?
Ball doesn’t quite fit what I was thinking – I was more thinking about guys who were SERIOUS top prospects back in 2019, and then have had BRUTAL starts to 2021 – but he’s like a softened version of it.
As a 24th round first base draft pick, Ball was not necessarily going to be considered much of a prospect coming out of the 2019 draft (though he did get nearly $200,000 to sign, which is a nice bonus for a 24th round college bat). Then he destroyed rookie ball and Low-A so substantially, showing 70-grade power in the process, that all the rankings services immediately pounced. Not a top prospect, no, but straight into the teens in a solid Braves farm system, with FanGraphs sending him all the way to number 11. More telling to me is the fact that the Braves brought him as a non-roster invite to Spring Training immediately in 2020, then to the Alternate Site in the summer of 2020, and then to Spring Training again in 2021. This was a guy they really wanted to develop aggressively, because clearly they believed in the bat almost as soon as they got their hands on it.
Now, that always raises the question … so why were the Braves ready to trade him for a Pederson rental this year? Extreme outfield desperation could be part of it. A belief by Alex Anthopoulos that he knows how to unlock Pederson from here could be part of it. The ability to re-trade Pederson in two weeks if necessary could be a small part of it. But the biggest reason HAS to be that the Cubs insisted on Ball, and the Braves had developed enough doubt about his contact ability to let him go.
You can’t quite look at the past set of prospect rankings to place Ball, since they were all based on the huge success in 2019 and then upside projections for the bat. He did not meet those projections so far this year, and his prospect ranking would be falling accordingly. Instead of being high teens in the Braves’ system at this moment, he was probably hanging in the top 25/30. That doesn’t impact my impression of the trade – it’s still a win for a Pederson rental with how he’s performed this year – but it’s important context for folks, lest they become TOO optimistic.
After the draft, Ball’s spot also falls a little bit simply because new top prospects – with projections and expectations they’ll later have to meet – enter the system.
For the Cubs, Ball is likely to wind up entering the system in the 20 to 30 range, and Bryan indicated to me that a quick review would probably place Ball in that 25 to 30 range. FanGraphs initially slotted Ball in at 17, though that’s before draft picks are included, so I’m thinking it’s probably more like 20ish. MLB Pipeline has him at 29, just behind guys like DJ Herz, Jordan Nwogu, and Justin Steele. Your reminder: the Cubs’ farm system has become extremely DEEP in legit prospects in the last few years, even if the impact talent at the top is still wanting.
That Pipeline ranking comes with an updated scouting report, the relevant portion of which reads:
Though Ball offers plus-plus raw power from the left side of the plate, it’s unclear how much he can make of it. He has struggled to make contact and lift the ball in the air against more advanced pitchers this year. He has retained his patience, however, and led the High-A East with 40 walks in 53 games at the time of his trade.
Ball has to produce at the plate because he offers little value elsewhere. While he’s more athletic than the typical 6-foot-6, 240-pounder, he’s still a below-average runner and defender at first base. He has average arm strength but can’t play another position and spent most of his season at Dallas Baptist as a DH.
The hope here for the Cubs, clearly, is that a move to their development group will help improve Ball’s contact ability, without sacrificing too much of the power and plate discipline. The Cubs really don’t have many prospects with even 60-grade raw power, so to get a massive bopper like Ball into the system is fun, if nothing else.
Speaking of the massive power, that’s why his nickname is Ball Bunyan:
I ventured up to Mason City over the winter to chat with Bryce Ball and learn about why the Braves were so excited about him. I walked away hearing some pretty crazy stories. https://t.co/zrQHLlgTtT
— Tommy Birch (@TommyBirch) July 16, 2021
Your plausible upside here is a guy who closes the holes in his swing just enough to let the power and discipline eat. You’re looking at a big-time three-true-outcome guy in a best case scenario, where he’s striking out nearly 30% of the time, but he’s also walking 15+% and slugging like crazy. An Adam Dunn who can play passable first base? That’s probably the extreme best case scenario. The more achievable best case is a lesser version of that, which, hey, would still clearly be a big league bat. The question is how many years of starting it would net.
But we’ll get there when we get there. For now, you just want to see the strikeout rate come down in the second half, both because of the trade to a new system, and also simply because he’s back into the grind and getting pitcher exposure after the pandemic. If he does that, then you eyeball Double-A to end the season, or more likely to start next season. That’s when he’d really need to break out to stay on the radar.