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Braves Farm Leaders: Landon Stephens and J.J. Niekro aren’t your average UDFAs

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…

Hitter: Landon Stephens (1B/OF)

Pitcher: J.J. Niekro (RHP)

It doesn’t get any better than this. The first installment of this series not only features two non-prospects, but also two players that went undrafted. Stephens, 24-years-old, was an UDFA signing by the Braves back in 2020, when the MLB Draft was shortened to just five rounds. And Niekro, also 24, signed with Atlanta last July after going unpicked in the 2021 draft. Amazingly, both are leaders in their respective fields so far this season, with the former pacing all Braves minor league hitters with a 191 wRC+ and the latter leading all pitchers with a 0.00 ERA. Crazy, right?

But maybe it’s not so crazy. Stephens was a First Team All-MAC player with Miami-Ohio back in 2019, after hitting .310 with nine home runs and 46 RBI in 56 games, as part of collegiate career that ended with him a .300 hitter overall. With some pop in his bat (23 HR in 169 career games with the RedHawks), it’s probably safe to assume that, in a traditional draft, Stephens would’ve been selected somewhere in the middle to late rounds. And as a pro, that sentiment appears to hold true. After showcasing that power in 2021, hitting 21 bombs in 105 games with Single-A Augusta, Stephens has just kept on mashing. So far in 2022, with a promotion to High-A Rome, the 6-foot-2, 204-pound first baseman already has four homers in nine games so far, and despite a not-so-ideal 35% K rate, his contact has improved drastically as he’s slashing a solid .303/.425/.697. At one point this month (from April 13-15), Stephens hit a homer in three-straight games, as part of a four-game stretch in which he went 6 for 16 (.375 AVG) at the plate for the R-Braves, to go with six RBI.

Sure, he has cooled off a bit lately, picking up just two hits in his last 11 tries over the last three games. But, regardless, the early-season numbers have been quite impressive. And what’s a bit unusual, is that the right-handed hitting Stephens seems to have reverse splits so far in 2022. All four of his long balls have come versus righty pitchers, and his .303 overall AVG through Thursday is mostly propped up by his .321 AVG against RHP (compared to just a .200 AVG vs. LHP). We’ll see if he can keep most of this up over a full season, and he’ll definitely need to cut down on his strikeouts, but for now Stephens is the top hitter in the Braves farm system. And that deserves some recognition.

Then there’s Niekro, who has been an absolute stud out of Single-A Augusta’s bullpen, so far pitching 11 1/3 scoreless innings for the GreenJackets in 2022. He’s a former Florida Southern product, who despite some solid work, didn’t really post flashy numbers in college (career 3.53 ERA in 183 2/3 IP spanning five seasons). Niekro (the nephew of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro), pitched with Atlanta’s rookie-level FCL team last year, and seemed to have enjoyed some guidance as a pro, as he went on to average 12.7 strikeouts per nine and post a 2.76 ERA in 10 appearances spanning 16 1/3 innings.

Whatever Niekro learned in 2021 has certainly paid off this season. The GreenJackets have depended on him several times already in 2022, and all three of the righty’s appearances out of the ‘pen have consisted of at least three innings, including a game back on April 16 in which Niekro worked 4 1/3 and struck out six to go with just three hits allowed. He’s a smaller kid, and reportedly doesn’t throw very hard, but there must be something Niekro is doing right, because opposing hitters just can’t seem to barrel up the guy; he hasn’t allowed a single XBH this season.

Like Stephens above, we’ll see if this type of performance sticks for Niekro. I don’t expect him to remain at the top of the Braves minor league ERA leaderboard all year long, for this is a system chalk-full of pitching talent. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate what Niekro has done so far. Regardless, it’s been one helluva start for the undersized kid trying to live up to the unfair hype of having a Hall of Famer as an uncle.

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