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Minors : : General
Top Prospects: Atlanta Braves
David Rawnsley        
Published: Friday, February 17, 2012

General Manager: Frank Wren
Minor League Director: Bruce Manno
Scouting Director: Tony DeMacio

AAA:
Gwinnett Braves (International League) 78-65
AA: Mississippi Braves (Southern League) 61-79
Hi A: Lynchburg Hillcats (Carolina League) 60-78
Low A: Rome Braves (South Atlantic League) 60-80
Rookie Adv.: Danville Braves (Appalachian League) 39-29
Rookie: GCL Braves (Gulf Coast League) 24-34
Dominican: DSL Braves (Dominican Summer League) 34-35

System Overview

The Braves suffered through a significant collapse last September, blowing an 8.5 game lead in the NL wild card in the last 23 days of the season and getting swept at home in the final series of the year to hand the wild card slot to the eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

While the Braves overworked bullpen received a sizable share of the blame at the time, falling out of playoff contention was hardly their fault. The starting pitching couldn’t make it past the sixth inning, the hitters, and especially the outfielders, couldn’t hit and manager Fredi Gonzalez couldn't catch a break.

General Manager Frank Wren reacted to the end of the 2011 season in perhaps the wisest way he possibly could during the offseason: He did almost nothing. He did remove significant money off the payroll by trading RHP Derek Lowe to the Indians, and allowed SS Alex Gonzalez to leave via free agency while resigning veteran utility backup Eric Hinske.

There is really nothing that Wren could do to impact the Braves pitching staff aside from orchestrating Lowe’s departure. Atlanta has a wealth of riches when it comes to pitching, and if starters such as Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrgens stay healthy in 2012, the team’s problem will be that it has too many starting pitchers and will have to leave top prospects such as Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado in AAA until a spot opens up. Their situation is very similar to what has developed in Tampa, where the Rays have benefited from leaving top prospects such as Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore in the minor leagues a year longer than most organizations can afford to because of the depth at the Major League level.

The bullpen, behind RHP Craig Kimbrel and LHPs Jony Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, was the best in baseball heading into September and should again rank among the best and most versatile as well.

Where the Braves should make or break themselves in 2012 will be with their offense. No starter except young 1B Freddie Freeman and perhaps iconic 3B Chipper Jones could have been happy with their season as a whole. C Brian McCann was hurt down the stretch and a trio of 2010 All-Stars – CF Michael Bourn, RF Jason Heyward and LF/3B Martin Prado – were closer to replacement level in 2011 than All-Star level. How those three players perform will be closely watched early in the season, as the Braves do not have the depth in field that they do in the pitching staff.

The bottom line is that while the Braves have only made the playoffs once in the last six years (2010), they have made to transition to a new post-Bobby Cox, post-John Schuerholz, post-Big Three era with an impressive talent base, especially on the mound, and high expectations. They’ve won 91 and 89 games the past two seasons and the 2012 team is arguably better and deeper than either of those two clubs heading into the season. They may not be the old Braves organization, but they are certainly good enough.

2011 Draft

Baseball fans are finally getting used to the concept that this is a different Braves scouting department than existed under leadership of first Paul Snyder and then Roy Clark for the better part of 30 years. Part of that is due to a different (i.e. more conservative) scouting philosophy from veteran scouting director Tony DeMacio, but it also stems from noticeably tighter purse strings on the part of Braves ownership.

DeMacio has done an effective job in finding value in his two drafts at the helm of the Braves scouting department. However, the Braves have spent less money during those two drafts than any organization except the notoriously parsimonious Chicago White Sox. They have picked a grand total of two high school players during the first 10 rounds in 2010-2011 and drafted a fifth-year college senior, a fourth-year college senior and a fourth-year college junior with picks six through eight in 2011, signing all three for less than slot money.

The organization’s spending in Latin America, the site of some of their most successful scouting work over the past decade, has also declined significantly.

The Braves first round pick, Florida State LHP Sean Gilmartin, went just about where he was expected to be picked at No. 28. If he stays healthy, Gilmartin is the type of prospect who is an almost certainty to reach the big leagues as a number four or five type starter due to his present skills and tools. The reality is that the Braves have a backload of young starting pitchers who fill in the top of a rotation and acquiring talent like Gilmartin provides outstanding depth and flexibility down the road.

Some wondered about the Braves second round pick, SS Nick Ahmed, not because of his talent level and where he was drafted, but because shortstop is the deepest position in the Braves minor league system. Ahmed, however, is a plus makeup player who has the athleticism to play literally all over the field if his bat proves to be Major League caliber.

There was speculation during the spring that RHP J.R. Graham, the Braves fourth round pick out of Santa Clara, could sneak into the top 50 picks after he started pitching in the upper 90s out of the bullpen while touching triple digits. The Braves chose to send Graham out as a starter and he threw well in that role (5-2, 1.72 in 57 innings), although a return to the bullpen at the upper levels is always a possibility.

In fact, the bullpen seemed to be a major focus of the Braves 2011 draft. RHPs Mark Lamm in the sixth round and Cody Martin in the seventh were both college seniors and established relievers with mature stuff. Martin was outstanding in his debut, going 1-0, 1.08, 9 saves with 49 strikeouts and only 4 walks in 33 innings between rookie ball and low A.

The one pick where the Braves reached and overpaid was for Lamm’s teammate and closer at Vanderbilt, RHP Navery Moore. The hard throwing Moore only threw 51 innings in three years at Vanderbilt after suffering arm problems as a high school senior, but the Braves signed him for $400,000 in the 14th
 round.

If there is a true sleeper on the Braves draft list it could be eighth round pick 2B Tommy La Stella, a fourth-year junior from Coastal Carolina. The left handed hitting La Stella has always been a performer and hit .328-9-40/.944 OPS in Low A after signing.

Top 10 Prospects

1. RHP Julio Teheran
Baseball-reference player profile

A native of Columbia, Teheran has made incredibly quick progress through the Braves system since he signed as a 16-year old in 2007. He swept through low A, high A and AA as a 19-year old in 2010, then went 15-3, 2.55 in 24 starts in AAA in 2011 as a 20-year old. Teheran also made his big league debut just four months after his 20th
 birthday, making a couple of spot starts in May before being called up again in September. His lack of immediate success in the big leagues (1-1, 5.03, 21 hits in 20 innings, only 10 Ks) seems to have unaccountably left some analysts with a negative impression, which ignores completely the context of Teheran’s age and experience. Also contributing was fellow top prospect Matt Moore’s more stunning debut and subsequent lucrative long term contract, with the experts forgetting that Teheran is 19 months younger than Moore.

Teheran has two present plus Major League pitches in a mid 90s fastball that touches 97-98 mph with good life and an outstanding change up that he uses with the confidence of a veteran hurler. He will throw both a curveball and a slider at times, but neither has consistent quality spin and action to it, and improving on one or both of these pitches is the final piece to Teheran’s puzzle. In fact, it’s easy to see the issues that Teheran has with his breaking ball just by looking at his minor league strikeout totals. He punched out 159 hitters in 142 innings between A and AA in 2010 by simple overpowering younger hitters, but saw his strikeouts go down to 122 in 145 innings in AAA last year and 10 in 20 innings in the big leagues.

Teheran compares very closely to former Reds All-Star RHP Mario Soto in pitching style and background.

2. RHP Arodys Vizcaino
Baseball-reference player profile

Vizcaino was acquired from the Yankees in the Javier Vazquez trade in 2009, one of two of the Braves Top 10 prospects (along with Tyler Pastornicky) who were acquired as part of big league trades, a testament to Atlanta’s professional scouting staff. He reached the Major Leagues in August after only 269 innings of minor league experience under his belt.

Vizcaino has been a starter throughout his professional career but moved into the bullpen when called up and was impressive in his new role. A strongly built 6-0/190, Vizcaino has a consistent mid 90s fastball that can touch the upper 90s, and a power curveball that is a big league strikeout pitch. Although he walked 9 hitters in 17 big league innings, throwing strikes has never been a challenge for Vizcaino as a starter, and he projects plus command in either role.

While Vizcaino can unquestionably develop into a starting pitcher on a winning big league team, the Braves depth of starting pitching means that his best present role is probably in a set-up role. In addition, the Braves other top prospect pitchers (Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Sean Gilmartin) are all less ideally suited to pitching out of the bullpen than Vizcaino.

3. SS Andrelton Simmons
Baseball-reference player profile

Simmons was an unknown when he first appeared at Western Oklahoma Junior College in the fall of 2009. The native of Curacao quickly wowed area scouts that fall and the scouting talk quickly centered on what position Simmons should play as a professional instead of how high he would be drafted. While Simmons regularly pitched in the mid 90s out of the bullpen for Western Oklahoma, and some teams liked him better as a pitcher, the Braves picked him in the second round in June, 2010 and sent him out as a shortstop.

If anything, Simmons has been better than advertised. His defense is close to big league level already with only consistency standing in the way of him being a plus Major League shortstop on the field. And although he has limited extra base power and rarely takes a walk, Simmons led the Carolina League in hitting at .311 in 2011, showing that he has the potential to contribute on offense as well.

4. RHP Randall Delgado
Baseball-reference player profile

One of two Panamanians in the Braves Top 10 list, Delgado is also the most unheralded of the Braves top prospects. He doesn’t have the classic power stuff of Julio Teheran or Arodys Vizcaino, but is more of a three pitch craftsman who uses his curveball and change up frequently while spotting his low 90s fastball to different parts of the plate. Without developing plus/plus command in the future, Delgado doesn’t have the No. 1/2 starter potential that those two do, but he seems poised for a long big league career, much like the Yankees' Ivan Nova.

5. SS Tyler Pastornicky
Baseball-reference player profile

Pastornicky played in over a dozen Perfect Game events as a Florida teenager and developed the reputation among the PG staff as being one of the biggest gamers that we’ve come across over the last decade. He had good but not great physical tools, with 6.7 speed in the 60 and a fringy plus arm in the infield on the big league grading scale. However, not only did he always outperform his tools, but he played the game with such obvious joy that it was impossible not to like him. Part of those intangibles undoubtedly came from learning the game from his father, Cliff, who had a brief cup of coffee with the Royals in 1983 and has been an area scout in Florida since 1989.

The Blue Jays drafted Pastornicky in the fifth round in 2008 and traded him to the Braves late in 2010 as part of the Yunel Escobar/Alex Gonzalez trade. His progress with the Braves has been so quick that barring an injury or complete collapse in spring training, it looks as if Pastornicky with be Atlanta’s Opening Day shortstop in 2012. His physical ceiling is comparable to a less physical Cliff Pennington (A’s), but Pastornicky has a very high chance potential to reach that ceiling.

6. C Christian Bethancourt
Baseball-reference player profile

Bethancourt has become a lightning rod even as a 20-year old A ball prospect for his approach to the game and overall attitude, which is by all accounts inconsistent at best. Of course, no one would care if the Panamanian catcher wasn’t among the most physically talented catchers in the game. He has all the tools to be an All-Star level receiver at the big league level and Brian McCann’s eventual successor in the Braves line up.

Aside from the mental aspects of the day-to-day game, the one thing that could potentially limit Bethancourt at the upper levels is that he hasn’t seen a pitch he doesn’t think he can hit, and walked only 11 times in almost 400 at bats in 2011.

7. LHP Sean Gilmartin
Baseball-reference player profile

There is very little practical difference between Gilmartin and 2009 Braves first rounder Mike Minor, and the comparison between the two probably already sounds like a worn cliché to Braves fans. While Minor might have a bit more juice to his fastball, they are both very polished left handers with plus change ups, good enough breaking balls and an advanced ability to pitch. Gilmartin’s path to the Major Leagues will be a bit more need dependent than Minor’s, as Atlanta projects more upper level pitching depth for 2012-13 than they did for 2010-2011, but he will likely be no less ready to compete.

One thing Braves fans will appreciate about Gilmartin is his all around athleticism and baseball skills that will remind them of the Big Three of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Gilmartin was a two-way standout at Florida State and will contribute with the bat as a starter, along with being an above average fielder.

8. 3B Edward Salcedo
Baseball-reference player profile

Salcedo is older and less experienced that the normal Class A Dominican prospect, as he spent two years establishing his paperwork and birthday after becoming eligible to sign. The Braves eventually inked him to a $1.6M bonus in 2009.

The 6-3/190 right handed hitter has the best raw hitting tools in the Braves system, with excellent bat speed and 20-plus home run potential. He’s grown rapidly as a hitter since signing and shows more plate discipline and hitting awareness than most young Dominican hitters. A shortstop originally, Salcedo has outgrown the middle of the field but should have the tools to stay at the hot corner with work. He and fellow prospect Joey Terdoslavich will receive increased scrutiny from the Braves fans in 2012 as future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones’ career in Atlanta continues to wind down.

9. RHP J.J. Hoover
Baseball-reference player profile

Hoover has dominated at every level since the Braves drafted him in the 10th
 round in 2008 out of Calhoun (Ala.) CC as part of their famed “Junior College Draft” (Craig Kimbrel, Brett Oberholtzer, Adam Milligan, etc). The Braves swung him between a starting and long relief role in 2011, not the usual road map for a top prospect, but Hoover has proven to be a durable and multi-dimensional pitcher, something that can be very valuable on a Major League staff over a 162 game schedule.

Hoover has no true plus big league pitch, but has four pitches in his fastball, curveball, slider and change up that are solid average offerings, and he commands all four pitches with maturity. He has continued to post impressive strikeout totals at every level of the minors (including 31 in 18 innings in AAA in 2011), a very positive sign that Hoover’s stuff is on par with his pitchability.

10. 1B/3B Joey Terdoslavich
Baseball-reference player profile

A Florida native, Terdoslavich was lost to baseball fans for a year when he made the very unusual move of transferring from Miami across the country to Long Beach State and sitting out the 2009 season. He rebounded in 2010 with a .326-7-46 season in the most difficult home hitters park in college baseball, and was the Braves sixth round draft pick.

The axiom in baseball is that if you can hit you will play and the switch-hitting Terdoslavich is the most polished hitter in the Braves minor league system. He slammed 74 extra base hits in 131 games in the Carolina League, including 52 doubles, and he has the potential to develop even more over-the-fence power. Terdoslavich has played both third base and first base as a professional and could likely play left field as well, and could be an Eric Hinske type bat/utility player at the big league level. With Freddie Freeman at first base in Atlanta, he’ll concentrate on third base in 2012.

Others in the Conversation:
SS Nick Ahmed, 3B Brandon Drury, RHP J.R. Graham, 2B Tommy LaStella, CF Matt Lipka, RHP Cody Martin, LHP Carlos Perez, RHP Zeke Spruill


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