WTNYDecember 27, 2004
The Hotbed Down South
By Bryan Smith

Last week, I spoke about the slew of Billy Beane moves in the past weeks, and
what it has done to shape the future in Bayside California. Today I want to talk
about the Atlanta Braves, looking both at their system and trying to shape what’s on tap for their top prospects.

Overall, this is not an organization that shies away from prospects, with a lot of
their best players containing roots stemming from Atlanta. Braves brass has
been amazing at not just keeping a winner on the Major League level, but also
keeping a host of good minor leaguers below. Say what you will about their
supposed “Scout the South,” high school-first philosophy, but it has worked.

Simply put, no organization can lose the likes of Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer,
and not be hurt from a top prospect, or prospect depth perspective. On the other hand, no GM was more prepared to trade two fantastic prospects for two
important Major League pieces than John Schuerholz. The truck has not been
backed up because of these deals, it just merely has been dented. That’s
because before these deals, Capellan and Meyer fell below two prospects, and immediately in front of a few more. Atlanta’s rotation will end up being a bit older than anticipated, but there are still arms that could be of some help soon.

On the mound, the Braves still have some very good arms. I read that
Scheurholz was refusing to trade Kyle Davies in the past few weeks, which is
high praise considering who actually was dealt. Davies did not dominate in Myrtle Beach like the upmost echelon should, but he appears to have the ceiling of a Kevin Millwood type, considered an ace by some, but best suited in the three spot.

The problem with being so loaded from bottom to top is that it makes for hard
decisions on when to cut bait or trade certain players. Davies was once fourth on the depth chart for the Braves fifth starter spot (Horacio Ramirez, Capellan,
Meyer), but the Braves’ surely calculated risk moved him up to second. He’ll
begin the season in AA, but if Meyer or Capellan are any indication, he could be
next in line for starts should injuries arise.

Farther down the line, but immediately after Davies comes Jake Stevens.
Chosen in the third round of the 2003 draft, Stevens was sensational in his first
full season in low-A. The southpaw had an extremely long scoreless innings
streak that extended from May to July, showing the potential he has to dominate
on the mound. Also dominating was Chuck James, a fellow leftie, though he was
22 in the South Atlantic League last season. His ceiling - mostly due to age - is
not quite as high as that of Stevens, but he does keep defying the odds.

The Braves also have quite a bit of depth at the position, though I’m not sold on
most of them. You’ll hear the knuckleball obsessors talk about Anthony Lerew,
who had a solid season (surely helped by the giant park) at high-A Myrtle Beach. Macay McBride was as highly thought of as anyone entering the season, but had an extremely large slip-up before salvaging his pride in the AFL. Others include Blaine Boyer, Zach Miner, and Matt Wright. I don’t expect any of the latter three (or McBride for that matter) to ever be much of a help in a starting role, but depth is quite useful when on the phone with other GMs.

Offensively, the Braves are not quite as deep, though their top prospects are
sensational. Andy Marte is one of my favorite prospects, a player waiting for
explosion, and should be reaching the Majors soon. Unfortunately, Scheurholz
hinted in a recent article (can’t find the link), that it might be Marte and not
Chipper Jones moving to the outfield when he’s ready. I think this would be a
colossal mistake, as simply following the path of Miguel Cabrera is not the right
attitude to have. My hope is that minds are changed early in the season, and the Braves start 2006 with an outfield of Jones-Jones-Francoeur.

There really isn’t a lot standing in the way of Jeff Francoeur, other than himself.
His final at-bats in AA, and his AFL stint, showed that he still is quite raw
considering the amount of talent he has. The Braves need to preach patience
with Francoeur, who at this pace, could never really eclipse a .350 OBP in the
Majors. He is a fantastic talent, but will not be ready as quick as Marte, another
Scheurholz quoteable. Think mid-2006 right now, though he wouldn’t be the first
Brave prospect to surprise me.

Atlanta’s most confusing position will soon be behind the plate, now that Johnny
Estrada was everything the Braves thought and tons more last season. I do not
believe Estrada can stay at such a level, giving way to the Majors second best
catching prospect, Brian McCann. He’s a player hurt a bit by his park
environment, but someone I truly believe can be a force in the Majors. He’ll join
Francoeur in AA next year, and should force the Braves hand a bit in 2006. And
don’t forget Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a player scouts love, that held his own being
quite young for the Sally League.

Hopefully, this article made you realize that the Braves will move on easily
despite losing Capellan and Meyer, something the Cardinals organization can’t
say after trading Daric Barton. The system should start to provide the Braves
with useful, cheap parts soon, almost surely allowing the re-signing of newfound
hero Tim Hudson. Look for Smoltz and Hudson to lead this rotation in the coming years, but with noteable help from the likes of LaRoche, Francoeur, Marte, McCann and Davies.


Nice job as always Brian! Allow me to make one minor point - Lerew doesn't throw a knuckleball. He goes fastball, change, slider, and sometimes a curve, with the first two being the best, and the slider needing a bit of work. Maybe you are thinking of Ray Aguilar, who is a rare lefty knuckleballer, but isn't on the same level as the pitchers you mention in the article.

The ballpark dimensions in Myrtle Beach aren't neccessarily what causes it to be a pitchers haven, but rather the strong winds coming in over the outfield wall from the Atlantic Ocean. The park is only about a mile from the beach.

I feel really fortunate that I follow a team that can trade away two of it's top five prospects and still be in better shape than most organizations are at the minor league level.

Dang Bryan, I just noticed I spelled your name wrong in my previous post, which I almost never do. Sorry about that!

I'm a huge proponent of the Braves player development staff. Much like the Dodgers, we'll see 2-4 new names pop up in 2005 with steller full-season debuts. Candidates include Paul Bacot, Luis Atilano, and Chris Vines.
The catching situation, in my opinion, is the best in baseball. Both McCann and Saltalamacchia have high ceilings (though I like Salty better). Any organization would be wise to pattern their player development system after Atlanta.

I pegged Vines as the guy most likely to have a Jake Stevens like breakout in 2005. It was hard to pick between him, Bacot, and Atilano though!

The Braves picked a bevy of intriguing prep arms in 2002 - Jo Jo Reyes, Bacot, Atilano, Vines, Matt Harrison, Stevens, and Asher Demme. I might be missing one or two, but that's a pretty impressive list.
In most organizations, most of those guys would've pitched in full-season ball in 04. I know Reyes and Stevens were in Rome in 04 and Reyes will probably return there in 05. The only one in the above list who I haven't gotten good reports on is Demme.
I agree with you, Brad. Vines is due for a big breakout.

Unfortunately JoJo had TJ surgery in the summer and may miss all of 2005. Hopefully he will be able to log some innings at the end of the season and bounce back fully in 2006. He is still young and promising, so here's wishing that his surgery goes as well as so many others.

When are your rankings going to be up?