Over the last month there have been publications that have come out with a list of their top prospects for 2011 and their best minor league organizations. The Braves had players on each list and ranked 3rd in Keith Law’s (of ESPN) and Baseball America’s top minor league systems. Speaking of Baseball America, they rated Julio Teheran their #5 prospect and top pitcher overall! It is an exciting time for Braves fans when looking the depth and number of prospects in their system and I can’t help but wonder who will pan out and what the Braves will look like in a few years. Will these guys turn into Jason Heyward or Wilson Betemit? Here is a look at what the Braves could be looking at in a few years:
Catcher: The Braves have one of the best catchers in baseball right now in Brian McCann. He will turn 27 before the 2011 season begins, so he is still young. Of course, playing such a demanding position takes its toll on a catchers body, so it’s not certain McCann will be doing this another 10 years. Christian Bethancourt is the guy the Braves will be looking at as the catcher of the future. The 20-year-old from Panama is ranked as the Braves #1 catching prospect in every publication you can find, as well as top-10 in the Braves minor-league system. He still has to develop, but since he is so young, he as the time.
First Base: If all goes according to plan, Freddie Freeman will show everyone this season why he is regarded so highly by the Braves. He has shown tremendous promise from the time he was drafted and when you watch him play (hitting or defense) you can see why. He is a huge kid that still has room to develop power and is a slick-fielder. I don’t see any reason why we won’t be watching Freeman play 1B for years to come.
Second Base: The Braves signed newly acquired Dan Uggla to a 5-year extension last month, so unless he is absolutely dreadful in the field, this is the answer to 2B. The Braves drafted 2B Phil Gosselin in the 5th round of the 2010 draft. The University of Virginia standout, who showed the ability to hit for average and power, may force the Braves to reevaluate Uggla at the position in a few years—of course when I say that, I mean moving Uggla to the OF.
Shortstop: I believe the Braves have more depth here than anywhere else in the field. They drafted SS Matt Lipka #1 in last year’s draft and Andrelton Simmons in the 2nd round. They have highly touted prospect Edward Salcedo, who they signed from the Dominican Republic and Tyler Pastornicky, who they received in the Yunel Escobar trade. Of course Alex Gonzalez will be their guy for this season, at least, but looking ahead, it’s hard to say who will be playing shortstop in Atlanta.
Lipka and Simmons are very young and need a couple years to develop their skills. Salcedo has had a disappointing first year in the minors, but from everything we hear that isn’t going to last long. Pastornicky seems like the guy who will be ready first, but long term is up in the air. There has been talk about moving Lipka to the OF, and Salcedo and Simmons possible to third. But for now they are all developing at SS— it will be fun to see where they end up. I think the guy will be Salcedo.
Third Base: For years, as Braves fans, we never had to worry about this position. You knew who was going to play third and bat third. But Chipper is towards the end of a great career and the Braves don’t have much depth at the position. That was until they drafted accordingly in the 2010 draft. They drafted 3B Joe Leonard in the third round, who absolutely raked last year at the University of Pittsburgh. Edward Salcedo and Andrelton Simmons are at short stop for now, but could move to 3B. Personally, I think after Chipper retires, Martin Prado will take over at 3B and stay there (hopefully) for years.
Right Field: I don’t need to say much here except this—Jason Heyward.
Center Field: A couple years ago it seemed like Jordan Schafer would be patrolling CF at the Ted for the next decade. Then, when the Braves got Nate McLouth, it seemed he would be the guy. I can say this; it won’t be McLouth, though he will start this year as the Braves CF. Shafer is an interesting guy because it seems as if he is finally healthy. He showed so much promise for a couple years in spring training, but something has always gotten in his way; suspension/injuries. The Braves have moved infield prospect Mycal Jones to CF for this season and I think it will work out well. While Jones could develop and Shafer could turn it around, I think the guy for the long-term is going to be SS prospect Matt Lipka. I think the Braves will move him to CF and he will serve as their lead-off hitter and spark-plug.
Left Field: This is the toughest position for me to foresee. The Braves have some good-looking OF prospects like Todd Cunningham, Robert Hefflinger, Kyle Rose, Adam Milligan, and Kurt Fleming. Mycal Jones may develop nicely and be moved to left as well. Maybe the Braves make a trade or sign a guy, or Dan Uggla moves there in a few years. I like Cunningham a lot. He is a good average hitter and could develop enough power to give him 15-20 HR a year. He can run well, so covering LF would be no issue.
Starting Pitcher: The Braves have the best crop of young pitchers, maybe the best ever in Braves history. Led by stud-prospect Julio Teheran, who many think can and will pitch at some point this year, the Braves promising pitchers include RHPs Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino, Brandon Beachy and JJ Hoover & LHPs Mike Minor, Dimasther Delgado, Brett Oberholtzer and Carlos Perez—remember Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens are both going to be just 26 this season. And don’t forget Kris Medlen…
Tim Hudson is under contract for another year with the Braves and Derek Lowe has 2 years remaining on his 4-year deal. I can’t imagine either of them being in Atlanta after 2012, so there will be a couple spots for these guys. If everything works out, hell if half of these guys work out, the Braves are going to have an overflow of young starting pitchers, which could lead to a trade or two.
Teheran seems like as sure a thing as any, but of course anything can happen. I have heard some chatter about Jurrjens as a trading chip but, though he is probably the most likely option, I would hate to see him go. Hanson will be a fixture in the Braves rotation for years; I just don’t see him going anywhere. It seems as if Teheran has overshadowed Vizcaino and Randall Delgado, but after listening to some of their starts on the radio and seeing their stats, these guys are no joke! I do worry a little about Vizcaino’s arm though. He has hit 101MPH (depending on what gun you believe) this spring and had elbow issues last year. At this point, I see him developing into a reliever, rather than a starter. Dimasther Delgado missed time with an injury, but was actually pitching better than Randall before he was injured. Perez is young and needs to work on his control, but he has such good pitches that if he can develop them, he can be as nasty as David Price. I honestly don’t see Beachy in the Braves rotation long-term and I think Hoover may be packaged in a trade—just a guy feeling. I am so excited about what could happen here, I’m sure this is bias, but in 5 years, I think the Braves will have the best rotation in baseball.
Relief Pitchers: Billy Wagner had, by far, the best season for a Braves Closer since Smoltzie. Now he is retired and the Braves need that consistency from the back-end of their bullpen. Craig Kimbrel seems like the guy, as he showed last year that he is not rattled easily in tight spots. Jonny Venters showed us last year that he can close the door as well, though I see him more and the 8th inning guy. The Braves also have some prospects that I can see developing into solid relievers, such as Juan Abreu, Lee Hyde, Stephen Marek, Erik Cordier, Cory Gearrin and David Filak. Kris Medlen is a guy that could see some time here if there isn’t enough room in the rotation.
Of course, the bullpen is never going to be made up solely of home-grown talent. I’m sure there will be veterans that come and go from the bullpen, hopefully guys with some nasty stuff. I see the combination of Kimbrel, Venters and Marek a solid combination for the Braves. I also think that Hyde and Cordier will be good middle-relief options.
I am jacked-up thinking about the possibilities! Obviously there are so many factors that go into the development of these players and so many things that can change the outcome. Let’s just say some things work out for the Braves, this is what I see their lineup looking like in 2014…
C- Brian McCann
1B- Freddie Freeman
2B- Dan Uggla
SS- Edward Salcedo
3B- Martin Prado
LF- Todd Cunningham
CF- Matt Lipka
RF- Jason Heyward
SP- Tommy Hanson
SP- Julio Teheran
SP- Mike Minor
SP- Kris Medlen
SP- Randall Delgado
CL- Craig Kimbrel
Now, it’s unlikely the Braves would have that many home-grown players starting for them, but the way things look now, why not?
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Until Next time…Go Braves!