(UPDATE: Jason Heyward has been named the No. 1 prospect by Scouts Inc. and the Braves have five players listed in the top 85. See below.)
A little clarification this morning.
Last week, I suggested that the Braves needed to sign free agent outfielder Johnny Damon to fill their need for a leadoff batter. There has been a void at the top of their order since Rafael Furcal left town. That void has coincided with the Braves’ failure to make the playoffs. Go figure. For the record, Damon is still available and Frank Wren is still not taking my advice. Maybe I should send a nice email? Flowers?
Anyway, back to the clarification: At no point was it my suggestion that the Braves’ general future is doomed without Damon. In fact, there is some slight confirmation this week that their future is pretty bright.
Led by outfielder Jason Heyward, the Braves’ farm system ranks fifth in baseball in organizational talent, according to Scouts Inc.’s Keith Law (requires ESPN Insider subscription).
The top 100 prospects is scheduled to be posted sometime Thursday and I’ll try to update this blog at that time. (UPDATE: See below.)
But in Law’s team rankings, the Braves ranked behind only Texas, Boston, Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Among teams in the National League East, the Braves ranked ahead of Florida (12), New York Mets (15), Washington (23), Philadelphia (24).
Law on the Braves:
Having Jason Heyward helps, but they have a troika of Latin American arms about to march up the system that would make a heck of a 2-3-4 behind Tommy Hanson starting in 2013 or so. They would have been higher except for a brutal draft in 2009.
Here’s a link to that 2009 draft if you’ve got a lot of time on your hand.
The rankings got me thinking. Of Atlanta’s four pro sports teams, who is best set up for the future? Right now, I’d have to say the Braves. The Falcons appear to be headed in that direction, but they’re still in transition and there are too many questions on the offensive line and on the defensive side of the ball. The Hawks are not quite as set up for the future as you might think. The Thrashers? A few nice pieces, but only a few.
I quickly ran down the rosters of the four teams and highlighted some young names. But I’ve linked all four rosters if you want to do some research. However, the rosters do not include everybody in the minor-league systems of the Braves and Thrashers. I’ve also got a poll up, but I want to read your comments.
The key here is to try to focus on players who are five years or less into their careers, and therefore potentially here for the long haul.
♦ BRAVES: Brian McCann has played only four-plus seasons. Heyward could make the team out of spring training. Jordan Schafer may not be far behind. Tommy Hanson will be at or near the top of the rotation a while. Others to feel good about include Yunel Escobar, Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado. (Late add: thanks to “AthensMatt” for pointing out that I left out first baseman-of-the-future, Freddie Freeman.)
♦ FALCONS: They have their quarterback in Matt Ryan. Running back Michael Turner is six years into his career, the danger zone for an NFL running back, but he was a backup for the first four. Probable solid pieces for years: Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux, Thomas DeCoud, Curtis Lofton, Harry Douglas. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, the team’s first two picks in 2o09, missed most of their rookie seasons with injuries. Tackle Sam Baker hasn’t been healthy in two seasons.
♦ HAWKS: Josh Smith and Al Horford will be staples for a long time. But after that? We don’t know yet about Jeff Teague. Marvin Williams: some good, some bad. Mike Bibby is on the downside of his career. Joe Johnson is nine years in and an unrestricted free agent this summer.
♦ THRASHERS: Kari Lehtonen was supposed to be the franchise goalie. But he has struggled with consistency and healthy. Ondrej Pavelec: still a bit unknown. Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom and Evander Kane are solid young pieces. But Bryan Little seems to have fallen off a cliff and Boris Valabik is still struggling with his confidence (and now health). And yes, Ilya Kovalchuk could be gone before lunch.
So there’s your quick recap. Which team do you think is best positioned for the future?
UPDATE: Scouts Inc. listed five Braves in its list of top 100 prospects. Here they are:
♦ 1. JASON HEYWARD, OF: Heyward’s ascent to the top of these rankings was swift and unimpeded, and his path to the majors appears to be much the same, as he’ll have a good chance to win the every-day right-field job this spring. Heyward will be a middle-of-the-order bat with power and patience while playing above-average defense in right with a plus arm. He has an advanced approach at the plate, something that was already in place when he was a 17-year-old high school senior, and strong, quick wrists that let him commit later to pitches while still driving the ball to all fields. He gets good leverage in his swing and has plenty of loft to eventually produce 30-plus homers a year, and so far hasn’t shown any tendency to expand the zone because he’s trying too hard to hit for power. In the field, he has outgrown center but moves extremely well in right with good reads off the bat. And you can see from all of the above that he has a high baseball IQ, with good feel and/or instincts in every area of the game, especially for someone his age. He murdered Double-A pitching at age 19 in a 200-PA sample, and his career stat line reads .318/.391/.508, nearly all of which was compiled before he turned 20 in August. His swing isn’t perfect — he does bar his front arm very briefly — but he’s so strong and has such bat speed that the minor flaw has been irrelevant at every stop of his pro career. Everything else here points to stardom.
♦ 43. ARODYS VIZCAINO, RHP: Vizcaino was the key to the Javier Vazquez trade even though he has yet to appear above short-season ball, which speaks to his potential as a front-line starter. His fastball is already 91-93 mph, flashing a little above that, with good life, and he hides the ball well to help the pitch play up. His best off-speed pitch is a hammer curveball that is plus at times with good depth and a slight two-plane break. His feel for pitching is advanced for someone his age, and while his arm action is short and repeatable he can lose his slot and start to drift downward, something he’ll have to eliminate via instruction. He has a chance to move up the Atlanta system quickly and could catch up to fellow high-upside arms Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado soon.
♦ 63. JULIO TEHERAN, RHP: Teheran was one of my picks to jump on this list last offseason, and now he’s one of my picks to jump up into the top quarter of it. Teheran, the nephew of an Atlanta scout, barely pitched in 2008 after the team took a conservative approach with his sore shoulder. But in ‘09, he showed why teams are increasingly scouting the north coast of Colombia. He’s got a huge arm already despite his rail-thin frame (6-foot-2, 150 pounds), 91-96 mph on the fastball with an above-average changeup, and his curveball also has a chance to be above-average in time. He’s a good athlete, but his arm action isn’t pretty and he has to work to stay on top of the ball if that curveball is going to be a consistent weapon for him. He has good rhythm on the mound and pitches very aggressively — he hit almost as many batters as he walked in 2009, which usually isn’t an accident — but he has to avoid telegraphing his off-speed pitches. He still has a lot of room to fill out and could easily end up a No. 1 starter or, if he doesn’t get stronger or doesn’t develop the breaking ball, an upper-echelon closer.
♦ 67. FREDDIE FREEMAN, 1B: Freeman is yet another former two-way star on this list — if you’re a legitimate prospect as both a position player and a pitcher, you’re probably a pretty good athlete and offer more upside than the typical one-way prospect. At the plate, he sets up with a wide base and doesn’t stride or really transfer his weight through his swing. So while he has good rotation to hit for power, he’s mostly hands at this point and has traded some power for high contact rates. Unlike a lot of young left-handed hitters, he shows no appreciable platoon split, and while he’s not exactly patient, he’s not a hacker. Freeman is an above-average defender at first base, and there’s some reason to expect more growth as a hitter given his youth and frame. But I still see him as a guy who’ll hit for average with doubles power, but not the high OBP or home run totals that would make him a star at first base.
♦ 85. RANDALL DELGAGO, RHP: Delgado pitched in the shadow of Julio Teheran this year, and I’d bet you could find a few scouts who rated him over Teheran even though I have Delgado second. Delgado is 6-foot-3 and has already put on a good 25 pounds since signing, with improvement in his stuff to match. His fastball is just above average and will touch 94-95, with a changeup that has improved to above-average and a chance for the curveball to be the same. He’s still looking for a consistent arm action, which is part of why he’s behind Teheran, but his upside isn’t much lower than his teammate’s. It’s to the Braves’ credit that they found two top-flight pitching prospects from outside the traditional Latin American talent markets, getting Teheran from Colombia and Delgado from Panama.