Braves Top 10 Prospects
By Bill Ballew
Riding the crest of 11 straight division titles, the longest playoff run in the history of pro sports, Atlanta entered the offseason with aces Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux testing free agency and uncertainty on the right side of its infield. The Braves made their first move by acquiring lefthander Mike Hampton from the Marlins. Florida will pay $30 million toward his 2003-05 salaries, with Atlanta responsible for just $5.5 million. Shortly afterward, Glavine signed with the Mets for three years and $35 million. He expressed disappointment that the Braves didnt make a stronger effort to keep him.
Concerned that he might not be able to re-sign Maddux, general manager John Schuerholz offered him arbitration in order to get draft-pick compensation, then added veterans Russ Ortiz (in a trade with the Giants) and Paul Byrd (as a free agent). But when Maddux accepted arbitration, Schuerholz wasnt going to be able to follow owner AOL Time Warners edict to cut payroll from the $111 million it spent in 2002.
In a stunning move that weakened the Braves and strengthened a division rival, Schuerholz traded Kevin Millwood to the Phillies for backup catcher Johnny Estrada. Schuerholz laid the blame on baseball economics, but it was his own overaggressiveness in trying to maintain a strong pitching staff that doomed him.
But while the Braves have a 60 percent turnover in their rotation and dont have the cash to address the right side of the infieldlet alone catcher or third base, where Vinny Castilla and Javy Lopez are two of the more overpaid players in baseballits not all doom and gloom in Atlanta.
The Braves still have Maddux. John Smoltz re-emerged as a top closer and few teams can match the outfield of Chipper and Andruw Jones, plus Gary Sheffield. The farm system remains one of the best in the game.
If Atlanta needs another starter in 2003, Trey Hodges and Jung Bong are waiting in the wings. More pitching help is less than two years away in Adam Wainwright, Bubba Nelson and others. The Braves also have a deep stock of position players.
The lower reaches of the minors are healthy after three strong drafts by scouting director Roy Clark. Atlantas complex in the Dominican Republic also continues to pay dividends, offsetting the shrinking of the farm system from seven to six affiliates in 2002.
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-6. Wt.: 190. Drafted: HSSt. Simons Island, Ga., 2000 (1st round). Signed by: Rob English.
Background: The 29th overall pick in the 2000 draft, Wainwright has lived up to the Braves early projections. He was the strikeout leader in the high Class A Carolina Leaguewhere managers rated him the leagues No. 3 prospectand earned a spot in the Futures Game last season. Since signing, he has been ranked the No. 2 prospect in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and No. 1 in the Rookie-level Appalachian and low Class A South Atlantic leagues. In 2001, he set a Macon record and led the SAL with 184 strikeouts.
Strengths: Few pitchers are more projectable than Wainwright. His tall body and loose arm action should allow him to add velocity as he continues to mature and develop. He reached 96 mph during the Futures Game and sat in the 90-93 mph range last season at Myrtle Beach. His fastball, rated the best in the Carolina League by managers, has outstanding movement and frequently fools hitters. Wainwright is nearly as successful with his hard curveball, though he has yet to master consistency and feel with it. He also throws strikes with his solid changeup. Wainwright has an excellent mound presence and can be intimidating with his downward angle to the plate. He works both sides of the dish well and has a solid idea of what he wants to accomplish with every pitch.
Weaknesses: Wainwright needs to get stronger and improve his stamina by intensifying his offseason conditioning. He has faded in the past two seasons. He went 8-3, 2.24 during the first four months of the 2002 season before going 1-3, 6.32 in his final seven starts. While he has ranked among the minor league leaders in strikeouts the last two years, Wainwright could be more aggressive in the strike zone. With his lanky body, he has difficulty repeating his delivery, resulting in a loss of control and rhythm. His over-the-top delivery gives hitters a good view of the ball, so he needs to add deception.
The Future: Wainwright has the ingredients to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, but the Braves dont want to rush him. His ETA in Atlanta is 2004, and he should spend most of 2003 at Double-A Greenville. If Wainwright continues to perform as he has, though, he could force Atlantas hand.
Click here for prospects 2-10.
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