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Top Ten Prospects: Atlanta Braves
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Bill Ballew
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2005.
Background: A two-sport standout in high school, Francoeur was a high school all-America defensive back who turned down the opportunity to play football and baseball at Clemson. Since signing for a club-record $2.2 million bonus, he twice has been named the No. 1 prospect in his minor leagues, first in the Rookie-level Appalachian in 2002 and again in the high Class A Carolina in 2004. Francoeur was on the verge of a promotion to Double-A Greenville last July when he squared around to bunt and was hit in the face by the pitch, breaking his right cheekbone. Initially expected to miss the rest of the season after having surgery, Francoeur returned in five weeks. He finished the year in Double-A and made up for some lost time by batting .283 in the Arizona Fall League.
Strengths: Francoeur is one of the purest five-tool players in the minor leagues. Scouts rave about the way he consistently gets the barrel of the bat on the ball. He uses his hands well in his swing and generates tremendous bat speed, which combined with his natural power should enable him to hit 30-plus home runs annually in the majors. Francoeur uses the entire field and has become adept at driving outside pitches the opposite way. Defensively, he made a seamless move from center field to right last year. Managers rated his arm the best among Carolina League outfielders. He has outstanding range and gets good jumps on balls. His knack for being in the right position can be attributed to his speed as well as his baseball instincts and intelligence. As impressive as his tools may be, Francoeur’s makeup may stand out even more. One of the most competitive players in the organization, he's a fiery team leader, which could be just what the big league team needs.
Weaknesses: Francoeur's greatest need is to show more patience at the plate, and it's really the only flaw in his game. While he doesn't strike out excessively, he didn't draw a walk in 18 Double-A games and he worked just two in 25 AFL contests. The Braves don’t want him to change his aggressive approach, but he understands better strike-zone discipline will make him even more dangerous. After another year of making adjustments against advanced pitching, he should be ready for his major league debut soon thereafter.
The Future: Longtime Atlanta officials continue to compare Francoeur to Dale Murphy, and his swagger is more reminiscent of Chipper Jones. He's an exciting player who gives the game every ounce of his energy every time he takes the field. His natural ability and approach could make him a 30-30 man and an all-star for the Braves. Even if he's moved at a conservative pace, he should get his first taste of the big leagues by the end of 2006.
Background: No. 1 on this list a year ago, Marte turned in another solid season. He appeared in the Futures Game and rated as the top prospect in the Double-A Southern League. Despite missing a month with sprains in both ankles, he finished second in homers among Braves farmhands.
Strengths: Marte’s ability to drive the ball to all fields with plus power is outstanding and getting better. He already shows patience at the plate. His glovework is also above average, as managers named him the best defensive third baseman and top infield arm in the Southern League. He oozes intangibles, showing impressive maturity for his age.
Weaknesses: Marte’s swing has a slight uppercut and can get a little long when he tires, but the Braves consider those minor problems. Still, his strikeout rate jumped in 2004. His trunk has gotten a little thick over the past two years and might need monitoring.
The Future: Marte is the Braves’ long-term answer at third base. He needs at least another half-season in the minors and will begin 2005 at Triple-A Richmond, but he could be in place on a full-time basis as soon as Opening Day 2006. His potential as an impact all-around player is unquestioned.
Background: Despite playing at pitcher-friendly high Class A Myrtle Beach, McCann put together one of the best all-around seasons of any catcher in the minors. A Carolina League all-star, he tied for the organization lead in doubles and set a career high for homers. His older brother Brad, a third baseman, signed with the Marlins as a 2004 sixth-round pick, while his father Howard is the former head coach at Marshall.
Strengths: McCann has a sweet lefthanded swing and as much raw power as anyone in the organization. He employs a disciplined approach at the plate and makes solid contact. Drafted primarily for his bat, he has dedicated himself to improving behind the plate and was named the CL's best defensive catcher. He threw out 30 percent of basestealers with his strong, accurate arm and quick release.
Weaknesses: While pitchers like throwing to McCann, he still needs to hone his skills behind the plate, particularly his footwork and overall agility. Offensively, he could draw more walks. He's a below-average runner.
The Future: He has attracted comparisons to Eddie Taubensee, but the Braves believe McCann has a higher ceiling, particularly as a defender. McCann will spend 2005 at Atlanta's relocated Double-A Mississippi affiliate and could reach the majors by late 2006.
Background: Baseball America rated Davies, a standout in the East Cobb program in suburban Atlanta, as the nation's top player at ages 14 (1998) and 15 (1999). After a breakthrough season in 2003 and reaching Triple-A during a solid encore in 2004, he now stands as the Braves' best pitching prospect following the trades of Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer.
Strengths: After revamping his mechanics in 2003, Davies showed consistency throughout last season. His great command of his 89-93 mph fastball makes it a plus pitch. His changeup is the best in the system, and his 12-5 curveball features nice bite. He also does a good job of working both sides of the plate and altering the hitter’s eye level.
Weaknesses: With his delivery ironed out, Davies simply needs to compete against experienced hitters and prove he can make the necessary adjustments. His curveball could use a little more consistency.
The Future: Some Braves instructors believe Davies could win a job with the major league club this spring. He's more likely to open the season in Triple-A, but he'll make his big league debut soon enough.
Background: Lerew flew under the radar in high school because he also played football—he was an all-star punter in Pennsylvania—but area scout J.J. Picollo identified his talent and signability early on. The Braves stole him in the 11th round in 2001, and he has posted a 2.79 ERA in four pro seasons.
Strengths: Lerew's fastball suddenly jumped 4-5 mph in 2004. After touching 93 mph the year before, he started working at 91-94 and peaking at 97. The pitch also has nice movement, and he generates that velocity with an effortless delivery. He also has good overall control.
Weaknesses: The increase in velocity affected Lerew’s command, as he still threw strikes but didn't locate his pitches as effectively. His secondary offerings also need refinement. He lost the feel for his changeup at times and must tighten his slider further.
The Future: Provided he maintains his newfound velocity, Lerew has the makings of a power pitcher in the middle of a major league rotation. Added to the 40-man roster in November, he's expected to spend most of 2005 in Double-A.
Background: Stevens had the best first full season of the five pitchers Atlanta selected in the first three rounds of the 2003 draft. He had a streak of 25 consecutive innings without an earned run during June and finished eighth in the minors in ERA.
Strengths: Scouts drool over Stevens’ projectable body. He's a good athlete and shows excellent stamina. He has terrific command of three pitches, beginning with an 89-91 mph fastball that has registered as high as 94. He displays excellent feel for an overhand curveball that could become a plus power pitch. Stevens' changeup could give him a third above-average pitch. His competitiveness enhances his total package.
Weaknesses: Stevens showed his age at times in 2004, getting flustered on the rare occasions when he got hit hard. He needs to learn how to minimize the damage instead of throwing gas on the fire, as he did during two seven-run outings in July. His changeup needs more depth.
The Future: Stevens is well ahead of the curve for a young lefthanded pitcher. A promotion to high Class A is in his immediate future. He has a ceiling as a No. 2 starter.
Background: No one made greater strides in the Braves system in 2004 than Hernandez. The youngest player in the Carolina League, he boosted his batting average 41 points from the previous season while continuing to shine on defense. At least one opposing manager thought he had as bright a future as teammates Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann.
Strengths: Hernandez is a smooth fielder with soft, quick hands, drawing raves for the way he picks the ball at shortstop. His ability to transfer the ball from his glove to his throwing hand enables him to make highlight plays, and he also completes the routine ones. An improving contact hitter, he has decent pop and should continue to improve his ability to drive the ball as he gains strength and maturity.
Weaknesses: Hernandez needs more patience after drawing just 40 walks in 228 full-season games. His free-swinging approach will be challenged, and possibly exploited, at higher levels. His body is built more for quickness than speed, so he's not much of a threat to steal.
The Future: The Braves thought Hernandez could be special, and now they're convinced that will be the case. He's slated for Double-A and will be one of the game's youngest players at that level.
Background: A supplemental first-round pick in 2000, Johnson stalled in 2002-03 but started to get going again last season when he repeated Double-A. He also moved from shortstop to the outfield with relative ease, seeing time at all three spots and playing primarily in left field.
Strengths: Johnson has solid all-around tools and a hard-nosed, fearless approach. He spread his stance at the plate and regained the power he showed three years earlier in low Class A. As an outfielder, he displayed a plus arm along with good speed and range.
Weaknesses: Johnson is still learning to trust himself. Once he reacts instead of thinking about every move, he'll have a better chance to blossom. He also has to make more consistent contact at the plate and work on the nuances of outfield play.
The Future: It’s easy to forget how young Johnson is. Another dash of maturation could take his game to the next level. The Braves have slated Johnson for Triple-A in 2005 and continue to count on him as a long-term contributor in the majors.
Background: The Braves thought they got the best catcher out of the draft in both 2002 (Brian McCann, second round) and 2003 (Saltalamacchia, supplemental first round), and nothing has happened to change their mind. Despite wrist and hamstring injuries, Saltalamacchia had a solid first full season. His older brother Justin played briefly in the Braves system in 2003.
Strengths: Saltalamacchia’s calling card remains his bat. He possesses power from both sides of the plate, especially as a lefthander, where he has a sweet swing with natural loft. He has good physical skills behind the plate, with his arm strength and agility standing out the most. He's more athletic than most catchers.
Weaknesses: Though he made strides with his defense in 2004, Saltalamacchia's receiving and footwork need further improvement after he erased just 21 percent of basestealers. He's still learning the nuances of calling a game and working with pitchers. He could do a better job of loading his hands from the right side, where his swing looks somewhat mechanical.
The Future: With his performance at low Class A Rome, Saltalamacchia quieted skeptics who wondered if he'd be able to stay behind the plate. He'll open 2005 in high Class A.
Background: Boyer is a product of the same Walton High (Marietta, Ga.) program that produced big leaguers Marc Pisciotta and Chris Stowers and recent Red Sox draft picks Scott White (third round, 2002) and Mickey Hall (second, 2003). Boyer has moved slowly, reaching high Class A in his fifth pro season, but is making progress and led the system in innings pitched in 2004.
Strengths: Boyer operates with two plus pitches. His heavy sinker sits at 92-93 mph and generates plenty of groundball outs. His sharp curveball is a potential strikeout pitch. His command continues to get better each season.
Weaknesses: Boyer's changeup lags behind his other two pitches, and its development will determine whether he becomes a starter or reliever. He spent all of 2002 in the latter role before returning to the rotation. While he has matured in the last two seasons, he must remember to keep control of his emotions on the mound.
The Future: In 2006, Boyer finally will get his first taste of Double-A. His long-term role is still undetermined, but if he puts everything together it's possible that he could be a big league closer in the future.