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Background: Two years ago, the Braves were concerned Chen would not stay healthy enough to live up to his vast potential after three injury-stunted stints in short-season leagues. No longer. Natural maturity and nearly 20 pounds of muscle added to his once-skinny frame have enabled him to make every start since then, culminating with his first cup of coffee in the majors. Named the South Atlantic League's top lefthander in 1997, Chen was voted the Southern League's most valuable pitcher and rated its second-best prospect last summer after spending the first four months at Double-A Greenville. The International League proved to be even less challenging, with Chen averaging 6.4 hits allowed and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings over four starts. His success in his first tour with Atlanta set the stage for 1999. Strengths: Chen relies on deception and his ability to pitch. Opposing managers rave about his maturity and how his intelligence on the mound exceeds his 21 years. Though he struggled some with his control in Richmond and Atlanta, he has impeccable command and three plus pitches--fastball, curveball and changeup. His pitches have gained speed and sharpness over the past year due to his added strength as well as his constant work ethic. He also has a good pickoff move to first base. Some scouts have compared Chen's repertoire and his approach to pitching to that of Greg Maddux. Weaknesses: Not overpowering, Chen must continue to improve upon working the lower half of the strike zone with all of his pitches. He also needs consistent command of his curveball, the lone pitch that deserts him for brief periods of time. The Braves feel both areas have been upgraded in the past year and will continue along that track as he gains more experience. The Future: The trade of Denny Neagle opened a spot, barring an unexpected trade for a veteran, for Chen to open the 1999 season as Atlanta's fifth starter. A few concerns exist about his inexperience; nevertheless, he is not awed by the majors and has the makeup to maintain an even keel through the hills and valleys.
Background: A former high school football star, Lombard has made incredible strides over the past two years. He overcame an injured shoulder in the second half to rank in the Southern League top 10 in batting average, on-base percentage (.410), home runs and stolen bases. Strengths: No one in the organization other than Andruw Jones has a better combination of power and speed than Lombard. A student of the game, he refined his baserunning and perfected stealing bases last year, succeeding on his first 31 attempts. He also hits through the ball and can drive it to all fields. Weaknesses: Lombard's defense, especially his footwork and reads on fly balls, needs polish. He also needs to make better adjustments at the plate to reduce his high strikeout totals. The Future: The Braves feel no need to rush Lombard. He will start the season in Triple-A Richmond, but might wind up in left field with Atlanta during the second half. He should be a starter by 2000.
Background: The Braves held Perez back in 1997, limiting him to scheduled relief appearances at Class A Macon in order to reduce the chances of injury. Turned loose in 1998, Perez used a strong spring to jump to Double-A Greenville before climbing to Richmond and Atlanta in the season's final two months. Strengths: Perez is overpowering with a mid-90s fastball, but his best pitch is his sharp curveball. He's had the ability to succeed, but learned last year how to make the adjustments necessary at the game's higher levels. Weaknesses: Like Chen, Perez must do a better job of pitching lower in the strike zone. He also must realize that he does not need to strike out every batter. When starting, he tends to lose focus during games. The Future: Perez has an inside track on a relief role in Atlanta. Otherwise, he will return to Richmond as a starter. His role over the long haul will be determined by the needs of the major league club.
Background: The Appalachian League's top prospect in 1997, Rivera endured an adjustment year last season. After returning from a back injury early in the campaign, Rivera discovered some batters can hit his 98-mph fastball. He still averaged 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings while surrendering just 7.6 hits. Strengths: Rivera throws gas. His loose body and fluid motion generate incredible velocity with good movement on his pitches. When he mixes in his plus changeup and keeps hitters off-balance, Rivera can be virtually unhittable. His control is superb. Weaknesses: Rivera sometimes becomes enamored with his fastball and shuns his other two pitches. How quickly he moves up the organizational ladder will be determined by how consistent he can become with the command of his changeup and curveball. Rivera also needs to continue improving his physical strength. The Future: Rivera's learning process will continue at either Class A Myrtle Beach or Greenville. The Braves believe he is on the verge of moving up the ladder fast.
Background: Few minor league stats were more deceiving than Marquis' record at Class A Danville. Even though he lost his first 10 decisions, Carolina League managers rated him the league's fifth-best prospect, and the Braves considered him one of the most improved pitchers in the organization. Strengths: Marquis' calling card is his 96-mph fastball. He added an excellent curveball at Macon in 1997 and two-seam and four-seam changeups last fall during instructional league. His intensity and competitiveness can be intimidating. Marquis expects to win every time he takes the mound. Weaknesses: Marquis throws everything hard and needs a pitch to offset his fastball and curveball. His straight change will be that pitch if he can throw it over the course of a full season. The Future: The addition of his changeups sets the stage for Marquis. He, too, could shoot through the system. A solid spring will land him in Greenville to open the season.
Background: After a subpar showing in 1997, McGlinchy reestablished himself as a prospect by dominating the Carolina League before joining Greenville for the final month of the season. He moved to the bullpen, where the Braves believe his future lies, in the Puerto Rican League. Strengths: McGlinchy has added a split-finger fastball as a second pitch in relief. His ability to go all-out for short periods has increased the velocity of his fastball from 88 to 96 mph. His command is also back to being nearly impeccable. Weaknesses: A starter for all 69 of his professional contests, McGlinchy must adapt to his new role. He has to stay consistent with the splitter, for his repertoire is not deep. A little more of a killer instinct also would not hurt. The Future: The Braves are drawing favorable comparisons of McGlinchy to John Rocker, who made the jump from Double-A to the majors in less than a year. Opening the season at Richmond is a definite possibility for McGlinchy.
Background: Furcal has played two years in the United States and won't turn 19 until Aug. 24. He made as much progress as anyone in the organization at rookie-level Danville in 1998, earning recognition as the Appalachian League's top prospect while shattering the league's stolen-base record. Strengths: Moved from second base to shortstop in instructional league, Furcal has three plus tools and will improve a fourth once he settles in at his new position. He has outstanding speed, a strong arm, great range and excellent hitting ability. His all-around talent and instincts to play the game may be his strongest attributes. Weaknesses: Since power is not Furcal's forte, he needs to perfect the little man's game with bunt hits and moving runners over. Furcal must improve upon his ability in taking the right angle to get around grounders at shortstop. The Future: Atlanta has longed for an athletic, defensive-minded shortstop. Furcal is their man and figures to be a starter at Macon in 1999.
Background: Bowie used his place on the 40-man roster as motivation to put his career in high gear in 1998. He enjoyed his most consistent season at Greenville and relished the role as the number one starter in August after Chen and Perez were promoted to Triple-A. He added to that performance with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Strengths: Bowie's fastball is sneaky fast, consistently reaching as high as 91 mph. His best pitch is a changeup, and he has command of three pitches. He blossomed into a leader on the pitching staff, a trait he had not shown in the past. Weaknesses: Bowie has a tendency to give hitters too much credit and pitch around them instead of challenging them. His curveball needs more consistency and must remain low in the strike zone. The Future: Bowie will take his game to Richmond in 1999 and should be knocking on the majors' door by the end of the campaign.
Background: Richmond was a house of horrors for Helms in 1997. The nephew of former major leaguer Tommy Helms, he returned last year and showed no ill effects while putting together his most consistent season as a pro. Strengths: Helms has all the tools needed to be a prototype major league third baseman. He has a plus arm and his glove is as consistent as any in the National League. He is a consistent hitter who flirts with .300 and continues to add power as he matures. Weaknesses: Helms has as much raw power as anyone in the organization, but he needs to display it more with his numbers. He also must remain aggressive at the plate and stay focused in what he is trying to accomplish instead of worrying about having Chipper Jones blocking his path to the big leagues. The Future: Atlanta's needs do not include a corner infielder, which will send Helms back to Richmond for another season. First base may be a viable option once Andres Galarraga retires.
Background: The younger brother of Pirates outfielder Brian Giles, Marcus emerged from nowhere to lead the South Atlantic League in homers and place third in batting average. He was ranked the league's No. 10 prospect. Strengths: A hitting machine whose pumped-up physique draws comparisons to Tigers prospect Gabe Kapler, Giles has a quick, compact swing that allows him to turn on pitches and causes balls to jump off his bat. He's an overachiever whose determination will take him at least as far as his talent does. Weaknesses: Giles made solid progress defensively in 1998 while working with coach Glenn Hubbard at Macon. He still needs to improve his hands, footwork and ability to turn the double play. His bat will compensate for some shortcomings with the glove, but the Braves prefer a second baseman who can catch the ball. The Future: Spring training will determine whether Giles goes to Myrtle Beach or skips that level and reports to Greenville.