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In his first full season, Betemit reached the major leagues when rosters were expanded in September. Signed prior to his 16th birthday in violation of baseball rules, Betemit sued the Braves during the spring of 2000 before reaching a contract agreement shortly thereafter. He was the top prospect in the short-season New York-Penn League that year, then jumped to high Class A Myrtle Beach to start 2001. Promoted to Double-A Greenville in July after Rafael Furcal was lost for the season, Betemit rose to the occasion and improved in all phases of his game. Carolina League managers rated Betemit as their top prospect, while Southern League skippers ranked him third. Betemit is a natural baseball player and a budding five-tool talent who's still maturing. His body will get stronger, which should enable him to hit for power from both sides of the plate. He hits to all fields with his line-drive stroke. He has outstanding athleticism, shown by the Ozzie Smith-style flip he sometimes makes when taking the field. Betemit also has slightly above-average speed that should allow him to steal 15 bases a year. Defensively, he has good range, a strong arm and soft hands. He thrives on challenges and raises his game to the level of the competition. He has lost his focus on occasion at shortstop, leading to careless mistakes. Some scouts say he will outgrow the position and will have to move to third base. He might be better there because it's a reaction position instead of one that requires concentration. His plate discipline is rudimentary and may be exploited by pitchers at higher levels. The Braves showed with Furcal in 2000 they aren't afraid to let a middle infielder make a big jump to the major leagues. Betemit doesn't have an obvious job opportunity in Atlanta, but should he prove during spring training that he's ready to take over a starting job, the Braves are willing to create room. The Braves all but guaranteed he'll start the season at Triple-A Richmond by signing Vinny Castilla.
Wainwright learned valuable lessons in his first full season, getting off to a strong start before struggling for the first time in his career. He did break the Class A Macon single-season record for strikeouts, previously held by Bruce Chen. At 6-foot-6, Wainwright should develop into a strong pitcher with an intimidating presence on the mound. His low- 90s fastball with good movement is his best pitch, and his curveball and changeup are close to being plus offerings. The Braves were encouraged about how he went from a thrower to a pitcher over the course of the year, learning about the art of getting hitters out even as the organization altered Wainwright's delivery and mechanics in 2001. Because he's still growing into his tall frame, he can become inconsistent with his release point, though his command has been solid to this point. He also needs to add stamina. Wainwright could use more experience, too, so that he becomes savvier in certain aspects of the game. Atlanta is in no hurry to push Wainwright. He'll open 2002 at Myrtle Beach and should spend most of the year making adjustments against Carolina League hitters.
Johnson made the Braves look brilliant in 2001. Little known as a supplemental first-round pick the year before, he blossomed into one of the most dangerous hitters in the South Atlantic League. After getting off to a 1-for-24 start, Johnson ended up second in the league with a .404 on-base percentage and fourth with a .513 slugging percentage. An excellent athlete with a potent stick, Johnson hits the ball hard and has as much raw power as anyone in the organization. He also has above-average speed that enabled him to steal 25 bases. Sally League managers tabbed him as the league's best prospect, best hitter, best power hitter and most exciting player. Johnson might not blossom, though, until he finds a comfortable defensive position. He struggled at shortstop in the season's first half, making numerous careless mistakes, before showing better concentration during the last two months. Johnson tends to ride the emotional roller coaster and can be hard on himself when he fails. Scouting director Roy Clark and scout Charlie Smith simply outworked the competition in evaluating Johnson. He'll move up to Myrtle Beach in 2002.
Evert struggled in his first shot at the South Atlantic League in 2000, but overpowered low Class A hitters in a brief return to the league in 2001 before receiving a promotion to Myrtle Beach. He was shut down with a minor shoulder problem in late July but looked strong again during instructional league. Evert is the total package: a big, strong righthander whose body has matured a lot since he signed. He's developing into a quintessential workhorse as well as a power pitcher with big-time stuff, featuring a 92-95 mph fastball, a plus curveball and workable changeup. Fearless on the mound, Evert also has a good feel for pitching and excellent command. As with any pitcher who has battled an injury, he needs to stay healthy and prove his shoulder is 100 percent. Otherwise, experience against better hitters should lead to natural improvements in his game. Spring training will determine if Evert needs more seasoning at Myrtle Beach or if he's ready to pitch at Double-A Greenville. No one in the organization would be surprised if he moved quickly.
Duran debuted in the United States in 2001, after leading the Rookielevel Venezuelan Summer League with six triples while hitting .306-8-41 the previous year. He wound up leading Atlanta's Rookie-level Gulf Coast League club in batting, runs, hits, doubles and stolen bases as the league's fifth-best prospect. A potential five-tool player, Duran is making rapid progress in all phases of the game. He has great instincts and makes everything look easy. Duran has above-average speed with excellent range in center field, a good arm and the ability to make contact at the plate. His GCL manager Rick Albert said Duran won five games with his glove alone. Nothing in Duran's game needs the kind of improvement that experience won't solve. He's still making adjustments to playing in a different country and against top-flight competition, and he must consistently get the most of his tools. He needs to get stronger, which should come naturally, and show more patience at the plate. Duran's first two professional seasons have the Braves excited about his future. The organization expects him to prove in spring training that he's ready to make the jump to low Class A.
Belisle made impressive progress in 2000 but ruptured a disc in his back during spring training that required surgery and forced him to miss all of 2001. He went through a rigorous rehab program and looked strong during instructional league, which led to an unexpected stint in the Arizona Fall League. Belisle isn't unlike righthander Brett Evert in that he has a strong, athletic body that could allow him to eat a lot of innings at higher levels. He's tenacious and won't give in to hitters in any situation. Belisle throws a lowto mid-90s fastball along with a changeup and breaking ball. He has excellent command of all three pitches. Anytime a player misses an entire season, there is reason for concern. The Braves believe Belisle made up for some lost time during the fall, but they will be looking for him to stay healthy for the entire 2002 season in order to get closer to the big leagues. Belisle had his sights set on Greenville before hurting his back. He'll have the opportunity to reach that destination once again this spring and appears ready to get back on the fast track to the majors.
A potential 2000 first-round pick who lasted until the fourth round because of signability questions, Miner signed for $1.2 million just before reporting to class at Miami. Making his pro debut in 2001, he led the New York-Penn League in innings and placed fifth in ERA. The Braves were thrilled with how well he performed against older and more experienced hitters. Atlanta officials are most impressed with Miner's knowledge of how to pitch despite his limited pro experience. A sinker-slider pitcher, he'll have better overall stuff as his body matures. His hard sinker clocks in the 89-91 mph range and he has command of all of his pitches. He's one of the fiercest competitors in the system. The Braves are looking for more consistency from Miner, particularly with his breaking ball. He tends to get lackadaisical at times and leave his pitches up in the strike zone. Otherwise, experience and fine-tuning should keep him on the right track. Miner looked so impressive with Jamestown that he could skip Macon and open 2002 at Myrtle Beach. Wherever he goes, he'll be looked upon as one of the leaders of the rotation.
Few pitchers looked better in the Gulf Coast League than Lopez. The righthander skipped the Latin American summer leagues and made his pro debut by placing second in the GCL in strikeouts and fifth in innings. Managers ranked him the league's ninth-best prospect, one of three Braves tabbed among the league's top 20. Lopez' stuff is as good as that of any pitcher in the organization. Though still raw, he's a power pitcher with a developing 92-94 mph fastball that has outstanding movement. He also throws his curveball and changeup for strikes, and both have an excellent chance of becoming plus pitches. He shows good command for someone of his age and experience, though in many other ways Lopez shows that he is immature and has significant adjustments to make in all phases of his game. His stuff borders on major league quality right now, but he needs to learn how to put it together and have success every time he takes the mound. After showing steady progress in the GCL, Lopez is ready to take the next step into the full-season leagues. He is expected to open 2002 in the Macon rotation.
Along with Adam Wainwright and Zach Miner, Nelson is yet another top pitching prospect from Atlanta's 2000 draft class. He led the Gulf Coast League team with 54 strikeouts in 45 innings in 2000, so he already has 208 strikeouts in 195 professional innings. He showed more consistency as 2001 progressed and led the Macon staff in wins. Nelson impresses scouts with his heavy 93-95 mph fastball and competitive spirit. His changeup and curveball also should develop into plus pitches. Braves scouts thought he had the best breaking ball among the pitchers they scouted in 2000. No longer a raw thrower, Nelson has an excellent idea of how to pitch, and his progress appears to be on the verge of accelerating. He was a heavily scouted third baseman in high school, so he still is learning the nuances of pitching, particularly in working both sides of the plate. He tries to be too fine at times in spite of his stuff, often causing him to work from behind in the count. Nelson is expected to continue his steady climb by beginning 2002 at Myrtle Beach.
After several years showing flashes of his talent, Bong finally became consistent and took the steps Atlanta officials had been hoping to see in 2001. He was the Braves' first significant sign out of the Far East, though the organization has been very active in other parts of the world. After a difficult April and May at Myrtle Beach, he went 9-4, 1.97 during the season's last three months. Bong succeeds by mixing his pitches and maintaining command of all his offerings. He uses both sides of the plate and throws strikes. His fastball registers in the high 80s and showed more movement in 2001. His changeup may be his best pitch, while his curveball developed a sharper break. Bong is an excellent athlete who fields his position well and swings the bat much better than the average hurler. The Braves want to see Bong become more confident with all of his pitches. As a starter, he needs to stay on top of his curveball in order to have an effective third pitch, which will make his fastball and changeup even better. Bong may not be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he has the stuff and the ability to have success similar to Kirk Rueter's. Bong is expected to spend most of 2002 at Greenville.
Spooneybarger placed himself in the running for a job in the Atlanta bullpen in 2002 with a dominating performance at Richmond last year. The Braves saw similar progress from him the year before at Myrtle Beach, and they were impressed with the adjustments he made against tougher competition after a slow start at Greenville last spring. After failing to look comfortable as a starter in the Carolina League two years ago, Spooneybarger has blossomed by showing a reliever's mindset. He also has the physical ability to succeed with regular use, as his stuff improves the more he takes the mound. Spooneybarger has a deceptive delivery that helped him hold opponents to a .205 batting average last year. His best pitch is an outstanding hard curveball. He also mixes in a two-seam fastball that acts like a splitter and a four-seam heater that consistently clocks at 93-95 mph. Confidence remains the key to his long-term success, though he has improved immensely in that area over the past two years. He was shut down in winter ball because of concerns he was overworking his arm while also on a weight-training regimen, but he is expected to be healthy and ready to compete for a big league job in spring training.
Digby joins several other Atlanta prospects as a budding power pitcher who has yet to emerge from the embryological stages of a thrower. His strength is a hard, sinking 94-mph fastball with excellent movement that he throws effortlessly and with a consistent arm slot. He's continuing to refine his secondary offerings, particularly his changeup, and lacks command of all his pitches. His 32 walks last year were the second-highest total in the Rookie-level Appalachian League. Nevertheless, Appy managers rated Digby as the fifth-best prospect in the league, noting his projectable body and raw stuff. With the Braves stocked with young pitchers throughout the bottom half of the organization, they'll be patient with Digby. He's expected to make the climb to the Macon starting rotation in 2002.
The Braves weren't shy about expressing their disappointment with Kozlowski following his efforts in 2000. Instead of pouting about his performance, Kozlowski showed more maturity, improved his dedication to his profession and emerged as a prospect. After going 3-8, 4.21 in 15 games at Macon in 2000 while battling tendinitis in his left shoulder, he returned to the South Atlantic League last year and ranked fifth in ERA. Kozlowski developed a stronger and firmer body with an offseason conditioning program. His work between starts also improved, thereby making him a smarter and more effective pitcher. Few scouts would be surprised if Kozlowski's body became even stronger in the next year or two, which should improve the quality of his pitches even more. He throws a 90-93 mph fastball, along with a good curveball and a changeup, and he isn't shy about throwing strikes or pitching inside. The Braves have been rewarded for their patience with Kozlowski and are hoping to see more progress and consistency this year at Myrtle Beach.
A supplemental first-rounder taken 40th overall last June, Lewis was the Braves' highestdrafted college player since they took Mike Kelly with the No. 2 overall pick in 1991. He was the starting second baseman on Team USA's college squad in 2000 and played three years at Georgia Tech, where he held the Yellow Jackets' offense together as a junior while superstar Mark Teixeira was injured. Lewis then held his own in the New York-Penn League before blossoming during instructional league, where his fielding and hitting discipline improved. He has excellent bat speed and quick hands at the plate and in the field. He saw extensive activity at shortstop in college last spring, has a good arm and shows above-average footwork, which allows him to make the double-play pivot with ease. Lewis is also considered a potential offensive contributor who could produce line drives while hitting second or in the bottom third of the batting order. He must make more contact and employ better strikezone judgment. Atlanta believes his instructional league performance could enable Lewis to skip low Class A with a strong spring.
Davies may have been the Braves' seventh pick (fourth round) last June, yet he may have the highest ceiling of any player in the team's draft class. While he developed as an amateur, Baseball America rated him the best 14- and 15-year-old player in the nation, and he received honorable mention at ages 16 and 17. He showed exceptional poise in the Gulf Coast League to earn a late-season callup to Macon, where he allowed two hits with seven strikeouts in a six-inning start. Davies is an excellent all-around athlete who could have been a catching prospect had he concentrated on that position. He's extremely competitive, and the Braves love his makeup and presence on the mound. Davies has the ability to command three major league pitches. His fastball was in the 88-90 mph range in the GCL after sitting on 92-93 mph during the spring. Atlanta thinks he had a tired arm after pitching for nearly two straight years and believes he'll start to make tremendous progress once he combines some rest with professional instruction. He didn't turn 18 until after signing with the Braves, making him one of the youngest and most promising pitchers in the organization.
Sylvester split the 2001 season between Greenville and Richmond, yet never found the consistency needed to succeed at the Triple-A level. He spent most of his time trying to improve his mechanics, which led to a lack of control. The Braves believe Sylvester can overcome his most recent hurdle and continue his development as one of the organization's top relief prospects. He owns a 93-95 mph fastball, along with a sharp-breaking curveball and a decent splitter. Sylvester has battled his confidence throughout his pro career and is faced with a similar challenge heading into 2002. Atlanta hopes he conquers this latest bout in Richmond to set the stage for a promotion to the majors when the need arises.
No pitcher in the Atlanta organization had greater success last year than Hodges, who shared Carolina League pitcher of the year honors with Cardinals prospect Jimmy Journell. He added that trophy to the College World Series MVP award he won in 2000, when he won the championship game in relief for Louisiana State. Fully recovered from 1999 shoulder surgery, he led the Braves system in wins and innings during his first pro season. He succeeds with a nasty slider that hitters find hard to lay off and harder to make contact against. Though not overpowering, Hodges also throws a sneaky fastball with good movement that does a good job of complementing his slider. After making minor adjustments to his mechanics last spring, Hodges was consistently ahead in the count and averaged 0.9 walks per nine innings. Unheralded prior to 2001, he'll try to make an even bigger name for himself this year at Greenville.
A 21st-round pick in 2000, Wright made incredible progress during the latter part of that Gulf Coast League season and in instructional league. He struggled last season in the Appalachian League before gaining a handle on his slider in early August, and went 2-2, 2.32 with 43 strikeouts in his final 31 innings. His efforts included a 13-strikeout performance at Kingsport. Wright is in the process of making the change from a thrower to a pitcher. He's a good competitor who is most effective when he stays within himself. His fastball is clocked in the 92-93 mph range and his changeup showed improvement last year. As with most hurlers who have yet to celebrate their 20th birthday, Wright needs to mature both physically and mentally, but he has a good idea of how to pitch and has shown to be a quick learner. He'll be expected to earn a job in Macon's rotation this spring.
Atlanta officials have differing opinions on Langerhans and his long-term potential. While some in the organization think he won't hit consistently enough to reach the majors, several others are convinced he's on track to be a major league right fielder. Langerhans has been the system's best defensive outfielder since he signed in 1998. He also has one of the strongest outfield arms and possesses the instincts to play any of the three outfield positions. His struggles have come at the plate, as Langerhans failed to hit above .268 in a full-season league prior to batting .287 last year during his second stint at Myrtle Beach. His bat showed signs of blossoming two winters ago in Australia, and he has enough power to hit 20-plus home runs in the major leagues. Langerhans also possesses above-average speed and is a good baserunner. In other words, all five tools of his tools have the potential to be average or better. The Braves are hoping he puts everything together in Double-A this year.
McClendon was a supplemental first-round pick of the Reds in 1996 who didn't sign and had a disappointing career at Florida, but he seemed to blossom after the Braves drafted him. So the organization isn't sure what went wrong with him last year. He had some minor injuries around the midpoint of the campaign, but those ailments fail to explain how miserable his command was for most of the season. Ranked as the organization's No. 2 prospect going into 2001, he couldn't find the strike zone after opening the season in Triple-A. He fared little better in two poor Double-A starts, then landed in high Class A in late July and continued to struggle in eight relief outings. After averaging 3.4 walks per nine innings during his first two years as a pro, he surrendered 7.0 per nine innings last season. When in a groove, McClendon has a low-90s fastball with good movement, a sharp curveball and a good knowledge of how to pitch. He was working on refining his mechanics last year but never could get back on track. After appearing on the verge of reaching the major leagues following the 2000 season, McClendon will try to regain his success in the upper reaches of the farm system this year.
The 24th overall pick in the 2001 draft, McBride showed an advanced ability to pitch for an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League. He threw his hard fastball consistently in the 94-95 range, averaging 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings and not allowing a homer. Unlike most of the top pitching prospects in the Atlanta organization, McBride isn't physically imposing and isn't very projectable. Still, when a left arm can produce as much gas as McBride's can, a pitcher tends to find his way to the top. He attracted comparisons prior to the draft to Houston closer Billy Wagner, who spoke with the young lefthander about his size (5-foot-10) and approach to the game. McBride has taken much of the advice to heart. His plans now call for refining his changeup and breaking ball and improving his overall command. He also needs to pitch inside more. A strong spring will land him in the Macon rotation.
Overshadowed in the Macon rotation by Adam Wainwright, Bubba Nelson and Ben Kozlowski, Waters had a quietly successful 2001 season. Though his stuff isn't overwhelming, he gets results by competing well and throwing strikes. His 91-mph fastball isn't one of the best in the organization and his decent curveball never will be mistaken for Bert Blyleven's, but Waters knows what he wants to accomplish every time he takes the mound. As a result, he's making steady progress. He does a good job of setting up hitters and his easy, fluid delivery gives him good command of his three primary pitches. His curve and changeup could use some upgrading, but he still manages to prevent hitters from making solid contact. A promotion to Myrtle Beach appears to be imminent for Waters this spring.
A potential five-tool talent, Marte signed out of the Dominican Republic for $600,000 in September 2000, shortly after the end of the Braves' six-month ban on signing Dominicans, the result of grabbing Wilson Betemit before his 16th birthday. Scouts talk about the special sound a ball makes off the bat of premier players, and Marte's hits fall into that category. Marte has a smooth and easy swing, and balls jump off his bat. Atlanta officials believe he'll have plus power and will hit for average. He also possesses outstanding instincts in the infield with soft hands, excellent reflexes at the hot corner and a strong arm. Marte had a lackluster season at Rookie-level Danville and has considerable work to do with his plate coverage and strike-zone judgment. At the same time, he was 17. The Braves hope Marte will make the climb to Macon and be one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League in 2001, but won't be disappointed if he plays at a lower level.
When Castro reported to Greenville last year, he was considered an extra infielder. After Travis Wilson was promoted to Richmond in May, Castro took over at shortstop. He excelled, earning a starting job in both the Southern League and Double-A all-star games. The lone Greenville player selected to play in the Double-A event, he responded with a double and a home run in three at-bats, and was promoted to Triple-A shortly thereafter. Castro has to be evaluated over a period of five or six games to appreciate what he does. He's a steady defender who's capable of putting the bat on the ball, and he'll surprise some pitchers with his occasional pop. He also has an unmatched love for the game and works as hard as anyone in his preparation. A potential utilityman at the major league level, Castro is expected to return to Richmond after getting a look during spring training.
Burrus struggled in his first taste of professional baseball after being drafted 29th overall last June. He had difficulty making adjustments at the plate in the Gulf Coast League, and his defense looked out of kilter for most of the summer. As a result, the Braves moved Burrus to third base during instructional league while giving him some time in left field. Atlanta officials believe he'll blossom now that he has gotten his feet wet as a pro and feels more comfortable on defense. He has an outstanding arm with plus speed and excellent allaround athleticism. Burrus also possess great bat speed that generates the best raw power of anyone in the Braves' 2001 draft class. An aggressive hitter, he showed a lack of patience in the GCL and tended to carry any difficulties at the plate to other aspects of his game. A cousin of the Brewers' Jeffrey Hammonds, Burrus will be expected to settle in this year at Macon and start to show why he was considered one of the top high school hitters available in the 2001 draft.
The Braves tried to help shore up center field, their weakest position in the minors, by drafting Stern in the third round in 2001. Rated the best draft prospect in Nebraska by Baseball America, he draws favorable comparisons to Lenny Dykstra with his all-out style of play and decent pop at the top of the order. Stern's greatest strength is his speed. He has been clocked between 6.4 and 6.5 seconds in the 60-year dash, covers center field from gap to gap and creates havoc on the basepaths with his aggressiveness. His arm is above average for a center fielder. Stern showed little difficulty in making the adjustment to wood bats and also had a good eye at the plate. A native of Canada, he hasn't played as much baseball as many of his American counterparts, but he has a chance to make an impact in an organization that has minimal talent in the outfield.
No Braves short-season pitcher was more consistent last year than Merricks, who succeeds without overpowering stuff. While Appy League teammates Bryan Digby and Blaine Boyer overpowered opponents, Merricks limited them to a .209 average while striking out 12.1 batters per nine innings. Not bad for his first taste of starting as a pro. He's a strike thrower with excellent command and a good feel for pitching. He gets ahead in the count by working off his high-80s fastball, which has good life. Merricks also throws a slider and changeup, both of which are workable but will need to be fine-tuned as he progresses through the organization. His next stop is scheduled to be the rotation at Macon, where he'll get his first taste of full-season ball.
Not unlike Brett Evert, Manning experienced somewhat of a comeback last year after an impressive debut in 1999 and a difficult campaign in 2000. He hit 23 home runs in Class A and made progress with his offensive game. While he made more consistent contact, Manning still has some holes in his big, uppercut swing and tries to do too much at the plate at times. The Braves would like for him to focus on hitting line drives in the gaps instead of home runs. Drafted as a shortstop and moved to second base during his first full pro season, Manning was shifted to third base in instructional league. His hands aren't particularly soft, and he needs more consistency with the leather as well as with his throws. He's scheduled to return to Myrtle Beach this year.
At times Aldridge will appear to be putting everything together and developing into a multitool prospect, only to look completely lost shortly thereafter. The former football standout looked to be taking his game to the next level last year in spring training, where he impressed Braves manager Bobby Cox by batting .333 and displayed both power and speed. He came back to earth at Greenville, where he hit .246 and continued to have problems with plate coverage and strike-zone discipline. A natural athlete, Aldridge's tools remain rough after five years in the organization. He could hit 20 home runs annually in the major leagues, and his defense and arm strength have improved over the past two years. If he can do a more consistent job at the plate, he might earn a shot as the Braves' fourth outfielder this season.
Wilson nearly made Atlanta's 2001 roster after hitting .415 in spring training. He continued to produce at an impressive rate during a one-month stint at Greenville before hitting the wall at Richmond. Wilson's greatest strength is his versatility, which allows him to play first, second and third base as well as the corner outfield positions. He also can be an aggressive hitter who makes the ball jump off his bat, resulting in line drives to all fields. A former fast-pitch softball player from New Zealand, Wilson possesses minimal patience and little idea of the strike zone. Triple-A pitchers took advantage of those weaknesses, which will cost him a shot in the big leagues if he doesn't improve. Another stint in Richmond is on Wilson's agenda for the 2002 campaign.