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While Brian McCann was establishing himself as a quality young backstop in the majors, Saltalamacchia made a case for being the best catching prospect in the minors. The 36th overall pick of the 2003 draft, he has made impressive leaps in mental and physical maturity, leading to rapid improvement on the diamond. After working on his strength and conditioning during the offseason, he established personal bests across the board and rated as the No. 1 prospect in the high Class A Carolina League. He also got married on the beach at midseason. Following the regular season, Saltalamacchia posted a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League and served as a catalyst on Team USA in an Olympic pre-qualifying tournament. He went 7-for-8 at the plate in three games, singling in the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth versus Mexico and swatting a pair of solo home runs against Panama. His brother Justin played briefly in the Braves system in 2003. Just 20, Saltalamacchia has a professional approach beyond his years and power from both sides of the plate. He has a sweet, textbook swing from the left side, with natural loft that should lead to significant home run totals at higher levels. His swing from the right side has become much smoother than when he initially signed, but remains somewhat mechanical. He'll strike out, though not in excessive amounts. Coming out of high school, Saltalamacchia's footwork behind the plate was considered suspect, but he since has proven to be a solid defender with a plus arm. He has refined his throwing mechanics, though he could use more accuracy after throwing out just 26 percent of basestealers at Myrtle Beach. He has nonstop energy, works well with pitchers and has shown more feel for calling a game. What impresses the Braves most about Saltalamacchia's catching is his tremendous desire to improve and his ability to process instruction and put it to use. He's an above-average athlete for a catcher and his sturdy body should hold up well behind the plate. While he's a below-average runner, he's smart on the bases and quicker than most backstops. Numerous clubs inquired about Saltalamacchia's availability during the Winter Meetings, but he's as close to untouchable as any player in the organization. He'll continue his steady progress by moving up to Double-A Mississippi this year. Even though the Braves traded Johnny Estrada in December, they still have McCann and Brayan Pena ahead of him in the system. That means Saltalamacchia will have plenty of time to refine his game, though he could push for a promotion to Triple-A Richmond in 2006. He should be ready for the big leagues at some point in 2007.
Andrus, whose older brother Erold plays in the Twins system, showed off his tools on a summer showcase tour in 2004 and signed as a 16-yearold in January 2005. The Braves challenged him by sending him to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and he had no trouble adapting to pro ball and the United States. He even hit .400 in the Rookie-level Appalachian League championship series. Andrus' maturity far exceeds his age, both on the field and off. At the plate, he uses the entire field and possesses plus power that should increase as his body matures. On defense, his arm, range, footwork and quickness are all exceptional tools. After tiring in August, Andrus needs to add strength to his lithe frame. He tends to try to do too much at times, though experience should help him learn to play within himself. Andrus will compete for a job in the low Class A South Atlantic League in 2006, where he almost certainly would be the youngest player in the league at 17. He's at least three or four years away from Atlanta, but his upside is huge.
Escobar was the most coveted of five Cuban defectors who entered the 2005 draft, causing teams to scramble when he declared himself eligible in mid-May. Atlanta was able to gain additional insight on him because he was a childhood friend of Braves catcher Brayan Pena. After signing for $475,000 as a second-round pick, Escobar had no problems handling low Class A. Escobar has solid all-around tools, featuring a steady glove, strong arm and a potent bat with budding power. He also has a large athletic frame that allows him to play a physical brand of baseball. He possesses strong hands and wrists as well as above-average arm strength. He made just six errors in 48 games at low Class A Rome. Escobar's range isn't remarkable. He's not as fast as most shortstops, though he has average speed and fluid actions. He's still adjusting to living in the U.S. and away from his family. Escobar could quickly develop into the Braves long-term answer at shortstop, though Elvis Andrus will have something to say about that.
Lerew is a poster boy for the Braves' extensive scouting efforts, as they spotted him though he was more of a football standout in high school. He took off on the mound in 2004 when he added 4-5 mph to his fastball. He pitched in the Futures Game in 2005 and made his major league debut in September. Scouts love Lerew's loose, easy arm action, which produces an explosive plus fastball that sits at 91-94 mph. He's aggressive and shows no fear in going after hitters. His command and the overall quality of his pitches improved in 2005. An outstanding athlete, he has the mindset and ability to start or relieve as needed. On occasion, Lerew loses the feel for his otherwise solid changeup, which has good late action. He's still fine-tuning a slider that's a plus pitch at times. The Braves would like Lerew to get at least another half-season in Triple-A. They believe he could mirror Kyle Davies and step into the Atlanta rotation if needed in mid-2006.
Devine set a North Carolina State career record for saves. After signing for $1.3 million as the 27th overall pick, he became the first member of the 2005 draft class to reach the majors. The first pitcher in big league history to surrender grand slams in each of his first two appearances, Devine also served up the 18th-inning homer to Chris Burke that ended the National League Division Series. An excellent athlete, Devine has a 92-97 mph fastball and a mid-80s Frisbee slider. His pitches are difficult to pick up from his low three-quarters arm slot. The Braves love his makeup and the way he handled adversity in the majors. His low arm slot can leave him susceptible to lefthanders (who hit .312 against him in the minors), so Devine may have to develop a changeup. His control wasn't as sharp at higher levels. Devine probably needs a little more time in the minors. Before too long, he should figure into the back of Atlanta's bullpen.
The South Atlantic League's most valuable pitcher in 2004, James blazed through three levels in 2005 before his September callup. Along the way, he ranked third in the minors in ERA (2.12) and fourth in strikeouts (193). James' changeup is the best in the system. He has plus command of his 89-91 mph fastball, and he does an excellent job of pitching to both sides of the plate. He keeps hitters off balance by upsetting their timing. James isn't overpowering and his stuff is unlikely to improve. His 0.3 groundball-flyball ratio was the lowest in the minor leagues, and could present problems if he doesn't miss bats in the majors. His slider needs more consistency in order to give him a third pitch as a big league starter. James will compete for a job in Atlanta during spring training, though he most likely will open 2006 with a tuneup in Triple-A. He's capable of developing into a mid-rotation starter.
The Royals failed to sign Jones as a 2002 sixth-round pick out of high school, but the Braves took him in the 24th round a year later and landed him in 2004 as a draft-and-follow. He broke his left hand on a slide in late April 2005, costing him two months, and made steady progress once he returned. Jones has impressive tools and athleticism, with natural strength, raw power and a quick swing that should enable him to hit for average at higher levels. His above-average speed and strong arm allow him to play any outfield spot. Some scouts wonder if Jones will develop enough power to be a corner outfielder. He moves well but he has yet to grasp the nuances of baserunning. He also needs to take better angles on balls hit to the outfield. Jones displayed more polish than expected at high Class A. With just 440 at-bats under his belt, he needs a complete season in 2006. He could reach Double-A at some point during the year.
After a modest pro debut, Campbell showed why he was Atlanta's top 2004 draft pick. He earned co-MVP honors with Danville teammate Max Ramirez in the Appy League, which Campbell led in runs, doubles, homers, RBIs, extra-base hits and slugging percentage. Campbell has excellent vision that allows him to recognize pitches he can drive to all fields with his plus power. His defense is better than advertised and he made a seamless move from shortstop to third base, displaying above-average athleticism, range and arm strength. He has drawn comparisons to former NL home run champ and Gold Glover Matt Williams. Campbell's speed and overall baserunning skills surprised many scouts. Campbell's swing can get a little long from his open upright stance, and he tends to chase breaking balls, which has led to high strikeout totals. While his aggressiveness at the plate is an advantage, he needs to improve his pitch selection and overall bat control. With Chipper Jones and Wilson Betemit at the hot corner, the Braves feel little need to rush Campbell. He's slated to spend most of the 2006 campaign in low Class A.
Louisiana produced one of its best crops of pitchers ever in 2005, and Jones, who threw a no-hitter in the state playoffs, was the first to go in the draft at No. 41 overall. If Devine had been gone at No. 27, the Braves would have made Jones their first-round pick. He signed for $825,000 and had a solid debut. Jones has a live arm that produces 88-95 mph fastballs with good movement. His curveball is an out pitch in the making, featuring hard downward movement and high-70s velocity. He has a clean delivery and arm action, and he creates excellent deception with all of his pitches. The Braves also love his gritty, determined approach that reminds them of Kyle Davies'. Jones needs to become more consistent with his curve and his command. He also must add more depth and fade to his changeup. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, he's not very projectable, but he already has good stuff and a high ceiling. The Braves will be patient in their development of Jones. He should pitch in the low Class A rotation in 2006.
Harrison is coming off the biggest breakthrough season of any starting pitcher in the system. After two years in short-season ball, he focused on keeping his fastball down in the strike zone and limiting the number of pitches he threw instead of trying to blow away every hitter. The results were impressive, as one scout said Harrison had the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the South Atlantic League. Harrison's fastball sits in the upper 80s and tops out at 93 mph. He mixes it well with an average changeup and a quality curveball he refined over the course of the season. It's his pinpoint command that sets him apart and impresses scouts. He displays a great feel for pitching, and no Braves farmhand can match his command. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Harrison possesses great size for a 20-year-old lefty, and that and his free and easy delivery give him workhorse potential. While he commands three pitches, Harrison needs to improve the overall quality of all three offerings. He'll work on that in high Class A this year under the guidance of organizational pitching guru Bruce Dal Canton.
Already six years into his pro career, Thorman returned to Double-A to begin 2005. He earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A and finished the year leading the system in homers and RBIs. He has impressive raw power and a knack for driving in runs. He has improved his ability to make consistent contact by shortening his swing. He has made significant strides with his glove and footwork, so much so that managers rated him the best defensive first baseman in the Double-A Southern League. He moves well and has a strong throwing arm, having signed as a third baseman and switching positions following shoulder surgery in 2001. Thorman still becomes pull-happy at times and was overanxious at the plate following his promotion. He tends to beat himself up when he fails, though he has improved his mental approach. The Braves see similarities between Ryan Klesko and Thorman, who got some outfield time in Triple-A. He's likely headed back there this year, though his power could carry him to the big leagues soon.
Yet another rookie who contributed to Atlanta's NL East title in 2005, Boyer didn't seem big league-ready when he struggled with inconsistency during his first two months in Double-A. Once he straightened himself out, he quickly became a mainstay in the Braves bullpen, which missed him in the postseason when shoulder soreness sidelined him. A starter throughout most of his pro career, Boyer made steady albeit slow progress prior to last season. His most impressive pitch always has been his heavy low-90s fastball that produces groundouts. He also can strike out hitters with his plus curveball. His changeup improved last summer but lacks the depth and fade to be a reliable pitch at this point. Boyer showed more maturity upon reaching Atlanta after wearing his emotions on his sleeve earlier in his career. Provided he can pick up where he left off before having shoulder problems, he should remain a fixture in Atlanta.
Compared to Billy Wagner when he was an overpowering lefthander--he was the South Atlantic League pitcher of the year in 2001 and led the Carolina League in strikeouts the following year--McBride isn't going to fulfill those expectations. But he has emerged as a strong lefthanded reliever. He initially moved to the bullpen after struggling in Double-A during 2004, and found a permanent home there when he was promoted to Triple-A last May. McBride is a fastball/slider pitcher who became more aggressive with his low 90s heater in Triple-A. He also made progress with his slider. At the lower levels, McBride threw an excellent changeup, but he has all but abandoned the pitch after it regressed and he moved to the bullpen. Regaining his quality changeup might make the difference between him becoming a set-up man or a situational lefty. After getting his feet wet in the big leagues last year, McBride will compete for a relief job in Atlanta in 2006.
A two-way standout at Albuquerque's La Cueva High, where his teams won 58 straight games and consecutive New Mexico 5-A state titles, Parr committed to the University of Hawaii before signing with the Braves. The day before Atlanta made him a fourth-round pick in 2004, he won the home run derby at a high school all-America showcase, where his competition included slugging Braves farmhands Eric Campbell and Jon Mark Owings. The Braves liked him better on the mound, however, and he didn't disappoint them by tying Chuck James for the system lead in victories and ranking fourth in ERA in 2005, his first full season. Parr alternated between starting and relieving through mid-July before responding to a full-time job in the rotation by winning six straight starts. After sitting in the high 80s during his pro debut, Parr's fastball spiked back into the low 90s and topped out at 94 mph last year. His fluctuating velocity has been an issue since high school. His heater features excellent movement and bores in on righthanders. Parr complements his fastball with a plus curveball that has tight spin and a good break. He has good command and mixes his pitches well. Parr needs to improve the quality of his changeup in order to remain a starter. He also must work down in the strike zone more consistently. His next stop will be high Class A.
On the heels of a solid yet unspectacular 2004 season in Double-A, Pena seemed to mature while playing in the Dominican Winter League. He finished fifth in the batting race with a .323 average, then surpassed that mark last year in Triple-A around four callups to Atlanta. A switch-hitter, Pena's ability to put the ball in play earned him the nickname "The Cuban Ichiro."He consistently centers the ball on the bat. The stocky Pena doesn't run well but has done a good job of getting his body in better condition after some scouts worried about his frame early in his career. His defensive work, especially with blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers, has made steady improvement over the past few years. He has above-average arm strength and his throws have become more accurate. Pena is blocked by Brian McCann in Atlanta and has Jarrod Saltalamacchia coming up behind him, so he may need a trade to get much big league playing time.
Selected in the 28th round by the White Sox as a potential draft-and-follow in 2003, Pope was named the top prospect in the Central Illinois Collegiate League that summer. He returned to Meridian (Miss.) JC and starred as a two-way player before turning down Chicago. Though he had a 90-92 mph fastball, it was his power potential and athleticism that led the Braves to take him in 2004's fifth round. Pope has the look of a classic third baseman. He possesses impressive physical skills with above-average strength and power and line-drive carry to all fields. He has an aggressive approach at the plate and has shown a penchant for jumping on fastballs early in the count. Conversely, Pope can be fooled by offspeed pitches and breaking balls, though he has developed a more consistent eye and improved his pitch recognition during his short time in pro ball. He has the potential to hit 20 or more homers per year once he learns which pitches to lift and drive. Pope runs well and is an above-average defender with the agility, range and arm strength to handle third base. With his impressive body control, he's equally adept at making backhand plays deep behind the bag as he is charging slow rollers. Yet another prospect at one of the deepest positions in the system, Pope is on the verge of a breakout in high Class A this year.
Prado emerged as a prospect in 2004 after spending three seasons in Rookie ball. He has moved rapidly ever since, making the jump to Double-A in mid-2005 while continuing to show he might be Atlanta's second baseman of the future. He made the South Atlantic League all-star team in 2004, and managers rated him the Carolina League's best defender at second base last year. The Braves believe Prado has the makings of becoming a quintessential, gritty middle infielder. He's tough, fearless and extremely competitive with good body control and athletic ability. A confident defender, he has above-average range and a strong, accurate arm. Prado also handles the bat well and has average speed, but his power is minimal. He needs to polish his overall game while becoming more patient in order to increase his walks and on-base percentage. He's likely to open this season back in Double- A, with a midseason promotion to Triple-A a possibility.
The system's top lefty entering 2005, Stevens endured a difficult season that the Braves believe will benefit him in the long term. The projectable southpaw battled inconsistency and adversity for the first time, forcing him to try to get by on nights when he didn't have his best stuff. Before last year, Stevens had plus command of three pitches, including a solid-average fastball that peaked at 94. He lost his ability to locate his stuff with precision in 2005, and he also dropped 2-3 mph off his fastball. He also throws an overhand curveball that could become a power pitch, along with a developing changeup. Extremely competitive, Stevens continues to learn how to control his emotions on the mound. Experience and added maturity should take care of that. With a projectable body and good athleticism, Stevens has the potential to rebound this year. A return to low Class A is likely, with a midseason promotion to Double-A a possibility.
Three years into Burrus' pro career, he was hitting .225 and struggling to get out of Rookie ball. The Braves' patience with young prospects may have paid off again, as he showed encouraging signs of development in 2004 before breaking through last season in high Class A. Frequently distracted in the past with his status as a former supplemental first-round pick, he displayed a new focus and confidence in 2005. A cousin of former all-star Jeffrey Hammonds, Burrus boasts impressive tools across the board. Rated the fastest baserunner in the Carolina League last year, he has the best hands for hitting among Braves farmhands. He possesses significant pop thanks to his quick wrists, and his all-around athleticism should enable him to make many of the necessary adjustments at the game's highest levels. Drafted as a shortstop before moving to third base and left field, he's still learning how to make better reads and take better routes on fly balls. His arm strength is just average for left field, and his strike-zone judgment may prove to be his final stumbling block. Still, Burrus has made major strides and should open 2006 back in Double-A.
Three seasons after signing as a 17-year-old third baseman out of Venezuela, Ramirez shared Appalachian League co-player-of-the-year honors with teammate Eric Campbell in 2005. Better yet, Ramirez has made a nice transition to catcher, which began the year before. He threw out 38 percent of basestealers though he lacks plus raw arm strength. His footwork improved over the course of the season, but he looked stiff behind the plate much of the time. Even so, the Braves like Ramirez' overall athleticism and how he handled the Danville pitching staff, traits that should lead to him becoming an above-average receiver down the road. Ramirez is more polished at the plate. He has an excellent eye, plus strength and good bat control, all of which enabled him to tie for the Appy League in hits. He'll be the starting catcher this year at Rome, where he'll work with some of the organization's most promising young pitchers.
The Braves had high expectations for Ascanio heading into 2005, but he took the mound just five times before a fracture in his lower back ended his season. The prognosis is that he'll be ready for the 2006 season, though the Braves have concerns because of the severity of the injury. Ascanio has a slight build but possesses an electric arm that produces overpowering fastballs up to 97 mph. His breaking ball and changeup have lagged behind, but he showed signs of developing a better feel for both offerings before being sidelined. Ascanio's command wasn't as consistent last year as in the past, but much of that has been attributed to his back injury. The Braves have been careful with him during his first four pro seasons by limiting his appearances and pitch counts. If he can stay healthy, Ascanio has the potential to be one of the organization's top pitching prospects.
At first glance, it would appear that Hernandez had one of the more disappointing seasons among Braves prospects in 2005. After his stock skyrocketed in high Class A the year before, he struggled as one of the youngest players in the Southern League. The increased speed of the game at the Double-A level overwhelmed him early on, and he didn't lift his average above the Mendoza Line for good until the last day of May. He also was tentative with the glove. Nevertheless, Hernandez proved resilient and should be a better player for having cleared the challenges he faced. He showed improved consistency at the plate during the second half while showing a better grasp of the strike zone. He projects as a light-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop whose defense alone could carry him to the big leagues. He utilizes soft, quick hands, a strong arm and the ability to pick it up the middle and deep in the hole. Hernandez will repeat Double-A this season, but he'll still be just 21.
Endl went 10-2, 2.34 and hit .411-18-63 as a senior at NCAA Division III Wisconsin- Whitewater to earn a spot on Baseball America's Small College All-America Team in 2004. The lefthander, who also earned academic all-America honors and is a substitute teacher in the offseason, has risen rapidly as a pro thanks to his knowledge of pitching and ability to use both sides of the plate. He was leading the Carolina League in ERA before undergoing season-ending surgery on his non-throwing shoulder in early August. Endl is expected to be back at full strength in spring training, throwing his 88-92 mph fastball along with his slider, curve and a changeup he just began incorporating into his arsenal last season. He does a good job of moving his pitches around in the strike zone, but needs to gain more consistency with his overall pitch quality and location. The Braves rave about Endl's poise. He's slated for Double-A in 2006.
For the second straight season Jurries topped the organization in home runs, tying Scott Thorman with 21 after clubbing a career-best 25 in 2004. He got off to a tough start in April when he was suspended for 15 days for violating the minor league ban on performance-enhancing substances. Jurries admitted his mistake, saying he took a foreign substance over the winter while playing in Venezuela. He had a quiet month upon his return, connecting for just one homer in May before drilling 15 over the final three months. In addition to having power, Jurries hits to all fields and has solid plate discipline, though he's prone to swinging and missing. A former third baseman who moved to first base after turning pro, Jurries spent most of the last two months of last season playing right field. He showed an adequate arm and good mobility despite being a below-average runner. The Braves hope his defensive versatility will enable him to make the final step to the big leagues, and they'll let him compete for a job in spring training.
With his ability to take charge of a pitching staff, Sammons makes teams better. He was the leader of a Georgia team that surged to a surprising third-place finish at the College World Series in 2004, and the Bulldogs didn't even make the NCAA playoffs despite returning most of their players last year. As a pro, Sammons has guided young pitching staffs to the Appalachian League playoffs (at Danville in 2004) and to the fifth-best overall record in the South Atlantic League (at Rome in 2005). He has excellent awareness on the field. He receives the ball well and possesses above-average throwing mechanics, allowing him to erase 40 percent of basestealers last year. Offensively, he has solid knowledge of the strike zone and displays gap power. His greatest improvement has come in learning how to call a game in the pro ranks as compared to college, especially with the Braves' desire for pitchers to work off their fastballs. Sammons profiles as a valuable reserve backstop and he adds to Atlanta's deep corps of catching prospects. He'll make the jump to high Class A in 2006.
A converted third baseman, Cuevas was the Appalachian League's 2005 pitcher of the year. He throws three pitches for strikes, including a lively 91-93 mph fastball, a developing curveball and a changeup that has a chance to be a plus pitch. His control is stellar and he coaxes a lot of swings and misses. He has good command of his fastball and can be overpowering when he's in a groove. If his changeup continues to develop, he could move quickly into the higher levels. He also exhibits leadership skills and is fluent in both English and Spanish. Cuevas still has to learn the finer points of setting up hitters and which pitches to throw in which situations. Still, he has impressed the Braves with his recent progress and should be part of a formidable Rome rotation in 2006.
The Braves drafted Lyman in the second round last June and signed him away from Arizona State with a $460,000 bonus. His bulldog mentality eased his transition into pro ball. His main pitches are a fastball that sits at 93-94 mph and a sharp curveball. His twoseam fastball features nice run, and he uses a splitter as a changeup. He has good control but will have to do a better job of locating his pitches at higher level. Some scouts worry about his delivery. Though he throws strikes and creates deception, his mechanics are inconsistent. Having ironed out a few flaws during instructional league, Lyman should be part of Rome's rotation this year.
Holt displayed impressive resiliency last season after getting off to a rough start in low Class A. He struggled initially while the Braves worked with him to close the wide-open stance he had used to star at Louisiana State and win the 2003 Cape Cod League batting title with a .388 average. Hitting just .212 in early July, he batted .348 the rest of the way to finish at .268. He needs to tighten his strike zone to take better advantage of his speed. A Louisiana high school sprint champion, he can get down the first-base line in 4.0 seconds from the left side. In addition to his changes at the plate, Holt has had some difficulty with the move from center field to second base, a position he played in college as a freshman. Though he has made strides with the pivot, he needs to get better at reading groundballs off the bat. His footwork also needs an upgrade, but his arm strength and accuracy are sufficient. Thanks to his solid second half, he'll advance to high Class A this season.
Owings was considered a tough sign in 2004 because he was committed to Clemson. But the Braves don't let many players escape from their own backyard, and they took the Gainesville, Ga., product in the 17th round and landed him with top-five-rounds money. His older brother Micah signed with the Diamondbacks as a third-rounder last year. Jon Mark's tools have drawn some comparisons to a poor man's Jeff Francoeur. He has above-average power potential and plays a wide-open, aggressive game that can serve as both a strength and weakness. Like Francoeur, Owings is never going to be among the league leaders in walks. Yet what he lacks in patience he makes up for with his ability to put solid wood on the ball. His pitch recognition needs some refinement, as does his strike-zone judgment as he faces better pitchers. Defensively, Owings does a good job of tracking the ball and covers a lot of ground. His arm strength is above-average and the accuracy of his throws is improving. He'll start the 2006 season in low Class A.
Baseball America rated Schafer as the nation's top 13-year-old player in 2000, when he played first base for his high school team as a seventh-grader and also starred during the summer. He was more highly regarded as a pitcher back then, and some clubs still liked him more on the mound when it came to the 2005 draft. The consensus is that he has a brighter future as a position player, and the Braves made him a full-time center fielder after signing him for $320,000 in June. Schafer's tools are at least average across the board. Though he didn't put up gaudy numbers in his pro debut, he has a good approach at the plate. He slumped late in the summer when he became too aggressive. He has average speed, good instincts and a plus arm in the outfield. If everything works out for him, he could become another Mark Kotsay. Schafer will bid for a starting job in low Class A during spring training.