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Schafer may have made more progress than anyone in the minor leagues in 2007. After struggling to hit his weight for much of the 2006 season at low Class A Rome, he made adjustments and improvements to lead the minors with 176 hits last year. He also ranked third in the minors with 49 doubles, tied for sixth with 74 extra-base hits and missed nary a beat following his early May promotion to high Class A Myrtle Beach. Schafer first attracted attention when Baseball America rated him the nation's top 13-year-old in 2000, when he started at first base for his high school team as a seventh-grader. He drew some interest as a pitcher, but the Braves wanted to put his solid tools across the board to use in the outfield when they drafted him 107th overall in 2005. After signing for $320,000, Schafer struggled with the bat in his first season and a half. He was hitting just .214 at the end of June 2006, but started to find his groove during the last two months, when he raised his batting average 26 points and hit six of his eight home runs. A baseball rat, he focused nearly every waking moment on his game in the offseason and reaped the rewards in 2007. He batted a combined .312/.374/.513 and was rated the top prospect in the high Class A Carolina League and the sixth-best prospect in the low Class A South Atlantic League. Schafer has a line-drive stroke from the left side of the plate and the ability to drive and loft the ball. He took off in 2007 after improving his pitch recognition as well as his understanding of what pitchers are trying to do against him. Though projected to be a leadoff hitter, he has the ability to hit anywhere in the top third in the batting order. Schafer's defensive wizardry has been evident since he signed with Atlanta. He has advanced instincts in center field with immediate recognition of the ball off the bat, a lightning-quick first step and impeccable routes. He frequently makes highlight-reel catches. The owner of a high-80s fastball as a high school pitcher, Schafer has a plus-plus arm as an outfielder. He has solid speed and should be at least a 20-20 man in his major league prime. Despite making solid adjustments at the plate, Schafer still swings and misses more often than a leadoff hitter should. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, he'll be even more dangerous at the plate. Though he ranked fifth in the system with 23 steals in 2007, he also was caught 15 times and must learn how to read pitchers better so he can improve his jumps. Despite the arrival of Gorkys Hernandez in the Edgar Renteria trade, Schafer eventually should be Andruw Jones' long-term replacement in center field, and some club officials believe he could take over in 2008. But he has yet to play above high Class A and may struggle to make consistent contact against big league pitchers. He's ready to make the jump from a defensive standpoint, but he'd benefit from another full season in the minors, starting at Double-A Mississippi.
Another high-profile Braves pick from the Atlanta area, Heyward led Henry County to its first state title as a junior and batted .520 with eight home runs in 52 at-bats as a senior. He slipped to Atlanta with the 14th pick, mostly because opponents pitched around him so much in the spring that clubs had difficulty getting a good look at him. Signed for $1.7 million, he homered in his first professional game. Heyward has the physical attributes and instincts to be a star. His raw power is off the charts and his bat speed is nearly as good. He shows impressive plate discipline and pitch recognition. He's a good baserunner and has a plus arm with good carry. Heyward just needs to fine-tune his game. His patience leads to Frank Thomas comparisons, though he could be more productive by turning up his aggressiveness. He's discovering how to use his hands to drive the ball and will improve his batting average by using the entire field. His routes and ability to move back on fly balls need work. Though only 18, Heyward looks like a man among boys. He profiles well as a right fielder and should move quickly through the system, and he will open his first full season in low Class A.
Jurrjens became the first Curacao native to pitch in the majors last August when he held the Indians to one hit in seven innings. In need of a shortstop, the Tigers swapped him and Gorkys Hernandez for Edgar Renteria after the season. Jurrjens goes after hitters with a two-seam fastball with plenty of sink or a four-seamer than ranges from 92-95 mph with late life and armside run. He has good arm speed and sinking action on his changeup. His curveball can be inconsistent but has good downer action. Both his changeup and curve are plus pitches when they're on. He's athletic and throws strikes with a fluid delivery. He's fearless on the mound. Jurrjens' command isn't as fine as his control, and at times he leaves pitches up in the strike zone. Durability is his primary concern. He missed the end of 2006 with shoulder spasms, and was sidelined for two weeks in June (groin) and again in September (shoulder inflammation). He failed to record an out in the fourth inning of his final two starts with the Tigers, and his workload was enough of a concern that they scratched him from the Arizona Fall League for a second consecutive year. It's not easy to trade for a quality young starter these days, but Atlanta did that thanks to its depth at shortstop. Jurrjens will get every opportunity to crack the big league rotation in spring training and profiles as a No. 3 starter with a ceiling as a No. 2.
A three-sport standout in high school who had offers to play college football, Jones took his game to the next level in 2007. After battling injuries the previous two seasons, he drove in 100 runs between the top two levels in the system and made his major league debut in September. His managers and coaches rave about Jones' presence and even-keel approach on the field. He carries himself with confidence and works tirelessly. He has budding power with a quick line-drive swing and a feel for the strike zone. An all-around athlete, he has improved his ability to use the entire field as well as the patience to wait for his pitch. He has plus speed and solid arm strength. While Jones' bat is ready for the majors, he needs to upgrade his defense in left field. He's taking better routes on fly balls, but he has to improve his throwing accuracy. While he runs the bases well, he can become a more proficient basestealer after getting caught seven times in 24 tries in 2007. The Braves consider Jones their long-term answer in left field, where Matt Diaz and Willie Harris split time last season. Jones probably will get another few months at Triple-A Richmond.
While in the Tigers organization, Hernandez had an impressive encore after winning the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League batting crown in his 2006 U.S. debut. He played in the Futures Game and served as the catalyst for the low Class A Midwest League champions. He won the league's MVP award and stolen base title. Hernandez draws comparisons to a young Kenny Lofton as a speedster with gap power. He makes good contact and has shown the ability to make adjustments against experienced pitchers. His well-above-average speed makes him a threat on the basepaths and allows him to run down fly balls in the gaps. He even has a strong arm for a center fielder. Hernandez needs to add muscle for more power. He has tools to bat leadoff, but needs to use his speed better on the bases and continue to improve his plate discipline. The Tigers wanted to upgrade at shortstop and Hernandez became expendable with Curtis Granderson and Cameron Maybin ahead of him. Hernandez likely will open 2008 in high Class A, with a chance for a midseason promotion to Double-A. He has a lot of upside, but he also has a lot of young outfielders to contend with in the Braves system.
Acquired from Pittsburgh in the deal that sent Adam LaRoche to the Pirates last offseason, Lillibridge served as a catalyst on Richmond's International League championship club. He led the system with 42 steals and posted a hit in each of his nine playoff games. R-Braves manager Dave Brundage said Lillibridge improved more over the course of the season than any player on his club. Lillibridge has the tools to hit leadoff, plus the range and arm strength to play shortstop in the major leagues. His hands work well at the plate and he's adept at using the entire field. He also drives the ball well for a player his size. With above-average speed and savvy, he has succeeded in 79 percent of his pro steal attempts. Lillibridge thinks of himself as a middle-of-the-lineup hitter too often. He needs to reduce his strikeouts by shortening his swing and controlling the zone better. He also needs to upgrade his bunting ability and become more of a small-ball player. He doesn't always deal with failure well, though he's doing better as he matures. Once Lillibridge plays to his strengths he'll be ready to contribute at the major league level. He'll open 2008 in Triple-A.
After earning all-tournament honors at the Junior College World Series, Rohrbough capped Atlanta's final class of draft-and-follows by signing for $675,000. Rohrbough ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the Rookie-level Appalachian League and was just as dominant in six starts in low Class A after getting promoted. Danville pitching coach Jim Czajkowski realized that Rohrbough became untouchable when his arm slot rose and was more hittable when he dropped down. When he maintained the higher angle, his fastball went from sitting in the high 80s to regularly touching 94. He also has a plus power curveball with sharp, late break. He studies hitters and already mixes his pitches like a veteran. Rohrbough needs to improve his changeup consistency and repeat his delivery. Experience should take care of both flaws. Rohrbough has the best fastball-curveball combination in the system. He moved quickly in his debut and could continue at that same rapid rate. Though he may return to Rome to begin 2008, he should reach high Class A by midseason.
The 51st overall pick in the 2006 draft, Locke looks like the best pitcher from New Hampshire since Chris Carpenter was drafted in 1993. He lost his first outing at Rookie-level Danville last summer before going 7-0 the rest of the way, allowing just 10 earned runs over his last 10 starts. Locke's command is as impressive as his fastball, which usually ranges from 90-94 mph with significant movement. He also pounds the strike zone with a hard-breaking curveball (which has the makings of a plus pitch) and an improved changeup. He has confidence in all three pitches. His herky-jerky delivery creates deception. As a high school pitcher from the Northeast, Locke was more raw than most pitchers when he signed. He still gets out of sync with his delivery and needs to repeat it more consistently. He must do a better job of handling the finer points of pitching, such as fielding his position and backing up bases. Locke is a fearless competitor who shows every indication of developing into a premier lefthanded starter. He'll start 2008 in the low Class A rotation.
Hanson entered pro ball a year before Rohrbough, passing up the chance to attend Arizona State to sign for $325,000. Hanson won just five games in his first full pro season, but pitched well at two Class A stops. Hanson throws three pitches for strikes: an 89-92 fastball with above-average life, a nasty overhand curveball with tight spin and 12-to-6 break, and an average changeup that continues to improve. He has a strong mound presence, the frame to throw on a steep downhill angle and isn't afraid to challenge hitters. He changes planes well and uses both sides of the plate. Hanson tends to rely too much on one pitch, particularly his fastball, when his other offerings aren't working. He also tends to pitch up in the strike zone, leaving him vulnerable to home runs. He gave up 10 longballs in just 60 innings in high Class A. A potential middle-of-the-rotation starter, Hanson has moved quickly while making adjustments against experienced competition. He will likely return to Myrtle Beach, but could earn a midseason promotion.
The Braves believe they signed the top amateur pitcher in Latin America when they inked Teheran for $850,000. His cousin Miguel is one of the scouts who signed him for the Braves, and he reportedly turned down a higher offer from the Yankees. He showed every indication during instructional league that he'll be as good as advertised. Teheran is a mature teenager with a vast repertoire, great makeup and tremendous upside. Scouts love how easily the ball comes out of his hand and how loose his arm works. His fastball sat at 94-95 during instructional league. He throws an advanced changeup at 81-82 with good sinking action. His 78-79 mph curveball has late, hard bite. Teheran has a pump delivery and struggles at times with his command. His arm action is a little short in the backside and he needs to get stronger, which should occur naturally as he matures physically. Teheran has a chance to move rapidly through the system and become a standout at the major league level. The Braves have no plans to rush him, and likely will send him to the Gulf Coast League in 2008 in order to help him adapt to pro ball and a new culture.
Criticism was commonplace a year ago after the Braves' 2006 first-round draft pick struggled mightily in all aspects of the game in his pro debut. Johnson quieted the critics in his second season, however, after brutalizing Appalachian League pitchers and pacing the loop in homers, extra-base hits and slugging percentage. Johnson admits he employs the swing-hard-in-case-you-hit-it strategy, and the result is screaming 2-iron line drives to all fields. He gets good extension with his long arms and drives balls long distances. He has solid-average speed and is an underrated baserunner who takes the extra base and went 7-for-7 stealing bases last summer. No one doubts his power, but Johnson is streaky and some scouts still question how much he'll hit for average at higher levels. He still struggles with pitch recognition and rarely tones down his aggressiveness. His big swing has holes and he doesn't adjust with two strikes. After struggling at first base in his debut, he moved to left field in 2007 and still has a lot of work to do with his routes and throwing accuracy. The Braves realized Johnson was a work in progress when they drafted him and will be patient. They're hoping he'll make more progress this year in low Class A.
The fourth draft-and-follow on this Top 10, Flowers began his pro career in inauspicious fashion. He tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs shortly after signing in May 2006, and his 50-game suspension cost him the first month of the 2007 season. After returning, he ranked among the system's leaders in most offensive categories, including second-place finishes in doubles and RBIs. Flowers has a disciplined approach and hits line drives with authority to all fields. He trusts his hands and drives through the ball. His home run total could increase significantly as he develops more loft in his swing. The Braves consider him the best receiver in their system behind Clint Sammons. Flowers has excellent lateral movement for his size, with consistent hands and a strong arm. In part because he had knee surgery last March and spent much of his first full season at first base, Flowers has little experience handling professional pitchers. He wasn't 100 percent behind the plate in 2007, as evidenced by throwing out just four of 24 basestealers. He moves well for a big man but is still a below-average runner. The Braves aren't concerned about future performance-enhancing drug use and say he simply made a bad decision while still at Chipola (Fla.) JC. Flowers has shown what he's capable of accomplishing from an offensive perspective, and he'll be even more valuable if he returns behind the plate on a full-time basis in 2008. After catching and playing first base in Hawaii Winter Baseball, he'll make the jump to high Class A.
After taking Cody Johnson in the first round in 2006 and Jason Heyward with the 14th overall pick in 2007, the Braves continued to add power bats by drafting Gilmore with the 33rd overall selection last June. Gilmore jumped on the national radar with an impressive showing at the 2006 Area Code Games before a hamstring injury limited him as a high school senior. Since signing with Atlanta for a $900,000 bonus, Gilmore has shown the tools to be an old-school power-hitting third baseman. A solid athlete who drew interest from college football programs as a quarterback, he has a quick bat that can drive the ball out of the park to all fields. In addition to his sweet, smooth swing, he displays outstanding balance at the plate and a great approach. He played shortstop in high school but shifted to third base in his pro debut, making a relatively smooth transition. While he has soft hands and a strong, accurate arm, he needs to improve his footwork and shorten his arm action in order to become a plus defender. Gilmore has a strong desire to succeed and can be excessively hard on himself when he fails to live up to his high expectations. His brothers-in-law include Devil Rays shortstop Ben Zobrist and Dallas Baptist hitting coach Dan Heefner. Because he's a young player from the Upper Midwest, Atlanta won't rush Gilmore. He'll likely open 2008 at Danville though he has a chance to see low Class A at some point during the season.
For a player who went undrafted after leading San Jacinto (Texas) to the Junior College World Series in 2006, Hicks proved that he can have a significant impact at higher levels. The shortstop helped Texas A&M turn its program around with a solid junior season before signing with Atlanta for $283,500 as a third-round pick in June. Following a brief stint in Rookie ball, Hicks and fellow 2007 draftee Travis Jones brought a winning attitude to Rome, helping the young club compete for a playoff spot late in the season before falling short. An excellent all-around athlete who also showed a low-90s fastball as a pitcher at San Jacinto, Hicks is a consistent defender at shortstop with solid range and a strong arm. Though some scouts questions his ability to hit with wood, his bat has shown steady development and he has proven capable of making adjustments. He answered many of those doubts during his pro debut, but he still needs to improve at maintaining his overall balance and keeping his head in against breaking balls. The Braves envision Hicks remaining at shortstop for the long haul, and he could open 2008 in high Class A after spending the offseason in the Arizona Fall League.
The 43rd overall pick in the 2006 draft, Evarts continued to impress last year with his ability to pound the strike zone. After a strong pro debut, he overcame some legal problems to post an impressive follow-up at Danville, where he had a 34-4 K-BB ratio and didn't allow a homer in 37 innings. Evarts has an excellent feel for pitching, throws strikes with three pitches and consistently stays ahead in the count. His velocity was a little down last summer, as his fastball sat at 87-89 mph compared to 89-91 mph in 2006, but Atlanta has no concerns in that regard. A changeup that acts like a screwball is his best pitch. He's the quintessential lanky lefty with smooth mechanics and the ability to repeat his delivery. The biggest thing he's working on is keeping his arm slot consistent, especially staying on top of his slurvy breaking ball instead of dropping down, which tends to flatten the pitch. Some scouts questioned Evarts' makeup prior to the draft, and he was charged with criminal mischief in December 2006 after police said he damaged a vehicle with a baseball bat. However, the Braves believe he has made strides with his overall maturity. Evarts has the ability to become a No. 3 starter, and he'll take the next step in low Class A this year.
Along with Jeff Locke and Steve Evarts, Rodgers is another lefty from the 2006 draft who's on the verge of moving quickly through the system. The consensus top mound prospect in Ohio in 2006, he has lived up to his reputation as one of the more polished high school pitchers to emerge from the Midwest in recent years. Rodgers has terrific athleticism for a pitcher and above-average movement with his three primary pitches. His fastball sits at 88-90 mph and reaches 92 mph, and the Braves believe he'll add velocity as his slender frame continues to mature. In addition to throwing both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, he also has a hard curveball with impressive bite. He has shown steady improvement with the depth of his changeup. He used to roll his wrist when he threw his changeup, but he has made some minor adjustments and it now has the makings of a solid-average major league offering. Quiet and reserved off the field, Rodgers is a tremendous competitor on the mound. He suffered from shoulder tendinitis late in the season, though he proved he was healthy during instructional league. He's expected to spend this year in the low Class A rotation with Locke and Evarts.
Devine returned to the mechanics he employed while at North Carolina State and re-emerged as a potential set-up man or closer at the major league level in 2007. Rushed to the big leagues by the Braves less than three months after going 27th overall in the 2005 draft, he gave up grand slams in his first two appearances and a Division Series-ending home run to Chris Burke. His confidence took a hit, and he also battled a lingering back injury in 2006. He found a comfort zone with his old delivery in spring training last year and the result was his best season yet, including a couple of trips to Atlanta and a 1.89 ERA and 20 saves in the minors. He also contributed mightily to Richmond's Governors' Cup title by saving four postseason games in as many opportunities. Devine's success is centered on a sinking fastball that sits in the low 90s and can touch 96. He also has a hard slider that he throws from a three-quarters angle and can be unhittable for righthanders. He owns righties, holding them to a .154 average in the minors last year while fanning 62 of the 127 he faced. Lefthanders, however, hit .267 against him because he has had limited success in developing a changeup. He has the resiliency and makeup to pitch at the end of games in the majors. With Rafael Soriano expected to become Atlanta's closer, Devine will be a strong candidate for a set-up role with the Braves this spring.
After deciding they wouldn't negotiate with free agent Andruw Jones, who had been their center fielder since late 1996, the Braves had no obvious replacement for 2008. Jordan Schafer and Gorkys Hernandez are two of the more talented center-field prospects in the minors but neither figures to be ready to step in this year. Enter Anderson, who came to Atlanta in a November deal that sent Oscar Villareal to Houston. Though Anderson led the minors with 78 steals in 2004, topped the Double-A Texas League with 50 swipes in 2005 and 43 in 2006, and hit .358 after his callup last September, the Astros never believed Anderson was an everyday player. His speed has slipped, though it's still above-average, and he doesn't drive the ball very often. He'll have to prove he won't be overpowered by quality pitching, and he needs to improve his on-base skills and bunting ability so he can get on base more often. Anderson's speed allows him to outrun his mistakes in center field, but he still makes too many goofs. He led Triple-A Pacific Coast League outfielders with seven errors in 2007. His arm is playable and accurate in center. Anderson may be nothing more than a one-year bridge between Jones and Schafer, but the Braves will give him the opportunity to win a starting job in spring training.
The Braves' willingness to let him hit, along with a signing bonus of $409,500, contributed to Freeman's decision to bypass Cal State Fullerton and sign with Atlanta as the 78th overall pick in the 2007 draft. A former member of USA Baseball's youth and junior national teams, Freeman attracted strong interest from many teams for his abilities on the mound. He showed two plus pitches--a heavy, low-90s fastball and a hard slider--while working as a closer in high school, but Freeman always has preferred mashing the ball as opposed to throwing it. Only 17 when drafted, he has an ideal hitter's frame that projects extremely well. He has above-average power with a smooth stroke from the left side that produces hits that sound different coming off the bat. He shows a good feel for the strike zone and his hands work very well, helping to give him above-average raw power. Though not the fleetest afoot, Freeman handles first base well, displaying good footwork and excellent reactions. He also has an exceedingly strong arm for the position. His performance in spring training will determine whether he opens 2008 in low Class A or in extended spring training.
Campbell had a year to forget in 2007. A broken thumb followed by a series of minor injuries prevented him from building on the momentum he generated with a co-MVP award in the Appalachian League in 2005 and a home run crown (with 22) in the South Atlantic League in 2006. Equally as disappointing as his performance was Campbell's overall attitude. Though frustrated by the injuries, he showed little intensity in his rehab efforts. That led to his being sent home in August, marking the second time in the past year the Braves had to discipline him. An intense competitor when the lights come on, Campbell has above-average power as well as the ability to drive the ball to all fields. He showed progress last season with his plate discipline, drawing walks at a better rate than ever before. A former shortstop, Campbell has relatively soft hands and a strong arm at third base, but his lateral movement rates no better than average. An attempted shift to second base in 2006 in Hawaii Winter Baseball proved fruitless, and he could land in the outfield down the road. Atlanta remains confident it still has a prospect in Campbell, who marches to the beat of a different drummer. But he'll have to show an improved attitude and approach in 2008, when he'll likely repeat high Class A.
After a solid season in high Class A in 2006, Pope received a promotion to Mississippi, where Trustmark Park in Pearl is located in a suburb of his hometown of Jackson. Playing at home didn't work well for Pope, as he pressed too much. He batted just .150 in the first two months and didn't climb above .200 for good until June 1. In the past, he had shown some raw power as well as the ability to hit for average, yet did neither with consistency in 2007. His pitch recognition leaves something to be desired, and scouts have wondered if he'll produce enough power at higher levels to profile as a starter at the hot corner. Pope is a premier defender with soft hands and a plus arm. His footwork is flawless and he moves well in all directions. That ability also translates into good baserunning skills, though his speed is only slightly above-average. The Braves hope that Pope will adjust and bounce back in 2008, when he'll return to Double-A.
It was considered a minor transaction at the time, but the trade that sent Tony Pena to the Royals for Cordier could pay off for both teams. Pena became Kansas City's starting shortstop, while the Braves are excited about Cordier's power arm. They have yet to see it in action, however, because he was sidelined for all of 2007 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He also missed 2005 following knee surgery and has pitched just 87 innings since signing as a second-round pick in 2004--making him the highest drafted player out of Wisconsin since the Angels selected Jarrod Washburn 31st overall in 1995. During instructional league this fall, Cordier got back on the mound and showed the potential for three quality pitches. He didn't have all of his velocity back, but he eventually should regain a fastball that sat at 92-95 mph and clocked as high as 98. His heater has nice armside run, allowing him to jam righthanders and get grounders. He also has a plus changeup and has shown signs of an above-average curveball when his release point is in sync. Equally impressive is the way Cordier attacks hitters. He's not afraid to throw inside and has shown an excellent feel for setting up hitters to make his offspeed offerings that much more effective. Cordier could figure prominently in Atlanta's plans provided he stays healthy. The first step back will be an assignment to low Class A.
The younger brother of top Cardinals prospect Colby Rasmus, Cory missed the entire 2007 season. The Braves hoped rest and rehab would cure his shoulder problems, but he wound up having surgery in July to tighten the muscles his shoulder. He has pitched just seven pro innings since signing for $900,000 as the 38th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Rasmus, who teamed with Colby to help lead Russell County (Ala.) High to the 2005 national championship and also was the valedictorian of his class, declined a full ride to Auburn to turn pro. Before he got hurt, he featured a low- to mid-90s fastball that has been clocked as high as 97 mph along with a sharp overhand 11-to-5 curveball that can buckle the knees of righthanders. His two-seamer has good late movement, and his changeup has the makings of a plus pitch. Scouts were concerned about Rasmus' full-effort delivery during his high school days, and he's not very big or projectable. He'll have to iron out his mechanics, which should improve his durability and his command. While shoulder injuries are more troublesome than elbow problems, Atlanta is confident that Rasmus can bounce back and develop into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. If he's healthy this spring, he'll open the season in low Class A.
After posting a 0.81 ERA at three stops in the lower minors, Medlen reached Double-A a little more than a year after signing as a 10th-round pick out of the 2006 draft. An aggressive pitcher with a quick and resilient arm, he doubled as a shortstop in junior college. He isn't afraid to challenge hitters with his low-90s fastball and does an excellent job of mixing his sharp curveball, which often serves as his strikeout pitch. He continues to work on his changeup, which shows promise, but he doesn't use it much out of the bullpen. While his size is less than ideal in the eyes of many scouts, Medlen pitches with great confidence and has ideal makeup for a closer. He also repeats his compact delivery well and has an easy arm action. He dominated in Hawaii Winter Baseball, striking out 27 in 14 innings, though he was shut down in November with a sore elbow. He should be healthy by spring training and could claim a role in the Atlanta bullpen in 2008.
During the first two-thirds of the 2007 season, the big first baseman known as "KK" lived up to his frequent comparisons to Andres Galarraga. After going hitless in his first five games, Ka'aihue crushed Carolina League pitching to the tune of 22 homers by mid-July. By the time he received a promotion to Double-A, he easily led the CL in homers and slugging percentage (.583). Yet as productive as he was in high Class A, Ka'aihue struggled that much and more against Double-A pitchers. He hit just .127 with no homers and just one multihit game in 33 outings. Just as he had when he had a midseason promotion in 2006, he put excessive pressure on himself to live up to his reputation as an offensive force. When in a zone, he has an excellent eye that leads to an impressive number of walks. While his strikeout totals will reach triple digits, he's capable of making consistent hard contact and uses the entire field. He's a belowaverage runner but moves well for a big man and has developed into an above-average first baseman with soft hands and quick feet. Ka'aihue hails from a baseball family, as his father Kala Sr. reached Triple-A with the Pirates and his brother Kila is a first baseman in the Royals system. Kala Jr. will head back to Double-A to start 2008.
A logjam behind the plate throughout the system meant Sammons had to return to high Class A to start the 2007 season, but he finished it by making his major league debut and going 2-for-3 in his lone start. The leader of Georgia's 2004 College World Series team, he has emerged as one of the premier defensive catchers in the minors. Having fine-tuned his ability under Myrtle Beach pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton, Sammons handles pitchers with aplomb and calls a near-flawless game. His footwork and exchange are off the charts. He has a pop time of 1.89 seconds from mitt to glove on throws to second base and led the Southern League by throwing out 48 percent of basestealers last summer. Sammons is just adequate with the bat, which is why he projects as a backup. He tries to pull the ball too much, preventing him from hitting for a high average. He has occasional pop and below-average speed. He's the leading candidate to caddy for Brian McCann in Atlanta in 2008.
Cuevas was streaky in 2007, opening the season with eight straight losses before bouncing back with six consecutive victories in June and July. Wins proved fleeting thereafter, however, as he dropped his last four decisions over a span of six starts. Despite his 6-12 record, he pitched well for most of the season and ranked seventh in the Carolina League with a 3.55 ERA. Cuevas' fastball sits at 92-93 mph and can touch 96, and it also has good movement. His curveball and changeup show flashes of potential. While he has promising stuff, he counteracts it with a tendency to overthrow and an inability to command his pitches. He opens up too much on the front side of his delivery, which causes his arm to drag behind. His release point is also inconsistent, particularly from the stretch, when he tends to rush his lower half. Cuevas has the strong build and could develop into a workhorse starter. After getting added to the 40-man roster in November, he'll start 2008 in Double-A.
The Indians took Barrett as a draft-and-follow out of an Illinois high school in 2005, but his velocity dipped into the mid-80s at John A. Logan (Ill.) CC the next spring. The Braves made him a 31st-round pick in 2006 and followed him last year, when his fastball rose to 88-92 mph during his sophomore season. He signed before the draft for $150,000, one of seven draft-and-follows to ink with Atlanta. Barrett was the most consistent pitcher on the GCL Braves, showing a sound delivery with an easy arm action. His fastball peaks at 93-94 mph and has nice late tailing life. His changeup has good depth and fade, while his sweeping curveball is sharp with late break and has the potential to be his best offering. Barrett is a free spirit off the field, but he's one of the system's more competitive pitchers once he crosses the white lines. He'll need to continue to make adjustments against more advanced hitters while sharpening the command and consistency of all his pitches. He's expected to spend 2008 in low Class A.
A change in attitude last year altered Hernandez' performance as well as his standing within the organization. After acting sullen and lethargic at Myrtle Beach for most of 2005 and 2006, Hernandez returned to high Class A with a fresh determination to succeed. He batted .378 in April and received an early promotion to Double-A, where he continued to show plenty of tools as well as the ability to play second base in addition to shortstop. Offensively, Hernandez' strength is his ability to put the ball in play. He uses the entire field with his short swing, solid bat speed and outstanding hand-eye coordination. His plate discipline and overall approach tend to fluctuate, but his ability to make consistent contact helps him avoid prolonged slumps. Hernandez has plus speed and good lateral movement on defense. He also has soft hands with a quick first step. His arm is fringe-average for short but plays well at second. For all his tools, Hernandez continues to learn the finer points of the game, particularly in understanding game situations when at the plate and running the bases. He got caught 20 times in 42 steal attempts last season. If he maintains his recent momentum and has a strong season in Triple-A in 2008, he could factor into Atlanta's infield plans in the near future.
Britton is in many ways the polar opposite of fellow receiver Clint Sammons. Whereas Sammons came from a major college program with incredible defensive skills, Britton arrived from the junior college ranks with a reputation for being able to put the ball in play. The 2007 campaign was his first full season in pro ball and Britton put together a productive and consistent year with the bat, showing the ability to drive pitches into the gaps. The Braves also were pleased with the progress Britton made behind the plate. He has above-average athleticism and does a good job of moving laterally and knocking down pitches. While his game-calling ability is showing significant progress, he's still learning the nuances of working with a staff. He spent the offseason in Hawaii Winter Baseball to work on his exchange and footwork as well as to become more consistent with his throws to second. He threw out 29 percent of basestealers last season. Britton has a great passion for the game and an impressive desire to be a top-flight catcher. He'll advance to high Class A in 2008.
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