5. SS Brent Lillibridge- Lillibridge, 24, started slow in Mississippi but bounced back with a very strong finish over the second half of the year. The baby-faced shortstop hit .282/.341/.417 between Mississippi and Richmond along with 13 homers and 42 (12 caught stealing) stolen bases. The tail-off in plate discipline from a year ago was a bit concerning and he'll have to shorten his swing more than likely to hit for a good average in the majors. Lillibridge has the power to hit double-digit home runs annually but his value really lies in his speed and defense. The speed and basepath instincts might give him an edge in competing for the center field job or a utility infielder spot, and with a full season, he has 35+ stolen base potential. Lillibridge has very good range at short as well as an above-average arm and is considered to be the best defensive shortstop in the Braves organization. His only problem is that he's blocked both at second and short, which has led to the team wanting to try him out in center (he played the position in college). He's probably ready for the majors now, although he'll have to work out some kinks in his swing. If he does end up off the bench and plays well, either him or Yunel could be playing in another city this time next year.
4. RHP Jair Jurrjens- Jurrjens is a favorite of mine and I've been following his progress for the past couple seasons when he was with the Tigers. Acquired in the Renteria trade, Jurrjens gives the Braves a commodity that they had previously been missing; A major-league ready starting pitching prospect (I don't count Reyes in that category). The native of Curacao combines a pretty impressive arsenal with good control. The 21-year old right-hander throws a low-to-mid 90's fastball, an above-average changeup, and an above-average curveball (more like a slurve). Both the fastball and changeup have a lot of movement for a right-hander. The one concern about him is that he pitches within the strikezone too much. Jurrjens needs to learn to set up hitters, pitch on the corners, and not be afraid to try and get someone chasing once in a while. Fortunately, a team of Smoltz (sets up hitters well and gets them to chase) and Glavine (lives on the corners) as well as Roger McDowell could be a big help to the youngster. Most people see him as a number 3-4 starter down the road, but with a little more knowledge of how to pitch, I think he has a good chance of being a future number two starter. He also had some arm fatigue issues this past season that has gotten a few people worried, but once he fills out I think the durability issues will disappear.
3. CF Gorkys Hernandez- This center fielder is one of the fastest men not only in the minors, but in all of baseball. Speed is his best asset right now but many scouts think he'll be a legitimate five-tool player down the road. Hernandez, who was 19 this past season, hit .293/.344/.391 with 54 (11 caught stealing) stolen bases with class-A West Michigan. The numbers don't blow you away, but it's his projection that makes this young native of Venezuela so appealing. At 6' 175 lbs, Hernandez should add on quite a bit more muscle in the next few years and with it, hopefully some more power. As of now he is a very athletic center fielder with good defense and plate discipline for a player of his age, decent gap power to all fields, and blazing speed. Down the road, we could see an exciting mix of speed and power at the top of the lineup and five-tool star. He's someone to be excited about and while he'll replace Jordan Schafer at Myrtle Beach next season, I wouldn't be shocked at all to see him starting for Mississippi at some point during the '08 campaign.
2. OF Jason Heyward- Heyward has the greatest potential of any Atlanta prospect, but the short amount of time in pro ball drops him to number two. A Georgia-native, Heyward was surprisingly passed up by every team until the Braves selected him with the fourteenth overall pick. The experts were shocked and immediately it became the steal of the draft. People are going to wonder how you can rank someone with so little experience this high and my answer is that his talent is just that incredible. Though he just turned 18 in September, Heyward is already 6'4" 220 lbs with a lot of muscle and room to add more. Heyward ranks at least average in every category with his tremendous power and power potential from the left side as well as advanced plate discipline really setting him apart. He draws a lot of comparisons to Cubs first baseman Derek Lee as both are big athletic power hitters from the left-side with plate discipline and pretty good ability on the base paths. After signing late, Heyward got only 43 at bats between the GCL and Danville but showed some of his talent with an .843 OPS. If all the cards fall right, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the lineup, who can hit for average, power, and steal a couple of bases. The organization seems to see him staying in the outfield at this point but a move to first could hurt his stock. Watch for this guy to really progress through the minors quickly.
1. CF Jordan Schafer- If you had told me Schafer would be the number one prospect in the Braves organization last year, I would have laughed at you, but the 21-year old outfielder experienced one of the biggest improvements of any prospect in the game. After a measly .669 OPS for Rome in 2006, Schafer really broke out offensively, adding that to his reputation as an elite defender. Schafer hit .312/.374/.513 between Rome and Myrtle Beach in 2007. He led the minors in hits as well as finishing close to the top in extra-base hits, and while he hit only 15 home runs, if you normalize the difference in his home/away splits for Myrtle Beach (a park that severely cuts down on homers), that total would be close to 22 or 23. Schafer's greatest tool is his defense, which many people believe would put him among the top major league center fielders already. He has good speed and range along with incredible instincts and an arm, which from some accounts is just slightly less powerful but more accurate than that of Jeff Francoeur. At 6'1" 190 lbs, Schafer has a body that has more or less matured. While he may add on a little more strength, it seems like in the majors he'll hit between 20 and 25 homers annually along with plenty of doubles. I've talked to Jordan in the past and my impression from the conversations matches the reports that he is down to earth with great makeup. He does have some things to work on, which he openly admits. Schafer struck out 126 times in 2007 and he publicly said that he needs to work on cutting those down as well as his pitch selection and base running before he reaches his potential. Schafer will take over the center field duties for Mississippi more than likely to start off next season and it will be interesting to see how much of an effect Myrtle Beach had on his power. Most people as well as myself believe that opening day 2009, Schafer will be patrolling center field for the Braves, but there is a possibility of him shoving his way into the majors sooner than that. If everything goes well, Schafer could be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter with Gold Glove defense. Hey, can't complain about that.
The one you have all been waiting for is finally here. It is time to announce the Chop-n-Change pre-season top five Braves prospects. I'll be continuing with the All-Time Braves Team and the bullpen profiles but I really just wanted to get this project out of the way before continuing on to anything else.