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. Schafers 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 hell hit between 20 and 25 homers annually along with plenty of doubles. Ive 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, cant complain about that.
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.
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 hell 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 dont blow you away, but its 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. Hes someone to be excited about and while hell replace Jordan Schafer at Myrtle Beach next season, I wouldnt be shocked at all to see him starting for Mississippi at some point during the 08 campaign.
4. RHP Jair Jurrjens-
Jurrjens is a favorite of mine and Ive 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 dont 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 90s 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.
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 hell 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 hes 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). Hes probably ready for the majors now, although hell 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.
6. RHP Tommy Hanson-
Hanson was incredible through the first half of 2007, however a promotion to Myrtle Beach brought some troubles with it. His command and ability to keep the ball in the park both struggled with the Pelicans and Hanson managed only a 4.20 ERA in a pitchers park. I think those should go away with a better feel for the league and I absolutely love Hansons tools an projection. He has a very classic repertoire, relying on a fastball, curve, and changeup on the mound. The fastball clocks in, in the mid-90s with movement and his changeup, which lags behind the other two, is supposed to be progressing very well. The money pitch however is his overhand power curve ball, which is quite commonly referred to as a knee-buckler. At 6?6?, he has a great pitchers body with room to fill out. Purely on potential, Hanson far and away beats out any of the Braves pitching prospects.
7. LF Brandon Jones-
Jones really put everything together this past season. He was one of those guys whose performance never seemed to match up with their potential, but the 23-year old outfielder went out and hit .295/.367/.490 between Mississippi and Richmond with 19 home runs and 100 runs batted in. Jones tools are average or a bit above in just about every category but nothing is incredible. On the low end of the spectrum, Id say he becomes a platoon man who hits righties pretty well and on the other end, he becomes a league-average offensive left fielder with above average defense. Either way, it is still a nice commodity to have. The strikeouts are the key to bridging that gap. If the plate discipline increases a bit, Id think his chances of reaching the latter become a lot better. Jones will more than likely platoon with Matt Diaz next year or become the utility outfielder on the team. It probably depends on his showing this spring.
8. LHP Cole Rohrbough-
Out of everyone of the prospects I had on my list, Rohrbough jumped around the most. I had him listed everywhere from number three to number eight, where he eventually ended up. His numbers are great and his stuff is supposed to be impressive, however something I remembered from a BP chat is what really secured his fate at number eight. Rohrboughs money pitch is the spike curve he throws and in A-ball, playing against young, raw hitters, not many guys are going to have seen a good one before and even less from a left-hander. Just from that, I want to see him keep performing against more advanced hitters before I move him up to the top five. This ranking, more than any, really shows just how deep this Atlanta farm system has become.
9. RHP Joey Devine
9. RHP Kris Medlen-
Medlen is a very rare type of prospect. You just dont get too many elite relief prospects out there with the majority of major league pens being comprised of failed starters. The right-hander is one of a small group, just slightly behind guys like Joey Devine and Jon Meloan. Medlens utter dominance was pretty impressive to watch through his first two stops this year and while we have to remember that this was a 21-year old in A-ball, he definitely has got the stuff to back it up. The righty brings a nice low-to-mid-90s fastball with a very impressive curve and deception in his delivery as well as command of the strike-zone. The negative is always going to be his size though. At this point, it is hard to tell whether or not his 5?10? frame could bring some injuries down the road. Medlen should start at Mississippi next year and because of his showing in Hawaii, I wouldnt be shocked to see him in Atlanta at some point next year.
10. LHP Jeff Locke-
What a surprise, another lefty from the 06 draft. Locke was taken by the Braves in the second round for one reason, his fastball. Locke works in the mid-90s with a fastball he can command well, something that is almost unheard of for a 19-year old left-hander. This past season, Locke was part of a formidable Danville rotation, impressing across the stat board. He went 7-1 with a 2.66 ERA in 61 innings along with a 0.92 WHIP, great groundball tendencies, and 74 punch-outs. His secondary stuff still needs quite a bit of work but if he can have at least two other average pitches to work with, Locke is going to have a good amount of success down the road. Like a number of the lower-level pitchers, Locke is going to have a major test in seeing how he holds up over a full-season worth of work next year.