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stephen-keck-10-questions-about-the-braves-farm-system | December | 2009 Articles

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Stephen Keck: 10 Questions About the Braves' Farm System

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Stephen Keck wrote a number of minor league posts for us earlier in the year, and I asked him for a preview of our minor league system in 2010, especially after the Vazquez trade brought a new gem into our system and the Arizona Fall League gave some of our boys a new look. He's more optimistic than some.

What does the future hold for the Braves? The success of the farm system was evident in 2009, but promotions to Tommy Hanson, Jordan Schafer and Kris Medlen took them off the official prospect lists. Trades brought the Braves Javier Vazquez and Nate McLouth, but it required trading some key prospects, including Tyler Flowers. All of this meant that as the prospect gurus began to assess the talent levels of major league organizations, the Braves appeared to be coming up a bit short. (John Sickels recently wrote, "I'm not overly impressed with this system.")

A loose consensus appears to have developed: after Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, there is a significant gap in ability of Bravesí prospects, but the organization has a relatively large number of pitchers who might develop into top tier prospects. There are a lot of question marks in our farm system. The answers to these questions (and many others) will play out during the 2010 season and after. When they are answered we will then be able to evaluate the Bravesí farm system. The reality is that for most minor league players the probability of an impact big league career is actually quite small. Instead of attempting another ranking, I wanted to ask 10 questions about our most noteworthy prospects:

  1. 1. Cody Johnson: How will he handle the transition to Double AA?
  2. 2. Christian Bethancourt: What will a full season mean to his reputation?
  3. 3. Adam Milligan: Can he handle advanced pitching the way he crushed Sally League pitching?
  4. 4. Brandon Hicks: Can he realize the potential which many saw in him?
  5. 5. Do the Braves have any position players who might be sleepers at the upper levels of their farm system?
  6. 6. How will the unheralded players that the Braves drafted in 2009 develop?
  7. 7. Has Craig Kimbrel reached a plateau?
  8. 8. What should we expect from Mike Minor?
  9. 9. How will Julio Teheran perform in his first full season?
  10. 10. Who will emerge as the Bravesí next great pitching prospect?
  1. 1. Cody Johnson: How will he handle the transition to Double AA?

    Cody Johnson continues to have his detractors (including John Sickels) because of his ugly strikeout rate. But the important thing to remember about Johnson is that he has shown steady improvement. Johnson has displayed tremendous ìlight towerî power and he is young ñ still just 21 years old. Since the transition from High-A to Double AA is possibly the most difficult for young hitters, there is every reason to believe that 2010 could be a make or break year for Johnson. Iím guessing heíll struggle early, but find a way to survive and post adequate second half numbers. To do this, Johnson will ultimately not only have to cut down on his strikeouts but be willing to use the whole ballpark, because right now he's pretty much a dead pull hitter. Nevertheless, if Johnson can keep improving at Mississippi, he should be on his way to the majors and the Braves could be looking at a Jay Buhner type of player. That is, someone who will inevitably whiff more than they would like, but also be a productive power hitter.

  2. 2. Christian Bethancourt: What will a full season mean to his reputation?

    Bethancourt, who was signed out of Venezuela with a large bonus, was arguably the least visible of the Braves key prospects at the beginning of 2009. However, a year later he is routinely mentioned in Top Ten Lists of Braves prospects, even though he is still just 18. Having won the award for being the top prospect in the GCL, Bethancourt looks to be the one guy in the system who might one day move Brian McCann. Scouts love his defense and his offensive production was more than might be expected (.342-.446-giving him a .786 OPS between the GCL and Danville). In fact, the key to his development may well be hitting: if he can improve at the plate, then he could become one of the top catching prospects in all of baseball. That said, ranking Bethancourt as a top ten prospect may tell you more about the people who make lists than about his actual future. While he was promoted to Danville, he has yet to play a single game (or a full season for that matter) at A level. Clearly Bethancourt has great potential, but he must first navigate the many shoals that face a player coming out the low minors.

  3. 3. Adam Milligan: Can he handle advanced pitching the way he crushed Sally League pitching?

    The Braves have long believed in Milligan, who they drafted not once, but three times. Milligan, a former football player, turned down a scholarship to Vanderbilt to sign with the Braves in 2008, but missed the chance to play for Danville because of a knee injury. 2009 amounted to a great coming out party for Milligan, who briefly played for Danville before being promoted to Rome. Milligan then proved that he owned Sally League pitching (.981 OPS) before a final end of the season cup of coffee at Myrtle Beach. The fact that he stumbled in a few games was enough for the skeptics. Some scouts believe that he lacks bat speed and his strikeouts were a bit high at Rome( 43 Ks in 197 Abs). Probably more than anything else, however, Milligan fits a paradigm that some baseball people donít like: a former football player trying to be a power hitter. The rap on players such as these (Jeff Francoeur comes to mind, or former Yankee prospect Drew Henson) is that they have acquired too much muscle mass in their upper bodies to swing quickly. The Braves have long been aggressive at getting players like Milligan (and Cody Johnson). It should be pointed out that Milligan fits the mold of previous farm hands--Jamie Romak, Matt Esquivel, Scott Thorman, George Lombard--who had only limited success climbing the minor league power. Milligan may well be different. Bottom line: if he can put up the numbers once more in 2010, then the Braves will have an excellent power prospect.

  4. 4. Brandon Hicks: Can he realize the potential which many saw in him?

    Brandon Hicks has quietly become a better prospect. AA pitching proved to be a challenge for Hicks, but it seemed clear in August and September that he had grown has a hitter. His strikeout rate declined and his batting average began to creep up. Hicks performed competently in the Arizona Fall League (.310 average, .848 OPS). Hicks may well start out at AA Mississippi, but he could begin at AAA Gwinnett. The key for Hicks will be to continue to show that he can cut down on the strikeouts. Since defense has always been his strong suit, if Hicks can get a bit better at making contact while keeping some pop in his bat then he has a chance to play in the majors, maybe even as a regular. Of course, none of these developments can be taken for granted, and time is not on Hicks' side, as he turns 25 in September--possibly making a cup of coffee a birthday present for him.

  5. 5. Do the Braves have any position players who might be sleepers at the upper levels of their farm system?

    While OF Willie Cabrera, OF Concepcion Rodriguez and Travis Jones 2B are not commonly known by those who keep up with the Braves, some day they may all make contributions to major league clubs. In 2009 Cabrera had a solid if quiet year at Mississippi. A former draft-and-follow player, Cabrera hit .275/.333/.402 in a pitcherís park. His power declined: 8 HR in 2009, down from 16 the year before. Still, it was a credible transition to Double-A ball. Cabrera also brings a great attitude to the table and should begin the season at Gwinnett. It would not surprise anyone in the organization to continue to see him claw his way forwards. He should eventually get the chance to be a 4th outfielder.

    Concepcion Rodriguez has played OF alongside Cabrera for several years. Like Cabrera his production dropped in AA: his OPS at Myrtle Beach was .803, but in AA it fell to .651. Nonetheless, Rodriguez will not turn 24 until September, and he has made steady progress through the Bravesí system. The organization may well let him start at AA, but it would not be surprising to see him in Gwinnett by mid-season. Again, like Cabrera he should get the chance to play in the majors--probably as a 4th or backup outfielder.

    2B Travis Jones made the jump to AA similarly stumbled at first. He fell from 16 HR to 8 HR in AA, but he still recorded a .350 OBP and stole 23 bases. Jones needs to make a bit more contact. Since he will be 25 in November, Jones still has a chance to develop. I'd guess that he'll start at Mississippi, but soon make his way to Gwinnett. If Jones can find his power stroke again, he could find a home in the big leagues.

  6. 6. Was the 2009 draft a minor disaster?

    Braves fans will remember that the team was criticized by pundits for just about their entire draft from Mike Minor on down, except for RHP David Hale and SS Mycal Jones. Among the Braves' nonpitcher draftees were OF Kyle Rose, 2B Matthew Weaver, OF Cory Harrlichak, 1B Riaan Spanjer-Furstenburg, 3B Jakob Dalfonso, and OF Robert Hefflinger (see the above comments about Milligan). Many of these players were unknown to all but the most diehard draft analysts. A few pitchers were worthy of note as well: David Berryhill, Aaron Northcraft, Christopher Masters, Tyrelle Harris, Jeffrey Lorick, Matt Crim, Lucas La Point, and Ryan Weber. Braves fans will watch Minor, Hale and Mycal Jones, but because the Braves were thin in high-round picks, the key to the draft will be how well these less-heralded players develop. On the whole, most of these players made solid debuts, and if they continue to perform and climb the organizational ladder, they will demonstrate the quality of the Bravesí scouts.

  7. 7. Has Craig Kimbrel reached a plateau?

    Craig Kimbrel is one of the biggest questions that the Braves need to resolve. Kimbrel has filthy stuff, which helped him strike out an incredible 15 men per inning. However, he has some major issues with his command that got exposed the higher he climbed. Kimbrel got roughed up pretty badly during his stint in the AFL, even considering that it's a hitterís paradise -- he had a 10.45 ERA in 10 1/3 innings there, with 18 K but 16 walks. That all but guaranteed that he will not start the year in Atlanta's pen. In fact, the pounding that Kimbrel received in the AFL might work in his favor: the Braves have now signed Wagner and Saito, giving Kimbrel plenty of time to work on his command. If Kimbrel can master his pitches, then the Braves will have a dominant closer in the making.

  8. 8. What should we expect from Mike Minor?

    Many who follow the Braves were shocked when the team drafted Mike Minor with the #7 pick in the 2009 draft. This was the highest the Braves had selected in about 15 years and Minorës name didn't appear in any of the predictions (including mine) about the draft. Minor, after all, does not have the blazing fastball that often makes a top of the rotation starter. Analysts claimed that while Minor was a very smart pitcher who would probably make his way to the majors, he had a relatively low ceiling, as a back end of the rotation starter with a chance of being a #3. Minor signed late (and for a hefty bonus), but after he put his name on the dotted line he began to show baseball fans why the Braves selected him. Minorís numbers at Rome were impressive, with just 1 ER in 14 innings, and 17 K against 0 walks.

    He then pitched with mixed results in the AFL (in 16 and 2/3 innings, batters hit .343 against him). The consensus seems to be that Minor is a "canít miss" prospect, at least in the sense that he's virtually guaranteed to reach the majors, but his ceiling remains an open question. With a strong spring training, he will probably start at Myrtle Beach, and if he pitches well, he could advance to AA and possibly AAA by the end of the season. A cup of coffee in Atlanta is not impossible, but realistically he will not make any impact until 2011 at the earliest. I'm guessing here is that the Braves knew what they were doing and Minor will ultimately become a solid #2 or #3 starter.

  9. 9. How will Julio Teheran perform in his first full season?

    Great expectations have surrounded Teheranís entry into the Bravesí organization. However, Teheranís performance in 2008 was promising, but ended with a minor injury. Starting at Danville Teheran showed as a 17 year old that he was a different kind of pitcher. Nevertheless, his results were erratic and he was shut down with a sore arm for precautionary reasons towards the end of the season. In 2009 he returned to the Appalachian League and proved to be dominant, with a 2.68 ERA in 43 2/3 innings, earning a promotion to Rome. In the Sally League, Teheranís performance was impressive for an 18 year old -- a 4.78 ERA in 37 2/3, not great but not atrocious -- but hardly compared with what he had done at Danville. Therefore, in all probability, Teheran will start at Rome to great fanfare. If he develops as expected, he should reach Myrtle Beach by mid-season. Bravesí fans should be patient: Teheran has yet to pitch a full season and while he flashes enormous potential, he has yet to show that he can dominate A-level hitters. That said, it would not be surprising to see 2010 remembered as Julio Teheranís breakout season.

  10. 10. Who will emerge as the Bravesí next great pitching prospect?

    The most obvious answer to the question is now Arodys Vizcaino--who was not even on Bravesí fans radar screens a week ago. Before trying to place Vizcaino in relation to Teheran, it should be noted that the organization actually possesses waves of good young arms. Starting with the players coming from the DSL, Andy Otero, Williams Perez, Luis de Luna, and Alexis Pinto will all play in the US, most probably in the Gulf Coast League. The Braves' 2009 GCL team will also contribute another set of arms who should move up the organization ladder: Robinson Lopez, Caleb Brewer, Ryan Weber, Danilo Alvarez, Carlos Perez, Aaron Northcutt, and Lucas LaPoint all have significant potential. Most of these hurlers are probably ticketed for Danville, but Brewer, Lopez and Weber could pitch for Rome.

    The Rome Braves will have most of the pitchers who made the 2009 season memorable: Julio Teheran, Cory Rasmus, Brett Oberholzer, Matt Crim, David Hale, Jeff Lorick, Chris Masters, Tyler Stovall. Now add Vizcaino, Brewer, Lopez and possibly Weber, and the competition for innings will be intense. Two unknowns: Brett DeVall and Steven Kent. If these pitchers are healthy they will probably also get the chance to suit up in a Rome uniform. Myrtle Beach should be rich in arms as well: Dimaster Delgado, Randall Delgado, J.J. Hoover and Zeke Spruill will probably all join Cole Rohrbough, Chad Rogers, David Francis, Richard Sullivan, Mike Minor and possibly Jake Thompson.

    Taken together, the Braves already have enough quality pitching prospects for every minor league affiliate below AA. Even though the organization is low in quality position players, the 2010 Draft will probably add a few more solid arms. The Braves, then, have a wealth of young pitching from which to build.

    So, who will emerge as the next great Braves prospect? Assuming Teheran and Vizcaino don't count because both have already achieved that status, there remain a good number of strong candidates. It is impossible to project which pitchers will hit plateaus or suffer injuries that will prove to be decisive for their careers. Nonetheless, while Robinson Lopez, Carlos Perez, and Tyler Stovall will merit attention, the names flying beneath the radar are Ryan Weber (possibly the Braves' best pick of the 2009 draft), Cory Rasmus, and Caleb Brewer. Bravesí fans should feel good because at least one (and possibly all) of these pitchers should have an exciting future.

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