As Spring Training unfolds and prospects are sorted into different farm affiliates, it is a good time to take stock of what may lie ahead in 2009 for Atlanta's minor league teams. Braves fans are currently enjoying the fact that Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward are widely regarded as two of the top 5 prospects in baseball. Do the Braves have any other comparable players in the minors? Who might emerge this year? To answer these questions, let's take a brief tour of the Braves system before the year starts.
The 2008 Rome Braves proved to be possibly the biggest disappointment in the Braves minor league system. Despite being loaded with pitching talent and featuring the already heralded Heyward, the Rome Braves found themselves overmatched, and struggled to a 56-81 record. (They were 66-74 in 2007.)
It wasn't a total disappointment, as Jason Heyward and Freddie Freemen each had breakout seasons. Cody Johnson started slow, but demonstrated "light tower" power and improved plate discipline during the second half of the season.
At the beginning of the season, Rome's pitchers were probably the envy of the South Atlantic League. But injuries and struggles set in, and, instead of dominating, Rome's pitchers were frequently pounded. Still, there were strong performances from Scott Diamond, Cole Rohrbough (once he overcame a nagging ankle injury), and Edgar Osuna. Steven Evarts and Eric Barrett would probably like to forget 2008, but Jeff Locke and Chad Rodgers made progress. In the bullpen, Michael Mehlich (an underated prospect), Benino Pruneda, and Cory Gearrin also showed nice potential.
This year's Rome Braves will almost certainly begin with lower expectations. Gone are hitters Heyward, Freeman, and probably Cody Johnson, as well as pitchers Rohrbough, Diamond and several less celebrated players. 3B Jon Gilmore, who was Danville's most exciting hitter, was traded to the White Sox in the deal that brought Javier Vasquez to the Braves.
Nonetheless, fans in Rome should have lots to cheer about, especially if the next wave of Braves' pitchers begins to deliver.
Rome should be rich in pitching this year. The staff will probably include:
- Jacob Thompson, who starred at Virginia
- Yeliar Castro, who this week pitched for Panama against the Braves
- Richard Sullivan, who only walked 4 hitters between Danville and Rome
- (Ross) David Francis, who threw a no-hitter and struck out 15
- Paul Clemens, who has a major league fastball
- J.J. Hoover, who showed flashes of dominance at the end of the season
- Angelo Paulino, who put up some promising numbers at Danville
- Randall Delgado, who skipped the GCL and was easily Danville's strongest pitcher
While the Braves should have an embarrassment of pitching riches at Rome, Randall Delgado is probably the hottest prospect of the lot. Delgado so impressed the Braves in extended Spring Training that they allowed him to bypass the GCL and start for Danville. While Julio Teheran was receiving attention (including a rumor the Braves put out that he might begin his career at Rome) as the Braves uberprospect, Delgado -- only one year older -- quietly put together a very impressive season. In 14 starts he pitched 69 innings surrendering 63 walks while striking out 81. He only walked 30 and garnered his fair share of ground balls.
Delgado's numbers might have been even better, but he got hit harder at the end of the season, suggesting a bit of fatigue. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Rome has 9-10 potential starters, at this point Delgado is the one to focus upon.
In Rico Reid, Clayton McMillan and Matthew Small, Rome also possesses pitchers who have at least demonstrated some success as relievers. It is entirely possible that they will be joined by Cory Rasmus, who, when healthy, has some of the best stuff in the system.
If pitching is Rome's strength, then developing position players will be its most formidable challenge. Beyond some sleepers there are really only about two position players of note: Luis Sumoza, the outfielder who came over in the Kotsay trade, and catcher Mathew Kennelly.
Apparently, the Braves had been interested in Luis Sumoza before the Red Sox signed him in Venezuela. The numbers he put up for the Lowell Spinners (Red Sox short-season single-A affiliate) in 2008 were impressive: .366 OBP and 11 HR. He has the chance to develop into the kind of right hand power bat that the Braves need. Kennelly--who is on the Australian team in the WBC--is a good defensive catcher who has the chance to be a decent hitter.
Beyond these key prospects, Rome will have some players who might achieve breakthrough seasons. Braves fans should certainly keep their eyes on:
- OF Chris Shehan, who put up great numbers at Georgia Southern and then made good progress at Danville, culminating in a late season promotion to Rome
- 1B Gerardo Rodriguez, who demonstrated a power bat
- 2B Joel (Joelmy) Campusano, a player who has yet to develop the power the Braves hoped
- CF Leonardo ("L.V.") Ware, an outfielder with tools who showed some promise last season