03/29/2007 9:30 AM ET
Braves look to recapture dominance
Harrison, Reyes hope to carry club's strong pitching tradition
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, MLB.com takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.
So, the Atlanta Braves' run of 14 straight division titles ended last year. And their outstanding farm director, Dayton Moore, left in June to become general manager of the Kansas City Royals. The overall health of the Atlanta organization isn't what it used to be, what with so many young players making it to the big leagues lately. That might make some organizations head into a tailspin for a while.
But there's a reason the Braves were successful all those years. They're not exactly ones to panic, not in the big leagues and not on the farm. Kurt Kemp has taken over as director of player development and that, in and of itself, represents something the Braves have used to their advantage over the years: continuity. Kemp has been with the organization for a decade, and while his move from scouting to player development required some learning on the fly, at least he's very familiar with how the Braves do things.
Perhaps they're not doing it with as much depth in the Minors as they're accustomed to, but the cupboard is far from bare. There are some very interesting middle infielders, a heckuva catching prospect and while there may not be an ace in the making coming up right now, there are some arms -- particularly from the left side -- that could provide help in the very near future.
So fear not, Braves fans. If any ship were going to right itself, this would be the one. If the current group -- including some very young players not far removed from the Minor League system -- can turn things around, there should be at least some reinforcements arriving in the near future.
Climbing the Ladder
Yunel Escobar, INF
A second-round pick in 2005 after defecting from Cuba, Escobar spent his first full season in Double-A Mississippi and played three infield positions. The Braves still think he can be an everyday shortstop, his original position, and he certainly has the arm strength to play there. They also feel his skill set fits at all three positions -- second, short or third. What's more exciting is his offensive development, particularly in the Arizona Fall League. Escobar won the batting title with a .407 average while continuing to show the excellent plate discipline that was on display during the regular season. Though his versatility may point him toward a utility role, the Braves still think he can be an everyday player, especially after he hit .362 over 47 at-bats in big-league camp this spring.
Matt Harrison, LHP
Harrison is at the top of the list of a large group of interesting left-handers in the Braves' system. Taken out of high school in the third round of the 2003 draft, Harrison moved slowly until he broke out in 2005. Pitching in full-season ball for the first time, the 6-foot-5 southpaw went 12-7 with a 3.23 ERA for Rome, walking just 30 batters in 167 innings. He didn't let up last year, splitting the season between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi. Between the two stops, he had a 3.35 ERA and again showed excellent command with just 33 walks in 158 2/3 innings. He employs a fastball-curve-changeup mix and when he's on, he does an excellent job of commanding all three and keeping hitters off-balance. Any lefty, especially those in the Braves organization, is going to be compared to Tom Glavine. Harrison could get the chance at some point this season to begin showing if he measures up.
|2006 Organizational Record
|* Won Appalachian League championship
Others to watch: RHP Joey Devine may still some day be a big-league closer, but he'll have to work his way back to Atlanta by putting up some numbers in Richmond first. ... RHP Anthony Lerew would probably rather forget about his 2006 season, which included a demotion to Double-A. He'll get the chance to put it behind him in Richmond's rotation. ... LHP Dan Smith has both started and relieved and could spend time waiting for an opening as a lefty out of the Braves' bullpen this season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
The Braves are asked almost daily about Saltalamacchia's future, particularly as it pertains to his position in the field. For now, the Braves are happy to allow him to continue his natural progression as a catcher. Obviously something will have to give, with Brian McCann recently signing a six-year contract in Atlanta. For now, though, Salty will head back to Mississippi and try to erase a subpar 2006 season. No one is particularly worried about it, especially considering he hit .357 in July, .313 in August and went 13-for-23 in the AFL before shutting it down due to some groin and hamstring issues. There was some talk that he'd make the jump to Triple-A to start the year, but the Braves are letting the 22-year-old go back to the Southern League, master that level and then move from there.
|2006 Organizational Leaders
|Complete MiLB statistics
Jo-Jo Reyes, LHP
If Matt Harrison is Exhibit 1 for southpaws in the system, then Reyes is 1A. Things didn't start out that way for the big lefty when he had Tommy John surgery in 2004, then tore his ACL in 2005. With health last year, though, the performances started coming. He started the South Atlantic League All-Star Game and went 8-1 with a 2.99 ERA, striking out well over a batter an inning in 13 starts. That earned him a promotion to Myrtle Beach, where he ran out of gas after a strong start. Using a fastball-curve-changeup repertoire, he showed enough to earn a trip to Double-A to start the season, where he'll likely front Mississippi's rotation.
Others to watch: The Braves are excited about the progress OF Brandon Jones has made, despite injuries cutting into his two full seasons thus far. He's a tremendous athlete with great power-speed potential. ... Eventually, Chipper Jones won't be playing third in Atlanta anymore. The organization hopes Van Pope will be the guy to take over. He's got good pop at the plate and is a terrific defensive third baseman. 1B Kala Kaaihue led the organization in homers, RBIs and slugging in his first full season. Not bad for a non-drafted free agent.
Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach
Elvis Andrus, SS
Playing at age 17 in the South Atlantic League in 2006, Andrus has already showed he's going to be a shortstop with a capital S. He's got great hands, an outstanding arm and terrific range. He still has a way to go in all facets of the game, particularly on offense, but he more than held his own as one of the youngest regulars in the circuit. He can run -- he stole 23 bases -- but he needs to learn to be a better baserunner, as evidenced by the 15 times he was caught stealing. He showed some things with the bat, and as he matures he could develop into an elite everyday shortstop, one who can hit for average and some power. Even if he spends a full year at each level, that means he'll be ready for the big leagues in 2010 at the ripe old age of 21.
Beau Jones, LHP
Jones had a fantastic debut after the Braves took him with their supplemental first-round pick in 2005. The high school star from Louisiana was dominant in the Gulf Coast League that summer, and the Braves pushed him to full-season ball last year with great hopes. Things didn't work out so well as the southpaw had a 5.61 ERA for Rome and the league hit .286 against him as he faltered down the stretch. He's still got great stuff, with three pitches that have Major League potential. His changeup lags behind the fastball and curve, and if he can trust his stuff, he should return to the form the Braves saw in the GCL.
Others to watch: 3B Eric Campbell will be going for home run title No. 3 in a row, topping both the Appalachian League in 2005 and the South Atlantic League last year. He's got a career .511 slugging percentage. He also played second this winter in Hawaii, showing some versatility that could help him progress in the future. ... RHP Jeff Lyman went in the second round of the 2005 draft, right after Jones. They will pitch in the same rotation for the third straight season. ... C Clint Sammons may have been hoping to break with Mississippi, but with Saltalamacchia returning there, Sammons will have to at least start the year back with Myrtle Beach. He's an outstanding defensive catcher.
Class A Rome
Chase Fontaine, SS
The Braves took Fontaine in the second round of last June's draft and he didn't disappoint, making the Appalachian League All-Star team in his debut season. He's a very athletic middle infielder with some gap power that could develop as he matures. He's got above-average speed and should be able to steal bases along the way. Defensively he's got average range and good arm strength, and he would probably stay at shortstop in another system. But with Elvis Andrus ahead, it's more likely that Fontaine and his offensive potential will eventually move to second. For now, though, he'll get to stay at shortstop for Rome at 21.
Cory Rasmus, RHP
Cory's older brother, Colby, is a top outfield prospect in the Cardinals system. Both come from national powerhouse Russell County High in Alabama, which won the national title in 2005. The younger Rasmus has a terrific arm, but his body -- 6-1, 220 pounds -- doesn't have much room for projection, perhaps the reason he lasted until the 38th pick in last June's draft. When he's on, Rasmus features an above-average fastball, a curve that is his true out pitch and a very good changeup. He barely got his feet wet in the GCL last summer, so the Braves are excited and curious to see what they have in Rasmus in his first full season.
Others to watch: Rome should have one of the better rotations in the lower Minors, if not all of Minor League baseball. Joining Rasmus could be LHP Steve Evarts, a first-round supplemental pick last June who features a live fastball and nasty changeup; RHP Tommy Hanson, a draft-and-follow from the 2005 draft who's an imposing 6-6 and dominated the GCL last summer; LHP Jeff Locke, a New Hampshire native who rose up draft charts last June and into the second round and finished very strongly in the GCL, and LHP Chad Rodgers, an Ohio prep star taken in the third round who in many ways outpitched fellow southpaws Evarts and Locke last summer.
Under the Radar
Kala Kaaihue, 1B
Perhaps it's not fair to say a player who led his organization in home runs, RBIs and slugging is under the radar, but as a non-drafted free agent, Kaaihue will always have to prove himself at every level. He certainly showed that the SAL was no problem. He hit .329 and slugged .614 before being promoted to the Carolina League. His overall numbers there weren't as good -- .223 average, .473 slugging -- but he did hit 13 more homers in 53 games to give him 28 for the season. He also drew 30 more walks, finishing with an impressive 82 in his first full season to give him a .407 OBP for the year.
JC Holt, 2B
After a big debut following his third-round selection in the 2004 draft, Holt has moved up the ladder in a somewhat stealthy fashion. He hasn't hit for average (.268 in Rome, .266 in Myrtle Beach) like he did in his debut (.321), but he's continued to run well, finishing third in the Carolina League with 35 steals last year. He also cut down his strikeouts and improved his walk rate some, all signs that point to the possibility of a breakout in Double-A this year.
Dan Smith, RHP
We're suckers for a good NDFA story. Smith wasn't drafted out of high school in 2002 and signed a free-agent contract with the Braves the following year. Since then, he's quietly moved up the ladder and is knocking on the door. He's been both a reliever and starter, compiling a 2.57 career ERA along the way. He was outstanding in eight starts for Mississippi at the end of last year, but his Major League future may be as a reliever.
2006 Draft Recap
Some wondered about 1B Cody Johnson as a first-round pick. He's got tremendous raw power, but swings and misses a lot. In the GCL, he hit just .184 and struck out 49 times in 114 at-bats. ... Georgia Southern product RHP Dustin Evans (2) has a plus fastball, even though he struck out just 35 in 51 1/3 innings during his debut. Still, he held hitters at two levels to a .225 average and finished the summer with a 2.63 ERA. ... LHP Kevin Gunderson (5) went from winning the College World Series right to Rome, where he promptly won four games, saved three and had a 1.13 ERA over 24 innings of relief. ... RHP Kris Medlen (10) saved 10 games, struck out 36, walked two and had a 0.41 ERA in 22 innings for Danville. He also tossed 2 1/3 perfect innings in the Appy League playoffs as Danville won the title.
Organizational Player of the Year -- Eric Campbell
Sure, Jarrod Saltalamacchia is going to have a bounce-back year. Sure he's going to put up some big numbers and force the Braves to make a decision. But Campbell has done nothing but hit and hit with power since he was drafted. He's going to keep on going in Myrtle Beach, adding a fourth home run title to his belt in 2007.
Organizational Pitcher of the Year -- Jo-Jo Reyes
Not exactly going out on a limb considering he led the organization in wins and strikeouts in 2006 while finishing third in ERA. But he was just getting started. He'll top himself in 2007 by taking the organizational triple crown in pitching.
"This is the start of my 10th year in the organization. Many of the people I'm working with, I've been working with for a long time. We have a tremendous group of people, not just on the scouting side, but on the player development and executive side who have made this transition as easy as it could possibly be. The biggest challenge for me, when you look at the player development year, has been coming over and learning which things need to be done in a timely manner, learning some of the language, learning some of the rules involved. The volume of information that comes at you on a day-to-day basis is far different in this chair than when I was on the scouting side." -- Farm director Kurt Kemp on the challenges of taking the new position
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.