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03/11/2008 10:00 AM ET
Braves building on rich pitching tradition
Bevy of left-handers lead the charge through Atlanta's revitalized system
Jose Ortegano finished 6-1 with a 1.48 ERA over 13 games for short-season Danville last year. (Bill Setliff)

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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.

The Braves built their National League dynasty on the backs of their pitchers.

Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz; Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Their names were pounded into our consciousness for a decade while a supporting cast added help here and there. But then Glavine went to New York, Maddux returned to Chicago and the best rotation in baseball over the last quarter-century was no more.

While that grouping's success may never be replicated, the Braves are certainly doing their best to see if they can make it happen again. Take one look at the crop of starters Atlanta has in its system and it's easy to see they are pitching-rich. While the starters being pushed through the pipeline will spend much of the season at Rome, Myrtle Beach or Mississippi, there's no reason to believe that some won't see Atlanta as soon as 2009.

And when they do arrive, the likes of Jeff Locke, Steve Evarts, Chad Rodgers, Cole Rohrbough and Jose Ortegano could help put Atlanta back at the top of the N.L. heap for a long time.

Here's a closer look at what the Braves have going on in 2008.

10 Spot
Ten prospects to watch out for in 2008:

Gorkys Hernandez, OF
Acquired from Detroit in the Edgar Renteria deal, Hernandez has drawn rave reviews since the Tigers signed him as a free agent in 2005. The young Venezuelan -- he won't turn 21 until September -- gets on base and knows how to thrill once he's there. Whether he can dominate as he climbs the ladder remains the big question. Based on how he's performed so far, the Braves shouldn't have much to worry about.

Hernandez hit .293 with 50 RBIs and 54 steals last season for West Michigan en route to winning the Midwest League MVP. That came after he won the batting title in the Gulf Coast League in 2006 with a .327 average. The Braves let Andruw Jones walk after last season, and while Hernandez may ultimately fill that center-field void, it won't be any time soon. The youngster is still about two years from prolonged Major League duty, but if he can accomplish in the Carolina and possibly the Southern League this year what he's accomplished over the last two seasons, his ETA might move up.
Audio: Hernandez delivers a go-ahead hit in ninth
Audio: Hernandez belts two-run homer

ON THE VERGE
Here are some players on the brink of breaking into the Major Leagues:

Jair Jurrjens, RHP -- The Tigers were so high on the Curacao native that they gave him seven big-league starts last season before dealing him, along with Gorkys Hernandez, to the Braves for Edgar Renteria. Jurrjens should thrive in the low-pressure environment of Atlanta, and with Glavine and Smoltz as tour guides, he could have a wonderful first full season in the Majors. He's had some durability issues in the past, but not enough to detract from his lively mid-90s fastball.

Brandon Jones, OF -- Jones finally reached the big leagues last September, sandwiching time with the parent club around a trip to Oklahoma City for the Bricktown Showdown. He combined to hit 19 homers and drive in 100 runs at Mississippi and Richmond, collecting 59 extra-base hits along the way. It wouldn't be Atlanta without a Jones in the lineup, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he's playing full-time in Georgia before the calendar turns to June.

Clint Sammons, C -- The backstop began last year at Myrtle Beach and ended it in Atlanta, making a stopover in Mississippi along the way. Whether he sticks in Atlanta this season remains one of the questions surrounding the team this spring. While the Braves are set behind the plate with Brian McCann, there's a chance that Sammons could be the backup if Javy Lopez doesn't earn the job.

Brent Lillibridge, SS
The Braves picked up Lillibridge last winter from the Pirates and he proceeded to do everything right in his first year with Atlanta. He split the season between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Richmond, helping lead the latter to a surprising International League title. Lillibridge combined to hit .282 in 525 at-bats while stealing 42 bases. He also hit .378 in nine playoff games, collecting an IL playoff-high 14 hits.

Lillibridge had 22 errors in 593 chances last year but possesses better than average range. He's a prototypical scrappy infielder who does a little bit of everything. In other words, you won't notice him until he's not there. He shows up to play every day, a trait he's exhibited since the Pirates drafted him in the fourth round in 2005.

"After you watch him, you realize he does a lot of things very well," Atlanta farm director Kurt Kemp said. "He's an average hitter, he shows some power and he's not only good defensively, he shows some range. You put all of that together and he has a good all-around game. The great sign with him was that he was even more productive at Triple-A last year. He went to the next level and continued to get better."
Audio: Lillibridge clubs walk-off grand slam

Jordan Schafer, OF
To say that Schafer came out of nowhere in 2007 would be an exaggeration. But after a mediocre '06 that saw him struggle in the South Atlantic League, what he accomplished last season did prove to be a bit of a surprise. Schafer led the Minor Leagues in hits, collecting 176 between Rome and Myrtle Beach. His overall average was .312 (.294 in the Carolina League).


Monday, Feb. 25Chicago Cubs
Tuesday, Feb. 26Milwaukee Brewers
Wednesday, Feb. 27Cincinnati Reds
Thursday, Feb. 28Astros and Pirates
Friday, Feb. 29St. Louis Cardinals
Saturday, March 1Baltimore Orioles
Sunday, March 2Tampa Bay Rays
Monday, March 3Boston Red Sox
Tuesday, March 4Toronto Blue Jays
Wednesday, March 5New York Yankees
Thursday, March 6Los Angeles Angels
Friday, March 7Seattle Mariners
Saturday, March 8Oakland Athletics
Sunday, March 9Texas Rangers
Monday, March 10New York Mets
Tuesday, March 11Atlanta Braves
Wednesday, March 12Philadelphia Phillies
Thursday, March 13Nationals and Marlins
Friday, March 14Cleveland Indians
Saturday, March 15Kansas City Royals
Sunday, March 16Minnesota Twins
Monday, March 17Detroit Tigers
Tuesday, March 18Chicago White Sox
Wednesday, March 19Colorado Rockies
Thursday, March 20Arizona Diamondbacks
Friday, March 21Los Angeles Dodgers
Saturday, March 22San Francisco Giants
Sunday, March 23San Diego Padres

Schafer had 49 doubles, third best in the Minors, while his 74 extra-base hits placed him sixth overall. It certainly was a splendid season for the former third-rounder (2005), who put himself squarely on everybody's map. While he improved his pitch selection, which is probably the biggest reason for his jump to highly touted status, he still struck out once every 4.5 at-bats.

That said, there's no reason to think he'll take a step back this year in the Southern League, and he could even make it all the way to Richmond. He certainly has the defensive skills -- he's a whiz in center field with many considering him (not Hernandez) as the heir to Jones' turf at Turner Field. He won't be there this year, though, with Kemp saying the logical starting point for him in 2008 is Mississippi.

"We always believed as an organization that he had ability," Kemp said. "It doesn't always happen at the same time for every guy. He took going back to Rome as a positive thing. It was a challenge, not 'Boo-hoo, I'm not going to Myrtle Beach.' He earned the promotion and he knew deep down that he earned the promotion and didn't just get pushed ahead.

"They got off to a poor start in Rome, but he just stayed focused. We always thought he had the physical ability to be a good hitter. But as you saw him grow in confidence, the quality of his at-bats improved. You can't draw it up any better. He left the .240 he hit in Rome [in 2006] behind and advanced to the next challenge. Had we pushed him to Myrtle right away, in the back of the player's mind there would always be, 'Did I do what I needed to do at the previous level to be successful?' And that wasn't on his mind."
Audio: Schafer goes deep for Myrtle Beach
Audio: Schafer's defensive gem

Jeff Locke, LHP
The youngster from New Hampshire dominated the Appy League last summer, going 7-1 with a 2.66 ERA in 13 games (11 starts). He lost his first start, picked up a save in his second appearance though he wasn't sharp, and got hit hard during his third game, a start in which he earned a victory. Locke then went 6-0 over his last 10 games (nine starts) with a 1.74 ERA in 51 2/3 innings. He fanned 60 and walked only six over that stretch, allowing two earned runs or less in each outing.

He has a low-to-mid-90s fastball that he complements with great off-speed stuff. While he still has to refine some of his game, there are obvious signs that he's someone to watch. For example, over 93 innings in two seasons, he's struck out 112 and walked only 23. He may begin '08 in the South Atlantic League, but for the southpaw, all roads will lead out of Rome before long.
Audio: Locke collects another strikeout

Steve Evarts, LHP
The 2006 supplemental-round pick was, along with Locke and Chad Rodgers, one of the reasons why Danville led the Appy League with a 3.08 ERA last season. He went 4-0 in eight games (seven starts), posting a 1.95 ERA over 37 innings. Like Locke, he displayed exceptional control, striking out 34 and walking only four.

Evarts hasn't allowed a homer in his 80 professional innings, a testament to the movement on his pitches and the smarts he displays on the mound. While there were some early questions about his maturity, those issues seem to be behind him.
Audio: Evarts snaps off a curve

Chad Rodgers, LHP
The young southpaw taken in the third round of the 2006 draft should begin the year with his first full-season team. And if what he did in two years of short-season ball is any indication, the kid from Ohio is more than ready. He went 6-3 with a 3.18 ERA in 22 games (15 starts) in the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues since turning pro. He also has a pair of saves and a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding the opposition to a .218 batting average.

Rodgers locates his fastball, which often sits in the low 90s, and his off-speed stuff is proving to be a very nice complement. He battled through a minor shoulder issue late in the season but is healthy now and projects to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues.
Audio: Rodgers records season-high eighth K

Jason Heyward, OF
Last season's top pick had a nice introduction to pro ball, hitting .302 in 43 at-bats between the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues. He's got excellent power, is a great base runner and has demonstrated an above-average arm. Heyward is 6-foot-4 and nearly 230 pounds and uses that size to his advantage. He should barrel his way through the '08 season at Rome.

Julio Teheran, RHP
Think about this: Teheran turned 17 in January. When most kids that age are worrying about prom dates, this youngster from Colombia will be wondering what 0-2 pitch he should be throwing to the opposing cleanup hitter. The hard-throwing teen -- his fastball hangs out in the mid-90s -- signed a lucrative deal with Atlanta last year and is expected to begin the year in extended Spring Training before heading to a short-season league.

Teheran has an excellent curve and just needs some time and some coaching to pull together what is an impressive package. Keep him in mind not only for this season, but also the next two or three -- he could make a very rapid ascent.

Kris Medlen, RHP
The former junior college hurler pitched on three levels last season, eventually running into some trouble when he reached Double-A Mississippi, where he got roughed up a bit in a brief three-game look. Prior to that, he was 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA in 44 2/3 innings between Rome and Myrtle Beach. And in 2006, he had a 0.41 ERA with 10 saves in 22 frames at Danville.

The Braves thought enough of him to send him to Hawaii Winter Baseball, where he had a 1.88 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings for Honolulu. Including Hawaii, he's allowed only two homers in 81 professional innings. Though he experienced some elbow soreness near the end of winter ball, it isn't expected to impact him this spring.
Audio: Medlen fans first batter he faces

Cody Johnson, OF
The teenager from Florida had a rough indoctrination to pro ball in 2006 after the Braves made him a first-round pick. He hit .184 in 114 Gulf Coast League at-bats, striking out 49 times and posting a .260 OBP. He had a much better go of it last season at Danville, hitting .305 while leading the league with 17 homers and finishing second with 57 RBIs. He also led the league in slugging percentage (.630) and extra-base hits (40) while his OBP jumped to .374.

He did, however, strike out once every 3.4 at-bats, evidence of his grip-it-and-rip style at the plate. That should change over time, and he'll have every opportunity to work on cutting down his swing this season in Rome.
Audio: Johnson's five-RBI performance

Under the Radar

Cory Rasmus, RHP
The younger brother of former St. Louis first-rounder Colby Rasmus sat out the entire 2007 season with shoulder problems, eventually requiring surgery in July. The injury, while not considered career threatening, was definitely a setback, forcing the youngster under the radar. He's a smart bulldog of a player, traits that his brother has displayed while rising through the Cardinals' system. If he's healthy in '08, the Braves will start him off slow.

Erik Cordier, RHP
The Braves acquired the former second-round pick from the Royals last spring in exchange for Tony Pena. He missed all of last season recuperating from Tommy John surgery and was out for all of 2005 after undergoing knee surgery. While he has a potent mid-90s fastball, he hasn't been able to show it all that much since being drafted in '04. He's 6-5 with a 3.81 ERA in 21 professional starts, the last of which came in the Midwest League in 2006. He turned 22 last month.

Jose Ortegano, LHP
Locke, Evarts and Rodgers will keep getting all the press as the "three lefties" continue to move through the system. But Ortegano makes that group a fearsome quartet. He was 6-1 with a 1.48 ERA in 60 2/3 innings last year at Danville. He's got terrific stuff and will also be looking to continue his development this season in Rome.

"He deserves to be in that conversation [with the other three]," Kemp said. "They all had a very healthy competition and it spurred the others to do well. You saw that with Locke and Ortegano as they led the charge, and Evarts did very well at the end of the year and in the playoffs."
Audio: Ortegano records his eighth strikeout

2007 Draft Recap

OF Jason Heyward (first round) didn't disappoint, hitting .302 in his brief debut (13-for-43 in 12 games). He has tremendous bat speed and plenty of raw power. His plate discipline is far ahead of most high-school picks, and he should develop into a prototypical right fielder in all facets of the game. ... 3B Jon Gilmore was taken in the supplemental round largely because of his offensive potential. He batted .284 in 162 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League, and though he didn't hit for power, it is believed he will develop that as he matures. Error totals in the GCL aren't all that important, but he did commit 14 in 40 games at third, showing that his defense is a bit behind the bat at this point. ... 1B Freddie Freeman (second round) was a pitcher and third baseman in high school before the Braves converted him to first, after which he led the GCL in fielding percentage. He picked up 224 at-bats and hit .268 with six homers and 30 RBIs over 59 games. ... The Braves sent SS Brandon Hicks (third round) to the Arizona Fall League after he hit .285 between Danville and Rome. ... SS Michael Fisher (sixth round) started in Danville, and the Georgia Tech product got a bump to Myrtle Beach, combining to hit .289. ... RHP Nick Fellman (12th round) did an outstanding job as Danville's closer, saving 16 games, posting a 2.25 ERA and keeping opponents to a .157 batting average, all while striking out 46 in 28 innings. He was an Appy League All-Star. ... RHP Brett Butts (19th round) pitched at three levels during the regular season (ending with Myrtle Beach) and posted a 2.61 ERA in 16 relief appearances. He was bumped up to Double-A for the playoffs and pitched an inning for Mississippi.
Audio: Hicks delivers a double for Rome
Audio: Fisher clubs first Carolina League homer
Audio: Fellman fans first four batters
Audio: Butts works three hitless innings

Predictions

Organizational Player of the Year -- Gorkys Hernandez
The easy way out would be to pick Schafer and get it over with. But why do that? We'll go with Gorkys Hernandez, mostly because the kid has a world of talent and partly, as we've stated in the past, because it's so much fun to say Gorkys.

Cy on the Farm -- Cole Rohrbough
With so many pitchers to choose from, this category was much more difficult. After extolling the virtues of a bevy of lefties throughout this report, let's pull another southpaw out of the bag and pick Cole Rohrbough as the winner. The Western Nevada Community College product made his debut last season as a draft-and-follow after getting selected in the 22nd round in 2006. He went 5-2 with a 1.17 ERA in 14 games (13 starts), striking out 96 in 61 innings at Danville and Rome. He held the opposition to a .154 batting average.
Audio: Rohrbough records 11th strikeout

The Jair Up There: Here's to thinking that Jurrjens will make an impact with the Braves and win 10 games in Atlanta.

Schafer City: We're showing our age with the Schafer City reference, but the youngster will be sittin' pretty knowing that we predict he'll steal 30 bases this season, further enhancing his value.

Quotable

"We want to continue to promote their confidence, but as they make strides to the Majors, we're not going to fall too much on the laurels of what they did in Danville and the Gulf Coast League." --Farm director Kurt Kemp on the bevy of lefties that will be in Rome this season.

Kevin Czerwinski 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.