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November 10, 2006

Future Shock

Atlanta Braves Top Ten Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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Excellent Prospects
None
Very Good Prospects
1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
2. Matt Harrison, LHP
Good Prospects
3. Neftali Feliz, RHP
4. Eric Campbell, 3B/2B
5. Elvis Andrus, SS
Average Prospects
6. Brandon Jones, OF
7. Joey Devine, RHP
8. Jeff Locke, LHP
9. Chase Fontaine, SS... maybe
10. Anthony Lerew, RHP

1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
DOB: 5/2/85
Draft: 1st round, 2003, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: .230/.353/.380 at Double-A
The Good: Big, athletic catcher with hitting skills, plus power and a patient approach. To his credit, he did not take his offensive struggles with him behind the plate, making great strides defensively. After coming off the disabled list on July 15th, he hit .338 with 21 walks and 12 extra-base hits in 74 at-bats.
The Bad: He began the season in a slump that looked like it would never end, and began to press, which only made it worse. Not exactly a track star, but hey, he's a catcher.
The Irrelevant: Jarrod's older brother Justin played 33 games in the Atlanta system in 2003, making Braves' organizational box scores very confusing for about a month-and-a-half.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average starting big league catcher with All-Star possibilities.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average to low. Saltalamacchia doesn't have a glaring weakness, and only really needs some refinement. After finishing the season hot at the plate and looking outstanding in a brief Arizona Fall League stint, the club is convinced that 2006 was a bump in the road and not a performance to make them re-assess his potential. Saltalamacchia went into the year as the team's number one prospect, and while his season took him down a peg, nobody else in the organization stepped up to take the crown away from him. He'll likely begin 2007 at Triple-A, but with Brian McCann entrenched at the big league level, Saltalamacchia might be the best prospect on the trading block at the Winter Meetings next month.

2. Matt Harrison, LHP
DOB: 8/16/85
Draft: 3rd round, 2003, North Carolina HS
What he did in 2006: 3.10 ERA, 81.1-77-16-60 at High A; 3.61, 77.1-83-17-54 at Double-A
The Good: A six-foot-five lefty with a rare combination of power stuff and plus command. His fastball sits comfortably in the low 90s and has touched 95; his curve and change up are both plus offerings.
The Bad: As good as Harrison's stuff is--and it's excellent--he doesn't miss a lot of bats. At times, he can be guilty of throwing too many strikes and giving opposing batters too many hittable pitches, as opposed to working with the count.
The Irrelevant: Strangely enough, left-handed batters hit over .300 against Harrison this year.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average starting pitcher, a number two or three on most staffs.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Like Saltalamacchia, Harrison needs to work more on refining what he has; with his command of three solid-or-better offerings, he could take off at any point.

3. Neftali Feliz, RHP
DOB: 5/2/88
Signed: Dominican Republic, 2005
What he did in 2006: 4.03 ERA, 29-20-14-42 at Rookie-level
The Good: Well, 18-year-olds who can throw 98 mph don't grow on trees you know. A classic long, lean Dominican righty with some feel for a breaking ball, he limited left-handed hitters to a 4-for-32 (.125) mark with 15 strikeouts.
The Bad: An 18-year-old who throws 98 mph is a guy you can dream about, but it's still a lot of dreaming; his secondary pitches are still a work in progress, as is his control.
The Irrelevant: Five of Feliz' 11 outings, including his last four, came against the GCL Phillies. In those five games, he had 20 strikeouts in 13.1 innings.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: It's far too early to say, other than that he might be a guy who ends up racking up some big time strikeout rates.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Very, very high. This is a teenager with a lightning arm who could turn into a frontline starter or a dominant closer, but right now, he's a teenager with a lightning arm.

4. Eric Campbell, 3B/2B
DOB: 8/6/85
Draft: 2nd round, 2004, Indiana HS
What he did in 2006: .296/.335/.517 at Low-A
The Good: After leading the Appy League in home runs last year, he led the South Atlantic League this year. He's also a good pure hitter with just 68 strikeouts in 449 at-bats and no platoon concerns. He's a solid defender who looked good in an audition at second base in the Hawaiian Winter League, which only increases his value.
The Bad: He needs to draw more walks; a little under-sized; his power is pull-only.
The Irrelevant: Continuing the trend, Campbell tied for the Sally League lead in playoff home runs. Sure, he hit just one, but nobody hit two.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: If he can stick at second base, a Jeff Kent type of performance isn't out of the question.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average to slightly above. If Campbell can tone down his aggressive hitting ways, he has star potential. The home park at High-A Myrtle Beach will be just as big an obstacle in 2007 as his approach will be in the coming years.

5. Elvis Andrus, SS
DOB: 8/6/88
Signed: Venezuela, 2005
What he did in 2006: .265/.324/.362 at Low-A
The Good: Tools city, particularly on the defensive side: his arm, range, hands and instincts are all highly advanced for a teenager. He's a plus runner, and some see power potential as well.
The Bad: While he was just 17--and that does need to be taken into account--he was pretty much an offensive zero, with a mediocre average, no power, few walks, and 23 stolen bases against 15 times caught stealing.
The Irrelevant: Elvis' older brother Erold is an outfielder who has played six years in the minors with the Yankees and Twins, and is now playing in the Venezuelan Winter League, which led to two separate emails from confused readers/Braves fans thinking that the E.ANDRUS in boxscores was Elvis and Atlanta had moved him to center field.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An All-Star if the tools turn into offensive performance.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Very High. Again, he's very young, and some in the industry see superstar potential, but there are also people around who feel Andrus is a bit of fool's gold, with a hitch in his swing and more of a lithe body with a line-drive swing than any sort of future power threat. Opinions on him vary greatly, and ranking him here is a bit of a hedge, but also likely significantly lower than where most will put him.

6. Brandon Jones, LF/RF
DOB: 12/10/83
Draft: 24th round, 2003, Florida JUCO (DNF)
What he did in 2006: .257/.329/.420 at High-A; .273/.326/.477 at Double-A
The Good: A long-limbed athlete with a decent idea at the plate to go along with developing power, good speed, and very good corner outfield skills.
The Bad: For a player who will be 23 at the end of the year, Jones is very raw for his age, and various minor injuries have limited him to just 960 career plate appearances; his improvements have been across the board, but minor when they need to be dramatic. He also lacks that one big-time skill to put him over the top. The bat needs to play because he's not good enough defensively to play center field.
The Irrelevant: A three-way star (baseball, basketball, football) at tiny Wewahitchka High School in the Florida panhadle, Jones is Tallahassee Community College's all-time leader in batting average, on-base percentage, and hits.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A solid starting outfielder. The fact that he swings from the left side and runs well gives him possibilities as a bench player if he doesn't make great progress with the bat.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. Maybe too high for his age. He's capable of much more, but he needs to stay healthy and increase his rate of improvement in 2007.

7. Joey Devine, RHP
DOB: 9/29/83
Draft: 1st round, 2005, North Carolina State
What he did in 2006: 5.89 ERA, 18.1-13-11-28 at High-A; 0.82, 11-2-4-20 at Double-A; 0.00, 0-1-1-0 at Triple-A; 9.95, 6.1-8-9-10 at MLB
The Good: A classic power reliever with a two-pitch combo of a mid-90s fastball and plus slider. He recovered from early season injury problems to dominate at Double-A.
The Bad: He's been so bad in the majors that some wonder if he's a little shell-shocked. He struggles against good left-handed hitters, and his control is inconsistent.
The Irrelevant: While it was just six games, Southern League batters went 2-for-31 with 20 strikeouts against him.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: The Braves closer, and sooner rather than later.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. The Braves hope that Devine's late-season surge salvages what was otherwise a bit of a lost season. He has an outside shot of making the big league bullpen out of spring training, but Atlanta might want to see an extended period of success at Triple-A first.

8. Jeff Locke, LHP
DOB: 11/20/87
Draft: 2nd round, 2006, New Hampshire HS
What he did in 2006: 4.22 ERA, 32-38-5-38 at Rookie-level
The Good: A tall, teenage lefthander who can sit in the low 90s and has a very high ceiling; excellent control for his age and experience; very few innings on his arm from pitching in a cold-weather climate; very good makeup.
The Bad: He's still a raw arm who needs to work on his secondary pitches; needs to learn how to set up hitters, as even inexperienced GCL hitters knew to sit on his fastball.
The Irrelevant: Of the runs he gave up, 11 of the 18 came in his first three pro appearances; afterwards, he had a 2.25 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 24 innings.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: Hard to say--see Perez, Neftali.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Very High. The Braves are absolutely loaded with young, projectable arms, but Locke gets the edge for his combination of size, velocity (for a lefty), and control.

9. Chase Fontaine, SS
DOB: 10/22/85
Draft: 2nd round, 2006, Florida JUCO
What he did in 2006: .296/.411/.412 at Rookie-level
The Good: A very good hitter who draws walks in bunches; fundamentally sound both at the plate and in the field; your basic baseball rat who loves playing and takes well to coaching.
The Bad: His power is marginal, yet he has a surprisingly high strikeout rate; speed is average; not a good enough defender to stay on the left side of the infield.
The Irrelevant: Real first name is Robert, which is nowhere near as cool as being called Chase.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A starting second baseman and ideal hitter in the two-hole.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. Fontaine has just 60 games as a pro under his belt, and he'll need to prove himself at the higher levels before anybody worries about creating space for him. His approach and hitting skills could allow him to move up fairly quickly.

10. Anthony Lerew, RHP
DOB: 10/28/82
Draft: 11th round, 2001, Pennsylvania HS
What he did in 2006: 2.03 ERA, 48.2-43-13-37 at Double-A, 7.48, 71-92-36-69 at Triple-A; 22.50, 2-5-3-1 at MLB
The Good: He recovered from a nightmarish first half by rediscovering his stuff at Double-A and keeping it for the rest of the year; he has a big durable frame and a fastball that sits in the low 90s; decent breaking ball and changeup.
The Bad: Absolutely everything fell apart in the first half of the season, so in the immediate future the concerns that another self-destruction could happen at any time will persist; his slider has a tendency to flatten out when he gets under it; when he misses, he misses up; his repertoire is solid, but he has no one dominant offering.
The Irrelevant: A high school football standout, Lerew was recruited by Penn State as a quarterback, and was considered one of the top prep punters in the country.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A swingman who is equally effective as a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low-to-Average. Lerew is a finished product if what he showed in the second half of 2006 lasts. He might have to prove himself at Triple-A before getting another extended look.

The Sleeper: A second-round pick in 2003 now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, lefthander Jo-Jo Reyes led the organization with 142 strikeouts in 141 innings split between Atlanta's two full-season A-ball squads while flashing a low-90s fastball and a much-refined curve.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined with Non-Rookies 25 Years Old or Younger (as of Opening Day 2007)

1. Brian McCann, C
2. Jeff Francoeur, OF
3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
4. Matt Harrison, LHP
5. Neftali Perez, RHP
6. Eric Campbell, 3B/2B
7. Willy Aybar, 2B/3B
8. Macay McBride, LHP
9. Brandon Jones, OF
10. Joey Devine, RHP

While the Braves system is down a bit, what more than makes up for it is the presence at the big league level of a young superstar in McCann, as well as Francoeur, who should be one soon. Yes, Francouer doesn't walk, but he does get it, and could be in line for a Jose Reyes-like improvement in plate discipline in 2007. As stated in the Locke comment, as they always seem to be, the Braves are loaded at the lower levels with young, high-ceiling arms. Some of them will disappear, but some will step forward, and the system will look as strong as ever as early as next year.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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