The Chipper Jones farewell tour has essentially been the theme of the Atlanta Braves 2012 campaign.
And after a 19-year sure-fire first ballot Hall of Fame career in which he posted a rare slash line of .304/.402/.532 and accumulated 90.5 WAR (ahead of Ken Griffey Jr., Johnny Bench, and Al Simmons among others), he has definitely earned it.
Needless to say, losing such a legend to retirement and watching someone else trot out to third base every day will be a tough pill to swallow for Braves Country, and to fill the void, Braves fans will be searching for the next Larry Wayne Jones, Jr.
So what are we looking for in the next Chipper Jones? Hall of Fame numbers are a little unfair to expect, but certainly greatness would be one condition of filling Chipper's shoes. Another would be the requirement of being a position player, playing night in and night out for many years to come. I'll also consider youth, likelihood of meeting potential, extent of upside, and positional value.
There are a few other Braves prospects I like (Nick Ahmed, Tommy La Stella, Todd Cunningham), but none of whom have the upside of Brandon Drury.
Much like Chipper Jones himself, Drury is a former shortstop who has found a home at third base. However, his spot on this list is entirely based on tools and projection, as he has been too inconsistent to really gauge what he can do.
In 2010 as a 17-year-old, Drury hit .198 with a .248 OBP in Rookie League, albeit with a .250 BABIP. He tore up the league as an 18-year-old, hitting .347, but with an unsustainably high .373 BABIP. This year, Drury has reverted back to his 2010 version, hitting .223 with a .252 BABIP in A ball. (Fangraphs)
He needs to add strength, which will come as he matures. His biggest problem area though, is his pitch selection; he doesn't strike out a lot, but is currently sporting a career high walk rate of 4.5 percent. Unless he improves this, his offensive approach won't ever be good enough for the majors.
However, he is still just 19. And possessing excellent bat speed with a contact swing, Drury has a ton of upside and room for growth. He has been described as a "baseball rat," which makes me think he will spend the hours of work necessary to improve, and he has the athleticism to stick at third.
Lipka, like Drury, is another very young player that has the chance to get a lot better.
Drafted as a shortstop out of high school, Lipka was moved to center field with the hopes of jump-starting his bat, as well as showcasing his incredible speed and athleticism in the outfield.
As he has matured, Lipka has raised his walk rate each year, and it currently sits at 8.7 percent. The Braves organization would still obviously like to see Lipka improve his walk and strikeout rate (which sits at 14.0 percent), but Lipka is still just 20 years old. (Fangraphs)
Lipka is said to have amazing work ethic, and if he can add some strength (slugging .335 this season), in addition to improving his batting eye, he could find himself atop the Atlanta batting order for years to come.
Confession: I had never heard of Evan Gattis before the 2012 season.
After what I've learned about him, the only thing keeping him from shooting up this list is his age. (He'll turn 26 on August 18.)
His story is pretty cool, written in detail by Mike Viso here, but for the purpose of this slide, I'll only talk about his prospect profile.
You may see him as a catcher here, but Atlanta has had him playing left field for a good portion of the 2012 season, perhaps hoping to have his bat ready sometime in the 2013 season. In his three years in the minor leagues, Gattis' walk rate has increased each season (up to 10.2 percent in Double-A) while his strikeout rate has fallen (down to 14.2 percent in Double-A), the statistical improvement coming as he has risen up the organization's ranks. (Fangraphs)
Gattis' calling card will be his power, hitting 22 home runs in just 377 plate appearances in Low-A during 2011, and hitting an incredible nine home runs in only 94 at bats in High-A earlier this season. He's shown he can hit for average, and while he's only hitting .268 thus far in Double-A, his rapid improvement showcases the potential to make rapid improvements.
I'm very excited for Gattis and the impact he could make very soon. Honestly, the only thing keeping him from being in the top five on this list is his age.
For all the Lipka and Gattis fans out there: this ranking is entirely on tools. And yes, I am that big a fan of Black's tools.
I understand prospects are risky. I understand that Gattis has a better chance of having a career with Atlanta than Black. Black's upside though, is probably the second highest in the Braves organization.
Black stands at six-feet tall and packs his body with 190 pounds of muscle. He has been described as an 80 runner (on the 20-80 scale), and is a right-hander with gap power that will translate to some home run power as he matures. He's also a center fielder learning to switch hit, which makes him all the more valuable.
Just 19, Black did not have a high school baseball team to play for, playing for an American Legion team instead. He is very raw, but his potential is simply enormous.
Edward Salcedo is another high ceiling guy who unfortunately strikes out a ton.
He could be Chipper Jones' long term replacement at third base, if all goes well. In fact, he could easily hit 25 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season if he could hit .270 at the big league level.
The only problem is that he's yet to hit .260 in the minors.
The good news? He's 21, and he is improving all the time.
In fact, he has improved significantly over his tenure in the Atlanta organization, and if he improves his plate discipline, he could start scraping his enormous ceiling and shoot up this list.
I believe Christian Bethancourt to be the most frustrating prospect in the Braves organization. Yes, more frustrating than Julio Teheran, he of the 5.35 ERA.
Bethancourt may be the best defensive catcher in all of the minor leagues, possessing a cannon for an arm and defensive abilities likened to those of Yadier Molina. These defensive abilities will get him to the majors all on his own.
If he could learn to handle the bat though, he could be special.
His hand-eye coordination and strong wrists are the only things keeping his offensive attack afloat, as he walks little (3.8 percent), and strikes out a lot (15.6 percent).
Stop me if you've heard it before: Bethancourt needs to improve his approach at the plate. It's an absolute must.
But if he does, he could be one of the best catchers in baseball.
Joe Terdoslavich strikes out a lot.
Well, actually I'm not, but there's a reason Terdoslavich is this high up the list: the man can flat out hit a baseball.
The switch-hitting third baseman (sound familiar?) broke the Carolina League record for doubles last year, and added a .286 batting average and 20 home runs to go along with it.
A call-up to Triple-A proved too intense for Terdoslavich, as he hit just .180 in 215 plate appearances this season. However, back at Double-A, Terdoslavich has hit .320 and slugged .500.
But his home runs have disappeared.
Nevertheless, Terdoslavich still possesses doubles power that should translate to home run power as he ages (he's 23), and granted he finds that power, he should be ready for the majors sometime in 2013.
As long as Christian Bethancourt struggles to hit a baseball, Brian McCann is safe in Atlanta.
However, as McCann ages and his price increases, one has to wonder how much longer the Braves will be able to keep him.
In the meantime, Atlanta has on their hands the man who will take control of the Braves in 2013, a man with about 30 WAR and more than 150 homers in seven seasons.
He's having a positively terrible season in terms of luck: his .230 BABIP has brought his average all the way down to .237, where he's normally a .270 hitter.
Nevertheless, if McCann can rebound next season and return to the .270 hitter with 20+ home runs, he will definitely be the undisputed leader of the Braves.
How much longer he will be able to perform at that standard though, is a major question for the Atlanta front office.
Andrelton Simmons will never put up the gaudy offensive numbers Chipper Jones once did. But like Ozzie Smith, Simmons will provide Hall of Fame value another way: on the defensive side of the ball.
At the plate, Simmons is an aggressive hitter that doesn't strike out an awful lot, and was able to prove he can more than hold his own at the big league level, hitting .296 with a .336 OBP before his injury. With time, the OBP should go up, and so too should his stolen base totals, which I expect shall be around 25 annually.
It's at shortstop though, where Simmons earns his keep. His arm has been compared favorably to Rafael Furcal, and through just two months of play, he has been considered by some as the best defensive shortstop in baseball. He even accumulated almost two WAR in just 125 plate appearances.
Simmons is the shortstop of the now and the future (being just 22 years of age), and his solid hitting and other-worldly fielding will make him a mainstay in the Atlanta roster for at least the next decade.
Freddie Freeman is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Atlanta.
The 22-year-old has improved on every area of his offensive approach, seeing increases in walk rate, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage, decreasing his strikeout rate, and maintaining his batting average in spite of his BABIP declining by nearly 20 points. He's even on track to become two wins better than he was last year. (Fangraphs)
He's already secured himself a spot in the Braves lineup for the next decade, and as he matures, I see Freeman nearing a .300 average with 30 home runs annually.
Things are bright in Atlanta when the Braves future cleanup hitter is 22 years old, already producing at near-All-Star level, and improving all the time.
Could it be anyone else?
Jason Heyward's upside is higher than anyone else on this list, and he's already the most valuable player on the Braves. It's a no-brainer to me.
He's bounced back from his injury-ridden 2011 campaign to hit .270 with a .344 OBP, a .481 slugging percentage, and 19 home runs to pair with 15 stolen bases, and excellent defense in right field to boot.
His strikeout rate is alarmingly high (nearing 25 percent), but if he can lower it down to about 15 percent in a couple years, something completely attainable as long as he keeps improving, the sky is certainly the limit for Heyward.
Heyward is just 23 years old, but its time Chipper pass him the torch as the face of the franchise.