While the Atlanta Braves do not have the depth that the Texas Rangers or Oakland Athletics do on the farm, they do have a top three to match anyone in all of baseball.
You have a power arm in the draft-and-follow surprise Tommy Hanson.
A prime-time, middle-of-the-order bat in Jason Heyward.
And a potential big, mashing first baseman in Freddie Freeman.
On a bit of a personal note, I will attempt to prevent my personal pro-Braves bias from creeping into this article. I am an avid Braves fan, and I attend many Rome Braves games, where Heyward and Freeman spent all of last season.
Up To Bat: Players Who Are Ready To Contribute
Tommy Hanson, RHP
In the Texas Rangers spotlight, I mentioned that, like Derek Holland, Tommy Hanson was part of the now-defunct draft-and-follow program. The reason that I keep bringing this up is because it speaks volumes about a minor league system that can turn these late picks into top prospects.
Holland and Hanson rose from nowhere to be dominant, and the organizations deserve a great deal of credit for developing these players.
Hanson has four big league pitches and could do well in the Majors if inserted in a starting rotation right now. He features a hard-biting slider, a big 12-6 curve, and a 94-96 MPH fastball that he locates extremely well. His changeup is a work in progress, as he is still learning to work it into counts. The first three pitches rate as plus or better, and proved to be unhittable in the Arizona Fall League as well as some outings in Spring Training this year.
The AFL is traditionally a hitters' league, as gaudy stat lines are put up on a regular basis. Clay Buchholz can certainly attest to the challenges of the AFL. He was roughed up there more times than I am sure he cares to remember.
Hanson was nothing short of brilliant in this fall showcase, giving up two earned runs over 28 innings and striking out 49 batters. The performance was good for an AFL MVP award, something normally reserved for hitters.
At times, Hanson's location can falter and he will occasionally leave the ball up. When he does get hit, it is because he has made some sort of location mistake high in the strike zone. His mechanics are not perfect, and his delivery is a bit slower than I like to see from a young pitcher. Driveline Mechanics did an excellent piece on Hanson, detailing his mechanics from top to bottom, that is a must-read for anyone interested in this prospect.
MLB Comparison: John Smoltz
The Future: Players Who Are a Couple of Years Away
Freddie Freeman, 1B
The former Aflac All-American chose the Braves over Cal Sate Fullerton because Atlanta wanted him as a hitter. Freeman was a standout on the mound as well as with the bat in Southern California high school baseball.
His first shot at full-season professional baseball saw his stock rise considerably, hitting for both power and average in the cleanup spot for Rome. He developed a reputation for bolting line drives out of the park and off the wall for doubles.
He has not yet developed any loft in his swing, suggesting that he should add even more power as he develops. Defensively, he is much better than his massive frame would suggest. He has very good footwork around the bag at first, combined with soft hands and a great throwing arm.
Freeman is also a fierce competitor who challenges himself regularly and does not seem to be willing to accept failure.
Freeman is a big guy, and as you can probably guess, he does not run very well. He kind of plods around the basepaths with well-below-average speed. Strikeouts may be a problem at higher levels as well, since he has not developed much patience at the plate.
MLB Comparison: Adrian Gonzalez
Jason Heyward, Corner Outfielder
One of the bigger stories of the 2007 June Amateur Draft was the question, "How did Jason Heyward stay on the board that long?" The Braves were able to do in-depth scouting of Heyward during his high school playing days because of his close proximity to Atlanta, and their commitment to find the best talent they can in the state of Georgia.
Heyward and Freeman have become inseparable inside the Rome clubhouse, and I am sure that will remain the same at Myrtle Beach in 2009. They jokingly refer to each other as "Salt and Pepper."
The iron-sharpens-iron concept is one the Braves believe in wholeheartedly, evidenced by the relationship between Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, as well as Jordan Schafer and the now-traded Elvis Andrus. They continue to push each other to be better baseball players.
Heyward profiles out to be a big-time power bat. Scouts believe he is better suited for the third spot in the lineup due to his excellent knowledge of the strike zone and willingness to take a walk if they do not pitch to him. His approach at the plate is very advanced for his age and better than some already at the Major League level, including their current right fielder.
Although his power hasn't come to fruition yet, his strength and discipline suggest that it will. Heyward also features great in-game instincts that allow him good range in the outfield and a strong throwing arm needed to make throws from right field.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out for Heyward. Right now, he is a contact-focused hitter rather than a put-the-ball-out-of-the-park kind of guy. As his frame fills out, it will be interesting to see if he ends up somewhere in the middle of batting champ contender or big-time slugger.
MLB Comparison: Dave Parker
Read more of Chris' work at The Statline Report