When Jeff Francoeur arrived in July 2005 and promptly crushed a three-run homer to put the finishing touches on an 8-4 win over the Cubs at Turner Field, most thought it would be the first of many magical moments in a long career of a player that Sports Illustrated would later call "The Natural".
While Frenchy has had some of those moments, this season has certainly been a disappointment. But many broadcasters and scouts from organizations around the major league still marvel at how Bobby Cox, John Scheurholz, and the rest of the Atlanta Braves' front office have prepared young players coming up through the Braves' minor-league affiliates to play the game the right way and be productive after arriving in the majors.
Some arrive and make immediate impacts. Others get traded to other organizations for major-league talent or other prospects. Still others have injuries or inconsistencies end their careers before they get to ever play in a stadium with a dozen TV cameras and 40,000 fans.
A quick look at this year's Braves roster tells you that Atlanta has been great at producing major-league talent. However, the talent hasn't led to consistency, which is the reason the Braves sit in fourth place, 7.5 games back of the New York Mets and six games under .500.
Even though the Braves squandered leads this weekend against the Phillies, the future looks bright, despite 2008 looking like the third straight year that Atlanta will fail to reach the playoffs.
For most of the season, the only players who didn't come up through the Braves' system that had a big role in the lineup were Mark Kotsay and Mark Teixeira—both players are free agents this year, and whose spots in the lineup might have to be filled by players from within.
What might the Braves' roster look like three or four years from now? Perhaps not much different.
Brian McCann is signed through 2013 and won't be going anywhere for a while. He's been the star the scouts that evaluated him thought he might become. Three All-Star appearances in three full MLB seasons is proof enough.
Jeff Francoeur's struggles this year can't be overlooked. However, he won't be a free agent until 2010 at the earliest. If he produces his full-year averages from his first call-up through the end of the 2007 season (.280-26-102), he should still be an anchor in right field for years to come.
If not, the Braves have an enormous amount of outfield depth in the minors. We've already seen Gregor Blanco take to the leadoff spot in the order and play stellar defense in either right or left, in the absence of Matt Diaz. Speaking of Diaz, he's not a free agent for a couple of years either.
Also this year, we've seen Brandon Jones, Josh Anderson, and Jason Perry. Jones had good power numbers in the minors last year (19 HR, 100 RBI) but his power has tailed off at Richmond, and Perry is the one with 18 HR so far this year.
The best outfield prospects in the Braves' system are still a couple years away. Gorkys Hernandez is currently at A-ball in Myrtle Beach, after being acquired from the Tigers in the Edgar Renteria trade. Even if he doesn't pan out, they still have Jair Jurrjens.
Jordan Schafer is trying to get back on track after a suspension cost him 50 games earlier this season. That late 2008 or early 2009 target date for arrival in the majors will most likely be delayed unless he impresses in Spring Training next year. However, he's still only 22.
At Rome, this season, are two former first-round picks—Cody Johnson and Jason Heyward. Both are left-handed power hitters that have bright futures ahead, and each has yet to turn 20.
As Heyward also is a left-handed thrower, it might be in his future, if the need arises, to move him to first base. He was compared to Fred McGriff when drafted, only more athletic. If the Braves are set in the outfield, with any of the previously mentioned players, and Heyward is ready, he might be a longtime fixture for Atlanta at first base.
As for the middle infield, the Braves have seen all the players they'd need in the majors this year. Both Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar are several years away from free agency, and backups and reserves would be ready to take over if necessary.
Brent Lillibridge's bat isn't quite ready for the majors, but his glove sure is. Utility infielders Martin Prado and Omar Infante have been contributors, and Atlanta's management doesn't figure to let their value leave the organization anytime soon.
Chipper Jones is 36 and not getting any younger. Van Pope at AA Mississippi is ranked as a top-rate defensive third baseman, but his offensive skills haven't equaled his glovework. Former top pick Eric Campbell—at Myrtle Beach—is 23 and might be ready in a couple of seasons when Chipper's contract is up.
At catcher, Brian McCann is set for a while. However, Clint Sammons (AAA) and Tyler Flowers (A) have been impressing in the minors and may be McCann's backups before too long. Corky Miller's absence of a bat has hurt the Braves this year when McCann has needed a rest.
Pitchers haven't been coming out of the Braves' system in the past few years and been making the biggest of impacts. I don't see the Braves letting Tim Hudson get away once his contract is up, but surely Glavine, Hampton, and Smoltz won't be on the Braves' roster come 2010.
Jurrjens and Hudson has proven to be a nice combination at the top of the rotation, but only Jorge Campillo has really shown the ability to be pretty consistent in the absence of the veteran starters.
The bullpen is completely up in the air. This year's bullpen has impressed at times but has imploded in others. Blaine Boyer and Manny Acosta have closer-quality stuff, but have been amongst the biggest goats in some of the hardest losses of the year. Due to the bullpen's implosions, I don't see the Braves letting closers Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano go, if they can help it.
The stadium in Myrtle Beach is supposed to be one of the best pitcher's parks in minor-league baseball, so pitcher stats have to be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, Scott Diamond, Kyle Cofield, Ryne Reynoso, and Bryan Dumesnil have at least performed well, given their situations.
At the higher levels, Tom Hanson, Todd Redmond, and Luis Valdez have posted solid numbers at Mississippi, while at Richmond, names like Anthony Lerew, Charlie Morton, and Phil Stockman sound familiar, with Zach Schreiber soon to join them.
The Atlanta Braves in 2011 or 2012—what might the lineup look like (if Chipper and Teixeira are gone).
LF - Gregor Blanco
2B - Yunel Escobar
C - Brian McCann
1B - Jason Heyward
3B - Eric Campbell
RF - Jeff Francoeur
2B - Kelly Johnson
CF - Jordan Schafer
with these players as reserves
OF/3B/SS - Omar Infante
1B/2B/3B - Martin Prado
LF/1B - Cody Johnson
OF - Brandon Jones
SS/2B - Brent Lillibridge
C - Clint Sammons
C - Tyler Flowers
The pitching staff may look like
RHP - Tim Hudson
RHP - Jair Jurrjens
LHP - Scott Diamond
RHP - Tommy Hanson
RHP - Todd Redmond
LHP - Jo-Jo Reyes
RHP - Charlie Morton
with a bullpen consisting of a combination of
LHP - Mike Gonzalez
RHP - Rafael Soriano
RHP - Blaine Boyer
RHP - Manny Acosta
RHP - Zach Schreiber
RHP - Luis Valdez
RHP - Ryne Reynoso
RHP - Bryan Dumesnil
LHP - Kevin Gunderson
RHP - Anthony Lerew
This roster isn't going to be exactly as it could be. The Braves have become much more of a homegrown team over the past few years, so many of these faces might be on the opening-day roster four years from now.
I wouldn't be surprised to see one or more of the Braves' outfield prospects traded for pitching or a corner infielder, especially at 1B. The Braves have talent up at the majors that could be around a long time, but they do have help on the way.
I'm sure Frank Wren, Jim Fregosi, and Roy Clark will be ready to have major-league talent ready once Chipper, Smoltz, Glavine, Hampton, and Bobby Cox find their baseball careers over in Atlanta.