Farm System Shows There Are Reasons to Believe in a 'Brave' New World
The Braves need a power-hitting outfielder and a front-line starter to have any shot at the playoffs this season. Or do they? I must say, as a Braves fan, I’d love to gain a top free agent such as Derek Lowe, Adam Dunn, or even Pat Burrell at this point. I must ask the question though, what happens if we don’t add anyone else?
Historically, the Braves are not known for signing big name free agents. It certainly happens every once and a while, but that’s not what has made the Braves a great franchise.
While the Braves have acquired big name players via free agency or trades (i.e., Greg Maddux, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Mark Teixeira), these types of moves are not what have given the Braves their franchise identity. The Braves have made a living off of building a great farm system and developing their own all-star caliber players.
When you think of the Braves, who do you think of? At this point, everyone knows Chipper Jones. Jeff Francoeur is a fan favorite because of the big splash he had coming out of the minors. Players like Yunel Escobar, Brian McCann, and Jordan Schaefer are going to be the face of the franchise for years.
What is the one thing all those players have in common? They were grown on the farm.
I’m sure Braves fans would be extremely excited to make a big free agency splash. I’d certainly watch and anticipate the moves that the Braves would make. However, I get the most excited hearing about players like Tommy Hanson, Jason Heyward, Brandon Jones, Schaefer, and Gorkys Hernandez.
If I told you the Braves had a starting outfield of Heyward, Schaefer, and Francoeur, you might not be very excited. However, each of these players has remarkable potential. Take a look:
Jordan Schaefer is a five tool player. He could be the next Andruw Jones, but with fewer strikeouts and more walks.
Jordan hit 10 HRs in just 84 games as Mississippi last season and stole 12 bases. The key to this guy is his defensive presence. Not only will he help the offense out, but he will significantly help the Braves' pitchers out.
Jason Heyward is currently classified as the best hitting prospect in the Braves' system. He is ranked among the top 50 prospects on MLB.com and could possibly become a household name by 2011. The upside on this guy is incredible. Very similarly to Schaefer, he is a great all-around hitter that could have great power numbers.
Last season Jason batted .323, hit 11 HRs, and stole 15 bases. Did I mention he is only 18?
Jeff Francoeur has admittedly not come close to his potential season numbers yet. I predict the day that the home-town hero bats .310 with 30 HR’s and 110 RBI’s. When I make that prediction, I’m talking those numbers year after year.
Now, what if I told you that the Braves would have an infield of Freddie Freeman, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, and of course Chipper Jones? One of those guys wouldn’t surprise you, but the other three actually just might…
Freddie Freeman is probably the second best hitting prospect in the Braves' system. He is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound slugging first basemen. On top of that, he is left-handed. The Braves are pretty satisfied with Casey Kotchman for 2009, but Freeman might get a shot at some point in 2010.
Freeman was huge last year for Class A Rome, hitting 18 HRs and batting .316. He also slugged .521 and drove in 95 runs. Oh, and he's only 18 too.
Kelly Johnson is a name most of you know. What you don’t know about Kelly is that he is constantly getting better. He’s up from .241 in 2006, to .276 in 2007, to .287 in 2008. While I think offensively Kelly is beginning to top out, with his average and satisfactory power numbers, he is an ideal 7 or 8 hitter in the lineup.
Yunel Escobar is the name I’m the most excited about. People have not given his potential much credit. Yunel is a player that could rival players like Alex Rodriguez in every category except HR’s. He will be a great hitter but will be remembered for his defense. Brave’s fans will quickly forget Rafael Furcal when Yunel meets his potential.
Chipper Jones is of course not a young blossoming player in the Braves' lineup this season. I still remember when he was, though. I think each player listed above has the ability to do what Chipper has done as a lifelong Brave. A replacement for Chipper has yet to become clear, but my projection is that Escobar will soon fill the three-hole.
Martin Prado is currently the most likely to take over at third base when the time comes for Jones to hang 'em up. As long as Kelly and Escobar keep producing, Prado will continue to be a situational guy with a red hot bat. He can play both second and third. What is going to hurt his potential is that by the time Chipper retires, Martin will be about 30.
Brian McCann is not a name I really should be mentioning while discussing potential Braves all-stars. However, I will mention him as one of the best examples (like Chipper) of home-grown talent. I would talk about upside and potential, but Brian has been everything we anticipated. He is one of, if not the best catcher in the majors.
Pitching-wise, the Braves have a lot questions that are difficult to answer. There are several pitching prospects that could be successes, or could be duds. However, I will give a few glimmers of hope when it comes to the future of the Braves' starting pitching staff.
Jair Jurrjens is a guy that I had high hopes for in 2009. 2008 was a huge gift year, as he far exceeded his initial projections. When Edgar Renteria left, many questioned trading the all-star shortstop. The Braves' front office is not dumb, though. They received a guy that could be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter for years to come.
Tommy Hanson is probably the most anticipated pitching prospect in the minors at this time. He was dominant in the fall league and won the MVP award as a pitcher. In what has historically been a hitter’s league, this is a good sign. If I could use one word to describe him it would be “dominating”. I look forward to this guy as an ace ASAP.
Last year at AA, Hanson held an ERA of 3.03 and had an 8-4 record. He also struck out 114 in only 98.0 innings. If that doesn't make you shiver, check out this stat line. In the Arizona Fall League, which is primarily a hitters league, Tommy Hanson struck out 30 batters in only 18.2 innings. Here comes the shiver: 3-0, 0.48 ERA, and only 6 hits.
While the Braves are said to have a lot left to do this off-season, remember that our faith is in the farm system. That is where we get our franchise players that play for several years and not just as an expensive rental (i.e., Mark Teixeira). Will the Braves contend in 2009? Most definitely, if everyone is healthy.
This is going to be a year of changes. There will be a serious youth movement in the Braves organization that will be for the better. Do the Braves have enough to compete in 2009? The big question is whether or not they have enough to compete in 2010 and beyond. I think they have enough to completely dominate for years.