Throughout their tremendous run of success over the past two decades, the Braves farm system has always stood for one thing—depth. Prospects of various talent levels and skills have come and gone, but the Braves system has maintained a state of depth that has allowed them to let free agents walk and replace them with young players—something they have never been afraid to do.
The past two seasons have been prime examples of that, as they have allowed Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman to take over starting roles in the field right out of spring training. As it appears now, they plan to do the same this year at shortstop, with Tyler Pastornicky entering the spring as the frontrunner for the position. But while Pastornicky may have the inside track on a starting job this spring, the Braves’ true depth lies on the mound.
Delgado made seven starts in the majors last season and did quite well, but has the lowest ceiling of the three; he’s projected as a middle-of-the-rotation starter who needs to improve his fastball command. Vizcaino transitioned to the bullpen last year as he rose to the higher levels of the minors and really embraced the role before making 17 relief appearances in the majors last year. He could always go back to being a starter, but it would take some more development and the Braves are already log-jammed in their rotation. For 2012, Vizcaino could easily grab a bullpen spot in spring training.
Teheran is the make-or-break piece in the Braves farm system, its only truly elite talent. Most prospect lists rank Teheran as the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball and second-best pitching prospect overall, behind only Matt Moore of Tampa Bay. Teheran has all the makings of a true ace, and needs only slight refinements to make it happen. The only thing that could keep him from making the Braves rotation this spring is lack of an opening.
But the Braves have even more depth after the Big Three, with potential major league contributors at all levels of big league preparedness. Left-hander Sean Gilmartin was the team’s first-round pick in the 2011 draft, and while he threw just 39 innings last season (including in the Arizona Fall League), he is not expected to need much time in the minors and projects as a mid-rotation starter and innings eater. He should start 2012 in Double-A and could be ready when called upon.
Inthe Double-A rotation, Gilmartin should join Zeke Spruill, a 6-foot-4 right hander who profiles as a true innings eater, throwing 175 innings last season between High and Double-A. Spruill was a part of a 2008 draft in which the Braves took pitchers in their first four picks, the last of which was last year’s Rookie of the Year, Craig Kimbrel. They also nabbed Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer in the seventh and eighth rounds. They were flipped to Houston last season for Michael Bourn and 10th-round pick J.J. Hoover, a right-handed pitcher who had been a starter his entire minor league career before a switch to the bullpen midway through last season. Hoover owns a career 3.14 minor league ERA and 9.5 K/9 in 400-plus minor league innings.
Strong drafts have long been a part of the reloading process for the Braves farm system, and while the 2009 draft hasn’t shown a ton of production outside of first-rounder Mike Minor, the 2010 draft is shaping up to potentially bear fruit. First-round pick Matt Lipka hasn’t had the success the Braves had hoped for when they drafted his as a high school shortstop out of Texas. In his first full season in 2011, he posted an OPS of just .608 and split time between shortstop and second base. But while their first-round pick is still very much up in the air, thee Braves are seeing positive signs from some later-round picks.
Their second of two second-round picks (70th overall) was Andrelton Simmons, a two-way player in junior college who wanted to hit, and has since become the Braves’ top position prospect. He is already the best defensive shortstop in the Braves system, and if Pastornicky falters at all in the majors, Simmons won’t be far behind him.
Sixth-round pick Joey Terdoslavich shifted from third to first base last season and hit everything in sight. He posted 52 doubles and 20 home runs in the always pitcher-friendly Carolina League. While he doesn’t walk much, he also doesn’t have atrocious strikeout numbers for a power hitter. He’ll have to show he can do it against advanced pitching, but should get the chance in Double-A this season.
Others to watch
Brandon Drury—Taken in the 13th round of the 2010 draft, Drury was a high school infielder who hit .347 in his second pro season. Giant red flags come with Drury, since he walked only six times, but that kind of hit tool is worth a look.
Christian Bethancourt—A super-talented catcher from the Braves’ 2008 international signing class, Bethancourt swings at everything thrown his way and won’t fully reach his potential until he figures out how to stop.
Todd Cunningham—A 2010 second-rounder, Cunningham has a high upside and above-average athleticism, but hasn’t translated it into production yet.