Top 15 Prospects: Atlanta Braves

While playing competitive baseball the summer before I started high school I had a teammate named “Rusty” who always wore an Atlanta Braves baseball cap. Although he was the best hitter on the team he was constantly bombarded with ridicule because of his choice of chapeau. Atlanta was the bottom feeder in the National League and was coming off a 65-97 season, which saw them finish at least fifth in the six-team division for the sixth straight season. A funny thing happened in 1991, though. Atlanta got good. And stayed good for… well until today. The success of the organization has revolved around its ability to maintain strong pitching and currently has three of the best pitching prospects in the game – and that trio could be MLB-ready by the end of 2012. The minor league system also boasts some intriguing up-the-middle offensive talents.

1. Julio Teheran, RHP
BORN: Jan. 27, 1991
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2007 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 1st

Teheran leads the charge for Atlanta’s young arms. He attacks hitters with an explosive repertoire that screams future No. 1 starter… if he can polish one of his two breaking balls. His fastball, which can touch 96-97 mph, and changeup are both plus pitches at times and just need more consistency. Teheran has both above-average control and understanding of his craft for his age. He is a fly-ball pitcher but he does a nice job of keeping the ball in the park after allowing just five home runs in 144.2 innings at triple-A. Despite a strong changeup, Teheran struggled against left-handed batters (at least in comparison to right-handed hitters who hit .199) by allowing a .276 batting-average-against. He just recently turned 21 years old and already has 20 innings of big league experience under his belt. Atlanta has excellent pitching depth at the big league level so Teheran should receive some more seasoning at the triple-A level to begin 2012.

2. Arodys Vizcaino, RHP
BORN: Nov. 13, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2007 international free agent (by Yankees)
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 6th

An astute pick-up from the Yankees organization, Vizcaino is a pitcher who’s currently in between roles. He made 17 starts between high-A and double-A but then pitched exclusively out of the bullpen at both triple-A (six appearances) and in the Majors (17 games). The right-hander could very well open 2012 in a very impressive big league bullpen that already featues young talent such as Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. As hard as it may be to believe, Vizcaino features the raw stuff to fit right in with those two arms. His fastball can touch the upper 90s and he flashes a plus curveball. The changeup also has the potential to be above-average, which could help him achieve the ceiling of a No. 2 starter if he eventually returns to starting. One concern with Vizcaino is the torn elbow ligament that he suffered in 2010 that was healed through rest and rehab, rather than surgery.

3. Randall Delgado, RHP
BORN: Feb. 9, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 5 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2006 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 4th

Like the other two pitchers at the top of this list, Delgado has risen quickly through the ranks and currently sits one step away from the Majors at the age of just 22. He worked 174 innings in 2011 split between three levels (AA, AAA, MLB) and 35 of those came at the big league level. Delgado wasn’t quite ready for the Majors, as witnessed by his 5.14 FIP and 4.63 strikeout rate. The majority of his innings came at the double-A level. Delgado has a big, strong pitcher’s frame and has provided at least 120 innings in each of his three full seasons. He has a little work to do with his control and overall consistency before he becomes a workhorse No. 2 or 3 starter for the Braves, perhaps beginning in 2013 after a full year of seasoning in triple-A. His repertoire includes a low-90s fastball that can hit the mid 90s. Both his curveball and changeup have the potential to be above-average weapons.

4. Tyler Pastornicky, SS
BORN: Dec. 13, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2008 5th round, Florida HS (by Blue Jays)
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

A personal favorite of mine while he was with Toronto, Atlanta made a smart move in acquiring him during the Yunel Escobar/Alex Gonzalez swap. One baseball official referred to the former Florida prep star as a “very good baseball player… He’s got a really good approach at the plate, works counts and can hit the ball to all fields.” Pastornicky is the type of player that you have to watch a few times to really appreciate. He doesn’t hit for average and doesn’t have any one standout tool but he does the little things and also has the potential to steal 20+ bases in a full season. He should fit in nicely at the top of a lineup in the two-hole where he can focus on advancing runners and wreaking havoc on the base paths in front of the big guns. The big question with Pastornicky is his ability to play shortstop at the big league level. He is OK at the position and has good range but his arm is average and he can be slow to unload his throws. With lots of depth in the system a move to second base would not be the worst thing for Pastornicky or the Braves. A baseball official said of the infielder, “Pastornicky has faced every challenge and improved almost every year as a professional”

5. Sean Gilmartin, LHP
BORN: May 8, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 1 season
ACQUIRED: 2011 1st round (28th overall), Florida State U
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

Gilmartin was a bit of a curious pick when the Braves selected him with the 28th overall selection of the 2011 draft but if there is one thing the organization knows it’s pitching. Similar eyebrows were raised when the club selected Mike Minor and that worked out pretty well. The southpaw pitched 23.1 innings, including five starts in low-A, during the regular season after signing and performed rather well. Assigned to the Arizona Fall League at the conclusion of the season Gilmartin looked a little tired. He struggled with his command and elevated his pitches more, which led to five home runs in 29.0 innings. Because he doesn’t have an electric repertoire he needs to work down in the zone to succeed and his control is important. His repertoire includes an 87-91 mph fastball, slider and potentially-plus changeup. A two-way player in college, a full-time focus on pitching could help him take another big step forward. Gilmartin should open 2012 in either high-A or double-A.

6. Andrelton Simmons, SS
BORN: Sept. 4, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2010 2nd round, Oklahoma JC
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

Simmons is behind Tyler Pastornicky on the depth chart but his presence could eventually push the infielder over to second base. Although more raw in overall baseball skills, Simmons has an explosive package of defensive skills led by a cannon arm. He’s racked up more errors than you might expect but he tries to do too much at times. At the plate, Simmons has shown the ability to hold his own and hit for average. He flashes good gap power but probably won’t top 10-12 homers in the Majors. He makes a lot of contact, which leads to low walk totals but also very low strikeout rates (just 7.5 K% in 2011 at high-A). Like with his defensive work, Simmons tries to push the envelop too hard at the plate and needs to learn to wait for better pitches to drive. He stole 26 bases in 2011 but was also caught 18 times and needs more work on base running fundamentals; his speed is just average.

7. Christian Bethancourt, C
BORN: Sept. 2, 1991
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2008 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 10th

Bethancourt has always been an intriguing catching prospect because of his above-average athleticism. He has all the tools necessary to be a gold glove defender behind the dish and one baseball official questioned about Bethancourt referred to him as “arguably the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues right now…” Questions have been raised more than once about his maturity and effort on the field. Although he has four years of experience in pro ball, he’s still just 20 years old. As the baseball official put it, though, there has never been “major makeup issues with Bethancourt… Most 17- and 18-year old kids would seem immature if they were playing with teammates 4-5 years older.” The organization was encouraged by his performance during the 2011 regular season, as well as with his play in the Arizona Fall League, which saw him hit above .300 in 19 games. Although Bethancourt has always hit for a good average, he might struggle to do so against big league pitching unless he learns to be more selective (1.7% walk rate in 45 high-A games).

8. Edward Salcedo, SS
BORN: July 30, 1991
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2010 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 9th

Signed as a high-profile amateur shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, Salcedo appeared in just 19 games at the position in 2011 and was shifted to the hot corner. The prospect has begun to show the in-game power necessary to succeed there; his body and swing suggest at more untapped strength. Salcedo hit just .248 last season but experience should help him pull that average up – he showed flashes of hitting for average but then went into prolonged slumps. He did a nice job of trimming his strikeout rate from about 25% in ’10 to below 19% in ’11. With Brandon Drury coming up quickly behind him there is some talk that Salcedo could move to a corner outfield position. He should spend 2012 in high-A ball.

9. Zeke Spruill, RHP
BORN: Sept. 11, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2008 2nd round, Georgia HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

A top prep arm in the 2008 draft, Spruill fell off the prospect radar for a variety of issues and injuries. A strong 2011 season, though, made him relevant again. The right-hander has a solid fastball that ranges from 89-94 mph and induces a lot of ground-ball outs. Both his curveball and changeup continue to need development but he’s made strides with commanding both on a more consistent basis. Because he’s more of a pitch-to-contact guy now, Spruill’s ceiling is in the range of a No. 3 or 4 starter. Spruill has a solid pitcher’s frame and, after providing 174.2 innings last season between high-A and double-A, he has the makings of an innings eater. The Georgia native should return to double-A to begin 2012.

10. Brandon Drury, 3B:
BORN: Aug. 21, 1992
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2010 13th round – Oregon HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

Drury, a former 13th round pick, got off to a slow start to his pro career by hitting below .200 in his debut in 2010. Rejuvenated for the ’11 season, he produced the second highest batting average in the Appalachian League (Rookie ball). It was no fluke. Drury’s approach improved and he isn’t afraid to use the whole field. He makes excellent contact but that leads to low walk rates so he may have to become more selective as he climbs the ladder. One scout contacted regarding Drury wasn’t concerned with his approach:

“He will learn how to be more patient with time. With maturing… he will improve on those numbers. Being [consistent] is what every player needs to make it to the majors. We’ll see if he can continue to hit as he moves up through the minors.”

Defense was a question mark for Drury as he entered the 2010 draft. A prep shortstop he immediately moved to third base as a pro and has taken to the position well. He lacked speed and range for shortstop but should develop into at least an average defender with a solid arm at the hot corner. The scout had no doubt that Drury would squeeze every ounce of ability out of his body.

“Brandon was a baseball rat [in high school]. Every time I saw him he had a bat, ball or glove in his hand. I saw him at a tournament in Arizona walking around the hotel with his glove and ball. This kid loves baseball…”

The Next Five

11. J.R. Graham, RHP: Graham is raw but he has an intriguing power fastball and bowling-ball effect. Despite his rough edges, the right-hander had no issues in Rookie ball as he posted a 2.12 FIP (1.72 ERA) and did not allow a home run in 57.2 innings. Because he’s not a big pitcher (6’0”) Graham is going to have to keep on top of the ball as he moves up the ladder. He could make an interesting high-leverage reliever if his success continues.

12. Matt Lipka, OF: After struggling in the field for the past two seasons the former infielder has been converted to the outfield. With any luck the conversion will help jump start his bat as he posted an OPS of just .608 at low-A in 2011. Lipka is still young and has plenty of time to turn things around but he has the athleticism necessary to succeed as a super-utility player.

13. J.J. Hoover, RHP: Hoover doesn’t have the same power arsenal that other pitchers at the top of this list possess but he knows how to pitch and has had success at the both double-A and triple-A (albeit in a small sample size). Hoover split the year between the starting rotation and the bullpen but has the potential to be a solid No. 4 starter at the big league level. With some higher profile arms in the system, though, he could end up as a big league league swing man if he sticks with Atlanta.

14. Carlos Perez, LHP: For a more detailed report on Perez you’ll want to catch up with Mike Newman’s scouting report on the southpaw that ran recently on FanGraphs. Perez has the potential for above-average stuff from the left side but he’s painfully inconsistent. This is not unusual for such a young pitcher with limited experience. With so much high-ceiling pitching depth ahead of him, though, Atlanta can afford to be patient.

15. Joe Terdoslavich, 1B: A 2010 6th round pick out of Long Beach State, Terdoslavich has an up-and-down college career. Atlanta scouts did an excellent job identifying him as a potential steal and he’s rewarded the organization so far. A switch-hitter, he has impressive raw power and has hit for average. His verstility could make him a valuable bench player if he falls short on his regular playing time aspirations. A strong showing in the Arizona Fall League could vault him onto the fast track for 2012.

SLEEPER ALERT: Navery Moore, RHP: Moore slid in the 2011 draft landing in the 14th round but he has a plus fastball that reaches 95-96 mph. A closer in college with Vanderbilt, the right-hander also has the mentality that teams covet in a closer. If he can tighten up his breaking ball, or develop his changeup or perhaps develop a cutter, he could become a key high-leverage relief prospect. Otherwise he may top out as a set-up man.

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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Ben Duronio

Like the list a lot Marc.