The Atlanta Braves System

If you’re reading this, that means I’ve finished my rundowns of the farm systems of the teams in four of the six MLB divsions.

I definitely used the word “of” way too many times in that sentence.

Anyway, how does Atlanta’s vaunted pipeline look these days? Let’s dive in and find out.

System Overview:

Freddie Freeman took a huge step forward in 2010, but the rest of this crop of hitters is “meh.” The outfield, in particular, is atrocious, and possibly the worst I’ve seen out of the nineteen systems thus far. Christian Bethancourt has lots of work to do at the plate to become a bigtime catching prospect, and third base isn’t a huge strength either.

That leaves first base, second base, and shortstop as the only areas of real interest in this group of hitters, and even the middle infield isn’t that stacked, it’s merely solid to above-average.

But, oh, the pitching.

Writing up the starting pitching for this installment is pretty easy for me–just copy-paste five reports from my Top 100 Prospects. Done.

And not just top 100–the fifth starter here, Arodys Vizcaino, was the #41 prospect on my Top 100.

Add in a top relief prospect who’s already pitched in the majors, and a second nice relief prospect, and you have easily the best group of pitchers you’ll see in any of these system reviews. It’s not even close.

Of course, since the hitting is probably in the lower third of systems, the pitching doesn’t exactly vault the Braves to contention for the best system in baseball. Still, this is definitely top-10, probably in the 3-8 range.

Catcher: Christian Bethancourt. Bethancourt contributed nothing offensively in 2010, batting just .251/.276/.331 in Low-A. However, scouts still like him, and Bethancourt was just 18 years old. He already has solid contact skills, and his plus arm threw out 39% of runners. Bethancourt still needs to work on his receiving, and his plate discipline and power need huge improvements, but he’s still a teenager and has plenty of time.

Upside: 8.0, Downside: 1.8

First base: Freddie Freeman. Freeman is easily Atlanta’s best position player prospect, and one of the best prospects in the game, coming in at #21 on my Top 100:

As with [Rockies catcher and #24 prospect Wilin] Rosario, I was totally down on Freeman entering the year, viewing him as a Lyle Overbay clone at best, and a washout at worst. But then he hit .318 with a .200 ISO in Triple-A, at age 20 no less, and I’ve certainly been left with no choice but to join the believers. It’s still worth questioning whether Freeman will ever be a “traditional” power-first first baseman, but Mark Grace had himself quite the career at the position with much less power than Freeman, who has the skill to be a .300/.375/.525 slugger or better.

Upside: 9.2, Downside: 6.9

Second base: Tyler Pastornicky. Pastornicky is a favorite of mine, and he held his own in Double-A at age 20 after coming over in the Yunel Escobar trade in July. Pastornicky can also play shortstop, and he’s spent most of his time there in the minors, but given this system, it makes more sense to list him at second, where he played 30 games in 2010. He hit .254/.333/.366 in Double-A after putting up a .258/.348/.376 line in High-A, despite being very young for both levels. Pastornicky’s a fundamentally sound defender who swiped 35 bases and put up a 71/55 K/BB. He could grow into a solid above-average-all-around MLB middle infielder.

Upside: 8.5, Downside: 5.2

Shortstop: Matt Lipka. Lipka gets way more hype than Pastornicky, but I actually like him less. He’s got the same basic skillset–good speed and defense, solid strikezone control, okay power for a shortstop–but he’s obviously less proven, since he was a 2010 draftee who has yet to get to full-season ball. Lipka hit .288/.344/.380 across two Rookie ball levels in 2010, and he was just 18 years old. The 35th overall draft pick still has much to prove, but could evolve into an MLB regular.

Upside: 8.6, Downside: 2.7

Third base: Joe Terdoslavich. Terdoslavich is another 2010 draftee (6th round) who immediately made an impact, except the 21-year-old actually made it to full-season ball. Terdoslavich put up a .316/.365/.430 line there after hitting .296/.351/.402 in Rookie ball. He split time between third base and first in his debut, and he’ll need to field better than .888 at third to stick there. Without premium power–his 19 doubles better turn into homers (he only had two) fast–Terdoslavich needs to stick at third to make any sort of future impact.

Upside: 7.1, Downside: 3.0

Outfielder #1: Matt Young. It really says something about the outfield depth when the best prospect is a slap-hitting 28-year-old. But don’t blame Young for that–he turned in a quality 2010, hitting .300/.380/.407 in Triple-A. The tiny outfielder walked more than he struck out and also swiped 39 bases, and with over 40 extra-base hits, he’s got enough pop to avoid getting the bat knocked out of his hands. Young should make for a fine extra outfielder as soon as this year.

Upside: 7.4, Downside: 6.4

Outfielder #2: Todd Cunningham. Cunningham was yet another 2010 draftee (2nd round), but he didn’t have the success of Lipka or Terdoslavich, hitting an okay .260/.341/.338. He was in Low-A the whole time, though, so that counts for something, particularly since Cunningham was only 21. Still, other than a remarkable ability to get hit by pitches (15 in 65 games), Cunningham has yet to show any distinctive offensive skills; he’ll need to get on track to avoid a bench future.

Upside: 7.7, Downside: 2.5

Outfielder #3: Willie Cabrera. Cabrera, like Young, is more of a solid minor league veteran than hotshot prospect, as he hit .298/.359/.439 between Double-A and Triple-A last year. The 24-year-old isn’t considered plus defensively and doesn’t have the sort of power to carry his glove. He could get a job as a righty pinch-hitter, but then again, so could pretty much anyone kicking around the upper minors.

Upside: 6.8, Downside: 5.4

Starting Pitcher #1: Julio Teheran. And here we go with the pitching, leading off with Teheran, the #2 prospect and #1 pitching prospect in all of baseball:

Teheran’s in that same class of 1991-born pitchers who reached Double-A in 2010, along with [Manny] Banuelos and [Martin] Perez, and he beats out both of them here because he’s better on paper than Banuelos and he posted far better numbers than Perez in 2010. He’s armed with easy mid-90’s heat and a deadly changeup, and his curveball is making rapid strides as well. High-A hitters had absolutely no chance, and although his control took a Perez-esque slide in Double-A, he still managed a 3.30 FIP at that level. Teheran’s fairly obviously the #1 pitching prospect in baseball—it’s not really that close.

Upside: 10.0, Downside: 6.8

Starting Pitcher #2: Mike Minor. Minor came in at #14:

Another guy who I never believed in is Minor, who a lot of people wrote off as an overdraft thanks to mediocre stuff. Whoops again—by the end of his first full pro season, the lefty had racked up 40 2/3 impressive big league innings, striking out 43 while walking only 11. His minor league stats were just as good as you’d think for someone with that sort of big league production, but most importantly, Minor showed off more stuff than expected, with a fastball that averages about 91 and a killer changeup. There’s a bit of Johan Santana here, and Minor is now object lesson #2 (the first being Ricky Romero) that maybe we shouldn’t completely write off polished college pitchers with “mediocre stuff” before we actually see what they can do.

Upside: 9.2, Downside: 7.5

Starting Pitcher #3: Randall Delgado. Delgado was 28th:

At age 20, Delgado blew through High-A ball with a 120/32 K/BB in 117 1/3 innings. Double-A hitters caught up to him slightly, but Delgado still held his own in eight Southern League starts. Formerly an inconsistent arm, Delgado tightened up his control in 2010, which made his impressive repertoire hell for hitters. His fastball routinely gets up to 95-96 mph, his curve is very good, and his changeup could evolve into yet another plus pitch. Delgado still needs to attack upper-level hitters better, but it looks like Ervin Santana’s career is his downside.

Upside: 9.3, Downside: 6.2

Starting Pitcher #4: Brandon Beachy. Beachy was 34th:

This former undrafted free agent was one of the more remarkable out-of-nowhere stories of 2010, starting the year as a Double-A swingman and ending it making some key starts down the stretch for the Braves. 2.00 and 2.19 FIP marks in Double-A and Triple-A will do that, as Beachy posted a ridiculous (148/28) K/BB of his own across the two levels. He threw 15 dominating innings in the majors, whiffing 15 batters and not allowing a homer, showcasing a good low-90’s fastball and a plus changeup. The owner of a solid curveball as well, Beachy has a chance to become an ace, but more likely slots in as a very good #2 starter. Since he’s already got some major league success under his belt, he’s certainly a much safer bet than most to succeed, hence his high spot.

Upside: 9.0, Downside: 7.0

Starting Pitcher #5: Arodys Vizcaino. Vizcaino was 41st; isn’t it neat how each of these pitchers was in successive groups of ten?

Vizcaino’s season was marred by an elbow injury that cost him half the year, but before getting hurt, he tore up Low-A at age 19 with a ridiculous 68/9 K/BB and just one homer allowed in fourteen starts. Vizcaino’s relative lack of size and his arm troubles aren’t encouraging, but his power fastball/curve combination certainly is: this is a guy who was dealt for Javier Vazquez, straight-up, after Vazquez’s ridiculous 2009 season, after all. Vizcaino is a potential ace if he can stay healthy, but the Braves don’t even need him to be, with several better pitching prospects. Atlanta could have an extremely formidable rotation for years to come, and Vizcaino could also be prime trade bait at some point; he may certainly front a rotation for teams with less pitching depth than Atlanta.

Upside: 9.1, Downside: 5.1

Relief Pitcher #1: Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel still doesn’t throw strikes, and never has, but it takes a special kind of pitcher to post a 0.44 ERA (and 1.53 FIP!) while walking nearly seven batters per nine innings. Whiffing 40 batters in 20 2/3 while allowing no homers will do that, and that was just in Kimbrel’s first MLB exposure. Armed with a mid-90’s fastball and unhittable slider, Kimbrel may need to tighten up his command to become an elite reliever in the long-term, but he’s already a very solid MLB pitcher.

Upside: 9.6, Downside: 7.7

Relief Pitcher #2: Benino Pruneda. Pruneda is a tiny righthander with stuff that pitchers a foot taller than him could only dream of. Just 22 years old, he dominated the upper minors last year, with a 93/37 K/BB in 64 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. He’s also only allowed seven homers in his four-year career, including just two last year. With a fastball in the mid-90’s and a power breaking ball, Pruneda, like Kimbrel, has spotty control but is a lock to be an effective MLB reliever.

Upside: 8.9, Downside: 6.6

Tags: Arodys Vizcaino Atlanta Braves Benino Pruneda Brandon Beachy Christian Bethancourt Craig Kimbrel Freddie Freeman Joe Terdoslavich Julio Teheran Matt Lipka Matt Young Mike Minor Randall Delgado Todd Cunningham Tyler Pastornicky Willie Cabrera

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