A look at The Braves Minor League System–Prologue

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Every year spring training gives us a chance to look at the Braves chances for the coming season and some perspective on future seasons. Future success hinges in large part on the quality and quantity of their minor league system because history shows that consistently successful teams are built around home grown players .

Home Grown Is Best

All else being equal, good minor league systems produce good major league teams and for many years the Braves system has been considered one of the best. This year however it’s a middle of the pack system and Keith Law over at ESPN among others is unimpressed. He wrote about the Braves farm system (insider required) and provided this assessment.

(the Braves) have reaped as little from the draft the past two years as anyone, taking low-ceiling college guys with early picks, staying at or under MLB’s bonus recommendations and having less luck on the international market. It’s telling that the major question on every position-player prospect in their top 10 is whether he’ll hit.

(emphasis is mine)
I agree.

A quick look at a list of our top ten prospects* (compiled from multiple sources shown below so it probably won’t match yours) shows that 50% is pitching – appropriate since half of a major league roster is made up of pitchers – but no one who projects as a high caliber hitter in the near future.

Julio Teheran, RHP 1
Arodys Vizcaino, RHP 2
Randall Delgado, RHP 3
Andrelton Simmons, SS 4
Sean Gilmartin, LHP 5
Christian Bethancourt, C 6
Tyler Pastornicky, SS 7
Edward Salcedo, 3B: 8
Zeke Spruill, RHP 9
Brandon Drury 3B T10
Matt Lipka, OF T10

* (Top Ten Lists sourced) BP’s Kevin Goldstein Baseball America MLB.com
John Sickels Fangraphs Top Prospect Alert Baseball Prospect Nation Talking Chop
Capitol Avenue Club

It’s true that Bethancourt and Salcedo have power and may develop into such a bat but both currently strike out too often. Baseball Prospect Nation has this to say about them:

. . .(Bethancourt) has tremendous catch and throw skills with some scouts projecting him as a 70-grade (on a 20-80 scale) defender. . . though some still question just how much he will hit. . . . .

Salcedo has exceptional makeup and a desire to improve . . . His bat Will Carry him as he owns a short quick swing with explosive power potential. He has a knack for hitting that should eventually let his power be realized. . .  It won’t come quickly for such a raw talent, but Salcedo could be an impact big leaguer down the line. (emphasis added)

As Brian McCann’s replacement behind the plate Bethancourt will improve defense and help pitchers more with his defense than his bat. Salcedo is going to take longer than we would like to reach Atlanta and might even be passed by the quickly developing Drury,

Drury is just 19 years old and will probably start in A ball this year. The same Baseball Prospect article says “. . .He has an uncanny knack for contact and could develop above-average home run power. . .” but he’s still a teenager, in A ball this year and three years away at best.

Simmons and Pastornicky project as high OBP types though Pastornicky’s batting average has been called hollow and whether Lipka will ever hit is a question no one can answer. Even if his bat does materialize he projects much like Simmons and Pastornicky.

I’m not going to go into each Braves prospect in detail, Carlos has already done a good job of that.

Note: Before I go any further please understand that this isn’t an evaluation of the person. It takes significant talent and untold hours of hard work to get to even mid-level minor league ball. When I talk about players not making the grade I’m talking about a pragmatic look at their career and/or their potential in relationship to expectations.

A Prospect Is Just A Prospect Until He’s Not

The problem with singling out players for top 10 lists is that, as Jason Parks regular column over at BP says, “Prospects Will Break Your Heart.” Want Proof? Okay, look at this list.

Jason Marquis Brett Evert Brian McCann Matt Harrison
Marcus Giles Andy Marte Kyle Davies Brent Lillibridge
Matt Belisle Bubba Nelson Jake Stevens Jordan Schafer
Matt McClendon Macay McBride Anthony Lerew Jason Heyward
Wilson Betemit Jeff Francoeur Jarrod Saltalamacchia Jair Jurrjens
Adam Wainwright Adam LaRoche Elvis Andrus Brandon Jones
Kelly Johnson Dan Meyer Chuck James Gorkys Hernandez

These players were all listed in the top 100 minor league prospects and thus the top players in the Braves system between 2001 and 2008.

  • The players in red never made it to the big leagues.
  • Six others lasted less than 100 games ,or 20 starts/40 relief innings
  • Two are no longer in playing at all as far as I can tell.

Some have had solid careers whole others became journeyman players but, only McCann and Wainwright have consistently performed at a level high enough for them to be considered cornerstones of a franchise. Heyward could eventually do that as well, Andrus has a chance to be a division one SS and I believe we will know this year whether Jurrjens is closer to being a star or a middle of the rotation starter.

With a prospect list light on hitting, coming vacancies at two power positions – left field and third base – and a depth chart so shallow drown a tadpole might suffocate, it’s easy to understand why the farm system isn’t ranked as highly as in the past.

A Braves Kind of Farm System

In R.J. Anderson’s March 6th Painting the Black column on Baseball Prospectus he says the vaunted development of the Braves farm system under John Schuerholz actually began to form when they hired Bill Wight back in 1967. I recommend you read the article (membership is required but well worth it) as there’s a lot of history there I for one didn’t know about. I found the following paragraph particularly interesting as it explained the genesis of the Braves drafting and signing philosophy very well. Mr. Anderson writes:

In Scout’s Honor, Wight says, “If you get the long range pitching established, you’ve got the nucleus of taking a second division ball club into the (Sic) division faster than anything.”   (Paul) Snyder (Wight’s understudy) took this parlance to heart, acknowledging later that he would opt for the pitcher if the two players were valued equally. Wight recognized that producing pitchers served two purposes. The Braves could use those pitchers to strengthen their own roster. But they could also use superfluous starters to fill other needs through trade. Also in Scout’s Honor, Snyder, while paraphrasing Wight, says, “[Everybody’s] always looking for pitching and if you have pitching you can get players.”  (emphasis added)

That philosophy is still at the heart of Braves player signing/drafting decisions today and explains why we have an abundance of pitchers. It doesn’t explain the lack of bats even if you accept that trading for a bat is always possible. I don’t because it isn’t.

I doubt Wight who also discovered and signed what the article called “ a who’s who of Braves hitters: Dusty Baker, Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, David Justice, even Jeff Blauser,”  would be happy with the lack of balance in the system or some of the decisions that brought it to this point.

My next few posts will explore the history of Braves draft choices and amateur free agent signings in terms of era’s and decisions made that got us to this point.

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Tags: Andrelton Simmons Arodys Vizcaino Brandon Drury Christian Bethancourt Farm System Favorite Julio Teheran Prospects Randall Delgado Sean Gilmartin Tyler Pastornicky

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