DISNEY'S WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS
If you love baseball, you'd love the Instructional League. The players may not tell you that, since many of them are a bit tired after a full season of playing baseball. But Instructs is the most natural form of baseball.
Spring Training is terrific - don't get me wrong. But the players are anxious to get started and make an impression and get the season going. But the Instructional League is as pure a picture of the sport as you are going to get.
In many ways, it's just a bunch of kids out playing baseball.
There are only two other franchises besides the Braves that still do the Instructional League: the Indians and Tigers. So there's some competition. But it's really scrimmages, and the atmosphere is so laid back that it's very relaxing.
I spent four days in Orlando last week. Here are some observations.
Casey Beck - The hard-throwing closer from San Jacinto Junior College is just that - a hard thrower. He's got solid stuff you'd want your closer to have, including a fastball that is into the mid-90s. He'll be a candidate for Rome next season. It's good to have some hard throwers in the bullpen for the future.
Mike Broadway - He's coming back from some tendonitis in his elbow, which caused him to miss most of this season in Danville. They've changed his mechanics a bit to take some pressue off his elbow. I watched him Friday. The kid's got stuff. Fastball is solid. He's healthy and raring to go to Rome next season. The coaches think he could be one of our better long-term pitching prospects - a tall, hard-throwing right-hander in the Millwood-mold.
Steve Evarts - I saw him throw a bullpen session. He's got a good, rangy body. The changeup is obviously there and is a plus pitch. Very good kid. Has set goals of where he wants to be in the future. Knows he wants to pitch in the big leagues. Of the "big 3" lefties (including Chad Rodgers and Jeff Locke), Evarts has the best shot at going to Rome to start the season.
Reidy Escobar - Well he doesn't turn 17 until next month. He's a tall (6-4) kid with the skinniest legs you'll ever see, but there's no doubt that he could develop into a big-bodied kid. Right now, he throws in the high-80s. Give me a tall right-hander that throws in the high-80s and is still 16 any day of the week. He will probably pitch in the GCL next summer. This could be the prize of our signing period for the international kids this year.
Neftali Feliz - I only saw him throw a bullpen session, but the coaches were raving about him. They think he is legit. The fastball is there, and they all believe the offspeed stuff will come in time. But they can't get away from that fastball in the high-90s. They believed he was the best pitcher in the GCL this summer and has the highest ceiling of any of them. I'll tell you, when I look at him, I see a hard-throwing K-Rod-type reliever. He might be a starter and go to the Hall of Fame for all I know, but I just see a reliever for some reason. Maybe it's my desire to have a reliever in our pen that can throw this fast. But this kid is only 18, so there's plenty of time to figure out what's going to happen to him.
Steve Figueroa - He's still recovering from the mono he had over the summer, so he wasn't there. The Braves really didn't get to see much of him after he was drafted, so he'll have a lot to show when he gets to spring training.
Junior Guerra - The catcher-turned-pitcher throws hard, but to me he still looks like a catcher out there trying to be a pitcher. The conversion takes some time, so let's give him some time to see how he does. Anyone that throws hard will be given a chance, so they'll look at him in spring training to see what he might do next season.
Tim Gustafson - VERY polished reliever. From Georgia Tech and was a late signee after he went to the Cape Cod League to prove he was healthy. I was very impressed. He might finish next season in Myrtle Beach or even Double-A. Since he signed late, he might be placed in Rome. But if he had come in on time he might be pushing for a spot on the Pelicans' roster out of spring training. His fastball looked crisp, and his delivery looked very solid for someone that had battled arm trouble this season. The policy of high school starters and college relievers continues to pay dividends.
Deunte Heath - Well he was supposed to pitch in Winter Haven on Thursday, but we got rained out in the second inning so I missed him. Coaches say the fastball is there and that he is also very polished. The former UT pitcher will probably be right there with Gustafson in Rome's bullpen next season, although you wonder if the Braves will give both a shot as a starter in a piggyback situation so they can get innings.
Chen En Hung - Watched him throw a live BP session. The kid throws low gas, but it takes him an hour and a half to deliver the ball. The Braves were careful with him since he was abused in the Taiwan League he pitched in. He's only 18, so the Braves are going to be very careful with him and take their time. He'll probably stay in Australia next summer, and then come back to Instructs. Then the Braves can see how advanced he is. I can tell where the Wang comparisons come in. In a few years, with his arm, this kid could be one hell of a prospect if he stays healthy.
Joe Johnson - Watched him throw a bullpen session. Big tall kid with a good fastball. Solid pick. Already 22, but he's got a big league body right now. Another bullpen candidate for Rome.
Jeff Locke - Great kid. Really loved being in a baseball environment after coming out of New Hampshire. Like a kid in a candy store with all the baseball around him. He's learning how to pitch by coming over his head in his wind up, and just learning his plane and his arm slot. He worked with Kent Willis in a bullpen session I watched and Jeff is very attentive to what the coaches are teaching him. He might be behind Evarts a bit, since he has a lot to learn, but there is no doubt the talent is there. The fastball looks good, so he's got to develop his offspeed stuff.
Kris Medlen - Well I knew what the roster said Kris' size was (5-10, 175), but for some reason I just thought he'd still be bigger with all those strikeouts he put up in Danville. Well he's not very big. He's kinda like Buddy Hernandez, but he can certainly pitch. I watched him pitch one bullpen session and one inning of a game (I missed his first inning doing an interview - the inning lasted only 2 minutes). Medlen is difficult to pick up, kinda like Buddy was and how Chuck James is. There's something about these little guys and picking the ball up. The ball just comes out of his hand so quick that you can't pick it up. I sat right behind home plate and it just jumps out of his hand. The coaches say this kid, who as you may remember was an infielder at Santa Ana and just came in to close games out, is legit and could jump to Myrtle Beach next season with a good spring. This is the first time Kris is really concentrating on pitching, and he looks like he's been doing it forever. He's a real interesting prospect, but like Chuckie and even Buddy Hernandez, Kris is not going to be called much of a prospect by other people because he's not very big. But believe me, you cannot ignore what he did in Danville and the impression he made on our coaches this season.
Mike Mehlich -(pronounced Mee-lick) This is the kid that pitched a bit in high school but only from the stretch, so he's learning how to wind up this fall. He pitched in a game and looked a bit raw, but the stuff is there. He seems to have a good presence on the mound. He'll probably head to Danville next season, with an outside shot at Rome.
Cory Rasmus - Well he's healthy now after missing most of the season with tendonitis. The kid's really young, but the talent is off the charts. The body has to mature, but he's going to be a big-chested pitcher. Really impressive. Watched a game he pitched in and a bullpen session. Cory has a great idea of what he's got to work on. The injury set him back a bit, so he might have to go to Danville next season. But this was a terrific high pick. He's a great long-term pitching project. Makeup is off the charts - just what the Braves want in a pitching prospect. There have been comparisons to Chad Billingsley. That may be exactly what we've got here with Rasmus.
Ryne Reynoso - 26th round pick out of Boston College signed late in the summer. He was an outfielder at BC, but the Braves (and others) really liked him arm and wanted him to pitch. He's a bit raw, but he does not look like an outfielder out there pitching. He's more polished than I thought he would be. Really good kid with a strong desire to learn and get better. Reliever with a chance to go to Rome next season. As with most of them, fastball is there, so the breaking pitches have got to come.
Jamie Richmond - I only saw him throw a bullpen session. He's a lanky kid. I think the Braves would like him to fill out a bit. But the coaches raved about his season, which had him finish as the Appy League Pitcher of the Year. Richmond will get a good test in Rome next season. We may see how good he is next season. In 2005 he was just another reliever in the GCL, but he separated himself with a great Extended Spring Training and then rewarded the Braves' confidence in him with an outstanding season.
Carlos Rivas - He pitched in Winter Haven before the rains came and left early with some elbow tenderness. They did not think it was serious, but Rivas has had trouble staying healthy. He's an interesting lefty, who might be a reliever. But until he stays healthy, we're really not going to know much about him.
Chad Rodgers - The last of the "Big 3" lefties that were drafted last June. I saw Chad pitch a bullpen session and the scouts' reports were accurate: he throws everything in the zone and low. Control seems very, very good. Outstanding kid with great makeup. These three lefties (Rodgers, Locke, and Evarts) are special talents. Throw in Mr. Rasmus and the Braves have four great pitching prospects. It's going to be fun to watch these four develop over the next five or six seasons. These four may be our next wave of outstanding pitching prospects.
Junior Rodriguez - Pitching in relief in a game and I watched an inning. Just coming over from the DSL and will be in the GCL next summer. Lean right-hander with decent stuff.
Jared Shaffer - Coming back from back surgery he had in the spring. Jared is behind a bit due to missing this season, but if healthy he should compete for a bullpen spot in Rome next spring. Converted infielder.
Jonny Venters - Here's my wildcard for next season. Jonny is coming back from Tommy John surgery. He looked really, really good. The recovery has gone well and his stuff looks crisp. Jonny has good stuff and his fastballl looks like it's coming back really well. He'll start out in Rome next season, but he could easily finish out in Myrtle Beach. Jonny is someone we should keep an eye on.
Tyler Wilson - Well we've got another Macay McBride, except this one will concentrate on being a reliever for his entire minor league career. Tyler has a good fastball and looks to have guts out there on the mound. He's a lefty that resembles Macay, and the good news is he really seems to enjoy being a relief pitcher. He wants the role. It'll be good to develop a lefty specialist down on the farm, and Tyler's got a chance to be a very good one.
Phillip Britton - Possibly has a hammate fracture and was not in camp.
Javier Dominguez - Has a chance to be a starter in Rome next season. Decent receiver.
Tyler Flowers - "Flo" is a big young man who can mash. Had a small ankle injury that sidelined him about a week. Only saw him play catcher, but they want to get him at first base a bit too. He's really big for catcher, so he just might have to move to first. But the kid can hit with power. He'll have to sit out most of April due to violating the minor league's substance abuse policy, but he'll be back and we'll be able to see how good a hitter we have here. He loves to catch, so that'll be a plus. And he wants to get better as a catcher. But the bat is what catches your eye with him.
Steven "Bubba" Garcia - Played a bit at third base during the games, but I think that's just to see if he can be versatile. Decent prospect but Rome should be a good test for him next season.
Matt Kennelly - The kid from Australia who is learning how to catch was impressive. He's only 17 years old, but it's easy to project that he's going to be a solid prospect in a few years. Receiving skills looked solid for someone learning the position. A right-handed hitter, Kennelly looks like a really good high school prospect right now. But we don't have to draft him! He could come back to the GCL next summer, but they might just let him stay in Australia for one more year. But he did have a good Instructs and was impressive. It's hard to believe we have these pre-18 year old prospects like Matt and Reidy Escobar and, of course, that infielder that wishes he could sing!
Jesus Sucre - Played in the DSL this past summer. Good sized receiver that could get a visa next summer and come play in the GCL or even maybe in Danville.
Elvis Andrus - This kid is overrated. He'll never be anything more than a Triple-A wannabe. His fielding is suspect, and offensively I think I could get him out. It's a shame we read so much hype about this kid, only to be so disappointed with his mediocre play.
Paul Bennett - Non-drafted free agent pickup that helped Danville a great deal. Looks like a reserve infielder that might help out in Rome next season.
Danny Brezeale - Had some back problems and did not play last week when I was there.
Adam Coe - Battled Bronchitis so I did not see him last week.
Chase Fontaine - This kid can play. Looks pretty good around shortstop, and from all indications he's going to remain there for now. Second base is an option down the line. Offensively, his resemblence of Utley is scary. Good contact hitter whose power is going to develop as he matures. Very interesting prospect.
Diory Hernandez - May be finding his niche as a guy that can play second, short, and third. Needs to stay healthy and not take innings off. There is talent there, but he's nothing more than a reserve prospect that is still a few years away.
Ernesto Mejia - The coaches are higher on Mejia than I am. He's a big kid that looks uncomfortable at first base. He can hit, but not sure if he'll hit enough.
Cole Miles - Little guy that can fly. Moving from centerfield to second base and looks okay there. Really good athlete. Looks like John Cangelosi. May start at second base in Rome next season.
Ryohei Shimabukuro - High School kid from Japan needs to shape up a bit. Kind of soft. Will go back to Australia to play next summer. He can hit to the opposite field really well, but he's a long-term prospect. Got to see how he gets in shape in a year or two and then see where he can play in the field. He can't run very well and his defense is questionable. He did not look really good at first base, so that's why they want to try him behind the plate as a catcher. But there's little doubt he can hit the ball.
Willie Cabrera - No doubt he's a hitter. Got a good stroke. Looked okay in the outfield, but needs more time there.
Quentin Davis - Marginal prospect that was at second base in Instructs to see if he can be an option there for Myrtle Beach next season. Speedster with no power.
Cody Johnson - Still bothered by a quad problem, after missing some time during the season with a groin strain. I watched him take BP several times. I like his stroke. I don't see a hitch much at all. He reminds me of Thorman a bit with his approach, not LaRoche - as advertised. He kind of winds the bat up like Thorman does. There is zero doubt that the power is there. The kid can launch some balls over the fence in batting practice. He'll probably have to go to Danville next summer since he missed so much time, but that's okay. He just turned 18 six weeks ago, so he's very young. With the pitchers we got after him in the draft, I like this pick. He's a high reward type outfielder that could be very special. But don't expect him to come quickly like Jeff Francoeur did. That's not going to happen. He's going to take some time. His body is outstanding. Only going to get bigger and look even more like a major leaguer.
Jon Mark Owings - Was not there. Sent home with an ankle problem. Jon Mark has got to get healthy so we can see how good he is.
Camillo Parra - One of the few that came over from the DSL. Good body on him. Lanky. Some of the coaches are really impressed with him. He'll probably go to the GCL next season, but he could be like Concepcion Rodriguez and make it to Danville.
Concepcion Rodriguez - Going to Rome so we can see how good he is. Coaches are very intrigued by him. He's 20 years old, but the Braves believe he's still young and can develop nicely in the next few years.
Jamie Romak - Coming off great second half in Rome, Jamie had a good Instructional league. Still showing power and strong arm in the outfield. Myrtle Beach will be a great test for him in 2007.
Jordan Schafer - This kid might be our best outfield prospect this time next season. Outstanding athlete that plays outfield easily. Remember, he was mainly a pitcher in high school, so he's just learning how to be a position player. Not worrying about his power, he could really make strides in Myrtle Beach next season.
Larry Williams - Back at first base a bit, Larry has a good bat and should be on Rome's roster next season.
Oh, by the way, I'm kidding about Mr. Andrus. He's an outstanding prospect. Elvis is the real deal folks. He's got a chance to be very, very special. There is so much control in his bat that it's scary. And that glove? Wow. He's just a great, great prospect.
As you can tell, I'm a pitching guy, so I was mostly paying attention to the arms. You can't help but be impressed with the arms that were in Orlando. That draft was outstanding this past June. How in the world did we get all those pitchers?
Rasmus and the three lefties could be the prime pitching prospects in the Braves' organization for several years. They are very, very good. And then you couple those four with the projects (Mehlich and Medlen and Reynoso) and the college kids (Gustafson, Heath, Johnson, Beck) and we've got some outstanding pitching prospects to keep track of next season.
I know you guys are going to say that I gave positive reports on everybody, but it was the Instructional League. Hey, prospects are prospects, and I know that a lot of these guys are not going to make it. But my excitement mainly comes from the 2006 draft picks. The emphasis on pitchers was needed to stock the farm system with good long-term prospects. And it looks like the talent is there for the coaches to work with and mold into Braves' pitching prospects.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at email@example.com.