After taking signing fifteen pitchers in last year's draft, the Atlanta Braves were looking at a more balanced philosophy for the first day's work. And of the seven players selected Thursday, only two were pitchers. The Braves have had a lot of position players from the farm system graduate to the big leagues the last few years, so this draft is one to restock the farm system around the diamond.
Here's a look at the Braves draft choices through the first five rounds:
FIRST ROUND - #14 overall – JASON HEYWARD – OF – Henry Co. High School in McDonough, Georgia
It was no secret that Heyward was high on the Braves' draft board. He's a Georgia kid, and the Braves always look at closely at the hometown players. Plus he was arguably one of the top prep position players in this draft. You could not expect the Braves to let a kid this talented escape out of their own backyard. Heyward hit .520 for Henry County this season with 8 home runs and 29 RBI in 50 at bats. When you've heard the names of Fred McGriff, Willie McCovey, and Frank Thomas mentioned as comparables, you pay attention. Heyward has a great stroke from the left side, but he's got a chance to be as good a natural hitter as a power hitter. Heyward has awesome power, but he also has patience. He played a bit at first base, but the Braves feel he can be a solid outfielder. Like Cody Johnson last year, Heyward is the youngest player in this year's draft. He turns 18 on August 9th. When Heyward does sign, he'll join Johnson and give the Braves two very good long-term outfield prospects that have power potential from the left side of the plate. Heyward is six-foot-five, 230 pounds and will only get bigger.
SUPPLEMENTAL ROUND - #33 overall – JON GILMORE – 3B – Iowa City High School in Iowa City, Iowa
Braves' scouts became enamored with Gilmore last summer when he played in the Perfect Game National Pre-draft Showcase. He's a tall (6'3") kid that is a great athlete. Gilmore was offered several football scholarships to go play quarterback, including by a couple of Ivy League schools. That explains why Gilmore scored very well on some of the psychological tests given by the Braves. Atlanta is happy Gilmore will concentrate on baseball. Believe it or not, the high school season starts in late May in Iowa, so when Gilmore signs with the Braves he'll skip half of his last high school season. The Braves believe Gilmore will make a smooth transition from shortstop to third base, and that his power projects him as a Scott Rolen-type corner infielder. The right-handed hitter battled a hamstring injury this spring, but it did nothing to hamper his play when he worked out for the Braves and won them over. Gilmore has a Brian McCann-type personality; he's a winner, and the Braves feel he's got a great future in the organization.
SECOND ROUND - #69 overall – JOSH FIELDS – RHP – University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
Before the season started Josh Fields was considered a potential middle-of-the-first-round draft pick. But a tough junior season dropped his stock a bit, but not in the eyes of the Braves' scouts. They see a reliever with a fastball that can hit 97 mph and a nasty slider. Look at the difference in his stats. This season Fields was 1-6 with a 4.46 ERA in 26 games with seven saves. He allowed 34 hits in 38 innings, with 24 walks, and 45 strikeouts. In 2006 Fields was 3-2 with a 1.80 ERA in 35 games with fifteen saves. He allowed only 36 hits in 50 innings, with only 11 walks and 56 strikeouts. Fields then followed up his terrific sophomore season with a solid showing in the Cape Cod League last summer, leading that league with 13 saves. But some mechanical changes caused Fields to have control trouble for the first time in his career. The Braves want to get him back throwing his hard slider to accompany his mid-90s fastball, and they believe that will get him back on track. Working with Braves' minor league pitching coaches can cure many ills of pitchers that have a few mechanical flaws, so the Braves are very anxious to get him into the organization. This is the fourth straight year the Braves have picked a UGA star: Clint Sammons (6th round) in 2004, Will Startup (5th round) in 2005, and Josh Morris (12th round) in 2006. Fields is represented by Scott Boras, but the Braves believe they will sign him and he'll begin his pro career in the Danville Braves' bullpen.
SECOND ROUND - #78 overall – FREDDIE FREEMAN – 1B – El Modena High School in Orange, California
The Braves love this power-hitting infielder who spent most of his high school career at third base but will play first base as a pro. Freeman can also pitch, but the Braves feel he has great power potential as a corner infielder. Like Heyward, Freeman is only 17 and doesn't turn 18 until September 12th. The six-foot-five, 215-pounder has a solid swing from the left side of the plate. He hit .453 this season with 5 home runs and 20 RBI in 75 at bats. Freeman will join Heyward in the Gulf Coast League this summer in Florida.
THIRD ROUND - #108 overall – BRANDON HICKS – SS – Texas A&M
With Tony Pena, Jr. traded this past spring, and Yunel Escobar now up in the big leagues playing third base, the Braves needed a little depth at shortstop. Atlanta saw Brandon Hicks last season when they scouted reliever Casey Beck at San Jacinto Junior College. Hicks then transferred to Texas A&M where he refined his game and really turned the corner offensively. Hicks hit .321 with 5 home runs as a sophomore at San Jacinto, but he improved to .338 with 10 home runs this season at A&M. Plus, Hicks had 20 doubles and 28 stolen bases. He could be labeled a taller Brent Lillibridge, who also has very good speed. But Hicks is a more natural shortstop. Expect him to join the Danville Braves after he signs with the Braves.
FOURTH ROUND - #138 overall – CORY GEARRIN – RHP – Mercer University in Macon, Georgia
After Josh Fields was taken at number 69, many believed the Braves would pass on taking the other top relief pitcher in the state of Georgia this season. But Cory Gearrin's numbers, his pure stuff, and his outstanding makeup sold the Braves. He's a sidearmer that just started pitching a few years ago. Last year Gearrin was at Young Harris College in the north Georgia Mountains, but a lucky appearance in the Cape Cod League put him on the baseball map. He then transferred to Mercer and was simply outstanding. Gearrin was 4.3 in 26 games with a 2.44 ERA. He allowed only 15 hits in 44.1 innings, 14 runs allowed, 12 earned runs allowed, 27 walks, and 65 strikeouts. Opponents hit only .109 against him. Gearrin could be this year's Joe Smith, who is the Mets' sidearm reliever drafted out of Wright State last year and is already in the big leagues. He'll join Fields in the Danville bullpen in a few weeks.
FIFTH ROUND - #168 overall – DENNIS DIXON – OF – University of Oregon
Dennis Dixon was drafted by the Reds in the 20th round out of high school a few years ago, but instead he decided to attend Oregon to play football. He's been one of the Ducks' starting quarterbacks the last few seasons, but he believes baseball is his future. Even though he has not played baseball in a few years, the Braves were one of a few teams interested in Dixon on the diamond. He worked out twice for the Braves, and the scouts were convinced he would be a project worth the gamble. Dixon is six-foot-four, 205-pounder and he will turn 23 next January. The Braves will send him down to the Gulf Coast League this summer, and then he'll return to Oregon for his senior season as the Ducks' starting signal-caller in August. Dixon can run, throw, and catch the ball, so he just has to work on his hitting. The Braves will not rush him, and the scouts feel like he could be a special athlete that could really excel on the baseball field.
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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at email@example.com.
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