A year ago most people believed Matt Harrison was the best Braves' pitching prospect. He was getting most of the ink in the national media, usually ranked right behind Elvis Andrus and Jarrod Saltalamacchia on most prospect lists. But deep down most Braves' officials believed that it was a different lefty that deserved the top honor.
Jo Jo Reyes was supposed to be on the fast track when he was drafted back in 2003. Injuries to his elbow (Tommy John) and his knee (torn ACL) delayed his arrival and probably took some of the luster off his prospect status. But after he bounced back with a full and healthy 2006 season, the Braves knew he was close.
Reyes started the 2007 season at AA Mississippi, and it didn't take him long to show that he was advanced for that league despite being only 22 years old. Reyes was 8-1 in AA with a 3.56 ERA in 13 starts, with 63 hits allowed in 73.1 innings, 35 walks (too many) and 71 strikeouts.
The Braves then bumped him up to AAA Richmond, and after only three starts (1-0, 2.00) there Reyes got a different call. With the Atlanta rotation in shambles, the Braves called on their top lefty – and this time everybody knew who it was they were calling.
Reyes was probably not completely ready, but he had the pitches to get big leaguers out and he had done too well in Richmond to be ignored. His first start was a tough one, as the Padres hit a couple home runs off him and won 8-5. Reyes made five starts in his first Atlanta stint (0-1, 8.75), and he gave up too many home runs (seven) and had too many walks (15) in 21.2 innings pitched.
When the southpaw went back to Triple-A Richmond he worked with Pitching Coach Guy Hansen on some mechanical issues. Hansen believed Reyes needed to be more athletic in his delivery, so he suggested Reyes get a little more fluid in his windup.
The results in Triple-A were, once again, outstanding, as Reyes went 2-0 in his two starts with 13 scoreless innings, only four hits allowed, two walks, and 12 strikeouts.
When Reyes went back to Atlanta, as the Braves' rotation was still in shambles, he did much better. Reyes pitched in six more games (five starts) and posted an ERA of 4.34. He allowed 28 hits in 29 innings, with 15 walks and 20 strikeouts.
Reyes had a few quality starts. He showed Manager Bobby Cox that he could get big league hitters out. Reyes showed promise – which is just what the Braves need from a pitching prospect right now.
But with the Braves ready to revamp its rotation this winter, you have to wonder where Reyes fits in. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson are at the top and then the rest is up for grabs. There's a chance, obviously, that Tom Glavine could be in the mix. (Imagine the impact Glavine could have on Reyes). And then there's also a chance that a trade could bring in another significant starting pitcher for the third spot.
So Reyes fits in with the fifth starter competition, which for all we know could include Chuck James or even Mike Hampton. Reyes could be one of 3-6 pitchers that will go to camp with the goal of being the Atlanta fifth starter.
But is Reyes ready? He turns 23 next month so he's still very young. Could he return to AAA for a little more seasoning? Well sure, he could. But does he need to?
Reyes's overall minor league stats in 2007 were outstanding: 12-1, 2.72 ERA in 19 games, 88 hits allowed in 109.1 innings, 33 earned runs, 47 walks, and 110 strikeouts. Opponents hit only .224 against him in the minors this past season.
Then narrow it down to what Reyes did in his six games in Richmond and it's even more impressive: 4-0, 1.00 ERA, 25 hits in 36 innings, six quality starts, 12 walks, and 39 strikeouts. International League hitters batted only .192 against Reyes.
So what else does he need to prove in the minor leagues? Reyes, at least statistically, has proven that he really doesn't need more seasoning in the minor leagues. And his solid performances late in the season (three very decent starts) might have sold his big league skipper.
And don't underestimate Cox here. His comments late in the year were extremely positive about Reyes. There's a solid chance that Cox goes into this month's organizational meetings and says, ‘I want Jo Jo as my fifth starter." It's entirely possible that happens, going on how positive Cox was last month.
Then again, no one is necessarily safe this winter. While the Braves like Reyes and want a little infusion of youth in the rotation, who knows what might happen if trade talks escalate and Jo Jo is the asking price for an experienced starting pitcher.
But more than likely Reyes will head to spring training to fight for a job. He's a very competitive young man, and the taste he got of the big leagues had to leave him wanting more. So don't be surprised if he makes the decision very difficult come late March as to who breaks camp as the fifth starter in the Atlanta rotation.
Cause if he's not ready by then, it'll be a shock to everyone that know Reyes and the talent he has in that left arm.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
8. Is Jo Jo Reyes ready for the big leagues?
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