Thursday and Friday major league teams will restock their farm systems through the major league amateur draft. As we wonder what the Braves will do, let's take a look around the organization to see where the needs are from Atlanta to the Gulf Coast League.
We'll examine the level of need with a number scale – 10 being a desperate need, 1 being no need at all.
Level of need: 4
Obviously, the pending free agent status of Mark Teixeira makes the long-term situation at this position a concern. It's assumed Teixeira will be leaving the Braves, but we must remember that half the payroll will be coming off the books after this season. With the young pitchers who might take over in the rotation next season, the Braves may feel they need to at least try to wrap Teixeira up in some sort of deal.
But if Scott Boras chooses to use Teixeira as an example, as he does with most of his clients, the Braves will have to look elsewhere. Barbaro Canizares is the first baseman in Richmond. He's hitting .321 with 8 home runs and 34 RBI in 196 at bats. There is no doubt Canizares can hit, but he's a huge question defensively at first base. It's more likely he's a bat off the bench instead of a starting first baseman.
Mississippi first baseman Isaiah Ka'aihue had a horrible start to his season, but he's got his average up to .223 in 179 at bats with 5 home runs and 28 RBI. But Ka'aihue has simply not showed enough consistency to make the Braves believe he'll be a long-term option.
Ernesto Mejia is having a solid season in Myrtle Beach, with a .276 average, 8 home runs, and 36 RBI in 225 at bats. The Braves probably need to see more before we know whether Mejia is a legit major league prospect.
The best prospect for first base is in Rome, where last year's second round pick Freddie Freeman is having a monster season. Freeman is hitting .306 in his first 56 games, with 7 home runs and 42 RBI. The Braves believe the 18-year-old will be one of the best prospects in the game over the next few seasons, with outstanding power from the left side and above average defense. His ETA is probably 2011, and right now it is very sensible to pencil him into a future Atlanta lineup.
Danville will probably have Stephen Shults at first base, although that could be manned by a draft pick. Shults hit only .167 in his brief trial in Rome earlier this year. And the GCL first baseman could be Ryohei Shimakukuro, who hit only .198 there last year.
With Freeman establishing himself as a legit prospect by having a fantastic season, first base may not be a high priority. Plus, Cody Johnson and Jason Heyward can both play first base, so a move by one of those two is not out of the question down the road. It won't be a shock, however, if the Braves bring in someone in the later rounds at the position. Besides Shults and Shimakukuro, there is not a first baseman that can play at Rome next season unless they move someone from another position.
Level of need: 6
Kelly Johnson is 26 years old and he has three more years under the Braves control. He could remain at second base for several more seasons. The Braves have Martin Prado, who impressed everyone before his injury in early May. So the depth at the major league level is pretty good.
In Richmond J.C. Holt started the season there but then switched places with Diory Hernandez, who came up from Double-A Mississippi. Holt hit only .215 in Triple-A, but he's recovered to hit .279 in the Southern League. Hernandez started out hitting .286 in Mississippi, but he's improved to a .329 in Richmond. Both are projected as utility players in the big leagues, with Hernandez probably having some good trade value as well.
Travis Jones was Atlanta's seventh round pick last year out of the University of South Carolina. He's now in Myrtle Beach and is hitting .250 with 8 home runs and 36 RBI. He's having a good season, but it's unclear whether Jones will become a prospect to start in the big leagues. The offensive ability is clearly there, so he's one to keep an eye on.
Rome's job at second has been manned by Cole Miles, who is hitting .244 through the first 50 games of the season. He's a speedster, with steals on the season, but right now is a marginal prospect.
Danville will have right-handed hitting Yoel Campusano at second base. He hit .349 in the Dominican Summer League last season. But the GCL team does not have a clear cut second baseman. Expect the Braves to draft a second baseman somewhere in the first ten rounds to provide depth in the system.
Level of need: 7
Yunel Escobar could well be the Braves' shortstop at least through the 2012 season, so the position is in good hands for the long-term. And while there is always talk about Escobar moving to third to eventually replace Chipper Jones. Don't count on it.
Even the presence of Brent Lillibridge won't move Escobar off of short. Lillibridge is really struggling at Triple-A, hitting only .192 in 151 at bats. But he's always been considered more of a super sub prospect when he sticks in the big leagues.
Diory Hernandez can also play short, so he provides depth. Javier Guzman was a six-year signee last winter and he's in Double-A. But Guzman is not a prospect.
The main shortstop prospect in the organization is Brandon Hicks, who is hitting .237 with 68 strikeouts in 169 at bats, but he's also got 11 home runs and 30 RBI. Hicks was Atlanta's third round pick last season. He doesn't have to be rushed, so he can work on getting better at the plate. Hicks has been impressive overall in his twelve months in the organization.
Michael Fisher started off slow, but a solid month of May has him now hitting .269 with 3 home runs in 201 at bats. He was the sixth round pick last June. Fisher is considered a solid reserve infield prospect for the big leagues.
The rookie leagues will be in need of shortstops. Therefore, don't be shocked to see a couple of players from this position drafted in the next few days. There is no one slated to go to Rome next season to play shortstop, so they'll draft someone for that position. The Braves need depth here, especially after last year's trades of Edgar Renteria and Elvis Andrus.
Level of need: 3
Who knows how long Chipper Jones is going to go. But the Braves took a major step in having a serious candidate to replace him when they grabbed Jon Gilmore in the supplemental first round last year. Gilmore is now in Rome hitting .160 in his first 75 at bats. But the Braves still love his potential and believe he could be ready to replace Chipper in a few years.
There are a couple of other players who still need to be examined. Van Pope has bounced back from what was a horrid season in 2007 to put together a nice year so far. Pope is hitting .284 through his first 88 at bats in Mississippi. But Pope has to do more than that to make anyone believe he could play everyday in the big leagues.
Eric Campbell was suspended for the first seven weeks of the season by the Braves. He's hit .161 in his first nine games back. It's too early to tell if Campbell can regain his prospect status that he had two years ago. And he's obviously got to continue to get back in the Braves' good graces.
Along with Gilmore, Rome has Adam Coe playing third base. Coe was an 8th round pick two years ago and is struggling offensively with a .203 average. Samuel Sime is a young player who was at Rome earlier this year but hit only .139. He'll get a chance to be the starter in Danville at the hot corner.
The GCL Braves really don't have anyone slated to play third base, so we could see a college player taken in the draft in a later round. Next year's third baseman at Rome could be Sime and/or Gilmore again, so don't expect a high school player to be selected since he'd be blocked next year by those two.
Level of need: 5
Jeff Francoeur will likely be around for many years to come in the Atlanta outfield. But center field and left field are obviously two positions that will be changing in the future.
Jordan Schafer is back and doing well, and the possibility of him taking one of those positions even this summer is very real. He could lock up center field for the next decade.
Brandon Jones has made it difficult to judge his potential with his slow start in Richmond. But he's still got to be considered in the picture for a possible job in Atlanta. He will be passed, however, if he doesn't rebound with a strong second half in Triple-A.
Gorkys Hernandez missed a month with a hamstring strain, but there is no doubt about his potential. It is very easy to see Hernandez one day joining Francoeur and Schafer in the Atlanta outfield.
Carl Loadenthal, Willie Cabrera, and Jon Mark Owings all show flashes at times. But they've got to be more consistent to be considered serious big league options. They do, however, provide solid depth right now in the system.
Concepcion Rodriguez is not really getting talked about much, but he should be getting some attention. He's hitting .271 in 166 at bats between Rome and Myrtle Beach with five home runs and 27 RBI. Coaches are very intrigued by Rodriguez, and he should not be ignored.
The main talent is in Rome, where Cody Johnson and Jason Heyward roam the outfield. It is somewhat inevitable that Heyward is going to be a star. You can almost feel safe in penciling him into the Atlanta lineup in 2011. Johnson has been a bit more frustrating this season, hitting only .216 but with 9 home runs and 28 RBI in 204 at bats. There is no doubt Johnson has the power potential, and there's still plenty of time for him to develop into a better all-around hitter.
Along with Heyward, the Braves drafted a number of outfielders last June in the draft. But so far it's hard to tell how good Carlos Lee will be. He's hitting only .239 in Rome this season with seven stolen bases. Chad Maddox and Kuyaunnis Miles will be in Danville this summer, while Rashod Henry will be back in the Gulf Coast League. So far it doesn't look like any of those other outfielders are outstanding prospects. Therefore, the Braves may want to grab at least one or two more outfielders to try and put them in Rome for the 2009 season.
Level of need: 9
Okay, so Brian McCann is under contract through 2013. Clint Sammons is perhaps a few weeks from coming up from Triple-A Richmond and taking over as the backup catcher, a position he could lock down for the next six years. So there's no big need here, right?
Wrong. The Braves do need some catchers. And remember, you always do need catchers since you're always going to bring in pitchers. But the depth is down a little bit in the system, and expect the Braves to address that this week.
Tyler Flowers went nuts in spring training, but so far his season in Myrtle Beach has been so-so. He's hit .251 with 5 home runs and 29 RBI in 183 at bats. Flowers will move up to Double-A next season, as will Phil Britton, his current cohort in the Carolina League. Britton is hitting .250 in 156 at bats.
But the other catchers in the system, at least right now, look like very marginal prospects. Benji Johnson, drafted last year out of North Carolina, might have the best potential of all the rest of the catchers at the top four levels.
Matt Kennelly will be in Danville this season, while Daniel Matra-Elorriaga will get good playing time in the Gulf Coast League. Christian Bethancourt was the hotshot catcher signed back in March, but he's still just 16 and won't be in the GCL until next summer.
The Braves clearly need to bring in another solid prospect behind the plate. Don't be surprised if they use one of their first five picks on a good young catching prospect.
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 on The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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