Is the ace already here?

John Smoltz is gone. The Tom Glavine era might be over. So who is the future ace of the Braves rotation? Might he already be in the organization?

The Braves have searched for an ace all offseason. They thought they had Jake Peavy. Then they believed they'd get A.J. Burnett. They finally had to settle for Derek Lowe.

There is no doubt that Lowe is not Johan Santana or even Cole Hamels. But for now, with what the Braves need (an innings-eater), Lowe will admirably fill the role.

The Braves have known, however, that the answer to their search for an ace is probably already in the organization. It's always dangerous to label a young prospect as a potential ace, but in Tommy Hanson the Braves have just that – a potential ace.

That's putting a lot of pressure on a young kid, but this kid can handle it. Part of the aura of being an ace is the makeup of an individual, not just the talent. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, Atlanta's three aces in the 1990s, each had that intangible that allowed them to be an ace. And Hanson has some of the same qualities.

When the Braves signed Hanson out of Riverside Community College in May of 2006 they knew he had a solid fastball and an above average slider. But Hanson's breaking ball was below average. That was the only thing they believed he had to improve to become a top prospect.

They turned him over to the player development department, hoping their outstanding coaches would help Hanson get that curveball better. He worked hard with Kent Willis, the late Bruce Dal Canton, and Derek Bothelo. Slowly but surely Hanson's curveball became an above average pitch.

Some believe if a pitcher doesn't have a breaking ball, it won't appear out of thin air. But Tommy Hanson just got better, and him grasping that pitch and its importance to his repertoire is yet another reason it's easy to think this kid might be something special.

Then the Braves gave Hanson back his slider, a pitch that was an out pitch for him in JUCO ball. And what did Hanson do the first game he started throwing the slider again? He threw his no-hitter last summer.

Is that perhaps another sign this kid is special?

Hanson is arguably the best Braves pitching prospect since Steve Avery. You could argue that Chuck James's stats were better, and they were. But his stuff didn't match up with Hanson or Avery. Kevin Millwood? Well, he became a great major league pitcher, but Millwood was far from a great prospect.

Hanson and Avery's minor league numbers are interesting to compare:

Hanson: 64 games – (20-15) – 2.73 ERA – 231 hits in 322.2 innings – 119 walks – 373 strikeouts
Avery: 49 games – (24-13) – 2.34 ERA – 251 hits in 319.1 innings – 94 walks – 314 strikeouts

When Steve Avery came up in 1990 at the age of 20, he was the best pitching prospect in baseball. He was a lefty with a tremendous fastball, a devastating changeup, and a sweeping curve. But his poise and makeup was what set him apart. Avery had the physical attributes and the intangibles that were very special.

Of course, injuries scarred Avery's career. Who knows what might have happened if Avery had stayed healthy. But as a prospect, when he came up in 1990, no Braves player was ever more heralded.

Since Avery was a southpaw and Hanson is a right-hander, it might be better to compare Hanson to Jason Schmidt, another former Braves top prospect. Schmidt is tall like Hanson, and both have similar stuff: a fastball that can reach the mid-90s, an above average slider, a solid curve, and a changeup that got better over time.

Schmidt has also been sidelined by injuries, but he's had a good career with 128 victories in 13 major league seasons. He was an ace for several seasons for the San Francisco Giants.

Hanson has a bulldog mentality that most teams want in an ace. He wants the ball. He wants outs. He hates to lose. He hates to give up hits and walk people. He's got the mindset you want out of someone who might be at the top of a rotation one day.

Hanson will battle it out for the fifth starter's spot in spring training. He won't be going to Florida to just make an impression. Expect him to go to camp to try and win that job. That's just his mindset. He'll want to continue his historic work from the Arizona Fall League, and if he does Hanson might find himself in the Opening Day rotation.

But even if he goes to Triple-A to start the 2009 season, don't expect him to be there long. Hanson showed in the AFL that he's not too far away. Some scouts have no question that he could get big league hitters out this season, and it would almost be a shock if he's not somehow in the rotation mix by midseason.

Aces don't grow on trees. They do not pop up often. Our definition of an ace may be distorted since the Braves had three future Hall of Famers as aces in their rotation for so many years. But for the first time in years the farm system may be ready to produce a potential ace pitcher.

Just in time.


Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show, The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



Atlanta Dugout Top Stories