At the major league level…
… the new ace of the Atlanta Braves is rookie Jair Jurrjens. He did twice as much as anyone expected him to do in 2008, and with a little more help from the offense and the bullpen he could have won 18 games and possibly a rookie of the year award (I’m assuming the big-market Soto will steal the award). J.J. was counted on for far more than he should have been this year, so hopefully his arm was not overtaxed.
Another rookie surprise was Jorge Campillo. This non-roster spring training invitee from the bowels of the Mexican League (and the Seattle Mariners organization, which is similarly equivelent to the Mexican League) was forced into starting duty because of injuries are performed beyond anyone’s expectations. If he was on the Braves in the 90’s, his performance would have been the kind that would have catapulted the team into the playoffs and been pointed out as "pure Mazzone genius." We either have to rethink that genius moniker for Mazzone or attribute it to someone else.
The rollercoaster ride that is Charlie Morton needs to be leveled out. The success he found last year and continued this year was exposed by the inconsistent demons of his past. A dominant pitcher at times, he must couple that dominance with consistency and an ability to control damage – much like Jurrjens showed this year when he didn’t have his A-game. Experts have said for a long time that he is more suited to a bullpen role, but right now I trust him in a bullpen role no more than I trust him in a starting role.
Jurrjens should be counted on to occupy one of the top two spots in the rotation next season, and Campillo should not be counted out (as he was by many people over and over again this year – including yours truly). Campillo slowed towards the end of the year as his arm got tired, but with a good off-season program he should be ready to contribute more quality innings for the Braves in 2009 – though I still warn he could be a one-year wonder like Jorge Sosa. Barring some weird circumstances over the winter, Morton should find himself back at triple-A. And someday, Tim Hudson will hopefully return to us.
The future Braves right-handed starting pitcher…
… There is little doubt that we should see Tommy Hanson in Atlanta at some point in 2009. He rocketed through the system this season and put an exclamation point on his dominant prospect status with a no hitter at double-A. He’s the kind of prospect we desperately need in Atlanta to rebuild our pitching staff. He’s a power control pitcher – a rare combination.
In 138 innings between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, Hanson struck out 163 and only walked 52… oh, and he only allowed 85 hits – that’s a .175 batting average against. Like many power guys he’s a fly-ball pitcher who can give up homeruns at times, but his overpowering stuff will more than make up for the occasional long ball.
It may depend on what additions to their pitching staff the Braves make this off-season, but regardless of competition, Hanson should get an extended look this spring training. He’s in the AFL this winter refining his game and getting even more innings under his belt. With the Braves in Gwinnett next year, Tommy Hanson might be the highlight of that team – and just a 30-minute drive from a call-up to Atlanta.
More for future consideration… (and a note: it was really hard to rank these guys, so many of them seem to have such good upside)…
2. Julio Teheran – Injuries kept us from getting a good look at what Teheran could do, but he’ll still be just 18 next year. A lot of folks are hesitant to rank Teheran high, but the reports keep coming in about his velocity and maturity at such a young age. There’s still plenty of time for him to break through.
3. James Parr – Like Charlie Morton the year before, Parr came out of nowhere to find his groove in 2008. Parr came out of the gate strong in his first two big league appearances only to struggle in his final three. He showed an ability to pitch in the majors, but he also showed that inconsistency that so many of our rookies have displayed in the last few years.
4. Eric Cordier – The most operated on man in the Braves minor league system may finally be ready to pay dividends. If he really is fully healthy next year, then I think we should expect big things from him. He got off to a great start at Rome this year before scuffling in his last few starts. He should be at the Beach next season with all the lefties.
5. Jacob Thompson – Our fifth-round steal in this year’s draft is another guy who may have first-round stuff. He’s a more experienced college pitcher, so I can see him getting all the way to the Beach next year. He will really be an interesting player to watch – to see if we did indeed get the kind of deal we think we got.
6. Randall Delgado – While Teheran got all the press, it was the slender Panamanian Delgado who turned most of the heads in Danville. At only 18, he handled the Appy League like a college prospect, ranking second in the league with 81 strikeouts (in 69 innings pitched).
7. Zeke Spruill – I believe the hype about this kid, and I think we got first round talent late in the second round. He did all he could to prove his worth by posting great numbers with great control in the GCL.
8. Todd Redmond – Probably the most consistent starting pitcher in our organization all year. He's not a "blow-you-away" kind of pitcher, but a steady control guy similar to a right-handed Tom Glavine. Of course, with a fly ball rate like he has, he may be more like a right-handed Chuck James. So take some of his numbers and some of his success with a grain of salt.
9. Deunte Heath – We’ll have to see how he does in the Arizona Fall League. I think he’ll end of being a bullpen guy. He’ll get to sharpen his spurs a bit more this winter, and he should find his way to Gwinnett next year, but he’s pretty far down on the depth chart if he continues to just be average.
10. David Francis – I’ve become hesitant to list guys just out of the draft in top-lists, but Francis, like a couple of other guys from the 2008 draft seem to have a different, more dominant quality about them. For Francis it starts with his exceptional strikeout to walk ratio – 69-to-17 in only 53.2 innings pitched, highlighted by his six-inning no-hit performance in late July in which he struck out 16. He may have to improve his performance against left-handers, who made Francis seem merely mortal, but all other aspects of his game seem very refined. If he can repeat his good work at Rome next year, he may move fast through the system.
11. Casey Hodges – Perhaps a bit too advanced for the level he was pitching at, Hodges dominated hitters to begin his pro debut, but scuffled in his last two starts – most likely due to a tired arm. It will be interesting to see what kind of pitcher develops from this late (23rd-round) pick.
12. Cory Rasmus – We haven’t had much of an opportunity to see this 2006 supplemental-round draft pick. He’s supposed to have one of the best curveballs in the system, but he’s been injured the last two years and was limited to only four games and 5.2 innings of work this year. He’ll still only be 21 next year, so there is time for him to regroup and regain his prospect status, but he’ll need to have a healthy season to do it.
Others: Ryne Reynoso (out of Boston College, he's more of an organizational type arm, but he had a great year at the Beach after moving back to the rotation); Kyle Cofield (he has consistantly and quietly put up decent numbers as he's moved up the ladder; he'll need to get the walks under control though); Michael Broadway (still pretty young, and he must be getting better because the team used a spot in Hawaii Winter ball for him); Paul Clemens (another intriguing young community college prospect out of the 2008 draft); Kyle Farrell (I repeat, yet another intriguing young community college prospect out of the 2008 draft)
... and no, I did not forget about Kris Medlen...
Photo of Tommy Hanson courtesy of Chip Jett