We continue our series of prospect guru Q&A's with John Sickels of Minor League Ball. I talked with John last year about his top-20 Braves prospects list, and he was gracious enough to agree to answer my questions this year about his 2008 prospect list as well as other aspects of the Braves minor league system. John also publishes an annual prospect book which this year has write-ups on 37 different Braves prospects as well as hundreds of other prospects from every major league organization.
Q: Tell us why you like Jason Heyward so much. What is his ultimate ceiling?
A: I like Heyward because I like his combination of athleticism, strength, present and future power, and strike zone judgment. His ultimate ceiling, if everything pans out, would be something like Willie McCovey, or perhaps Jason Giambi at his peak with the ability to play a good outfield.
Q: You were one of the biggest fans of Eric Campbell last year, and you ranked him as the top prospect in the Braves system. Attitude problems aside, does he still have the baseball ability to be a top prospect again? Is this year make or break for him?
A: Campbell had health issues and of course the attitude problem. It's interesting, because just shortly before he was suspended I heard good things from Braves officials about how hard he was working to overcome his injuries, but then he was suspended shortly thereafter. I wouldn't give up on him yet. He's just 22, he hit 14 homers in 81 games, and he maintained good plate discipline even when he wasn't hitting. If he gets healthy and works he has a good shot at rebounding, but it's certainly true that his star has dimmed somewhat.
Q: I asked you this question last year, but it's still a valid one, Which of the "big three" do you think has the most upside, Steve Evarts, Jeff Locke, or Chad Rodgers?
A: I don't remember what I said last year, lol. Right now I would put Locke a tad bit ahead of the others, I gave him a B- in the book and Rodgers and Evarts at C+, though I like all three. Locke has the best statistical set right now and dominates more readily. Full-season ball in 2008 will give us a better feel for where they stand. Any of them could break through.
Q: As an addendum to the previous question, where does Cole Rohrbough rank among the big three? Where does Jose Ortegano rank?
A: I actually ranked Rohrbough a notch higher than the other lefties since he did appear in full-season ball and pitched very well, giving him a straight Grade B, which is high praise for me. Oretegano is under-the-radar nationally and doesn't get as much attention as the others, but I gave him a C+ along side Rodgers and Evarts and I think he's a major sleeper. Overall I'd rank it Rohrbough first, Locke second, Evarts third, Ortegano fourth, and Rodgers fifth right now among this group.
Q: Who will be better long term, Cody Johnson, Kala Kaaihue, or Freddie Freeman?
A: Not an easy question as I have major questions about all three. Kaaihue really stunk up the joint in Double-A and I have doubts about his ability to make contact. Johnson made huge progress compared to '06, but he still has things to prove against full-season pitching. Freeman is too far away to tell. I gave him a Grade C, Kaaihue and Johnson Grade C+.
Q: Who are the top three prospects the Braves have traded away this past year? Which will come back to haunt the Braves the most?
A: Well if Saltalamacchia can remain at catcher, it could be him, though he was surplus to Atlanta's needs. I like Andrus the best I think.
Q: Of all the relief prospects in the Braves system -- Medlen, Fellman, Jung, Nix, Gunderson, Gearrin -- which one has the best shot at being a future major league closer?
A: I don't think any of those guys are shoo-ins as closers at all. I'd say Medlin or Gearrin but I'm not sure any of them profile really well in the role.
Q: Do either Brandon Jones or Brent Lillibridge have a chance to be the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year?
A: Outside shots if they get to play enough. I like both of them considerably but both should be more solid players than superstars, though I do think that Lilllibridge still hasn't fully tapped into his potential. His athleticism is very impressive and if he can add just a bit more refinement, he will be really good.
Q: If you had to fill out the Braves major league pitching rotation, who would you choose, Jo-Jo Reyes or Jair Jurrjens, and why?
A: Well I think Reyes is better than he showed in the majors last year, and I also think that Jurrjens needs more time in Triple-A. Both project as mid-rotation starters. If it was up to me, I'd probably give the slot to Reyes and put Jurrjens in Triple-A to begin the year. If Reyes is struggling in June and Jurrjens is pitching well, then give Jair a chance.
Q: What is the biggest strength of the Braves minor league system? The biggest weakness?
A: Well these things tend to be cyclical, but the Braves have shown a clear ability to ride the cycle of talent effectively and recharge quickly after they trade prospects or have some graduate to the majors. I'd say that is their best strength, the ability to keep the talent flowing from various sources. They also seem to do a good job of knowing which prospects to trade when their value is highest (Andy Marte anyone?) and which ones to hold on to.