For this, the third installment of our series of Q&A's with prospect gurus, we present Bill Ballew of Baseball America. This is the first year I've talked with Bill, but he was very gracious with his time and supplied us with some excellent answers to my questions. I especially like his responses to the questions about Teheran and Pope.
Some but not all of these questions are directly related to the work he did in ranking the Braves system over at Baseball America. There you will see his choices for the top-10 prospects in the Braves organization as well as a list of players with the best individual tools and a projected lineup for the 2011 Braves. If you are a subscriber you can also see his write-ups about each of the top-10 prospects. I just received my copy of the 2008 Baseball America Prospect Handbook in the mail yesterday, and while I haven't cracked the cover yet, I am excited to jump right into it when I get home tonight. I believe there are reviews of the top-30 prospects in the Braves system in the book -- should be some good reading.
Q: For you, why does Jordan Schafer rank higher than Jason Heyward? After all, Schafer wasn't on anyone's list last year. Is Heyward the Braves best draft pick since Chipper Jones was drafted?
A: Experience. Heyward has yet to experience the grind of playing for pay every day, while Schafer discovered in the past 18 months what the job entails. Both have a chance to be great players. Schafer's defense is on par with that of Andruw Jones, and he showed last year that he has the ability to put the bat on the ball and drive it in the gaps. Heyward is a man among boys, but his game needs some polish. I feel that Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann are the best draft picks since Chipper, but Heyward has a chance to be in that same category. And I had Schafer ranked at number 30 prior to the 2007 season.
Q: Do you think Gorkys Hernandez has a chance to pass Jordan Schafer on the centerfield depth chart if he makes great strides in 2008?
A: He has a chance, but I don't see it happening. Hernandez is much rawer than Schafer and does not have the defensive instincts for the game that Schafer does. His ability to drive the ball also has yet to rear its head, although that should come with continued physical maturity. Hernandez has a bright future, but other than his ability to steal bases with more consistency, he does not hold an advantage over Schafer in any part of the game at this point in their young careers.
Q: Julio Teheran hasn't pitched one inning of professional baseball, yet he's in your top-10 and you rate him as having the best fastball in the Braves organization, is this too much praise too early? Is Teheran a better prospect than Netfali Feliz? If Teheran were exposed to the amateur draft, in what round would he have been drafted? If it were the first round, where in the first round would he go?
A: Prior to his performance during instructional league, Teheran would have likely gone either late in the first round or as a sandwich pick during the draft. Following his showing in September and October, he would be in the top 10. His feel for pitching is remarkable for such a young pitcher, and his quality of pitches is rarely seen at any age. Taking nothing away from Feliz, but, yes, he is a better prospect than Netfali. Yet what impresses so many people about Teheran is his makeup. He is extremely mature for his age and wants to get better. For a young man who is still a year away from celebrating his 18th birthday, Teheran shows every indication of being the total package.
Q: You rate Van Pope as the best defensive infielder with the best infield arm in the Braves system. Does he have the ability to bounce back from his poor offensive year last season and be a major league caliber hitter?
A: He might, but his status fell considerably after his poor season last year at Mississippi. Playing in front of the hometown faithful proved to be a difficult thing for Pope. He got off to a horrid start, but to his credit his defense did not suffer. His arm strength and glovework are unquestioned, and scouts continue to believe he possesses budding power. But the question remains whether or not he will hit with enough consistency. Based on what we've seen thus far, he is beginning to look like a shorter version of Mike Hessman.
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: Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Elvis Andrus are easily the two best players the Braves traded in the past 12 months. Salty is a switch-hitting power producer who has developed into a solid defensive catcher. Unlike Mike Piazza, he also has the ability to play first base if the Rangers find a better option behind the plate. Andrus hit somewhat of a roadblock with the Braves at Myrtle Beach last year, but he appears to have worked through those difficulties. Considering that he is still a teenager and a multi-tooled shortstop, he is another player who figures in the Rangers' long-term plans. My third choice would be Netfali Feliz, although he is not as sure a thing as the first two. Still, the Rangers received a mother lode of talent from Atlanta, which makes the Braves' re-signing of Mark Teixeira even more critical.
Q: Who will be better long term and why, Cole Rohrbough, Jeff Locke, or Tommy Hanson? Do any of them have a chance to be a major league ace?
A: I like all three of them in the order they are listed. Rohrbough looked special during his first half-season in the professional ranks. He in some ways overshadowed the performance of Locke last year at Danville. Both of those young pitchers have an advanced feel for what they are trying to accomplish on the hill to go with a solid repertoire early in their careers. Much like Rohrbough and Locke, Hanson has great makeup and an incredible competitive streak. What separates him is the lack of a dominating pitch or two, although he does have a solid four-pitch repertoire that is getting better. With the presence of these three pitchers, the Braves were able to trade some other prospects.
Q: Your 2011 projected lineup has Mark Teixeira at first base. What makes you confident that the Braves will be able to resign him? What then becomes of Kala Kaaiue, Cody Johnson, or Freddie Freeman?
A: Given the talent the Braves surrendered to acquire Teixeira makes it that much more imperative that the team re-signs him. Teixeira attended Georgia Tech, and even though he is a Scott Boras client, the Braves must have known something to feel confident about acquiring him for such a huge package of prospects. As far as the prospects are concerned, Ka'aihue has impressive power, but has yet to display the consistency at the plate to give any indication that he is a sure thing. As strong as he looked in the Carolina League, he appeared to be just as bad in the Southern League. He should bounce back with a return to Mississippi in 2008, but no one is comparing KK to Teixeira at this point. Cody Johnson is a left fielder, having dispatched his first baseman's mitt for good last year. And Freddie Freeman has only a half-season of professional baseball under his belt. As a high school kid, he's at least three-to-four years away from the big leagues, which means the re-signing of Teixeira could have little or no effect on his long-term potential with Atlanta.
Q: Do either Brandon Jones or Brent Lillibridge have a chance to be the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year? Which one will be the best major leaguer in 2008?
A: I would not consider either one a strong candidate for ROY honors. With Bobby Cox as the Braves' skipper, Jones is likely to see most of his activity in the major leagues in a platoon capacity with Matt Diaz. Jones has some rough spots he still needs to iron out and it would not surprise me if he returned to Richmond to open the campaign. The same holds true with Lillibridge. In order to make the major league club as a starter, he needs a major injury to either Yunel Escobar or Kelly Johnson, and even though the Braves might go in a different direction. Lillibridge's best chance to open the 2008 season in Atlanta will be as a utility man, but Atlanta officials probably would rather see him continue his development as an everyday player in Richmond.
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: At this point I would go with Jurrjens, simply because he had more success last year during his first taste of the big leagues than did Reyes. The Braves are high on the potential of both pitchers. Reyes struggled with his command last year by trying to be too fine around the strike zone. The lefthander has moved very rapidly over the past two years and likely needs another few months against veteran hitters in the International League before making the full-time jump to the Atlanta rotation. Jurrjens also could use a stint at Richmond and is likely to receive that opportunity if the health of the Atlanta pitching rotation holds up throughout spring training.
Q: What is the biggest strength of the Braves minor league system? The biggest weakness?
A: The strength of the Atlanta farm system is the pitching depth at the lower levels. The Class A Rome rotation has the potential to be absolutely awesome this year, and it's likely that Danville will once again be the class of the Appalachian League in terms of high-ceiling moundsmen. The primary weakness would be the corner infield positions. First baseman Kala Ka'aihue and third sackers Eric Campbell and Van Pope had many difficulties at times last year. That problem could be rectified with their rebounding and/or the continued emergence of Jon Gilmore and Freddie Freeman. The potential of power hitters after Gilmore, Freeman, Cody Johnson and Jason Heyward is also a little weak, although that foursome are expected to make things interesting over the long haul.