We continue our series of prospect guru Q&A's with John Sickels of Minor League Ball. I've done a Q&A with John each of the last two years (2007 and 2008), and every year he has some great insight into the Braves minor league prospects. John publishes his annual Prospect Book every year, and there is still time to grab the 2009 edition if you haven't already pre-ordered it. The book is a great source for learning about the Braves prospects -- there are usually 30 to 40 players per team reviewed -- and it's a great resource to have on hand in case we acquire a prospect from another team.
This Q&A focuses on John's top-20 Braves prospects he released at the end of October, as well as other general questions about Braves prospects and the Braves minor league system.
Q: In your 2009 Braves top-20 you listed Tommy Hanson third, below Heyward and
Schafer Freeman, and in your top-50 pitchers for 2009 you listed Hanson seventh with a grade of B+. Why doesn't Hanson rate as a grade-A prospect for you? Why aren't you as high on him as some folks are?
A: Good question. For what it is worth, Hanson ends up at Number Seven on my Top 50 pitching prospects list, and is the highest-ranked Grade B+. So it's not like I don't like him....I'm quite high on him. There are only three Grade A pitching prospects, and three Grade A- pitching prospects in the book...I'm a tough grader. It boils down to the fact that his command was erratic in Double-A, and that kept him from Grade A-.
Q: You seem to like Freedie Freeman more than most, ranking him second in the Braves top-20 and ranking him 18th in your top-50 hitters. Why do you like him so much and what leads you to rank him ahead of other power hitters at the same level like Jesus Montero and Mike Stanton?
A: He performed extremely well in the Sally League at the age of 18, and he showed much improved strike zone judgment compared to what he did in rookie ball. I like the trend lines. I'm quite high on Montero, but Montero isn't as good of an athlete as Freeman is. Stanton is a better athlete than both of them, but his strikeout rate is so high that it hurts his stock in my eyes. All three are premium prospects, but I think Freeman is actually a bit overlooked. Braves prospects are often over-hyped nationally, but Freeman seems under-hyped to me.
Q: The 2008 draft for the Braves gave them so many young talented pitchers. Is this the best draft for pitching that the Braves have ever had? How do the likes of DeVall, Stovall, Spruill, and Thompson, compare to the 2006 draft of Rasmus, Evarts, Locke, and Rodgers?
A: Well, I don't know if it is the "best" or not...we can't tell that until we see the results. Tthe attrition rate on young pitchers is so high that it takes at least five years until you know for sure. In terms of scouting reports at the same stage of development, I think the '08 class is stronger than the '06 class, but that doesn't mean much yet. The experience of the Four Aces in Oakland and the Mets' Generation K should be instructive....if you have four strong pitching prospects, you're lucky to get one good pitcher out of them.
Q: One of the young pitchers in the Braves system that others are very high on is Julio Teheran, yet he doesn't make your top-20, why? How does Teheran compare to Randall Delgado?
A: Teheran is a big signing bonus, scouting reports, a nice birthday, and propaganda at this point. I want to see some results. Delgado has more of a track record to look at and has a lot of potential himself. Teheran's potential is certainly excellent, but I am a skeptic by nature, especially when it comes to 17 year old pitchers, and I want to see more results before buying in completely.
Q: Who is better and why, Joey Devine or Craig Kimbrel?
A: Any direct comparison is invalid since Devine has shown he can pitch at the major league level and Kimbrell is in A-ball. I would say that Kimbrel has the potential to pitch as well as Devine did last year.
Q: You gave the "sleeper" title to several guys from last year's draft, J.J. Hoover and David Francis. How do they compare to other guys from last year's draft like Richard Sullivan, who made it to Rome, or Jacob Thompson, who was very highly thought of a year ago?
A: Hoover and Francis have better stuff and projectability than Sullivan and Thompson, and none of them have huge track records yet. I like all four of them, but Hoover and Francis stand out to me as having better potential.
Q: Does Jordan Schafer have what it takes to be an everyday player in the major leagues right now? Who do you think will ultimately be a more valuable center fielder, Schafer or Gorkys Hernandez?
A: I think Schafer is better. He should produce more pop than Hernandez. Is Schafer ready now? I think I'd rather have him get in a good year of Triple-A. Although some people discount the importance of Triple-A, I think most players need exposure at that level. In Double-A you often see pitchers with better pure stuff than you do in Triple-A, but Triple-A pitchers are more polished and change speeds better, and I think it is good for most prospects to get at least a half-season of Triple-A under their belt, to be exposed to different styles of play and competition. Schafer had some adjustment issues in the first half last year, and pushing him into the majors too soon seems like a bad idea to me. I have no idea what the Braves will do, but I think rushing him would be risky.
Q: Is there any hope that Charlie Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes can bounce back and be productive major leaguers? Is their future still in the rotation?
A: Morton got an awful lot of hype last spring, but his actual track record is quite spotty and it is no surprise he struggled overall. Reyes hasn't been able to replicate his minor league success, but is young enough to deserve another chance. I'd be willing to give both of them another shot in the rotation, but it would not surprise me at all to see them end up in the pen come 2010.
Q: What is the biggest strength of the Braves minor league system? The biggest weakness?
A: They have a large amount of pitching at the lower levels, which is good given the inevitable injuries young pitchers experience. They have two potential star regulars in Heyward and Freeman, and Schafer should be a solid regular. They need more depth in position players, and could use some bats up the middle. They have a proven track record of being able to recharge quickly. They are active in Latin America, remain aggressive in the draft, and are starting to mine the junior colleges (an under-appreciated resource) effectively. Overall it remains a strong system and Braves fans have every reason to be optimistic in the long run. Hanson and Schafer will get there first.
Many thanks to John for agreeing to this 10 question e-mail interview. I thoroughly enjoyed his answers as I hope you did, especially the way he puts some reality checks into his answers. I like and appreciate the unbiased view of our system.