First base for the Braves has been in a state of flux since the Braves traded Adam Laroche to the Pirates before 2007. From the failed experiment of Scott Thorman and Craig Wilson to a season's worth of superb time of Mark Teixeira to Casey Kotchman and now back to Adam Laroche again. The immediate future of the position in Atlanta my be cloudy but the long term plans appear to be set. The top spot for this position goes without question to Freddie Freeman the talent pool clouds a little after him, but there are still some interesting prospects here.
The first thing most people notice about Freddie is how big he is. At 6' 5" and 220 lbs, he is quit an imposing presence on the field and at the plate. For all that size he is an excellent athlete who was actually more prized by most teams as power RHP coming out of high school in California. His defense was rough when he was drafted but scouts praise his smooth actions around the bag and strong arm (thanks to the pitching) and most rate him as a plus defender. Coming into the year Baseball America ranked him as the Braves #5 prospect and in their 2009 post season awards he has been named the #4 prospect in the Carolina League and the #8 prospect in the stacked Southern League.
Scouts rave about his advanced approach at the plate and short compact swing that allows him to adjust to pitchers. He drives the ball to all fields with authority and while he has been much younger than the league at each professional stop he has yet to be overexposed. Freddie may never walk as much as a guy like Heyward or Chipper, but he is selective and strike outs have not been a problem and in fact his K/AB ratio has decreased at each level in the past two seasons. The knock on Freeman this season was that his power had not been showing up in games and some even worried that he was going to become a Mark Grace type player. These worries are mostly unfounded as he led the Rome Braves in doubles in 2008 and was second in homers which produced an ISOP of .206. This season his home run power was down but at the time of his promotion he was leading Myrtle Beach in doubles and was third in homers and then promptly suffered a wrist injury that eventually led to him being shut down for the season. Don't make the mistake, Freddie Freeman has legitimate 35 HR power in his large frame and has already shown a little of it in pro ball.
Freddie is certainly the first basemen of the future for the Braves and at this point the only that can stop that from happening is a complete collapse on his part or a trade that requires him that the front office cannot pass up. He will head to Arizona to refine his skills going into next season and will most likely appear as a top 25 prospect on most preseason prospect lists.2. Riaan "RSF" Spanjer-Furstenburg B/T: R/R Born: 02/08/1988 HT: 6'2" WT: 235
Riaan (better known as RSF to the Braves faithful) was taken by the Braves in the 14th round of the 2009 draft out Division II Nova Southeastern after starting his college career with Florida Atlantic University. He is a native of South Africa and was a provisional qualifier for their 2009 World Baseball Classic team but failed to make the final team. While in college RSF played a variety of positions across the diamond including some third and a few stints at pitcher though he profiles best as a first baseman professionally. Defensively he plays a solid 1B and should only get better as he now has the chance to focus on one position rather than moving around.
While RSF was a bit old for the Appy league the stats he did post cannot be ignored. He finished the season with a .359/.411/.543 line. A month by month look at his OPS shows an underlying story: June - 1.420; July - .958; August - .811. As the season wore on his stats declined dramatically though his rate stats improved dramatically as his K% dropped nearly 7% from June to August and his BB% more than doubled in that same span. Also his ISOP remained around .155 during July and August. Like many young players Riaan could walk more, but his strike outs do not appear to be much of a problem at the moment.
Going forward RSF needs to find a way to tap into the raw power that his big body holds and put it on display in games. His bat needs to be his calling card for him to move fast and he already has several players ahead of him that are the same age, but if he makes the proper adjustments going forward he could put himself solidly on the prospect radar. He will most certainly find himself in Rome next season.
3A. Gerardo Rodriguez B/T: R/R Born: 10/25/1987 HT: 6'1" WT: 195
There is a tie for the #3 prospect on this list and it is fitting that they are Gerardo Rodriguez and Ernesto Mejia because they are very similar players. Rodriguez is a guy who was signed by the Yankees as an international free agent in 2004 and then released by them after the 2007 season and even quickly gobbled up by the Braves. So far this looks like a good pick up for Atlanta.
Rodriguez finished the spent time between Rome and Myrtle Beach this season and actually improved a bit upon his move up. His calling card is power as he finished second in the organization in HRs with 23 on the season (behind only Cody Johnson). His ISOP for both levels was just under .220 which is pretty solid. Like most young power hitters Rodriguez suffers from high strike out rates (29.8% in MB) and low walk rates (6.2% in MB). One thing to note was how well he swung the bat on the road in the Carolina League. His ISOP was .308 (insane) with a .965 OPS while on the road but at home he put up a .702 OPS. His rates also reversed a bit with him walking a good bit more at home (9% of plate appearances). Myrtle Beach is known as a tough park to hit in and it is interesting to take note of how it can change a player's approach.
Going forward Rodriguez needs to do the things that most young power hitters need to: increase the walks, cut down on the strike outs and maintain the power while doing those things. Obviously all that is easier said than done, but at 21 years old he has some time to develop. He will most likely start next season back at Myrtle Beach and could see a midseason promotion depending upon his performance along with that of Freddie Freeman.
3B. Ernesto Mejia B/T: R/R Born: 12/02/1985 HT: 6'6" WT: 190
In 2008 Ernesto Mejia was crazy go nuts. He knocked an astounding 73 XBH which accounted for 51% of his total hits. His ISOP was a very good at .231. His negatives were that he struck out 139 times (24.6%) and walked just 28 times (5%) in 519 ABs. Also at 22 years old he wasn't exactly young for the league. Mejia injured his wrist in between seasons and didn't return to regular action until July of this year. In a short stint in Myrtle Beach he mashed the ball again but struggled a bit in a shot promotion to Mississippi.
Mejia gets great leverage with his tall, powerful body. His bat generates a lot of power but, like many tall players, he has holes in his swing that pitchers can exploit. When he does make contact he squares the ball well which leads to lots of XBH and quite a few homers. With his size the strike outs are always going to be there but to take his game to the next level he needs to be more selective and begin to take some free passes. 28 walks in over 500 AB just doesn't cut it. If he can double that number then we are looking at someone who could be a useful power bat in a couple of years.
Going into his 24 year old season Mejia doesn't have time to waste, and with Freddie Freeman ahead of him the future doesn't look good. With a couple of adjustments he could be a solid backup and pinch hitter for the major league club. He will start next season at Mississippi and will probably split 1B and DH duties with Freeman .
5. Alberto Odreman B/T: R/R Born: 03/12/1989 HT: 6'3" WT: 210
Alberto Odreman hit more 9 HRs for the GCL Braves this season which is more than anyone has hit since 1983 (when two guys hit 10). The Braves signed him as a free agent out of Venezuela in 2006 and he spent the last two seasons in the DSL. In 2008 he posted an OPS of .895 while bashing 10 homers. At 20 years old he was old for the GCL, but as yet another 1B prospect with plus power he can't be ignored.
Odreman is yet another Latin American 1B prospect with big power (seriously, do the Braves have a tree somewhere?). In 2008 he showed some ability to talk walks as he took free passes in 13.3% of his PAs. Unfortunately in 2009 he regressed a bit and saw his walk rate dip to 5.7%. For reference Jeff Francoeur has a 5% career walk rate in the majors. Odreman also struck out in 22.4% of his ABs which is yet another red flag for him. Going forward he has the same prognostication that the last two guys have.
Alberto will be 21 at the start of next season and will most likely start with Danville in the Appy league. If he performs well he could possibly move up to Rome as there could be some serious shuffling among the Braves first basemen next year. He has some obstacles to overcome with his plate discipline and the fact that he is a year younger and two levels behind Gerardo Rodriguez but his power bat remains intriguing.