The Braves have a long history of developing dominant Major League pitching and that trend seems to be continuing with the emergence of Tommy Hanson with Atlanta this season and with the near limitless potential of their top right handed starting pitching prospects. The top half of the list contains a pair of foreign born live arms, one of whom could become a future ace, a former second round draft pick whose stuff and body is as projectable as any pitcher to come through the system since Kevin Millwood, and a pair of more polished, durable college players who eat innings like candy.
1. Julio Teheran B/T: R/R Born: 1/27/1991 Ht: 6'2" Wt: 150
When he was signed out of Columbia as a 16 year old in 2007, Teheran was considered the top international talent available and was a major coup for Atlanta's scouting department. But, his status as a top prospect was quickly revoked by many as he battled both tendonitis and a sore shoulder as well as severely dented confidence in his professional debut, pitching just 15 innings for Danville in 2008, with a record of 1-2, an ERA of 6.60 and a WHIP of 1.46. But, those who continued to believe in him despite his struggles were rewarded for that faith in 2009, as he returned to Danville and pitched masterfully, with a 2-1 record, 2.68 ERA, and 0.98 WHIP in 43.2 innings covering 7 starts. He was rewarded for his efforts with a promotion to Rome at the beginning of August, where he pitched well, especially considering his youth, in another 7 starts, with a 1-3 record, 4.78 ERA, and 1.40 WHIP in 37.2 innings.
The jump to Rome was obviously an adjustment for him, as he saw a sizable increase in all of his numbers, including allowing more hits (10 per 9 innings compared to 7.4 for Danville), walked more (2.6 per 9 innings compared to 1.4 for Danville), and struck out less (6.7 per 9 innings compared to 8.0 with Danville). But, while his final start was poor, he was making adjustments, pitching 17.1 innings in the three starts before that while only allowing 4 runs and striking out 14 while walking 8.
While Teheran does have electric stuff, combining a fastball that tops out at 97 mph, but which is much more effective when he works it in the 94 to 95 range, with a devastating curveball that rolls in at 83 mph and a slurvey slider that could become his best pitch with more work, his mental makeup is his most impressive asset. Ironically though, his overconfidence was a part of his problem in 2008 when he had a difficult time dealing with the fact that the professional hitters in America weren't instantly intimidated by him like the amateurs in Columbia had been. Once he realized that he might not always be the best player on the field, and that he might not always have his best stuff, he was able to enter 2009 with a newfound willingness to be a pitcher instead of a thrower, and that cerebral outlook on the game, combined with his stuff, makes him likely to reach his ceiling as a Major League ace. It's also shown in his stats, as his strikeouts dropped from last season to this one but his effectiveness improved dramatically, a clear indication that he was pitching more to contact and allowing his defense to perform behind him.
Teheran will begin 2010 back at Rome as a 19 year old and the Braves are confident enough with his ability and makeup that they will have no problem moving him quickly if he succeeds. Don't be surprised to see him join Myrtle Beach's rotation sometime around the middle of the season, with AA and perhaps the Major Leagues both possibilities in 2011.
2. Zeke Spruill B/T: S/R Born: 9/11/1989 Ht: 6'4" Wt: 184
After being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, Spruill was very successful in his debut for the Orlando Braves in the GCL, with 7 wins and no losses, a 2.93 ERA, and a 1.25 WHIP in 40 innings. He continued his success this season with Rome, winning his first 6 decisions, before finishing the season with a team leading 8 wins to go with 6 losses, a team leading 3.03 ERA, and a 1.24 WHIP in 116 innings covering 20 games (19 starts). But the season wasn't a total success for him, as he found himself demoted back to the GCL team for the majority of August as punishment for some minor disiplinary problems. He used his time at the lower level to focus on his secondary pitches, specifically his changeup, and it showed in his numbers, as he collected a 1-0 record, 4.58 ERA, and a 1.47 WHIP in 19.2 innings.
While this demotion does spark some concern, it really isn't a major issue and isn't something that should be held against Spruill. While he doesn't have quite as good stuff as Teheran does, pairing a low 90s fastball with late movement with a biting curveball and a developing slider and changeup, he is similar in that he's smart enough at a young age to pitch to contact and allow his defense to make plays for him. He has the perfect body for a pitcher, and is very comparable to Kevin Millwood at the same age, making it plausible that he could gain velocity and stamina as he moves up the ladder.
Spruill proved capable of handling the Sally Leauge, so in 2010 he'll move up to Myrtle Beach to attempt to corral the Carolina League as a 20 year old. He's still incredibly young and has a long way to go in his development, but, provided the Braves can fine tune his pitching and keep his maturation on course, he seems verly likely to reach his ceiling as a number 2 or 3 starter in a Major League rotation.
3. Randall Delgado B/T: R/R Born: 2/9/1990 Ht: 6'3" Wt: 165
Delgado's overall numbers, a 5-10 record, 4.35 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 124 innings covering 25 starts, don't look that impressive, but given the context of his youth, playing the season as a 19 year old, and his improvement over the course of the year, with a 4-4 record and 3.96 ERA in 72.2 innings after the All-Star break, it was a very successful year. He was even better toward the end of the year, with a 2-1 record, a 3.47 ERA, and 33 strikeouts in 23.1 inning in August, follwed with a 1-1 record, 2.31 ERA, and 12 strikeouts in 11.2 September innings. One thing he was consistently able to do was to strike people out, racking up 141 strikeouts on the season, good for 10.2 per 9 innings.
While most pitchers struggle down the stretch in the second half of their first full season, Delgado flourished, indicating the high level of maturity and determination that has been prominent since the Braves first signed him out of Panama in 2006. His fastball tops out at 94, but works better when he backs it off a few miles per hour, and he pairs it with a changeup and curveball, both of which he's dramatically improved in his time with the organization. He has a tall, lean body, which is still filling out, that allows him great leverage on his pitches, which are further enhanced by a deceptive delivery.
A promotion to Myrtle Beach as a 20 year old in 2010 is in line for Delgado, where he'll join a bevvy of talented young pitchers. His stuff and makeup is as good as any pitcher in the system, and while he could find himself developing into a front of the rotation starter, it's just as plausible, given his mentality and strikeout ability, that he could develop into a shutdown closer.
4. JJ Hoover B/T: R/R Born: 8/13/1987 Ht: 6'3" Wt: 215
After signing at the dealine in 2008 after being drafted in the 10th round, Hoover pitched just 4.2 innings for Danville last season, but he had a great full season debut this year, going 7-6 with a 3.35 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 134.1 innings covering 25 games (18 starts) for Rome. He also made an emergency start for Myrtle Beach, getting roughed up and allowing 3 runs while walking 5 in just 3 innings. But, that one outing does nothing to mar his season, as he led Rome in innings pitched, strikeouts, 148 (good for 9.9 per 9 innings) and strikeouts per walk, 5.92. He was also very successful at keeping down his walks, with just 25 on the season, good for only 1.7 per nine innings.
Hoover has a strong, thick body that makes him a durable workhorse and he combines that with a sinking low 90s fastball, a looping curve that is becoming more effective as he tightens it up, a good changeup, and a hard slider. He's an advanced pitcher with a good handle on what he wants to accomplish on the mound. At worst, he'll develop into a middle of the rotation innings eater, but his stuff and durability would play well out of the bullpen, so there's a chance he could become a Peter Moylan like bullpen workhorse, capable of coming out and shutting down a team on any given night.
He'll enter 2010 as a 23 year old, which makes him older than the typical top prospects at the lower levels, but that age, combined with his unquestionable success from 2009 and the glut of young arms looking to work in the Myrtle Beach rotation next season make it possible that a strong Spring Training could catapult him to AA Mississippi in 2010.
5. Jacob Thompson B/T: R/R Born: 11/19/1986 Ht: 6'6" Wt: 215
At one point in his college career at the University of Virginia, Thompson was viewed as a possible first round talent, so the Braves feel like they got him as a steal by selecting him in the fifth round in 2008. He pitched just 9.2 innings last year, including 4.2 for his hometown Danville Braves, but proved to be a workhorse this season, as he pitched 154.2 innings in 27 games (25 starts) between Rome and Myrtle Beach, with a 7-9 record overall and a 1.40 WHIP. Oddly enough, he was better at the higher level, posting a 5-4 record, 3.57 ERA, and 1.43 WHIP in 90.2 innings with Myrtle Beach compared to a 2-5 record, 5.20 ERA, and 1.37 WHIP in 64 innings with Rome. While he did walk more batters for the Pelicans, 4.2 per 9 innings compared to 2 per 9 innings for Rome, he also managed to strikeout more batters, 7.7 per 9 innings with Myrtle Beach compared to just 5.8 per 9 with Rome, and give up fewer hits, 8.7 per 9 inning with the Pelicans compared to 10.4 per 9 with the R-Braves.
Whatever issues Thompson was having at the lower level he clearly worked out during his time with the Pelicans, something that can likely be attributed to the team's pitching coach, Altanta's resident Minor League pitching guru, Guy Hansen. His massive, strong frame allows him to get a ton of downward leverage toward the plate, but his lankiness and deceptive delivery also make repeating his arm action difficult. This is what he worked on with Hansen and if he can keep himself consistent, his arsenal of pitches, a low 90s fastball, a biting slider, a developing changeup, and his best pitch, a diving curveball, combined with his durability could make him a solid middle of the rotation innings eater, capable of winning a ton of games for a Major League team.
Thompson will enter 2010 as a 23 year old, so given his age and the success he showed at Myrtle Beach, there's a very good chance he could begin the season with AA Mississippi. He needs to be diligent and remain consistent while continuing to develop his already good feel for pitching. If he can do that, the Braves certainly will have a steal on their hands, and a promising young pitcher who could help them out in late 2010 or 2011.