Braves Top-10 Minor League Relief Pitchers (1-5)

CB touched on its yesterday, in that most successful relievers in the MLB were drafted as starters, but the Braves have been drafting relievers with that intention in mind recently and it has left them with some very interesting arms in the bullpen that could be ready to fill holes in just a year or two.

1. Craig Kimbrel B/T: R/R Born:  05/28/1988 Ht: 5'11" Wt: 205
Craig Kimbrel was another multiple attempt draftee of the Braves. They took him in the 33rd Rd in 2007 but failed to sign him. They again drafted him in 2008, this time in the 3rd Rd. and signed him for $391,000. He made his debut after signing and splitting time between Danville, Rome and Myrtle Beach. In 35 IP he struck out 53 batters and allowed only 1 ER while walking 15. Pretty sweet. In 2009 he split 49 games between every full season level posting a final line of 60 IP, 2.85 ERA, 30 H, 45 BB and 103 K.

The positives and negatives of Craig Kimbrel's games are pretty well documented. He led the entire minor leagues with 15.5 K per 9 innings. He also walked 6.8 per 9 innings. One of those numbers is really excited, the other is really frightening. Kimbrel's fastball sits in 93-95 MPH range and can touch 98 when he gets behind it. On top of his fastball being fast it also has plus movement, which contributes to some of the walks. He throws a plus slider which has improved markedly from the slurvy pitch he brought to the pro ranks, and mixes in a changeup from time to time though he rarely needed it this season.

Kimbrel has the stuff to be a top flight closer in the majors. He has allowed only 46 hits in 95 professional innings, given up only 2 HRs and struck out a mind bottling 159 batters. The big negative of course is the walks: 60 BB in those 95 innings is a bit on the high side. He was pretty terrible in Myrtle Beach at the beginning of the season but regained his control in Rome only to see his walks spike again in AA and the AFL. He has managed to remain an extremely effective pitcher despite the walks but that probably won't last against advanced competition. Expect him to start in AAA with a callup at some point in the year barring disastrous results in Gwinnett.

2. Cory Gearrin B/T: R/R Born: 04/04/1986 Ht: 6'3" Wt: 200
The Braves drafted Gearrin in the 4th Rd of the 2007 draft and awarded him with a $186,750 bonus. He was a veritable unknown in college until he pitched his was into the Cape Cod league and onto the prospect radar (Baseball America ranked him at the 29th prospect in the Cap Cod in 2006). He split time between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi this season appearing in 47 games while posting a 2.30 ERA, 41 H, 11 BB and 52K in 54.2 IP.

Gearrin throws a low 90s fastball from a sidearm angle that creates a lot of movement and deception. He keeps it down in the zone creating a lot of groundballs (more than 60% in Myrtle Beach this season). Baseball America rated his slider as the best in the organization and its a true strikeout pitch. His control was an issue in 2008 where he walked around 14% of the batters he faced between two levels. In his prospect book, John Sickels remarked that if he could get his walks under control he would find success quickly. In 2009 he improved to walking about 5% of the batters he faced and could be on the fast track to Atlanta.

Cory Gearrin has a chance to be our next Peter Moylan. His stuff profiles similarly though he delivers from a slightly higher arm slot than Peter. If his walks stay down and he learns to manage LH hitters a little better (add a changeup maybe?) he has a good shot at reaching his ceiling. He could begin 2010 at either AA or AAA depending on organizational needs and could see the majors as soon as next season.

3. David Hale B/T: R/R Born: 09/27/1987 Ht: 6'2" Wt: 200
A lot of people scratched their head this year when the Braves took David Hale with their second overall pick (3rd Rd.). out of Princeton. He is a guy with a lot of talent that just never really put it all together in college, possibly because his focus was split between hitting and pitching. He debuted this season in Danville pitching 16 innings to go along with a 1.13 ERA, 12 K, 5 BB and 7 H.

At 6'2" 200 LBs Hale has the ideal pitchers frame and he generates good velocity with a quick follow through and solid mechanics. His fastball sits at 92-93 and can reach as high as 97, though scouts do say that it is flat and lacks deception. He also throws a slider that oscillates between being loopy and a plus pitch. He also throws a changeup occasionally but it is still developing.

I liken David Hale to Bobby Parnell of the Mets. Bobby wasn't great in college (I would know, I went to college with him) but the Mets saw something they liked and took him and now they view him as an integral part of their future plans. Hale has similar stuff to Parnell and I think the Braves are taking the same approach to him. He is finally getting a chance to focus on pitching full time and I guarantee the Braves pitching staff will be working with him on his secondary stuff in the off-season. There isn't really a consensus one what the Braves will do with him yet. If he shows some competency with a changeup they could give him a run as a starter though most believe he will be brought up as a reliever. Look for him in Rome in 2010 with a chance for Myrtle Beach if all goes well.

4. Benino Pruneda B/T: R/R Born: 08/08/1988 Ht: 5'9" Wt: 170
The Braves drafted Benino Pruneda in the 31st Rd of the 2007 draft out of San Jacinto JC and signed him with a $200,000 bonus. He pitched most of this year with Myrtle Beach and was knocked around a bit more than 2008 when he was fairly dominant for Rome. He was a good bit hit unlucky as he somehow was rung to the tune of a .395 BAbip. He ended the season with a 5.47 ERA (3.96 FIP), 54H, 33 BB and 64 K in 51 IP.

Pruneda is notable for the simple fact that he is just 5'9" and generates a 95 MPH fastball. Not only does his fastball go very fast, but it is also very heavy as he consistently produces excellent groundball ratios at every stop (never lower than 52% since becoming a pro). In 2008 his control was solid to go along with excellent K rates, but in 2009 his control degraded a little bit though his K rate was still strong at 10.7 per 9 innings.  Scouts worry about his size and how hard  he throws though he hasn't given any injury indications thus far and the continued high K rates are a good future indicator.

2009 wasn't as bad it appears for Benino Pruneda and he should be ok going forward. He just needs to get his walks down a tad and maybe get a better defense behind him when he moves to AA. If the component ratios remain strong we could see him in Atlanta in 2011. He could start next season back in Myrtle Beach or in Mississippi.

5. Jeff Lyman B/T: R/R Born: 01/14/1987 Ht: 6'3" Wt: 225
It seems like Jeff Lyman has been around forever. He was taken in the 2nd Rd (the Braves' 4th pick) of the 2005 draft along with guys such as Yunel Escobar, Jordan Schafer and Joey Devine. With all of those guys running around in the majors (and a couple have been there for a while) a guy like Lyman has kind of fallen by the wayside. He has diligently climbed up the minor league ladder however, and at just 22 years old he has thrust himself squarely into the Braves bullpen plans (he was added to the 40 man roster yesterday). Lyman spent most of 2009  pitching out of the bullpen for Mississippi with a few starts mixed in for good measure. He pitched well posting a 3.12 ERA in 86.2 innings there while striking out 76 and walking 46. In a brief promotion to AAA at the end of the season he did walk 10 in 11 innings.

Lyman is a big dude with a big fastball. He can routinely get the ball into the mid 90s and alternates between a two seam and 4 seam grip depending on how much run he wants to create He also throws a solid curve to go along with a splitfinger that he uses in changeup counts. He has started and relieved in his career but he has found more success as a reliever though his body is built to eat innings. His control has been an issue since he was drafted as he routinely walks more than 11% of the batters he faces though he has gotten better at limiting hits and getting strike outs in recent seasons.

The Braves obviously have a plan for Lyman though I'm not sure what. He would be a good power arm out of the bullpen in the coming years though he could also fill in as a swingman if needed (though Medlen already occupies this role). He probably won't start much anymore after this past season and begin a full conversion to the bullpen. Expect him to start 2010 in AAA with a chance to see Atlanta by year's end now that he is on the roster.

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