With the fourth and final installment of our prospect list Q&A's for 2009 we turn to ESPN's Keith Law. It's always exciting to get to talk to someone from the World Wide Leader, and especially Keith, as he is one of the most respected voices at ESPN. These questions are based on the prospect rankings he released last month as well as other questions about the Braves system. Many thanks to Mr. Law for taking the time to answer these questions with such detail and enthusiasm. Enjoy.
Q: Some prospect people have Tommy Hanson listed above Jason Heyward in their top-Braves prospects. What made you choose Heyward over Hanson? Does Hanson truly have the stuff to be a number-one starter?
A: There wasn't one specific reason for putting Heyward over Hanson. I tend to prefer position players to hitters if I feel like they're otherwise pretty close in ability and ceiling. I think Heyward's game has few, if any, serious holes, whereas Hanson still needs to improve his command and control, and I worry a little bit about how good his command can be with his current delivery. (Not that he has a bad delivery, just that I've seen him have a little trouble repeating it.)
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: No, I think putting Schafer in the majors right now would be a mistake. I had Schafer over Hernandez by about 20 spots on my top 100 list, which isn't that big of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but I like Schafer's probability more than Gorkys' right now, given their track records and the way Hernandez overstrides at the plate.
Q: Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and Cody Johnson were all great power hitters this year in Rome. We know Heyward is the head of that class, but what kind of futures do you see for Freeman and Johnson? Can Johnson erase the three-true-outcomes stigma?
A: Calling Johnson a three-true-outcomes guy is kind of generous, no? He isn't much for the base on balls, and he's pretty limited defensively. I think he ends up at first base, and his bat isn't going to play there unless he makes a serious and unexpected improvement in his ability to get bat to ball.
I struggled with Freeman as much as anyone on the top 100 this year; I saw him several times before he was drafted, and he has performed much better than I would have expected for a guy who had a pretty long swing as an amateur. I want to see if he can continue to hit for power and average at the same time at higher levels before I buy into him fully as an above-average bat at first base. I think if you're an Atlanta fan, you have to be ecstatic with what he's done in pro ball, though. He hit like a first-round pick in 2008.
Q: In your 2008 pre-draft rankings, you had Brett DeVall and Zeke Spruill ranked in your top-75, but not Tyler Stovall, who the Braves drafted between the other two. Do you still view DeVall and Spruill as the two best pitchers from that draft, or have other guys like Stovall, Craig Kimbrel or David Francis jumped ahead of them?
A: I hate to pass, but it's really too soon to change my opinions about these guys. DeVall has 9.2 pro innings. Stovall has 20. When we have that little performance data, I always defer to my predraft evaluations. It is interesting that their system is so deep that none of these guys sniffed the organization's top 10 list.
Q: Is Kala Ka'aihue a late bloomer like his brother? He's got good power, but does that translate into major league potential?
A: There's a major-league role for guys like the Ka'aihues, but I don't think Atlanta is the place for them. I think you're looking at a couple of Jack Cust types, maybe even Cust-lite: Bad defensive players who have power and draw walks but don't hit for average and are 20 runners. (I hate to say "base-cloggers," which is a stupid term - I'd rather have my bases clogged than empty, thanks - but I think a 50 runner with a .400 OBP is more valuable than a 20 runner with a .400 OBP.) They're starters on bad teams, but Atlanta is likely to aim higher, both on offense and on defense.
Q: Some people don't view Jeff Locke as a high ceiling guy, but they view Julio Teheran and Cole Rohrbough as high ceiling guys. Despite their battles with injuries in 2008, shouldn't prospect lists reflect ultimate potential, and if so, shouldn't Teheran and Rohrbough be higher on the list than Locke?
A: Are you asking me or telling me? When I first got to Harvard, there was this variety show that some upperclassmen put on during freshman week, and one guy had a funny routine about "flexers" - students who would ask bogus questions that were really designed to state opinions or try to show off knowledge. They would invariably start with "Isn't it true that..." - which is kind of like your questions starting with "shouldn't..."
Obviously, the answer is "no," since I ranked Locke over Teheran and Rohrbough this year. It is incredibly naive to ignore probability when ranking prospects. Teheran missed almost all summer with a sore shoulder. His ceiling remains high, but his probability of reaching it has gone down in the last twelve months. He could blow his shoulder out entirely and never sniff the majors, or he could hurt his shoulder and come back with reduced stuff. An injury (particularly an arm injury) reduces a pitcher's probability of reaching his ceiling, and in both the cases of Teheran and Rohrbough, injuries cost the pitchers needed development time.
Incidentally, I'm not sure why Locke isn't a "high ceiling guy." His ceiling may not be as high as those of Teheran or Rohrbough, but it's not like he only projects as a 4/5.
Q: If both Wieters and Price graduate to the majors this year, does that open the door for Jason Heyward to be the top prospect in the minor leagues in 2010?
A: I had Heyward third on the list this year. If you delete Price and Wieters, I'm pretty sure that makes Heyward the top guy left. So yes, Heyward would be the favorite right now to be #1 on my list next January, although a lot can happen between now and then - Wieters jumped over a number of guys to move to #1 this season.
Q: Kris Medlen is a personal favorite of mine, and he did have a great year in 2008, but is he a major league pitcher? Do you think he'll ultimately end up in the rotation or the bullpen? Could he possibly close in the future if he winds up in the bullpen?
He's absolutely a major-leaguer, although the guy I saw in the AFL didn't line up with the great year he had in AA. He was 87-90, his slider kept backing up on him, and he couldn't keep his front shoulder closed; he threw strikes and showed an above-average changeup. He's also a little guy - I don't care so much about short, but he has a reliever's body. All signs point to the pen right now.
Q: The Braves have the seventh pick in this year's draft, the highest they've picked since 1991. The last time the Braves had a pick above 15, they picked up the you now list as the number-3 prospect, Jason Heyward. It's still months away, but who do you think the Braves should pick in the 2009 draft, or what direction do you think they should go?
A: Best player available. There's little or no excuse for drafting any other way and I can only think of one time Roy Clark didn't take that approach with his top pick (Joey Devine). Given their general bias towards high school players over college players, I wouldn't be surprised to see them pop one of the top high school arms - Tyler Matzek, Shelby Miller - or take Donovan Tate, one of the best HS bats in the draft and oh-by-the-way a Georgia kid.
Q: What is the biggest strength of the Braves minor league system? The biggest weakness?
A: Biggest strength is the pitching depth - Hanson, Locke, Teheran, Rohrbough, Delgado (well, both Delgados), DeVall, Stovall, Kimbrell, Spruill ... they're well-positioned to stock the big-league club with arms for the next five to seven years, and given what's in the draft pool this year, the odds are that they'll add another top-flight arm to the mix in June.
The obvious weakness is the lack of infield prospects, but I think there's a bigger organizational weakness: their excessive loyalty to certain players. Jeff Francoeur should have been non-tendered, and instead they're taking him to arbitration, even though he's about the worst "everyday" player in the game and seems to blame everyone but himself for his horrendous play. Tom Glavine is a damn charity case. He'd be their eighth- or ninth-best starting option if they sign him, assuming he can pick up a ball without hurting something. If I was Frank and he rejected my $1 million offer, my answer to their counteroffer with would end with "... and the horse you rode in on." Yet Atlanta is the team that can't say no to players with some sort of tie to the organization. They stood firm with San Diego in the Jake Peavy discussions; I wish they'd do the same with their own mediocre players and avoid a situation where Tommy Hanson is ready to come up in June but can't because it might hurt Lil' Tommy Glavine's feelings.
I hope you enjoyed Keith's answers as much as I did. I really loved his answer to the last question -- it's probably what a lot of Braves fans want to say but are too scared to say.