The fourth and final installment of our prospect list Q&A's for 2010 ends with Baseball America's Bill Ballew. Bill covers several teams for BA including the Braves, where he does a terrific job of keeping BA readers informed about the team's prospects during the season. Bill penned this year's Atlanta Braves top prospects for Baseball America, which was released back at the beginning of November. We had a great Q&A with Bill last year and the year before, and this year he was kind enough to once again be very detailed with his answers (hence the two-part Q&A).
Q: Give us your prediction of where Jason Heyward will start the season, and what kind of year he will have. Is Heyward ready to be an everyday major leaguer from opening day 2010?
A: He could handle the job now, but I believe the Braves will do the prudent thing and send him to Gwinnett for a few months before throwing him to the wolves. After all, Tommy Hanson's experience last year definitely topped the first-year performance of Jordan Schafer. I know there were some injury issues there, but I believe the Braves need to look at the big picture over the long haul and let him see Triple-A pitching for two or three months. Only 20, Heyward is a man-child with an incredible feel for the game. He has everything you want in an outfield prospect. On a lesser team, he would be a sure thing to open the season in the big leagues, but the Braves have the wisdom to do the right thing and bring him as the weather warms this summer.
Q: Where would you rank Arodys Vizcaino on the Braves prospect list? How does he compare to Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado, who are your 3rd and 4th ranked Braves' prospects?
A: Vizcaino would rank between Teheran and Delgado on my list at this point. I haven't seen him pitch, but from everything I've been told by some reliable scouts, front-office types and others, he has some impressive all-around ability. I've seen Teheran and Delgado, and I believe both of them have a very bright future. Teheran was pushed initially in 2008 and wasn't physically ready to pitch in the Appalachian League. He lived up to the hype last year and looks ready to start making rapid progress. The light really came on for Delgado during the last half of 2009 at Rome and I wouldn't be surprised to see him split this season between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi. Delgado may be the best of the three. Of course, with pitching, so much depends upon who stays healthy. All three will be fun to watch develop this year.
Q: You rank Zeke Spruill ahead of fellow 2008 draftees Brett DeVall and Tyler Stovall, even though both of those guys were drafted ahead of Spruill. If a prospect list is about upside, does that mean that Spruill has more upside than DeVall and Stovall, or is this a case of injury (DeVall) and a slow start in the pros (Stovall)?
A: All the above. The 2008 draft is ancient history now for those guys, and Spruill has made the better adjustments to pro ball than DeVall and Stovall. All three have flaws, and I believe all three are a notch below the previous trio of Vizcaino, Teheran and Delgado. Spruill has a great frame that will be able to add weight and strength as his body matures. He has an advanced idea of what he wants to do on the mound and should continue to climb steadily through the organization. DeVall has had issues with his forearm since he signed, and while he has been evaluated by doctors on numerous occasions, that ailment is usually a harbinger for Tommy John surgery. He pitched well briefly at Rome last year and has a nice repertoire, but his frame is not as loose and projectable as Spruill's. Stovall has had trouble repeating his mechanics, which has affected his ability to throw strikes. If he can get the kinks worked out, he should be fine. But the fact of the matter is DeVall and Stovall have not accomplished anything of note thus far, which means the 2010 season will be an important year for both of them to show what they are capable of producing.
Q: Beyond Jason Heyward, do you see any of our position player prospects being impact players in the major leagues? Will Freddie Freeman have more success than Christian Bethancourt? Will Adam Milligan have more success than Cody Johnson?
A: That's hard to say, so I'll start this way. Freddie Freeman's approach at the plate, his ability and desire to drive in runs, and his tremendous defense at first base bode well for his future at the game's top level. He is a very polished player with an ideal body for a major league first baseman and he will continue to hit for additional power as he matures. Like Heyward, he's only 20, and will not turn 21 until September. Other than Heyward, Freeman is as close to a sure thing as the Braves have had since Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones in the mid-1990s. Bethancourt has a world of ability and really took things to another level last year, but he is very young and it takes a while for young catchers to become major league players. The promise, the body and the skills are in place, but he has several hurdles to clear before he can be deemed a sure thing. After all, he hasn't even played a full season yet. Milligan is an older guy who had an outstanding season in 2009. He's an under-the-radar player with excellent power, hitting ability, aggressiveness, and improving defense. It will be interesting to see how he responds in 2010 now that he's received a little pub. I believe he'll be fine. Johnson continues to show that he's mainly a one-trick pony. He's worked very hard on his defense in left field, and I saw him make an excellent play out there in Myrtle Beach last year that he could have never made earlier in his career. I'm afraid he's .250 hitter at best, but he could produce 40+ home runs. He has some holes in his swing, but his power is as great as any player I have ever seen in the minor leagues. Klesko, Thorman, Saltalamacchia and some others have been big-time BP power guys, but Johnson makes them look like amateurs. The key for Cody is to get his batting average to the .270-.280 range consistently while avoiding big-time slumps. This year in Double-A should be a good test.
Q: Did the Braves make a mistake by not protecting Edgar Osuna over Jose Ortegano or any of the other young arms the team protected? Do you see any useful major leaguers emerging from the group that includes Todd Redmond, Jeff Lyman, Lee Hyde, Kyle Cofield, Jonny Venters, and Ortegano? Could any of these prospects be impact players?
A: Ortegano and Osuna are very similar pitchers-soft-tossing lefties who really know how to pitch. I don't think the Braves made a mistake by not protecting Osuna, and I hope he earns the fifth-starter's job with Kansas City. That said, I didn't see him ever making an impact in Atlanta. Same with Ortegano. Redmond is a bulldog who has answered every challenge thrown his way since arriving from the Pirates. He pitches to contact, but I'm not sure if his pitches move enough to retire major league hitters with consistency. I see him back at Triple-A this year, and if he has more success, the Braves should give him a look. Cofield has a great frame and a good delivery, but he needs to throw more strikes and develop his changeup into a pitch that he throws with consistency. Lyman needs a repeat of 2009 this year at Gwinnett; if he does that, he'll become more than an after-thought. He has ability, but he's not overwhelming. Venters and Hyde, provided they stay healthy, have the brightest futures of this batch as role guys in the bullpen. Both have the stuff and ability to be a potential setup man. Venters has a chance out of spring training, in my opinion, and Hyde could arrive at some point in the 2010 season.
Part-2 of the Q&A with Bill Ballew of Baseball America will be posted tomorrow morning.