The Braves not only have the best closer in the game in Craig Kimbrel, but they have two of the best setup men in the game in Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters. Still, you can never have enough relievers, and while many Major League relievers are converted starters, there's a growing trend in the game of drafting college relievers and developing them as relievers. The Braves have taken part in this trend as much as anyone, as 2 of their top 5 relief prospects were college relievers, but the top 5 also includes a high school draftee with his third organization, a pitcher who missed two years recovering from Tommy John Surgery, and a converted outfielder.
1. Juan Jaime: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'1", Wt: 230, DOB: 8-2-87
Originally signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Nationals in 2005, Jaime's career was taking off after a 2009 season that saw him go 5-2 with a 2.10 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, 5 BB/9, and 2.5 K/BB in 55.2 innings over 14 games, 12 starts, between Short A Vermont and Low A Hagerstown and ended with him being added to the Nats 40 man roster. Unfortunately, he would undergo Tommy John surgery the following Spring, and would throw a single pitch in all of 2010 or 2011. The Nationals designated him for assignment in 2011 and the Diamondbacks claimed him, but after a few months they also designated him for assignment and he became a Minor League free agent. The Braves signed him in August of 2011, knowing he wouldn't be able to pitch until this season, and they were rewarded with their patience as he turned in a fine year with High A Lynchhburg, going 3-1 with a 3.16 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, 12.8 K/9, 5.8 BB/9, and 2.2 K/BB in 51.1 innings over 42 games, collecting 18 saves, the second highest total in the league. After the season, the Braves added Jaime to their 40 man roster to prevent him from becoming a Minor League free agent.
Jaime's best pitch is his electric fastball, which regularly tops 100. He controls it better when he throws it from 95-97, but like any pitcher who can hit 103, he likes to light up the radar gun sometimes. He compliments the fastball with a solid slider that dives in the low 80s, which makes for a startling difference in speed. Unfortunately, his favorite pitch is his curveball, which is by far his weakest pitch. He has a tendency to hang it, and nearly every time he struggled this year it was due to the curve. Teammates questioned Jaime's approach, arguing, rightly so, that abandoning the curveball and blowing hitters away with the fastball while peppering in the occasional slider would be a much better plan of attack. No matter what pitches he utilizes, he's going to have to work on his control. His fastball was effectively wild this year, but no reliever is going to be successful if he's walking more than 5 batters per 9 innings. The Braves have been able to reign in wild flamethrowers before, with Craig Kimbrel serving as the best example, so they believe they can do the same with Jaime.
Jaime will head to AA Mississippi as a 25 year old to start 2013, and the most important thing for him will be to have another injury free campaign. He missed a few weeks here and there for the Hillcats, but it was for the kind of arm soreness you'd expect a pitcher to have after missing 2 seasons. If he can improve his control and continue to dominate with his fastball, Jaime could find himself pitching for Atlanta by the end of the season.
2. John Cornely: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'1", Wt: 195, DOB: 5-17-89
The Braves drafted Cornely in the 15th round in 2011 out of Wofford College and he turned in a nice debut with Rookie level Danville, going 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, 13.6 K/9, 5.2 BB/9, and 2.6 K/BB in 33 innings over 15 appearances. He moved up to Low A Rome in 2012 and turned in a decent season, going 1-3 with a 3.51 ERA, a 1.60 WHIP, 14.2 K/9, 6.3 BB/9, and 2.3 K/BB in 51.1 innings over 39 appearances, collecting 7 saves. He earned a late season promotion to High A Lynchburg where he allowed 1 hit, 2 walks, and struck out 13 in 7.1 scoreless innings over 4 appearances, collecting 1 save and was the winning pitcher in the game that clinched the league championship for Carolina, tossing 3 scoreless innings.
Cornely's best pitch is his fastball, which sits between 94 and 96 with live movement, and he compliments it with a solid sweeping slider that sits in the low 80s and a developing 12-6 curveball that sits in the mid 80s. He comes right over the top with his delivery which allows him to get on top of the ball and get the most cut on his pitches. It should also allow him to have great control, but that hasn't shown up as a professional, as he's walked 5.6 batters per 9 innings for his career. He's going to have to improve on his control if he's going to have success at the higher levels, and it was a good sign that he pitched so well for Lynchburg at the end of the year. Most players struggle and get tired by the end of their first full season, but Cornely seemed to find an extra gear and pitched the best games of his short career.
He's likely to start 2013 back at Lynchburg as a 23 year old, but with a great Spring Training, Cornely has a chance to start the year with AA Mississippi. Either way, he'll likely end up in AA by the end of the year, and if he can continue to be a dominant strikeout pitcher and improve his control, he could find himself pitching for Atlanta some time in 2014.
3. Wilson Rivera: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'1", Wt: 195, DOB: 10-30-89
Originally signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 16 year old by the Braves, Rivera spent 3 seasons in the Dominican Summer League and 1 season in the Gulf Coast League as an outfielder, combining to hit .238 with a .673 OPS, 24 doubles, 7 triples, 4 homers, 46 RBI, and 20 steals in 604 career plate appearances. He converted to pitching in 2011 and had a great season for Rookie level Danville, going 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA, a 1.33 WHIP, 13.2 K/9, 7.2 BB/9, and 1.8 K/BB in 30 innings over 17 appearances. He moved up to Low A Rome this year and had another solid season, going 2-0 with a 2.88 ERA, a 1.46 WHIP, 11.2 K/9, 5.9 BB/9, and 1.9 K/BB in 56.1 innings over 36 appearances.
Rivera was moved to the mound because of his arm strength, and he's shown that off with a fastball that can hit the high 90s. He controls the fastball better when it sits between 94 and 96, but he is still raw as a pitcher and control is a huge issue for him. The Braves have taught him how to throw a curveball, utilizing a motion that is identical to throwing a fastball aside from a pulling motion at the end of the delivery. It's the easiest pitch to learn, and while it's not a plus pitch for him yet, it is developing. The Braves like the way Rivera has taken to pitching, and are planning on adding a slider to his repertoire also. Hopefully, as he becomes more comfortable on the mound, he'll get a better feel for pitching, which will lead to improved control. He's done well so far despite basically utilizing just a wild plus fastball, so if he can add control to the mix, he'll be a dynamite weapon out of the bullpen.
Rivera will move up to High A Lynchburg as a 23 year old in 2013, where his lack of control likely won't be exploited as badly as it would be at higher levels. Being able to get by with some mistakes, as he has for the past few years, will allow him to gain confidence and experience as he learns how to be a pitcher. Since they've already gotten more out of Rivera as a pitcher than they ever would have gotten out of him as a hitter, the Braves will have no problem allowing him to develop at his own pace.
4. Ryan Buchter: B: L, T: L, Ht: 6'4", Wt: 230, DOB: 2-13-87
Like Juan Jaime, Buchter originally began his career in the Nationals organization. The Nats drafted him out of high school in the 33rd round in 2005, and he spent 4 seasons in their organization, making it up to Low A Hagerstown, before he was traded to the Cubs prior to the 2009 season for Matt Avery. Avery would pitch just 1 season of AA for the Nationals before his career ended, but Buchter would pitch 2 plus seasons in the Cubs organization before being traded to the Braves for Rodrigo Lopez in late May of 2011. Buchter finished out 2011 with High A Lynchburg, going 2-5 with a 3.59 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, and 2.2 K/BB in 42.2 innings over 34 games, collecting 15 saves. He moved up to AA Mississippi in 2012, going 3-1 wit a 1.31 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, 10.9 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, and 2.6 K/BB in 41.1 innings over 35 appearances, collecting 4 saves. He struggled after a late season promotion to AAA Gwinnett, going 0-2 with a 10.12 ERA, a 3.38 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, and 19.1 BB/9 in 8 innings over 9 appearances.
Buchter will have a career in baseball as long as he wants one, not just because he's left handed, but also because he's a lefty with a fastball that sits between 93 and 96. He also has a plus cutter that sits in the mid 80s, but his curveball needs improvement if he's going to become a successful Major Leaguer. Control remains a problem for him as well, and that was never more evident as his control imploded due to the pressure of his first taste of AAA. You would hope that a pitcher would be more refined after 7 seasons as a professional, but with his electric stuff from the left side, he's going to get plenty of chances to overcome his deficiencies.
Buchter will return to AAA Gwinnett as a 26 year old to start 2013, though he's likely to get a long, hard look in Spring Training so the Braves can see what kind of value he might provide Atlanta later in the season. He is eligible for the Rule 5 draft, so there's a good chance a team might take him and see if they can work on his control in limited Major League action. Regardless of where he begins 2013, Buchter looks like a pitcher who will eventually get a fair shot at the Majors, because lefty power pitchers are an extreme rarity.
5. Nate Hyatt: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'0", Wt: 185, DOB: 9-26-90
The Braves selected Hyatt out of Appalachian State University in the 13th round this season, and he had a stellar debut season, beginning by going 2-0 with 3 saves, a 1.80 ERA, a 0.60 WHIP, 12.6 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, and 4.7 K/BB in 10 innings over 7 appearances for Rookie level Danville, before moving up to Low A Rome where he had 3 saves, a 1.23 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, 14.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, and 4.6 K/BB in 14.2 innings over 11 appearances. His combined totals gave him one of the best debuts of any 2012 Braves draftee, as he went 2-0 with 6 saves, a 1.46 ERA, a 0.85 WHIP, 13.5 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, and 4.6 K/BB in 24.2 innings over 18 appearances.
Like any good reliever, Hyatt's best pitch is his fastball, which he regularly throws between 95 and 97. It has a lot of late life that allowed him to dominate both in college and in his pro debut. He also has an above average curveball and is working on developing a changeup. He has better control that most other flamethrowers, and that combined with already having a solid second pitch in the curveball puts him ahead of most relievers at the same stage in his career.
Given his college experience and his success at Rome this season, Hyatt is likely to jump up to High A Lyncburg as a 22 year old to begin 2013. The Braves will have no problem allowing him to develop at his own pace, but given his advanced ability, it's easy to see him rocketing through the organization.