Organizations, media, and fans alike will spend hours upon hours debating over who the best prospects are, but there will always be a handful of players who seem to come out of nowhere to excel in the Major Leagues. In recent years, Martin Prado and Jonny Venters vaulted out of prospect anonymity to become All-Stars. Anyone in the system could turn out to be a star, but we've highlighted 5 players who we think have the best chance, including a former 3rd round draft pick, a pair of injured pitchers, and a pair of young infielders.
1. Andy Otero: LHP, B: L, T: L, Ht: 5'9", Wt: 160, DOB: 6-3-92
In 2009, the Panamanian born Otero had an outstanding debut season as a 17 year old in the Dominican Summer League, going 6-1 with a 0.84 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, 13.1 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, and 3.6 K/BB in 64 innings over 18 appearances, 14 starts. What started out as a strained elbow led to Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2010 and after pitching just 11 innings over 4 games, 3 starts in the Gulf Coast League in 2011, he had further complications that caused him to pitch only 3 innings in 2 games in the GCL this season.
Otero's best pitch is a curveball that has often been described as unhittable. He showed an advanced feel for pitching at a young age, working off the curve with a fastball that sits between 87 and 90, a solid changeup, and a decent slider. He has also been touted as one of the best athletes in the system, with a tiny, surprisingly strong frame and powerful legs. Before his injury, he was compared to Mike Hampton for his athleticism, though unfortunately that comparison turned out to be more apt than the Braves would have liked.
Despite pitching just 14 innings over the last 3 seasons, Otero appears to be fully healthy now, and he'll still be just 20 years old at the start of the 2013 season. Most have forgotten about his 2009 season, which makes him an ideal sleeper since a return to form would instantly make him one of the better prospects in the Braves organization. He'll likely be given a chance to make Low A Rome's rotation out of Spring Training, where he would work as a tandem starter with another young prospect, but it's more likely that he begins the season in Extended Spring Training and begins his season with Rookie level Danville in June. If he can overcome his injury history, the Braves will have another young, talented foreign talent on their hands.
2. David Hale: RHP, B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 210, DOB: 9-7-87
As a former 3rd round draft pick who was just added to Atlanta's 40 man roster, Hale hardly seems a likely pick for a sleeper list, but he is often overlooked when people talk about the deep stable of pitching talent in the Braves system. Like Jonny Venters and Luis Avilan, a pair of players added to the 40 man roster despite unimpressive Minor League numbers, Hale is a player who could thrive under the right circumstances. When the Braves selected him out of Princeton in 2009 they thought he would move quickly through the system as a reliever, but he struggled in 2010 with Rome and in 2011 with High A Lynchburg, shuttling back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen. He settled down with AA Mississippi in 2012, spending the whole season in the rotation, going 8-4 with a 3.77 ERA, a 1.29 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, and 1.9 K/BB in 145.2 innings over 27 starts.
It's hard to understand why a pitcher with a fastball that can touch 98 and regularly sits between 93-95 that he can pair with an above average slider that sits in the mid 80s would struggle so much. Hale is one of the smartest players in the game, he eventually completed his degree from Princeton, and some have wondered if he thinks too much on the mound. Hale himself has said in the past that he prefers to pitch in relief because he doesn't have as much time to think. Still, the Braves belief his repertoire and his makeup, including that analytical mind, make him best suited to work as a starter. He seemed to stop fighting himself this year and stopped his career long trend of going helter-skelter from one game to the next, following a gem with a horrible outing and a horrible outing with a gem.
Hale is scheduled to move up to AAA Gwinnett in 2013 as a 25 year old. He'll stay in the rotation, though if Atlanta needs help in the bullpen they would be hard-pressed to ignore what his fastball-slider combo could do for them. It's likely he will see some time in the Majors in 2013, though it's still hard to say what kind of future he's going to have in the game.
3. Carlos Franco: 3B, B: L, T: R, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 170, DOB: 12-20-91
The Braves originally signed Franco out of his native Dominican Republic in 2008, and after 3 so-so seasons split between the Dominican Summer League and the Gulf Coast League, he broke out this year as a 20 year old while playing for Rookie level Danville, hitting .271 with a .408 OPB, a .787 OPS, 6 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers, 20 RBI, and 6 steals in 206 plate appearances.
This season was a breakout in every way for Franco, as he hit .271 after hitting .200 in the first 455 at bats of his career. He walked in 18% of his plate appearances this season after walking in 10% of his previous career plate appearances. His strikeout rate dipped from 27% in his career to 22% this season. His slugging actually dipped, as he clubbed out 24% of his hits for extra bases this year after rapping out 30% of his hits for extra bases in the first 3 seasons of his career. Franco is a big, strong, sturdy player and if he can apply these improvements in plate discipline as he moves up the ladder, there's little reason to doubt he'll be able to develop power along the way. He's a solid defender at third, and should have no problem defending at the hot corner.
Franco will move up to Low A Rome in 2013 as a 21 year old, getting a chance at playing a full season for the first time in his career. The Braves would love if the numbers he put up in 2012 were signs of actual improvement and not just a fluke, and the fact that they were all based in increased plate discipline is a good sign. As with any young player, the team will have no trouble letting him develop at his own pace, and they will be more than happy if he develops into a diamond in the rough.
4. Oriel L. Caicedo: LHP, B: L, T: L, Ht' 5'11", Wt: 188, DOB: 1-14-94
The Braves signed Caicedo's older brother, Oriel R. Caideco, out of Panama in 2008, and they brought Oriel L into the organization in 2010. The two were teammates in the Dominican Summer League in 2011, where the 17 year old lefty went 3-2 wit a 2.10 ERA, a 0.97 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, and 3.1 K/BB in 60 innings over 16 games, 9 starts, numbers that made him the DSL Braves Pitcher Of The Year. He was scheduled to make his US debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2012, but missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Prior to his injury, Caicedo had an advanced feel for pitching, working with a live fastball that sat between 88 and 91 and a changeup and a curveball that were both already solid pitches with the potential to become plus pitches. He should be recovered in time to pitch in the GCL when their season begin in late June, and he'll still be just 19 years old. The Braves have had more success mining prospects out of Panama that any other organization, and if Caicedo can return to form he'll add to that success and add to the already sterling pitching depth in the organization.
5. Johan Camargo: SS/3B, B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'0", Wt: 160, DOB: 12-13-93
Camargo was signed out of Panama the same week as Caicedo in 2010, but he didn't make his professional debut until this season. He was worth the wait however, hitting .343 with a .887 OPS, 14 doubles, 1 triple, 2 homers, 26 RBI, and 6 steals in 241 plate appearances, numbers that made him the DSL Braves player of the year. He was signed as a shortstop, and played 26 games there, but he also saw action in 44 games at third base.
When he was signed, the Braves believed Camargo was a bat first player, and that showed up this year, as he was able to rap out 25% of his hits for extra bases, take a walk in 10% of his plate appearances, and strike out in 14% of his at bats, all solid numbers for a player in his debut season. It remains to be seen where he will end up defensively. He has soft hands and good instincts, so there's a chance he could stick at shortstop, but the Braves might be happier to let him put on muscle, focus on hitting, and play a less demanding position, like third base or an outfield corner.
Camargo will move up to the GCL in 2013 as a 19 year old and make his US debut. With another solid year, he could find himself moving up the Braves prospect lists, as there aren't many above average bats in the system.