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Keeping up with the Minors: Outfield

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This is the second in a series about the health of our minor league system. Today we focus on the young outfielders in our system, specifically some of our recent top picks at that position. The last two years the Braves have chosen young high school outfielders with their first pick in the June amateur draft. This year's top pick, Jason Heyward, is still unsigned, but indications are that a deal is in place. This is what Kevin Goldstein had to say about Heyward:

According to industry sources, this is one of those deals that is done but not announced. Indications are that Heywardís advisors simply asked that the Braves ignore the 10 percent slot reduction and give Heyward the $1.7 million received by last yearís No. 14 pick, Torontoís Travis Snider. As Heyward was generally considered to be better than the 14th-best talent, the Braves agreed. This deal should be announced soon, and might be one of the deals that opens the floodgates to the others.

Similarly, this is what Keith Law of ESPN had to say:

Michael Burgess has more raw power, and Matt LaPorta does as well, but Heyward has a better combination of probability and youth than either of those guys. Heyward, who is still unsigned at this writing, went 14th overall in this June's draft to the Atlanta Braves, who do have a habit of taking high school kids from their home state. (Heyward comes from La Grange, Ga., about an hour southwest of Atlanta.) Heyward is very strong, with a simple swing that allows him to let the ball travel before he commits, and he already shows a good idea of the strike zone and the ability to get to and drive the ball down. He has 40-homer potential down the road.

When Law mentions Heyward in this article, he mentions him among only three other players in an article titled "Baseball's top future sluggers." That's elite company for our young prospect. It's also reassuring to hear both him and Goldstein say that Heyward is all but signed. I can't remember a top draft pick's signing dragging on this long for the Braves, at least not one in the last five or ten years. This year the deadline for signing draft picks is August 15th, se we'll find out by Wednesday what kind of deal he'll get. Still, I find it a bit nerve racking that we're cutting it so close to the signing deadline.

Last year's number one pick, who signed within hours of being drafted, is starting to show why he was a number one. The pick of Cody Johnson was criticized by some around baseball as being very hit-or-miss, and with the showing he had in the GCL last year many thought it was a miss. Here is what Kevin Goldstein had to say about him recently:

The Braves shocked some teams when they took Johnson with their first-round pick last year. Sure, he was a good athlete with incredible raw power, but 'raw' was the key word, as Johnson had holes in his swing that were large enough and numerous enough to be confused with a field full of land mines. Sent to the Gulf Coast League for his pro debut, Johnson hit .184 with just one home run in 114 at-bats and struck out 49 times. The Braves responded to that by keeping Johnson in extended spring training this year, focusing him on shortening his swing and hitting for contact instead of power. What weíve seen so for in the Appy League is an entirely transformed player. With two home runs on Saturday and another on Sunday, Johnson leads the circuit with nine home runs in 145 at-bats while hitting .262/.327/.545 overall with a still-high but far more reasonable strikeout total of 39. Lesson learned? The Braves still know what theyíre doing.

I for one like the "very high upside" picks. Sure, sometimes you run into a Troy Cameron or a Mike Kelly, but other times you run into a Jeff Francoeur or a Chipper Jones. Johnson seems to be turning some heads with 9 HRs, 4 triples, and 11 doubles, he's showing his power and showing that he's ready for a full-season league next year - and keep in mind, he turns only 19 next Saturday.

Another guy who is close to the majors (so close in fact, that we may see him this season) is Brandon Jones. He put up impressive numbers at double-A to start the season; hitting .293 with 15 homeruns, 6 triples, 21 doubles, and 74 RBIs in just 94 games. One of the real coups of the trade deadline was that we hung on to this guy - a player who will now likely ascend to become the top prospect in the Braves organization.

Jones was promoted to triple-A in mid-July and struggled for the first two weeks, but he's adjusted tremendously and is hitting .489 in over 11 games in August. His power has also returned as he's slugging a ridiculous .800 this month. If Andruw Jones does indeed need to be disabled to allow time for his elbow to heal, then perhaps a red hot "Brandon" Jones could be just the thing the Braves lineup would benefit from.

Another outfielder that is putting the whole package together this year is Jordan Schafer. He was ranked as the 27th-best prospect by Baseball America last year, but was ranked as the best defensive outfielder. Drafted in the third round in 2005 his offensive numbers before this season were not too encouraging, but this year he put up a sizzling .372 average while repeating low-A, and a respectable .285 at hi-A Myrtle Beach (.273/.298 home/road split). With his defensive ability he certainly has half a ticket stamped for the majors, and if he can continue to put up solid offensive numbers on his way up the minor league ladder, then he may be just a year or two away from the show.

There are other guys in the system - power types such as Matt Esquivel and Larry Williams, and speed types (Willie Harries types) such as Matt Young, Gregor Blanco, Quentin Davis, and Carl Loadenthal - but it is the plus-plus outfield talents Jones, Schafer, Johnson, and Heyward who are the real future stars of the Braves outfield. With a pipeline of guys like that our minor leagues should continue to supply quality talent to the major leagues for years to come.