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Bill Ballew: Braves Prospect List Q&A 2009 (Part 1)

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With the third installment of our prospect list Q&A's for 2009 we turn to 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 prosepcts for Baseball America, which was released back in the middle of December. We had a great Q&A with Bill last year, and this year he was kind enough to get even more detailed with his answers (hence the two-part Q&A).

Q:  A couple of the other prospect folks who put out rankings listed Jason Heyward above Tommy Hanson for the top spot. What made you choose Hanson over Heyward?

A: I went back and forth on this way between the two. I started out with Heyward, then bounced between them. Two things changed my mind, although I don't think there's a right and wrong answer at this point. One was Hanson's performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he became the first pitcher ever to win the Most Valuable Player award. Second is his position. Look throughout baseball and there are very few true No. 1 and No. 2 starters. By throwing his slider last year after the Braves made him stop early in his career, Hanson has a true out pitch, which combined with his other three pitches makes him a potential top-of-the-rotation guy.

Q:  The 2008 draft for the Braves gave them so many young talented pitchers. Is this the best draft for pitching that the Braves have ever had? How do the likes of DeVall, Stovall, Spruill, and Thompson, compare to the 2006 draft of Rasmus, Evarts, Locke, and Rodgers?

A: It has a chance to be, especially in terms of depth. There are several sleepers in the Braves' 2008 class, headlined by Craig Kimbrel (3rd round), who was nothing short of electric and is already being discussed as the long-term answer as the closer in Atlanta. Tenth-rounder J.J. Hoover signed late and has a world of potential. There were several other hurlers who flew under the radar but had early success, among them Richard Sullivan (11th round) and David Francis (12th round). And all this does not include Devall, who did not pitch much due to soreness in his arm, Spruill, who was one of the top hurlers in the Gulf Coast League, and Thompson, the former University of Virginia product who was considered first-round material prior to last season. Regarding the 2006 class, it does not have nearly as much depth. Locke has emerged as the top prospect, while Rasmus has not been able to stay healthy. Evarts and Rodgers have been inconsistent but the Braves still hope they can become productive pitchers.

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: Heyward is a great prospect, but Freeman is right on his heels. Freeman is an RBI machine who hits for both power and average. The guy lives to mash and should continue to hit at least in the high .200s and flirt with .300 while hitting upwards of 30 home runs annually at higher levels. Johnson is a poor man's Adam Dunn. He may have more raw power than anyone I have ever seen in the lower minors, but his approach at the plate needs some work. He made a few adjustments during the second half of last season, but that needs to continue in a big way in 2009 in order for him to continue his path to the big leagues. Defensively, Johnson's adequate at best in left field, which doesn't help his long-term potential, either. Still, if he can become more disciplined and take pitches to the opposite field more often, he has a chance to be a big-reward kind of guy.

Q:  Some people don't view Jeff Locke as a high ceiling guy, but they view Julio Teheran as a high ceiling guy. How does Locke get ranked ahead of Teheran, and do they have the same major league potential?

A: Those "people" aren't me, and frankly, aren't the Braves. Locke may not be the next great pitcher at the major league level, but he has the potential to be much more than the likes of Jo-Jo Reyes, Chuck James, James Parr and several other recent youngsters who have come through Atlanta. Locke was a raw prospect out of the Northeast who is just beginning to find his rhythm and get an overall feel for pitching. In fact, I believe Locke is on the verge of taking off and moving at a much more rapid pace through the organization. Teheran showed his age last year at Danville, and the Braves were very careful with him. His stuff against live batters was not nearly as electric as the hype seemed to indicate, although he did show some of that during instructional league. Nevertheless, he's pitching in the low 90s right now instead of the mid 90s, and the fact that he remains so young and raw is why Locke got the nod.

Q:  Where does Brandon Hicks rank on your list of top Braves prospects? Does he have a chance to break into the majors as a shortstop, or will he eventually end up at third base?

A: Hicks was a borderline top 10 guy who moved in and out of the list as I put it together during my numerous interviews with coaches, scouts and others in the organization. If he had hit for higher average last year, that would have put him over the top, but there are some scouts who question his ability to hit enough. Hicks' gritty approach to the game is outstanding. He's somewhat of a late bloomer, but he has plus power for a middle infielder and the ability to generate enough run production at third base. He's capable of staying at shortstop, but he's not as fluid as many others, such as Escobar and other smaller players. Right now he's more than adequate with the leather and has a good arm, but he needs to improve his batting average and overall production at the plate.

I'll post the second half of the Q&A with Bill Ballew later this weekend. It includes some great insider info about Kris Medlen, Cole Rohrbough, and Jordan Schafer, as well as what prospect might be headed out of the organization in a trade.