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Braves Top-5 Minor League Third Basemen

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While the middle INF depth chart for the Braves is filled with mostly non prospects, the corner spots are slightly better stocked. First Base of course has Frederick Freeman and a couple of big power guys behind him. Third Base falls somewhere between the talent of First Base and the middle INF positions. Even if they aren't all 'prospects' in the traditional sense, most of the guys here are interesting players with some value going forward. Two guys tied for the top spot in the combined TC rankings: Donell Linares and Jake Hanson. 

1A. Donell Linares B/T: R/R Born: 10/28/1983 HT: 6'0" WT: 199

Donell Linares is one of those guys that isn't a prospect in the traditional sense of the word. He played this season at age 25 at High A Myrtle Beach which made him a full year older than anyone else on the roster and 2-3 years older than many of his teammates. Linares is a Cuban defector whom the Braves signed on June 20, 2008. 2009 was his US debut in professional ball as he just spent a couple of weeks staying sharp in the DSL last summer. With all that being said he put together a solid campaign for the Pelicans and was probably the best hitter down the stretch.

Linares skill set bears some resemblance to fellow countryman Yunel Escobar, but he sports an even lower K rate (14th most difficult to K in the minors this season) and a little bit more current pop. He posted a .772 OPS for the Pelicans, which isn't wowing, but when considered with the fact that this was his first year in the US it has to be considered a success. Another strong indicator for next season is how he improved late in the season. His OPS was 80 pts higher after the All Star break, which was mostly buoyed by a big August where he hit 6 of his 15 homers. Linares is excellent at getting the bat on the ball, which is great, but it also means that he may never walk a ton. His walk rate did improve significantly the last two months of the season but it still was not spectacular. If he can tap into his power for a full season and take a few more free passes he would actually have a bat that could play every day at the major league level.

Linares has little to no speed, going 5/10 in stolen base attempts this season and wasn't anything special in the field either as he committed 22 errors at 3B. He played a few games at 1B and wasn't bad, but without any eyes on data there is no way to make a real judgment on his defensive prowess other than the numbers. He also has very little room for projection  being nearly 26 years old. For him to be valuable to the Braves he will need to be ready in the next season or so, but if he maintains his production as he moves up the ladder he could be a serviceable stopgap if Chipper plans to retire suddenly.

1B. Jake Hanson B/T: R/R Born: 11/20/1989 HT: 6'0" WT: 180

If Linares ranks at the top of this list because of his current toolset, Jake Hanson ranks up here because of future projection. Taken in the 14th Rd in the 2008 amateur draft, Hanson won't be 20 years old until November and still has plenty of room for projection in his body. He debuted in the GCL last season and posted .721 OPS (which is about 50 pts better than league average in the GCL). This year Hanson returned to the GCL and had a mini-breakout where he posted an .842 OPS ranking him in the top 10 in the league.

The biggest area that Hanson improved upon was his power production (Which is to be expected of someone who is a teenager!). In 2008 he slugged .345 with an ISOP of .090 which both would have put him around league average. In 2009 he improved that to .450 and .170 respectively (this year's league AVGs were .335 SLG and .097 ISOP). Another skill that Jake is already showing is the ability to take walks. He has walked in a little over 12% of his PAs since being drafted which is superb, especially for someone his age.

Right now Jake's biggest problem is what most young players struggle with: strikeouts. In his pro career he has struck out in about 24% of his PAs. He has time to correct this and with him already showing the ability to take a walk, even if the Ks stay where they are he could still be a valuable offensive player. His defense is rough around the edges since he was a SS in high school and has been making the transition to 3B, but there is no reason to believe he can't stick there long term. He just needs some seasoning. Hanson impressed the Braves in his pre-draft workout last year and is known to be an extremely hard worker. At this point he just needs to let his body mature and adds its natural strength and improve his already solid skill base. Jake Hanson could turn out to be another great find for the Braves scouting department. He has nothing left to prove in the GCL, so expect to see him start next year at Danville in the Appalachian league (unless he really impresses in spring workouts).

3. Jordan Kreke B/T: R/R Born: 03/21/1987 HT: 6'1" WT: 205

Jordan Kreke was taken by the Braves in the 13th round in the 2009 amateur draft. He made his debut in Danville as the everyday third basemen after being a shortstop in college. Kreke comes into the system with as a Louisville Slugger Third Team All American after he posted a .394 AVG for Eastern Illinois this season.

Kreke showed improvement every year in college going from a .567 OPS in limited playing time his freshman year to to being a 3 time player of the week (a record) in the Ohio Valley Conference. He hit for more power his Sr. season with 32 extra base hits (his previous high was 25) and hit 13 homers  after only hitting 4 in his first three seasons. Jordan's pro debut wasn't quite as successful as his Sr. season as he posted just a .712 OPS for Danville at 22 years old. His power all but vanished but he did maintain a solid AVG and OBP. He shows a polished college approach that leads to a decent number of walks and low strike out totals.

Kreke needs to rediscover his power in order to become a viable 3B prospect. He also needs to make the most of his opportunities. At present his offense plays more towards the middle of the INF and less on a corner. He has never been much a stolen base threat and his defense is still developing at 3B after switching positions opon being drafted. Look for Kreke to start 2010 in Rome unless he wows the world and gets a bump to Myrtle Beach.

4. Edison Sanchez B/T: R/R Born: 11/01/1990 HT: 6'4" WT: 195

Edison Sanchez had one of the best seasons in the DSL this season posting a .921 OPS as an 18  year old. When looking through his profile there really isn't much to like about him. At 18 he is already an imposing figure on the diamond at 6'4" and stands to fill out his frame as he matures. Atlanta's front office also rewarded his great season by making him the DSL Minor League Player of the Year.

Sanchez flashed solid power in his second season in the DSL as he knocked 4 HR to go along with 4 triples and 7 doubles. His ISOP was a solid .175 (solid for the DSL at least) and he should add more power as he puts on muscle. The most impressive stat concerning this 18 year old is his walk rate. In two seasons in the DSL he has walked right around a 17% clip. That is absolutely phenomenal for any level. His 34/42 K/BB rate bodes well for his future success.

DSL stats are not always the easiest to interpret because it is difficult to gauge the level of competition and field conditions that players are competing in, so any time a guy puts up great stats in a complex league they have to be taken with a tiny grain of salt. That said the stats cannot really be ignored either. On the surface Edison Sanchez appears to be a very solid prospect going forward. The only knock on him long term may be that he outgrows 3B. Granted 3B is a position for big guys, but if he grows much more he could lose the mobility that allows him to stay there. Sanchez could move up to the GCL or Danville next season depending on the depth and his performance in spring training. If he gets off to a hot start there could be a lot of buzz surrounding him.

5. Van Pope B/T: R/R Born: 02/26/1984 HT: 6'0" WT: 200

Ah Van Pope, at one time the heir apparent to Chipper Jones. Alas, no more. Pope peaked in 2006 in Myrtle Beach where he posted a .783 OPS (when Myrtle Beach was still death to hitters) along with 15 homers (about 10 more than he has ever hit at any other level). Since then he has regressed in most facets of his offensive game though his one above average tool, his defense, has remained intact.

At one time Van Pope looked like he was going to develop into a power hitting 3B prospect with gold glove defense and a solid eye at the plate. Now at age 25, his career isn't over, but he is going to have turn things around soon or be passed up by other players, especially the way Frank Wren has been releasing veteran minor leaguers who may still have potential. In the three seasons since he hit 15 HR in Myrtle Beach Pope has hit just 14 total since then seeing his ISOP go from .167 down to .087 this season. He still doesn't strike out a ton, and his walks have actually improved since falling off a cliff after the 2005 season. He did suffer from a horribly low BABIP (.238)  even though he had a really high line drive %.

There are still some things here to like about Van Pope. Obviously the Gold Glove caliber defense is worthwhile and could probably get him a roster spot somewhere. Unfortunately he just isn't going to stick anywhere until the bat comes around. There is still a little light at the end of this tunnel, but wherever his power has gone he needs to go find it again. His walk and K rates are solid enough to rate as average. Expect to see Van Pope back in Gwinnett to start the 2010 season and if things don't turn around, don't expect to see him after that.