PORT ST. LUCIE, FL - FEBRUARY 26: Jason Heyward #22 and Freddie Freeman #5 of the Atlanta Braves swarm up prior to playing against the New York Mets at Digital Domain Park on February 26, 2011 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Another day, another All Bonus Baby Team. We're jumping back to the NL for day, as we cover what's likely to be one of the most impressive groups of players that you'll see. Atlanta is often regarded as one of the best organizations in baseball when it comes to scouting and player development, so their draft classes have regularly provided some premium talent despite picks that rarely come in the first half of the first round.
And remember folks, the key question being asked here is, "What kind of team could this organization build for 2011 using only players signed and drafted since 2000?" So no, we're not counting players that were drafted and didn't sign, players drafted before 2000, and players who signed as amateur free agents (usually international guys). And yes, I know there's a DH in their lineup: this is fun, so why not use the DH spot?
1) SS Yunel Escobar - 2005 2nd Round Pick
This is probably the first time that we've seen a legitimately solid lead-off hitter at this spot in the order. Escobar struggled with the bat last season, but has continued with his strong hitting this year. With a good glove at shortstop and a .290/.365/.401 career line, he's firmly among the better players in the game at the position.
2) RF Jason Heyward - 2007 1st Round Pick (14th overall)
You guys all know about him already. He's only 21, but you could already argue that he's among the best outfielders in the game. He brings hitting ability, power, patience, speed and plus defense in right field- this is the kind of guy that you project to win some MVP's.
3) 2B Kelly Johnson - 2000 1st Round Pick (38th overall)
Johnson had a couple good years in Atlanta before losing his job to Martin Prado in 2009, but he bounced back to have a monster 2010 (+30 bat, +7 glove, 6.0 WAR). The 29-year-old isn't hitting well right now and strikeouts are an issue, as he's currently tied for the NL lead in that category, but he's a very good player.
4) C Brian McCann - 2002 2nd Round Pick
Firmly among the elite catchers in the game. He's probably no longer the best catcher in the NL with Mr. Posey around, but it's easy to forget how remarkably good he's been. Since the beginning of the 2006 season, McCann's been the 14th-best position player and the second-best catcher in baseball according to WAR. Catchers that can consistently hit 20-25 homers with a good OBP and solid defense are stars in this league, in case you've forgotten.
5) DH Adam LaRoche - 2000 29th Round Pick
Currently the first baseman for one of Atlanta's "rivals" up in D.C., LaRoche hasn't done much this season but was a consistently average first baseman over the past few seasons. His defense isn't great, his 25-homer power is good-but-not exceptional for the position, and most first basemen can put up a better OBP than the 31-year-old's .339 career mark. But he's been pretty much a lock for 2.0-2.5 wins over the past five years, so a lot of teams are currently doing worse at the position.
6) 1B Freddie Freeman - 2007 2nd Round Pick
Freeman's only 21, but he's already established as Atlanta's everyday first baseman and is off to a solid start this season. It remains to be seen what kind of power he'll have; the people who project him as a star expect him to have a good deal of power (30+ HR), but others expect him to top out as a solid regular (20-25 HR).
7) LF Jeff Francoeur - 2002 1st Round Pick (23rd overall)
People seem to get overly excited every time the streaky hitter goes on one of his patented, BABIP-induced rolls, but his numbers actually aren't all that bad this year. His walk rate is up to 6% and he's hitting for power; I certainly don't want to suggest that Frenchy is finally ready to blossom, but he's always been a good hitter against lefties, and I don't think it's that crazy to think that other teams are doing worse in right field.
8) 3B Brandon Hicks - 2007 3rd Round Pick
The 24-year-old shortstop isn't much of a hitter, and he's always had a pretty rough time making contact, so pretty much nobody believes that he's got a future as a regular. But the alternatives here (Jon Gilmore, Eric Campbell, Van Pope) are pretty ugly, Hicks would at least provide solid defense, and he's been in Atlanta before.
9) CF Jordan Schafer - 2005 3rd Round Pick
It's been a rough couple years for Schafer, but it's easy to forget that he's only 24. He was horrible in his first, premature stint with Atlanta in 2009, and he's spent most of the past two seasons battling injuries and ineffectiveness. He hasn't hit for any power yet this year, but he does have a .365 OBP in his first 14 games with Triple-A Gwinnett, and it's not that hard to remember when people thought he might be a star.
(NOTE: Unfortunately, because the focus of this series is on 2011, the Braves won't receive the benefit of having Adam Wainwright in their rotation. It made things a bit more difficult for me, too, but there's pretty much no way that he plays this year.)
1) RHP Tommy Hanson - 2005 22nd Round Pick
Atlanta's loaded with young pitching, and Hanson's the biggest fish in that sea. He established himself as one of the best pitchers in the NL last season, and at 24 it's entirely reasonable to believe that there's another gear in him. And hey, even if there isn't, he's still pretty damn good.
2) LHP Matt Harrison - 2003 3rd Round Pick
Just to make the Mark Teixeira trade sting a little move for Braves fans, Harrison has seen his velocity tick upwards this year, and now he's firmly in the Rangers' rotation. It remains to be seen how many bats he can miss, but with the added velocity he should be able to stick as a mid-rotation starter.
3) RHP Kyle Davies - 2001 4th Round Pick
Davies proved to be a decent starter for the Royals last season while accumulating 2.0 WAR, and while his ERA is ugly this year his peripheral numbers are much stronger. He's only 27, and while he doesn't really fit in as one of Kansas City's top starters, he's not a bad back-of-the-rotation option.
4) LHP Mike Minor - 2009 1st Round Pick (7th overall)
One of Atlanta's best prospects, Minor has been flat-out dominant in the minors and posted good peripheral numbers in his first stint with the Braves last year. He should be ready to fill a spot in Atlanta's rotation whenever they need him. His stock has gone up a lot since being drafted, as his velocity ticked up and his entire arsenal took a step forward.
5) RHP Charlie Morton - 2002 2nd Round Pick
Morton was solid in 18 starts for the Pirates in 2009, and then absolutely horrid in 17 starts for them in 2010. He's once again in their rotation though, and so far we've seen good (67% GB rate) and bad (12/15 K/BB ratio) so far. We've heard some weird comparisons between his delivery and Roy Halladay's lately, as he apparently altered it specifically to imitate the Phillies ace, but he's very, very far from being that kind of pitcher.
Set Up: Jonny Venters - 2003 30th Round Pick
Venters absolutely burst onto the scene once he converted to relief full-time in early 2010. Spending most of the year in Atlanta, he was one of baseball's best relievers, with a sub-2 ERA and nearly 2 wins above replacement. Those are elite numbers. And he's repeated them this season, too, with one remarkable stat: Venters has allowed 21 balls in play this year, and 20 of them are grounders. That's good for 96%.
Closer: Craig Kimbrel - 2008 3rd Round Pick
Most teams would kill to have one shut-down reliever. Atlanta is one of the few teams that has two. Kimbrel has some absolutely ridiculous numbers so far in his career, with 54 strikeouts and a 0.63 ERA in his first 28 MLB innings. People always wondered how the hard-throwing Kimbrel would be able to succeed in the majors with his lack of command, but he's only walked 2 of the first 28 batters he's faced this season.
DISTRIBUTION OF PICKS
2000: 2; 2001: 1; 2002: 3; 2003: 2; 2004: 0; 2005: 3; 2006: 0; 2007: 3; 2008: 1; 2009: 1
6th or later: 3