By Bill Ballew
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
2. Jeff Francoeur, of
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 205.
Background: Many long-time members of the organization consider Francoeur to be the most complete outfielder the Braves have developed since Dale Murphy. The 23rd overall pick in the 2002 draft lived up to the lofty expectations in his first full pro season by ranking as the fourth-best prospect in the South Atlantic League and placing second in the SAL in hits and triples.
Strengths: A high school all-America defensive back who earned a football scholarship to Clemson, Francoeur is the best all-around athlete in the system. He consistently makes solid contact with the barrel of the bat, and his maturing body easily should produce 30 homers annually down the road. He has the speed and instincts to play center field, and his arm strength ranks behind only Adam Stern and Angelo Burrows among Braves minor leaguers. Francoeur also has plus makeup and a strong competitive drive.
Weaknesses: Francoeur's strike-zone judgment could stand some improvement. Otherwise, he simply needs experience against better competition to make some minor adjustments.
The Future: On the verge of becoming one of the premier prospects in the minors, Francoeur is slated to open 2004 at high Class A Myrtle Beach. The organization doesn't want to rush him, but he could reach Double-A in the second half.
3. Adam Wainwright, rhp
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-8. Wt.: 205.
Background: Wainwright did nothing to alter his standing as the top pitching prospect in the organization in 2003. In his first season at Double-A, he overcame five straight losses at midseason to go 5-1, 2.14 in his final seven starts and rank 10th in the Southern League in ERA.
Strengths: Wainwright has an ideal combination of size, talent and makeup. He started working off his 92-93 mph fastball more often at midseason and the positive results were immediate. He also throws a hard curveball and a solid changeup, and he mixes his pitches and throws strikes well. He has a great work ethic and is one of the most intelligent pitchers in the organization.
Weaknesses: Wainwright needs to continue to gain confidence and trust his stuff. He tends to be too fine with his pitches instead of challenging hitters. He also needs to add strength to remain strong throughout the season and late into games.
The Future: The Braves were most encouraged by the fact that Wainwright finished the season stronger than he started. He's still climbing the learning curve and will continue to do so at Triple-A Richmond in 2004.
4. Bubba Nelson, rhp
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 200.
Background: After leading the minors with a 1.66 ERA in 2002, Nelson made a seamless move to Double-A. He ranked sixth in the Southern League in ERA before dominating in 11 late-season relief appearances at Richmond. He moved to the bullpen in case the Braves needed him for the playoffs.
Strengths: Nelson has impressive life on all his pitches. His heavy heater sits in the 92-93 mph range and shows outstanding movement, not unlike Greg Maddux’ slower fastball. He also has a nasty hard slider that looks at times like a slurve.
Weaknesses: Command, particularly with his fastball, remains Nelson’s greatest need. While he keeps his pitches down, he must improve the location of all his pitches in the strike zone. Though his changeup continues to develop, it's still inconsistent.
The Future: The Braves believe Nelson is on the verge of reaching the majors. He'll return to the rotation in 2004 in Triple-A, and could see some big league action by the end of the season. Atlanta's bullpen is unsettled, so that could be where he gets his first opportunity.
5. Dan Meyer, lhp
Age: 22. B-T: R-L. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 210.
Background: In his first full pro season, Meyer split 2003 between two Class A clubs and pitched as consistently as anyone in the organization. He gave his team a chance to win every time he took the mound, allowing three earned runs or fewer in 24 of his 28 starts.
Strengths: Meyer has above-average stuff and outstanding command. He throws a low-90s fastball with plus movement. His slider is also on the verge of becoming an above-average pitch. His strikeout-walk ratio is a gaudy 4.7-1 in pro ball. Meyer's focus and concentration level are assets, and he wants the ball with the game on the line.
Weaknesses: Meyer needs to polish his changeup and become more consistent with the pitch. He also needs to do a better job against lefthanders, who hit a surprising .306 off him in 2003. Righties batted just .220.
The Future: With a promotion to Double-A on the immediate horizon, Meyer is moving as quickly as any pitcher in the organization. He could push to join the big league rotation at some point in 2005.
6. Adam LaRoche, 1b
Age: 24. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 180.
Background: A two-way star in junior college, LaRoche signed with the Braves because of their preference that he hit for a living. His bat seemed to stagnate in high Class A in 2001, necessitating a return to the Carolina League to open 2002, but he has terrorized pitchers ever since. He led the system with a .317 average in 2002 before topping the farm system in home runs and RBIs in 2003. His father Dave was a two-time all-star reliever, while his brother Andy signed with the Dodgers for $1 million in August.
Strengths: LaRoche employs a funky wide-open stance that produces results with his ability to use his hands and transfer his weight. He mainly hits line drives into the gaps, yet he proved last summer he can hit for power. He's a smooth defender with the talent to be a perennial Gold Glove candidate. His strong arm can deliver 90-mph fastballs.
Weaknesses: Though LaRoche answered questions about his power, he's not going to be the slugger most teams look for at first base. He has below-average speed, which rules out any chance of playing the outfield.
The Future: No Atlanta rookie enters spring training with a better shot of earning a starting job than LaRoche. Manager Bobby Cox loves his all-around game and gritty approach.
7. Macay McBride, lhp
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 212.
Background: The 2002 South Atlantic League pitcher of the year, McBride continued his steady climb through the organization with a solid season in high Class A. He led the Carolina League in innings and strikeouts, ranked sixth in ERA and surrendered three earned runs or fewer in 22 of 27 starts
Strengths: McBride’s best pitch is a sharp slider that reminds some scouts of Steve Carlton’s. His fastball has good movement and resides in the low 90s. His changeup has become a plus pitch in the past 18 months. McBride knows what he’s doing on the mound and mixes his three pitches with precision. He may be the most competitive pitcher in the organization.
Weaknesses: Although he gained velocity as the season progressed, McBride has raised some concerns with his fastball after throwing in the mid-90s in high school. The Braves aren't too worried, however, because he has blossomed into a pitcher instead of the thrower he was as a prepster.
The Future: McBride has spent a full season at each level. He'll spend 2004 in Greenville and could be pushing for a shot in the big leagues by 2005.
8. Brian McCann, c
Age: 20. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 210.
Background: The son of former Marshall head baseball coach Howard McCann, Brian put together a solid first full season in pro ball. He ranked second in the organization in RBIs and fourth in batting.
Strengths: Drafted for his offensive potential, McCann has a pretty swing and plenty of raw power. But he's far from one-dimensional, as he's just a tick behind Brayan Pena as the top defensive catcher in the system. McCann's arm strength is good and his accuracy is improving. The Braves also love his hard-nosed attitude behind the plate.
Weaknesses: McCann has made major strides with his defense, but he's not a sure thing to remain at catcher. He'll need to continue to improve his footwork and agility. He also must stay in top physical shape in order to remain strong throughout the season. He homered just once during the last two months of the season after going deep 11 times in the first three.
The Future: He has much more offensive upside than projected 2004 starter Johnny Estrada, and the Braves are thrilled with the progress McCann has shown early in his career. He'll spend 2004 in high Class A.
9. Kyle Davies, rhp
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 190.
Background: Davies was considered a disappointment prior to the 2003 season, so much in fact that the Braves feared he had peaked in his mid-teens. He underwent a major change in his delivery at the end of 2002. After showing initial reluctance, Davies accepted the adjustments and progressed as much as any pitcher in the organization in 2003.
Strengths: His new delivery helped Davies go from throwing a flat 87-88 mph fastball to a 92-93 mph heater with plus movement that tops out at 95. His changeup is the best in the system, possessing excellent depth and fade. His command has improved and continues to get better. Davies always has displayed the intangibles necessary to succeed, particularly his intense competitiveness.
Weaknesses: Davies must avoid reverting to the tall-and-fall delivery that caused him to push his pitches to the plate. He also needs to improve his slider to give him a solid third pitch as a starter.
The Future: Davies opened the Braves' eyes with his ability to put away hitters. He'll open 2004 in high Class A, and a jump to Double-A at midseason wouldn't be a surprise.
10. Anthony Lerew, rhp
Age: 21. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 220.
Background: Lerew emerged as a prospect in 2002, when he was co-pitcher of the year in the Rookie-level Appalachian League. He was similarly effective at low Class A Rome, where he was the most consistent starter in a prospect-laden rotation. He also won the opening game of each of Rome's playoff series en route to the South Atlantic League title.
Strengths: Lerew has two plus pitches that have allowed him to dominate the lower minors. His 91-93 mph fastball possesses outstanding movement and impressive late sinking action. His changeup is nearly as effective as his heater and acts like a splitter. Lerew also has excellent makeup, size and intimidating mound presence.
Weaknesses: The development of his slider will determine how successful Lerew will be at higher levels. He used to throw a curveball and needs that third pitch to put better hitters away.
The Future: Lerew should become even better in the near future if his slider develops as expected. He'll move to high Class A and could develop into a middle-of-the-rotation starter in the majors.