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.
Disappointment has become commonplace for the Braves over the past several Octobers, but the dejection they experienced after losing to the Cubs in the 2003 National League Division Series might have topped the charts.
After tying the Yankees for the major league lead with 101 victories only to come up short of the World Series yet again, Atlanta is expected to face another overhaul at the major league level. The Braves face budget limitations while many of their important contributors from 2003-including Javy Lopez, Greg Maddux and Gary Sheffield, whose salaries totaled $32.75 million, roughly one-third of Atlanta's payroll-await free agency.
Despite the potential storm clouds on the horizon, the situation in Atlanta is more sunny than gloomy. The team picked up a $6.2 million option on righthander Russ Ortiz, who led the National League with 21 wins after coming from the Giants in an offseason trade for Damian Moss and Merkin Valdez. The payroll could be cut to the mid-$80 million range in 2004, but that would still put the Braves among the top third in baseball in salary.
A deep farm system, bolstered in large part by four straight strong drafts under scouting director Roy Clark, also has the Braves in an enviable position. Help is on the way at a variety of key positions, beginning in 2004 at catcher (Johnny Estrada), and followed at third base (Andy Marte) and right field (Jeff Francoeur).
If the Braves can combine those prospects with such established standouts as Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles, Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, they could field a championship-caliber lineup dominated by homegrown players. And throughout the team's unprecedented run of success, mixing new players in each year has been standard operating procedure.
Clark and the Braves continue to maintain the philosophy of drafting high school players, particularly in the first 10 rounds, with a heavy emphasis on pitching. They also have worked to upgrade the team's catching. In addition to acquiring Estrada from Philadelphia last winter, Atlanta nabbed Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the first two rounds of the past two drafts. Cuban Brayan Pena has continued to develop. The organization is also building a solid crop of outfielders, though the infield positions aren't as strong as the others.
Atlanta was uncharacteristically successful in the lower minors in 2003, winning its first low Class A South Atlantic League title since 1979 and its first Rookie-level Gulf Coast League championship since 1964. That's another sign that the organization is succeeding with its commitment to drafting and developing younger players.
One reason the Braves feel confident with that approach is the longevity of its minor league staff. Rick Albert, Randy Ingle and Brian Snitker all have spent at least a quarter-century in the Atlanta farm system. The Braves also brought back veteran pitching coach Bill Fischer this fall after shocking many observers by firing roving pitching coordinator Rick Adair.
Top Prospect: Andy Marte, 3B
Age: 20 Ht.: 6-1 Wt.: 185. Bats: R Throws: R
Background: After leading the low Class A South Atlantic League with 105 RBIs in 2002, Marte jumped to high Class A and continued his emergence as one of the top infield prospects in the game. He overcame a rough start that included a .200 batting average during April to pace the Carolina League in doubles and extra-base hits. That type of turnaround was no surprise, for Marte never has had difficulty staying focused. In his first pro season after signing with the Braves for $600,000, he struggled to make contact and batted just .200 at Rookie-level Danville. He learned from that experience and hasn't looked back since.
Strengths: Marte has a quick, line-drive stroke that continues to add power as his body matures. His pitch recognition is as good as anyone's in the system, and he has the uncanny ability to make adjustments with his swing while the ball is on the way to the plate. For a young player, he already understands the importance of drawing walks and made significant strides in that area in 2003. While defense was once a struggle for Marte, hard work and experience have paid off for him at third base. He has improved on charging slow rollers and on making accurate throws. He has average speed, and is a smart and effective baserunner. Marte's desire to succeed is strong, yet he never lets his emotions get the best of him. His ability to stay on an even keel and separate the different aspects of the game has put him on the fast track to the major leagues.
Weaknesses: His defensive footwork could stand some upgrading, especially when going back on balls and to his left. But the Braves are confident Marte will develop into no worse than an average defender at the hot corner.
The Future: While spending full seasons at both Class A stops, Marte has made rapid progress and shows no sign of slowing down on his way to the big leagues. He's the best third-base prospect in the minors and unquestionably the Braves' long-term answer at the hot corner. The Braves want Marte to spend most of the upcoming season at Double-A Greenville, but his progress and the needs in Atlanta could accelerate his ETA. He should make his big league debut no later than a September callup.