I know a lot of readers are Braves fans, so I wanted to take a minute and look at the state of the Braves minor league system. While the team is not in a position to give up 3-4 top prospects as it was last year at the trade deadline, any speculation that the farm system is dry of talent is way off base.
It appears the front office's plan for this year is to ride Hudson, Jurrjens, Glavine (when healthy), and Reyes in the rotation. Gonzalez looks good so far as closer and when Soriano gets better, Boyer and Ohman can get a little more rest - so the bullpen looks decent. Since it doesn't look like Frank Wren will acquire a pitcher before July 31 (they cost too much in a deal anyway) I think the team is going to go after an outfield bat. A guy that would make perfect sense is Raul Ibanez - a left handed hitting left fielder that still swings a pretty good bat. He would be a huge upgrade over the B. Jones/Norton/Blanco/Diaz combination. Although 36, Ibanez comes without a huge contract (pro-rated portion of 5.5 million) and is a perfect 2 hole hitter.
We are all reminded of how much better Kelly Johnson is hitting lower in the order every night by Joe Simpson, so the benefits of getting a left fielder that is also a 2 hole hitter are even greater. So, what will it take to land Ibanez (currently .277-9-47)? First, lets take a look at what I think are the Braves top 10 prospects...
1) Jordan Schafer - Probably the starting center fielder for 2009, Schafer spent the first 50 games of the season suspended for taking a banned substance. It has taken him a while to get going once coming back, but he is hitting .433 over his last 8 games. He can cover a lot of ground in center, hits for average, has good speed, and has a good eye at the plate.
2) Jason Heyward - Schuerholz hit a home run with his final 1st round pick with the 19 year old outfielder. Heyward is playing in Rome (a tough ballpark to hit a bunch of homers) and is currently .333-7-33 and is 12 for 13 in stolen bases. Another home grown player from Henry County, Heyward may be a replacement for Francoeur in 2 years if we decide not to give him a long term deal (maybe a good idea).
3) Brandon Jones - We have seen a good bit of Jones lately, and if we tank it the next month I would like to see him out there every day in left. He has really come on the last 2-3 years and is almost ready to be an everyday player. He plays above average left field, hits for pretty good power, and seems to have good at bats.
4) Gorkys Hernandez - If we started a "Best and Worst of the Frank Wren Era," the Edgar Renteria for Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez would be a solid #1. Hernandez was recently selected to play in the Future's Game All-Star Game Weekend, posting a .318 average this year and an OBP of .379.
5) Cole Rohrbough - Cole is a 21 year old LHP that I really like. He has struggled a bit in Rome this year, but he gets some slack after striking out 96 batters in 61 innings last season at Danville and Rome. He projects as a 2-3 starter in a few years.
6) Cody Johnson - Cody was the Braves 1st round pick in 2006 out of Panama City, FL. A 6'4 left handed hitting outfielder, Cody struggled his first season adjusting from high school ball. Since then, however, he has shown the type of power that Braves scouts saw when they drafted him. Last season at Danville he went .305-17-57 and already has 10 HR's this year at Rome.
7) Thomas Hanson - After starting the year at Myrtle Beach and going 3-1 with a 0.90 ERA in 7 starts, Hanson was promoted to Mississippi. He has been good there as well, going 4-3 with a 4.32 ERA so far with as many strikeouts as innings pitched. Hanson is 6'6 and while he does not throw extremely hard, is very efficient. The right hander could compete for a spot in the rotation next season.
8) Jon Gilmore - This 19 year old 3rd baseman is still adjusting to pro ball but has tremendous upside. He has great hands and once he figures out pro pitching and wooden bats, I see him as a big leaguer.
9) Brent Lillbridge - Lillbridge may not be more than a utility/fill in starter guy, but I think he can be one of the better ones in the game. Extremely versatile, I see Lillbridge becoming a Mark DeRosa type player.
10) Steve Evarts - Evarts started off great in Rome this year, posting a 1.50 ERA in his first 3 starts, but has run into the injury bug. Once he gets healthy, Evarts, a 6'3 LHP will be on the fast track to Atlanta.
Now, which of these guys might be trade bait for Ibanez? Shafer is penciled in next year as a starter and Heyward is close to untouchable, so probably not either of those guys. Brandon Jones is a guy that is close to starting and would be coveted by Seattle, but unless Wren thinks he can sign Ibanez to an extension, Jones will probably stay. Hernandez is a likely trade option because he is a center fielder Shafer is ahead of him. Rohrbough and Evarts are lefty pitchers which teams always want.
I could see an Ibanez for Hernandez/Evarts/other prospect deal going through. Seattle just gave up their best outfield prospect, Adam Jones, in the Erik Bedard trade so an outfielder in return is probably a must. If the Braves can get Raul, take a look at the lineup they can put out there when everyone is healthy:
A bit lefty heavy, but late inning match-ups can be countered with former starters Omar Infante and Matt Diaz being available off the bench.
Pull the trigger Frank! The last 2 post-seasons have been tough to watch on TV and the National League is there to be won! Long live the Curse of the Billy Goat!!!!