Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Best 5 Braves Drafts Since 2000 - #3

Halfway home in this series as I alternate back to the "Best" side with a draft that produced just two established major leagues so far, but their impact on the Braves is significant.

Best/Worst Drafts since 2000
Worst: #5, 2009 | #4, 2004 | #3, 2013 | #2, 2011 | #1, 2001
Best: #5, 2010 | #4, 2015 | #3, 2007 | #2, 2002 | #1, 2000

3rd Best Draft Since 2000 - The 2007 Draft

Credit: Tommy Poe / Freeman and Heyward with
Myrtle Beach in 2009
At first glance, 2007 was a win - but it could have been so much more. Questionable picks after the second round kept this draft from being more than it could have been. Fortunately, two stars were acquired early on to make this draft a major asset for the Braves.

The season of 2006 was a massively disappointing year for the organization. One year after graduating a host of youngsters known as the Baby Braves to the majors, Atlanta struggled to stay within striking distance of the New York Mets, who ran away with the NL East title. Atlanta was meandering through the season until June hit. That month, they would flat-line into a 6-21 run that the Braves could not recover from. The big problem was that the rotation - long a strength for the Braves. It didn't help that Chris Reitsma was blowing games left-and-right, not that Jorge Sosa couldn't harness whatever made him a decent pitcher for the '05 team.

The only thing positive to come from the 2006 season was that the 79-83 season gave way to the #14th overall pick of the '06 draft. That wasn't all as the defection of Danys Baez (remember him?) gave the Braves a supplemental first round choice (#33rd) and the Orioles' second rounder (#69 overall). Atlanta also had their second rounder, the 78th overall, inside the Top 100. The scene was set for a big draft haul.

The stars aligned in another way. The Atlanta Braves were desperate to draft Jason Heyward, a potential franchise keystone. However, would he be available at #14? Baseball America had ranked him the ninth best prospect heading into 2007 and remarked that no one had a bigger upside. Of course, Atlanta has never been shy about finding some less-than-honorable ways to open the doors to acquire the local talent they want. Allegedly, that is. Atlanta put up a smokescreen to avoid looking too interested in Heyward, least they tip their hand. Working in the Braves' favor was Heyward's reputation as a fearsome hitter to gameplan around. While the Braves had been scouting him since he was 11 and kept an eye on him in summer league games where he would use a wooden bat, other teams focused on his high school games. Pitchers were afraid to throw to him and Heyward, as we would later learn, was a patient hitter.

But still, the Braves needed luck. Ed Creech, the Pirates scouting director and Georgian native, passed on him. The Rockies, Nationals, and Indians also passed on him - due in no small part to not seeing him swing the bat enough. However, one team was very interested and picked two picks in front of the Braves. The then-Florida Marlins area scout, Brian Bridges, compared Heyward's swing to Willie McCovey and told anyone who would listen that Heyward was the real deal. In a private workout with the Marlins, Heyward belted homers on half of the 60 pitches he saw. But the Marlins, citing Heyward's signability, went with 3B Matt Dominguez and then paid him $100K more than Heyward got. Bridges felt the Marlins were using Dominguez's position as the deciding factor, believing it would be easier to find a right fielder than a third baseman. In their defense, 64 picks later, they took Giancarlo Stanton.

Atlanta's war room went crazy and suddenly, the road was clear for them to draft Heyward. Bridges would be hired away from the Marlins to help sign Heyward. But Atlanta was far from being done. They had 49 more draft selections. Their next two were used on a high school third baseman, Jon Gilmore, and right-hander Josh Fields out of the University of Georgia. Nine picks later, they drafted lanky Freddie Freeman out of El Modena High School in Orange, CA. Their next eleven picks were a mixture of junior college and four-year guys like Brandon Hicks, Cory Gearrin, Travis Jones, Michael Fisher, and "pitcher" Brandon Belt. The last name wouldn't sign. Neither would Fields. Fifth-round selection Dennis Dixon out of the University of Oregon did sign, but played just one summer before returning to college to start at QB for the Oregon Ducks.

Righties Caleb Brewer and Paul Demny (who didn't sign) represented the first two high schoolers taken after the rush of college players, but Atlanta would head back to college-age guys in the 16th through 21st rounds. Some interesting names from the remainder of the draft include C.J. Lee in the 20th round, Benino Pruneda in the 31st, and a pair of players in the 27th and 33rd rounds who would both be drafted again the following season (Adam Milligan and Craig Kimbrel).

The draft would be known for Heyward and Freeman. Each would climb up the ladder and become good friends with a bromance reminiscent of Jeff Francoeur and Brain McCann a few years before. Gilmore would be used by the Braves to acquire Javier Vazquez from the White Sox in the winter of 2008-09. Hicks and Gearrin would both get to the majors with Gearrin following Hicks' footsteps by becoming a semi-established player for the Giants. But the Braves weren't able to develop anymore of the players. While three (Fields, Belt, and 24th rounder Mitch Harris) would all make it to the majors, it was only after re-entering the draft and getting selected by a different team. Of course, the relationship with Kimbrel would become very fruitful.

Pruneda and Fisher both flashed big potential at times, but neither saw their careers progress to AAA with the Braves. Fisher's career is over, but Pruneda continues to try to harness some filthy stuff and recently made his Triple-A debut with the Royals' organization.

This draft really only developed two great players, but their greatness helps push this draft into my Top 5. Heyward gave the Braves five good seasons once he made it to the majors before being traded to the Cardinals. If you add Shelby Miller's deal, the Braves effectively 24.6 WAR from Heyward plus Tyrell Jenkins, Ender Inciarte, Aaron Blair, and Dansby Swanson. Really shines up this draft even if the Braves may have tried to be sneaky as possible to get Heyward.

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