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Braves' system one that provides, supplies

Cable Guy

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In '09, affiliates help Atlanta acquire players, upgrade big club

A team's farm system can serve two purposes: to feed the big league club or to provide trading chips to bring in players from other teams to help the Major League club succeed. In 2009, the Braves' Minor League organization fulfilled both parts of that mission.

No one made more of a contribution in Atlanta than right-hander Tommy Hanson. Selected in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, he did not disappoint after dominating the Minors and then becoming the first pitcher to win Arizona Fall League MVP honors a year ago. Called up after two outstanding months at Triple-A Gwinnett, Hanson proceeded to go 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA to lead all rookie hurlers in ERA and place himself in the middle of the National League Rookie of the Year Award conversation. He went 6-2 over the final two months to be a major contributor to Atlanta's playoff push.

Hanson wasn't alone in helping the big league cause out. Kris Medlen came up through the farm system, a 2006 draftee who can start and relieve. He did both in Atlanta, though he was most effective out of the bullpen, particularly in the second half, when he had a 2.80 ERA.

"In general, we took a lot of positive steps forward," Braves farm director Kurt Kemp said. "We had guys who advanced to the Major League teams, like Tommy and Kris, as well as guys in the Minor League system who did things we expected. Some improved more than we expected and surprised us. We feel good about the steps forward the prospects took this year."

Some took steps to another organization. Needing help in Atlanta's outfield, the Braves pulled the trigger on one of the earliest deals of the season, sending a trio of talented Minor Leaguers to get Nate McLouth from the Pirates to play center. Charlie Morton had reached the bigs in 2008, and he was pitching well in Triple-A before heading to the Pirates' rotation. Gorkys Hernandez spent a year and a half with the Braves, and while he may not have quite lived up to the enormous hype, he's still a very talented center fielder who played in Double-A at age 21. Likewise, lefty Jeff Locke had been a little slow to develop, but that was nothing surprising for the high school draftee from New Hamsphire.

"Any time you lose three guys like those three, who we feel are good quality prospects, you're going to have to get somebody of the quality of Nate McLouth," Kemp said. "You have to give quality that might be a year or two away to get someone who can provide immediate value, like Nate."

Despite losing quality, the Braves have to feel good about not parting with any of their top three prospects: Hanson, outfielder Jason Heyward and first baseman Freddie Freeman. Heyward is considered by many to be the top prospect in all of baseball, and most other organizations would put Freeman in their top spot if they had him.

So there's still some elite talent not far from reaching Atlanta. The 2009 Draft, particularly advanced college lefty Mike Minor, the club's first-rounder, added some more who could help out soon. And there appears to be plenty of players at the bottom ready to make their way up the ladder. Danville, the Braves' affiliate in the rookie-level Appalachian League, went 47-21 in the regular season for a .691 winning percentage, as the Braves organization finished with a combined .503 mark. That Danville Braves club went on to win the Appalachian League title, its second in four years.


MLB.com's Preseason Picks

Jason Heyward, OF: The prediction was that the uber-talented outfielder would challenge for the organizational triple crown. He got the batting title part, with a .323 average tops among all full-season Braves hitters. His 17 homers were the third-highest total in the system, but he fell short of the leaderboard with 63 RBIs. Not that anyone's complaining, mind you.

Jeff Locke, LHP: It was thought Locke would have his "aha" moment in 2009, and it only came in June, as in, "Aha, I've been traded." Things still could very well click for the young lefty, but if it does, it will come in a Pirates uniform.

Jason Heyward, OF: It's hard to come up with enough superlatives for Heyward. He played at three levels, helping out in Triple-A down the stretch, and he hit everywhere. He didn't turn 20 until August, and he's just scratching the surface of his power potential. Still, he slugged .555 to go along with a .408 OBP.

Craig Kimbrel, RHP: It's not often a reliever gets Pitcher of the Year honors, but Kimbrel's climb through the system couldn't be ignored. He started in low Class A and finished in Triple-A, racking up 18 saves and a 2.85 ERA along the way. The hard-throwing righty struck out 103 in 60 combined innings while holding hitters to a .150 batting average against.

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