LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Braves had just two players on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list, released in January. That's a far cry from the three in the Top 50 the organization had in 2011 or the five prospects on the '12 list. While that might cause some to deride the Braves' system, there are reasons Atlanta's front-office staff feels the organization is in better shape than many feel.
"I think our farm system is better than people are giving credit for being," Braves assistant general manager John Coppolella said. "I think it's tough, because so many players have come through our system and done so well that are at the Major League level right now. If you look at players 25 and younger, I would put the Braves' system up against any system in baseball."
Picking near the end of the first round annually in the Draft, as well as not being on the selling side of a trade to bring in prospects of late, has no doubt taken its toll. Beyond Lucas Sims and Christian Bethancourt, no other Braves prospect in their new Top 20 garnered serious Top 100 consideration.
That doesn't mean there isn't talent. The new Top 20 does have some intriguing talent, even if much of it is further away. The top group of names has some arms -- 11 of the 20 are pitchers -- that, along with Sims atop the list, should have Braves fans optimistic about the future of the pitching staff. That includes 2013 first-rounder Jason Hursh, right-hander Mauricio Cabrera and a now-healthy J.R. Graham.
The 2013 season began with one of those 25-and-under types, Julio Teheran, at the top, but he graduated off the list, and his fine rookie campaign led to a six-year contract. Graham was No. 4, but he's dropped a few spots to No. 6 because of the injury concerns. Sean Gilmartin, No. 5 to start off 2013, was traded to the Twins for Ryan Doumit this offseason.
Bethancourt is once again the top position player in the system, with shortstop Jose Peraza not far behind him at No. 4, though like with much of the talent in this system, he's a few years from being ready.
Evan Gattis and Alex Wood joined Teheran on the graduated list, while Carlos Franco, David Peterson and Juan Jaime dropped from the list because of performance and injuries. Those holes have been filled by players like 2013 draftees Victor Caratini and Kyle Wren, third baseman Kyle Kubitza and right-hander Shae Simmons.
"We probably don't have a top-five system right now, but a lot of it goes in cycles," Coppolella said. "We had a very good system a few years ago. They're all up here now and they helped us win 96 games last year. We feel like there is a next wave on its way. We feel there's a really good group there. We feel there are a lot of underrated prospects in our system, and it will be exciting to see them come through and help us in Atlanta."
Three questions with Jason Hursh
Hursh was the Braves' first-round pick in 2013, taken No. 31 overall, out of Oklahoma State. He's participating in his first Spring Training, in big league camp.
MLBPipeline.com: What are your impressions of big league camp? And were you surprised you got the invite?
Hursh: It was a shock at first. I was looking back at this time last year and I was getting ready for college games. In a blink of an eye, I'm in a clubhouse full of big league guys. It's cool, it's a dream come true. It was a little of a surprise, honestly. I didn't know what to expect. When I did get the call, I was excited. I knew it would be a special deal.
MLBPipeline.com: Are you fiddling around with pitches to see what works best?
Hursh: Here and there, a little bit. I was mainly a slider guy in college. That's what I could really control a lot better. That's one of the things they changed with me when I first showed up here. They wanted to make me a true curveball guy. That's what I threw in high school and I was comfortable with it. I'm really working on that pitch right now, but if I get that down, I can always go back to that slider and have another secondary pitch that I'm comfortable with.
MLBPipeline.com: Having come back from Tommy John surgery, is it something that you don't think about any more? Was it a blessing in disguise that you got it out of the way?
Hursh: Exactly, it was in the aspect that it's out of the way and I felt I came back 100 times stronger. I think I physically matured. I don't really think about it. I think I have a new tendon in my elbow that's stronger than it was before. I just kind of let it go.
Camp standout: Juan Jaime
Jaime may have dropped off of the Top 20 list, but he was turning heads in the early stages of Braves camp.
Guys that throw hard often do create a buzz, and Jaime does just that. Right from the get-go, Jaime's electric arm got rave reviews.
"I caught Jaime," veteran catcher Gerald Laird said. "He has explosive stuff. The fastball is in the upper 90s, with that split and a slider. I caught him the first day, and it looked like his arm really belongs in camp."
Jaime joined with young arms like No. 9 David Hale and No. 19 Shae Simmons in opening some early eyes, each with a chance to impact the big league bullpen. Starting prospect J.R. Graham (No. 6) also pleased many by being healthy and throwing well.
Jaime has never had trouble throwing hard. At first, he had trouble staying healthy, missing two seasons in 2010 and '11 with the Nationals and D-backs following Tommy John surgery. The Braves nabbed Jaime on waivers following the 2011 season and he's stayed healthy since, putting his 80 fastball on display and striking out 13.8 per nine innings over the past two seasons. He's also given up close to 5.9 walks per nine in the same time span. Jaime's control, along with difficulty in throwing his secondary stuff consistently, are big reasons why didn't have a great 2013 season in Double-A and why he didn't make the Top 20.
Jaime's early work in big league camp has been encouraging. Getting him to trust his stuff and understand that he never has to nibble would go a long way in getting him to Atlanta's bullpen soon.
"With that kind of stuff, it's mostly commanding within the zone," Laird said. "I'm not asking him to hit corners when you have that kind of stuff. When he settles in and can throw strikes when he wants, it's going to be make it a lot easier for him.
"The main concern with him is just getting him around the plate, because his stuff is good enough where he can throw it over the plate and get away with it. When you ask him to hit corners and he starts walking guys, that's when you get into trouble. If he just commands his stuff in the zone, he's going to be fine."
Breakout candidate: Tommy La Stella
Wherever La Stella has been, he's hit. He finished his college career with a .384 average. La Stella has hit .327 with a .412 OBP as a pro since being an eighth-round Draft pick of the Braves in 2011. The problem has been he simply hasn't been on the field enough to allow that bat to cary him to the big leagues
La Stella has yet to play more than 90 games in any one season. Continuing to work on his play at second this spring has been a focus, with the feeling the bat will continue to be there. If he can stay away from the disabled list, this could be big year for La Stella, one that could end with him in Atlanta.
"I think he can really hit and he may get an opportunity in Atlanta if the need arises," Coppolella said. "He needs to play more games. We need him to stay healthy and continue to improve his defense. But the guy can flat out hit."