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Braves Top-5 Minor League Left Fielders

Cody Johnson led the Braves organization in homeruns in 2009.
Cody Johnson led the Braves organization in homeruns in 2009.

As we have already seen, the depth at most of the infield positions is pretty weak right now (except for maybe 1B) and nearly devoid of potential impact players. The OF is a bit different with 3-4 potential impact players in LF alone and several more between the other OF positions. The LF list is comprised almost exclusively of high risk/high reward tools players and demonstrates the Braves draft philosophy pretty well over the past 2 decades. If just one of these guys hit their ceiling we could have a very good power bat for the future. The problem is, that is a big if in almost all of these cases.

1. Cody Johnson B/T: L/R Born: 8/28/1988 HT: 6'4" WT: 195
Cody Johnson is probably the most.....controversial? interesting? prospect that will be discussed on any of these lists. And for good reason too. He was a controversial pick for the Braves when they spent their 1st round choice on him in the 2006 Draft , but they knew then that he was going to take a while to develop and they were willing to give him time. Cody lives for the home run and may have more raw power than any player in the minors right now. The big issue is that is his only real skill at the moment. He is the consummate boom or bust player.

The player that Cody Johnson is compared to most often is Adam Dunn, but there are some flaws with this comparison. Both guys have extreme power, but Dunn has always had very good patience at the plate with a solid idea of what he is doing. He is the perfect example of a 3-True Outcome player (guys who can be expected to either homer, strike out or walk in any plate appearance) and is a good example of Cody's best case scenario. Cody, while still having that power, has yet to show the same level of polish as Dunn, though there are some good signs. This year at Myrtle Beach Cody posted the highest walk totals of his career thanks to a 13% walk rate for the season, and he actually saw it increase after Freeman and Heyward were promoted and 5% better than he was with Rome. His ISOP was a very good .275 in Myrtle Beach which came from 51 of his 102 hits going for extra bases (32 homers, 18 doubles and 1 triple). He ended the year with an .861 OPS though he slumped quite hard in the final month of the season with a .741 OPS (still not horrible because of his good walks totals).

With Cody Johnson's good points comes some pretty glaring bad points. The K-rate is the first stat that anyone points to, and it really can't be ignored. Cody struck out in roughly 35% of his ABs this season. To put that in perspective Mark Reynolds struck out in about 33% of his ABs in the majors this season but he never posted higher than 28% in a full season in the minors and Adam Dunn never posted higher than 24% in the minors and Ryan Howard did put up 34%, but that was at AA and he was 24 years old. Johnson's strikeouts are a problem and won't ever go away and I think they do point to a root problem which is: 70% of his hits go to RF. He is a dead pull hitter which probably creates some exploitable holes in his swing. Cody also is known to be a pretty bad fielder in LF and the stats back this up as he has a career .940 fielding %. Yes he makes an error on SIX PERCENT of the balls he makes plays on. In the OF. Horrible.

Long story short, Cody has one outstanding skill (power) that has improved as he has moved up the ladder and one solid skill (taking walks) that is certainly a work in progress but still an asset to his offensive game. Outside of those two you would be hard pressed to find . But in the end, with just those two skills he posted an excellent OPS while playing half his games in a pitchers park (.790 OPS at home vs 929 on the road)  and had what I would consider a very productive season. Cody does have one other thing going for him: he is only going to be 21 next season and he will probably be in AA. I don't think he is going to set the world on fire in first taste of AA, but he could spend three years there and only be 24. Cody has already drawn praise from scouts for making more adjustments than most thought he was capable of. He has come a long way from the kid who posted a .541 OPS in the GCL. If he can continue to make progress being a more selective hitter, even if the strike outs stay exceptionally high, he will be a useful bat in some capacity. Expect to see him in Mississippi next season after finishing 2009 there.

2. Adam Milligan B/T: L/R Born: 03/14/1988 HT: 6'3" WT:  210
The Legend of Adam Milligan got off to a good start this season as he had and excellent debut in the system between 3 levels of ball (Danville, Rome and a short stint with Myrtle Beach). I only say he has a legend because of how many times I heard or read about him being drafted by the Braves 3 times. Obviously he is a guy the Braves wanted and finally got and he showed a bit of why this season.

Alan Matthews for Baseball America said that Milligan was "built like a Greek god" after the Braves took him the second time in 2007. He shows great raw power which led to an ISOP of .247 in almost 200 ABs in Rome and posted a .972 OPS. He pretty much raked from the time he started playing this year and didn't stop until his short promotion to the Carolina League (he had 25 PAs). Matt Forman (not me, I'm Matt ForEman) for Baseball America was asked about Milligan by a reader named Gondeee (from Atlanta) in a chat wrap and said that most scouts really like his hit tool, but no one is sure how it will translate as he moves up. I feel like this is true of most prospects but we have only seen one season of Milligan so far.

Adam didn't strike out a ton in his first season (about 20% at Rome which is acceptable) but he also didn't walk much at all (5.7% in Rome). Milligan is considered to be a bit a bit raw at the plate and the walks are a sign of that. If he can develop some ability to take a walk (like most young players) and keep the Ks in line he is going to be a very interesting bat. A good start to next season can put him on a lot of people's prospect radars. Next year could be his coming out party.

3. Willie Cabrera B/T: R/R Born: 08/03/1986 HT: 5'11" WT: 185
Willie Cabrera has long been a favorite player of mine for no real reason that I can ascertain. He was drafted by the Braves in the 14th round of the 2005 draft out of Los Angeles Pierce JC. Cabrera played most of this season as a 22 year old in AA which is right about where you want a solid prospect to be. He played mostly infield in college and high school and actually had a season ending knee injury his Jr. year of high school but came back for his Sr season and helped lead his high school team to the top of Baseball America's post season rankings.

Getting a good read on what Willie can do isn't the easiest task in the world because his seasons are a but if a mixed bag. After posting a .645 OPS between Rome and Myrtle Beach in 2007, Willie had a bit of a breakout season back at Myrtle Beach last year with an .818 OPS along with 16 HR (more than the previous 2 seasons combined). At first glance this season looks like a bit of a regression as he posted just a .735 OPS with 8 HR in Mississippi, but there are a couple of counter points to that. First Mississippi is one of the toughest parks in the minors to hit in and his stats bear this out (784 OPS on the road vs 680 at home). Also, Willie improved significantly as the season wore on as he posted a .960 OPS in August and was over .800 in June and July after struggling to start the season.

Willie doesn't walk a bunch even though he has shown solid improvement since being drafted but he also doesn't strike out a lot. He has a smooth line drive stroke that keeps the bat in the zone for a long time which results in a lot of contact. His speed is not an asset and his defense has gone from pretty bad to OK in the last couple of seasons. Willie has to potential to be a solid 4th outfielder in the majors but to do that he needs to show that the power he flashed in 2008 wasn't a fluke. Otherwise you are looking a slap hitter who doesn't hit for high average, doesn't take walks and can't steal bases.

4. Robert Hefflinger B/T: R/R Born: 01/03/1990 HT: 6'5" WT: 225
Robby Hefflinger is a typical Braves draft pick. He is a young, toolsy Georgia native with lots of projection. Atlanta took him in the 7th round of the 2009 draft out of Georgia Perimeter College and he started his pro career with Danville. At 6'5" and 225 LBs he is one of the most physically imposing figures in the system and shares a few similarities with Adam Milligan. Both guys generate a lot of power with their big frames and both guys have some issues with plate discipline.

Hefflinger's debut in Danville was solid if unspectacular. He started strong out of the shoot hitting 4 HR in his first month with a .939 OPS. He fell back to earth in July and August and finished the year with a .671 OPS. His calling card is of course his power as he hit 11 HR in his season at Perimeter College. Robby was originally a UGA recruit in 2008 but opted for JuCo instead in hopes of improving his draft stock. He pitched and played the OF as well as serving as the team's backup catcher and was actually considered by some teams as a pitcher after he went 7-0 with a 2.68 ERA. Most teams were impressed enough with his bat to give him a shot as an OF and the Braves jumped him straight to Danville, skipping the GCL entirely. Having been a catcher and a pitcher he shows a strong arm from the OF but he is still learning the nuances of the position.

Hefflinger has the same caveats as most young, toolsy prospects. He needs to improve his plate discipline and cut down on his strike outs. Currently he has excellent tools but it is still too early to predict what will happen with him. Look for him to start 2010 with Rome.

5. Layton Hiller B/T: R/R Born: 05/18/1988 HT: 6'3" WT: 220
Layton Hiller is cut from the same mold as Adam Milligan and Robby Hefflinger. He is a big, physical guy with lots of power. He was taken in the 15th round of the 2008 draft out of Blinn JC in Texas. He led the team in AVG, 2B, HR and RBI and posted a .724 SLG in his final season there. Scouts and coaches love his big body and his tape measure shots.

Hiller began 2009 in the GCL as a 21 year old, already a knock against him, and posted nearly an .800 OPS in 197 ABs. This clearly isn't ideal as he is already 2 years older than what Hefflinger played at in Danville. That said, as similar as his tools are to Milligan and Hefflinger, he is much more raw than those two as he walked in only about 3% of his ABs this season. He was a bit better last year in the GCL with closer to 7% walks but that still isn't ideal for 20 year old in the GCL. I get the feeling that Hiller is enamored with hitting home runs and when he is mashing (he did post a .207 ISOP in the GCL which is solid for that league) he forgets about the other aspects of the game.

The prognosis for Hiller is the same as for Hefflinger. Strike out less and walk more, but do it faster because you are older. Layton finished 2009 with a short stint in Rome and with his age he will probably start back there in 2010. He needs to improve vastly and quickly if he wants to become a true prospect. The tools are there but the skills aren't.

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