Have you always wondered what happened to the top prospects in the Atlanta Braves system through the years? Well if so this new series will take a look at the career outcomes of players who made the Braves top prospect list every five years, dating back 35 years.
Why 35 years? That’s because you can find individual team Top 10 prospect lists dating as far back as 1983. Since we are sticking with years in fives to avoid covering the same players multiple times during the series, 1987 is the first multiple of five to be covered.
To keep things in a similar format, only one ranking source will be used. That means with Talking Chop prospect lists not being a thing 35 years ago, the only source that covers the entire timeline would be Baseball America, whose rankings can be found on The Baseball Cube website.
With that in mind let’s start taking a look at the earliest group of Braves top prospects available, 1987.
10. John Kilner, LHP
This shows how far prospect lists have come in the last 35 years. John Kilner is a guy without a ton of background info available but was Undrafted out of what appears to be high school, making his debut in the Braves organization in 1984.
Kilner never put up numbers that were particularly impressive in his career before 1987, though he did strikeout 11.3 hitters per nine innings in Low-A in 1985. He clearly made the list because of that, a lefty with the ability to miss bats despite a lack of pedigree and significant pro success.
The 1987 season was a tough one for Kilner, as he actually walked more guys than he struck out back in Low-A. He went on to rebound a bit on 1988 before a strong start to 1989 after moving to the bullpen got him promoted to Triple-A. He struggled mightily in Triple-A and began 1990 back in Double-A. He pitched fairly well out of the pen there, but that appears to be the end of the road for Kilner as he wasn’t seen again in pro ball.
9. Kent Mercker, LHP
As the fifth overall pick in the June 1986 MLB Draft it’s not a surprise to see Kent Mercker make the Braves Top 10, even with a strong farm system.
Mercker signed out of high school, went right to the GCL, and put up a pretty strong year after signing to help boost his status a bit more, though it is a bit of a surprise he isn’t higher considering other 1986 draft picks made this list as higher rankings.
Mercker stayed in the minors until 1989, and wasn’t a regular in Atlanta until 1990 where he spent his first seven big league seasons. Mostly a reliever, Mercker moved into more of a starter role towards the end of his tenure and was a starter for the bulk of the 1995 World Series season.
Mercker’s career lasted parts of 18 big league seasons, and eight were spent in Atlanta. He spent his first seven as a Brave before going to Baltimore for Joe Borowski, but returned in a late season deal with the Reds in 2003.
For his career Mercker made 692 appearances, including 150 starts, going 74-67 with a 4.16 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 25 saves. However the best years of his career came in a Braves uniform as he posted a 3.41 ERA and 1.32 WHIP as a Brave, and played big roles in the 1993, 1994, and 2003 seasons.
8. Drew Denson, 1B
Drew Denson was the 19th pick in the June 1984 MLB Draft and got off to a strong start to his career in 84 and 1985. Unfortunately he struggled in 1986, and made this list in 1987 likely based on what he showed earlier in his career.
Denson never did anything significant again production wise, but did get 12 games in Atlanta in 1989 and stayed with the Braves through 1990. He played for the White Sox, Reds, Orioles, and the Mexican League through 1997 but would only see four more games in the big leagues, as a member of the 1993 White Sox.
Denson ended up with 44 big league at bats, 39 coming with the 1989 Braves, hitting .244/.295/.268 with a double being his only extra base hit.
7. Ron Gant, OF
A fourth round pick in the June 1983 MLB Draft, Ron Gant was an interesting prospect heading into 1987. He really hadn’t done much to stand out in his first three pro seasons, before a big time breakout in High-A in 1986 by hitting 67 extra base hits(including 26 homers) and stealing 35 bases.
Gant didn’t start 1987 the way he ended 1986 in Double-A, but the then-second baseman did enough to earn his first trip to Atlanta that year. Though it would be until the next year when he came up for good.
Gant’s career in Atlanta was better than some remember, as he went 30/30 twice in a four year period and missed a third 30/30 season by four stolen bases. He won a Silver Slugger, got selected to an All Star game, and had a pair of Top 6 MVP finishes during this time.
Unfortunately he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident and missed the 1994 season, causing the Braves to release him. He was picked up by the Reds and had another big year in 1995 though the production started to dip immediately after and he became somewhat of a journeyman from there.
Gant played in 16 big league seasons, though just the first seven were as a Brave, and appeared for a total of eight teams. Overall he hit .256/.336/.468 with 321 homers and 243 steals.
His best years came in Atlanta, particularly right at the start of the Braves dynasty and one can’t help but to wonder what happened if he never got hurt what could have been with his power and speed combo.
6. Brian Deak, C
The Braves third round pick out of an Arizona JUCO, Brian Deak had a loud debut in short season ball as he hit 12 homers and stole 12 bases in 62 games. That from a catcher was enough to get him on the 1987 prospect list.
After continuing to slug across Class-A for the next three seasons, though not to the extent he did in 1986, Deak’s production really slowed as he reached the upper minors.
Deak would remain with the Braves through 1992, and made it as far as Triple-A before moving on. He had three more years, all in Triple-A but with the Mariners, Padres, and Cardinals before calling it a career.
5. Sean Ross, OF
The most shocking player on this list is probably Sean Ross, and not because he never reached the big leagues.
Ross was picked out of a North Carolina high school in the eighth round in 1986. He headed to the GCL after signing, hitting .305 with 31 steals and 14 extra base hits over 59 games. That was his entire resume and the Braves system was loaded, so seeing an eighth round pick make the No. 5 spot in organization the next spring without playing above the GCL was a bit of a shock.
Ross never quite reached the highs of his 1986 debut, batting injuries and inconsistent play. Still, he remained in the Braves system through the 1991 season and reached as high as Double-A.
After that he went to Boston and Colorado, reaching Triple-A for those organizations during the 1992 and 1993 seasons. That was it for him in affiliated ball, as he went on to play one year in the independent leagues in 1994.
4. David Justice, OF
The Braves used their fourth round pick in the June 1985 MLB Draft on David Justice. Justice would probably have ranked higher on this list, but after just a solid debut in 1985 all he had on his pro resume was a big 1986 season split between two levels of Class A, and he hadn’t yet appeared in the upper levels of the minor leagues.
Justice went on to reach Atlanta in 1989, before making it for good in 1990 and bringing home the Rookie of the Year that season. That would be the first of many awards for the slugger, as he made it to three All Star games, won a pair of Silver Slugger Awards, an ALCS MVP, and won World Series titles in 1995 then again with the Yankees in 2000.
Justice went on to spend 14 years in the big leagues, though only the first eight came as a Brave as he was traded to Cleveland in the spring of 1997 as part of the return for Kenny Lofton.
Justice looked like he could be on the way to stardom early in his career with the Braves, but after a 40 homer, 120 RBI season in 1993 he wouldn’t reach those numbers again until 2000. Some of that can be attributed to injuries and some inconsistent seasons, and he went on to move around a bit as he played with four teams.
Overall he hit .279/.378/.500 with 305 homers and 1,017 RBI. While it wasn’t quite the career some were thinking possible early in his run with the Braves, it was a long and excellent career for Justice.
3. Tommy Greene, RHP
The 14th overall pick in the June 1985 MLB Draft, Tommy Greene may be best remembered as the player to be named later in the August 1990 trade that sent Dale Murphy to Philadelphia in return for reliever Jeff Parrett.
Greene had pitched nine games in a Braves uniform before the trade, but actually had a couple of decent years in Philly- including his 1993 season where he finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting after going 16-4 with a 3.42 ERA (and no he didn’t come back to haunt the Braves in that 1993 NLCS, pitching to a 9.64 ERA over two starts).
Unfortunately for Greene he was never able to stay healthy, appearing in only 20 more games after that strong 1993 season. In fact his two strong seasons in 1991 and 1993 were the only two times in his big league career that he managed to break the 65 inning mark in a season.
For his career, Greene pitched in parts of eight big league seasons and went 38-25 with a 4.14 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 628 innings- though 407.2 of those innings were between two seasons.
2. Tom Glavine, LHP
The Braves used their second round pick in the June 1984 MLB Draft to take a two sport star drafted into the NHL by the Los Angeles Kings named Tom Glavine.
The lefty had a big year in Low-A in 1985, then had a solid year in 1986 as a 20-year old in Double-A before making a handful of starts in Triple-A to end that season. He would start there in 1987, but by the end of the season made his way to Atlanta. After the 1987 season Glavine would not see the minor leagues again until a rehab assignment more than 20 years later in 2008.
I think we all know how Glavine’s career went. He pitched for 22 seasons in the big leagues, including 17 with the Braves, winning 305 games, two Cy Young Awards, four Silver Sluggers, 10 All Star selections, and went on to be the World Series MVP when the Braves won in 1995 before retiring and heading into the Hall of Fame.
Glavine was never a big strikeout guy, but his command and pitchability helped him pitch to a 3.54 ERA and 1.31 WHIP, despite striking out just 5.3 hitters per nine innings for his career.
Glavine went down as one of the Top 5-10 pitchers in Braves team history and is still active with the team today, appearing on television broadcasts in the booth.
1. Jeff Blauser, SS
The fourth overall pick in the June 1984 MLB Draft, Jeff Blauser was the top prospect in the Braves system over Glavine and Justice. The shortstop hadn’t done much as a pro in 1984 or 1985, but had a strong year at then High-A Durham in 1986 to push him to the top of the rankings.
It turned out that the strong 1986 season was a springboard for Blauser, as he started the year in Double-A, moved up to Triple-A, and eventually made his debut in Atlanta during the 1987 season.
Blauser had a 13-year big league career, 11 of which were with Atlanta. He made a pair of All Star teams, won a Silver Slugger, and was the starting shortstop of the 1995 World Series Champions, before finishing his career with the Cubs. Overall Blauser hit .262/.354/.406 with 122 home runs in 5271 career plate appearances.
While he may not have deserved the top spot over Glavine, Justice, and maybe even Gant, getting over a decade from an above average big league starting shortstop is never a bad thing.