Changing things up a little this week. As you know if you follow the blog, over the last month, I have been taking a retrospective look at the Baseball America’s Top Ten Prospects in the Atlanta Braves system yearly report. It’s a fun look back, but as can be expected, many of the prospects repeat as they move up the ladder. This presents too many redundant entries. So, starting this week, I’ll spotlight one prospect, talk about the biggest bust, and add some other comments. I’ll start with the top 10 along with, if applicable, their placement in that year’s Top 100 and/or placement on previous Top Ten’s for the Braves.
If you’d like to take a view at previous versions of this series, click here.
Atlanta’s Top Ten Prospects for 2002 according to Baseball America
1. Wilson Betemit, ss – BA Top 100: #8 – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2001 (1st), 2003 (2nd)
2. Adam Wainwright, rhp – BA Top 100: #42 – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2001 (7th), 2003 (1st), 2004 (3rd)
3. Kelly Johnson, ss – BA Top 100: #47 – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2005 (8th)
4. Brett Evert, rhp – BA Top 100: #66 – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2000 (10th), 2003 (9th)
5. Carlos Duran, of – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2003 (7th)
6. Matt Belisle, rhp – BA Top 100: #96 – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2001 (4th)
7. Zach Miner, rhp
8. Gonzalo Lopez, rhp – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2003 (10th)
9. Bubba Nelson, rhp – Other Years in Braves Top Ten: 2003 (4th), 2004 (4th)
10. Jung Bong, lhp
Some of you readers may have associated with me at our former forum, www.chopnation.com. While the group has moved to Facebook for the most part, the forum was our haven for Braves talk in the latter half of the 21st Century’s first decade. We got to know each other and the kind of players each forum member liked. Some were intrigued by speedy guys and believed stolen bases were lacking in Atlanta. Others were attracted to the hype and hope that a player like Jeff Francoeur had. Me? Kelly Johnson was my guy. I was known as his apologist and even as I accepted that non-tendering him following the 2009 season was the right move, it still hurt to see him go. A running joke at our current Facebook group is that whenever there is even a hint at a weakness at his positions, I’ll champion the idea of bringing back KJ.
Back in 2002, KJ landed on this list and was recognized as one of the top 50 prospects in baseball after a massive season for Randy Ingle and the Rome Braves. He slashed a cool .289/.404/.513 with 23 homers, 25 steals, and 71 walks. He also didn’t ground into a double play in some baseball stats oddity. Kelly, who was the 38th pick in the 2000 draft and only 19 during the 2001 season, was fast on his way to becoming one of the hottest prospects in baseball. A disappointing 2002 followed where the Myrtle Beach wind took away his power. 2003 with Greenville was interrupted by injuries, but he finally reclaimed his prospect status with a .818 OPS with the G-Braves the following season. By 2005, he was knocking on the door and made his debut that season, taking over left field for the Baby Braves out of necessity. After missing the next season due to injury, KJ landed in the majors with a big 2007 season as the leadoff hitter and learn-on-the job 2B.
His two follow-up campaigns didn’t live up to the hype of his first season and the Braves sent KJ packing after a 2009 season that saw the emergence of Martin Prado. Since then, he has played for all of the AL East teams along with the D’Backs. Recently, he has developed into a utility guy, playing three infield positions and the corner outfield positions just last year. For his career, he has posted a .755 OPS and nearly 17 fWAR in nine seasons.
Before the 2002 season, it was reasonable to think Bubba Nelson was the next in the long line of top starters the Braves would churn out. While it would be easy to bury Nelson in the system that posted three starters in the Top 100, Nelson was hardly a slouch. Drafted 13 picks after KJ, Nelson was also a member of that prospect-laden Macon roster. In fact, only one of the five starters would make it to the majors with Wainwright the best of the group. The one that missed the majors? Nelson.
Despite being a Top 75 prospect according to Baseball America in both 2003 and 2004, Nelson would fail to get just about anyone out at the AAA level. The latter of those accolades came after the Braves had moved Nelson to the Reds in the Chris Reitsma trade. Nelson lasted two seasons with the Reds and a year each with the Padres, Phillies, and Jays. But no matter the stop, AAA hitter brutalized im. In 161 innings over 46 games, and 23 starts, Nelson posted a 5.87 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and gave up 26 homers. That last stat is more informative when you make it 1.5 HR/9. In 2001, he K’d over a batter an inning. In parts of four seasons in AAA, that number was about 6 K/9. Nelson’s career was over after 2009, which was spent not getting outs for the independent level Pensacola Pelicans. Since giving up baseball, he has apparently became an educator.
-Talk about what could have been. Gonzalo Lopez was a big international free agent signing and was excellent in the Gulf Coast League in 2001 and with Macon the following season. Only 19, things looked great for the kid. However, the injuries became too much for Lopez, who pitched 10 innings in 2003, 12.1 ING in 2006, and 47 innings in 2008 while missing all of 2005 and 2007. His career was over following his 6.32 ERA in 2008.
-Carlos Duran found a second life following his last American professional season in 2007 when he joined the Italian League and in 2010, he became the only non-Italian to win the league’s Triple Crown. Not bad considering how his prospect life as a Brave was short.
-In today’s era of memes, Jung Bong would have been a star.