Triple-A Richmond (20-7; International League)
It's one of the more hard-to-find transformations around, as outfielder Gregor Blanco has gone from prospect to organizational player, and then back to prospect again. The 23-year-old Venezuelan center fielder continues to improve his leadoff man skills, drawing 19 walks in 26 games while hitting .329/.452/.435 overall to lead the offense. Also getting notice is shortstop Yuni Escobar (.310/.340/.410), who isn't showing a ton of secondary skills, but is flashing fine contacts skills and his usual excellent glove work. Most of the team's excellent record is the product of a veteran pitching staff that has compiled an initial 2.37 ERA. It's not exactly prospect-laden, but after trying out older, experienced players at the back of the big league rotation, the Braves are finally giving the real prospect from Richmond's staff, righty Anthony Lerew (1.37 ERA in five starts) a look, and he pitched well in his season debut on Tuesday night.
Double-A Mississippi (20-11; Southern League)
Even with stud catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.309/.404/.617) temporarily in the big leagues after a sizzling start, there's still plenty to get excited about in this lineup. Shortstop Brent Lillibridge (.270/.374/.387) is drawing walks and stealing bases, but a disturbingly high strikeout rate is keeping his numbers down a bit. The big breakout is coming from outfielder Brandon Jones (.293/.336/.561) who is finally tapping into his raw power by hitting seven home runs, half of his previous single-season high, in just 123 at-bats. On the downside, third baseman Van Pope (.165/.225/272) has been nothing short of awful. On the mound, top pitching prospect Matt Harrison (3.35 ERA) has made four excellent starts, two average ones, and one bad one, while sleeper Dan Smith just keeps on rolling. Compared by one observer to a larger version of Chuck James, Smith has a 2.41 ERA, nearly a strikeout per inning, and like James, an alarmingly low groundball-to-flyball ratio (0.58). Closer Joey Devine is still missing bats, with 18 strikeouts in 15.1 innings, but also missing the strike zone often as well with seven walks and three hit batters. The good news is that he's yet to give up a home run.
High-A Myrtle Beach (14-16; Carolina League)
The Pelicans welcomed center fielder Jordan Schafer to the team this week, and no player in the organization has had more of a breakout campaign in the early going. Gifted and toolsy, Schafer hit .372/.441/.636 in 30 games for Rome, showing the power, hitting skills, and outstanding defense, leading one scout compare him to "Steve Finley with an arm." The Braves hope he'll jumpstart an ugly offense that has lost slugging third baseman Eric Campbell to a strained thumb that will likely keep him out until June. After coming out of nowhere last year to lead the organization with 28 home runs, first baseman Kala Kaaihue has come down to earth (.224/.337/.447). I've been far more critical of shortstop Elvis Andrus than most, and after a .245/.320/.382 start, I'm probably not letting up anytime soon; being young and having a high ceiling in wonderful, but at some point you have to hit a little bit. Lefty reliever Kevin Gunderson was seen as a player without a high ceiling, but one who could move quickly. Instead, he's lost his command, issuing 10 walks in 13.1 innings as part of a 6.08 ERA in 11 games.
Low-A Rome (9-21; South Atlantic League)
Only hitting a combined .233/.298/.341, the R-Braves are going to desperately miss Schafer. The best-hitting starter on the team right now is arguably infielder Chase Fontaine, and he's only hitting .250/.331/.306. After showing big power in the short-season leagues, outfielder Jon Mark Owings (yes, he's Micah's brother) has four home runs in 79 at-bats, but that's the only good thing to say about his overall performance (.203/.241/.418), as he's shown no versatility in his approach at the plate. Luckily, some of the rotation starters have been outstanding, and they're all good prospects to boot. The biggest highlights have been 2005 first-round pick Beau Jones, who had a tough year at Rome in 2006, but is now excelling in a bullpen role, with a 1.69 ERA in 21.1 innings and just 14 hits allowed. The bigger story has been draft-and-follow right-hander Tommy Hanson, who has 45 strikeouts in 30 innings while consistently dealing in the mid-90s. He could rocket up prospect lists by the end of the year.