Originally created 02/19/01

Prospects have huge footsteps to follow



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- A wall of lockers separates the men fromthe boys inside the Atlanta Braves clubhouse.

The carpeted distance between minor league dreamers and Cy Young winners is no more than 60 feet, six inches, but in reality the span separating Greg Maddux and Christian Parra is the difference between NASA's Mercury program and the space shuttle.

The kids who will be kings need only walk around a corner to see a trio of Cy Young winners. And, if that's not enough motivation, they only have to peruse each pitcher's biography to realize that Maddux and Tom Glavine turn 35 this spring and John Smoltz will be 34 in May.

"We have to follow the footsteps of the main guys," said Parra, who led the Carolina League with 17 wins and was second with a 2.28 earned run average last season. "It's kind of like we have to keep the tradition going."

Pitching excellence has become synonymous with the Braves. In the last 10 years, the staff has led the major leagues in earned run average seven times and the Big Three have won six Cy Young Awards.

It started with then-general manager Bobby Cox and scouting director Paul Snyder focusing their attention on drafting and developing pitchers in the late 1980s. John Schuerholz, who built a world championship team in Kansas City, embraced the philosophy when he arrived following the 1990 season.

The rest, as they say, is history. Nine straight division championships, five NL pennants and a World Series title, and the single constant (besides winning) has been terrific pitching.

"I wouldn't say we have unabashedly and consistently reminded our (scouts) that pitching is the key, they just scout that way," Schuerholz said. "Sometimes to the extent that we have to remind ourselves that we have to have other players too."

As Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz have gotten older (and progressively more expensive), the Braves have had to face the reality of developing pitchers to replace them. Thus, their last three No. 1 picks in June's amateur draft have been pitchers and of their top 10 prospects rated by Baseball America, seven are pitchers.

The pitcher most likely to succeed one of the Cy Young winners is Matt McClendon, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound right-hander who split last season between Class A Myrtle Beach and Class AA Greenville. The club spent nearly $1 million to sign him in 1999 and its faith was rewarded when the 23-year-old jumped three levels in two years. McClendon will likely start the season at Class AAA Richmond and depending on the team's needs, reach Atlanta later in the season.

"There's definitely expectations to being a pitcher in the Braves organization and I think that's good," McClendon said. "You're supposed to do something one way because that's the way it's done. The Braves have shown over the last 10 years that pitching is the name of the game and they've done a great job of building on it."

There's no falloff in quality behind McClendon. Matt Belisle, a baby-faced right-hander who accepted a club-record $1.75 million bonus to sign in 1998, was named the South Atlantic League's best pitching prospect last summer. He moved up to Myrtle Beach midway through the season and figures to start there this year, then jump to Greenville and reach Atlanta in 2002 at age 22.

After posting mind-boggling numbers at Myrtle Beach (3-0, 0.79 ERA) last season, 24-year-old Billy Sylvester received an invitation to major league camp. Named the top relief prospect in the Carolina League, he has a closer's fastball and a sharp curve and needs only to develop an off-speed pitch to be ready to join Atlanta's bullpen.

Negotiations with Adam Wainwright went so smoothly last summer he was in a Gulf Coast League uniform within a week of the draft. The club's No. 1 pick, the 19-year-old was so impressive in the Rookie League (4-0, 1.13 ERA), he was promoted to Rookie Advanced Danville and was named by Baseball America as the Appalachian League's top prospect.

Parra, 23, was the organization's top winner last year and figures to start this season at Greenville. Scouts rate his fastball as little better than average, but he showed an outstanding curve during Saturday's batting practice and drew rave reviews from Cox.

The Braves are so loaded with pitching prospects that Horacio Ramirez, a 15-game winner at Myrtle Beach last season, couldn't even break into the organization's top 10 prospects, as rated by Baseball America. A 21-year-old left-hander with an outstanding fastball, he had 125 strikeouts in 148â innings in the Carolina League and figures to start the season at Greenville.

Give these pitching prospects another two or three years and the lockers owned by Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz will belong to them.

"They emphasize pitching here more than any other organization," Sylvester said. "When people see that you pitch for the Braves, they treat you differently, they treat you better. We take a lot of pride in pitching for this team."