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G-Braves on a great run of producing stars

Gwinnett Braves relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel.

Gwinnett Braves relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel.

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Gwinnett Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson.

"Come see the future stars" ranks among the top selling point of any minor league baseball team.

It's the obvious play, really. Come and see the guys who you will watch on television in a few years. You'll get closer for less money and less hassle. If you love the big league team, you can be the guy who saw the next generation first.

But there are a lot of players on that field at those games and most will never cross the lines of a major league stadium. And if they do, it's fleeting moments which go unnoticed. A couple may become everyday players or subs off the bench. But few are instant stars, or ever stars. And we're not talking about local fan favorites, we're talking best in the game. Those players don't come around every year.

Well, unless you went to a Gwinnett Braves game in the past three seasons.

Since the Braves moved their Class AAA franchise to the northern suburbs of Atlanta they have continually provided the big-league club with top-end talent and budding stars recognized on a national level.

In typical Braves fashion, it began with a pitcher.

The first Gwinnett Braves' media day played as a welcoming party for Tommy Hanson.

The top prospect came to Gwinnett off of an 11-win season in Class A and AA the year before. He had already been named the opening day starter and the first Gwinnett Brave to take the mound. He never disappointed. He struck out 90 batters in 11 starts to opening the Class AAA season. His ERA was 1.49 and he allowed 11 earned runs in 66 innings pitched.

By June he was gone, pitching every five days in the Atlanta Braves rotation.

He went 11-4 over 21 starts as a rookie pitcher. His ERA was 2.89 and he struck out 116 batters. When the Braves finished six games out of the Wild Card, there was plenty of grumbling that Hanson may have made the difference -- or at least made it a race in September -- had he begun the year in Atlanta.

The baseball world took notice of the time he did spend in the majors and Hanson finished third in rookie of the year voting, getting two first-place votes.

And from there, it steamrolled year by year.

At the end of the 2009 season, the new hot prospect arrived in Gwinnett from Class AA Mississippi. He played with the G-Braves through the playoffs, during which Jason Heyward was named Baseball America's minor league player of the year.

The next season Heyward didn't get the minor-league treatment Hanson earned. Rather he catapulted to national recognition during spring training and started opening day in Atlanta.

With Heyward on that same playoff team were two other players who arrived with much less notice, pitchers Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.

Venters arrived in Gwinnett midway through the 2009 season and eventually earned a big league call-up in 2010. Kimbrel came to Gwinnett in September after the strikeout machine had K'd 100 batters between Rome, Myrtle Beach and Mississippi.

Heyward's rookie year, beginning with his opening day home run, propelled him to and place on the NL All-Star team and a second-place finish in rookie of the year voting. He was featured in a SportsCenter commercial. He was an instant star.

In that same rookie of the year voting, one person took note of Venters' 79 big-league games and 1.95 ERA and gave him a third place vote for rookie of the year, putting him in the top seven receiving votes.

It was a sign of things to come.

Last year, more former Gwinnett Braves made the rookie of the year list, Kimbrel, who secured the honor and first baseman Freddie Freeman who took second.

Unlike Kimbrel, who snuck into the big leagues during the 2010 season, Freeman toiled the entire year with the G-Braves. In that season he grew into a hitter with power and average. He got his call in September never looked back. He won the first base job in spring training and went on to hit .282 with 21 home runs and 32 doubles.

And then there was Kimbrel. In his first full season the rookie closer saved 47 games and struck out 127 batters. He received Cy Young and MVP votes.

This is the level of budding stardom rolling through Gwinnett. The only question is 'Who's Next?'

Is it pitcher Julio Teheran, who won 15 games for the G-Braves a season ago? Is it last season's end-of-the-year shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, battling to become the big league starter? Is it pitcher Randall Delgado, who made a short appearance with the G-Braves late last season?

These players are the star's stars. They aren't just any future big leaguer, they are future major league all-stars, award winners.

In Gwinnett the slogan come see future players rings hollow. On any night, a star could be on the field.