Over the last six years the Atlanta Braves have made drafting hometown kids a priority. Since 2000, when Roy Clark took over as Scouting Director, the Braves have taken 43 players from Georgia high schools or colleges.
The success of those picks shows, as four are on the big league roster, while nine other Georgians are in the top four levels of the Braves' farm system.
And now, the organization is trying to add one more. The Braves' 19th round pick in the draft this year was Deunte Heath, a right-handed pitcher originally from Atlanta that played at the University of Tennessee this spring.
"It would be a dream come true," Heath said, when discussing the possibility of joining the Braves' organization.
Even though he lived in Atlanta, Heath played high school ball at Newton County in Covington, Georgia, about 20 miles east of the city. When the Mets took him in the 27th round of the 2003 draft, he instead decided to attent Lake City Community College in Florida.
"I really wanted to do a year or two of school," Heath explained. "My parents wanted me too also."
As a freshman at Lake City, Heath won six games and struck out 82 in 95 innings of work. After being named second team All-Mid-Florida Conference, the Devil Rays drafted him in the 25th round of the 2004 draft. But he decided to return to college.
In 2005, as a sophomore, the right-hander posted a 3.80 ERA and again struck out 95 batters. Baseball America recognized him as the 146th best player in the country, and again he was drafted, this time by the Angels in the 23rd round.
But instead of signing, Heath enrolled at Tennessee hoping to improve his game even more. He went 4-3 this spring in 15 games (10 starts) for the Vols with an ERA of 3.86. Heath allowed 52 hits in 56 innings, 24 earned runs, 22 walks, and 39 strikeouts.
"I stepped up because I knew it was SEC baseball and I knew I had to pitch," Heath said. "It was a whole different level of competition."
Heath worked diligently to improve his stuff. He's got a two-seam fastball, curve, slider, and changeup. His fastball has topped out at 97, but usually sits in the 92-94 mph range.
"I developed by working on my offspeed pitches," Heath said. "I worked on those everyday."
Perhaps Heath's finest hour this spring was in the last game of the regular season for the Vols against Alabama. He allowed two runs (one earned) on eight hits in seven innings, with two walks, and four strikeouts. The game ended Tennessee's disappointing regular season, but it made Heath a name to watch, once again, for the draft.
"I thought top five rounds," Heath said. "At first they were saying six through ten, and then after that game against Alabama they were saying top five."
Despite interest from as many as nine teams, Heath fell to the 19th round when the Braves selected him. And while Heath admits he prefers starting, the Braves have talked to him about becoming a full-time reliever. Developing relievers has become a priority to the Braves' organization, especially with all the trouble in that area at the big league level. Being a power pitcher, the Braves are confident Heath can develop into a solid prospect.
"The Braves came in last night and said something about being a relief pitcher," Heath said. "At this point in time, it really doesn't matter. I just want to pitch."
Heath knows all about the reputation of the coaches in the Braves' minor league system. And as he decides whether or not to sign with the Braves or return to Tennessee for his senior season, that is weighing heavily in his decision-making process.
"It's playing a big factor," he said. "You know you can get better. I think the only way to get better is to get professional coaching help. That's the quickest way to get to the major leagues."
There is no doubt that as a kid from Georgia, Heath has a special opportunity to possibly play for his homestate team. And over the last two weeks the thought of putting on that uniform with the Tomahawk across his chest keeps popping up in his mind.
"It's just a dream come true," Heath said. "Growing up watching the Braves, and as a kid going to games at Turner Field and Fulton County Stadium to watch them. There's a good chance I will (sign)."
The Braves are certainly hoping so.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at email@example.com.