LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Tommy Hanson, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman have officially seen their first Major League camp come to a close. But as they venture back to the Minor Leagues, they've provided the Braves with great expectations about the future.

Hanson, Heyward and Freeman headlined the list of eight Braves players sent back to the Minors on Thursday. Over the course of the past six weeks, each of these players has proved why the group is widely acclaimed as highly regarded prospects.

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"They're not that far away," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "In Hanson's case, he's just one day away. He just needs to get over there and continue pitching."

Barring any injuries suffered by Atlanta's projected starters, Hanson is expected to begin the season on a Triple-A Gwinnett roster that will also include left-handed pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes, catcher Clint Sammons and infielder Diory Hernandez, all of whom were also sent back to Minor League camp Thursday.

Catcher Alvin Colina and highly regarded shortstop Brandon Hicks were the only other players affected by the latest round of cuts. Some of these players might still be utilized during the remaining exhibition games, including two scheduled against the Tigers at Turner Field on April 3-4.

Hanson, who is regarded as one of the game's top overall prospects, lived up to tremendous expectations entering camp. The 6-foot-6, 22-year-old right-hander posted a 2.45 ERA and recorded 14 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings during four Grapefruit League appearances.

Blessed with a plus fastball and the ability to consistently throw his slider and curveball for strikes, Hanson is expected to be part of Atlanta's starting rotation before the end of this year. But he's made just 18 starts above the Class A level, and he's never completed more than 138 innings during a professional season.

Had Hanson started the year as the fifth starter in Atlanta's rotation, he would have been scheduled for just two April starts. While he's in Gwinnett, the Braves can protect his workload and provide him to work with a regular schedule.

"Looking back on [the camp], I pretty much feel like I threw the ball well," Hanson said. "There are a couple of things I didn't do right. But I felt like I corrected them in between outings. I pretty much feel like the whole thing was a success."

While Hanson lived up to the expectations that were created when he dominated the Arizona Fall League, the righty and Freeman exceeded any expectations that could have been placed on a pair of 19-year-old prospects who were playing high school baseball just two years ago.

"They're two great kids," Cox said. "How many 19-year-old kids do you see stick in big league camp from the beginning to the end? They're both extremely good prospects, and they have a great makeup."

Heyward, who is ranked the game's third-best prospect by Milb.com, hit .300 with two homers and a double in 40 Grapefruit League at-bats. In addition, the athletic 6-foot-4 outfielder displayed stellar defensive skills with impressive range and a strong arm.

"I prepared during the offseason for it to go this way," Heyward said. "I came to camp prepared for it to go well. If I didn't do as well as I did, I would have said, 'Well, I did everything I could to prepare for it.' I'm happy. I was going to take something positive from it either way, and it turned out great."

Freeman, a 6-foot-5 first baseman, possesses a powerful, compact swing that caught Cox's attention during the early days of camp. He ended up hitting .237 in 38 Grapefruit League at-bats and proved to be better than advertised with his glove.

"Hopefully I get to play for [Cox] one day longer than just five weeks of camp," Freeman said. "I hope so. I loved this experience, and it just made me feel a whole lot better about myself."

Freeman and Heyward are expected to begin this season with advanced Class A Myrtle Beach. But they could quickly advance to Double-A Mississippi, and both of these confident youngsters are holding out hope that they land in Atlanta at some point this year.

"My goal is to be in the Majors, and that's where I want to be and I won't stop until I get there," Freeman said.

Like Hanson, Reyes entered camp realizing that it would be tough to crack Atlanta's new-look starting rotation. But the 24-year-old left-hander proved that he's not the same pitcher who went 0-7 with a 7.81 ERA in his final 13 appearances last year.

Showing more confidence and improved mound presence, Reyes posted a 2.08 ERA in four Grapefruit League appearances.

Hicks arrived in camp amid less fanfare than Heyward, Hanson and Freeman. But the 23-year-old shortstop exited knowing that he'd made a good impression on Cox.

"Hicks is a Major League shortstop right now," Cox repeatedly said as camp progressed.

Coming off a season during which he combined for 20 homers and 139 strikeouts with Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, Hicks proved during his first big league camp that he's defensively ready to perform at the big league level. More importantly, over the past month, he has seemingly benefited from the instruction provided by Atlanta hitting coach Terry Pendleton.

The Braves want Hicks to cut down on his strikeouts by shortening his swing and attempting to hit the ball to right field with greater regularity. During the ninth inning of Thursday's loss to the Blue Jays, he displayed his ability to do so with a double that landed in the right-field corner.

"He's a great defensive shortstop, and he's worked hard on his hitting all spring," Cox said. "I was proud of him hitting the ball where he did the last time up, down the line into right field. He's got power. But we don't want him to hit 25-30 homers. We want him to hit 40 points higher with 10 or 12 homers."