* The rumors are getting louder. It seems likely the Braves are going to make a move before the July 31st trading deadline. The Braves have always been fond of Pittsburgh righthander Kris Benson, and talk has the Pirates putting him on the block. Benson is 28 years old and went to high school in Marietta, Georgia, a suberb north of Atlanta. He is making $4.25 million this season and is signed through 2004. Benson's deal next season calls for a base salary of $6.1 million with the potential to make $1.3 million more if he reaches certain incentives. What will it take to get Benson? Well, the Pirates have plenty of pitching prospects (Byran Bullington, Sean Burnett, John Van Benschoten, Paul Malholm) so they may want some position player prospects. You wonder if Mark DeRosa would be a possibility since played at Penn and the Pirates could use a good middle infielder.
* The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported Wednesday that Paul Byrd may be within a week of beginning a rehab stint in the minor leagues. Not sure where the rehab stint will be, but I would be surprised if it's in Greenville. The G-Braves are already stacked with starters, and two guys who started the season as starting pitchers are now in the bullpen. The major question is what will happen to the Atlanta pitching staff once Byrd returns? Hard to imagine Byrd would be inserted into the Atlanta rotation immediately, but if Shane Reynolds continues to tire after the fourth inning, Byrd might take his place. Who will be demoted/released when Byrd returns? It's hard to imagine that one of the Atlanta rookies (Trey Hodges, Jung Bong, Horacio Ramirez) will leave. The decision will be a difficult one for Braves management.
* With Darren Bragg hitting well below the Mendoza Line, you have to wonder how long he will remain on the roster. Bragg is a favorite of Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox, and you know how hard it can be for Bobby to realize some of his favorite players don't always produce as they should. Would the Braves continue on with Bragg as we approach the playoffs? Doubtful. Expect John Schuerholz to be looking at available outfielders either through the waiver wire (Gabe Kapler) or the trade market. None of the outfielders in Richmond are true candidates to help out, and the Braves may prefer a veteran off the bench in that role.
* Adam LaRoche continues to prepare for taking over first base in Atlanta in 2004. LaRoche hit .283 with 12 home runs and 37 RBI in Greenville before being promoted to AAA Richmond next week. He has already hit a home run for the Richmond team. LaRoche is showing more power than expected, and has answered every challenge the Braves have thrown his way so far this season. That is why they decided to send him to Richmond now. Adam is an excellent defensive first baseman who could be a player in the Will Clark/John Olerud/Mark Grace mold.
* Another player on Richmond's roster who could be in Atlanta in 2004 is lefthanded starter Andy Pratt. Acquired from Texas a year ago for Ben Kozlowski, Pratt continues to improve the longer he wears an Atlanta uniform. Andy is 4-3 with an ERA of 3.17 in 15 games (14 starts) this season. He also leads the International League with 83 strikeouts in 76.2 innings pitched. Pratt has been on a role the last 8 starts: 4-0, 1.96 ERA, 37 hits in 46 innings pitched, 15 earned runs, 23 walks, and 50 strikeouts. Pratt's control is inconsistent, but that is somewhat common for a strikeout pitcher. As it stands now, Andy will battle Trey Hodges and Jung Bong to replace Greg Maddux in Atlanta's starting rotation next season.
* Two players will split time at first base for Greenville now that LaRoche is in Richmond. Third baseman James Jurries, who played some at first at Tulane, will move over to first for the majority of games. When Jurries moves to first, Manager Brian Snitker will have Ramon Castro at third base and at the top of the batting order. Castro got into the doghouse in Richmond and did not see much playing time. Also, outfielder Jason Fitzgerald, acquired last year from Cleveland in the Eddie Perez trade, will also see some time at first base.
* Matt Belisle of Greenville may also join that trio for a rotation spot in Atlanta if he continues his current run of pitching success. Belisle is now 4-6 with an ERA of 3.52 in 14 starts. He has been sensational since early May. In Matt's last eight starts, he is 3-2 with an ERA of 2.13. He's allowed 40 hits in 50.2 innings pitched. The best number for Matt: 12 walks in his last 8 games. You may remember that before Belisle injured his back and missed all of 2001, control was his specialty. He walked only 29 batters in 27 starts in 2000. He was in complete control of the Jacksonville Suns this past Saturday night, and he told us that this is the best he has felt pitching since coming back from the serious injury in 2001. If Matt continues this pace, he could be promoted to AAA Richmond in the second half and it's very possible he could make his big league debut in Atlanta this September.
* Former Florida Marlins righthanded starter Chuck Smith made his debut for Greenville on Monday. Smith missed the last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The Braves signed him at the end of spring training and believe he could help in the Atlanta bullpen before the season is complete. Smith is expected to spend a few weeks in the Greenville rotation and could possibly be moved up to AAA Richmond in late July. Don't laugh at the prospect of Smith being in Atlanta sometime this year. This is very similar to how Chris Hammond got in an Atlanta uniform.
* The addition of Smith in Greenville's rotation means that Roman Colon is now in the bullpen. Colon was originally scheduled to be in the G-Braves bullpen this season, but when Chris Waters began the season in Orlando at Extended Spring Training instead of Greenville, Colon moved back into the rotation. Colon did well, going 6-3. But the Braves believe he could be a candidate for the Atlanta bullpen in 2004, so they want to see what he can do out of the bullpen right now.
* Bubba Nelson is not leading the minors in ERA as he did last season, but he is putting together a solid season. Nelson struggled with his control early in the season, but has walked only two batters in his last two starts (14 innings).
* There has been a flip-flop of Matt's in the Rome and Myrtle Beach rotations. Matt Wright, who was 2-7 with an ERA of 6.38 in his first 13 starts for the Pelicans, was demoted to Rome to try and straighten out his troubles. Matt Merricks, a lefty who was 5-7 but had an ERA of 2.82 and clearly demonstrated he was ready for a promotion, will take Wright's place in the Myrtle Beach rotation. Rome catcher Brian McCann told BravesCenter a few weeks ago that Merricks had "the nastiest stuff of all" the Rome pitchers. Wright struggled in the first half of the season in 2002 in Macon and then turned things around to finish with respectable numbers. The Braves hope that will happen again, but they could not wait on him to do it in Myrtle Beach.
* With Yaron Peters now in Myrtle Beach, there will be a revolving door at first base in Rome. Alonzo Ruelas, Daniel Ruiz, and even Wes Timmons will get some action at first base. Peters will share 1B/DH duties with Scott Thorman with the Pelicans.
* Now that Peters has been promoted to Myrtle Beach, don't be surprised if Pelicans 3B Andy Marte gets the call up to Greenville in a few weeks. Marte has rebounded nicely from an early slow start, and his development may be strengthen by a second half tryout in AA. The Braves could also help the Greenville offense, which has been slowed a bit by the promotion of Adam LaRoche to AAA Richmond.
* There are a few players to watch in Danville, the Braves rookie league team. Greg Donato has missed almost two years after having major shoulder surgery. He could do well in Danville and head up to Rome to help out at first base and the outfield. Matt Esquival was a high draft pick in 2001 but has been slowed by nagging injuries. He had a solid season in Danville in 2002 and go do even better this season. Danny Collins, the draft-and-follow the Braves signed right before the draft, could do well in Danville as a starting pitcher. And finally, last year's 3rd and 4th round draft choices, Charlie Morton and Steven Russell, will settle into Danville's starting rotation. Reports out of Extended Spring Training had the young duo performing very well for the Braves.
* This year's 20th round pick, Kyle Bakker from Georgia Tech, is on his honeymoon. Bakker is scheduled to be back and give the Braves an answer on their very generous offer in the next ten days. 5th round pick Chris Vines, a righthander from Pelham, Alabama, is the highest pick still unsigned.
BILL SHANKS CAN BE REACHED AT email@example.com OR ON THE BRAVESCENTER.COM MESSAGE BOARD.
Braves Notes: 6/19
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