After two weeks on the road with our minor leaguers, I'm finally back in front of a keyboard ready to share some info on our farm system.
The Myrtle Beach Pelicans have expectedly been inconsistent this season. Randy Ingle, Myrtle Beach's Manager, worried his young group could have its ups and downs this year and it has. Forget the record, however, and look at the development of some of the Pelicans' players.
Andy Marte and Scott Thorman both started out colder than an Alaskan hamburger, but have rebounded to form solid seasons. Marte is, pure and simple, our future third baseman. Write it down right now: Marte will be Atlanta's future third baseman. When? Who knows? It is possible that Marte could be promoted to AA Greenville later in the season, but the Braves may decide to keep him in Myrtle for the rest of the year. Don't be shocked either way. Randy Ingle says Marte is the best he's ever seen at charging the ball from third base and throwing out runners at first.
Thorman took three and a half weeks before he hit a home run. Minor League Hitting Instructor Franklin Stubbs worked with Thorman on straightening his swing, and the results have been Thorman occasionally going the other way. The park conditions in Myrtle Beach are horrendous. It is very difficult to hit home runs there. The Friday night we were there the wind was 25 miles an hour, and it was plum cool in late June. Thorman is learning how to become a better hitter, and not worrying as much about hitting home runs. Since he's not thinking as much about homers, his average is way up and he's also started to hit some dingers. Scott Thorman = Ryan Klesko.
The most improved player in the system is Tony Pena, Junior. The Pelicans' coaches are thrilled with Tony's development. Defensively, he's been superb at shortstop. He's also becoming somewhat of a leader on the field. Offensively, Pena's numbers are mediocre, but coaches are still pleased with his progress. Second baseman Aaron Herr has better numbers than Pena, and the coaches are equally pleased with his season.
Another player who has taken a step forward is Jose Salas, Myrtle Beach's catcher. Salas is finally showing some power, hitting five home runs in 162 at bats.
As for the pitching, Macay McBride has solid overall numbers, but ran into a funk a bit over the past month. Zach Miner had his best outing in a while this past weekend. Miner has respectable numbers, but is capable of dominating down the stretch.
I finally got a chance to see Matt Coenen pitch. He's a big guy and you would think he would blow hitters away. But instead he mixes his pitches very well to get people out. The trade was still a very good one, but I'm not ready to push Coenen past some of our other pitching prospects just yet.
David Watkins is a pitcher everyone should follow closely. He was in Macon a few years ago but then had Tommy John surgery. Watkins has a tremendous range in his velocity. He's got a curve ball that he holds almost like a palm ball and it is in the mid-60 mile and hour range. Then he can bring his fastball up there in the low-mid 90's. Changing speeds like that can be brutal on a hitter. Watkins has 26 strikeouts in twenty one innings of work.
The Greenville Braves are a frustrating and frustrated team. They know they are better than a team that's only four games under .500 overall this season. But the offense has been pathetic since the departure of First Baseman Adam LaRoche to AAA Richmond. Can one player make that much of a difference? Perhaps, but the G-Braves have simply not been productive with runners in scoring position.
James Jurries, who was red hot in May, has cooled off and is now hitting .287. Kelly Johnson has been struggling a bit and is now out with an injury. Richard Lewis, Ryan Langerhans, and Billy McCarthy have all been average the last month. Not one of the Greenville hitters is on a hot streak like Jurries and LaRoche were on earlier in the season.
Of course, it's causing the pitchers to pitch like they have to throw a shutout. That's not fun! Matt Belisle has been tremendous until he got blasted last Saturday. Belisle is the leading candidate from Greenville to get a promotion to Atlanta in September.
Chris Waters and Bubba Nelson have both pitched very well the last few weeks. Watch our for Chris. He's probably headed to the Arizona Fall League after this season and is a possibility to be a candidate for Atlanta for 2004 if he does well out west. Bubba's quietly putting together a very solid season.
Adam Wainwright pitched well Tuesday night and seems to be back in good form. The Braves would like to see Adam finish the season on a high note.
Last Monday I had the chance to go to the Spring Training Complex in Orlando, also the home of the Gulf Coast League Braves. Ralph Henriquez is the GCL Manager and does a great job with the new kids. Derek Bothelo is the pitching coach and is getting a fantastic group of young arms accustomed to "The Braves Way."
As for the pitching, wow! Just when you think we can't get any more pitching, our draft produces a quality group of young arms. When you see kids at this level, you appreciate how advanced guys like Wainwright, Waters, Nelson, et al are now at AA. But you also realize that names like Reyes, Bacot, and Atilano could be as high as Greenville in three seasons.
The talk of the GCL team is JoJo Reyes, Atlanta's second round pick in the June Draft. He's a big kid who really doesn't look like a pitcher. He looks like a hitter who may play first base. JoJo's got a little baby fat on him, but once he spends the summer in that horrible Central Florida sun, he'll get that off. He's going to mature physically into a very impressive pitcher on the mound. As for his pitches, well he's got four right now, which is very unusual for a high school kid. Reyes has worked with a very good pitching coach for the last four years, and it shows. His change up is perhaps one of the best I've ever seen. The fastball is in the low 90's, but Bothelo believes Reyes could top out in the middle 90's.
As for Luis Atilano, Atlanta's first selection in the Supplemental Round, the comparisons to Javier Vazquez are legit. He's very rangy, but defines projectable. You know by looking at him he's going to grow more upper body strength. Atilano speaks broken English, but by speaking with him you realize the pride he has in being a Brave. The fastball is getting better every time out. I can't wait to see where this kid is in two years.
Paul Bacot pitched the game I watched in Orlando. He allowed only one hit over five innings. Bacot reminds many of a young Brett Evert. So far, he's not had much competition from opposing batters. The Braves are very impressed with how Bacot, Matt Harrison, Asher Demme, and other draft picks are listening to suggestions in order to get better.
Jamie Romak, the Braves fourth round pick, got to Orlando a few days before I arrived and stepped into the batting cage against Matt Butler, who was on rehab and has since been promoted to Myrtle Beach. Romak saw twenty pitches and parked two of them into the Wide World of Sports parking lot. I mean he smacked the ball. Roy Clark described Romak as a right-handed Thorman, and he may be right. The kid is built.
As for Butler, despite the two homers by Romak, he looked very good. Contrary to reports that Butler is "toast," he is still a very interesting prospect. Butler has been ready for a while but the numbers in the system have been his biggest enemy. Finally, two days after I saw him throw, he was promoted to Myrtle Beach. Butler still has one of the best changeup's in the organization. His fastball topped out at 92 when I saw him throw. Matt just needs to pitch. Hopefully, he'll get 8-10 starts in Myrtle and we can see how much of a prospect he still is. But when I see a kid throw a 92-93 mph fastball and a changeup like Butler has, I don't call him "toast." Yea, he's at the back of the line because of our depth and missing so much time, but as a top pick who got a big signing bonus, Butler will be given every opportunity before anyone gives up on him.
It sure would be nice if people saw these prospects before labeling them as "toast."
Steve Doestch (pronounced "Deetch") was a steal for the Braves in the 14th round of this year's draft. He was projected to go anywhere from the 2-5th rounds, but fell to us like a gift. This kid can hit. His defense is stellar. I think he has a very good chance to move all the way up to Rome in 2004.
A lot of people have asked about Dan Smith. He's a tall righthanded pitcher who has done very well (22 strikeouts in 14 innings). We signed him earlier this year. He's from Florida and was eligble for the draft a few years ago but had an injury to his hand. Our scout in Florida found him and he's now a Brave!
This past weekend Skip Seda, my award winning videographer for "The Braves Show," and I went to Charlotte to meet up with the Richmond Braves. Always fun to visit with Guy Hansen, Richmond's pitching coach, and Richmond Manager Pat Kelly.
Let's start with Jason Marquis. OK, I'm going to be honest and say that I really have been apathetic toward Jason the last few months. I've known him since he was here in Macon in 1997. He's a great kid. But I've wondered if he simply needed a change of scenary. Well, I'll now be very disappointed if we trade him. Guy Hansen has fixed the mechanical problems that Jason fell into the last few years. Do you remember how Jason was looking a bit like Kevin Brown in his delivery? When Jason would turn on his delivery, he'd have a little hesitation that was causing him to shorten his arm location when the ball was delivered. It's probably the reason his velocity was down a bit.
Well Guy Hansen has fixed that. Jason's velocity is now back into the mid-90's. Guy believes Jason can help us win a World Series this year. He's also got Jason using a new approach in his side session between starts. Instead of a usual bullpen session, Hansen is hitting Jason fungos from the third base foul line to centerfield. Hansen learned this from Rich Gale, Boston's former pitching coach who use to do is for Roger Clemens. Hansen hits fungos to Marquis in centerfield and then Jason throws the ball back to someone catching for Hansen. This allows Jason to throw free and easy, without a huge amount of force. It also allows Guy to examine his arm angle to ensure that Jason is not falling into any bad habits. The results, according to Guy and Jason, have been tremendous. Other pitchers are now wanting to do the same thing instead of the regular throw off the bullpen mound.
Marquis has a great attitude. He knows he's good enough to be a big league pitcher. I joked with him that if he was with Detroit, he'd be there ace. There are natural wonders on what will happen over the next two weeks, but I'm now concerned that if Marquis is included in any deal, we may add his name to Millwood, Glavine, Moss, Schmidt, and Perez as the ex-Braves aces for other clubs. Jason's going to be a big league pitcher for someone, and be a successful pitcher. Maybe it will be better for him and the Braves if he goes elsewhere, but after watching him throw and hearing the reports, it will be a shame if he's not able to help us win a title.
Andy Pratt is also a pitcher who could be in many major league rotations right now. Pratt's slider is excellent, and will get a lot of major league hitters out in the future. Anyone who has complained about the Pratt-Ben Kozlowski trade will feel foolish once they see Andy Pratt pitch consistently. His movement on his pitches is impressive. Andy will get a September call-up, and should battle for a spot on the Atlanta roster next Spring. We are going to enjoy watching Andy Pratt pitch for the Atlanta Braves.
Chuck Smith pitched Sunday and did well. There's no doubt that if he continues at this rate for the next six weeks, Smith can help us in September. He's healthy now, and his velocity is getting back to where it was before he was injured. If Smith does well, you can put him in the race for a bullpen spot in Atlanta next year.
Sam McConnell pitched the game we saw on Saturday. He's a career minor leaguer who pitched most of the season in Greenville but has settled into the Richmond rotation. Guy Hansen believes he's a very underrated pitcher who could one day pitch in the big leagues. He doesn't blow people away, but Sam gets people out.
Don't rule out Ryan Glynn returning to the Braves organization next spring. He had an opportunity to make some money in Korea, and the Braves also were able to make a little money. But the door is still open for Ryan to come to Orlando next February.
I interviewed Johnny Estrada Sunday. We are going to put the transcript up of the interview later this week. He's a very impressive person and player. Pat Kelly called him the best player in the International League, and it's purely a case of a AAA player waiting to get back to the big leagues. If he does take over for Javy Lopez in 2004, we are going to have a solid catcher who could be one of the best in the game. One of the Richmond pitchers who has been caught by a lot of catchers told me Estrada was the best he's ever had. Johnny calls a good game and the pitchers love him.
Offensively, Estrada is going to be a force. I doubt he'll hit as many homers as Javy, but I think he'll be more like Brad Ausmus with more offensive potential. He can hit 15 homers a year in the big leagues. We are going to miss Javy Lopez, but I think we'll be pleased in the long run with Johnny Estrada as our catcher. He's aware of the pressure considering the Millwood trade, but his joy of being a Brave is pushing him to be the best catcher he can be.
Wilson Betemit hit a home run Saturday night. He's struggling, offensively and defensively. He looks comfortable at third, but admitted that it's still strange being over there. I know this kid can play. I saw him be a force in 2001 that made even me believe he might be ready for the big leagues. But he's running out of time. He knows Vinny's contract is up and that he has an opportunity in front of him, but I think he's uncomfortable at third. Hopefully, he can finish strong and head to spring training with a purpose of winning a big league job.
Unfortunately, my only regret on the trip is missing Adam LaRoche. But I just wanted to see him again. He doesn't have anything to prove to me. He's simply the Atlanta Braves first baseman in 2004. The kid is the real deal and will be a great hitter for us for a long time.
Then Monday night it was on to Rome to be apart of the CSS broadcast. The Rome Braves are right around the .500 mark in the second half. Manager Rocket Wheeler is a jewel. The enthusiasm and energy he has brought to the Braves is refreshing. He's also a great teacher who the players love.
Blaine Boyer pitched Monday night. He didn't have his best stuff, but gave his team a chance to win. Blaine has been pitching very well lately. His fastball was a bit off Monday, but still got by with some nasty curve's and changeups. Boyer is a great competitor and is going to be a major league pitcher. For me, Boyer's going to be a great reliever in the big leagues one day. But for now, he's getting valuable innings. We've got to remember that he's only been pitching for a few years. He switched over to pitching when he was a senior in high school. This kid is only going to get better as he gets more experience.
Efigenio Peralta pitched two scoreless innings Monday night and was very impressive. Peralta is a case of a pitcher who needs to be starting, but there's simply not enough room right now.
Ryan Ewin is a new name to a lot of people, but he's been in the organization for a few years. Ewin has battled arm injuries for a few years. He's 6 foot 8 and you would believe he could throw a million miles an hour, but his fastball tops out in the mid-80's. But everything he throws moves, and pitchers who can do that can be dangerous.
The Rome offense has been hurt by several things. First, losing Yaron Peters to Myrtle Beach hurt. Peters was a huge force in the Rome lineup early on in the season. Then Onil Joseph and Ardley Jansen both missed time with injuries. Joseph and Jansen are a deadly 1-2 punch in the Rome lineup. Jansen just returned Monday after missing six weeks with a broken wrist.
With Peters gone and Jansen out for a while, centerfielder Jeff Francouer has had to carry much of the load. He's struggled a bit with inconsistency, but the Braves are still happy with his progress. There's no doubt we've got a special player in Mr. Francouer.
Brian McCann is perhaps the Rome Most Valuable Player. He's been tremendous all season. Brian made a perfect throw Monday to nail a Hickory baserunner. The pitchers are very comfortable with him being the plate calling the game. Brian is a terrific lefthanded threat in the Rome lineup.
Wes Timmons is a player who does not get much ink, but he's played well for Rome with Cole Barthel out for most of the season. Timmons is hitting near .290 with 4 homers and 27 RBI. He has stepped in and provided solid play at a critical position. His opportunity to get playing time has surely raised his prospect status, as he has played very well all season.
All is well on the farm for the Atlanta Braves. The future is certainly bright!
Braves Notebook: 7/17
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