A look at the AAA/AA rotation candidates

Cody Martin could be back in Gwinnett in 2015 as a starting pitcher.

Even though the Braves need more pitching prospects, next year should bring more competition in the minor league rotations with the trades that have brought in more talent. Let’s take a look at the pitchers that could be in the Triple-A Gwinnett and Double-A Mississippi rotations in 2015.

Who might return from the 2014 Gwinnett rotation? Cody Martin led the team with 26 starts. The Braves were worried Martin might be lost in the Rule V draft, but he was not selected. Martin continues to drive scouts crazy. They like him, even though he doesn’t possess dynamic stuff that translates into a potential major leaguer. Martin pitched 156 innings last year for Gwinnett and struck out 142. Right now, he’s got to be penciled in as a starter in Gwinnett, unless he is invited to big league camp as a non-roster pitcher and makes the Atlanta team as a reliever.

Lefty Daniel Rodriguez is due back with the organization. He had a 5.04 ERA in 29 games (21 starts for the G-Braves). Frank Wren was his biggest supporter, so with Wren now gone Rodriguez might not have the support to keep his rotation spot if he struggles in spring training.

Gus Schlosser was third in starts with 15 for the Gwinnett team. He was re-signed after being released off the Atlanta 40-man roster, so Schlosser will battle to get his rotation spot back in Gwinnett. Schlosser will probably get another look as a non-roster invitee in big league camp. Remember, Schlosser made the Atlanta opening day roster a year ago as a long reliever, so he’s capable of making an impression.

Zach Stewart was tied with Maya for fourth place with 14 starts. Stewart is a minor league free agent. Aaron Northcraft was next with 12. He was traded to the Padres in the Justin Upton trade.

Kanekoa Texeira is still on the Gwinnett roster. The former Kansas City Royals pitcher made 13 appearances last season for Gwinnett with 10 starts. He had a 4.86 ERA and had only 33 strikeouts in 70.1 innings. Texeira could slide back to the bullpen, the role he’s more accustomed to, in 2015.

Terry Doyle (seven starts) and Mitch Atkins (five starts) have both moved on as minor league free agents, so they won’t return. The other starts were made by pitchers who were on rehab assignments.

Atlanta has signed several free agents that will have a chance at the Gwinnett rotation. The biggest name is former Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang, who last pitched in the big leagues with Toronto in 2013. Last season, Wang made 19 starts with Louisville, Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate, and then nine starts with Charlotte, the White Sox’s Triple-A team. He was 13-8 overall with a 4.12 ERA in 28 starts.

If Wang does not make the Atlanta roster, and he will be invited to big league camp, then he’ll likely be the opening day starter for Gwinnett. Wang will be 35 at the end of March, so he’s a veteran that could be called upon in Atlanta if he does well in either big league camp or if he’s pitching well in Triple-A.

Greg Smith was signed from the Phillies organization. Smith, who made 32 starts in the big leagues for Oakland in 2008 and another 10 for the Rockies in 2010, made 26 starts for the Phillies Triple-A Lehigh Valley team last season. He pitched in AA and AAA for Philadelphia in 2013. Smith has bounced around a lot since he started his pro career in 2005. The Braves are his eighth organization. With his experience, Smith will likely be an innings eater if he makes the Gwinnett rotation.

Jake Brigham was signed out of the Pirates organization. He will be 27 next season and is a right-hander who stands 6-3 and weighs 210 pounds. Brigham made 14 starts last season for Indianapolis. He was with the Texas organization before last season and made 18 starts for AAA Round Rock in 2013. Could also be a reliever if he doesn’t make the Gwinnett rotation.

Sugar Ray Marimon is a 26-year-old right-hander who signed with the Braves after eight seasons in the Royals’ organization. Last season Marimon made 15 starts with Triple-A Omaha and four starts in AA Northwest Arkansas. Marimon had made 26 starts in AA in 2013, so he’s more ready for work in AAA.

Victor Mateo spent the last eight seasons in the Tampa Bay organization. He made 28 starts for Double-A Montgomery last season and had a 3.90 ERA. Mateo has been an innings-eater recently. He logged 166 innings last season and 153.1 innings in 2013. Mateo could be back in Double-A and go to Mississippi or the tall (6-5) right-hander could see his first action in Triple-A with a good spring training.

So, to recap:

POTENTIAL RETURNING STARTERS: Cody Martin, Daniel Rodriguez, Gus Schlosser, Kanekoa Texeira
NEW CANDIDATES: Chien-Ming Wang, Greg Smith, Jake Brigham, Ray Marimon and Victor Mateo.
POTENTIAL MINOR LEAGUE PROMOTIONS: Jason Hursh, Williams Perez

Now let’s look at the pitchers that made starts in Mississippi last season and where they may wind up in 2015.

The Braves will have a decision to make with Jason Hursh, the first round draft pick in 2013. Hursh did well last season. He was 11-7 with a 3.58 earned run average in 27 games (26 starts – leading Mississippi). Hursh allowed 151 hits in 148.1 innings, with 43 walks and only 83 strikeouts.

Hursh just turned 23. Most evaluators still believe Hursh will be a better reliever moving forward. He has a good fastball, but surprisingly does not strike many batters out. Would he be better suited to move up to Triple-A Gwinnett, or should the Braves start Hursh back in Double-A to see if he can dominate?

Hursh will likely be promoted to AAA if he has a good spring, and the Braves will invite him to spring training as a non-roster player. So they will get a good look at him in spring training action. Hursh is a decent prospect, even with scouts disagreeing on what he might be in the future. But the decision on where he starts 2015 could dictate the structure of the Gwinnett and Mississippi rotations.

Another pitcher that will require a decision is Williams Perez, who had a 2.91 ERA in 26 games (25 starts) for Mississippi last season. Perez is an under-the-radar prospect. He’ll turn 24 next May, so he’s a bit older. Perez will likely go to Gwinnett, since he did do well in Double-A. Perez has some scouts wondering if he could be a number three or four starter in a big league rotation one day.

With the numbers at Gwinnett don’t be shocked if either Hursh or Perez at least start the season back in Mississippi.

J.R. Graham was next with 19 starts for Mississippi last season. He was taken by the Twins in the Rule V draft. Mitch Atkins was fourth with 17 starts, but he just signed a minor league free agent deal with Texas.

Ryan Weber had some injury issues last season. He made 13 starts in Mississippi in 2014 and could be a spot starter once again. Weber has become a solid organizational arm, able to stick him where needed. But he must be healthy to pitch with Mississippi this season.

Greg Ross did very well for the M-Braves last season. The 18th round pick by the Braves in the 2011 draft has continued to do good work in the last four years. Last season, in 15 games (11 starts) at Lynchburg Ross had a 3.50 ERA. Then in 13 games (12 starts) in Mississippi, the 25-year-old Ross had a 2.08 ERA. Is Ross just an organizational man, or does he really have potential?

Remember, Ross was actually traded by the Braves to the Tigers in November 2012 to complete the Jeff Baker trade. Detroit released Ross and he re-signed with the Braves. He’s been fairly solid ever since.

The 24-year-old Ross had a short stint in Double-A last season. He did well, but it wouldn’t be a shock to return him there to start 2015.

There is one pitcher acquired in a trade this winter that might land in the Double-A rotation. Tyrell Jenkins made 13 starts in High-A last season. The 22-year-old may need to be challenged after an impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League that showed he was healthy after some health issues last year.

The Braves want him on track for 2017, so a full season in Mississippi would put Jenkins right on schedule.

Three pitchers who from Lynchburg’s 2014 rotation could be in line for a promotion. Wes Parsons made 23 starts last year in the Carolina League. The 22-year-old right hander made 19 starts in Rome the previous season, so a move up the ladder to AA would be his next assignment.

And 25-year-old Jarrett Miller has made 53 starts in Lynchburg the last two seasons. With the competition, the Braves may have to decide how legitimate a prospect Miller is, or if he is just an organizational arm that can eat innings where necessary.

Then there’s top prospect Lucas Sims, who will turn 21 next May. Sims made 28 starts last season in Lynchburg, so the next logical step for him would be to Mississippi. But because of the numbers and Sims’ age, will the Braves prefer to instead send him back to High-A to start the 2015 season and then promote him after he has more success?

Sims logged 156.2 innings in the Carolina League last season. His ERA was 4.19 but he struck out only 107. So there is room for improvement. Sims is considered Atlanta’s best prospect, and while he’ll likely finish the season with significant time in Double-A, don’t be surprised if he’s in High-A for maybe April and May to start the season back in the Carolina League. Of course, if Sims does well in spring training, the Braves may be tempted to go ahead and promote him to Double-A. It will be one of the more interesting decisions of the front office in spring training.

If they do not crack the Triple-A rotation and there is a spot available in Mississippi, Ray Marimon and Victor Mateo are two names to keep an eye on for the AA rotation.

So here’s a recap of the candidates for Mississippi’s rotation:

POTENTIAL RETURNING STARTERS: Jason Hursh, Williams Perez, Greg Ross, Ryan Weber
NEW CANDIDATES: Tyrell Jenkins, Ray Marimon, Victor Mateo
POTENTIAL MINOR LEAGUE PROMOTIONS: Wes Parsons, Jarrett Miller, Lucas Sims

The numbers are getting better. We’ll see if any prospects can break through and become more serious candidates for the big leagues. But spring training should once again be interesting as a number of pitchers try to make the rotations of the Braves top two affiliates.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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