Banuelos becoming a significant prospect

Have the Braves stolen another top arm in left-hander Manny Banuelos?

One of the best stories of the Braves minor league season has been the pitching of Triple-A left-hander Manny Banuelos, who is quickly re-establishing his prospect status he had four years ago with the Yankees.

Acquired on January 1 for David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve, Banuelos was a gamble. He was limited last season coming back from Tommy John surgery. But the Braves saw him hit 96 mph in an Instructional League game in October and were tempted to go after him in trade talks.

Banuelos has been even better than the Braves could have ever dreamed. In 14 starts for Triple-A Gwinnett, Banuelos is 6-2 with a 2.03 ERA. He’s allowed just 59 hits in 79.2 innings, with 34 walks and 68 strikeouts.

The Braves are starting to believe Banuelos has regained his unbelievable curveball, which put him on the radar as a 20-year-old in 2011 in spring training with the Yankees. Banuelos was so impressive that spring Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said Banuelos was the best pitching prospect he had ever seen.

But elbow surgery got in the way, and Banuelos missed most of the 2012 season and all of the 2013 campaign. The Yankees then capped Banuelos at 76.1 innings last season in his first return to the mound.

This season Banuelos has gotten better with more work. In his 10 starts since the beginning of May, Banuelos has allowed just eight earned runs in 59.1 innings. That’s an ERA of 1.21. Banuelos has allowed just 42 hits in those games, with 24 walks and 50 strikeouts.

Banuelos has not allowed more than two earned runs in any of those last 10 starts.

Scouts believe Banuelos is once again a serious pitching prospect. One scout that saw Banuelos’ two-hit shutout Monday night said that Banuelos was going to be “at least a number three starting pitcher” in the big leagues.

So with that in mind, what will the Braves do? Right now, they have five starting pitchers in Atlanta who are all under control for a while and who are all under 25 years old. If Banuelos is proving this season that he could be ready to at least be the fifth starter in Atlanta next season, would that tempt the Braves to make one of the current starting pitchers available in a trade?

The Braves are likely to target a power hitter this offseason, and what better to offer another team that might have that type of player than a starting pitcher. Could Banuelos’ emergence make the Braves they could trade fellow left-hander Alex Wood, who still has four years under control? Wood has significant value, which could bring the Braves a big bat in return.

The new front office wasn’t exactly sure what they had with Banuelos, but they are realizing he is now a legit future member of the Atlanta rotation. His emergence also gives John Hart and John Coppolella tremendous options moving forward to improve the team for next season.

The Braves will likely not rush Banuelos. Since this is his first full season back after Tommy John, the plan was to limit Banuelos to around 120 innings. He’s halfway there now, and if he continues to do well the Braves might want to give him a cup of coffee in Atlanta just to get his feet wet in September.

But either way, Banuelos is pitching his way into Atlanta’s future. The January trade may turn out to be one of the new front office’s best if Banuelos can live up to his growing potential.

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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