Season in Review: The GCL Champion O-Braves

Jonathan Pierce takes an indepth look at 10 standouts from the Golf Coast League Champion Orlando Braves. Do their strong numbers in Rookie ball equivalate to Major League success?

The single most important caveat to preface any discussion of a Gulf Coast League player or team seems pretty self-evident; the Gulf League is Rookie Level, and Low-Rookie at that. Yet, that in no way should preclude analysis of said player(s) or team(s), and the standard of excellence in the 2003 version of the Gulf Coast League was none other than the Orlando Braves. Finishing with a 40-22 record and sweeping the GCL Pirates in the best-of-three Low-Rookie postseason series, the GCL Braves won almost sixty-five percent of their games due to a clearly balanced attack. Sporting a team 0.268 batting average and posting a 3.09 earned run average as a team, the group of youthful Braves prospects routinely out-hit and out-pitched the opposition. More than a few players were keys to this teenage foray in to professional baseball success.

The Standouts

Steven Doetsch:

Most of the time when a team takes a flier out on a JUCO player and selects him in the 14th round, the hope is to find a steal. If this was the goal of the Braves scouting directors, it may have already come to fruition. If, on the other hand, the Braves-brass knew what they had in this 19-year old Indian River CC center fielder, then the Atlanta front office is borderline clairvoyant.

After signing a contract with the Braves on June 3rd, Doetsch would accumulate 228 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League, and in that time post a line of 0.320 / 0.404 / 0.500. Subsequently, he would pace the league in hits with 73 and home runs with 8. Other examples of his statistical prowess include average, slugging percentage, extra-base hits (22), runs batted in (37), and runs scored (39) in which he ranked sixth, third, fourth, third, and third respectively. Some positive portents of future success for Doetsch are his good 0.084 isolated on-base percentage and a not excellent, but very respectable, 0.51 walk-to-strikeout ratio. Both of these are fueled by his realization of the positives of the free pass, which led to a modest 9.12 at-bats for every walk.

Doetsch, from the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area, enjoyed an excellent career in high school, first at St. Petersburg Catholic for two years, then Northside Christian for two more years. He was rewarded for this amateur success by being selected in the eighth round by the Philadelphia Phillies during the 2002 draft; but feeling slighted initially by his draft position, and then later by the course of the negotiations, Steven chose to attend Junior College and further hone his craft. At Indian River Community College, Doetsch hit .389 with 26 extra-base hits, and even though his draft position was lower in 2003, he decided that both the time and the team were right. Based on early results, it seems as if the time and player were also right for the Braves.

Keith Eichas:

This Braves hitter had to travel a little farther to get to Orlando, but it could be reasonably said that it was worth the wait. Another JUCO player, from Temple Junior College specifically, Eichas was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 17th round of the 2003 draft as a first baseman. After batting .391 with 16 home runs in his collegiate sophomore effort, he signed on to join the Braves organization on the eleventh of June, but was not immediately penciled in to be Orlando's 1B.

The product of a successful high school program in Round Rock, Texas, Eichas was forced to wait until July 1 to make his first appearance, going 0-2 as a PH then DH. The 20-year old, right handed hitter would make the most of his remaining 117 at-bats, though, hitting 0.345 on the season with a solid 0.406 on-base percentage and an excellent 0.546 slugging percentage. The 119 total at-bats were not enough to qualify for top hitting positions in the league, but if he had been eligible, he would have placed third in batting average and second in slugging percentage for the GCL. Regardless, he finished with a very solid season, hitting six home runs and nine doubles while driving in 22. His 0.32 walk-to-strikeout ratio and 0.061 isolated on-base percentage were respectable for a first year, though they could use improvement. Still, with some progress in plate discipline in addition to the solid power hitting Eichas has already displayed, the Braves may have another excellent first base prospect on their hands.

Carl Loadenthal:

To add to the already promising stable of young outfielders in the Atlanta organization, the Braves turned away from the draft and signed Rider University outfielder Carl Loadenthal to a free agent contract. The 21-year old graduated from Rider owning all-time university records in runs scored (165) and stolen bases (80), and his 194 career hits were fifth best in the school's history. In 48 2003 games, Loadenthal padded his career records with 59 hits, 35 stolen bases, and 51 runs score while batting 0.337 and showing a fair amount of power by slugging 0.514.

An immediate member of the Orlando team's excellent outfield, Loadenthal started out with a fury, posting a 1.002 OPS in his first 29 at-bats. While his power numbers would drop off significantly, he continued to post an excellent average and on-base percentage, finishing with a 0.310 / 0.402 / 0.375 line and 21 stolen bases in 30 attempts. The compelling reason to be excited about the left handed-hitting outfielder is not that he projects to be a speedy, top-of-the-lineup hitter, but that he projects to be a speedy, top-of-the-lineup hitter who actually gets on base. A solid 0.85 walk-to-strikeout ratio and a very good 0.092 isolated on-base percentage underscore this idea. He has shown power in his collegiate career, which could mean his numbers could go up in subsequent seasons, but the key for Loadenthal will be sustaining his excellent on-base statistics as he rises to higher levels of play. If he can, Carl will have a job at the top of a major league lineup.

Carlos Moreta:

After finally breaking through in his third year of Braves Dominican League play, a 19-year old first baseman would struggle through the 2002 Gulf Coast League season to the tune of 0.190 / 0.259 / 0.349. The 44 total bases in 39 games were somewhat promising, but the 38 strikeouts and only 6 walks in 126 at-bats were certainly not. In for a second year at the low-Rookie League level, Moreta would definitely need a very strong showing, especially considering the offensive players ahead of him on the depth chart. Carlos responded to the pressure with a 0.099 improvement in his batting average and 0.110 more walks per strikeouts (from a 0.158 BB/K to a 0.268 BB/K). His forte, though, remained his power and he posted a 0.467 slugging percentage while leading the Braves in doubles (14), runs batted in (39), and tying the aforementioned Doetsch in home runs (8). Moreta was the Braves' first baseman for 49 games, but also played 12 games in the outfield and may find that as his niche due to the fact that the Atlanta system is now very deep at the 1B position. As for most young hitters, the crucial aspect of his offensive evolution will be plate discipline, where Moreta must not merely keep his current walk rate but improve upon it, while also trying to cut down on strike outs. Couple already excellent power hitting with improved plate discipline, and Carlos Moreta could soon be a very serious offensive prospect. At this point, it is assuredly a possibility.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia:

Presented with two Supplemental First Round draft picks, the Atlanta Braves chose to use the latter of the two in an attempt to fortify the one organizational weakness – the position of catcher. In retrospect, there seems to be no dearth of present or future catchers thanks to excellent 2003 performances by Javier Lopez, Johnny Estrada, Brayan Pena, and Brian McCann, but at the time it was an area that needed to be addressed. The answer to this problem for the Atlanta front office was an athletic, switch-hitting high school catcher who had shown he was quite a hitter in his amateur career.

Courted by Florida State University during his senior year, Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit 0.430 and played excellent defense at Royal Palm Beach High, not to mention hitting four home runs and driving in twenty-one runs. That effort was enough to earn the Floridian a first round selection in the June draft and lure him away from a potential collegiate career. Listed as the #2 catcher in the nation by Baseball America before the draft, he was #1 to the Braves, who worked out a pre-draft deal and signed the 6-4, 195-pounder almost immediately.

From game one of the GCL season, Jarrod was penciled in as the Braves third-place hitter. But, he struggled early and would not stay there long. As the climate warmed, so did Saltalamacchia, and although his final 0.239 batting average looks unimpressive, there is plenty about the young catcher's season to get very excited about. Despite a very low batting average, Saltalamacchia posted close to an 0.800 OPS (at 0.778) and sported a very good 0.382 on-base percentage. This amounted to a pulchritudinous 0.143 isolated on-base percentage, which was a factor of his excellent walk-to-strikeout (0.85) and at-bat-per-walk (4.79) ratios. This superb display of plate discipline, especially in conjunction with very good power numbers – Jarrod was tied for second on the team in doubles with 11 – forecast an very bright future for the 18-year old catcher and make him one of the most exciting hitters in the minor league section of the organization.

JoJo Reyes:

In 2002, this ace of the GCL Braves staff was as highly rated for his power-hitting abilities at first base as he was for his still developing south paw pitching. Throwing 87-89 miles per hour, the junior went 10-2 with a 1.09 ERA and 99 strikeouts at Riverside Poly High School, while at the same time fueling their offense with a 0.450 batting average, six homeruns, and forty runs batted in. By 2003, he was in the low-nineties and rated very highly – as a left-handed pitcher. His strides in pitching caught the attention of a major league club very attentive to pitching – the Atlanta Braves, who made him a second round draft pick in 2003.

Signing quickly like many of the other draft picks, Reyes would become the most sterling member of a superb pitching staff in Orlando. Throwing the third highest amount of innings on the team, 45.2, the 18-year old lefthander would allow an average of 2.56 runs per nine innings in eleven appearances and ten starts. That ERA was the best among the regular starters, and his 55 strikeouts were the most on the team. He also walked only 14, giving him a very good 3.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio to pair up with his outstanding 10.95 strikeouts per nine innings. Going 5-3 with a 1.06 WHIP, Reyes was one of the best pitchers in his league, and with a strong sophomore effort will vault in the upper echelon of Braves pitching prospects.

Paul Bacot:

The Atlanta Braves waited a little longer than usual to pick a Georgian, holding out all the way until the second round. For the sixty-seventh overall pick, Atlanta pilfered from their area college and chose Atlanta-native Paul Bacot, who had planned to attend the University of Georgia. This lanky right-hander from Lakeside High signed immediately with the Braves, as did most of his fellow draft choices. After going 7-3 in his senior season with a 1.72 ERA, Bacot was ready to be a professional.

He first appeared on June 20th and gave up one earned run. That would be one of only four earned runs Bacot would give up in 38.0 inning pitched. Starting six games and relieving three others, Bacot would post a record of 4-0 and a 0.71 WHIP. His control was amazing, as he would only walk four batters all season. Compare that with the 26 strikeouts and it is understandable how he was able to keep a sub-1.00 ERA (0.95). At 18 years of age, Paul already possesses a fastball in the low-nineties and a good slider. With that repertoire and an amazing 6.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Bacot projects very well and already looks to be one of Atlanta's better pitching prospects, which is definitely a statement about his ability. As is always true with tall, thin pitchers, he will need to add weight in order to improve stamina, a la Adam Wainwright. It will also be important for Bacot to continue to hone his already potent pitches while mixing other weapons in to his arsenal. Still, with his combination of power and pinpoint control that led to only 0.95 walks per nine innings, the Braves have another Georgian high school pitcher who should go a long way.

Dan Smith:

Another of the Braves excellent Non-Drafted Free Agent signings, this 6-5 left-hander proved to be a very smart pickup indeed. Used exclusively as a reliever, Smith would pitch 28.1 amazing innings, spanning thirteen appearances. In that time, he would allow only six earned runs, which computes to a 1.92 ERA. He was also a strikeout machine, averaging 11.21 strikeouts per nine innings, and displayed an aversion to base runners, exhibited by his 1.07 WHIP, 2.56 walks per nine innings, and very good 4.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Usually, prospects are not groomed to be relievers until much later, but at this point it seems as if Smith has the potential to be a lights out strikeout southpaw for late inning usage. However, he did average 2.2 innings per appearance, which shows he can be very effective for more than one inning. Whichever path the Braves decide is appropriate for Smith, they will look for him to continue the dominance he displayed for the 2003 season. With superb strikeout and walk numbers, Smith projects to have the ability to do just that and, as always, being a lefty is quite an asset.

Jacob Stevens:

There seems to be somewhat of a trend for Orlando players traveling short distances to join their first professional team. LHP Jake Stevens does nothing to buck said trend, coming all the way from Cape Coral High School in Cape Coral, Florida. After a 10-1 senior season that included a three inning, eight strikeout, no-hit start at the end of the season (which he was forced to leave due to a rigid pitch limit) he was ranked forty-first overall by Baseball America, yet the Braves snagged him with the 79th draft choice overall. One of the top ten lefties in the nation, the Braves locked him down quickly, and by June 6th he was an Atlanta Brave.

By the first game on June 19th, Stevens had pitched for the Braves. It was an inauspicious beginning, as he would allow four earned runs to score on three walks and a grand slam homerun in an eighth inning relief appearance. Luckily for Stevens and the Braves, he would pitch more than one inning in 2003 – forty-six more innings, in fact – and only allow eleven more earned runs. Doubling as both a starter and reliever with six starts and eight non-starts, Stevens would significantly lower his initial 36.00 ERA and finish the season having only allowed an average of 2.87 runs per nine innings. He also demonstrated a particular propensity to the strikeout, owning a strikeout per nine-inning ratio of 9.00. He did have a penchant for giving up hits, though, allowing 49 in his 47 innings of work, and also struggled with control somewhat, averaging over three walks per nine innings and having a respectable but by no means great 2.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Base runners must be considered Stevens's bane in his short-lived professional career, exemplified by his 1.38 WHIP; but based on the fact that he is a strong lefty with a fastball that ranges in the low-nineties (not to mention a solid curve and change), it should be reasonably safe to say that Jake has a massive amount of potential. The strikeout rates are very excellent and a solid portent to future success, so if Stevens can learn to control his free passes, his future in professional baseball will be very bright.

Luis Atilano:

After a rocky start the Braves first round draft choice, it could be said, rebounded - and that would be an understatement. Drawing comparisons to fellow Puerto Rican Javier Vazquez for reasons other than their common birthplace, this 18-year old right-handed pitcher out of Gabriela Mistral High School agreed to deal prior to the draft and became an Atlanta Brave almost immediately following his 35th overall selection. With a fastball that usually resides around 93 miles per hour, a solid curve ball, and the makings of a changeup, Atilano is seen as a pitcher full of talent whose pitch speed and refinement of pitches will only increase, a trend that was observed by Braves scouts from his junior to senior season.

Making his professional debut on June 24th, Atilano started the fourth game of the season and threw a two-inning shutout. The youthful pitcher would struggle in July, however, with an ERA as high as 7.47 by mid-month. As of July 20th, Luis has a 1.85 WHIP, allowing 27 hits and 13 earned runs in only 15.2 innings and managing a very meager 1.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Down the stretch, however, Atilano would become dominant. Averaging over five innings a start over his final seven starts, Atilano would finish with the most innings on his Orlando team (54). Over that time, he would lower his ERA to 3.83, his WHIP to 1.26, and twirl a complete game shutout. He also had excellent control, walking only seven batters in those fifty-four innings, or 1.17 batters per nine innings. His strikeout rate was somewhat low at 4 per nine innings, but because of his excellent ability to limit walks, Atilano had a very solid 3.43 strikeout-to-walk ratio. One problem for the Puerto Rican right-hander was a very high amount of hits per innings pitched – he allowed 61 hits in his 54 innings – but this is not too worrisome as hit rate, especially at the low-Rookie level, is a very poor indicator of future potential. And, although his strikeout rate was somewhat low, it ascended incrementally throughout the second half of the 2003 season while his walk rate was plummeting, which bodes extremely well for future success.

While 2003 was, of course, only one season for these young players, it is still quite important that their professional careers began with such excellent freshman (and one sophomore) efforts. Whether it be Danville or Rome, 2004 will be crucial for every one of these ten players to cement their status as a premium major league prospect. If even a third of the aforementioned young hitters and pitchers turn in to blue-chip prospects, the development of the talent the Atlanta front office assigned to the Gulf Coast League team must be considered a success. If as many as half or more wade the dubious waters of the minor leagues and become major league players, the Braves will have a lot to be proud of. There is no doubt that each of these players has the abilities needed to convert their amazing potential in to material achievement. The coming years will be quite telling as to whether this comes to consummation.

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