Season in Review: Danville Braves

In his next move up the organizational ladder, Jonathan Pierce takes a look at the High-Rookie League Danville team to see how their season stacks up in the Braves minor league system. The top Danville players get analyzed based on their performances and attention is given to the future of each player.

The good news concerning the 2003 for Danville was that some excellent pitching performances led to a 36-30 record and signifies further depth in the Braves system in terms of pitching. There are negatives however, namely a rather anemic group-offensive effort which featured a mere one OPS over 0.800 and only two others at 0.700 or above. The main problem cannot exactly be isolated for the collectively offensive unit, evidenced by a team batting average of 0.244, the complete lack of an on-base percentage over 0.355, or only two slugging percentages that range over 0.400. With an offense that could not, except for one key exception, hit for average, get on base, or produce via power, the burden on the pitching staff was quite heavy; but, the pitchers more than managed and by seasons end, the Danville team was extremely lopsided, but nonetheless six games over the 0.500 mark.

The Standouts

Matt Esquivel

This power-hitting Texan outfielder merited a fifth round selection by the Braves in the 2001 draft, but he would not sign until July 10th – too late to play that season. Primed for the 2002 season, Esquivel would be assigned to Danville as a 19-year old. The results would be good considering the details, but his 0.278 / 0.345 / 0.419 line was seen as only an acceptable initial foray in the professional baseball, especially in conjunction with the 3.89 at-bats per strikeout. His walk rate was solid, though, with an average of 10.81 at-bats for every walk Matt would draw. For a hitter of Esquivel's build, the power numbers were also not up to the Braves' expectations, with only ninety-five total bases in 227 at-bats. Thus, as the 2003 season rolled around and the Rome outfield was already quite full with Jansen, Joseph, and Francoeur, Esquivel was an odd man out of sorts and would repeat his tour through the High-Rookie Appalachian League.

The Danville fans and team would be glad he did, as he was literally the entire Danville offensive attack. While Esquivel would only improve his batting average by 0.004 points and his on-base percentage by 0.007 points, he would see his power numbers explode upwards. From one season to the next, there was a 0.095 point increase in slugging percentage, with his 2003 number being a very good 0.514. Power is the critical aspect of the right-handed hitter's offensive game, with 40% of his hits in 2003 going for extra bases. Although he sports solid plate discipline, evidenced by a 0.070 isolated on-base percentage and an average of eleven at-bats per walk, strikeouts are still a major problem; in 2003, Esquivel's strikeout rate was an even worse 3.06 at-bats per strikeout. So, although walk rates are solid at this early stage of his career, and offensive power is extremely good (his 0.232 isolated power number was superb), he must control his strikeout rates to continue to post 0.866 OPS-type numbers in higher levels of play. If not, pitchers will learn to exploit those weaknesses and both walks and hits will go down, negating Esquivel's extraordinary power. But, if his plate discipline improves with age and advancement, there is little limit on the potential of this still-twenty year old outfielder.

Mike Hanson

Alone and on paper, Hanson's 0.742 OPS seems rather unimpressive – and, if it were not the second highest level of offensive production on the team, it probably would be. But, the context is crucial, and on the 2003 Danville Braves team, Mike Hanson was an offensive cornerstone. His 213 at-bats were third on the team, and in the time he hit 0.277 with a 0.329 on-base percentage and a 0.413 slugging percentage. His walk rate was a not very good 14.2 at-bats per base-on-balls, but due to his acceptable 6.66 at-bat per strikeout number, he was able to muster a mediocre 0.47 walk-per-strikeout ratio. The low walks were his main problem, evidenced by a 0.052 isolated on-base percentage and a 0.329 on-base percentage that was only seventh on a very poor offensive team. What mainly boosted his OPS was a surprising amount of power for a middle-infielder, and 35.59% of his hits went for extra bases; the power production was second best on the team, and his fifteen doubles and four triples were both the standard on the Danville club, though he only hit two home runs.

Signed in 2003 as a non-drafted free agent out of Washington and Lee, his solid 0.371 batting average in his last college season, coupled with five home runs and twenty-three runs batted in, earned him a contract with the Braves on June 6th. The right-handed hitter was moved up to Myrtle Beach for the end of the season and procured fifteen at-bats. In that time, he could only produce a 0.200 batting average against the higher level of competition, posting an on-base percentage of 0.200 and a slugging percentage of 0.267. Though the A-level sample sizes are too small to bear any fruit, Hanson's very low walk rate does raise flags of concern about his viability as a prospect. With only good power numbers and a decent average, in Rookie League at the age of twenty-two no less, Hanson will have to make huge improvements in the area of plate discipline next year or see his future in serious jeopardy.

Scott Schade

This 21-year old was also a non-drafted free agent, signed by the Braves on June 6th out of Auburn University. In the 2003 Tiger season, he would bat 0.310 with three homeruns and twenty-five runs batted in. The Braves would then assign him to Danville and make him their first baseman. His subsequent 0.680 OPS was fourth on the team, falling in line with the rest of the team trend. A 0.256 average was solid but by no means very good, and unfortunately much of his other peripherals were poor. Schade would only reach base 31.6% of the time, and his slugging percentage was rather low at 0.364. Strikeouts were his main problem and he would strikeout 56 times in 176 at-bats, equating to 3.14 at-bats per strikeout. His walk rate was somewhat low but at least respectable at 11 at-bats per walk, but his high amount of strikeouts is a poor portent for future success.

Schade did hit eleven doubles, which was fourth on the team and a positive sign, but he only had three other extra-base hits. However, his high strikeouts, which are not offset by a particularly high number of walks or even hits, make his future very dubious. At twenty-one, Schade's status as a prospect is already very much in doubt, and without a very strong showing next year, most likely at Rome, he will become completely buried in the depth chart as the Braves system is just too stacked with talent. At this point, the performances in Orlando by Keith Eichas and Carlos Moreta have already vaulted them over Schade in the pecking order.

Ben Thomas

Out of Midland Junior College in Texas, this third baseman was a consistent offensive producer as a Chaparral, not to mention an outstanding glove man on the left side of the diamond. With his strong season as a 19-year old in junior college, Thomas earned a fifteenth round selection by the Braves in the 2003 draft. Signing on the eighth of June, Thomas would become the Danville third baseman for all but four games. In that time, he would play excellent defense at third and commit only eight errors. And, despite a 0.247 batting average, he would have a positive offensive season. His 0.338 on-base percentage was one of the highest on the team, and the excellent 0.091 separation (or isolated on-base percentage) was also a very good statistic to see from the young left-handed hitter. Underscoring this on-base ability was an excellent 0.725 walk-to-strikeout ratio and a base-on-balls every 7.69 at-bats. His strikeout rate, 5.575 at-bats per strikeout, was also solid.

One area of concern for Thomas is his power, as he posted a very slight 0.309 slugging percentage and only 25.45 %XBH. But, it is important to remember Thomas was adjusting in his first year of professional baseball, and his fourteen doubles, which were second on the team, were a very good sign. At twenty years of age, Thomas still has time to add weight to his small 5'10" frame and extend more singles to doubles, and more doubles to home runs. Although scouts will bet against him due to his height, Thomas's superb glove and very sound approach at the plate make him a legitimate prospect, and if he can improve his hitting, particularly power hitting, next season he will immediately shoot up the depth chart considering his excellent on-base ability.

Josh Burrus

There were players who wrung up better statistical seasons than Josh Burrus in 2003 for Danville; and even in the context of his team's offensive production, the 0.657 OPS Burrus posted hardly looks impressive. The question thus raised, then, is what merits mention of Burrus as a standout among the Braves High-Rookie League team? Playing most of the season at the age of nineteen, Burrus raised his batting average from the 0.236 he posted in 2002 at Danville to 0.254 in 2003. Unfortunately, his on-base percentage fell – from 0.338 to 0.318. His walk rate also fell, to 12.6 at-bats per walk in 2003, and his strikeouts went up, averaging 3.94 at-bats per every strikeout. This caused a 0.27 drop in his walk-to-strikeout numbers. Of course, his power did go up a significant amount, from a 0.293 slugging percentage in 2002 to a 0.339 a year later.

The improvement on 2002, if Burrus's 2003 season can even be called that, was slight, which is the crucial difficultly with Burrus. Even at the relatively young age of 20, Josh Burrus has already played two seasons at Danville without putting up numbers of any significance. His initial foray was somewhat promising based on a 0.102 isolated on-base percentage and a 7.51 at-bat per walk rate, but both those numbers suffered serious falloffs in 2003, making the season almost a bit of a regression. Burrus is still very young, and he has all the physical tools to succeed, but presently he finds himself in quite a precarious situation. Now an outfield prospect, Burrus is behind a very deep field of young players, and next season may indeed be the deciding one. Even at his young age, a third year in Danville seems quite unlikely, which means he must battle in the spring to earn a spot in Rome's outfield: no simple task considering the Matt Esquivel's season in Danville and the three excellent outfielders (Steve Doetsch, Carl Loadenthal, and Carlos Moreta) from the GCL who have a good shot at skipping the High-Rookie level altogether. Burrus still has promise, but his future is nonetheless quite equivocal.

Ryan Basner

To be the first college player selected in the 2003 draft by an organization known for a strong affinity for high school players, particularly pitchers, the right-handed 22-year old has something to be proud of. A seventh round pick out of Western Carolina University, Basner signed quickly and despite his age and college experience, he was assigned to Danville. A starter in his career at Western Carolina - where he went 8-3 with a 2.95 ERA, 91 strikeouts, and only 28 walks in 125.0 innings pitched - he was used totally as a reliever in his first professional season. Depending on the developmental viewpoint, that move was either a very good move, or one that was somewhat questionable. In 44.1 innings of relief for Danville, Basner would post a 1.84 ERA and allow 0.91 walks and hits per innings pitched, dominating Appalachian League batters by allowing an incredibly paltry number of base runners.

Basner's success in 2003 was very much due to his excellent strikeout and walk numbers, averaging 10.20 strikeouts per nine innings in comparison to only 2.24 walks per nine innings. He also did not allow a single home run in nineteen appearances, highlighting his total dominance of his league. All these statistics portend to future excellence, with strong indicators like strikeout-to-walk ratio and homeruns per nine innings being much in Basner's favour (4.54 K/BB and 0 HR/9 in 2003). The main thing for Basner will be maintaining this excellence and avoiding even a season in which he falters, because due to his age he will always be a candidate to be pushed faster. Due to his experience and superb 2003 season, he may even skip Rome next season and join the Myrtle Beach bullpen (assuming he cannot force his way in to the Rome rotation). The competition is stacked up in front of Basner, but his inceptive season was a very good one and he adds to the stockpile of promising young pitchers in the Braves organization.

Jacob Blakeney

Joining fellow 2003 draft class rarity Ryan Basner as a college draft choice, Blakeney was a senior at Mississippi State University and went 3-0 with a 4.50 ERA in his final season before being selected in the 22nd round by the Atlanta Braves. Like most of the other 2003 draft choices, he signed quickly and then saw himself installed in the Danville Braves bullpen. Ironically, Blakeney would pitch much better in his first season of professional baseball, saving nine games for his Rookie-League club. In 24 games pitched, he would keep his ERA at a very low 1.25 and do an absolutely stellar job at preventing base runners from reaching (his WHIP was 0.83). Averaging a little over six hits per nine innings, he would walk a mere 1.25 for every nine innings he pitched, walking only five over the course of the entire season. He would also strikeout 37 in 36.1 innings and not allow a single ball to leave the park.

At 23 years old, Blakeney is another pitcher who cannot afford to stumble at all as he climbs the Braves minor league ladder. Likely to skip Rome, and maybe even earn a midseason promotion to Greenville with a strong early 2004, Blakeney cannot be ruled out even if he is old. All the indicators were excellent, with 7.4 strikeouts-to-walk not to mention a very good hit rate and an excellent ability to suppress home runs. He is pretty old at this point, and he is buried in a very deep pile of pitching, but another season that is even a reasonable facsimile of 2003 and Blakeney will be more than on the radar to the Braves front office.

Whitt Farr

There was a definite trend of Orlando players joining the Gulf Coast League team in 2003, but it does not hold true as one ascends the minor league ladder. One exception to this is Whitt Farr, a native of Danville. Signed by the Braves on July 22, 2002 as a non-drafted free agent, this product of William and Mary College pitched decently in a brief sixteen-inning season at Orlando in 2002. The year of 2003 would be a much better one for Farr, however. He would average 2.20 runs per nine innings over 23 appearances, including one start. In those 49.1 innings, Farr would be excellent in controlling walks, averaging only 1.83 of them per nine innings. He also allowed only 46 hits and struck out 42.

All this amounted to a 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which points to a bright future for Farr. He is another one of the older, college guys in Danville; and at the age of twenty-two, the right-handed pitcher must perform in his third season. If he can keep his excellent walk rate and continue to smother opponents' power (0 HR/9 in 2003), Farr will find himself in the mix of Atlanta Braves pitching prospects. As must be noted ad nauseum, the competition in front of Farr is quite thick; but, the only way to combat the odds is to perform, and so Farr must set himself to the task of repeating his 2003 success.

Chuck James

To say lefthander Chuck James flew under the radar in his early career is something of an understatement. To say he will no longer be under the radar is an even larger understatement. Because of injuries, James fell to the Braves in the 20th round of the 2002 draft, but he signed late in that year and was not able to play until 2003. A JUCO player out of Chattahoochee Valley Junior College in Alabama, the 6'0" 21-year old would join the Danville starting rotation and dominate. James would start eleven games for the Braves and accumulate 50.1 innings of professional baseball experience. In that time, he would post a 1.26 ERA and an amazing 0.90 WHIP. Not only that, but he would be a strike out machine, owning a 12.22 strikeout per nine inning ratio. And, although he allowed a walk rate that was slightly high at 3.14 walks per nine innings, his hits per nine innings was an amazing 4.67. On top of all of that, he allowed only one home run all season.

With completely dominant peripheral numbers, James deftly used his first season in the Braves system to put himself on the minor league pitching map. A left-handed strikeout artist is a premium commodity in baseball, and James certainly was that in 2003. His walks were somewhat high, but not to an extent that they should be worrisome, especially coupled with his excellent hit and home run numbers. James will likely start in Rome, mostly due to the depth of the rotation in front of him, but with a good early season, he could have a chance to move up to Myrtle Beach. The key for James will be to maintain good control and refine further pitches, considering he apparently used his fastball almost completely in 2003. The flashes of dominance were there, but his second season will be extremely important for James to cement his status as a premier pitching prospect.

Danny Collins

While Danny Collins could be known as, "the guy who made the Braves scouts notice Steven Doetsch," he actually is a prospect in his own right, and had a season at Danville to prove it. Signed as a draft-and-follow player out of Indian River Community College, Collins was originally drafted in the 45th round of the 2002 draft. After finally signing in 2003, Collins would be assigned to Danville as a twenty-year old and fall in to the starting rotation. The lefthander would then pitch the most innings on the entire team, 62.2, and be a consistent starting pitcher for the Braves team. Maligned by pitiful offensive support, Collins would only post a 1-6 record, but his ERA would be an excellent 3.04 in fourteen starts. He did allow a few too many base runners, evidenced by his 1.33 WHIP, but that was due mainly to a 9.26 hits per nine innings ratio. His walk rate, on the other hand, was excellent, as he allowed only 19 walks over the season (2.75 BB/9). This very good walk rate allowed him to keep a very respectable strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.47, even though his strikeout rate was slightly low.

And, luckily, strikeout rate is the only ominous sign for this left-handed starter. In his 62.2 innings, he would only strikeout 47, which equates to a strikeout rate on the low side at 6.80 strikeouts per nine innings; but, with a very good walk rate and only 0.14 home runs allowed per nine innings, it is easy to see how Collins could own such a low ERA. Those numbers also support the case for Collins being considered a serious prospect. As a southpaw, Collins is already in an advantageous situation; and with a very good walk rate coupled with a superb home run rate, his only decent strikeout numbers should not be a source of too much worry. Collins is still fairly young, at twenty, so he has time to progress in the system. As it is with most prospects, his sophomore year will be very important; but if he can keep his walks and home runs down, he will have success at the next level and be another Braves pitching prospect with a good future, not to mention another late round steal.

Just as the Orlando team was balanced, the Danville team was every bit as unbalanced. A superb pitching staff that including many more excellent performances than the ones noted here was not augmented by an offense of any potency. There was an excellent step forward by Matt Esquivel, who is a serious offensive prospect, but the majority of the other hitters on the team are already on the fringe after their 2003 seasons. Yet, with the clear brilliance of the pitching and the bright spot of Matt Esquivel, it seems as if the 36-30 season in the Appalachian League should be called a success. There will be a plethora of young pitching moving in to the full season leagues in 2004, both from the GCL and Appalachian League teams, so the lower-A teams will be stacked once again. Rome, though, may have to siphon a good deal of its offense from the Low-Rookie League team and hope Matt Esquivel can be the key to their offense. It will be very interesting to see how the next season shakes out, but the only thing beyond dispute is that the seemingly continuous deluge of pitching has not ceased yet.

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