Season In Review: The Rome Braves

Fresh off their SAL Championship victory, Jonathan Pierce delves in to the Braves' minor leagues once again to recap the quite successful 2003 season that the transplanted Rome team enjoyed.

The first year of a new residence for the Low-A Braves, the 2003 season would be for Rome a very good one. The team Rome fielded for 2003 was dripping with talent, led to a 78-61 record by a potent offensive attack and a premier starting rotation. The top four starters as a group posted a 2.77 ERA in 507.2 innings and the top six of the batting order averaged a 0.283 batting average. The squad was a balanced one, and it led them into the postseason; once there, the Rome Braves would take it to a new level. Winning five and only being defeated twice, the South Atlantic League Championship would cap an excellent season for the prospect-packed team.

The Standouts:

Jeff Francoeur

The Braves first round draft choice in 2002, Francoeur exploded on to the season in High-Rookie Danville that same year, hitting to the tune of 0.327 / 0.395 / 0.585 in 147 at-bats. He also posted decent but far from good strikeout and walk numbers, walking once every 9.8 at-bats and 0.44 times for every strikeout. What stood out most, however, was his amazing power, evidenced by the 0585 slugging percentage. The year of 2003 would be much different for the nineteen-year old outfielder, however.

Although he would not hit over 0.300 again, the 0.281 clip Francoeur would hit at was a very good number. He also was second in the South Atlantic League (SAL) in hits with 147 and triples with nine. The problem for Jeff would be plate discipline, which may be one of the reasons his average fell, coupled with higher competition. Striking out 68 times and walking only 30 times in 524 at-bats, he would have an identical walk-to-strikeout ratio of 0.44, but both his at-bat per walk and at-bat per strikeout rates fell drastically. While it was much better that Francoeur was strikeout out half as much as he did in his initial season, the same cannot be said in respect to base-on-balls. The problem that can be discerned is that Jeff was swinging at too many pitches, always making contact but not necessarily good contact. This led to a mere 0.044 isolated on-base percentage, hardly a promising portent. His power remained good, though, as shown by his 0.445 slugging percentage and 33.3 %XBH ratio, or the percentage of hits that went for extra bases. Probably deserving of note is the fact that it appears that all the Rome Braves players' slugging percentages were depressed in 2003, meaning the new Rome park may favour pitching. It is too soon to tell, but the 0.445 slugging percentage Francoeur posted (and all subsequent slugging percentages noted in this article) may not be the best representation of true power.

So, while Francoeur responded to a phenomenal first season with a very good second season, it is more important that he may have learned a lot in the process. While his average and power numbers were quite more than acceptable, as has been discussed there were problems with his plate discipline, despite the suppression of strikeouts. During the season, Francoeur verbally expressed his acknowledgement for the need to walk, and since then his walk rate and on-base percentage did nothing but rise. If Francoeur consciously realizes the need for improvement, he no doubts has all the ability in the world to make that improvement. Although it must come to fruition, continuing these improvements will make Jeff Francoeur a scary prospect; and, playing at Myrtle Beach at the age of 20 in 2004 may evoke the same monumental changes that were seen in Andy Marte in 2003.

Brian McCann

Another prep choice in the 2002 draft, this second round choice was straight out of Georgia and good friends with fellow Georgian Jeff Francoeur. Unlike Francoeur, the now 19-year old catcher struggled in his first professional year. Batting a 0.220 / 0.295 / 0.330 line in 2002 at the Low-Rookie level, the Braves felt secure enough in his abilities to make McCann Rome's primary starting catcher despite his poor first effort. In retrospect, it was a wise decision indeed, as McCann would respond to the increased pressure with a sensational sophomore season.

Hitting at a much higher 0.290 in 2003, the young catcher would split time between catching and being the designated hitter. His power was excellent, shown by his 0.462 slugging percentage, 37.40 %XBH and 0.172-isolated power number. Second on the team to Francoeur in home runs with twelve (Jeff hit fourteen), McCann was third in the SAL in doubles with thirty-one and gives the Braves a serious, power-hitting prospect at a position that was once a system weakness. Just like his colleague Francoeur, however, McCann would struggle with plate discipline – to an even greater degree, no less. While he hit close to 0.300, McCann could only reach base at a 0.329 frequency, leading to an isolated on-base percentage that was very low at 0.039. Walking only once every 17.67 at-bats, he also struck out a very large number of times, seventy-two times in 424 at-bats (equating to a 5.81 AB/K ratio). Unfortunately, unlike Francoeur, McCann did not exhibit a concerted improvement throughout the season. Peaking in mid-July, McCann was hitting 0.298 / 0.345 / 0.506 with a 14.7 at-bat per walk ratio; McCann would taper off as the season wound down, though. This is an area the left-handed hitter must improve in to be a serious offensive prospect, but this was McCann's first full season, so there is much time to make the adjustments. Progressing with friend and fellow prospect Jeff Francoeur will certainly also aid him, as there will no doubt be amiable competition not to mention base-on-ball encouragement from that source. With better plate discipline, McCann could be one of the best hitting up-and-coming catchers in baseball; thus, 2004 in Myrtle Beach will be a huge season for McCann as well.

Onil Joseph

Plucked from the Dominican Republic, the 20-year old Miguel Mota aged in to the 21-year old Onil Joseph this past off-season. Despite the off-field transgressions, Joseph would become a stalwart in the Braves outfield and replicate his excellent numbers from the 2002 GCL the SAL in 2003. A Non-Drafted Free Agent signed in 2000, Joseph shot up the prospect charts with his more than solid season leading off for the South Atlantic League Champion Rome Braves.

The right-handed hitting speedster used a 0.296 batting average and a solid 13.05 at-bat per strikeout ratio to post a 0.349 on-base percentage and set the table for the Rome offense. As to be expected, Joseph did not produce all too much power, confirmed by a 0.376 slugging percentage and only 26 extra-base hits. And, despite his speed, Joseph was only successful in 59% of his steal attempts, stealing 32 bases but finding himself caught 22 times. He also struggled mightily with the strikeout, whiffing 89 times in 483 at-bats. That 5.43 at-bat per strikeout ratio, and the resulting 0.42 walk-to-strikeout ratio is the primary cause for concern about the future of Joseph. As a potential leadoff man whose power is marginal, Joseph will have to get on base to be valuable and effective at his job. While this was his first full season in professional baseball and the competition level was much higher than he has ever experienced, Joseph must improve on his 0.053 isolate on-base percentage as he progresses as a prospect. As he matures, his power should improve to some degree, and through experience his base running should improve to match his speed, but Joseph must compliment his high batting average with a better walk rate, and he must cut down on the strikeouts. Still quite young, Joseph is another guy who may either be helped or hindered greatly by Myrtle Beach next year, depending on his willingness to adjust and learn. Taking the necessary steps will make him an excellent leadoff prospect; failing to do so could be costly judging by the amount of talent present in the Braves system.

Yaron Peters

Another product of the 2002 draft, Peters was one of the college picks that littered the early rounds of that year with surprising frequency. Chosen in the tenth round out of South Carolina, Peters was a crucial cog in the Gamecock unit that went to the College World Series in 2002. After his CWS run, Peters signed with the Braves and accumulated 177 at-bats in Danville, where he would hit for a low average of 0.243 but post a solid on-base percentage (0.330) and slugging percentage (0.441). This earned him the position of starting first baseman for the Rome Braves, and in his second season of professional baseball, Peters would do very well.

Hitting 0.286 on the season, Peters would lead his team in OPS, though in only 318 at-bats. His on-base percentage was solid, at 0.345, and his walk rate of 11.78 at-bats per walk was also pretty good. Strikeouts, however, plagued Peters, and 70 strikeouts overall (4.54 AB/K) were not encouraging. Power was not a problem, though, and the right-handed hitting first baseman had 39 extra-base hits, which were 42.86% of his total hit count of 91. Those numbers, which included 27 doubles and 11 homers, would have been even greater except for a midseason promotion to Myrtle Beach; the results of which, unfortunately, were horrible. Splitting time as a first baseman and designated hitter for the Pelicans, Peters would bat only 0.170 with 19 hits, six for extra bases, in 112 High-A at-bats. A glaring positive, however, was the 0.304 on-base percentage and base-on-ball every 7.47 at-bats. This 0.134 isolated on-base percentage in Myrtle Beach was much more than the 0.059 he posted in Rome, leading to the concern of sample size-issues.

The importance for Peters in 2004 will be to keep the plate discipline he exhibited in his brief stay in High-A, but continue the hitting for average of his Low-A season. At 24, Peters cannot afford to waste another opportunity to progress, and based on his age there is even the very good chance he could make it to Greenville with a strong early season in Myrtle Beach. But, with the performances of prospects like James Jurries and Scott Thorman in front of him, and Carlos Moreta and Keith Eichas behind him, Peters must perform in 2004, cutting down on strikeouts, maintaining a good approach with high walk counts, and hitting for power very well; if he fails to do so, he may find himself out of the Braves future plans, but he certainly has the potential to be an excellent prospect.

Wes Timmons

Chosen in the twelfth round of the 2002 draft as a shortstop out of Bethune-Cookman College, Wes Timmons may have not been seen as a serious prospect, especially considering the depth of the Braves organization in the area of middle-infield talent. Even after a brief but exceptional 2002 season at Low-A Macon in which he hit 0.283 but posted a 0.439 on-base percentage, Timmons was slated to be riding the pine for the same Low-A team, transplanted in Rome. Thanks to an early injury, Timmons would get to start – at a position he had never played, third base. After that, it would not be relinquished, as the 24-year old right-hander would fill in more than admirably at a brand new position. Only committing ten errors 121 games at third, his offense more than his defense shone all season.

In 422 at-bats, Timmons would accrue the fourth highest hit total on the team, 119. His 0.282 batting average, however, was not his strength; what was his strength was an extraordinary 1.68 walk-to-strikeout ratio, which over a full season amounted to 52 walks and only 31 strikeouts. His 0.376 on-base percentage out of the second spot in the lineup was crucial for the offensive success of the Rome Braves, and his 0.094 isolated on-base percentage is an excellent sign for future success. Timmons also improved his power output, going from a 0.356 slugging percentage in 2002 to a much more robust 0.396 in 2003. With thirty total extra-base hits, 19 doubles, 4 triples, and seven home runs, Timmons produced with an acceptable amount of power but that facet will not be what gets him to the big leagues. With his plate discipline, the big leagues seem like a realistic goal, however. He will need to move quickly due to his age and experience, but based on his solid approach it appears he could handle it. Myrtle Beach and Greenville are both options for Timmons, so it remains to be seen where he will find himself next year. A power increase could not hurt, but if Timmons maintains his excellent walk and strikeout rates while continuing to hit for average, he will at the very least find his way on to a major league bench. At best, Timmons could be a #2 hole-hitting everyday infielder.

Anthony Lerew

The most telling statement that could be made about Lerew is as follows: he has never, in his professional career spanning 275.2 innings, experienced the feeling of an ERA north of 3.00. 2003 was no exception, and in fact it may be considered his breakout year simply due to the competition level and number of innings. The 20-year old right-handed pitcher was drafted in the eleventh round of 2001 draft out of Northern High School in Wellsville, Pennsylvania. While success in Rome should have been predicted after the 6'3", 210-pounder went 8-3 with a 1.73 ERA in Danville, there was not much attention paid to the young pitcher.

Anchoring the Rome rotation, Lerew would gain a lot more attention during the 2003 season, and will most surely see even more come his way in the off-season. Third in the SAL in ERA at 2.38, Lerew would dominate SAL batters to the tune of a 1.08 WHIP. His walk rate was quite good at 2.75 per nine innings, but his hits-allowed number was superb, with a mere 112 hits against him over the course of 143.2 innings during the season. His strikeout rate was also very good at 7.98 per nine innings, which together with a good walk rate gives plenty of reasons to like Lerew's future. His 2.95 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a very positive sign, and coupled with his home run suppression (0.44 HR/9), Lerew has all the peripheral numbers to point to more dominance to come. His control could use a little improvement, but that is small qualm considering his walk rate was already very good. Besides that, the key for Lerew will be to continue his success as his innings count and the level of competition increases. With the amount of talent in front of him, the Braves will not rush Lerew, so he will have time to adjust to higher levels. Look for an outstanding season in the pitchers park of Myrtle Beach, with perhaps a season similar to Bubba Nelson's 2002 campaign. Lerew has all the potential in the world, and he is already among the Braves better pitching prospects; all that is left for him is to test his mettle against the likes of High-A and Double-A batters.

Kyle Davies

Davies was among the teenagers in Rome that were crucial to the teams success in 2003, and for the year he followed up Lerew in the rotation as arguably the second ace of the team. Drafted in the fourth round during the same draft that produced rotation-mate Anthony Lerew, Davies is another Georgian in the Braves system, being schooled at Stockbridge High School before becoming a professional pitcher. Bouncing between Orlando, Macon, and Danville in his first two seasons, Davies went 10-6 with a 2.95 ERA over 137 innings during that stretch. He would finally cement himself in 2003, however, locking down a rotation spot for Rome.

Davies would explode out of the gate, keeping his ERA under 2.00 until the first of June. While he would struggle somewhat from that point until halfway through July, he would once again dominate down the stretch, lowering his ERA from its peak of 3.40 on July 20th to its final resting point of 2.89. Overall, Davies led the team in innings pitched, throwing 146.1 innings over 27 starts. The tool used by Davies for success was the strikeout, and he was third in the league in strikeouts with 148, averaging 9.12 per nine innings. Despite a walk rate slightly on the high side at 3.26, Davies posted a 2.79 strikeout-to-walk ratio that signals good fundamentals and future success. Also key was the 0.55 homeruns per nine, which kept his ERA low despite allowing almost eight (7.89) hits per nine innings pitched. With more strikeouts than innings pitched, a low number of walks and home runs, and many fewer hits than innings pitched, Kyle Davies looks to shoot up the pitching depth chart after this year, and to rise even higher in the coming years. Before 2003, Davies added miles per hour to his low-nineties fastball and refined his slider to compliment his already good control. Like Lerew, Davies must simply continue to pitch as he has, which certainly is no small task. If he does, he will add to the seemingly endless stable of young pitching the Braves possess.

Matt Wright

A member of the 2000 draft class, coming to the Braves from the 21st round out of Robinson High School in Lorena, Texas, Wright worked his way up the system ladder each year, going 13-15 with a 3.13 ERA in 247 total innings before being penciled in to the Myrtle Beach rotation in 2003. He struggled, though, and after 60.2 innings with a 6.43 ERA he was demoted back to the Low-A level and, in a trade of Matt's, Matt Merricks took his place in Myrtle Beach. Wright would respond to the demotion, and after he transformed in to a third ace for the Rome club, the move could be called successful to say the least.

Back in the South Atlantic League, Wright would completely dominate his opponents. He started thirteen games for Rome down the stretch, going 10-2 and owning a paltry 1.65 ERA. He struck out an average of 10.76 for every nine innings he pitched, or 98 in 82 innings overall. Walks, which heretofore had always been Wright's main point of struggle, were much less of a problem in his 2003 season for Rome, where his walk per nine innings ratio was 3.51 and his strikeout to walk ratio was 3.06 – both numbers quite good. Besides his strikeout supremacy and rather good control, Wright was frugal with hits and homeruns, a major reason why his ERA was so low. Averaging 5.82 hits per nine innings and a superb 0.22 homeruns per nine innings, Wright did all the things to make his future look extremely optimistic; and, at only 21, Wright still has time to progress. But, it is somewhat worrisome that Wright toiled in High-A to the degree that he did; and it remains to be seen how he will pitch in a second tour through that league, which makes 2004 very important for the young pitcher. With a first half reasonably close to 2003, though, Wright will be a prime candidate for Double-A due to his age. If he can keep his walk rate low and continue to dominate with strikeouts, keeping runners off base and controlling homeruns, he will be yet another young pitcher on the rise in the Braves system.

Blaine Boyer

With three aces already, this converted reliever was a number two starter that was fourth in the pecking order. [Not] Surprisingly, Boyer hails from Georgia, and was drafted out of Walton High School in the 2000 draft that produced fellow starter Matt Wright. A third rounder, the 22-year old right-handed pitcher worked his way upwards with mixed results, doing quite well in the 2002 Macon bullpen, saving one game and keeping a 3.07 ERA in 70 relief innings. But, the Braves wanted to get him innings, and so the flame-throwing Boyer found himself a starter in 2003, repeating the Low-A level.

The results were good, although not great. In 136.2 innings, Boyer kept a 3.70 ERA, but more telling was his 1.50 WHIP – quite high, especially considering his ERA. Much of that was due to a very high hit count – 146 – that overrode a decent walk rate of 3.83 per nine innings. His strikeout count was also above average at 7.60 strikeouts per nine innings, but as neither was great, Boyer produced a very mediocre strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.98. One positive, which was probably a large factor in Boyer's low ERA, was his excellence in controlling homeruns. Like many of his peers in Rome, Blaine posted a very good homerun-allowed rate, 0.33 homeruns per nine innings specifically. Overall, the 2003 season was a bit of an enigma for Blaine Boyer. His ERA rose marginally, but his hits allowed ballooned and his strikeouts fell by a large degree. Conversely, his walks allowed went down by a large margin and he threw many more innings. At his age, Boyer needs to move quickly, but it remains to be seen in what direction he will move. Being 22, if the Braves see him as a reliever he may be in the Greenville bullpen for 2004. But, if 2003 convinced the Braves he should remain a starter, he will most certainly move to Myrtle Beach without much slack performance-wise. Hits can be very unpredictable, which make the high hits allowed – and to a lesser degree the high ERA – not as ominous as they may seem. The key for Boyer will be to continue to restrict his base on balls and home runs, and also to better harness his electric stuff to strikeout more batters. Once a decision is made as to his future, Boyer will need to convert regardless of the path he is sent on. Twenty-two is a little old for Low-A, but it was a transition year. The 2004 season will give a much better indication of Boyer's future, but as of now he has the potential to be a very good major league starter or reliever.

Sung Jung

An international find, analogous to the signing of Jung Keun Bong, Sung Ki Jung was signed as a Non-Drafted Free Agent in 2002 but only made it in to one game, throwing two scoreless innings with two strikeouts for Orlando. Jung would see much more action in 2003, however, and at the start of the season he would find himself working out of the Rome bullpen. At twenty-four, the right-hander was old for the South Atlantic League, but on the other hand it was his first full season and his accomplishments cannot be overlooked. Jung became a lights-out closer for Rome, saving eighteen games down the stretch for Rome and going 1-4 in 53 relief appearances. Posting a 2.18 ERA in 66.2 innings, he averaged 11.28 strikeouts per nine innings and only 3.53 walks and 7.61 hits per nine innings. Those numbers amounted to a 3.19 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.24 WHIP, all good portents for the young Korean's future. With a low homerun rate (0.41 HR/9), Jung has all the statistics that indicate he is a serious relief prospect, and the strikeout numbers are simply outstanding. The main factor working against Jung is his age, and at 24 he will have to move quickly without faltering. Its possible Jung could see AA in 2004, and with the state of current Braves bullpen, the Korean native may move quickly depending on his own performance and that of the relief prospects in front of him. At this point, Jung looks to be a solid future reliever, but he was old for his competition level and has only one season under his belt, so much more prediction would be quite dubious.

Among the other excellent players on the Rome roster: Jonathan Schuerholz, whose plate discipline was on the level of that of Timmons; Luis Hernandez, a very young but slick fielding shortstop with offensive potential; Ardley Jansen, who provided another outfield bat and was more than competent hitting down in the batting order; Ryan Ewin, a lanky right-hander who filled the fifth starters role quite more than admirably down the stretch; Efigenio Peralta, another key member of the bullpen, and the list could continue. The crux of any coverage of the 2003 Rome team should be that this was a young team, talent laden and full of top-notch prospects, who converted that in to a championship and gained valuable experience along the way. The Braves South Atlantic League affiliate is going to send a lot of promise to the higher levels of competition, and the future is bright for the vast majority of them. Being so far from Atlanta, 2004 will still be a very important year for all of the aforementioned players, but that will all be assessed in retrospect once 2004 has come and passed. As of now, the championship conclusion to an excellent 2003 is the best anyone could have asked for when the Braves moved to Rome last offseason.

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