The feel is a lot like Spring Training, but instead of the temperature rising there's a hint of cooler weather on the way. Players are scurrying from field to field, awaiting their next drill or individual instruction. It will be time for a game soon, better rush off for a little lunch.
Welcome to the Instructional League for the Atlanta Braves.
At first glance, "Instructs" are a lot like spring training. On one field, a normal day of batting practice for the position players. On another, infielders are working with Rafael Belliard, Atlanta's Roving Minor League Infield Instructor. "Raffy" is throwing the ball high off the pitcher's mound allowing Jonathan Schuerholz, Nick Green, and Mike Hanson to play the balls of the tough bounce. Then you see a few pitchers in the bullpen, trying to make an impression on a major league coach just down for a quick visit.
Players report in between 7:00am-7:30am. Some work out with weights before reporting to the field around 8:30am. On this day, Braves Minor League Field Coordinator Chino Cadahia addresses the troups before they embark on a small run around the field. Then a little throwing on the side, and then it's time to split up.
The purpose here is simple: to allow the minor leaguers one more chance at extra work before the winter. Some of these players will be heading off to winterball, and others will simply be going home. But it's also a chance to make a lasting impression on the coaches who will be making final recommendations on their immediate futures.
This year's Instructs have a few more faces than usual. For the first time, the Braves have held a "Peak Performance" camp for pitchers. Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Phil Falco has his group acting as football wide receivers on this day. The pitchers are doing a regular out pattern, then turning to catch a deeply thrown baseball. Twelve pitchers are here in this the second session; most of these guys are the rising AAA and AA players not too far off from the big leagues.
So there are workouts in the morning, and then games in the early afternoon. We also witnessed a morning game in Winter Haven that started at 10:00am. That's what you can have in the Instructs, flexibility to do whatever's needed to play more baseball.
Let's list the players who were in the Instructional League and the Peak Performance. Then we'll offer a few comments on some of the players.
Without a doubt, he opened more eyes than anyone during Instructs. Two weeks ago, many of the Braves front office executives were in Orlando conducting end of the season meetings. They went to a game on the back field and Capellan was brilliant. He was consistently in the high 90's, and against one batter struck him out on three straight pitches clocked at 99 miles an hour. "Cappy" did hit 100 and 101 on more than one occasion. After slowly coming back from Tommy John surgery, Capellan may be on the verge of busting out. One member of the Braves organization even mentioned the outside chance of Cappy being in Atlanta sometime in 2004. He will most definitely be on the 40-man roster and will have a chance to impress even more in March. It's very possible Jose Capellan is being set up as John Smoltz' replacement as the Atlanta closer in a few years.
In the spring of 2001, Matt McClendon was a minor league pitcher who was being mentioned as someone very close to helping the big league club. Then he suddenly became the Braves version of Steve Blass, unable to consistently get the ball over the plate. The control problems have been drastic, but no one has worked harder than Matt McClendon. Who knows if he'll ever get back to the level he was at three springs ago, but the Braves are sticking with him, hoping he'll get some consistency in his stuff back. We saw him pitch two innings in Winter Haven against the Indians Instructional League team. He pitched two scoreless innings, which at this point is a huge step in his progress. The Braves hope he can go to spring training and win a bullpen job with either Myrtle Beach or Greenville. Pull for this guy! It's been a long, hard road, but again it should be said that no one is working harder to regain the stuff that had him close to the big leagues than Matt McClendon.
Lopez was a valuable member of the Macon Braves pitching staff in 2002. He had a 3.10 ERA in 28 starts with 130 strikeouts in 157 innings pitched. But Lopez struggled in 2003. He went 0-2 in his first 3 games and had horrible numbers. Part of Gonzalo's problems were his attitude, and the Braves sent him to Orlando where he stayed for the rest of the season. Well, he's back. Pitching against the Tigers' Instructional League team, he was unhittable. Coaches say he has regained his confidence and that his attitude is exceptional. He's still only 20 years old, so it's obvious Gonzalo needed a wake up call. It worked. Now, when you are penciling your minor league pitching rotations for 2004, you must not forget Gonzalo Lopez. He has some of, if not the best stuff in the organization. His fastball is in the 92-95 range and he has excellent movement on his breaking pitches. Lopez should start out in Myrtle Beach in 2004, but don't rule out him finishing in Greenville if he pitches as well as he did in Instructs.
The Braves were hoping the 3rd round pick from 2002 would shine in Instructs, and they were not disappointed. Charlie Morton had a decent season in Danville in 2003, but nothing to shout about. He took necessary steps in the Instructional League, and the Braves now feel he should be one of the top starters for the Rome Braves in 2004.
Atlanta's top choice in 2003 continued his gradual progress. Luis Atilano was one of the main reasons the Gulf Coast League Braves won the league title with a remarkable second half of his second. He continued his fine pitching in Instructs. A couple of things to remember about Atilano. First, he's still a baby as far as pitching is concerned. Second, the Braves will not have any reason to rush him, so his development should be slow and steady. But this kid has the body and the stuff to be a very interesting prospect in a couple of years.
"I've found my release point," according to Atlanta's 20th round draft choice. Kyle Bakker was a star pitcher in college at Georgia Tech in 2002, but the 2003 season was a bit different for the tall lefty starter. Bakker struggled (comparatively) with his control and was clearly not the same pitcher in his junior season. When you see Bakker, the first thing you have to notice is his size. He's huge. Bakker is 6'9" and 255 pounds. He pitched in relief against the Indians in Winter Haven last Thursday. Bakker's fastball is only in the 86-88 range, but his heigth makes it look faster. He has, as described by one of the Braves pitching coaches, a "heavy" fastball. It simply looks faster than a high-80's fastball. At times, he looks very solid, and then he'll turn around and look hittable. The great part is what he told us about the release point in his delivery. Now that he physically feels the way he did in his sophomore season at Georgia Tech, Bakker is on the road to being a very solid pitching prospect for the Atlanta Braves. It's very possible for Bakker to be apart of Rome's starting rotation in 2004.
One more pitching note. The Braves have brought back Bill Fischer as the team's Senior Minor League Pitching Coordinator. Fischer is a veteran pitching coach with a tremendous reputation. He scouted a bit for the Braves last season, but his last full time job was as Tampa Bay's pitching coach from 2000-2002. Fischer spent four seasons as the Reds pitching coach (1979-1982) and six seasons as the Red Sox pitching coach (1985-1990). Roger Clemens has credited Fischer with being a huge influence in his early career with the Red Sox. He also spent eight years as a pitching coach in the Braves farm system.
Part Two of this Series on the Instructional League will be available Wednesday Night. Bill Shanks can be reached at email@example.com.
Instructional League Report: Part One
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