It's something that usually signifies the start of the offseason. The first thing teams must do in planning for the winter is to form its 40-man roster. Many teams have no problems, and some may even struggle finding 36-40 players worth protecting.
But that's not the case for the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves are seeing the results of a very strong amateur draft in 2000. It was one of the best drafts in recent history, with many of the top draftees emerging as legit prospects. Ten of their first eleven draft picks from 2000 (Adam Wainwright, Scott Thorman, Kelly Johnson, Aaron Herr, Bubba Nelson, Bryan Digby, Blaine Boyer, Zach Miner, Chris Waters, and Matt Merricks) have all become solid players.
Now the Braves must protect all of these players, and it's causing a logjam worse than traffic on I-285 during rush hour.
Let's first list all the players who must be placed on the 40-man roster or risk being taken by another club in the Rule V draft. Then we'll analyze some of the Braves dilemmas.
Must Be Protected
Tony Pena, Jr.
Now looking at this list, some are obviously not going to be protected. But there are others who fall into a gray territory. Would a team be tempted to take a pitcher who may not have much experience (i.e. a pitcher heading to High A Myrtle Beach), but would instantly become one of their top prospects and perhaps even better than some pitchers on its current major league pitching staff.
That's what the Braves have to worry about.
Let's go ahead and try to put the list together of the automatics and then the ones on the bubble.
Jose Capellan (His 100 mph showing in Instructs was the clincher)
So that leaves about 10 spots open. You can't totally fill the 40-man up to 40 men. There must be some spots left open for acquisitions.
Now let's look at the bubble guys by position.
Chris Waters – He's currently on the 40-man. If he's left off, he'll be gone. Even though he struggled in 2003 in AA, he's left-handed and would be taken immediately. But the Braves are very stingy with left-handed pitchers, so don't expect him to go.
Kevin Gryboski – This may be a surprise, but there are questions about Kevin's health. The Braves may be tempted to leave him off, but he is a favorite of Bobby Cox. He's still reasonably priced, so it's unlikely he'll go. But if he's left off, you can assume there is a worry about his arm.
Blaine Boyer – He turned the corner in Rome in 2003 with a tremendous second half of the season. It is likely he'll be protected, as some in the organization feel he's a future relief specialist. Would a team like Detroit take him and keep him on its major league roster all next season if he was left off? Probably.
Zach Miner – Here's a difficult decision. The Braves invested a lot of money in Miner, but he's yet to turn that corner into the dominating prospect they envisioned. The Braves might gamble and think no team would take a chance on him. Zach still needs a few years to develop, but by no means should be taken for granted. He is a good prospect.
Matt Wright – See Blaine Boyer. Same situation exactly. Expect him to be protected.
Roman Colon – Here's one the Braves are worried about losing. He's already on the Richmond roster, so he won't be protected on the 40-man. But with the Braves thinking he might be in their bullpen next season, another team might get the same feeling. He was not taken last winter in the Rule V, but the Braves might be lucky if it happens again.
Ray Aguilar – Another wildcard for the Atlanta bullpen sometime in 2004, Aguilar is a left-handed knuckleballer. He'll probably be left off but could be taken.
Kevin Barry – Barry will be left off. It's very possible he'll be taken by another team in the Rule V.
Daniel Curtis – Scouts are split on Curtis. Some believe he could be an effective middle reliever in the big leagues, others feel he is a AAAA pitcher. He'll probably be left off the 40-man, as he was last winter.
Ralph Roberts – He had a great season in Myrtle Beach. Would a team take a chance on someone who hasn't reached AA yet? Doubtful. Unprotected
Bryan Digby – His high-90's fastball might be tempting to other teams, but Digby has yet to stay healthy consistently. If he can, he'll be a legit prospect.
Matt Coenen – Scheduled to go to the Greenville bullpen due to a crowded situation. Some team may go after this tall left-hander.
Matt Merricks – A real worry. Again, he's a prospect, but you have to wonder if a team would put a pitcher like Merricks on its roster when he's yet to sniff AA yet. The Braves will probably gamble and leave him unprotected.
Buddy Hernandez – Braves lost him last winter and might once again this winter. He's a fringe prospect who will probably be left unprotected.
Alec Zumwalt – Here's a real question mark. He's been a pitcher for two years now and has become one of the best relief prospects in the system. Zumwalt will probably be protected. His fastball is really impressive scouts, and the Braves may feel he'll be gone if left unprotected.
Potential Position Players
Richard Lewis – Probably cementing his spot on the 40-man with an exceptional Arizona Fall League appearance. Scouts like him a lot. He stays.
Aaron Herr – Here's a worry. He's just finished Myrtle Beach and was very impressive. He's headed to AA but still needs at least two more full seasons of development. It would be a gamble for a team to take him, since he's simply not as close as Lewis.
Tony Pena, Jr. – Herr's double play partner had decent numbers at Myrtle Beach, but the scouts really feel he turned the corner. Pena is much like Herr, but the worry is the Royals will take him just to get him with his father, Tony Pena, their manager. He might be protected just to keep him from going to Kansas City.
Nick Green – Currently on the 40-man but is in jeopardy. He played well at Richmond, but the Braves are wondering if he'll ever be anything more than a reserve infielder. With the three above needing to be protected and perhaps having higher ceilings, Nick is in jeopardy, despite being an outside candidate to be a reserve infielder with Atlanta in 2004.
Billy McCarthy – Good prospect in AA who battled injuries in the second half of the season. Unlikely to be selected so he's unlikely to be protected.
Gregor Blanco – Here's a worry. He's surpassed Carlos Duran and Adam Stern as prospects, and there's concern some team may let him battle for a reserve outfield spot in the big leagues by taking him. It would be a gamble to draft him, but with the Braves not having many other leadoff prospects, he may be protected.
Ardley Jansen – The Braves feel good about his future, but he's too young and raw for some team to select him. Atlanta will leave him unprotected.
Onil Joseph – See Ardley Jansen.
Tony Pena, Jr.
That's 34 players. I think the last decision will come down to Aaron Herr or Zach Miner. Both are very solid prospects. The Braves may feel that with Giles comfortably in the big leagues and Lewis ahead of Herr, they could afford a team selecting Tommy's son. But on the other hand, the Braves hate to lose pitchers and some team may take a chance on Miner.
The 40-man rosters must be set on or before November 20. We may hear something in the next week or so. But as you can see, the Braves have a lot of decisions to make.
Just wait ‘til next winter. It gets even more complicated.
Bill Shanks hosts a weekly regional television program on the Atlanta Braves and its minor league system. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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