Braves Notes

So here we are on July 3rd and we're 2.5 games out. Well, that's not too bad. Not too bad considering how banged up this team has been all season. Be honest. There's no way you really thought we would have been this close that night in Milwaukee when Marcus Giles did summersaults in the outfield.

* Nick Green has done a wonderful job filling in for Giles. You can't say we've had a hole at second base, but then you have to admit Giles' absence has been felt. Nick is simply not as productive offensively as Marcus, but that does not diminish the great contributions he has made in our lineup. The thought of Jesse Garcia getting those 150 at bats filling in for Giles made us all sick. Now the emergence of Green will make Garcia an afterthought when Giles returns. It's obvious that Nick has won Bobby Cox's heart, and we all know that will mean he'll be around for a while.

* Adam LaRoche is now in Richmond starting his rehab assignment. It will be good to get him back in the lineup simply because he was starting to show positive signs right before he suffered his injury. There is no disputing his defensive ability, but he needs to show more consistency at the plate. Julio Franco is amazing, but let's hope Cox gives LaRoche the majority of playing time in the second half of the season. This kid deserves a chance to see if he can be our regular first baseman.

* If Chipper Jones is going to stay at third (something that obviously needs to happen), then what's going to be the deal in left field? Obviously, if a trade is made, that is a glaring need. But if a deal is not struck, then Eli Marrero may get the most at bats. Marrero has done well in his limited time since coming back from his time on the DL. Could he be a decent left-fielder if given the majority of at bats? Well, he did well in St. Louis a few years ago when he played regularly. We know his OBP is going to be low and he's a bottom of the order hitter, but there are worse options we could have out there.

* Charles Thomas has been a breath of fresh air for this club. You can't wipe that smile off his face. What a great story. Even though he was the 4th outfielder for most minor league teams he played on (even suppose to be the 4th OF this season in Richmond), this guy has gone out and never played any game but at 100%. Heart does not even do this guy justice. Is he talented? Yes. Is he Jeff Francoeur or J.D. Drew? No. But he makes up for it with a desire to be the best ballplayer he can be.

A couple of stories...

First...last September toward the end of the season I was in Atlanta at Turner Field at a game. Charles Thomas, just coming off his best baseball ever in AA Greenville, was getting ready to go do his offseason thing. Now here's a guy who was drafted in the 19th round so he didn't get a big bonus. He's played for peanuts in the minors since then. Unlike the big boys who got their big bonuses and would spend the offseason working out 5 days a week, Charles Thomas was headed to his job as a front desk clerk at a hotel outside of Greenville. He was going to work out as much as he could, but to feed himself and support himself, this kid was working as a clerk at a hotel.

Second story...this spring when the coaches were deciding on the minor league rosters there was a small battle for Mr. Thomas. He had endeared himself so much to the managers and coaches of the two top minor league teams that both the AA and AAA guys fought for him to be on their roster. He's just a guy you want around and on your team. Even though Brian Snitker knew Thomas needed to go up to AAA, he wanted to keep him to help his team win. Then he was placed on the AAA roster along with Hollins, Langerhans, and eventually Hessman (and then Tyner). But when Hollins came up to Atlanta, Charles got his chance and Pat Kelly could not take him out of the lineup.

The promotion of Charles Thomas is a success story - perhaps the best story out of our system in many years. It also should teach everyone a lesson that you should never count any minor leaguer out. Who would have thought that Nick Green would have done so well as our starting second baseman? Or (even though he's struggling) who would have thought when Mike Hessman was hitting .150 in Greenville that he'd be in the big leagues? Not many of us had Horacio Ramirez in our future Braves rotation a few years ago. It was Wainwright, Nelson, Belisle, etc. Don't you know Eddie Perez was never expected to be anything after almost 8 years in the minors?

Charles is a great person and is deserving of everything he is enjoying right now. And no, he's not a bad ballplayer. Pretty damn good if you ask me. If he has a big league career (long-term that is) it probably will be as a role player/reserve. But don't count him out. Even that is a long way from working the front desk of the Greenville hotel.

* Russ Ortiz is destined to be traded. Horacio Ramirez will be back soon giving us six starting pitchers. Now we know nobody's foolish enough to take Mike Hampton's contract. John Thomson just signed with us so that would be rare to deal him. No team would want to pay Paul Byrd $3.5 million to pitch for the rest of the season with him just coming back from Tommy John. Jaret Wright is someone we might want to hold on to. He's going to be a free agent after this season, and if they wanted to keep him he'd be cheaper than Ortiz. Plus it would be unlikely Horacio would be dealt. So it all points for Ortiz to be the one on the market.

Ortiz should have a lot of value. He's a consistent 15-game winner and he'd be relatively inexpensive for the remainder of the season. Now that Freddy Garcia is gone, Ortiz could be the most attractive pitcher on the market not named Kris Benson. A deal with the White Sox would have yielded some young talent, but we need a left-fielder. The best scenario could be if the Rangers wanted to get an extra arm for their race with Oakland and Anaheim. We'd have to throw in a good prospect or two, but would they take Ortiz in a deal for Mark Texiera? He'd solve our problem in left-field in a heartbeat. The Yankees have nothing they can give us to help us at the big league level. Who wants Xavier Nady from the Padres? So a deal with the Rangers may make the most sense.

* Chipper Jones is doing great at third base. So what does this mean for the long-term? Will his hamstring heal enough for him to go back to the outfield? Or does his improved play at third have everyone knowing he's back where he needs to be? This would not be a worry if we did not have Andy Marte hanging around in AA. But this kid has the potential to be a future star at third base for many years. It will be interesting to see how all of this shakes out.

* The rumors of Andruw Jones heading elsewhere make a little sense. We're all tired of seeing Andruw not be in the best shape he can be in, not to mention the pitiful swings that make him look like he belongs in the Gulf Coast League. The talks of a Jones for Magglio Ordonez deal seem like GM John Schuerholz was just trying to shake things up, hopig a major deal would get this team on track. It seems extreme, but watching Jones not fulfill his unlimited potential is frustrating. Who knows if Ordonez would make that much of a difference? But there's little doubt a trade involving Andruw would shake up the Braves world.

* Paul Byrd. We apologize.

* The Juan Cruz mystery continues. Never in Bobby Cox's history has a pitcher been more….is it protected, hidden, or saved? What's the term to use? Is this guy someone we want to be a starter one day? Do they not want his salary to go up? Either way, he's not pitching very much. It doesn't seem we're getting much value from him now. If they're trying to keep his arm fresh so he can start in 2005, he should be able to throw 300 innings next season. I'm surprised he doesn't introduce himself to Johnny Estrada when he comes into the games.

* Hey back when we were all playing "Whose going to be on our roster in 2004?" back last winter, did anyone have Travis Smith, Sam McConnell, Nick Green, or Charles Thomas? Yea me neither.

* Richmond's starting pitching has been excellent lately. They were 5-0 with a 3.69 ERA during the Braves 8-game road trip to Scranton Wilkes-Barre and Pawtucket. Now they've got Dan Meyer joining the staff, who was excellent in his 13 starts in Greenville. The left-hander has emerged as Atlanta's top pitching prospect, along with right-hander Jose Capellan. Meyer struck out 86 batters in 65 innings. Not a bad ratio.

* If Wilson Betemit has not turned the corner, then I don't know what we're waiting for. He's hitting .286 with 7 homers and 37 RBI in 175 at bats in his third season in AAA. Betemit is hitting .367 in his last 21 games for the R-Braves with 18 RBI. He's at least improved his value, which will help the Braves if they decide to include him in a trade or if Rafael Furcal's salary demands get too high this winter. Some were really impressed with Betemit in his time with Atlanta this season, and it will be interesting to see how he does if he comes back up this season.

* Ryan Langerhans. Now there's someone who has somewhat disappeared from the scene. He's been passed over time and again when the Braves needed someone in Atlanta. Damon Hollins, Mike Hessman, and now Charles Thomas have all gotten the call while Langerhans remains in AAA putting up solid numbers. In fact, he's on his way to his best overall season in the minor leagues. Through 250 at bats, Langerhans is hitting 280 with 10 home runs, 42 RBI, and a .380 on base percentage. One has to wonder if the Braves believe he may be able to take control of one of those outfield spots in 2005. If not, they'd be better off including him in a deal. Langerhans deserves a shot in the big leagues, even if it's as a fourth or fifth player. He's got great defensive skills and is now becoming consistent on offense.

* Do not be surprised later this summer if the Braves need an extra infielder if Pete Orr is called up. It could all be determined by the space available on the 40-man roster, but the Braves would love to reward Orr the same way they rewarded Charles Thomas. Orr has hustled his tail end off for five years now, and many in the organization still feel he could become a decent utility player in the big leagues. He's hit .329 n 283 at bats for Richmond this season, and could arguably be called their most valuable player.

* Kevin Barry deserves a chance to pitch in the big leagues. The guy was dominant in his second go-around in AA and finally got the call to Richmond. He's battled control troubles a bit in AAA, but he showed in Greenville that he is still is very decent relief pitching prospect. If he does not get his chance, Barry could be a Rule-V loss this winter since the Braves are going to have even more trouble fitting everyone on the 40-man roster than last season.

* Brian Moehler is close to being ready for the big leagues. Even though his numbers aren't great in AA, his arm seems sound and he's getting antsy down there. Who knows what the Braves have in store for Moehler? Some believe he may simply be kept around as a possibility for next season. Moehler lives in the Atlanta area and has always wanted to pitch in Atlanta. If he continues to prove he is healthy, he would not be a bad option for 2005.

* Kyle Davies got the call to Greenville this week after posting eye-popping numbers in Myrtle Beach. It was a little surprise only because Kyle is only 20 years old. But it also says a lot about what the Braves feel about Davies. He struck out 95 hitters in 75 innings in Myrtle Beach, and he's now right behind Capellan and Meyer in the pecking order.

* Left-hander Chris Waters had successful surgery on his shoulder last week and will miss the rest of the 2004 season. Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery on Chris, who had a 25% tear of his rotator cuff and a 25% tear of his labrum. Waters has been pitching hurt for the past season and a half, but rest and rehab was not enough to get him through the pain. The Braves expect Waters to be ready for spring training, and still think he has the potential to be a left-handed relief specialist one day in the big leagues.

* Luis Hernandez has only five errors in 62 games at shortstop for Myrtle Beach, but it's his offense that is getting attention. Hernandez has hit .278 in the first half of the season with a homer and 20 RBI. Not known for his offense, the 20-year old Hernandez is showing he might produce enough to be considered a future starter. His defense is excellent. He is perhaps the best defensive infielder to come out of the Braves system in many years.

* The best story in Rome so far has to be Josh Burrus. The former first-round pick was forgotten about by many since he's battled injuries and lack of production, but Burrus is proving the theory that it takes some players a bit longer to hit their groove. He's hitting .302 with 7 home runs, 33 RBI, 17 steals, and a .355 on base percentage. The Braves believed Burrus had the potential to become another Gary Sheffield when he was drafted, and he may be showing their not too far off. The combination of power and speed is a good asset to have as you are coming up through the minor leagues.

* Jake Stevens has been awesome for Rome. Jake has not allowed an earned run in his last 30 innings of work and not one earned run all month! Over his last 8 appearances, Stevens has a 4-0 record and an ERA of 0.24. Overall, Jake is 6-1 with a league leading ERA of 1.50. He's allowed only 45 hits in 66 innings pitched, 14 walks, and 67 strikeouts.

* Luis Atilano is off to a fast start in Danville. Last year's top pick has an ERA of 1.13 in his first two starts. He has one walk and 7 strikeouts in 8 innings of work. Chris Vines, getting his first action in our system, has 8 walks and only 2 walks despite a 6.43 ERA.

* Jonny Venters has been a bright spot in the Gulf Coast League through the first week. The draft-and-follow pitcher has a 2.70 ERA in his two appearances with 10 strikeouts and 2 walks in 6.2 innings. The Braves feel Venters has the ability to be a strikeout pitcher as he matures.

* Watch out for Sergio Valenzuela. He's going to put up good numbers this season in the GCL. He's off to a strong start, and he should shine as a member of the young pitching staff in Orlando. He's a lanky right-hander who is really becoming one of the top young arms in the system.

* Again, Paul Byrd. We apologize.

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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