ADAM LAROCHE ATLANTA 25 YEARS OLD .278 13 home runs 45 runs batted in 90 hits in 324 at bats 27 doublesThe Braves handed Adam LaRoche the starting first base job in Spring Training last year and he did nothing to disappoint. The job was really a platoon with the ageless Julio Franco, but LaRoche got most of the playing time. He started out slowly, hitting only .214 in April and then only .242 for the first two months of the season with 2 homers and 12 RBI. But then he was injured in late May in Philadelphia, causing him to miss the entire month of June. Before he got hurt, he was starting to show signs he was going to start being a productive bat. After he returned, he showed that his progress had carried over. LaRoche hit .301 after getting back from his injury with 11 home runs and 33 RBI in 196 at bats. But after August 1st, he really showed tremendous progress hitting .326 with 9 home runs and 26 RBI in only 132 at bats. With the presence of Julio Franco, LaRoche will probably continue in a platoon. But if he hits the way he did the last third of the season, you can bet Bobby Cox will provide additional opportunities for LaRoche. The Braves believe Adam can continue to develop and become a John Olerud-type player, one that could provide 25-30 home runs and drive in 90-100 runs per season. Adam was not pleased with his defense in 2004, even though he was extremely solid. He's only going to get better at first base, providing a solid base for the infield. LaRoche had a solid rookie season, and he's only going to get better.
JULIO FRANCO ATLANTA 46 YEARS OLD (SUPPOSEDLY) .309 6 home runs 57 RBI 99 hits in 320 at batsWhat can you say? Franco is simply an amazing baseball player. It's almost stupid to assume he's not going to continue this, and if this were a "normal" 46-year old, it would be easy to think he can't. But the man is just a hitter. He simply knows what he's doing up there. Franco is also a tremendous influence on this team. He is a leader, and the players would be foolish not to look up to someone with so much experience. Until Franco simply can't do this anymore, expect him to be around. The Braves love him, and he loves being in this organization.
JAMES JURRIES RICHMOND TURNS 26 YEARS OLD ON APRIL 13 .274 25 home runs 70 runs batted in 107 hits in 390 at bats 20 doublesThe Braves were really surprised when no other team picked Jurries in the Rule V Draft back in December. Jurries proved a great deal last season with he started off strong in AA (.306 with 7 homers in 72 at bats) and then produced well in AAA (.267 with 18 home runs and 56 at bats in 318 at bats). There are several problems, however. First, James is not a very good defensive player. That's why it might have been perfect if an American League team had picked him up. The Braves have tried him at first and third, and first base is where he is most comfortable. There is no doubt, however, that Jurries can hit. He has done it ever since he put on a Braves uniform. But with LaRoche and Franco above him, there's no immediate opportunity for Jurries. The best hope is that if one of the two has to miss some time in Atlanta, the Braves will give him a chance at the big league level. Perhaps then he can either impress the Braves to let them know that if and when Franco leaves he can be a candidate to replace him or simply get another team interested. The Braves did not invite James to big league camp, which was a bit of a surprise, but he's got to go back to AAA and simply continue to produce. His defensive shortcomings balance out his tremendous hitting ability, but teams are always looking for hitters and this guy can hit.
SCOTT THORMAN MISSISSIPPI 23 YEARS OLD .267 15 home runs 80 runs batted in 133 hits in 499 at bats 25 doublesScott Thorman had another fantastic season of development in 2004. He started out back in Myrtle Beach, where he had spent all of 2003. When the Braves send players back to a level, the hope is they can start out strong and push themselves up to the next level. That's exactly what Thorman did as he hit .299 with 4 home runs and 29 RBI in 154 at bats. When the Braves promoted Jurries to Richmond, Thorman got the call up to AA Greenville. Scott was a little inconsistent, which is normal for such a young player, but overall he did very well. Thorman hit .252 with 11 home runs and 51 RBI in 345 at bats. His manager, Brian Snitker, believed Thorman showed tremendous progress last season. He continues to do well at first base, but it's his bat that is going to get him to the major leagues. With Jurries headed back to AAA, Thorman is going to return to AA to start the 2005 season. He might spend most of this year there, but it's going to do nothing but help him continue his development. If Thorman goes back and does well, there's no doubt he's going to increase his value to the Braves. Again, LaRoche is the present and probably the future at first base, but Thorman can't worry about that. If he shows he's a big league hitter, they'll find room for him. He's been compared to Ryan Klesko over the years, and if he continues to develop offensively, he might take a similar route to the majors by moving to left field. But for now, he's still at first base, and at the very least he's going to be another option for the future.
CARLOS GUZMAN MYRTLE BEACH 21 YEARS OLD .252 13 home runs 52 runs batted in 83 hits in 329 at bats 26 doublesA procedural move put Guzman on the 40-man roster for the rest of the 2004 season, even though the only reason was the need to find an injured player to allow another player to be eligible for the postseason. The Braves had to run Guzman through waivers before re-signing him to a contract. He passed through and is right back in line in the system. Carlos made a nice transition to first base last season after being an outfielder for his career. He continues to show some promise with the bat, getting 13 homers and 52 RBI in only 329 at bats. His biggest problem is his strikeouts (111). He must get better in that area, especially since he does do a decent job of drawing a walk. The Braves will probably know whether or not they've really got a prospect or not when Guzman goes to Myrtle Beach this season. It will be a good test for him in the big parks and the pitchers league. "Guzzie" is still only 21 years old, so he's still developing and still has potential. He's not one of the Braves best prospects right now, but it's still a little early to give up on him.
KEITH EICHAS ROME 21 YEARS OLD .305 2 home runs 29 runs batted in 67 hits in 220 at bats 16 doublesKeith Eichas has hit very well since the Braves drafted him in the 17th round back in 2003. He hit .345 in the Gulf Coast League and then bounced back with a .305 average last season. Eichas has yet to show much power, with only 7 home runs in 339 at bats, but he doesn't strike out a whole lot. Eichas will continue his development in 2005 with the Rome Braves. There has been talk that the Braves might move outfielder Mark Jurich to first base; we'll have to see if that happens in spring training.
MANNY RODRIGUEZ DANVILLE 20 YEARS OLD .251 5 home runs 17 runs batted in 45 hits in 179 at batsThe Panamanian-born Rodriguez had a nice season in his first in the states, with 5 homers in 179 at bats. He's got a nice lefty swing, and the Braves are anxious to see what he can do at the next level. Rodriguez needs to continue to develop if he wants to be considered a candidate to be the Braves first baseman in the long-term future.
Since Adam LaRoche is heading into his second year, it looks like the Braves might not need a replacement for first base any time soon. He showed last season that he can be an everyday major league hitter, and there's no reason to assume he won't get better. Adam has the potential to be a solid left-handed batter for the Braves for many years to come. And there's definitely a Gold Glove Award in his future. Whether he's J.T. Snow or Mark Grace or John Olerud, the Braves have a solid player for the future. However, it's always good to have reinforcements on hand. You can't just stop developing first baseman just because you have a young one on hand at the major league level. Jurries would be considered more if he could play better defensively, but his glove must be holding him back. The interesting person to watch will be Thorman. If he goes back to AA and continues his fine work from the second half of 2004, the Braves may have to start wondering if they might move him to left-field. There's nothing like having another outfield candidate for 2006 or 2007. Do not be surprised if the Braves select a first baseman sometime early in the 2005 draft. They could use a long-term project at the position.