RAFAEL FURCAL ATLANTA 27 YEARS OLD .279 batting average .344 on base percentage 14 home runs 59 runs batted in 157 hits in 563 at bats 24 doubles 29 stolen basesCOMMENT: Rafael Furcal has established himself as one of the most valuable shortstops in the National League. His ability to provide occasional power and still be a nuisance on the base paths has elevated his game to the next level. It seems that when Furcal and Giles are both on offensively, the entire offense just clicks better. However, the overriding question this year will surround Furcal's pending free agency. Reportedly, the Braves did make an offer to Furcal, but obviously no deal was reached. So unless something happens in spring training, Furcal will be playing for his free agency. The Braves won't mind if they're the beneficiary of a player playing for a contract. But then the question will be whether the Braves will want to re-sign him. With several players at shortstop on the horizon and the fact that Furcal will command a big salary if he has another solid season, it's going to be a tough decision. If he does have another great season, Furcal might command upwards of $10 million per season, and with the current budgetary constraints, there's no guarantee that's even going to be doable. Is he worth that much? Well, that's open for debate. But there's little doubt the Braves want him to stay, as long as the contract is fair to both sides. If Furcal is only out for a contract near what Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera got this winter, he'll probably be gone.
WILSON BETEMIT ATLANTA 24 YEARS OLD Atlanta Stats: Richmond Stats: .170 batting average .278 batting average 0 home runs 13 home runs 3 runs batted in 59 runs batted in 8 hits in 47 at bats 99 hits in 356 at bats 24 doublesCOMMENT: Like it or not, this is Wilson Betemit's year. He's out of options, and even if he weren't, it's time for him to make his mark one way or the other in the big leagues. Wilson has done all he needs to do in Triple-A; there's no reason for him to go back for another season there. He had a very solid season in Richmond last year, hitting .278 with 13 home runs and 59 runs batted in. A few years ago, Wilson was being compared to Miguel Tejada. That was probably always unrealistic and unfair. But he has developed into a hitter that might hit 15-20 home runs if given regular playing time. The power is there, and his doubles total of 24 in 356 at bats was not bad either. But will he hit? In his few brief appearances in the big leagues, he's done nothing to impress. Maybe it's the pressure or maybe it's the adjustment to playing irregularly. But whatever it is, he needs to impress this spring to win the job. While he is the favorite since he is out of options, the presence of Pete Orr does put a little pressure on Betemit to play well. Orr is the type of player that has more versatility and could go into camp and knock Bobby Cox's socks off with his hustle and solid play. Betemit played third base for most of last season and actually settled into being a pretty solid player over there. Most believe he's physically outgrown shortstop, but he certainly did look pretty good over there late in the season. If Betemit were to show that he can play in the big leagues this season, it might make it easier for the Braves to make a decision on Rafael Furcal's future. Betemit should not be shortchanged; he still has tremendous talent. We've waited a long time for him to get to this point, but now it's his job to prove that he does, in fact, belong.
TONY PENA, JR. RICHMOND 24 YEARS OLD .255 batting average .280 on base percentage 11 home runs 34 runs batted in 126 hits in 495 at bats 25 stolen basesCOMMENT: Ok, let's get the obvious negatives out of the way first. Tony's plate discipline was awful last season. He walked only 16 times and struck out 108 times. He's just like his daddy was when he was in the big leagues. He's a free swinger. There were a few games last season where he looked like he might swing and miss even if the pitcher didn't throw the ball. Obviously, major league pitchers will expose this even more than has already been done in Double-A. The positives, however, do balance out the picture just a bit. He's a very solid defensive player, despite his 26 errors at shortstop last year. He is tall and rangy, but looks very comfortable and smooth at his position. His baseball instincts, not surprisingly since he's the son of a former player and current manager, are tremendous. He's a solid teammate and knows how to conduct himself on the baseball field. There are a lot of positives here that make you want to believe the negatives will straighten themselves out enough for him to become a more complete player. But there is no doubt he must improve on his plate discipline. He's got to learn to take a walk once in a while, and he must cut down on his strikeouts. If he can improve on that this season, there is little doubt that the Braves will consider him an option if Furcal does leave after next season. There are too many attributes here to ignore him, but he still must make some major improvements in his game.
LUIS HERNANDEZ MISSISSIPPI 20 YEARS OLD .271 batting average .306 on base percentage 6 home runs 45 runs batted in 109 hits in 402 at bats 23 doubles 12 errorsCOMMENT: He is simply the best defensive player in the system, and perhaps even the best defensive player to ever wear a Braves uniform. Luis is a spectacular defensive player. He was ready defensively for the big leagues when he was in the Gulf Coast League. The only question has been his bat, and he proved last season that he can continue to make improvements offensively. Myrtle Beach is tough for anyone, and Luis went there and had a very respectable season with the bat. If he can produce those same numbers in the big leagues, the Braves are going to have an All-Star shortstop for many years to come. Double A will be another strong test for him, and if he can put up more solid numbers offensively, the Braves may consider him as a possible Furcal replacement. You can't understand how good this kid is with the glove until you see it yourself. He is impressive. His progress in Mississippi will be monitored closely.
DIORY HERNANDEZ MYRTLE BEACH 21 YEARS OLD .271 batting average .325 on base percentage 3 homers 38 runs batted in 83 hits in 306 at batsCOMMENT: Hernandez was the primary starter at shortstop last season for the Rome Braves and will go to Spring Training with the best shot of moving up to Myrtle Beach. Hernandez showed some decent offensive ability and will try to continue his development this season. Right now, he's a marginal prospect with much room for growth and further development.
DEAN WHITE MYRTLE BEACH 22 YEARS OLD .224 batting average .264 on base percentage 2 home runs 23 runs batted in 71 hits in 317 at batsCOMMENT: Dean is a rangy infielder who bounced around from shortstop to third base, and even played a bit at second and the outfield last season. However, he really struggled with the bat hitting only .224. His career average remains just over the Mendoza Line, and unless that changes quickly, Dean's going to have even more trouble as he tries to climb the ladder.
DERRICK ARNOLD ROME .185 batting average .279 on base percentage 3 home runs 14 runs batted in 25 hits in 135 at batsComment: Arnold struggled last season offensively at Danville. He reportedly has a Furcal-like arm at shortstop, and the Braves believe he will hit as he gets more comfortable with the wooden bat. He'll probably head to Rome to split time with Mike Rozema.
MIKE ROZEMA ROME .282 batting average .353 on base percentage 2 home runs 19 runs batted in 44 hits in 156 at bats 10 doubles 5 stolen basesCOMMENT: Rozema did very well last season in Danville, getting playing time at shortstop and second base. He'll battle Derrick Arnold for playing time in Rome this season.
Bill Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org