Braves Are Simply Loaded

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks continues his coverage from spring training with some thoughts about the depth in the Atlanta Braves organization.

When I was reading the article the other day about how much Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz and even Chipper Jones were in love with Andy Marte I started to think again about the tremendous depth in the Braves organization. How can a team that has won for so long have so much in place to keep it going for a while?

It was only a few years ago when my videographer and I were driving to Greenville for a minor league game that we were wondering where in the world Chipper Jones was going to "fit" in to the Braves future. How is it that a potential future Hall-of-Famer could be thought of as the odd man out of a team's future? Now that is depth.

So now Chipper is back at third, comfortable as ever. But Marte is hitting about .375 and showing that despite only being 21 he sure is close to being ready for the big leagues. Andy is an exceptional third baseman, and left field was somewhat uncomfortable to him. The same can be said for Chipper Jones, who is at home at third, but yet can play left field if needed.

As Chipper said the other day, "For both of us to play in this organization, one of us is going to have to move." He said it almost knowing the eventual outcome. Marte has looked like a lost puppy in left field, but yet is better at third than even Jones is; yet Chipper has shown he can play left, even if he'll never be thought of as an Andruw Jones.

Chipper better not lose his outfielders' glove, wouldn't you say?

But that brings up the interesting scenarios that make it a little dizzying to try to figure out. We can assume that for now Chipper is going to start the 2005 season at third base in Atlanta, while Marte will go to AAA and play third there. But if Marte shows he's ready, and especially if the Braves need a little extra offense, Jones will probably be sent to left.

But what if Ryan Langerhans proves he is a capable major leaguer? What if Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan prove they can be productive big leaguers for this season? Will Marte be postponed until 2006?

Even if Marte doesn't debut until next season, what about Billy McCarthy and Jeff Francoeur, two outfielders who will undoubtedly be ready in 2006? It might be easy to allow Jordan and/or Mondesi walk away, but there still could be a crunch if we've got Chipper, Andruw, Francoeur, McCarthy, and Langerhans battling for playing time.

And don't forget Kelly Johnson. He's proving in spring training this month that he's not too far away either. Kelly still has many people, myself included, that believe he can be an everyday regular in the big leagues.

So here we are with all of these outfielders, but that only scratches the surface. Look elsewhere and you'll find other positions stocked as well. The depth is not just incredible, but downright scary.

At first base, Adam LaRoche is going to be around for many years to come. He proved last season that he is a solid left-handed bat and a wiz at first base. Behind him you have Julio Franco, who has at least three years left in him. But the minor leagues have two players that could easily develop into interesting players. Right-handed hitting James Jurries has defensive questions, but he certainly can hit. And Scott Thorman is having one of the best spring trainings down here; he'll return to AA to start 2005 but would probably get the call to come up if something happened with LaRoche.

Marcus Giles still has a few years under contract to the Braves, but there are a few long-term possibilities just in case he leaves in a few years. Martin Prado and J.C. Holt will both be in A-ball this season, so they might be ready for a chance in three years or so.

A chance at shortstop could be inevitable as Rafael Furcal's contract expires after this 2005 season. If Furcal leaves, the Braves could turn to Wilson Betemit, who looks good at short this spring, Tony Pena, Junior, or Luis Hernandez – all of whom will definitely be ready to go next season. Hernandez is a defensive wiz, and the Braves may believe he could be a defensive glue for many years to come.

Then there's this Elvis Andrus kid. He just turned 16 last August and will be in the Gulf Coast League this summer. The Braves say he graded out higher than any other prospect since Andruw Jones – even higher than Marte. What happens if he proves he's a superstar in a year or two? From what the coaches are saying, that might be very possible.

Third base has been covered. When Marte arrives, he'll be here for ten years – at least. But even if something happens to him, the Braves have some long-term possibilities in Van Pope and Eric Campbell, two of last year's draft choices who will be in A-ball this season. Pope looks very advanced and might start off in Myrtle Beach this season.

Then you look behind the plate and it's just silly. It's not like Johnny Estrada is older than dirt back there; he could be around for three or four more years. But Brian McCann, a Jason Varitek clone that will be in AA this season, could be ready at some point next year. McCann, a Georgia boy, is developing a solid left-handed bat and becoming a terrific field general behind the plate.

Right behind McCann is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who at 19 years old already has one season of A-ball under his belt. "Salty Dog" is huge; he's 6'4" and probably around 215 and looks to be in great shape. In McCann and Salty, the Braves have two catching prospects that rival Benito Santiago and Sandy Alomar, Junior back in the late 80's. Believe me, by the end of the season, McCann and Salty will be the top two catching prospects in baseball.

Salty could switch one day to third, first, or even the outfield. But it's not like we're going to need help at any of those positions, is it? However, Jarrod's bat will get him in there someway. He's a switch-hitter with great power. Salty Dog will be a factor in the picture real soon.

So here are all the positions on the field stacked and packed. You don't want me to get into the pitching, do you?

The current rotation of John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton, John Thomson, and Horacio Ramirez could stay intact for the next two seasons. If those five stay healthy, that rotation won't be touched. Thomson could leave after the 2006 season opening up one spot, but the other four are under contract or control through 2007. So even if Kyle Davies is ready sometime this summer, he's got to have someone go down with an injury to get a chance.

Do you trade one of the pitchers to make room for Davies? Well what would you trade Horacio Ramirez for? It's not like we don't have depth at a certain position that could be benefited by acquiring someone from another organization. Look at the depth chart again. Don't the Braves have internal reinforcements that would negate a need of that sort?

The Braves minor league system is loaded with good young pitching talent. Along with Davies, Zach Miner and Anthony Lerew are also opening some eyes this spring. Both of those two could contribute this season if needed. But then you've got guys like Blaine Boyer, Macay McBride, and Matt Wright in AA. The Single-A ranks are stocked as well with Jake Stevens, Chuck James, Charlie Morton, and Bryan Digby; while the staff scheduled for Rome this season may be the best group in three or four years if Chris Vines and Luis Atilano blossom as expected.

And guess what the Braves are going to probably focus on in the draft this June? Pitching.

So what we're dealing with here is something you just don't see everyday. Depth to this extreme is beyond unusual; more like unheard of. The Braves are in terrific shape at the major league level, and the minor leagues are beyond stocked with talent. Even if we did need reinforcement at the big league level, the depth is there to make a trade that could dramatically impact the team.

People keep wondering when the Braves run of success will end. You tell me – with all our depth when do you think it will end? Sure, all these prospects have to get beyond being suspects. This is not just old Billy hyping up prospects. This is simply an explanation of an assembly line of talent that should keep producing talent for many years to come.

For one, I'm ready for it.

Bill Shanks has a new book coming out next month titled Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com


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