Mississippi's First Team Will Be Talented

With a full week to go before the end of spring training, there are still a lot of decisions to be made at the Braves' minor league complex. BravesCenter's Bill Shanks will take a look at the possibilities for the top four farm teams, continuing the series with a look at the Mississippi Braves in Double-A.

STARTING ROTATION

1. Anthony Lerew - He didn't give up a run in big league camp and Bobby Cox personally congratulated him when he sent Lerew down to big league camp. So there's no doubt that Mr. Lerew was the story in March. While he didn't supplant Kyle Davies as the top pitching prospect, he definitely edged close up behind him. Lerew will head to AA Mississippi and be the cornerstone of their rotation.

2. Blaine Boyer - Blaine struggled a bit in big league camp with a couple of poor performances, but the Braves know he is still a work in progress. Boyer has always worked well with Kent Willis, who was his pitching coach in Rome and will be again this year in Mississippi.

3. Matt Wright - Another pitcher that will be helped by Kent Willis, Matt Wright thrived under his leadership in Rome in 2003. Wright is coming off a broken bone in his arm, and so far the results have been promising. As always, the jump from High-A to AA will be a good test for any player, and it gives Wright the chance to take his next step.

4. Zach Miner - The Braves may elect to return Miner to AA to start the season. He struggled at times there last season, but then he showed his good stuff late in the year to finish with respectable numbers. Zach then did well in big league camp this spring, so he might get his shot in AAA so he can be closer to Atlanta.

5. Gonzalo Lopez - The Braves challenged Lopez by sending him to big league camp as a non-roster player. He was hurt early in camp and really didn't get to show his stuff to Leo Mazzone very much. If he had done well, there was a chance he could have bypassed Myrtle and gone to AA. But now, it's a longshot.

6. Kyle Davies - Chances are the Braves will send their top pitching prospect to AAA Richmond, but they could decide to start him out in Double-A, let him succeed there, and then send him up to Richmond. However, he dominated in Greenville last season, so you wonder if it's worth it to send him back to a level he's already thrived in.

7. Sean White - A college draft pick from a few years ago, White did well when he got to Myrtle Beach last summer after his promotion from Rome. He has the stuff that could enable him to go ahead to Double-A, or the Braves may decide to let him start back in Myrtle and finish the season in Mississippi.

8. Chuck James - He was headed to Myrtle Beach last summer before being sidetracked. Had he finished the 2004 season in High-A, James could have been a leading candidate for a job in AA this year. Now, he's got to be considered a longshot. His dominance in Rome last year still gives him a chance to make the jump over Myrtle, but the Braves rarely allow pitchers to skip a level, especially when there is no need to rush any of them.

9. Macay McBride - There are two decisions to make on McBride: Does he go back to the starting rotation and does he do it in Mississippi or Richmond? If they decide to start him again, they may send him back to AA so he can hopefully master that level. Starting in an older International League might be too much of a challenge for anyone. If he relieves, he might be in Richmond, but if he's a starter again you might see him in the Mississippi rotation.

10. Ray Aguilar - The knuckleballer could fit in anywhere and the AA rotation is an option.

11. Daniel Curtis - More likely headed to Richmond, but he's a possibility for Mississippi as well.

12. Matt Childers

13. Chris Mears

BULLPEN

1. Glenn Tucker - He had a great season in 2004 as the closer in Myrtle Beach, so he'll get his chance to assume the role in Double-A.

2. Bryan Digby - Once again a reliever after getting valuable innings last year in Rome, Digby could skip Myrtle Beach and head to Mississippi, where he would once again work with Kent Willis.

3. Mike Mueller - He's climbed the ladder slowly and Mississippi is his next stop. Mueller throws hard and has an interesting arm.

4. Paul Bush - He started late last season and really made a good impression. Bush could get a look in the AA bullpen this year.

5. John Foster - Foster is recovering nicely from his shoulder surgery from last year. He's hoping to be ready to go to a team sometime in late April. It may be even earlier than that. The Braves could let John get time in AA before moving up.

6. Ryan Basner - One of the most unheralded prospects in the Braves system, Basner put up very impressive numbers last season for Myrtle Beach. If he has another solid season in 2005, you might start hearing his name mentioned as a future major league reliever.

7. Ralph Roberts - The owner of one of the nastiest pitches in the organization, Roberts has a pitch that he holds as a splitter but acts like a forkball. He can throw it at any point in the count and it can simply devastate hitters. He's ready for AA. 8. Jason Richardson - Came to Braves late last season. He had control trouble in both Myrtle Beach and Greenville.

9. Scott Sturkie - Acquired in Russ Branyan trade, Sturkie was a middle reliever in Myrtle Beach for most of the 2004 season. He also saw time in Greenville. 10. Brian Langen - The burly righty battled control trouble in his 15 games with the G-Braves last season after signing as a free agent.

11. Brian O'Connor - Lefty played in the Marlins system last season.

12. Chris Waters - After having shoulder surgery last summer, Waters is now throwing at 75%. He is scheduled to be turned over to the coaches in mid-May. Hopefully, he'll go to Double-A and get back on track. For me, he's a Frank Dipino-type reliever waiting to happen.

13. Casey DeHart - The former Reds' farmhand is in camp battling for a bullpen spot in AA and AAA.

14. Jake Blakeney - He finished out last season in Myrtle Beach, so he's got a chance to go to Double-A.

CATCHERS

1. Brian McCann - He's Jason Varitek all over again and he's going to Mississippi. Right now, he's the catcher of the future for the Braves. At the end of this season, he could well be the top catching prospect in the game.

2. Brayan Pena - He spent 2004 in Greenville, so the next logical step would be Richmond. But Pena is still only 23 years old, so the Braves could send him back to AA to continue to work on his defense.

3. Iker Franco - Franco has an unusual stance at the plate, but he's not a bat backup veteran to have on a Double-A roster. He was with Montgomery last season, so he knows the Southern League.

4. Ray Serrano - Just one tough hombre you would want on your team. Ray may never make the big leagues, but he's a pretty good minor league baseball player.

INFIELDERS

1. Scott Thorman - "Thor" started last season at Myrtle Beach, repeating a level he played at in 2003, but then quickly moved up to AA after a solid beginning. He could very well have the same scenario play out again this year. Thorman is maturing as a hitter and getting very close to being able to contribute at the big league level.

2. Jason Bourgeois - Plopped off the waiver wire on Thursday from the Rangers, Bourgeois could easily become Mississippi's starter at second base. He has speed and a decent glove, but he is a marginal prospect at best.

3. Tony Pena, Jr. - I mention him because the organization could decide to send him back to AA to start the season and then go up to Richmond. I'm kind of thinking he's going to start at AAA, though, but he's worth noting as an option.

4. Luis Hernandez - Here's the main reason the Braves need to send Pena to AAA. Luis showed the Atlanta coaches his slick glove in big league camp, and he's now ready to improve on his offensive numbers from last season at the higher level. If he repeats his 2004 offensive stats, you might start hearing whispers about Luis being the top candidate to replace Furcal next season.

5. Wes Timmons - Is Wes a star? No. But Wes Timmons is the type of player you want on your team. This kid can play. He's versatile, able to play third, second, short, the outfield, and maybe even a little behind the plate in a pinch. But he's just the type of player that makes things happen to help your team win. Expect Brian Snitker to be patting Wes on the back a number of times after he helps Mississippi win some games this season.

6. Jonathan Schuerholz - Jonathan struggled last season in Myrtle Beach, but now he's given up switch-hitting and is strictly right-handed. Hopefully, he can make the adjustment to the higher level and put up a respectable offensive season. Knock him all you want, but like Timmons, Schuerholz can help your team win. He's a smart player that still has potential. He could be the starter at second for Mississippi or on the bench as a reserve infielder.

7. Ben Thomas - Reserve infielder that can play a couple of positions. Ben ended last season in Myrtle Beach so he could either go back there or up to AA. 8. Juan Downing - Saw time at Rome and Myrtle in 2004. Battling for a job.

OUTFIELD

1. Jeff Francoeur - The Jeff Francoeur minor league traveling show continues in Pearl this season. The only question: How long will he be there? Maybe not for long. This is a special player with special talent.

2. Onil Joseph - "OJ" will be the leadoff man in Mississippi this summer. He needs to get a bit bigger and produce a little more offense before he can get into that category with Johnson, McCarthy, and Francoeur. He's an excellent outfielder and still has good potential.

3. Gregor Blanco - After two seasons in Myrtle Beach, Gregor is ready to move up to the Double-A level. Blanco is a speedy outfielder with solid potential. He's still only 21 years old.

4. Carlos Duran - Here's another player who is still young (22) and still has plenty of potential. His arm is fantastic and he still has offensive promise. Duran and/or Blanco could easily bust out this season.

5. Jamie Hemingway - Big right-handed hitter that split last season between Rome and Myrtle Beach. Jamie has an outside shot at being in AA this year.

6. Derrick Gibson - Veteran minor league fighting for a job.

7. Scott Pratt - Veteran minor leaguer fighting for a job.

8. Mike Rosamont - Veteran minor leaguer fighting for a job.

OVERALL

The fans in Pearl, Mississippi will see a tremendous amount of talent this season as they welcome baseball back to the area. There are several players scheduled to start the season in Mississippi that will be a part of the Atlanta roster for many years to come. Basically, this is the same team that won the Sally League title two years ago in Rome, so there's a lot of chemistry with this group. Do not underestimate the presence of Kent Willis as the team's pitching coach. Willis was with this core group of pitchers two years ago in Rome and they thrived. Now he's with them again at a very critical level. Brian Snitker is a terrific manager. He prepares the players for the big leagues with a solid approach. "Snit" is one of the most important folks in the Braves' organization. These kids know how to start a franchise; they did it two years ago in Rome with a title. Don't be shocked if they do it again this season in Pearl.


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