RICHMOND 10-14 - 5 games behind Norfolk
The Braves have been about as mediocre as a team as you can get so far this season. Their record is mediocre (10-14), their offense has been mediocre (.262 team batting average - 8th in the league), and their pitching has been mediocre (4.48 ERA - 8th in the league). But that does not dampen the performance of many of the young players that were tested by being sent to Triple-A.
Andy Marte got off to a tremendous start, but then he slumped horribly midway through the month. He finished with 4 homers and 16 RBI in 87 at bats, which for a 21-year-old is still pretty good for AAA. Marte has been excellent defensively. Could he be called up this season? Certainly. But don't think it's going to hurt him if he has a full season in AAA.
Kelly Johnson has been the best story so far in AAA. He spent the last two seasons in AA Greenville, but his transition to the always-tough International League has been easy thus far. Johnson hit .313 with 5 home runs, 6 doubles, and 12 RBI in his first 80 at bats. He's on pace to surpass the numbers from his terrific 2001 season, when he hit 23 home runs and drove in 66 in Macon. Richmond Manager Pat Kelly has played Kelly at all three outfield positions, and he still takes a few grounders in the infield during batting practice. Don't be surprised if Johnson is the first one recalled if the Braves look internally for help with their offense in Atlanta.
James Jurries was off to a great start, but two weeks ago he was suspended for steroid use. Jurries should be back soon. Billy McCarthy played in only six games before going down with an ankle injury, but he's back now and will hopefully stay in the lineup and show that his second half success last year in Richmond was no fluke.
Tony Pena, Jr. and Brayan Pena (no relation) were expected to struggle a bit early on in AAA, just because of their youth. But both played very well in April. Brayan Pena still has questions with his defense, but he continues to impress with the bat. Tony Pena may be proving to the Braves that he could be a legit replacement for Rafael Furcal, should the veteran leave via free agency this winter.
Kyle Davies, Atlanta's best pitching prospect, has done very well early on. Davies continues to prove that he might be ready at some point later in the season to help the big league club if needed. Zach Miner was terrific in his first start on the last day of April, and he's another top prospect that might continue to prove he's close to being ready to contribute. Daniel Curtis has been a pleasant surprise. He could be getting himself more in the Braves' plans for the future with his strong start.
The two relievers that knocked on the door during spring training, Buddy Hernandez and Kevin Barry, have both gotten off to slow starts and battled injuries. Hernandez is now on the disabled list with a forearm problem, while Barry missed a week in April with a groin pull. Both showed Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone a lot in spring training, so if they get back healthy and pitch well, they could be called up if needed in the Atlanta bullpen.
Frank Brooks was claimed off waivers from the Dodgers in mid-April. He didn't give up a run in his first six appearances. If the Braves need another lefty in Atlanta or if John Foster does not work out, Brooks could be a possibility.
MISSISSIPPI 7-16 - 6.5 games behind Birmingham
The Braves have struggled early on, and considering the average age of the starting lineup and starting rotation, it really shouldn't be much of a surprise. The Braves' starting lineup has an average age of 22.25 years old, sinfully young for the veteran Southern League. Meanwhile, the Mississippi starting rotation has an average age of 23 years old.
The offense and pitching have been equally ineffective. Mississippi had a team batting average of .237 in April, last in the Southern League. They also scored a league-low total of 84 runs. If not for the strong starts of Wes Timmons (.346 - tied for 10th best in the league) and Scott Thorman (.315), the offense would have been even more troubled. Timmons continues to show that he's the next player to fall into the Charles Thomas / Nick Green / Pete Orr club; he's a versatile player with terrific ability to help his club win games. While Thorman is following up his strong second half of 2004 in Greenville with a nice start to 2005.
Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann, best friends and two of the Braves' top four prospects, are off to impressive starts in their AA careers. Francoeur had 3 home runs and 16 RBI in April, along with 5 stolen bases and some tremendous defense. If he continues to play well, he'll further convince the Braves that he might be ready next April to take over one of the outfield positions. McCann is proving to be a clutch hitter, as proved by his walk-off home run on the last day of April to win the game and break up a no-hitter by West Tennessee. McCann is on schedule to replace Johnny Estrada as the Atlanta starter sometime next season.
The other four members of Mississippi's starting eight, Jonathan Schuerholz (.222), Onil Joseph (.203), Luis Hernandez (.190), and Gregor Blanco (.169) have all struggled with the bat. The Braves really want to see all four players do better offensively in May.
Mississippi's pitching staff has also struggled, with a 5.00 team ERA, second-worst in the Southern League. All five starting pitchers had ERA's over 5.00 in April, but all five also had solid starts mixed in there, showing that they can pitch. Once again, the youth gives them a pass for the first month, as they get used to the new and tougher league. But now that the starters have pitched four or five times, it's now time for them to settle into a rhythm and have more quality appearances.
While the starters have struggled a bit, there have been some positive signs in the bullpen. Submariner Glenn Tucker has been effective in his first nine games, picking up two saves and posting a 1.86 ERA. Jorge Vasquez, acquired from the Royals for Eli Marrero, has also done well with a 2.89 ERA in six games. Minor league veterans Brian O'Connor and Jeremy Ward have also been very effective.
MYRTLE BEACH 12-11 - 2 games behind Kinston
The Pelicans have perhaps been the brightest spot in the farm system. With an average age of 21.25 for its starting lineup and 22.16 for its starting rotation, Myrtle Beach is one (if not the) youngest teams in the Carolina League. Yet they have been competitive in the first month of the season.
The offense has been a bit inconsistent, but surprisingly has shown more power than last year's group. Arguably the best surprise has been catcher Miguel Bernard. For years he was stuck in Low-A, and the entire time the Braves said they expected him to develop into an offensive player one day. "Bernie" is finally living up to their projections. He had a .340 average with 4 homers and 10 RBI in April. He's always been a tremendous defensive catcher, and now he's adding offense to his arsenal.
Josh Burrus has also impressed early on, hitting .293 with 3 homers, 12 RBI, and 4 stolen bases in his first 22 games. Burrus is a player the Braves believe can develop into a starting candidate in a few years, and his early positive showing in Myrtle Beach only adds to their excitement. Matt Esquivel has also been impressive, with four early-season home runs.
Martin Prado started off real slow, but lately has come on strong with the bat and had his average just under .300 by the end of the month. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has had a few monster home runs and still has the Braves thrilled about his future.
The pitching staff in Myrtle has been impressive. Brady Endl has been a pleasant surprise, going 1-2 with a 3.33 ERA in his first five starts. Endl, last year's 10th round pick, has given the Braves hope that they may have a lefty to replace Dan Meyer in the prospect pecking order. Sean White, another college pitcher, has also been effective with a 2.14 ERA in his first four starts. Both former college twirlers could be called up to AA sometime this season if they continue this good work.
Chuck James is another former college twirler that continues to make his mark as one of the Braves' top prospects. He's followed up his unbelievable season in Rome with a great start in 2005. James has only three walks and 51 strikeouts in his first five starts of the season.
Jake Stevens, the darling of the farm system after his terrific 2004 season in Rome, has struggled a bit. He's not striking out as many batters and his ERA is 4.66 through his first four starts.
Bryan Digby has been a bit of a disappointment so far as the Pelicans' closer. He's got an ERA of 9.00 along with 10 walks in seven innings.
ROME 11-11 - 2.5 games behind Augusta
Like the three higher-level teams, Rome is a very young squad in the South Atlantic League. It's main starting eight have an average age of 21.625 (older than Myrtle Beach) and its rotation has an average age of 19.7 years old (probably the youngest in the Sally League).
The offense has been strangely effective, with its .268 team batting average good enough for third in the league. But the team hit only four home runs in April, tied for last in the league. The starting lineup was also affected by change, as outfielder Steve Doetsch was promoted to Myrtle Beach and outfielder Brandon Jones broke a bone in his hand and missed half the month.
While he has yet to hit a home run, outfielder Johan Silva is off to a fast start hitting .314 with 15 RBI. Van Pope has one less RBI along with a .304 average. Clint Sammons has been very solid behind the plate. He's got a .288 average with only 5 RBI, but his defensive contribution has great benefited the young starting rotation.
And the starting pitchers have been greatly impressive thus far. Matt Harrison has an ERA of 0.64 in his first five starts. Kelvin Villa and Luis Atilano have also stood out, while even though there numbers aren't great, Chris Vines and James Parr have both had solid outings. Charlie Morton, a returnee from the 2004 Rome roster, has struggled with an ERA of 7.97 in his first five starts. The Braves expected Morton to go back to Rome and dominate, but he has been a big disappointment thus far.
The bullpen has been led by right-hander Zach Schreiber and lefty Dan Smith, both of whom have stood out and could eventually be promoted to Myrtle Beach later this summer.
The stats and record are not great, but there is some solid development going on in Rome. Expect the stats to catch up with the development as the season progresses.
Bill Shanks has a new book out later this month on baseball scouting and player development philosophies. Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team will be out around May 20th. Bill can be reached at email@example.com
April Minor League Review
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