This season has proven one thing: the Atlanta Braves know how to develop talent. The current Atlanta roster has nine rookies, and if not for the play of the young talent, the Braves would not be only a few games behind the Washington Nationals.
But the talent that has been brought up from AAA Richmond and AA Mississippi is not the end of the assembly line. The impressive players continue on through the Single-A level as well. Both the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and the Rome Braves have had numerous solid individual performances so far this season.
Perhaps the most impressive performance thus far in High-A Myrtle Beach has been that of outfielder Josh Burrus. The 2001 first round draft pick turned the corner last year with a breakout season in Rome, but he's carried that to an even higher level in 2005. Burrus is hitting .286 with 10 home runs, 46 RBI, and a league-leading 24 stolen bases. While Josh still strikes out a lot (65 in 273 at bats), his on base percentage is .355. He is developing into a legitimate leadoff hitting outfield prospect.
Outfielder Matt Esquivel is also having a nice developmental season. He's hitting .283 with 12 home runs and 49 RBI. Also a strikeout machine (74 in 247 at bats), Esquivel also has an OBP of .355. Matt has awesome power, but he's got to cut down his strikeouts. Steve Doetsch was called up from Rome in mid-April and has done very well for the Pelicans. He's hitting .272 with 4 bombs and 16 RBI in 239 at bats. Doetsch continues to develop nicely, showing solid base running skills and good defense.
The most impressive infielder so far has been second baseman Martin Prado, who is hitting .297 with 3 homers and 27 RBI. Prado is a very interesting prospect. He's a hitter; he's done it everywhere he's played, and the pitcher's league has not deterred him one bit. One player to watch in the second half is Mark Jurich, who missed most of the first half after being hit in the eye during Spring Training. Jurich blew through Rome and is off to a good start in Myrtle Beach.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Braves supplemental first rounder two years ago, continues to do well as he climbs the minor league ladder. "Salty Dog" is hitting .275 with 7 homers and 32 RBI in 233 at bats and is developing into a solid power hitter. Even though Brian McCann is in Atlanta, the Braves still have one of the best catching prospects in the game in Saltalamacchia. But if McCann shows he's in Atlanta to stay, it will be interesting to see if the Braves keep Salty Dog behind the plate. He could also play the outfield or one of the corner infield positions, but he's still pretty good as a catcher. But there's one thing that will not be debated: Salty can hit. When you have a player with his hitting ability, you find room for him. Remember, Jarrod just turned 20 years old, so he's got plenty of time left.
Miguel Bernard was one of the top early stories for the Pelicans, breaking out with 4 home runs in his first 65 at bats. But an injury has sidelined "Bernie" for most of the first half of the season. The Braves hope he'll be back in a couple of weeks.
The pitchers have been just as impressive for the Pelicans. Lefty Brady Endl has been the best story, going 5-4 with a 2.80 ERA (fourth best in the league) in his first 15 starts. Endl has allowed only 66 hits in 83.2 innings of work. He's had some control troubles at times by walking 42, but he has struck out 75. Opponents are hitting only .219 against him. If there is any movement among the pitchers in the farm system in the second half, expect Endl to be right in the middle of it. He's 23 years old, so the Braves may want to go ahead and push him up to AA Mississippi to see what he can do.
Sean White, another former college pitcher who is a year older than Endl, has also had a solid first half. The right-hander is right behind Endl with a 2.99 ERA and is tied for the league lead with eight wins. White has walked only 19 batters in 84 innings. White has benefited from solid run support, but he's still pitched well.
Jake Stevens was almost unhittable in Rome last season, but while his numbers have been not as impressive, he's still putting up solid stats and is having a good year of development. Stevens has an ERA of 4.06 (it was 2.27 last season), but his other numbers remain positive. He's allowed a few more hits (86) than innings pitched (82), but his control remains solid (27 walks). It was almost natural to think that the 20-year old Stevens would have a few bumps in the road this season in the Carolina League, but he's handled it well and will more than likely finish with solid numbers across the board. Stevens remains one of the best lefty prospects in the Braves' organization.
The bullpen has seen good performances and bad ones in the first half. The biggest disappointment has got to be Bryan Digby, who has an ERA of 7.30 in the first half. Digby, part of the famed 2000 draft class, has struggled mightily with his control (26 walks in 24.2 innings pitched). Digby could leave as a six-year free agent after this season, and he needs to bounce back in the second half to improve his value.
Wes Letson and Jake Blakeney, two college draft picks, had solid first halves. Rico Rodriquez has struggled a bit after getting suspended for steroids, and Ralph Roberts continues to be a solid reliever for Randy Ingle. Jason Richardson has also been quietly impressive, with only 9 walks and 30 K's in 32.1 innings pitched. Dan Smith has been perfect so far since being called up from Rome; he's a lefty worth watching. The bullpen now has first rounder Joey Devine, so it'll get a little more attention as the summer progresses.
So for Myrtle Beach, the outfield has been particularly impressive. All three are having solid seasons. Prado and Saltalamacchia are also progressing nicely, and the older starting pitchers may not be with the Pelicans for long.
Rome has had a very strange season thus far. Two thirds of their starting outfield was changed before mid-April, and another starter struggled and was sent down. Steve Doetsch had to go up to Myrtle Beach to replace an injured player, and Brandon Jones injured his wrist and has been out ever since. Luckily for Manager Rocket Wheeler, diminutive Matt Young and speedster Carl Loadenthal stepped in and have been very productive. Yohan Silva never got on track, and is now in Danville's starting outfield.
Loadenthal's super first half has earned him a promotion to Myrtle Beach, where he'll replace the disappointing Ardley Jansen as the Pelicans' fourth outfielder.
The team has struggled with its power production, with only 16 home runs all season. Van Pope and Clint Sammons have been the most productive hitters. Pope started off slowly but rebounded nicely in May. He's now at .283 with 4 home runs and 38 RBI in 254 at bats. Sammons has been great defensively for the young pitching staff, and he's developing into exactly the type of prospect the Braves envisioned when they drafted him. Sammons is going to be a quality backup catcher in the big leagues one day. He can hit, although his power is limited. But his defense is outstanding.
Mike Rozema was somewhat of a surprise for Rome in the first half. He hit .272 with 19 doubles but no home runs. Rozema will spend the second half of his season in Myrtle Beach. He'll be replaced by second rounder Yunel Escobar, who was promoted from Danville Wednesday night.
J.C. Holt has been a disappointment so far this season. He hit only .216 in the first half. The Braves still believe he's a good prospect and are hoping for a second half turnaround.
Pitching, as it usually is, has been the main story in Rome. The starters are very, very young and very, very talented. Matt Harrison, often referred to a as a left-handed version of Kevin Millwood, has been exceptional thus far. He's 7-3 with a 2.57 ERA in fifteen starts, 72 hits allowed in league high 91 innings pitched, and 70 strikeouts. Harrison is this year's version of Jake Stevens, although he's not getting as much press as Stevens did last season.
James Parr, Atlanta's 4th round pick in 2004, had an eight-inning no-hitter on June 7th and is putting together a solid season. Luis Atilano represented Rome in the Sally League All-Star Game and pitched two scoreless innings. Atilano has had some great starts and some bad starts, so he'll try to improve his consistency in the second half. Chris Vines has also been a bit inconsistent, allowing 96 hits in 77.1 innings of work.
But these top four starters have all had excellent control. Harrison has walked only 17 batters in 15 starts; Parr and Vines have each walked one batter in each of their 14 games; and Atilano has walked only 19 batters in 14 games.
The disappointment in Rome has been Charlie Morton. The tall right-hander made significant strides toward the end of last season, but it did not carry over to this year. Morton has walked 43 batters in 72.1 innings, although he's allowed only 69 hits. Morton needs to make a turnaround in the second half, or he might get passed up by some of the younger members on his own team.
Jonny Venters has also walked too many (36 in 65.1 innings), but the coaches seem pleased with his progress. Paul Bacot missed most of the first half of the season, but he's back now and the Braves are anxious to see what he can do for the rest of the summer.
The bullpen has had some pleasant surprises. Before he was sent to Myrtle Beach, Dan Smith was excellent. Zach Schreiber is a hard-throwing righty that has been impressive so far this year. Angelo Burrows, a former outfielder, is making terrific strides in his transition to the mound. But the best reliever has been Arthur Santos, who has four saves and a 2.16 ERA in his 12 games.
But now that Will Startup has joined the club, the former Georgia Bulldog may get a number of save opportunities. If he does well, he could easily finish the season at a higher level. Plus, the Braves have a number of relievers in Danville that were college draft picks earlier this month that may be knocking on Rome's door later this summer.
So as usual, the Braves continue to develop significant talent at the lower levels. With the infusion of young talent from the AA and AAA level to Atlanta, it's important for the Single-A clubs to continue to produce talent. Thus far, they are not disappointing anyone.
Bill Shanks has a new book out on baseball scouting and player development. Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team is available at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore and online at www.amazon.com. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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