The minor leagues can be a tricky thing. Each team wants to win, but its primary responsibility is to get talent ready for its major league parent club. But I'll bet you that most people will look at the record in Richmond this season and judge the club by its lack of success in the standings.
That would be a big mistake.
Yes, the Richmond Braves finished 56-88 on the year, far out of first place in the International League's South Division. But don't be fooled one minute. The folks in Richmond did their job in getting talent delivered to the Atlanta Braves.
The metamorphism of the Richmond team is staggering. Only three starters from the Opening Day roster were in their same place at the end of the season. They had 12 players from Richmond called up to Atlanta, and in turn 24 different players were called up from AA Mississippi to AAA. When the season ended in early September, more than half the roster were players who had been called up from Double-A.
So to judge the season for the Richmond Braves, you have to look at it two ways. First, you must judge the individual performances, and second, you must commend the coaches for preparing so many players to make that last jump to the big leagues. If graduating players to the big leagues is the primary responsibility of a Triple-A team, then Richmond did its job in 2005. It also did its job in getting players that came from Double-A a step closer to being ready for that final jump.
The starting rotation started out with Kyle Davies, Sam McConnell, Seth Greisinger, Andy Van Hekken, and Daniel Curtis, but at the end only Davies was still around. He had been joined by Anthony Lerew, Chuck James, Kevin Barry, and Adam Bernero.
With the rotation in a constant state of flux, it's difficult to get a handle on a ‘set' rotation. So we'll just look at how the guys who ended the season in the rotation did in 2005. Kyle Davies should not have gone back down after his initial promotion, but a numbers crunch in Atlanta made it necessary. Davies is clearly ready to stay in Atlanta, but again, the numbers crunch will determine when he'll be able to remain in Atlanta for good. Davies was not as dominant in the minors as he was in 2004, but he proved enough in Atlanta to show everyone he's ready to be a big leaguer.
Anthony Lerew did better in AAA than he did in Mississippi. Overall in his 27 starts, Lerew finished with a 10-6 record, 3.71 ERA, 133 hits allowed in 148 innings pitched, 55 walks, and 117 strikeouts. Since there is a backlog in the Atlanta rotation, it might be difficult for Anthony to get his chance next season as a starter. But expect him to go to spring training and compete for a spot in the Atlanta bullpen. Is he a starter? Sure, but he's got a great arm, and if he's one of the 12 best pitchers in an Atlanta uniform at the end of March next year, he'll be on the staff in some role.
Kevin Barry struggled in midseason and was then sent down to AA to work with Mississippi pitching coach Kent Willis. The results were incredible, as the Braves gave Barry some starts to get him some quality innings. Now Barry has re-emerged as a legit prospect. He almost made the Atlanta roster out of spring training last March, so now he'll go to spring training to fight for a job once again.
Triple-A didn't deter Chuck James, who continued his roll in Richmond. James finished with a 13-7 record in 29 starts, with an ERA of 2.12, 103 hits allowed in 161.1 innings, 38 earned runs, 36 walks, and a system-leading 193 strikeouts. Again, we repeat, the starting rotation in Atlanta is a bit stacked, but if Mr. James goes to Disney and pitches well, they'll find room for him, especially since he's a lefty.
Out of the relievers in the Richmond bullpen, Frank Brooks should deserve some attention. Acquired off waivers from the Dodgers in April, Brooks pitched briefly with Atlanta, but spent the majority of the season in Richmond. He did very well, finishing with a 2.73 ERA in 54 relief appearances. He should be another lefty reliever in camp battling for a relief job next spring.
On Opening Day, Richmond's lineup included James Juries at first, Jason Bourgeois at second, Tony Pena, Jr. at short, Andy Marte at third, Carlos Mendez at catcher, and Kelly Johnson, Esix Snead, and Billy McCarthy in the outfield. But only Pena, Marte, and Snead were in the same positions at the end.
Pena has yet to establish himself as a prominent prospect. He shows flashes of being a tremendous player, but his defensive lapses and poor plate discipline have kept him from turning the corner. As of now, he'll return to AAA Richmond for another season in 2006. Tony has talent, but he's got to be more consistent to make it to the big leagues.
Marte is arguably ready for the big leagues, but as you know he's blocked by Chipper Jones at third base. Will the Braves move Marte to another position? Or will he return to AAA next season and simply wait his turn? It's an interesting dilemma, and GM John Schuerholz will earn his money making this decision. Don't judge Marte by his short stint in the big leagues. This kid is going to be a special player.
Snead once again led the International League in stolen bases, but he remains a one-dimensional player. He draws a lot of walks, which keeps his OBP high, but he just doesn't get enough hits.
James Jurries remains a mysterious player. There is little doubt he can hit, evidenced by his 21 home runs and 72 RBI this season. But his defense still keeps him from reaching his ultimate goal. The Braves moved him to the outfield late in the season, and he did well. But the organization expects him to be taken in the Rule V draft this December, probably by an American League team.
Billy McCarthy injured his ankle midway through March against the Dodgers, and it really ruined his season. He struggled offensively the entire season, and the Braves finally shut him down in July. If he stays healthy, McCarthy will hit. Hopefully, he'll bounce back and go to spring training to fight for a reserve role in Atlanta. With Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans both hitting from the left side, the right-handed hitting McCarthy could see himself in the big leagues if called upon.
Of all the position players that were promoted from AA Mississippi, first baseman Scott Thorman performed the best. He hit .276 with 6 home runs and 27 RBI in AAA, finishing with some pretty impressive overall totals (.292, 21, 92). Thorman is currently blocked by Adam LaRoche in Atlanta, so Scott will either find himself as trade bait or will simply have to wait his turn. Thorman does not get much publicity, but this is a mistake. He is a solid player, and will one day get his chance and be a very productive everyday first baseman in the big leagues.
Again, the fine work done by Manager Pat Kelly and coaches Rick Albert and Mike Alvarez truly helped the Braves' this season. They prepared many of the current Atlanta players for their last step. With the current backlog of players in the system, it's possible many of the same players could return to Richmond in 2006. Perhaps then they'll have a better record, as they did in the second half of this season. But the most important thing will be to duplicate the success of 2005 and get more players to the big league level.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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