So it's September of 2005 and many of us are still saying Greenville when we think of the Braves' AA affiliate. But this team is now in Pearl, and the Braves had a very successful first season in Mississippi.
It was supposed to be a carbon copy of 2003, when the Braves had a new affiliate in Rome, Georgia. Many of the same players that were on that Rome team that won the Sally League title also started the new franchise in Pearl, but instead of ending the season battling for another minor league title, five of those players are now helping the Atlanta Braves go for another division crown.
But getting the players to Atlanta and to the AAA affiliate in Richmond caused this team to suffer on the field. Like the Richmond Braves, they did their job in promoting talent, but it did not give the fans in Pearl the season they would have had otherwise. One could only wonder how good this team might have been if it had stayed together all season.
The changes were dramatic. The entire starting pitching staff turned over, and half the starting lineup changed. Only fourteen of the twenty-six players on the Opening Day roster were with the team at the end of the season, with the majority of those players lost being the best on the team.
But again, that's what the minor leagues are for: get players ready for the next level, and Manager Brian Snitker and his two coaches, Phillip Wellman and Kent Willis, did a remarkable job preparing those kids for the big leagues and for Triple-A.
Back in April, Mississippi's starting rotation included Blaine Boyer, Anthony Lerew, Zach Miner, Matt Wright, and Matt Coenen. Now Boyer and Lerew are in Atlanta, Miner is in Toledo after a trade to the Tigers, and Wright and Coenen both missed time with injury. Ryan Basner, Sean White, Brian O'Connor, Paul Bush, and Daniel Curtis ended the year in the starting rotation.
Boyer was moved to the bullpen in mid-May, as the Braves envisioned he was getting close to being ready for the big leagues. He had six quality relief appearances before being called up to Atlanta. Lerew was solid, with a 6-2 record in fourteen starts before being sent to AAA. And Miner had only four games in AA before heading to AAA. He was traded in the Kyle Farnsworth deal on July 31st. Wright ran into more arm problems, a year after finishing early with a fracture. Hopefully, he'll get healthy and return to Mississippi next season. And Coenen ran into injury trouble late in the season, but if he remains with the Braves he'll probably battle for a job in Richmond next spring.
The Braves still believe Ryan Basner is a reliever, but with the need for a starter, it gave them a chance to get Basner some quality innings. He made eleven starts for the team, and had some good starts and some bad. He'll either be back in AA or in Richmond next season, but as a reliever. Sean White was a call-up from Myrtle Beach in July. He made eight starts in AA and while his record (2-5) and ERA (4.11) were not great, his ancillary numbers were solid. Overall, White finished with a 11-8 record in 2005, with an 3.85 ERA in 26 starts, 155 hits allowed in 147.1 innings, 47 walks, and 98 strikeouts. White could return to AA to start the 2006 season, or he might prove in spring training he's ready for a push to Richmond.
Brian O'Connor stepped into the rotation in May and really became Mississippi's most dependable starter. He's a veteran minor leaguer, so it's possible he could be asked back. But he's one of those guys that will probably go where he gets the best financial offer.
The Braves might need to really take a look at Paul Bush. He started off the season in Myrtle Beach and did great there. Then when he came up to AA, he actually did even better. Look at his overall numbers in 37 games (8 starts): 3-3, 2.36 ERA, 65 hits allowed in 95.1 innings, 35 walks, and 92 strikeouts. Bush does not get much publicity, but he continues to put up solid numbers. If he keeps pitching like he did this season, he's going to find himself in the big leagues. And Daniel Curtis will once again have a chance to leave the Braves organization as a six-year free agent. He started the season in Richmond but was bounced back down to AA, and Daniel has yet to set himself apart from the other pitchers.
Turning to the Mississippi bullpen, Glenn Tucker was a pretty consistent pitcher. He saved five games and had a 3.09 ERA in 49 games. The side-arming Tucker will head to the Arizona Fall League with a chance to make a solid impression. Jorge Vasquez spent a couple of weeks in Atlanta and did well, but the Braves did not call him back up in September. He should get another look in spring training. The guy is good, and you should not rule him out from being a candidate for the Atlanta bullpen next season.
Mississippi had a number of veteran minor leaguers in their pen that might not be back in 2006. Casey DeHart, Steve Kent, and Jason Richardson all did ok, but with the depth in the system you wonder if they'll be invited to return. And Seth Bobbitt came in late in the season and did well. Bobbitt was signed late in the summer in a tryout camp, and he'll probably get a strong look to return to AA next season.
Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur started off the season in Mississippi and are now in the Atlanta starting lineup, while Scott Thorman and Jonathan Schuerholz left for AAA in midseason. Thorman did exactly what the Braves wanted him to do: go back to AA and do well in the first half before getting a promotion. Now they'll want him to do the same thing in Richmond next season. Schuerholz might have been the most improved player in the organization in the first half of the season. He started off sinfully slow, hitting near .200, but then he had a hot June to get his average up to .278. Schuerholz struggled in Richmond, hitting only .175, and he'll probably return there next year after spending the next few months in the Arizona Fall League.
The two holdovers from the Opening Day infield were shortstop Luis Hernandez and third baseman Wes Timmons. Hernandez was only 20 years old when the season began (turned 21 in late June), and his youth showed when he struggled with the bat early on. The trouble at the plate carried over to his defense, and for the first time he took a step backward with the glove. But he finished much better offensively later in the season, and the Braves hope that'll carry over to next season. Hernandez will probably return to AA to start next season, and the Braves will be looking for a very solid second half. With Yunel Escobar breathing down his neck right behind him, Hernandez will need to have a solid 2006 season.
Timmons just had another Wes Timmons-type season. He hit .272 with 7 home runs, 34 RBI, 31 doubles, and finished 8th in the league with a .388 on base percentage. Wes is always a leader on his team, and he's falling in line with Pete Orr as a potential utility player on a major league roster.
Martin Prado came up from AA and didn't miss a beat. He hit .280 in 143 at bats with Mississippi, after hitting .306 in Myrtle Beach. Prado also played solid defense. He's a good prospect, and he'll get a chance to return to Pearl next season to continue his development.
The outfield ended up with Josh Burrus, Gregor Blanco, and Onil Joseph. Burrus started the season at Myrtle Beach, and overall on the season hit .263 with 16 home runs, 74 RBI, 28 doubles, and 36 stolen bases. Burrus has now become one of Atlanta's top prospects, and he'll likely return to AA to start next season. With Matt Esquivel and Steve Doetsch breathing down their necks, Blanco and Joseph need to go to AAA next season, but they both could use some more time in Mississippi. Blanco had the better season of the two, but neither have established themselves as a legit prospect.
Next year's Mississippi team could be very good, and unlike this year, many of the players should stick there for most of the season. With the young talent in the big leagues, and more young talent slated to go back to AAA, it's unlikely there will be as much movement in the system next season. Prado and Burrus will return, and along with Esquivel and Doetsch, should be joined by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, now the best catching prospect in baseball. So hopefully the folks in Pearl will get to know their players a little better than the brief time they spent with many of the top prospects this season.
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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