The depth that the Atlanta Braves have accumulated over the past five years is a major reason the big league club has been able to continue it's historic run of division titles. It has given GM John Schuerholz the flexibility he has needed to keep the club at a high level, despite defections of several key players over the last few years due to financial restraints.
Not many teams in baseball history have what the Braves have right now: at least one big league legit prospect at every single position. And that doesn't count the young players that just matriculated to the big leagues this past season. The Braves' depth is simply amazing.
Two of the prospects that are very close to being ready to contribute are third baseman Andy Marte and first baseman Scott Thorman. Most organizations would kill for two great talents such as these guys, but with the Braves, they are just two of many.
Since they are knocking on the door, however, it does make their case more interesting and most pressing. Marte and Thorman may not be 100% ready for the big leagues, but they are close - close enough to be in the discussions as the organization plots its future this winter.
Marte has already reached the big leagues, coming up last summer when Chipper Jones was injured. Since he didn't knock anyone's socks off (.140 batting average in 57 at bats), and since most of the other Braves' rookies did, Marte's star is not as bright as it was last winter, when some believed he was the best prospect in the game, regardless of position.
But to lessen his potential based on his short stint in the big leagues is a bit foolish. Marte still put up decent numbers in AAA (.275 with 20 home runs and 74 RBI in 389 at bats), and considering he was back and to from Richmond to Atlanta several times, his numbers were pretty good for a 21-year-old in Triple-A.
But, of course, the ‘dilemma' is that the Braves already have a third baseman. Chipper Jones has returned to third base, his ‘home,' and is once again one of the top players at that position. Since Jones is still (at least for a while longer) the face of the franchise, it's difficult to think of anyone knocking him off of his spot.
Jones has already moved to another position once before, and we know that didn't go extremely well. Since he's returned to third, he's played better than before he left. Plus, we all know that when he's healthy, Jones is still one of the best offensive forces in the game.
However, his injury situation does make you wonder how long Jones will be able to continue playing at such a high level, which would require the Braves to have a replacement ready to go. But how long can Marte wait?
While he could easily be ready for the big leagues on most teams, it won't hurt Marte to return to Triple-A Richmond for another season. He could solidify his game and prove he is 100% ready to be a big leaguer. But he could be ready by mid-season as well, and then the Braves would have a pretty nice piece of insurance in their back pocket.
Marte could also make the team as a backup infielder out of spring training, but you wonder if learning another position would help his chances. Last winter when Marte was tried in the outfield, he wasn't great. Perhaps the Braves would try him there again, or maybe even across the diamond at first base, just to give Marte more flexibility, and therefore more value to the team.
If the Braves believe Jones, who'll still be around for three more seasons unless he's hit by serious injury, is just not going to move from first, or is just going to maintain his tremendous play, then the team could decide to go ahead and trade Marte to take advantage of his high value. But there are several different issues to consider when thinking that trading Marte is the answer.
First, this team doesn't need a whole lot. It's not like the Braves could say they need a left fielder or a first baseman, and trade Marte for a player that plays that position. If they didn't have a shortstop replacement for a potentially-departing Rafael Furcal, then that might be a good option, but they do have one in Wilson Betemit and others on the farm waiting in the wings.
When you trade a prospect the caliber of Marte, you've got to make sure that you're getting equal value. We're talking about a 22-year-old kid that plays tremendous defense and has the ability to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs per season. That's an exceptional talent to potentially give another team. You've got to make sure that you get an exceptional talent in return, one that could contribute to the organization for many years.
As always, Schuerholz will be on the lookout to improve his team this winter. If he discusses a major player with a team, notably a pitcher, then it's very possible if that team needs a third baseman that Marte could be coveted by other teams. But again, Schuerholz has got to be careful. It would be better to keep Marte than to give him away for a lesser talent only because we already have a third baseman. If we know we'll be better off by acquiring a new talent and trading Marte, then Schuerholz might be very tempted.
Marte might be a tremendous talent, and the Braves will have to be careful when deciding his future. While Jones will be only 34 next April, his two back-to-back injury plagued seasons make the decision even more difficult. If Jones had not been injured, and had continued to put up full seasons with MVP-caliber stats, then Marte would be more available. But the Braves have to wonder what they'll do if they trade Marte and then Jones continues to struggle with nagging injuries?
If Marte just cannot play another position, then the Braves are a bit hand-tied. They would then be forced to make a decision on Jones, whether to move him to another position (first?) or simply hope his contract won't vest for the 2007 and/or 2008 seasons. That's why Marte's ability to possibly play elsewhere on the field could really improve the options even more.
Thorman is also somewhat of a dilemma in that the Braves already have a young first baseman in Adam LaRoche. But like Marte, Thorman won't be hurt by returning to AAA Richmond for 2006. He split last year between Double-A and Triple-A, so a few more at bats in Richmond might finish his minor league apprentice.
There is not a more unheralded or underrated prospect in the Braves' system than Scott Thorman. He gets overlooked on prospect lists, usually not even mentioned in the Top Ten. Who knows why? Perhaps it is that LaRoche is already in place. Perhaps it is that there are so many prospects in the system, one is bound to get lost in the shuffle. But to ignore Thorman as a prospect is a mistake.
Some in the Braves' system believe Thorman could be another Travis Hafner, a player with 25-30 home run ability from the left side of the plate. That presents a potential upgrade on LaRoche's home run potential. Defensively, Thorman is just not as good as LaRoche. He's good, and Scott has worked hard to turn into a solid defensive player, but LaRoche is just outstanding.
If Thorman does return to Triple-A, then he really becomes solid insurance than anything else. If LaRoche has another month like he did last August, when he hit .202, the Braves might be tempted to place Thorman in the first base position, especially if he has a solid start to his 2006 season in Richmond.
Thorman came up as a third baseman, before a shoulder injury moved him to first base. He's taken a few ground balls at third during batting practice, but we've already addressed the logjam over there. And some in the organization do believe that Thorman could make the switch to the outfield, a la Ryan Klesko, a player Thorman has been compared to because of the similar violent swings the two burly lefty hitters possess.
The Braves are just going to have to make a decision. If they think Thorman might have the higher upside than LaRoche, and if they worry about LaRoche's ability to stay consistent, then Thorman's value to them because that more important. But if they think LaRoche has the ability to continue to improve, or even if they think Chipper Jones might be their first baseman for the next half decade, then Thorman might become expendable over the winter.
For the right deal, anyone is available. But the Braves must be careful with Marte and Thorman. These two kids could be impact big league hitters for the next ten to fifteen seasons. Those type of prospects don't come around too often, and when you get them, you have to make sure they can maximize their value one way or another.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.
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