Positional strength something to build on

Part of the Braves success over the past fifteen seasons has been General Manager John Schuerholz's ability to use the farm system to keep the major league team strong. Using depth is vitally important, and BravesCenter's Bill Shanks says the Braves have depth at one position that could keep the major league team solid for years to come.

Do you know what I would do if I were the Braves' Scouting Director? I'd draft a catcher early on in next year's June amateur draft? For those of you who know our farm system well, you probably think I must have overdosed on a little pre-Christmas eggnog. But I haven't. I'm dead serious.

Now don't think I'm brash enough to tell Roy Clark how to do his job. He knows what he's doing better than anyone in his profession. But after carefully watching what the Braves have done over the years, and even writing about their philosophy in Scout's Honor, I know how they've used their minor league depth to keep their major league roster strong. And now, when you look at their organizational depth chart, they have an excellent chance to do that with catchers.

Ok, so they've got 22-year old Brian McCann heading into his second season at the big league level. They've got 20-year old Jarrod Saltalamacchia, perhaps the best catching prospect in the game. Then right behind Salty Dog they've got Clint Sammons, whom many believe is one of the most unheralded prospects in the system. And then heading into Low-A, you have Max Ramirez, who hit .347 in Danville. That's four young catchers, all with excellent potential.

So why draft another one? It's not that the Braves need quantity. They have guys we've barely even heard of named Phil Britton, Steven Garcia, Matt Kennelly, and others that are long-term projects. In another year or two, any of those four may join the other four as top prospects.

I had a scout tell me one time that you could never have enough young catchers. He told me that right after the Braves had drafted Saltalamacchia in 2003. I thought he was nuts at first, knowing that even though Javy Lopez's Braves' career was coming to an end, the Braves had just drafted McCann the previous year, giving them two solid catching prospects. But then that next spring, what did the Braves do? They drafted Sammons, their third catcher drafted in the top five rounds in three consecutive years.

And now, a few years later, I understand the logic much better. Ok, as long as you have pitchers, you're always going to have to have catchers. Even all those years Lopez was the Braves' starter in Atlanta, knowing that there was no need for a replacement at the big league level, the organization still had to have catchers in the minor leagues. Along with catchers usually being needed to develop themselves, they can also be extremely beneficial in the development of young pitchers, and we all know how important they are in the Braves' game plan.

But there's a deeper reason that just the automatic need to have someone catch the pitchers. And let's look at pitchers as an example for the reason. For years, the Braves had much of their starting rotation fully stocked. They knew that Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux were going to be there. The Braves had long stretches where the majority of the rotation remained intact without much change. But even with that, the Braves continued to draft and emphasize young pitchers. Why? The knowledge that depth at that position could always be used to improve the club at the major league level.

Just look at some of the names traded away from the farm system the last few years to help Atlanta's big league team: Jason Schmidt, Bruce Chen, Odalis Perez, Rob Bell, Jason Marquis, Matt Belisle, Adam Wainwright, Bubba Nelson, Jung Bong, Dan Meyer, and Jose Capellan. Now critics will say that not all of those players have turned out to be the stars their prospect status predicted. But while the Braves loved all those kids, do they really care? Didn't the value that those pitchers developed over the years in the Atlanta system prove to be important to the organization? And is it the Braves‘ fault if a pitcher from their system does not enjoy similar success when he goes somewhere else?

I cringe all the time when people grade drafts. They strictly look at how many players from a particular draft make it to the big leagues with the team that drafted them. But come on. There's more to value than that. If a team drafts a player, and then in four or five years uses that player to improve the organization, isn't that using the player's value for their benefit?

Let's look at Jeff Francoeur and Dan Meyer, drafted back-to-back in the 2002 draft. We all know what Francoeur did to help the 2005 Braves make it back to the playoffs. He was exceptional. But let's not forget the contribution of Meyer. Believe me, it's not the contribution he had in mind. He much would have preferred to be apart of the Atlanta starting rotation. But instead, last winter when the Braves pinpointed Tim Hudson, Meyer was used in the big deal to get the established starter. If the Braves had not needed an experienced starter to compliment John Smoltz, Meyer would have probably won a job in the 2005 rotation. But instead, his value was used to get exactly what the team needed and desired. Therefore, in his own way, Meyer helped the Braves win the division last year.

That's what your system is for. Remember, there are two functions of a farm system. First, to get talent directly to the big league club, as the Braves did time after time last season. And second, to provide players for trades that will help the major league roster. Each part is equally important, and it's that depth, both in quality and quantity, that has allowed the Braves to remain competitive for so long.

And so we go back to the catchers. Look, in my mind Brian McCann is going to be Atlanta's catcher for the next decade. I think he's very similar to Boston's Jason Varitek, both offensively and defensively. If the Braves didn't have great depth behind McCann, I don't think we'd have to worry too much. They're still going to be ok. But let's go back to what the scout said. Just like we always hear, ‘you can never have too much pitching,' we can kind of realize why it's also smart to believe that ‘you can never have too much catching' either.

This is by no means to say that we should immediately trade any of our other catching prospects. I think Saltalamacchia may have more value than any other minor leaguer in the game right now. I mean how many 20-year old switch-hitting catchers with Mike Piazza-type power are there out there? Not many, if any. And I have great confidence in the future of Clint Sammons, who has been extremely impressive in his year and a half in the system.

But the reason I would draft another catcher next year is simple. The Braves must build on the depth they have already accumulated and keep it as a position of strength. Heck, in another year or two, Salty could be the Braves' first baseman and Sammons could be McCann's backup. Then you wouldn't have much depth left. But it's almost like looking at a card table. The stronger the legs on any card table, the more sturdy it's going to be at the top. And the stronger the position is in the minor leagues, the stronger it will be in Atlanta as well.

Some could easily look at Atlanta's organizational depth chart and say the Braves could take a year or two and not emphasize pitching in the drafts. Ha. Go recommend that to John Schuerholz or Roy Clark. Even with an abundance of pitching in the major league rotation, and at the upper and lower levels of the minor leagues, you can bet your house that pitching will, once again, be a primary focus in next year's draft. The team just realizes the importance of keeping that pipeline flowing.

There's no way that all eight catchers in the organization we've discussed are going to play in Atlanta. Even if they all develop into solid prospects, some are going to get traded. It's just a numbers game. But go look right now at all the teams in baseball needing a catcher. How many of them have a situation like Atlanta's, with McCann ready to supplant a veteran in Johnny Estrada, followed by another top prospect only a year or more away? None. And that's why the Braves should keep that pipeline flowing as well.

Look, we already need catchers anyway. So why not continue to look for real good ones early on in the draft. Some might be moved to another position (Salty), while others are bound to be traded. But it's all about taking advantage of value, and as long as you have depth, particularly at a position that everyone's always looking to improve, that's easy to do.

Almost two years ago, when the Braves drafted Clint Sammons out of the University of Georgia, some wondered why. Why spend a fifth round pick on another catcher? Well, in hindsight, it was a stroke of genius. Sammons is a fine receiver. He's been exceptional working with the young pitchers, and the Braves knew that he'd be placed with a very young group, mostly high school kids selected the year before. They needed a catcher with a tad more experience working with the young pitchers, and Sammons has been perfect. But don't think he was just drafted to baby sit. The team knew he had a solid chance to develop himself into a fine prospect, and that's exactly what he's done.

And remember, not all draft picks are selected to automatically become starters. Scouts also identify players that might be solid reserves in the big leagues. Some believed Sammons might be the perfect backup catcher, but he's developed into a prospect that might actually have a higher ceiling. It's all about the depth, and providing options for your General Manager to choose the best player available.

So building off what they've done since the 2002 draft, the Braves should continue to draft catchers early on in day one. And just like last year, when the team identified college relievers as a target area, they might just go out and find more Clint Sammons-types next season. It really helps having solid receivers work with your young pitching prospects, and more importantly, it definitely helps keep the legs of the card table remain as sturdy as they can be.


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.


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