With only a few days to go before the Braves' minor league teams break camp, the rosters for the top four farm clubs are taking shape. However, with questions still remaining on the big league roster, the uncertainty seeps down into the system as well.
First-year Manager Brian Snitker should have one of the most competitive teams fielded in Richmond over the past several years. The excess from the Atlanta roster will be placed in Richmond, and that includes some very talented players that might be needed in case of injuries in Atlanta during the season.
The pitching staff could be excellent, with several pitchers that have big league time. Wes Obermueller, acquired over the winter from the Brewers in the Dan Kolb trade, did not fare well in Atlanta's camp. But Braves' Manager Bobby Cox said he believes Obermueller is a better pitcher than he showed this month. Obermueller will lead Richmond's rotation.
He could be followed by Travis Smith, Damian Moss, and David Coggin. Smith was a part of Richmond's rotation two years ago, and Moss returns to the rotation he led in 2001. Coggin, a former Phillies' starter, is coming off Tommy John surgery and has been okay in camp.
Anthony Lerew, who was closing in big league camp, will return to the rotation in Richmond. The Braves want Lerew to simply get more innings, even if his long-term position is in the bullpen. His value will remain higher if he goes into the rotation and puts up good numbers, so the Braves want him as a starter - for now.
The Braves would want to do the same with Chuck James, who could return to Richmond if Macay McBride only spends a short while on the Disabled List. It's not clear on how the Braves want to use James in the future, so until they know he's sticking in Atlanta, he'll get more innings by starting when he's in Triple-A.
The Richmond bullpen will include several fringe guys right on the cusp of helping out a big league pitching staff. Kevin Barry was an early demotion from big league camp this month, but the Braves still believe he's a major league pitcher down the road. Brad Baker had been an outside candidate for the closer's role in Atlanta, but had a terrible spring in big league camp. Both Barry and Baker are waiting for their first taste of the majors.
Chad Paronto has had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and he's trying to get back there. After he signed with Richmond last summer, he was very effective. Paronto is the classic Triple-A pitcher: probably too good to still be in the minors, but not quite good enough to stick in the big leagues.
The talk of Braves' camp this spring has been Peter Moylan, signed off Australia's World Baseball Classic team a few weeks ago. Moylan has convinced Bobby Cox that he might help Atlanta this season with his mid-90s fastball and sweeping slider from a three-quarters position. He might be the most interesting player to watch this summer, since if the Braves need help at some point, Cox might call on Moylan first.
Another pitcher to catch Cox's eye has been Ken Ray, a journeyman that pitched with Richmond last year. Ray and Brian O'Connor will be middle relievers for Richmond, as will Erik Schmitt and Scott Mullen.
The Richmond catcher, for the second straight season, will be Brayan Pena. While his defense never gets raves, he's a hitting fool and should be a big presence in Richmond's lineup. He'll be backed up by Dax Norris, Richmond's starter several years ago, and Carlos Mendez, who can also play in the infield at first base.
First base could prove to be interesting, as Scott Thorman is slated to return there. But if James Jurries does not make the Atlanta roster, he'll be sent down to play in Richmond as well. Jurries can play first, third, and left field, and even though Thorman is more limited to first base, he has seen some time in left field in the minor league games. So we could see Thorman and Jurries switch between first and left field, along with getting at bats as the designated hitter.
Jonathan Schuerholz will get the majority of playing time at second base. Schuerholz had a magnificent big league camp, hitting .318 with and a team-leading three home runs. Tony Pena, Jr. also had an impressive camp. The Braves hope he'll curb his appetite for strikeouts when he returns to Richmond as the starting shortstop.
We could see several people play third base for Richmond, including the unheralded Wes Timmons. Perhaps one of the most underrated players in the Atlanta system, Timmons is a hard-charging versatile player that has made every team he's played on better. Cesar Crespo will also get some starts there, although the Braves hope he'll be able to start a number of games in centerfield.
Josh Arteaga will be Richmond's reserve infielder.
The outfield could be very, very talented. David Kelton and Michael Ryan both have big league time. They're not bad players at all. And again, if the Braves place Crespo in centerfield, it will give them some speed out there.
Billy McCarthy has had a nice recovery from ankle surgery. He's been hitting the ball extremely well the last few weeks, and when he's played the outfield he's done well. For the first few weeks of the season, the Braves may put McCarthy in Myrtle Beach or Rome to continue his rehab, but he should be in Richmond by mid-April at the latest. Whenever Billy McCarthy has been healthy, he's been very productive, and there's no reason to feel he won't do that again this season.
And then there's Kelly Johnson, who will evidently begin the season on Atlanta's disabled list. When Johnson is healthy again, chances are there will not be room for him in the big leagues, so he'll probably have to go to Richmond. And again, don't forget the Jurries and Thorman could see time out there as well.
This Richmond Braves team could be very talented. They may not have one hundred transactions like they did last year, but there could be a lot of turnover due to the quality players on the roster.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at email@example.com.
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