In many ways, the first half of the season for the Mississippi Braves was a typical season for most Double-A clubs. They've had a lot of changes, a lot of injuries, and some inconsistency from young players. Those are the factors that had the Braves finish the first half with 31 wins and 38 losses.
Of the 24 players on Mississippi's opening day roster, only 12 remain. Seven players were sent up to Richmond (and Phil Stockman on to Atlanta), two players (Sean White and Brady Endl) are on the disabled list, one was sent to Myrtle Beach (Carl Loadenthal), one was traded (Brad Baker), and one was released (Bryan Digby).
The pitching staff has seen the most turnover, with only three of the original twelve still on the roster, although Sean White is expected back this week after having a bit of shoulder strain. Brady Endl, who had a great spring training and was counted on for a good season, originally suffered from a sore collarbone, but then started having both shoulder and elbow trouble. He started only one game and there is no word on when, or if, he'll return this season.
Chris Waters has struggled recently, and he leads the Southern League in home runs allowed with 14. His walk totals (38, sixth most in the league) have been high as well. The Braves still think Waters can develop into a lefty reliever, but he needs to be more consistent in the second half of the season. White has also been inconsistent, although he's pitched better of late. After a solid March in big league camp, the Braves were expecting big things from White this season. He needs a more consistent second half to have a shot at getting on the 40-man roster this winter.
The breath of fresh air for the Braves' rotation has been right-hander Matt Wright, who missed parts of the past two seasons with an arm injury. Wright came into the rotation in late April and has been outstanding. He's 7-2 with a 1.90 ERA (second best in the league) in 11 games (10 starts). Wright has allowed only 51 hits in 61.2 innings, with 62 strikeouts. There is such a thing as a pitcher turning the corner, and Wright hasn't pitched this well since the end of the 2003 season, when he was apart of that spectacular pitching staff for the Rome Braves.
The Braves' rotation could be much better in the second half. With the promotions of Paul Bush and Daniel Curtis to Richmond, Francisley Bueno will assume one of the spots. Bueno has been bueno so far, posting a 2.55 ERA in seven games (four starts). He missed some time with a shoulder strain, but he's fine now and will remain in the rotation for the rest of the season. The Cuban lefty is more advanced than the Braves believed, and a good second half could put him in contention for an invite to big league camp next spring.
And Anthony Lerew will be back in Mississippi after being demoted there Saturday. Lerew struggled mightily in Richmond and will try to get back on track with Kent Willis, who was his pitching coach last year in Double-A and in 2003 in Rome.
The Mississippi bullpen has been a revolving door from day one. They received Will Startup from Myrtle Beach, and after 16 games and a 0.72 ERA, the lefty went to Triple-A Richmond. Manny Acosta (four saves and a 2.35 ERA in 13 games) and Phil Stockman (12 strikeouts in three games) were also sent up to Triple-A, as were Paul Bush and Daniel Curtis in the last week.
Zach Schreiber has been the best reliever that joined Mississippi during the season. The former Duke Blue Devil was promoted from Myrtle Beach the first week of May, and he's become the Braves' closer. Schreiber is 1-0 in 15 games with a 1.33 ERA and seven saves. He's got to improve his control (16 walks in 20.1 innings), but there's no doubt he's made great strides in his development as a reliever.
Dan Smith, Jose Ascanio, and Arthur Santos are three more relievers that joined the club from the Carolina League. Santos has yet to give up an earned run in his first seven games in Double-A. All three are solid relief prospects.
When looking at the position players, you immediately go to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, regarded as the top catching prospect in the game starting the season. His .210 batting average and only 4 home runs and 23 RBI clearly represent a struggle for the 21-year old, who was outstanding last season in Myrtle Beach (.314, 19 home runs, 81 RBI). If you believe the jump from High-A to Double-A is the hardest in a minor leaguer's development, then it should be no complete shock that the kid has struggled a bit.
But Salty's struggles can also be traced to him emphasis on his defense behind the plate. Saltalamacchia has worked hard to improve his mechanics as a catcher, along with getting much better calling a game. But with Brian McCann hitting everything in the big leagues, Salty's got to know that he's blocked. He would be less than human if that did not enter his mind from time to time, along with the fact that now, after having worked on his catching defense, the Braves want him to start taking more ground balls at first base.
So Salty's second half will be under the microscope. Usually star prospects that struggle early on in their Double-A season will bounce back in the second half, and it will be interesting to see how much Salty can improve on his first half statistics.
Probably the top story offensively for the Mississippi team has been first baseman/outfielder Barbaro Canizares, signed out of Cuba last winter. Canizares is hitting .301 in 163 at bats with 3 home runs and 21 runs batted in. There is no doubt this kid can hit, and with a number of left-handed hitting outfielders (Ryan Langerhans and Scott Thorman) and first baseman (Thorman and Adam LaRoche) ahead of him in Atlanta, you wonder if Canizares might be hitting himself into a chance at being the right-handed compliment to those players for next season.
Matt Esquivel leads the team in RBI with 37, but he has also continued his trend of striking out too much, with 68 whiffs in 242 at bats. Yunel Escobar has done exactly what the Braves thought he would do: hit. His average is .282 with 28 RBI in 238 at bats, and considering he's bounced around from second to short to third base, his defense has been solid.
Luis Hernandez has also jumped around in the infield, but he's got his average up to .253, which is exactly what the Braves wanted him to do as he returned to Double-A.
And Gregor Blanco is also benefiting from his return trip to Mississippi. The speedster (fifth in the league with 17 steals) is hitting .287 and has an OBP of .397 (sixth best in the league). Blanco could get a call up to Triple-A at some point in the second half.
Looking ahead to the second half, the Braves could get some help in the rotation soon. Lefty Matt Harrison, seventh in the Carolina League with a 2.59 ERA in his twelve starts this season, could be promoted from Myrtle Beach after the All-Star Break. Harrison, Lerew, Wright, Waters, and Bueno could form a very solid rotation.
That rotation, along with the hopeful improvement of Jarrod Saltalamacchia's offense, will be the things to watch in the second half for the Mississippi Braves, who still have a lot of talented players that could find themselves in the major leagues sometime in the next two years.
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. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.