Last year's Braves' bullpen will probably never be forgotten. We might try, but the nightmares of the month of June when game after game ended with a blown save will be hard to erase from our minds.
Obviously, Braves' GM John Schuerholz took action to avoid a repeat of such bad happenings. He re-signed Bob Wickman before the end of last season and then traded for Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez this winter.
But the depth in the organization is also going to provide a solid group of backups in Triple-A Richmond. This year when the club has to call someone up to replace a pitcher, they may not have to cringe when writing out the name on the transaction order.
The Mike Hampton situation leaves the rotation a bit unsettled. We could see Lance Cormier at least start the season in Atlanta's rotation. But the bullpen is looking a little more set, even this early in spring training.
Right now it looks like Wickman, Soriano, and Gonzalez will be joined by Macay McBride, Tyler Yates, Oscar Villarreal, and Chad Paronto in the Atlanta bullepn. So that might send a few pitchers to Richmond that could easily be in the big leagues for other clubs.
Blaine Boyer has not pitched yet in spring training, so we're not sure if he can be ready for Opening Day. More than likely the Braves will be careful with Boyer, who is coming back from shoulder surgery. He could join Joey Devine as two youngsters in the Richmond bullpen.
Peter Moylan is making a great impression in big league camp, but unless there is an injury he'll probably once again head to Triple-A. Moylan is showing that he belongs in the majors, but there is just not enough room. He could be the first one to get the call when a reliever is needed in Atlanta.
Phil Stockman, like Moylan an Australian who throws hard, is coming back from a procedure on his hamstring. He was extremely impressive last season before his injury.
Manny Acosta had 17 saves for Richmond last season and will return there for 2007. Acosta is a hard-thrower who is very close to being ready for the major leagues. And Will Startup was outstanding late last season in Richmond. The lefty might get a stronger look for a big league job if the Braves decide to move Macay McBride to the rotation. But Startup will likely head back to Triple-A to start the season.
Jeff Bennett had Tommy John surgery a year ago, but his rehab has been solid and the Braves are encouraged with his progress. Bennett was thought of as a wildcard for the Atlanta bullpen last winter before his arm started barking, so if he's healthy he will again be on the radar.
Rich Scalamandre was impressive after coming over from the Cardinals in the Jorge Sosa trade last July. The right-hander surprised the Braves' coaches with his talent, and he's considered more than just a journeyman pitcher.
It'll be interesting to see where Buddy Hernandez will fit in. He had Tommy John surgery a year ago, so the Braves may be careful with him before sending him to a minor league club. But Hernandez had success in Triple-A before his surgery, so it will be tempting to return him to Richmond.
Then there are several minor league veterans who could also fit into Richmond's bullpen. Buddy Carlysle has been impressive in big league camp, moreso than fellow lefty Steve Colyer. Bart Miadich had 10 saves for Durham last year in the International League before heading to the PCL. And Joe Winkelsas is back in the Braves' system and could go to either Mississippi or Richmond.
The Richmond rotation should include Anthony Lerew, Kevin Barry, and Trey Hodges. Lerew has an outside shot at making the big league club as Hampton's fill-in, but Cormier remains the favorite as of now for that role. But when Hampton returns, Cormier should be in Richmond as a starter.
Barry has shuffled back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation in the last few years. The Braves might keep him in the bullpen if Bobby Cox thinks Barry could help there this season. Barry has impressed Cox in camp the last few weeks. And Hodges is coming back after some arm trouble. He won 15 games for Richmond a few years ago, and the Braves are anxious to see if he can regain his form.
Jonathan Johnson made only three starts for Richmond in his 23 games last summer, but the Braves may want to see what he can do as a starter. Johnson was mainly a reliever when he was in the big leagues with the Rangers a few seasons ago, but the numbers may dictate him joining the Richmond rotation.
Paul Bush and Ryan Basner, two right-handers who looked good in Richmond last season, will also be candidates to join the Triple-A rotation.
This is a talented group of pitchers that Guy Hansen will have in Richmond. Hansen returns to the Braves after two years with the Royals, including the 2005 season as the major league pitching coach. But truthfully, this group may be more impressive than the arms Hansen had in Kansas City a few years ago.
With the problems the Braves had on the mound last season, it's good to see that the potential staff in Richmond could be very, very talented.
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. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richmond's pitching staff should be solid
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