The Braves' pitching staff has a chance to be excellent. There are several pitchers that will be on the Richmond roster that could pitch for most major league teams right now. That depth will not only help the Atlanta club if there is help needed at the big league level, but it will also make the Richmond team extremely competitive.
Pitching Coach Guy Hansen is back in Richmond after a two-year stint with the Royals, including the 2005 season as the major league pitching staff. He'll have a starting rotation that will include a couple of top prospects, two veterans of the Richmond staff, and a journeyman that will provide solid veteran leadership.
For now, Kyle Davies will start the season back in Atlanta and pitch this Sunday against the Mets. It remains to be seen how long he'll stay with the big league club. If he does well Sunday, it might force the Braves to reconsider sending him back down. The coaches believed Davies was ready to contribute after his solid spring training, but Lance Cormier just pitched a bit better and won the job.
If Cormier misses only one start, Davies will probably go back down to Richmond. But again, that's just up in the air right now. It won't be a shock if Davies forces their hand and they keep him in Atlanta.
Anthony Lerew will return to Richmond for a second season. He was horrible there early last year, and after he went down to Double-A Mississippi for a stint he improved when he got back late in the season. The Braves want Lerew to figure out his mechanics and stay with it. He's got to get some consistency back in his game if he's going to regain his prospect status.
Kevin Barry is back in Richmond. He's got an ERA of 3.00 in parts of the last three seasons in Triple-A. Barry helped the big league club last season with some solid bullpen work, but the Braves want him to get innings in Richmond. He could still be an option if help is needed this summer.
Five years ago Trey Hodges won fifteen games for the Richmond Braves, and after a whirlwind few years he's back this season. Hodges had a solid 2003 season in the Atlanta bullpen only to find himself back in Triple-A the next year. Since then he's pitched for a while in Japan and then had surgery on his hand. But he's healthy now and ready to resume his career in an attempt to get back to Atlanta.
And Buddy Carlyle will round out the rotation as the veteran. Carlyle had a decent spring training with the big league club, and the Braves want to see what he can do as a starter in Triple-A. Carlyle has had a few cups of coffee in the big leagues, so it's good to have an option with experience in Richmond.
The Richmond bullpen will start with two pitchers that did very well in Triple-A last season. Manny Acosta had 21 saves in Richmond after his promotion from Mississippi last year. He's back and needs to have another solid season to convince the Braves he's a legit prospect. Atlanta placed him on the 40-man roster last winter, so they know he's got talent. A little more consistency and better control could put him in the mix.
Will Startup had an outstanding finish for Richmond last season. In Startup's first 15 games, he had a 6.12 ERA and allowed 31 hits in 20.2 innings. But then in late July Startup figured everything out and turned the corner. In his last fifteen games of the season, Startup was 4-0 with a 0.85 ERA, only two earned runs on 14 hits in 21.1 innings, with only three walks and 21 strikeouts. If the Braves need a lefty reliever at some point in Atlanta this season, Startup could get the call.
Peter Moylan and Blaine Boyer are two pitchers who could pitch for most major league teams right now, but the depth in Atlanta will start them off in Triple-A this season. Moylan had an excellent spring training and is a different pitcher than when he arrived here a year ago. Last year he was just a hard thrower, but he's learned how to be a pitcher.
Boyer was impressive this spring, but after missing a full season in 2006 the Braves want him to continue to build up his arm and get ready to join the Atlanta roster. That Atlanta bullpen is full right now, though, so it'll remain to be seen how long Boyer will stay in Triple-A. Both Boyer and Moylan are two right-handers that could step in when needed at the big league level.
Jonathan Johnson was put on the 40-man roster last winter, but a poor spring cost him his spot. He decided against retirement and will be in the Richmond bullpen for now. Rich Scalamandre came over late last season in the Jorge Sosa trade and did well in the International League. He'll be a long reliever this season. And Steve Colyer will be the second lefty reliever behind Startup. He had a 2.70 ERA in eight games in big league camp.
Phil Stockman will start off on the Richmond disabled list. He had visa problems in March and that delayed him getting normal work in and a chance to impress Bobby Cox. The Braves believe Stockman can join Moylan and Boyer as a reliever that could help out in Atlanta later this summer if needed.
And Jeff Bennett is coming off Tommy John surgery, so the Braves will keep him in Orlando for more work and eventually get him to Richmond. Bennett is making solid progress, so the Braves just want to make sure he's ready before sending him out.
The two catchers will be Corky Miller and Iker Franco. Miller got rave reviews from some of the pitchers in big league camp in March and almost beat out Brayan Pena for the backup catcher's job. If Pena struggles defensively, don't be shocked if the Braves flip-flop the two and send Miller to Atlanta. He's the perfect backup catcher.
The Braves are going to push first baseman Barbaro Canizares to Triple-A this season after an impressive spring training. Canizares hit well last year in his first pro season after signing in February. He'll share time at first with Carlos Mendez. And Wes Timmons will be on the other corner infield spot at third base. Timmons had a thumb injury that kept him out for about nine weeks.
The spotlight will shine heavily on the two middle infielders, Martin Prado and Yunel Escobar. Both made huge impressions in big league camp last month and are considered great prospects. Prado is probably ready for the big league now, but instead of giving him the reserve spot while Willy Aybar gets healthy (or whatever) the Braves want Prado to get regular playing time.
Prado seems to be convincing people that he may be more than a potential reserve player in the big leagues. He's not going to hit for much power, but he's an offensive player and could start for some teams in the big leagues at second base right now. But don't get any big ideas about him replacing Kelly Johnson, who would have to tragically fail to give Prado any shot at Atlanta.
Escobar was the shining light of spring training. He's close to being ready for the big leagues, but he still needs a little more time. If Aybar continues to alienate the Braves with his nagging injuries, Escobar might get a shot if he does well in Richmond. And if Chipper Jones goes down for an extended period of time in Atlanta, Escobar will get the call.
Richmond is going to have five very strong outfielders and expect new Richmond Manager Dave Brundage to use them all. Willie Harris and Gregor Blanco will give the team some speed. Harris is also a second baseman, but he'll be used more in the outfield with Prado holding down the spot in the infield. Harris is a veteran who will give the Braves good leadership. He knows his role and is thrilled at being a Brave.
Blanco had such a strong 2006 season the Braves placed him on the 40-man roster. His big league camp was uneventful, but he does give the organization a good option for a speed guy. He just needs to stay consistent, and that will make him an option as a fourth outfielder in the big leagues in the future.
Doug Clark had perhaps the best spring training of any player wearing a Braves' uniform. He hit .448 in 29 at bats in big league camp and showed the Braves he could be an option from the left side of the plate. If he does well, and if the club needed someone to fill in for Langerhans, Clark could get the call.
On the other hand, T.J. Bohn had an uneventful spring training and didn't really make a big impression for a player claimed off waivers last winter. It'll be interesting to see how long he holds onto his 40-man roster spot.
Billy McCarthy returns to Richmond after his worst season in pro ball. He was still getting over his serious ankle injury and for the first time in his life failed to hit. McCarthy was called over to big league camp a great deal this spring, so the Braves obviously still like him a great deal. His ankle is much better now, so expect McCarthy to bounce back with a solid offensive season.
There is a lot of talent on this Richmond roster, the best the Braves have assembled in years. But more important is the options available for the big league club. There are always injuries during the course of a major league season, so the Braves are going to have to call on some of these players this summer. The options have never been better, which will hopefully mean there will not be a huge drop off if a regular is out for an extended period.
And it should also mean some good baseball for the fans in Richmond.
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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, 105.5 the Fan in Macon, and the Atlanta Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at email@example.com.