As the Mississippi Braves begin the new season Thursday, the opponent will see something that many will see on the mound early in the year: a lefty. In fact, Matt Harrison, the Opening Night starter, is one of five southpaws who will be in the rotation to start the season.
After a solid spring training in big league camp, Harrison is clearly the top Braves' pitching prospect. He impressed Manager Bobby Cox a great deal, and if not for the tremendous depth in Atlanta and in Triple-A Harrison would have a decent chance to see action in the big leagues this season.
He'll be followed in the rotation by Jo Jo Reyes, Kelvin Villa, Dan Smith, and Francisley Bueno. Reyes is right there with Harrison as a top prospect, and after his first full and healthy season in 2006, the Braves want to see what he can do at the higher level.
Villa has spent the last two seasons in Myrtle Beach, so it's time for him to move up to the next stop on the minor league ladder. Smith became a full-time starter late last season almost as a mistake, but his tremendous success has the Braves curious as to what he can do in the role for a full season. And Bueno needs to stay healthy after an injury-plagued first season out of Cuba .
The Mississippi bullpen will be very strong. Joey Devine gets the nod as the closer. The Braves hope to leave Devine at this level for an extended period to see how he can do. After much turmoil in his first two pro years with injuries and bouts of control trouble, the Braves still have faith Devine can become a top relief candidate for the future.
Zach Schreiber, last year's closer, will set up Devine and still play a prominent role. The Braves were extremely impressed with Schreiner last season, and a repeat could get him a longer look in the future. Jose Ascanio will also get setup duty, returning for his second season in Double-A.
Ryan Basner, Paul Bush, and Joe Winkelsas are three older pitchers who will give the bullpen some experience. They might help out Charlie Morton, who after two years in Myrtle Beach is being challenged with a promotion to Mississippi . Morton has some of the best pure stuff in the organization, and the Braves hope he can be more consistent this season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia returns for his second season in Mississippi . A wrist injury curtailed his 2006 season and caused many to question if ‘Salty' is still a top prospect. But he's healthy now and crushed the ball in spring training, so expect a full recovery and much better statistics this time around for the switch-hitting catcher.
While ‘Salty' will be the big bat in the lineup, the top of the order will get a lot of attention. Second baseman J.C. Holt and shortstop Brent Lillibridge will be in the first two spots in the lineup. Holt is looking for more consistency after two straight years of struggling early in the season. Lillibridge, acquired from the Pirates in the Adam LaRoche trade, showed great speed last year in High-A.
The corners will also be represented well for Mississippi , with hometown boy Van Pope at third base. Pope is from Jackson , just about ten minutes from Trustmark Park . He broke out offensively last year in Myrtle Beach , so the Braves want him to show additional power this season. Mark Jurich, a former University of Louisville star, will split time with Greg Creek at first base.
The outfield will have four solid players: Brandon Jones, Josh Burrus, Matt Esquivel, and Carl Loadenthal. Jones is Atlanta 's top outfield prospect, and he cemented that status with an outstanding showing in big league camp. Burrus has battled injuries the last two seasons, so the Braves need him to have a complete and healthy season.
Esquivel was suspended for most of last year for disciplinary reasons, but he's back in good standing now and the Braves are still excited about his potential. And Loadenthal won the Carolina League batting title last season in Myrtle Beach , so Phillip Wellman will have to get his bat into the lineup.
The Braves are loaded with talent at the Double-A level, and fans in Mississippi should see some excellent baseball this summer at Trustmark Park.
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.
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