J.C. Holt is expected back sometime this week. He injured his hamstring in the eighth game of the season and the Braves are thrilled he was able to get back so fast. Holt, who struggled early in each of the last two seasons, was off to a hot start before his injury hitting .394 with a .412 on base percentage.
Diory Hernandez has filled in admirably for Holt and the Braves have to figure out what to do with him now. Hernandez is hitting .333 with two home runs and 15 RBI in his 20 games with the Double-A team. He hit .344 in the nine games he played in Myrtle Beach before his promotion. This is the best Hernandez has played in his minor league career and the Braves will have a delicate decision to make when Holt returns. Might this team have another solid infield prospect in Diory Hernandez?
Many Braves fans wonder when outfielder Brandon Jones will be ready for the big leagues. He's currently hitting .298 with five home runs and 19 RBI in his first 114 at bats. The Braves believe Jones needs at least half a season in Mississippi before even being considered as an option for left field. But if he continues his solid start he might get on the radar even sooner if the Matt Diaz / Willie Harris platoon does not work in Atlanta.
Matt Esquivel leads the Southern League in home runs with eight and in runs batted in with 26. The Braves are thrilled with Esquivel, who was suspended midway through last season for disciplinary reasons.
Brent Lillibridge has his average up to .288 now after a bit of a slow start. He and Carl Loadenthal both have eight stolen bases, which ties them for third in the league in that category.
Josh Burrus (.169) and Van Pope (.162) are both off to very slow starts. Burrus does have three home runs, but he's struck out 23 times in 59 at bats. Pope is playing only ten minutes from home there in Mississippi, so you know he's surprised at his tough start to the season.
Before his promotion to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia, catcher Clint Sammons was tied for fifth in the Carolina League with his four home runs. The increased power is a good sign for Sammons, who entered this season with only 12 homers in 919 career minor league at bats. Sammons could stay in Double-A if Saltalamacchia remains in Atlanta.
Pitching has been the key for the Mississippi Braves, who lead the Southern League with a 2.81 ERA and with 10 saves.
Matt Harrison (2.14) is fifth in the league in ERA while his teammate Dan Smith is right behind him with a 2.41 mark. Harrison is one of four pitchers tied for the league lead with a 4-0 record. The Braves believe Harrison needs maybe another month to continue to work on his breaking ball before he can be considered as an option for Atlanta, but there's no doubt that the lefty is very, very close. If the Braves can get through May, then there's a good chance they'll consider Harrison as someone who could possibly replace Mark Redman in the Atlanta rotation.
Meanwhile Smith continues to get the reputation of being a "taller version of Chuckie James." He doesn't have overpowering stuff, but his numbers are outstanding. He's got the third best WHIP in the Southern League (0.98) and is tied for seventh in strikeouts (32). Smith keeps on getting people out as a starter and may now get higher in the pecking order for prospects with his solid work.
Lefty Jo Jo Reyes is off to a good start in his first year in Double-A. He's allowed only 23 hits in 31.2 innings and has 27 strikeouts. His control could improve a bit. He's got 16 walks so far this season. Reyes continues to work on cleaning up his delivery and is developing well this year in Mississippi.
The Braves bullpen has been outstanding. Joey Devine is off to a great start, leading the Southern League with seven saves. The Braves hope to leave Devine in Double-A for most of the season. Remember, he's barely been with a team in his pro career for more than a couple of weeks. So the Braves like Devine being apart of a roster and 'giving him a home' for a while. They believe that will help tremendously in his development. So don't expect him to be an option for the Atlanta bullpen until late this season. Devine's mechanics look good, so they just want him to continue to have success to re-establish himself as a top closer prospect.
Zach Schreiber, last year's closer for the M-Braves, has three saves this year and has allowed only two runs (one earned) in his first 12 games. Schreiber's walks are up again, with 10 in 14 innings, but the Braves are pleased with his work.
And while Charlie Morton's ERA is a bit high (4.60) the Braves are pleased with how he's adjusted to Double-A. Morton's hits to innings pitched stats are down and he's had some solid appearances. The Braves have always thought Morton had some of the best pure stuff in the minors, and now he's showing some maturity and confidence in his game.
Overall the Braves have been solid this season. We need to see Van Pope get going a bit, but the performances of Jones, Esquivel, and Saltalamacchia and the solid pitching have this team in first place and expecting a very exciting summer of baseball 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.