Part 3: What do the Braves need in the draft?

Here's a look at shortstop, third base, and the outfield.

SHORTSTOP

The Braves are blessed with solid depth at shortstop. Edgar Renteria has been terrific this season, and he could stick around in Atlanta through 2009. Yunel Escobar is hitting right at .330 in his first season in Triple-A. There's little doubt he's very close to being ready to contribute at the big league level. It'll be hard to keep him around for a couple of seasons to be Renteria's replacement.

Brent Lillibridge is having a good first season in the Atlanta system. He could be a factor at second base, shortstop, or even the outfield. And then there's Elvis Andrus, who is still the best overall long-term option for the Braves at the position.

That's four solid players, so you'd think that would be enough, right? Well behind Andrus there's a huge drop off, which could tempt the Braves to add a player at shortstop. You have to have players to fill the positions, and you have to have backup options in case something happens (trades, injuries) at the upper levels of the system. So don't be surprised if the Braves look for a shortstop to slowly develop for the long-term.


THIRD BASE

This is perhaps the deepest position in the Braves' organization. Chipper Jones could stick around through the 2009 season, so there's not going to be an immediate need here. But it is important to prepare for the post-Chipper Jones' era of Braves' baseball.

Van Pope and Eric Campbell were neck-and-neck as the top third base prospects entering the season, but Pope's nightmare season in Double-A Mississippi is causing some concern. Pope is still hitting below .150 after 150 at bats on the season. He's still playing great defense, but he must hit more to still be considered a top prospect.

Campbell missed about a month with a sprained thumb. But he's come back strong and is showing solid power in a tough pitchers' league. With Campbell a few years away from the majors, he may not be the top option to replace Chipper Jones in 2010.

Danny Brezeale is a decent prospect, not spectacular, but decent. He will probably move up to Myrtle Beach next season. Then the Braves have two more young third basemen. Adam Coe will be in Danville this summer and should head to Rome next year. Coe was a top draft pick last June and has solid long-term potential. And Stephen Shults was just signed as a draft and follow player. He will more than likely be in the Gulf Coast League this summer, with a potential move up to Danville or Rome next year.

Samuel Sime is a kid from the Dominican who has good size (6'2", 175) and he just turned 20 years old. He will perhaps see time with Shults this summer in Orlando.

With third base is pretty stacked, it's unlikely the Braves will bring in a new player for this position in the draft.


OUTFIELD

This is one area that many people assume the Braves are without many prospects, but a closer look finds that the outfield is pretty solid with talented potential major leaguers.

We all know the hole that might open up in the outfield next season, as Andruw Jones might be leaving as a free agent. The Braves will probably replace Jones with a veteran, but there's still a chance the team could look to the system for help next season.

Matt Diaz and Willie Harris have done well in the month of May, but it's not a certainty that those two are the long-term answers for left. Brandon Jones is the top outfield prospect in the system, and he might be a candidate to be a starter next season.

Gregor Blanco is a candidate to be a fourth outfielder in the near future. He's doing well in Triple-A, but the Braves feel he's more of a reserve-type for the major leagues. Carl Loadenthal is another player that is thought of as a fourth outfielder, and with his solid year this season in Mississippi he may not be too far away.

Matt Esquivel has revitalized his career in Double-A this season, leading the Southern League in home runs and runs batted in. It's not certain if the Braves consider Esquivel a candidate to start or perhaps be in a platoon, but there's no doubt he's got power that cannot be ignored.

Jordan Schafer has emerged as the top long-term outfield prospect. He breezed through Rome and is now doing very well so far in the Carolina League. Schafer may take another two years, but by 2010 he might be a candidate to be a starter in the big leagues. His defense is Gold Glove-caliber, and he's showing he can also be an offensive player as well.

A few of the outfielders in Rome, Willie Cabrera, Larry Williams, and Yohan Silva, have disappointed so far. Jon Mark Owings has done okay, but again he's struggled to stay healthy. The best prospect of the group has been Concepcion Rodriguez, but his average is still too low.

Cody Johnson was last year's first round draft choice, and the Braves are anxious to see how he performs this season in Danville. Despite his struggles last season in the Gulf Coast League, the Braves are still confident in his long-term potential.

But it does seem logical that the Braves will look for some outfield help in this year's draft. Johnson is about the only player guaranteed to be in Rome's outfield next season. L.V. Ware, just signed as a draft and follow player two weeks ago, is another candidate. But the lower level depth is a little shaky, which could necessitate a player drafted in the first five rounds next week.

The overall outfield depth is better than people think, but it still is important to have a good number of prospects at all three positions. So don't be surprised if the Braves target an outfielder, perhaps one from high school and one from college, early in this year's draft.


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 and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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