The Danville Braves won the Appalachian League championship in 2006. It was a roster filled with excellent pitchers and overachieving position players. But as the season starts tonight, a look at the roster on paper makes you wonder if this franchise might, in fact, defend its title.
Pitching, once again, will be the key. And it looks like the rotation could be fun to watch. Jeff Locke, the Braves' second round pick in 2006, will lead the staff and start on Opening Night. Locke had an outstanding Spring Training and continued his good work in Extended Spring Training.
Locke will be joined by lefty Chad Rodgers, last year's third round pick. Rodgers had a 2.31 ERA in 11 games last season in the Gulf Coast League. Neftali Feliz just turned 19 and he was one of the top pitchers in the GCL last season. The lanky right-hander had 42 strikeouts in 29 innings in 2006 with a blazing fastball.
Cole Rohrbough was Atlanta's top draft-and-follow signee this spring and the Braves can't wait to see how he does in Danville's rotation. Rohrbough is a big (6'3", 225) lefty who had 132 strikeouts in 99 innings in junior college action this season.
William Ramirez will see his first action in the state after three years in the Dominican Summer League. Ramirez is a six-foot-three, 160-pound right-hander who turns 22 in July. But he was solid last year in the DSL and won a job in Danville with an outstanding showing in Extended Spring Training.
Expect lefty Jose Ortegano (who has a great changeup) and right-hander Edgar Osuna to get some starts this summer. Both pitchers are 19 and both had decent seasons last year in the GCL. Coaches feel Osuna could have excellent command of his pitches, and they'll watch him closely after shutting him down early last summer after he felt a slight twinge.
Thomas Palica (10th round) signed with the Braves Sunday and could get some starts, although since he pitched 115 innings in JUCO ball the Braves will be careful. Palica has good size (6'3", 215) and good stuff. Yeliar Castro, a big (6'3") right-hander from Panama, started five games last season in the GCL and could get some starts this year in the Appy League.
Danville's bullpen will include three draft picks from this month's draft. Former Mercer closer Cory Gearrin (4th round) could get the most save opportunities, at least until Josh Fields signs with the Braves. Gearrin could be on the fast track and if he does well in Danville he might not be there long. The Braves hope to add Fields to the pen as soon as he signs.
Nick Fellman, Atlanta's 12th round choice out of Minnesota State – Mankato, will also get a few save opportunities. Fellman is a sinker/slider pitcher who saved 14 games this spring as a senior. And lefty Tim Ladd, the Braves 9th round choice out of Georgia Tech, will also be in the pen.
Mike Mehlich was in the GCL last season and really had to spend more time learning more about pitching. The Braves are anxious to see if their work will pay off. He's got a good fastball (94 mph) and a true hammer curve.
Jared Shaffer is currently on the Rome roster, but when Tommy Hanson returns later this week Shaffer is expected to join Danville's bullpen. Shaffer missed all of last season after having back surgery.
Danville will carry three catchers on the roster: Steven ‘Bubba' Garcia, Jeff Stevens, and Chris Anderson. Garcia is the best prospect of the three even though he's struggled at the plate for two years in Orlando. The Braves still believe he can develop offensively. Stevens is a hometown kid who played high school ball in Danville, while Anderson was a non-drafted free agent signee last week out of San Diego State.
Josh Morris will get the majority of time at first base, but Ernesto Mejia and Stephen Shults could also see time there. Morris hit only .165 in 121 at bats to start the season in Rome, so the Braves hope he can recover in Danville and find his stroke. Mejia is a holdover from last year's championship team. He hit .296 in 169 at bats last season in Danville, and the Braves hope a good start will kick him up to Rome sometime this summer.
Cole Miles played in five games in Danville last summer, but most of his work was in the GCL. Miles is a speedster (18 stolen bases in 32 games) and could give the Danville offense a spark. Miles struggled early on in Rome, so the Braves hope he's better suited to play in the Appalachian League right now in his career.
Travis Jones signed on Monday and will also play some at second. The former South Carolina star was the seventh round pick earlier this month, and the Braves feel he can develop into a power-hitting infielder.
The Braves will have several players at shortstop, led by third round pick Brandon Hicks out of Texas A&M. Hicks is a smooth shortstop, but he could also see some time at third base. Michael Fisher, the sixth round pick out of Georgia Tech, can play second and shortstop. Expect either Hicks or Fisher to be promoted to Rome sometime in the next month if they do well early on.
Adam Coe will be the primary third baseman. Last year's eighth round pick showed great power in the GCL last summer with seven home runs. Shults will also see a few games at third base, along with first, and maybe even the outfield. Shults was the top position player signed as a draft-and-follow this spring.
In the outfield the player to watch will be Cody Johnson, last year's first round draft pick. Johnson came under scrutiny after hitting only .194 in the GCL, but he was injured for most of the year. Johnson will mainly play left field for Danville, with some occasional time in right.
The Braves will have several other outfielders, including Mejia, patrol right field. Adam Parliament and Javier Dominguez (a former catcher) could see some time there, while the Braves expect C.J. Lee (20th round) and Eliazar Carmona to split time in center field.
Manager Paul Runge might not win another league title this year, but the roster is definitely primed to take a legit shot at it. The starting pitching and the bullpen look solid, while the offense could have several power hitters in the middle of the lineup.
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 email@example.com.
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