It will be a strange season for the Braves this year, the last in the city of Richmond after 43 years as the Triple-A affiliate. Plus, this team will actually have some real-deal prospects instead of the normal mix of veteran players trying to get to the big leagues and former major leaguers trying to get back.
The Braves will have a pretty good shot at defending their International League title mainly due to a solid pitching staff. Buddy Carlyle, Atlanta's fourth starter for most of last season, will be the ace of the group and start in the first game. Carlyle will be joined in the rotation by Jo Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton, Jorge Campillo, and Francisley Bueno.
Reyes returns to Richmond after pitching most of the last third of last season in Atlanta. It won't hurt the Braves' feelings at all to see Reyes in Triple-A for most of the season to somewhat finish off his development. The holes in the Atlanta rotation last summer required Reyes to be promoted a bit earlier than expected. Now he'll be able to round off his development and hopefully be ready to stick the next time he gets the call to Atlanta.
Morton is perhaps the one pitching prospect that will be watched the closest this season after his fantastic showing in the Arizona Fall League last year. The Braves think Morton has turned a corner and is ready to show that he's a legit major league prospect. But he'll be truly tested being in the International League. The true test for Morton will be when he has to work through tough stretches and how he adjusts to the league. But a good season for the lanky right-hander will put him on the radar for a future spot in Atlanta.
Campillo had a great season in the Pacific Coast League last season, leading the league in ERA with a 3.09 mark. The right-hander was also impressive this spring in major league camp, so the Braves are anxious to see how he performs this season in Richmond.
And finally Bueno, the lefty who defected from Cuba a few years ago. He caught the eye of many people in big league camp, showing a wide assortment of pitches that can get major leaguers out. Most believe Bueno has the chance to be a lefty setup man in the big leagues, but he'll continue his development in the Richmond rotation for now.
The bullpen will be led mainly by Zach Schreiber and Phil Stockman, two right-handers who have a great shot at pitching in Atlanta this season. Vladimir Nunez is a former major league closer (with the Marlins) and will help the Richmond bullpen. Jeff Ridgway and Damian Moss will cover from the left side, while Jonathan Rouwenhorst and Ryan Basner will be the two long men in the bullpen and may even get a few starts if needed this season.
Clint Sammons lost out on the reserve catcher's role in Atlanta, but he'll continue his development in Richmond as the starter. If Brian McCann has to miss any significant time, Sammons will be the one called up as the replacement. But for now Sammons will get his everyday work in Triple-A, with veteran Ray Serrano as the reserve. Serrano played one game in Richmond last season, but he'll get his first significant time at the highest level of the minors this year.
The Braves infield looks to be a solid group, with Scott Thorman returning to Richmond after a full season in Atlanta in 2007. Thorman will get the majority of playing time at first base, with Barbaro Canizares also getting some action. Canizares had a great spring and the Braves are going to get him so at bats, so don't be shocked if Thorman scoots out to left field occasionally.
J.C. Holt deserved the promotion to Richmond after a solid fall and an impressive spring training. The Braves are anxious to see how Holt will be tested in Triple-A. Brent Lillibridge will be Holt's double play partner at shortstop. Lillibridge almost made the big league roster out of spring training and would be there today if not for Ruben Gotay. But for now Lillibridge will continue to finish off his development in Triple-A. It will be interesting to see if he sees any time in the outfield this season.
Scott Spiezio will eventually be the Richmond third baseman, but for now Wes Timmons will get the call. Timmons is a popular, veteran player that is a good influence on the young talent around him. But when Spiezio is ready he'll get the majority of at bats to see if he's ready to help the Braves as a reserve in the big leagues.
The outfield is strong with Brandon Jones back in Richmond as the starting left fielder. Jones had a rough spring but the Braves still have high hopes for the left-handed hitter. Josh Anderson will be the starter in center. Like Lillibridge, Anderson almost made the Atlanta roster and could see some time in the big leagues at some point this season. Anderson will pair with Lillibridge to give Richmond a tough speed duo at the top of the lineup.
Right field will be shared by Joe Borchard and Reggie Taylor. Borchard may also occasionally play first base, a position he learned down in Florida last month. If the Braves are unable to find a power hitter for the Atlanta bench, don't be shocked if Borchard is considered if he does well in Richmond.
Manager Dave Brundage has another good roster on his hands for this season. When you look at this group you could see as many as 10-13 players who have a legit chance to be in Atlanta at some point this year. But in the meantime they will try to give Braves' fans in Richmond one last hurrah before the team moves to Gwinnett County next season.
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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