The 2008 Mississippi Braves will have several players needing to take a major step forward, along with the top prospect in the organization who will be under a major spotlight.
Jordan Schafer made the impression that was needed in spring training. The Braves are even more convinced that he is the future for the Atlanta team in center field. Now he'll get his test in Double-A, and if Schafer does well the controversy will begin on when he will get his shot at the big league level.
Schafer will be joined in the outfield by Carl Loadenthal in left and Mark Jurich in right. Loadenthal will give Manager Phillip Wellman a huge speed threat at the top of the lineup. And the Braves are anxious to see how Jurich will do with regular playing time for the first time in his minor league career. Jurich had a good spring training and almost made the Richmond roster. Matt Young will be the team's fourth outfielder.
Around the infield we'll start with Isaiah Ka'aihue, the first baseman who struggled after being promoted from Myrtle Beach last season. ‘KK' is taking the same course as Scott Thorman took a few seasons ago. He starts out the season red hot and then struggles after he is promoted to the next level, and then the next season he gets off to a good start at that same level and then gets the call to the higher classification. So can Ka'aihue show some consistency? It will be one of the burning questions for this team this season.
The middle infield will be manned by second baseman Javier Guzman and shortstop Diory Hernandez. Both can switch and play the other position if needed. And over at third base you'll have Van Pope, who had a horrible season last year and is in dire need of a good comeback. The Braves still have faith in Pope, who just needs to show he can hit consistently to compliment his Gold Glove-like defense at the hot corner.
J.C. Boscan will be the primary catcher for the M-Braves, with Jose Camarena getting some at bats there as well.
The starting rotation could be a group that is left alone for most of the season. Dan Smith is someone, however, that could get a call to Richmond if he does well early in the year. Smith started off last season in AA only to be promoted to the International League. But after struggling in Richmond, the Braves want to see him get some success again as the ace of the rotation. Smith lost weight over the offseason and had a great spring training.
James Parr also returns to Mississippi after pitching there the second half of last season. The Braves think Parr is ready to take off and be a legit pitching prospect. Jairo Cuevas had a funky season last year in Myrtle Beach. At times Cuevas looked like he belonged in Danville, and then he'd turn around and you'd wonder why he wasn't in Atlanta. If Cuevas can become more consistent this season the Braves believe he could become a serious prospect.
Todd Redmond was acquired from the Pirates in the Tyler Yates trade from last week. The Braves are anxious to learn more about him as the season progresses. And Dustin Evans will round out the rotation. Evans, a former Georgia Southern star, pitched well in Myrtle Beach last season and if he can stay healthy could have a breakout season in Double-A.
Mississippi's bullpen could be very strong, with Kris Medlen, Sung Ki Jung, and Luis Valdez getting some save opportunities. Medlen and Sung Ki Jung shared duties in Myrtle Beach last season, while Valdez was signed out of the Pirates' organization as a free agent. The Braves believe that trio could be very solid at the back of the bullpen.
Michael Nix, Jerome Gamble, Brad Nelson, and Nelson Payano will round out the Braves' bullpen. Nix made strides last season, and the Braves are anxious to see how well he performs in middle relief this year.
While Jordan Schafer will be the star of this team, the potential comebacks for Isaiah Ka'aihue and Van Pope are other storylines to watch for the Mississippi Braves. But some consistency in the starting rotation could make this team very strong in the Southern League's South Division this 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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