The Rome Braves are going to have two storylines in 2008. First, all eyes will be on the pitching, with what could be a record nine left-handed pitchers on the 13-man staff. And then fans will also watch three left-handed hitters that could really abuse South Atlantic League pitchers this season.
It's been known for several months that the pitching staff would have supreme talent. The only question was how the Braves would organize the rotation and get the pitchers innings. Jeff Locke started on Opening Night and is truly the leader of the staff. Locke was outstanding in the Appalachian League last season with a 7-1 record, a 2.66 ERA, and 74 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched.
The Braves will send a group of six lefty pitchers to the mound as starters, starting with Locke, then Scott Diamond, Eric Barrett, Jose Ortegano, and Steve Evarts. Chad Rodgers came in after Diamond in the second game of the season, but he'll get some starts as well.
Diamond is a free agent signee out of Binghamton University in New York. He pitched three seasons there winning 14 games in 37 starts. The lefty also impressed in the wood bat Coastal Plains League last summer, which caught the attention of the Braves' scouts.
Barrett is making the jump from the Gulf Coast League. The Braves love his makeup and feel he's yet another impressive pitcher from the Draft-and-follow group signed last spring. Ortegano led the Appy League with a 1.48 ERA, and even though he doesn't throw as hard as his fellow southpaws he regularly gets hitters out.
The Braves are anxious to see what Evarts will do in a full season. He's got a 2.48 ERA in his 18 games over the past two years, with only 16 walks in 80 innings of work. And Rodgers is coming off an impressive spring training and will get plenty of innings this season in the Sally League.
Edgar Osuna and Yeliar Castro are two more pitchers who could occasionally see some starts in a piggyback situation. And while Mike Broadway is returning to Rome, the Braves believe he'll get his chances to get some three-inning appearances.
Tommy Palica is a very interesting pitcher, and the Braves are kind of going to allow him to dictate what his role may be this season. They won't be surprised if he sneaks into the rotation or even winds up as the closer. Benny Pruneda might have that role for now. He's a hard-throwing right-hander who has been compared to Rudy Seanez.
The bats are going to be fun to watch this season, with two former first round picks in Cody Johnson (2006) and Jason Heyward (2007). Both are left-handed power hitters that could really make a huge impact this season. Johnson silenced his critics and tore up the Appalachian League last season hitting .305 with 17 home runs and 57 RBI in 243 at bats.
Heyward will get his first significant time this season after signing late last summer. The combination of Johnson and Heyward might be the talk of minor league baseball by July. They've both got the ability to really put up some impressive numbers, and it won't be out of the question if either player makes a play for Myrtle Beach at some point this season.
And don't forget about Heyward's good buddy, first baseman Freddie Freeman. The second rounder from last June's draft is a six-foot-five, 220-pound eighteen-year old that has just about as much power as Heyward and Johnson. The Braves are pushing Freeman, who was the youngest player in last year's draft, a little bit. But they are anxious to see how Freeman responds to the challenge of a full-season team.
The rest of the lineup won't be too bad, either. Cole Miles will play second base and lead off, providing the team with some very good speed. Michael Fisher, last June's sixth round pick out of Georgia Tech, will be Miles' double play partner. Fisher was extremely impressive in spring training and scouts believe he could be a big leaguer one day.
Two positions will be shared at the start of the season. Adam Coe, the seventh round pick in 2006, and Samuel Sime, a lanky Dominican infielder who hit .295 with 33 RBI in the GCL last summer, will split third base. Javier Dominguez and Chris Anderson will share time behind the plate.
Concepcion Rodriguez returns to Rome and will get the majority of time in center field. Rodriguez hit only .206 last season, but the Braves believe a return to Rome will improve that and he'll be on his way to the Carolina League before midseason. And Yohan Silva will be the fourth outfielder and also see time in center.
Rome's team is very young, so it might take them some time to adjust to the rigors of the South Atlantic League. But don't be surprised if this very talented team takes off once the weather warms up in Northwest Georgia.
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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