Another guestpost from Stephen Keck, our resident professor. (Here are his Rome (A), Myrtle Beach (A+), and Mississippi (AA) previews.) Here, he's previewing the Gwinnett team, whose roster Kristi wrote about and whose games she'll be attending and reporting for us. This is also a game thread for today's day game against the Pirates, when Chipper Jones will return to the lineup, Javier Vazquez will face off against Zach Duke, and the Braves will attempt not to get swept for the second series in a row. I hope, I hope, I hope...
Richmond, Virginia was home to many of the best players in Atlanta Braves history. Here's a short list:
Dusty Baker... Dale Murphy... Kevin Millwood... Chipper Jones... David Justice... Tom Glavine... John Smoltz... Andruw Jones... Kelly Johnson... Marcus Giles... Darrell Evans... Ralph Garr... Brett Butler... Tom House... John Rocker... Rafael Ramirez... Javy Lopez... Adam LaRoche... Steve Bedrosian... Rick Camp... Bruce Benedict... Zane Smith... Pete Smith... Mark Lemke... Jeff Blauser... Ron Gant... Glenn Hubbard... Rowland Office... Jason Schmidt... Jermaine Dye... Felix Millan... Pat Jarvis... Earl Williams... Clay Carroll... Kent Mercker... Ryan Klesko... Mark Wohlers... Steve Avery... Phil Niekro... and many others...
The Richmond Braves delivered a steady stream of talent to the parent club and as many who read Chop-n-Change know, 2008 was their last year in the city. In 2009, the Braves AAA club is the Gwinnett County Braves.
Braves fans know that the last two years have been about transition: John Schuerholz gave way to Frank Wren, Pete Van Wieren retired, Skip Caray died, Myrtle Beach pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton died, and the Braves parted ways with former lifers Andruw Jones and John Smoltz. The Braves' departure from Richmond is as big a change as any of the above, because for 43 years the club served as the organization's AAA team.
In 1966, the Civil Rights movement was underway, America was beginning to increase its commitment to Vietnam, and the nation aimed to beat the USSR in the race to put a man on the moon. There were only 20 teams in the major leagues, Willie Mays was coming off a great year and Sandy Koufax was in his prime. AstroTurf was new, Curt Flood was just a talented outfielder, and neither the designated hitter not interleague play were even on the horizon.
Coming to Richmond proved to be good for the Braves organization: the Richmond Braves won 5 International League Championship and played for the title 10 times. The franchise, seated in the former capital of the Confederacy, helped to anchor the parent organization in the South. The Braves would begin in Atlanta in 1966 -- the same year their minor league club started in Richmond -- and they already had a base of support in northern Virginia.
The commercial realities of American sports usually aren't pretty, but it may well have made sense for the Braves to relocate to Gwinnett County. Still, even if the move was commercially smart, it still came as a blow not only to people in Richmond (who like many cities on the verge of losing a team put up a relatively tame defense of their franchise) but to Braves fans everywhere. The departure amounts to one more jarring loss for the club's long term fans.
So what can Gwinnett County fans expect in 2009?
This should be a talented team with a robust pitching staff. The really interesting question concerns who will be promoted to Atlanta and who will come up from Mississippi. After all, most of the players on the roster already possess big league experience and some can hardly be said to be prospects in the ordinary sense of the word. Instead, they are players who have lost some of their luster (in other words, it appears that they may never realize the star potential which they showed in the lower minors) and are now trying simply to make it on a full time basis in the big leagues. Therefore, in looking at Gwinnett County it makes sense to divide players into legitimate prospects and prospective major leaguers.
RHP Tommy Hanson
Simply the best pitching prospect in the organization--and among the elite in baseball. Starting the season at Gwinnett County was a good move: he can still improve before he reaches Atlanta, which he surely will. It is only a question of when.
RHP Kris Medlen
Medlen is an unusual prospect: a 10th round pick made good, a relief pitcher who struggled at AA, was converted to a starter, and was nearly dominant. From a struggling AA reliever to a well-regarded major league pitching prospect. Medlen will benefit from AAA, but he should arrive in Atlanta in 2009. He profiles as either a back of the rotation starter or as an 8th inning set up man. If the big league club continues to experience instability in the bullpen, expect his immediate contribution to be the latter. [ed. note: Jim Callis of Baseball America likes him too.]
RHP Todd Redmond
Redmond was one of the unheralded acquisitions of 2008, coming to the Braves for Tyler Yates. Redmond does not have nearly the arm of a Hanson or Rohrbough, but he knows how to win. His 2008 record was impressive and he should pitch adequately in 2009. Like Medlen, he may find success at the back of a major league rotation.
RHP James Parr
Like Redmond, Parr is a pitcher who has not gotten a great deal of attention. Nonetheless, a 4th round pick, Parr has advanced steadily through the Braves' system. His 2008 stint in Atlanta was promising. He does not possess blazing stuff, but he knows how to get hitters out and appears to be a productive pitcher. Like Medlen and Redmond, he might well fill out a team's rotation.
RHP Charlie Morton
Possibly the most enigmatic prospect in the upper minors. Morton has the stuff to be a significant major league pitcher. He showed flashes of potential when he pitched in Atlanta last summer. However, he has had a confidence problem (a huge liability for a pitcher) and his numbers were uneven (though he was battling minor arm trouble) and may yet benefit from 50-100 innings at Gwinnett County. In the best case scenario he will spend part of the year in Atlanta and then help to anchor future Braves' rotations. Less rosy forecasts might envision him either becoming a set-up man or never fully developing. Clearly, 2009 could be a critical year for him.
OF Brandon Jones
A draft and follow player, the Braves were once happy to have signed Brandon Jones. One scout boasted that he had the chance to become another Garret Anderson. However, he lost his chance to play a platoon (with Matt Diaz) to--you guessed it--Garret Anderson. Jones is 25, has shown some power, and has over 100 major league at bats. That's not bad, but he has yet to show that he is not obviously overmatched at the major league level. If he gets off to a good start and either Diaz or Garret Anderson should falter, then Jones might get one last chance to show the Braves that he is as good a player as they hoped he would be.
IF Diory Hernandez
Hernandez has never gotten the publicity of other Braves' SS prospects. He is also 25, and despite some injuries has made his way rather doggedly through the Braves' system. If he gets the chance, he should be able to become a reserve infielder.
RHP Luis Valdez
Soon to be 25, Valdez put up some nice numbers in Mississippi last season. If he can replicate that performance at Gwinnett County, he could find himself ticketed to Atlanta.
Prospective Major Leaguers
LHP Jo-Jo Reyes
Already back in Atlanta. (A promising start yesterday was derailed by a bad 6th inning, and he left after giving up 5 runs in 5 2/3 innings.)
RHP Manny Acosta
Acosta ought to be on a major league roster, but in 2009 he was victim of a numbers game in Spring Training.
LHP Boone Logan
The part of the Vazquez trade that nobody understands... unfortunately, it is probably the reason why the Braves had to part with 3B Jon Gilmore, leaving them very thin in position players above High-A.
CF Gregor Blanco
2008 was a sound rookie year for Blanco, who has the OBP to be a decent 4th outfielder for many major league clubs. If Blanco only had some power, he would be a very promising player. Mac Thomason from Braves Journal astutely observed that with his skill set he really would have been a better player in the 1970s. Unfortunately for Blanco, he also got caught in a numbers game. That said, he could and probably will return to Atlanta at some point--especially if Jordan Schafer's lack of experience begins to tell.
C Clint Sammons
The signing of Ross illustrates that the Braves don't believe that Sammons can be a reserve catcher. Still, he is only 25 and the guess here is that he will play in the majors in 2009 and beyond.
CF Jordan Schafer (from Atlanta)
RHP Stephen Marek, RHP Kevin Gunderson, LHP Scott Diamond, 3B Eric Campbell, 1B Kala Ka'aihue, LF Matt Young (from Mississippi)