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Stephen Keck: Down on the Farm: Mississippi Braves Preview

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UPDATE: The Braves traded Josh Anderson to the Tigers for minor league pitcher Rudy Darrow. Jordan Schafer's the presumptive starting center fielder.

Another guest post from Stephen Keck, Braves fan and Head of the Department of International Studies at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, and Chop-n-Change's resident minor league analyst. Previously, he's written previews for the Rome Braves (A-ball) and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A). Here, he breaks down the Mississippi Braves (AA).

2008 was a great season in Pearl, Mississippi, as the Braves' AA affiliate won their first championship since moving to the state in 2005.  Many of the key players in 2008 -- Tommy Hanson, Todd Redmond, Jamie Parr, Kris Medlen, Van Pope, Kala Kaai'hue, and Jordan Schafer, to name a few -- will almost certainly appear at AAA or in the majors in 2009. Despite that substantial graduation of talent, this should still be a memorable year for the Mississippi Braves.


2009 Outlook

Even if Myrtle Beach has the best collection of high ceiling players in the Braves' system, Mississippi's team may be even more intriguing. The team will be largely made up of players promoted from the very successful 2008 Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Fans in Pearl will almost certainly have to get used to a new cast of characters. Some of these guys may have already peaked, but many will only begin to show their promise as the 2009 season unfolds.

The following players should be of interest to Braves fans:
 

Hitters

1B Ernesto Mejia
Like a number of other prospects, plate discipline is the key to Mejia's development.  That said, its hard not to be impressed with a player who hits 47 doubles and 21 HR in 131 games at Myrtle Beach. Moreover, the Braves promoted him relatively quickly from Rome. Mejia has a chance to be very useful player.

2B Travis Jones
The Braves' 7th round pick in 2007, Jones was another Pelican with some power. He hit 16 HRs with a .361 OBP in the extreme pitcher's park in Myrtle Beach, making Jones an attractive 2B.  If this Carolina League All-Star can raise his average and sustain his power at AA, he should emerge as the best 2B prospect that the organization has produced since Marcus Giles. Jones has a chance, in other words, to be a very credible 2B prospect.
 
SS Brandon Hicks
Brandon Hicks must cut down on his strikeouts!  If he can demonstrate more plate discipline, Hicks has the chance to move into the range of elite prospects. If he can make enough contact, Hicks can be a shortstop who hits for power while offering first rate defense in the field--as he has great range and a very good glove. The Braves let him get his feet wet in AA at the end of 2008, which suggests that the organization has high hopes for him.

3B Eric Campbell
It will be make or break for Campbell, who was the first player the Braves picked in 2004.  Once a highly touted prospect (compared by some to Jeff Kent or even Matt Williams), Campbell lost some time dealing with "attitude issues." Campbell can either grow up or make his manager likely to throw grenades. Coming off a fine performance at Myrtle Beach, Campbell still has a chance to be very useful 3B.

LF  Concepcion Rodriguez
One of the most underrated players in the Braves system. Concepcion Rodriguez quietly had a very impressive year: after just 19 games at Rome, the Braves promoted him to Myrtle Beach, where he put up quite respectable numbers: 11HR with a .340 OBP. Rodriguez, who can play all outfield positions, has a number of tools and seems to be just shy of emerging as a strong prospect. He will be 22 at the beginning of the season and should keep improving.  At worst, he projects has a 4th outfielder.

LF Willie Cabrera
Another player named as a postseason All-Star in the Carolina League. Cabrera became a fan favorite on way his way to putting up some impressive numbers (especially for Myrtle Beach) in 2008. One key to his development will be plate discipline. If he can get on base more, he might develop into a left fielder who might have an OBP of .350 with 20 HRs a year. Not a superstar in the making--but a good major league regular. By all accounts, he has "great makeup."
 
CF  Gorkys Hernandez
Braves' fans have to be happy with the Renteria trade. even while Jair Jurrjens had an impressive rookie year (and has a great future), it is still too early to say whether he or Hernandez will have the better career. Hernandez was having a good year at Myrtle Beach before tailing off in August. He certainly made a very strong impression on Carolina League managers who identified him as one of the circuit's top prospects. The real question with Hernandez is whether he will hit for power. If he could add power hitting to his game, he would have the chance to become a superior prospect.

RF Jon Owings
If he can stay healthy, Owings has a chance to be a very good RF. (Jon Owings is the younger brother of slugging Diamondbacks pitcher Micah Owings.) Owings has battled injuries throughout his career, but for most of 2008 he was able to play and he put up numbers which many who have played in a Pelican uniform would envy. However, Owings is not very young (he turns 24 on April 4), so he really needs to make substantial progress this season.

 
Pitchers

LHP Jonathan (Jonny) Venters
Venters has already overcome significant odds to reach AA.  The Braves picked Venters in the 30th round of the 2003 draft, intending to make him a draft-and-follow player, but he has suffered arm trouble twice in his climb up the minor league ladder. In 2008, he showed that he has recovered. Venters is still only 24, and if he can stay healthy, he might yet become a good starting pitcher. The bullpen may be a more likely destination, as he appears to have the stuff necessary to develop into a reliever at the big league level.
 
LHP Scott Diamond

Whats there not to like? Diamond might be one of the most underrated pitchers in the Braves system. In his first season in professional baseball, Diamond won 15 games while splitting duty at Rome and Myrtle Beach. The fact that Diamond has only one impressive season -- and most of that was at the notorious pitcher's park in Myrtle Beach -- helps explain why other pitching prospects have garnered more ink that Diamond. Still, a 15-3 record over 152 2/3 innings of work cannot be ignored. Diamond will turn 23 at the end of July, and if he pitches as well as he did in 2008, he could have his birthday with the Gwinnett County club.
 
RHP Deunte Heath
Heath won 13 games between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, and he showed that he is yet another pitching prospect to take seriously. He has a live arm, and it would not be surprising to see him promoted to AAA at mid-season.

RHP Kyle Cofield

Possibly no pitcher represents the success of the organization on draft day as much as Cofield.  An 8th round pick in the 2005 draft, Cofield has become better with each season.  What a smart way to draft: take a good prospect who has committed to a university, draft him in a later round, and then convince him to sign. It helps if he is from the South -- Cofield's an Alabaman -- and wants to be a Brave. Cofield's still under the radar, and he must develop better command to be a major league pitcher. If he can gain better control over his pitches, then he will emerge as a legitimate prospect, one who might easily project out to be a middle of the rotation starter. Not bad for an 8th round pick.
 
RHP Ryne Reynoso
For Ryne Reynoso to become a big league pitcher he must do two things: 1) get a higher ratio of ground ball outs, and 2) give up fewer homers. 16 HRs in 131 innings while pitching in a homer-suppressing park in Myrtle Beach is a major red flag. That said, 2008 was actually an impressive performance for an outfielder who had his first complete year as a starting pitcher.  Reynoso will be 24 this season and while the Braves cannot reasonably expect him to be in the majors before he is 25 or 26 he has the chance to develop into a lower part of the rotation inning eater. Despite the HRs, chances are that the Braves are happy with his growth as a pitcher.
 
 
The following arms should get a decent chance to make an impression this year, probably in the bullpen:

  • Tyler Wilson - ought to sustain his good numbers as a reliever
  • Dustin Evans - if he can recover from arm problems, then the Braves will again believe in his nasty stuff
  • Kevin Gunderson - from his bloodlines to his role on a College World Series champion Oregon State team, Gunderson's development screams LOOGY

With this much talent at Mississippi, it is unlikely that manager Phillip Wellman will feel the need to re-enact trench warfare on the infield.
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