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Stephen Keck: Down on the Farm: Myrtle Beach Pelicans Preview

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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, last seen here analyzing the Rome Braves.

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the Braves' High-A (A+) affiliate, have one of the most extreme home parks in the Braves system, and the way that prospects cope with it can provide for really compelling viewing. Coastal Field tends to be merciless towards hitters, leading pitchers to don the Pelican uniform with confidence. Hitters shudder and their agents plead the circumstances when their numbers dive from their earlier minor league stops. Meanwhile, the Braves front office loves to exploit the skewed numbers the park produces. Braves' pitching prospects often leave Myrtle Beach a bit overvalued; hitters who buck the trend (such as Jordan Schafer or Jarrod Saltalamacchia) find their stock rising rapidly.


2008 Overview

The 2008 Myrtle Beach Pelicans won the Southern Division in both the first and second half of the season giving them an 89-51 record for the year.  Manager Rocket Wheeler was named 2008 Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America. Along the way, Wheeler's team set 16 club records.

Under manager Wheeler the Pelicans had some of the more interesting position players in the system: C Tyler Flowers, 3B Eric Campbell, SS Brandon Hicks, 2B Travis Jones, 1B Ernesto Mejia, OF Willie Cabrera, CF Gorkys Hernandez, LF Conception Rodriquez and RF Jon Owings. These players (with the exception of Flowers) along with pitchers RHP Kyle Cofield, LHP Scott Diamond and RHP Ryne Reynoso should be in AA Mississippi this summer. 2008 was also Bruce Dal Canton's last as pitching coach. The former Brave, nicknamed "The Professor," died in the offseason.  Nonetheless, for Myrtle Beach fans, 2008 was a banner year.


2009 Outlook

In 2009, the drama in Myrtle Beach should be even better, as the core of the Braves' marquee single-A prospects are due to face their next test in the Carolina League. Namely, OF Jason Heyward, 1B Freddie Freeman, LHP Cole Rohrbough, LHP Jeff Locke, RHP Craig Kimbrel and LF Cody Johnson should spend the bulk of their time at The Beach in 2009. To be sure, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans will have other players worth watching -- but the real story will be the fortunes of Atlanta's core prospects.


Hitters

OF Jason Heyward
No Braves' prospect in recent years has faced higher expectations. Not even Jeff Francoeur, in his sparkling 2005 rookie campaign, could boast to have created a loftier set of hopes than has the 19 year old Heyward. With a brilliant first season at Rome and a cup of coffee at The Beach, Heyward has begun to realize his vast potential. Comparisons with Willie McCovey and Dave Parker abound, and Baseball America recently ranked the young outfielder in the top 5 prospects in the game.

Braves fans should expect Heyward to continue to grow, though even he might find Myrtle Beach a tough place to hit. The only negative from 2008 was a minor knee injury. Otherwise, his ceiling remains incredibly high. One thing to look for will be his power numbers, as that's what Coastal Field tends to hurt the most.

1B Freddie Freeman 
Freeman almost accomplished the impossible last season: he nearly made Braves' fans forget about Heyward. The two were extraordinarily productive as they challenged one another for the title of best hitter on the team, a contest Freeman narrowly won. Freeman possesses one of the best swings in the organization and seems to have a good idea about hitting. Despite the liability which comes with his 6'5" frame (his height gives him a bigger strike zone), Freeman projects to be the classic power hitting first basemen. The Braves could be looking at a Justin Morneau type.

LF Cody Johnson 
Some will question the inclusion of Cody Johnson on this list. After all, he struck out 177 times at Rome, leading to the conclusion that his weaknesses will be exploited even more decisively at higher levels. In addition, Cody Johnson's defense is described as average at best, making him less than attractive.

However, there are several things to keep in mind about Johnson. First, he has enormous power. Some in the Braves' organization refer to it as "light tower" power, the kind that produces moon shots with ease. More importantly, perhaps, Johnson has shown the ability to improve: he struggled in 2006 in the GCL, but then in 2007 became the Appalachian League's most dominant hitter. He repeated this trend in 2008: a breakdown of Johnson's numbers in 2008 shows that he was awful (albeit with flashes of power) in the first half of the season, but then had a much better second half. In other words, Johnson demonstrated that he could make adjustments and do so during his first full season, when many other players burn out in August.

Given these experiences, a reasonable prediction would be for Johnson to be overwhelmed during the first half of the season and then make some headway. If Johnson can learn to go a bit more to the opposite field and reduce his strikeouts further, then he should have a high ceiling. It would not surprise me to see him have a career akin to Jay Buhner; not a superstar, but still a very useful player.


Pitchers

LHP Cole Rohrbough 
After putting up stunning numbers in 2007 (between Rome and Danville: 61.1 innings, 33 H, 20 BB, 96 K), the 2008 season was something of a loss for Rohrbough, who battled a nagging ankle injury for part of the season. Rohrbough is the one pitcher that can probably challenge Hanson for dominance within the Braves' system. With his injuries behind him and 'electric stuff', look for Rohrbough to put up wicked numbers at Myrtle Beach. 

LHP Jeff Locke 
2009 could well be the year that Locke breaks out and becomes a highly ranked pitching prospect. He should benefit from Myrtle Beach and the experience that he had at Rome in 2008. Locke's numbers were not impressive, but respectable, and often a player needs to face some adversity in order to be challenged to develop.

Since Locke grew up in New Hampshire, he began with the organization as a "cold weather pitcher," which means that he did not get as much experience in high school as pitchers who grow up in the sunbelt. It would not surprising if Locke gets a bit stronger, wiser and more savvy on his way to becoming a high ranked pitching prospect.


RHP Craig Kimbrel   
Was that a hurricane that tore through Danville and Rome last summer? Working out of the bullpen, 4th round pick Craig Kimbrel utterly dominated hitters last season, putting up some numbers which were difficult to believe. Here's the combined line between Danville, Rome and the Beach:
24 G, 35.1 IP, 16 H, 15 BB, 56 K, 0.51 ERA

With his stuff, Kimbrel should do well at the Beach and he could be one of these players who move quickly. Assuming that his development continues on track, the Braves could be looking at a future closer. 


Breakthrough candidates 
The following pitchers should appear in a Pelican uniform during 2009 and each one is capable of having a breakout year.  If not, they still have a chance to become mid-level prospects. 

  • RHP Jeff Lyman - He has still not begun to really fulfill his potential
  • RHP Michael Broadway - Another 'cold weather pitcher' whose development has been erratic at best
  • RHP Erik Cordier - Came to the Braves for Tony Pena Jr. and he has yet to demonstrate that he is the pitcher that he once was
  • LHP Chad Rodgers - Pitched better at Rome than his numbers indicated
  • LHP Edgar Osuna - A solid year at Rome -- Myrtle Beach may be the shot in the arm he needs
  • RHP Cory Gearrin - Explosive pitches, but needs to work on command
  • RHP Nicholas Fellman - May yet prove to be a bargain
  • RHP Carlos Rivas - 2008 provided hints of what he might have been capable of before injury; most likely headed to the bullpen
  • RHP Benino Pruneda - Great strikeout rate at Rome
All told, it should be another exciting year for the Pelicans and a productive one for the Braves.
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