Fifteen months ago, the Atlanta Braves had what could be called very poor depth with position players in the minor league system. And then, in a matter of a few months, that changed pretty quickly.
First, the Braves signed Edward Salcedo, a high-priced international free agent that has a good bat and very questionable defensive skills. Atlanta signed Salcedo with the money it would have used on a first round pick, which was something they did not have last year after signing free agent Billy Wagner.
Then in the draft, the Braves spent their first four picks on position players. Eight of the first 10 picks were non-pitchers, and it turned out to be a high-priority draft for position players to re-stock the farm system.
And finally, in July at the All-Star Break, the Braves swapped Yunel Escobar for Toronto’s Alex Gonzalez. In the deal, Atlanta received shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, a good hitting prospect with speed.
It took only five months, but those moves drastically improved the position player depth in the Braves farm system.
Now, as the Braves look toward the June amateur draft this week, they will be able to have a better mixture of pitchers and position players. And it’s even possible, with the strength of the draft being pitchers, they can go back to focusing on the part of the game that has been the staple of its success for more than 25 years.
Atlanta does now have very adequate shortstop prospects. Both Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons, who was taken in the second round last year, have blossomed this season. Pastornicky could be part of the mix in Atlanta as early as next season, while Simmons might only be two years away.
The obvious need for a replacement is at third base, where Chipper Jones will be leaving sometime soon. It might not be next year, but Jones is at the end of his career and the Braves do not have an obvious heir apparent in place.
Joe Leonard, who was drafted in the third round last year, has been below average so far in his pro career. He’s got only six home runs in 316 plate appearances between his time in Danville and Rome last year, along with his two months in the South Atlantic League this season.
While it’s much too early to give up on Leonard, he has not given the Braves any early indication that he can be Jones’ replacement.
So the Braves could look for another third baseman at some point in the draft. If one falls in their lap with the first pick, they might pull the trigger. But it would be better if it’s someone that might not take too long to develop in the minors, and that might be hard to find.
First base is fine for a long time. Freddie Freeman has been one of the best rookies in the National League this season. The Braves will still need help at first base in the minor leagues, but it will not be a priority.
Second base? Well, you would have thought the Braves would be good there for the next half-decade. But are they? The struggles of Dan Uggla for the first two months of the season are bothersome, but it’s doubtful the Braves look for a replacement for him since he’s under contract for several more seasons.
Last year's top pick Matt Lipka could move to second base full-time eventually, and Phil Gossellin, last year’s fifth round pick out of Virginia, has done well in Lynchburg. Despite Uggla’s troubles, second base will probably not be a priority this year.
The Braves could use some additional outfielders. They know they’ll have Jason Heyward patrolling right field for a long time. You could also assume Martin Prado may have closed the revolving door in left field with his outstanding start to the 2011 season. However, Prado playing in the infield down the road still must be considered.
But the Braves still could use some additional outfielders. Jordan Schafer is doing well in center field while Nate McLouth is out, and hopefully Schafer will get more playing time this season to prove whether he can be an answer for the long-term. McLouth won’t be, as he’ll be gone after this season.
There are only a few outfielders in the minor leagues that are on the radar right now as potential major leaguers. Todd Cunningham, last year’s second round pick, is hitting the ball well in Lynchburg but is not showing any power. Adam Milligan is showing power, and he might be the best prospect. But both are at least two years away, and their potential is still hard to judge at this point.
So if there is a right-handed hitting outfielder with power on the board, probably Tuesday the second day of the draft, the Braves will probably pull the trigger.
Brian McCann is set to be Atlanta’s catcher for years to come, and Rome’s Christian Bethancourt is considered one of the best catching prospects in the game. So the need at the top of the draft for a catcher is not there, but there is always a need to get more catchers who can do something very important - catch the pitchers!
And pitching will once again be the focus. The depth they have accumulated now has the front office in a very enviable position. Everyone and their brother knows that at some point the Braves are going to have to make a trade. The pitchers in the rotation in Atlanta, along with the top prospects at the two highest levels, are going to have to pitch. So to make room for a couple of them, trades are going to have to be made.
That might be the prospects, or the pitchers already in Atlanta. But that depth is going to afford them the opportunity to look around to find additional hitters, which is the big weakness both at the major league and minor league level. So to keep that pipeline going, and to be able to continue having that flexibility of adding arms in potential trades down the road, the Braves are going to have to take more pitching this week in the draft.
Plus, you always look three years out from a draft to wonder what will be needed. Therefore, knowing that by 2014 Derek Lowe will be gone and there’s a chance Tim Hudson will be gone, the Braves must have additional replacements (besides the ones already in the system) waiting in the on-deck circle.
We may see two or three major trades involving pitchers by then, and that will mean the system will have to be replenished. Even with outstanding and perhaps historic depth, it can go away quickly with trades and the inevitable injuries that happen to young pitchers.
The Braves bullpen seems set for years, with Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters arguably the best one-two punch in the game. But there will probably be a few college relievers brought in, since middle relievers are always interchangeable and, therefore, needed regularly.
So scouting director Tony DeMacio will be on the lookout for arms this week. He learned from Paul Snyder, who led the Braves’ drafts for years and is a Hall-of-Fame worthy scout. DeMacio did well last year focusing on position players, and to bring in the jewel that is always at the front of the Braves success, he will need to have a good week again this year.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WPLA Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, GA and WCOH Fox Sports 1400 in Newnan, GA. Shanks is a columnist for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.