The Atlanta Braves’ minor league system is widely recognized as one of professional baseball’s most productive organizations. The organization’s elite reputation has largely been achieved through its historic wealth of talented minor league pitching. Ironically, however, the Braves’ minor league organization has produced lukewarm results in delivering successful major league pitchers to Atlanta. Following the legendary arrivals of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery more than a decade ago, other widely-touted Braves minor league pitchers have experienced difficulty climbing the organizational ladder and making an impact on Atlanta’s major league staff. In fact, the four top starters in the Braves’ 2003 rotation were produced by other organizations. Only #5 starter Horacio Ramirez was developed by Atlanta’s minor league system. And, if free agent starter Paul Byrd had not been sidelined by an elbow injury, Ramirez might still be pitching in Richmond.
In reality, the Braves have acquired a large and indispensible component of their pitching staff outside the organization over the last decade, e.g., Greg Maddux, Denny Neagle, John Burkett, Dennis Martinez, Andy Ashby, Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Terry Mulholland, Alejandro Pena, Jeff Reardon, and Rudy Seanez. Imports Maddux, Byrd, Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, Shane Reynolds, and Roberto Hernandez join Smoltz to form the core of the Braves’ 2003 pitching staff.
Developing young pitchers is a tricky business. Stocking and managing a major league pitching staff requires GMs to utilize organizational assets resourcefully. It is remarkable that the Braves, while widely noted for developing pitchers, currently have seven pitchers on their major league roster developed by other organizations, plus an eighth (Byrd) on their disabled list. Atlanta’s current 12-man pitching staff includes only five pitchers…Smoltz, Ramirez, Trey Hodges, Jung Bong, and Joe Dawley…who were actually produced by the Braves’ minor league system. Ray King pitched briefly in Atlanta’s minor league organization, but was actually developed in another organization.
Following a mercurial rise through the system, Jason Marquis has now found his way back to Richmond. Former Braves Jason Schmidt, Turk Wendell, Jimmy Osting, Rob Bell, Odalis Perez, Ben Koslowski, Damien Moss, Tim Spooneybarger, and Kevin Millwood have been traded to other organizations. Following a stellar performance at Myrtle Beach in 2000, Christian Parra stalled at AA Greenville in 2001, and is now out of the organization. Former first round draft choices Jamie Arnold and Jacob Shumate stalled in the minor leagues and never made it to Atlanta. Scott Sobkowiak, Matt Butler, and Matt McClendon succumbed to arm injuries, and are also gone.
Remarkably, however, the 2003 Braves organization has more projectible pitching prospects than ever before. The Braves’ logjam of projectible minor league pitchers has become so stacked at all levels of the organization that the club will soon be forced to make several difficult decisions. First round draft choice Dan Meyer, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday in July, is off to a strong 2003 start at Rome and needs to move quickly. Nineteen year old Kyle Davies and 20 year old Anthony Lerew, currently among the South Atlantic League’s top pitchers, may be promoted to Myrtle Beach later this year. Within the next several weeks, 19 year old phenom Gonzalo Lopez will be activated from Myrtle Beach’s disabled list. Twenty-two year old lefthander Chris Waters, who recently completed extended spring training in Orlando, has already made two effective appearances at Myrtle Beach. Waters, who posted a breakout 2002 season in at Myrtle Beach, has nothing more to prove in A-ball and will soon join Greenville’s AA staff. The arrival of these pitchers should produce a domino effect felt all the way to Richmond, and perhaps even to Atlanta.
Myrtle Beach’s current starting rotation includes prospects Matt Coenen (23), Dan Curtis (23), and Matt Wright (21), plus elite prospects Zach Minor (21), and Macay McBride (20, and now arguably the organization’s #1 prospect). Meanwhile, Greenville’s starting rotation currently includes projectible prospects Roman Colon (23), Matt Belisle (23 next month), and Bret Evert (22), plus elite prospects Bubba Nelson (21) and Adam Wainwright (20). Kevin Barry, the organization’s #1 closer prospect, also pitches at Greenville. In Richmond, current starters Jason Marquis, John Ennis, Chris Fussell, and Andy Pratt, plus closer Buddy Hernandez, are in line for September call-ups. Any of these five Richmond pitchers could receive earlier promotions in the event of injuries in Atlanta.
McBride, Wainwright, and Nelson are widely considered among the top prospects in professional baseball. Last year, Nelson ranked #1 in ERA throughout minor league baseball. Many insiders now believe Nelson is in line to become the next impact rookie in Atlanta. These three (plus Barry, Meyer, and Davies) are already involved in the club’s strategic planning.
Within several weeks, pending developments will force the organization to promote several minor league pitchers. In turn, others must be promoted to make room at higher levels. When Gonzalo Lopez joins Myrtle Beach’s starting rotation later this month, Chris Waters should be promoted to Greenville. In order to make room for Dan Meyer, another Myrtle Beach starter must also be promoted to Greenville soon. As Greenville’s rotation becomes overstaffed by these promotions, a domino effect must occur. As a result, Roman Colon and/or Bubba Nelson could be headed to Richmond by July. Promoting the 21 year old Nelson, a huge decision for the organization, will be considered with great caution. However, the club will be hesitant to leave 6-7 projectible starters at Myrtle Beach or Greenville. In order to avoid the inevitable regression that would occur with prospects on the soon-to-be overloaded Myrtle Beach and Greenville staffs, the organization will probably have to take several risks by promoting a few top prospects more aggressively than in the past.
By September, 2004, as many as 5-6 minor league pitchers named in this analysis could arrive in Atlanta. Within the next two years, current Braves minor leaguers may bring fundamental changes to Atlanta’s pitching staff of a magnitude that have not been seen since Smoltz, Glavine, and Avery arrived in Atlanta.