Position prospects doing well early on

Bill Shanks talks about the hot starts for some of the Braves top position prospects.

Long known as an organization built around pitching, the Braves have had stretches when they have had success developing position players.

You can go back to the mid-1990s and remember when the trio of Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko became the core of the team. Then at the turn of the century we saw Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles become the middle infielders.

The ‘Baby Braves' took over in 2005, led by Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. And now, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman seem poised to lead the Braves for the rest of this decade.

Atlanta has a tremendous amount of depth in the pitching department. The major league rotation is packed right now, and we know how solid the young bullpen is for the team. There are also a decent number of pitching prospects (Julio Teheran, Zeke Spruill and Sean Gilmartin at the top of the list) to watch out for in the future.

But the big story for the first three weeks of the minor league season this year has been the success of position players in Lynchburg, at High-A in the Carolina League. The batting averages some of the players are putting up are downright absurd.

The Hillcats have six players hitting over .300 that qualify for the batting title; that's six of the top 20 hitters in the league. The team batting average is .315, 17 points ahead of the next best team.

Evan Gattis, a catcher that is now playing a bit in left field, is putting up eye-popping statistics for the first month of the season. He leads the Carolina League in batting average (.424), on base percentage (.507), slugging percentage (.898), OPS (1.405), home runs (8), RBI (26) and hits (25). Even though he's a power hitter, Gattis has only eight strikeouts in 59 at bats.

Gattis is not a great defensive catcher, and with top prospect Christian Bethancourt in Double-A Mississippi, the Braves feel compelled to have Gattis pump Bethancourt out of the way. But there is little doubt Gattis is not being challenged much in the Carolina League and needs to be promoted.

That's why Gattis played left field on Tuesday and will also see some time at first base. The Braves feel that bat may play out, but he's going to have to play in the field as he moves up the ladder – and it's going to be tough to justify putting him behind the plate.

Second baseman Tommy La Stella is tied for sixth in the Carolina League with his .357 batting average. He is also second in OBP (.482) behind Gattis, third in RBI (15), tied for third in stolen bases (5), fourth in OPS (1.054), and sixth in slugging percentage (.571), Plus, La Stella has struck out only two times in 42 at bats and has nine walks.

La Stella was the eighth round pick in last year's draft out of Coastal Carolina. He then hit .328 with Rome in 232 at bats with nine home runs. So there's little doubt he's an offensive player.

First baseman Chris Garcia is eighth in batting average in the league with a .345 mark. Garcia is also tied for sixth in OBP (.446). The Braves signed Garcia before the 2011 season out of an independent league. He hit 16 home runs last year in Rome. Garcia is 24 years old, but he's doing well in the Carolina League.

Next is shortstop Nick Ahmed, who is 11th in batting average in the league with a .338 stat. Ahmed leads the league in stolen bases with eight. He is second in walks (11), fourth in hits (22), ninth in OBP (.434), 13th in OPS (.911), and has struck out only seven times in 65 at bats.

Ahmed was Atlanta's second round pick last June out of Connecticut. He had a great spring training, impressing the Braves with a slick glove at shortstop. Ahmed is 6-3 and weighs 205 pounds, and there's a lot of talk he could one day grow more and might look like a third baseman. But the Braves think he's good enough to stay at short, even though if needed Ahmed could play the hot corner.

The Braves also have to be thrilled with the hot start of third baseman Edward Salcedo. He was a big money international free agent when he signed two years ago. Salcedo's stats have been somewhat ordinary before this season, even though he drove in 68 runs last year in Rome. But this season Salcedo is 14th in batting average in the Carolina League with a .323 average. He's tied for fourth in home runs with three, seventh with a .569 slugging percentage, eighth in OPS (.922), tied for seventh with 21 hits, and is one of the league leaders with seven doubles.

Salcedo is looking better as a third baseman. He didn't do particularly well as a shortstop, and there's still a chance Salcedo could be a left fielder if third base becomes too crowded.

And Robby Hefflinger is the last player in the Carolina League hitting above .300 with a .314 clip. Hefflinger is also seventh in OPS (.924) and eighth in slugging percentage (.549).

The Braves also have Joey Terdoslavich in Gwinnett. He's playing full-time at third base this season. So far, Terdoslavich has struggled in Triple-A hitting only .200 with two home runs and seven RBI. The Braves may be regretting allowing Terdoslavich skip Double-A.

After missing the first few games of the season, shortstop Andrelton Simmons is off to a hot start in Double-A Mississippi. Simmons is hitting .295 with eight RBI in 14 games. He's had eight hits in his last four games, with seven RBI.

And everyone is watching catcher Christian Bethancourt closely. He's hitting only .214 so far, which is not a surprise. The Braves knew Bethancourt would be challenged in Double-A, and it might take a while for the young Bethancourt to adjust to the league.

Finally, we need to mention one player in Rome. Third baseman Kyle Kubitza has a .302 average with four home runs in the Sally League. The lefty hitting Kubitza does need to cut down on his strikeouts, as he has 20 in 63 at bats.

So the Braves have a great group of position prospects off to a strong start to the minor league season. We're only three weeks in, but to see the prospects putting up good stats is a good sign for the Braves organization.



Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, GA, WHAL Fox Sports 1460 in Columbus, GA and WCOH Fox Sports 1400 in Newnan, GA. Shanks is a columnist for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.