Pitching Competition At Its Very Best

C.J Nitkowski will compete for a spot with Atlanta

The competition for the 5th spot in the Atlanta rotation will be one of most hotly contested stories of the Spring. However, it won't be nearly as competitive as the battles which will take place <I>behind</I> the main field at Disney's Wide World of Sports.

There's no doubt pitching competition will be huge at the Atlanta Braves major league camp in Orlando next month. The battle for the fifth starter's spot will be hotly contested, with Bubba Nelson, Trey Hodges, Jung Bong, and Andy Pratt being the leading candidates. Those four will also join others in the battle for the bullpen.

But those battles may be much less violent than the ones taking place on the minor league fields in the back of Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.

Richmond's roster will be mostly determined by what happens on the major league roster, so it's much more difficult to predict. The "losers" of the rotation and bullpen competitions will head to Richmond, some for simply more work until they're ready for Atlanta, others for one more journey in AAA. There is a difference.

Chuck Smith, Ryan Glynn, Tim Drew, C.J. Nitkowski, and Sam McConnell are five "veteran" guys who will go to spring training with an outside chance at making Atlanta's roster. Smith was coming back from an arm injury when he was hurt in Richmond last summer. The Braves actually wanted to call him up in September for another arm before he was hurt again. Glynn was excellent in Richmond last summer before the Braves sold him to an International team for the rest of the season. Since he impressed Leo Mazzone last spring, he might have an edge over the other four in the competition.

Tim Drew, J.D.'s brother, may have become an AAA pitcher. He does well at the highest minor league level, but always seems to struggle in the majors. Nitkowski has been mentioned a few times this winter by John Schuerholz as a potential sleeper in the fifth starter's competition. Don't underestimate his comments. McConnell is a non-roster pitcher who impressed the Braves in Greenville and Richmond last season.

Any of the five or perhaps even most of the five could be on Richmond's pitching staff in 2004. If Bubba Nelson does not make it as Atlanta's fifth starter, he'll probably head to Richmond as their best prospect. Andy Pratt is in that same category of a pitcher who could return to Richmond if he doesn't make Atlanta's roster. Ray Aguilar pitched well for Greenville last season and in a handful of games in AAA, so he will get a strong look for Richmond with his nasty knuckler.

Brett Evert is an interesting pitcher. He'll be in big league camp and a strong showing could sneak him onto the Atlanta roster. But if not, the Braves may have to make a decision. Do they send him to Richmond to start or relieve? He did very well last season when he was moved to Greenville's bullpen, so that may be his future. Roman Colon is now on the 40-man roster, so he'll have a better chance at making an impression this spring. The Braves moved Colon into Greenville's bullpen last season, hoping a good transition would prepare him to possibly battle for the same job in Atlanta this season. Kevin Barry has a chance to move up into the closer's role in AAA. Barry had a rough start to his 2003 season that damaged his ERA. Matt Whiteside was recently signed and may have a chance in Richmond. Jamie Emiliano, Buddy Hernandez, Mike Romano, and Derrick Lewis are four more pitchers who were at Richmond last season that will again vie for a spot in AAA. Chris Waters and Daniel Curtis, two pitchers at AA Greenville last season, would love to advance on to AAA this season.

No matter how it shakes out next season, Richmond pitching coach Guy Hansen could have a very good staff in 2004.

The Greenville staff could see Waters and Curtis return in 2004. Waters was dropped off the 40-man roster, but there are some in the Braves organization who still believe he can be a big league pitcher. 2004 will be a huge season for him. Curtis doesn't seem to get much respect despite his solid numbers, so this will be a year for him to distance himself from others. Then you look to who was at Myrtle Beach last season, and there are several very good prospects getting ready for that huge jump for AA. Dan Meyer and Macay McBride are two left-handers who are considered top prospects in the Atlanta organization. Meyer flew through Rome last spring before finishing the summer in Myrtle Beach. His control is extremely impressive (32 walks in 160 innings). McBride may have dropped some in the prospect lists, but it was mainly due to Meyer's great stuff and numbers, and not anything negative with his performance. Macay also showed good control in 2003.

2004 is a big season for Zach Miner. Several Braves executives believe Miner could be ready for a breakout season this year after two subpar seasons in Macon and Myrtle Beach. Miner was thought to be a first rounder in 2000 but slipped to the Braves in the fourth round. He got first round money, and the Braves are ready for a return on their investment. Miner also believes this is the season to establish himself as a major pitching prospect.

Matt Coenen had a nice season in Myrtle Beach last season after coming over from the Tigers in a late spring training trade last year. Coenen was also a high draft pick in 2000, and the Braves are curious to see what he can do in AA. Matt Merricks could argue he's ready for AA after decent numbers for the Pelicans in 2003.

The Greenville bullpen could be led by either Jose Capellan or Blaine Boyer, two members of the South Atlantic League Champion Rome Braves roster last season. Capellan wowed General Manager John Schuerholz in the Instructional League with a blazing fastball that hit 99 mph. A solid spring training by "Cappy" may force the Braves to push him to AA, skipping Myrtle Beach. He started last season in Rome, but will they move him to the bullpen? The Braves like their future relievers to start so they can get innings, but will they be tempted to go ahead and make the move with Capellan?

The same question can be asked of Blaine Boyer, who may be facing the same possibility. Boyer was a reliever two years ago in Macon, but then moved into the rotation when he repeated that level last season. Boyer was tremendous down the stretch, going 7-0 with an ERA of 1.24 in his last eight starts. The Braves may simply send him to Myrtle Beach, but a solid spring training may push Boyer all the way to AA Greenville. Don't be surprised if either or both of these two flame-throwers get to AA this season.

The Braves would love for Bryan Digby to do well in a relief role in Greenville. He throws heat but has trouble with his breaking stuff. Ralph Roberts continues to put up impressive numbers, and maybe another solid season will get him more attention. Roberts has some nasty breaking stuff, including a slurve that acts like a knuckler. David Watkins, who has a range from 69 mph on his breaking stuff to 93 mph on his fastball, could settle into a middle relief role in AA. Paul Bush and Josh Tillery are two pitchers who could move up from Myrtle Beach to Greenville, while free agent signee Sean Fesh will also battle for a job.

The real fun will be in Myrtle Beach, where the Braves must juggle the promotions of kids from Rome who are simply taking that next step and older pitchers who were in Danville last season.

On the surface, it would seem that Anthony Lerew, Kyle Davies, and Matt Wright will be starters in Myrtle Beach. All three were great for Rome in 2003, with Wright rebounding after a horrid start with the Pelicans. He'll return after working on some mechanical flaws with Rome pitching coach Kent Willis. Lerew and Davies are two of the Braves best prospects in the lower levels. Lerew has devastating numbers in his short minor league career, while Davies finally is living up to his potential after a solid 2003.

Merricks could get more time in Myrtle Beach, and Gonzalo Lopez will return to the beach this season. Lopez started 2003 in the Carolina League but was sent down with attitude problems. He did so well in Orlando the Braves were beaming during the Instructional League last fall. Lopez is still young, and considering some in the Braves organization still believe he has some of the best stuff in the system, he's a player to watch very closely.

Again, Blaine Boyer and/or Jose Capellan could figure into the plans here as well.

A wildcard in the Myrtle Beach picture is Sean White, the Braves 8th round pick out of the University of Washington last summer. White was truly impressive in Danville, finishing with a 1.06 ERA in his last seven appearances. The Braves believe he could push for a jump over Rome and a spot in Myrtle Beach's rotation. If that happens, it could make Boyer or Capellan's move to the bullpen a little easier.

The Myrtle Beach bullpen will consist mainly of pitchers who were in Rome in 2003. Sung Ki Jung was outstanding in Rome's playoff games. He'll move to the Carolina League with his sidearm delivery. Fernando Tadefa was Jung's left-handed compliment in Rome and will fulfill the same role in Myrtle Beach. Paul Weichard, Rico Rodriquez, Jose Rodriquez, Efigenio Peralta, and Ryan Ewin are all scheduled to make the jump to the next level.

Manny Acosta pitched in 8 games for the Pelicans last season. He'll fight for a job again this spring. Matt McClendon might be getting his last chance to turn things around. The former fifth round pick showed some promise in the Instructional League of coming out of a three-year funk.

If there's going to be fun in picking the Myrtle Beach pitching staff, the Braves will have an ulcer sorting through the arms for Rome. By selecting twelve pitchers in their first fourteen picks last June in the draft, the Braves have accumulated a number of solid arms. Plus, college picks like Ryan Basner, Brad Nelson, Glenn Tucker, Kyle Bakker, and Jacob Blakeney will all need innings.

There is a chance Sean White will lead the Rome pitching staff. Several other kids who were in Danville will also be leading candidates. Charlie Morton and Steve Russell are two high picks from 2002 that need to start. Chuck James, a 20th rounder from 2002, had scary numbers in Danville and also deserves a chance. Danny Collins and Roberto Nieves both have good arms and combined for 21 starts in the Appalachian League.

But if White, Morton, Russell, James, Collins, and Nieves simply move up from Danville to Rome, there will be a lot of 2003 draft picks stuck in extended spring training in the early part of the season. What about Jo Jo Reyes? What about Chris Vines? What about Paul Bacot? Jake Stevens? Kyle Bakker? Luis Atilano? Matt Harrison?

This is exactly the "problems" the Braves want.

This logjam is called competition, and it's going to do nothing but make those kids work extra hard in spring training. They'll know from their first spring training that nothing is handed to them in this organization. To make the Rome rotation, they're going to have to work for it in spring training. They'll know if they don't, there are ten behind them who want their spot.

There's a good chance Kyle Bakker will start out in Rome, and the Braves believe that Vines and Reyes need to go there as well. This is what could help push Sean White to Myrtle Beach. He'll have to earn it, obviously, but it would help open up another spot in Rome. Since Atilano is still such a baby (age-wise only), there's a good chance he'll be held for Danville. Harrison, Asher Demme, and Adam Stanley could also fall into that category as well. The rest are up for grabs. The Braves are just as curious as all of us to see who steps up in spring training and takes control of the Rome rotation.

The Rome bullpen should include many of the college draft picks that were so successful in Danville a year ago. Jacob Blakeney, Ryan Basner, Brad Nelson, and Glen Tucker were all impressive a year ago. Some may make a case to possibly join White in Myrtle Beach. Dan Smith put up unbelievable numbers in the GCL last season and will probably make the Rome bullpen.

Oops. Forgot one. Eduardo Rosario is pretty good. He'll fit in somewhere.

Do not believe that this depth is, in any way, a problem. The Braves are going to get these pitchers innings. They love the competition that it is creating. This is the same depth that allowed the Braves to trade a top-pitching prospect like Adam Wainwright to St. Louis. It's not that Wainwright may not be special, but that the only reason we were able to include him in the deal is the depth we currently have in the farm system.

There's an old baseball theory that the more "crap" you throw up against the wall, the better chance some will stick. The Braves are following this theory, hoping this depth will allow the franchise to continue its historic run of success.

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