We will remember this season for many years to come. No matter what happens in October, this has been one heck of a season. The Braves are tied for first place now, but that’s really no big surprise.
What has been the surprise is how the team has gotten here. When it comes down to it, the reason is fairly simple: it’s just a bunch of young, talented kids playing baseball and shocking the baseball world.
How else could a team that has had nine players make their big league debut and still has a third of the 25-man roster as rookies be in first place? Well, they’re just good. Real good. How many teams could simply give away a veteran major league reliever in the middle of the summer because they don’t have room for him? Only this one, I’m sure.
Kevin Gryboski was a good pitcher. Like him or not, and it’s obvious many didn’t, he was effective in his 221 career games with the Atlanta Braves. Traded to the Braves before the 2002 season for a lower-level minor leaguer who amounted to nothing, Gryboski was simply an older AAA that had never got his chance. Well, he got his chance here at the Pitching Factory and gave the Braves several solid seasons as a situational middle reliever.
But Gryboski fell into a trap that many Braves pitchers, both in Atlanta and on the farm, are falling into: they may be good, but if they’re not good enough, they are going to be replaced. The trade was a bit shocking, since we all know how Bobby Cox supposedly loved his ground ball specialist. But the simple truth is there are pitchers better than Gryboski ready to take his place. In other words, mediocrity will not survive.
The Braves will save a little money in the deal (maybe around $350,000), and it was obvious that Gryboski would not be offered arbitration this winter. There are too many candidates that will be fighting for a bullpen job next spring that are far better than Gryboski. So instead of just losing him, they got a prospect for their High-A team in Myrtle Beach. Matt Lorenzo sounds like a pitcher in need of instruction. Andy Pratt came over from the Rangers a few years ago and increased his value learning from our minor league pitching coaches, so perhaps Lorenzo can do the same. But the real purpose of the trade was to clear room in the crowded bullpen.
With John Thomson coming back in a few weeks, Jorge Sosa is going to have to go back to the bullpen. We’ve been debating on the site for a month how the roster was going to shake out once all the injured arms were going to return, and now we’re seeing it happen. If Sosa pitches as well in the pen as he has in the rotation, the Braves are going to get a top-notch reliever with a great arm – similar to what many teams will be searching for before the trade deadline next weekend.
So many teams are currently searching for another starting pitcher, yet the Braves just got back Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton and will soon see Thomson return. So many teams are currently searching for another big bat, yet the Braves just got back Chipper Jones. And so many teams are currently searching for another reliever, yet the Braves will soon get Sosa back in his original role of being a middle reliever.
The bullpen could become very good, very fast. Jim Brower has been exceptional since joining the team last month, and the Braves believe Jay Powell is going to be a dependable arm as well. And even when Sosa returns to his relief role, there’s still going to be a logjam, even with Gryboski gone.
Macay McBride may only be up for a while, but he’s got a chance to do what many of his teammates, and even his fellow Georgians, have done this year: make an impression. The Braves will see if McBride can be a second lefty in Bobby Cox’s bullpen. If he succeeds, they may not have to search for one on the trade market before July 31st. A successful stint might also increase his value, to the Braves and to other teams. But if he does well, who knows, he might be here for a decade.
Sure, if Roman Colon or even the hated Adam Bernero had not been sent down, they might have been brought up to replace Gryboski. But this is now a chance to see what McBride can do. Again, he might only get ten days to show what he can do, but that’s enough time to get on Cox’s good side.
Some people incorrectly report that McBride has struggled since going to the bullpen. But it’s just untrue. He was very successful last season after making the stretch, and this year, after getting a few starts in Mississippi, McBride returned to the pen and has been effective. In his last eight games, he’s allowed only four earned runs and struck out 15 in 11.1 innings of work.
It’s not out of the question that McBride could get an emergency start if Mike Hampton is unable to go this weekend. But the Braves primarily see him as a reliever.
So Thomson’s coming back in a few weeks, Kyle Davies, Adam Bernero, Jorge Vasquez, and Roman Colon are four pitchers that have been in Atlanta and are now in Richmond. Then you’ve got Anthony Lerew and Chuck James, two tremendous starting pitching prospects who just have to stand in line, plus a ton of other guys who would be higher ranked in another organization, and then there’s the other reliever.
Opinions are somewhat mixed on whether or not Joey Devine might contribute this season. The first round pick has been almost perfect this season, allowing no runs and only four hits in 13 innings in his 11 games. Devine has been tremendous, and now he’s got to be a serious option to join the bullpen in the next few weeks.
The difference in Devine compared to Boyer or McBride or the others is that he’s been a closer for several years. He knows the role, the responsibility, and the mindset. If he continues pitching as well as he has since he first put on a Braves uniform, he’s going to be in Atlanta very soon – somehow.
But of course, he’s got people to jump over to get into that bullpen, like Boyer and McBride, not to mention the four standing in line in Richmond.
This, folks, is ridiculous.
Never in the history of the Atlanta Braves has this organization been this deep. And the pitching is unbelievable. You look in the minor leagues and it doesn’t stop there either. On Wednesday, Lerew pitched another great game in Richmond, and Jairo Cuevas, one of the impressive arms on the first place Danville Braves’ roster, pitched six scoreless innings.
Then on Thursday, Jake Stevens rebounded from a tough start last week to go six scoreless innings, winning his sixth game of the season. Sergio Valenzuela, a lanky Mexican right-hander coming off Tommy John surgery, pitched six scoreless in the Gulf Coast League. And then Jang Ji Cho, the young Japanese pitcher signed last January, went six scoreless innings to help continue Danville’s roll.
And don’t think this is unusual. These types of nights, when the pitchers just dominate in the farm system, happen several times a week.
Finding a weakness in this organization right now is like searching for an ugly Dallas Cowboy cheerleader – it’s just not going to happen. The pitching is backed up like a Harry Potter book line at Barnes and Noble, with every single position stacked. At catcher there’s Johnny Estrada, with Brian McCann pulling at his heels, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia a few years away. At first, Adam LaRoche is becoming a star player, but yet you have power hitters James Jurries, Scott Thorman, and Mark Jurich right behind him.
Don’t you dare call second base a weakness. Yeah, there aren’t five great prospects behind Marcus Giles, but Martin Prado and J.C. Holt are both very heralded and Jonathan Schuerholz might be the next Pete Orr. Shortstop and third base are just ridiculous. Rafael Furcal has Wilson Betemit immediately behind him, and then Tony Pena, Jr., Luis Hernandez, Yunel Escobar, and Elvis Andrus also around. And we all know about the third base dilemma, but do you also know that in Van Pope and Eric Campbell the team has two legit long-term options at third as well, not to mention another “another Pete Orr” in Wes Timmons?
And the outfield, well with three rookies out there now, I think you could call it solid. But if something happens, there’s another long line of options, both short-term (Billy McCarthy, Josh Burrus, Steve Doetsch, and Matt Esquivel) and long-term (Brandon Jones, Jamie Romak, Jon Mark Owings, Adam Parliament, and Jordan Schafer) to keep in mind. But it’s not like we have Rowland Office and Brian Asselstine out there now.
It’s this depth that’s going to keep this team very good for a very long time.
Could the Braves use a “real” closer to join Chris Reitsma and Dan Kolb? Possibly, and there’s always a chance that John Schuerholz could make a trade. But when you’ve got a guy down in AA that has yet to give up a run in eleven games, you kind of wonder if you’ve struck gold. Devine may be pushed to the big leagues, but even if he’s not, there are still plenty of internal options that will be considered.
The depth is why Kevin Gryboski was traded Thursday. It allows the Braves to just push the mediocre types out the door and bring in solid arms, many of whom are developed and nurtured in a farm system that deserves tremendous accolades. Macay McBride will be the next young arm to get his chance, and if he does well, it’ll be another success story in a great book of them for this season. But if he doesn’t, there will definitely be one right behind him knocking loudly at the door.
And who knows, in a few years, that person might even be the young pitcher the Braves acquired Thursday for Gryboski. Given the Braves’ track record, he could be ready sooner than you think. But if he’s not, it might not matter anyway. Someone else will probably be ready by then too.
This is an assembly line of talent that may be unprecedented, and this is why the Braves are back where they belong as we check the standings this Friday morning.
Bill Shanks talks more about building depth in a baseball farm system in his new book "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team." To check Bill's book tour schedule, check this thread on the BravesCenter message board for more details. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.