Braves' General Manager Frank Wren is in somewhat of a quandary. He knows he has young talent on the way, talent that could help his club win. But the trick is getting to that talent and hoping it won't take long to get to the big leagues to help the Braves win.
Every year the Braves have contributions from its farm system, and next season should be no different. Let's take a look at some of the options, position by position:
Jo Jo Reyes - The lefty was called up last season, a little earlier than originally expected. While he definitely had some bumps in the road, Reyes made quite an impression on Braves' Manager Bobby Cox and his staff. If Reyes goes to camp in March and proves he's ready, he could easily stick as the fifth starter. The Braves believe Reyes could be a solid number two or three starter in the big leagues, but the trick will be not to rush him before he's ready to stick for good. He might take a little more time in Triple-A, but then again he might be ready to go on Opening Day. Expect the Braves to be careful, but expect Reyes to push the issue.
Jair Jurrjens - Acquired from the Tigers in the Edgar Renteria trade, Jurrjens needs to let the Braves see him in an Atlanta uniform before they know for sure how close he is to being ready to stick. Jurrjens made seven starts late in the season for the Tigers and gave plenty of people the impression that he might be ready to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. People are underestimating Jurrjens because his name is not Jeremy Bonderman or Noah Lowry, two pitchers many believed would be acquired for Renteria. But he's a very impressive pitcher with outstanding stuff who will probably contribute to the Braves at some point next season.
Dan Smith - The lefty struggled a bit in Richmond last season, but he's still got very interesting stuff. Smith had control troubles, which was unusual considering his history. Smith's overall numbers (7-8, 3.71, 98 hits allowed in 114 innings) were still pretty good, and he'll probably get a look as a non-roster player in March if he's not taken in the Rule V Draft. Smith might be the biggest candidate to be selected off the list of Braves' players eligible.
Francisley Bueno – The Cuban lefty had some pretty good numbers last season split between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Richmond. He's got decent stuff across the board, and a spring training invite is likely. He'll probably start the season in the Richmond rotation, but don't count Bueno out if a starter is needed in Atlanta later in the season.
Jeff Bennett - Since he spent most of 2007 in the Atlanta system, former Brewers' reliever Jeff Bennett must still be considered a prospect. He's out of options, and Bennett will be given a full chance to be Atlanta's long reliever, with an outside chance as the fifth starter. Bennett is doing well (3-2, 2.31 ERA) in Venezuela this winter, which will increase his chances of contributing in 2008.
Charlie Morton - The pitcher that has turned the corner. The Braves are thrilled that Morton took off late in the season and did not look back. Morton got some starts in August in Mississippi, prompting the Braves to send him to the Arizona Fall League. The tall right-hander was 4-1 with a 2.57 ERA, 20 strikeouts and only eight walks in 21 innings. Morton had a five-inning no-hitter in his last appearance, with Wren, Cox, and Roger McDowell watching him. He's now being mentioned as someone who could go to Richmond to start the season and be on-call if needed in Atlanta later on in the summer. Morton looks like Adam Wainwright, and his curveball is making the Braves wonder if he could be another Adam Wainwright. Either way, Charlie Morton is now on the Braves' radar as an option for the upcoming season.
Cole Rohrbough - He's the Braves' best pitching prospect, and while it might surprise you he's listed with this group Rohrbough's performance in his first pro season warrants him as an outside candidate for 2008. The lefty was 10-3 with a 1.34 ERA in 17 games in junior college. He had 132 strikeouts in 99 innings pitched and allowed only 64 hits. Then Rohrbough blew through Danville and was outstanding in Rome when he got into the organization (5-2 overall with a 1.17 ERA in 14 games, 33 hits allowed in 61.1 innings, 20 walks, and 96 strikeouts). So his overall stats in 2007, between JUCO ball and pro ball: 15-5, 1.52 ERA, 97 hits allowed in 160.1 innings, 27 earned runs, 46 walks, and 228 strikeouts. Don't count this kid out. He might make a Steve Avery-like bolt to the big leagues if he continues to dominate.
Royce Ring - He's out of options and he impressed in Atlanta late in the season, so Ring has a great shot at winning one of the last spots in the bullpen. Acquired from the Padres for Will Startup and Wil Ledezma, Ring held lefty hitters to a .158 average in Richmond, and his Atlanta numbers were solid: 0.00 ERA in 11 games. Royce Ring could have the biggest impact of Braves' prospects next season with a significant role in the Atlanta bullpen.
Blaine Boyer - He's out of options, and the Braves still like Blaine Boyer a great deal. So if he's not traded this winter Boyer will get an excellent shot at winning a job. His arm bounced back nicely last season after missing most of 2006 with the surgery, so Boyer's now at a crossroads in his Braves' career, especially with the options situation. Boyer is still thought of as a major league reliever, so if he has a good spring he will grab one of the Braves' spots in the bullpen.
Manny Acosta - What an impression this hard-throwing right-hander made when he was called up to Atlanta in early August. Acosta was 1-1 with a 2.28 ERA in 21 games, with 22 strikeouts in 23.2 innings pitched. He was equally good before that in Triple-A Richmond. So now Acosta could almost be looked upon as a favorite to be a significant piece of the Braves' bullpen. He's not hurting his chances with an outstanding performance so far in the Mexican Winter League (1-1, 2.61 ERA in nine games, one walk, and 11 strikeouts in 10.1 innings. Wonder if scouts will call about Acosta next week in Nashville?
Joey Devine - He is not out of options, but there is no doubt that Joey Devine needs to win a job and stay in the big leagues. Devine was great in the minors this season (5-4, 1.89 ERA in 50 games, 78 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 57 innings pitched) and in between his fifteen trips back and to from Atlanta he pitched pretty darn well in ten big league games (1-0, 1.08 ERA). The kid has proven that when healthy, he's good, so Devine will need to show Bobby Cox that there are no lingering effects from his shaky big league start a few years ago.
Jose Ascanio - The right-hander's numbers in Atlanta were not great (5.06 ERA in 13games), but Ascanio made a strong impression. He probably needs another year in the minors, since he jumped right from AA to the big leagues. Ascanio's numbers in Mississippi were outstanding: 2.54 ERA in 44 games, 66 hits in 78 innings, 18 walks, and 71 strikeouts. Ascanio throws gas, and he's a legit candidate to get some time in the Atlanta bullpen sometime during the season.
Phil Stockman - The Australian was sidelined for part of the season with a lingering injury, so he was not able to get any time in the big leagues. But the Braves still like Stockman a great deal, and if he's healthy he will get a chance next March.
Zach Schreiber - The former Duke reliever was placed on the 40-man roster a few weeks ago, which tells you how much of a prospect Schreiber has become in the last few years. Here are his combined numbers this past season (Mississippi and Richmond): 4-6, 2.31 ERA in 58 games, 51 hits allowed in 78 innings, 33 walks, 76 strikeouts. That convinced the Braves Schreiber deserved to be protected on the 40-man roster. Schreiber now has a great chance of seeing action in Atlanta next season and will compete for a job in spring training.
Kris Medlen - The numbers for Kris Medlen simply do not make any sense. Here's a five-foot-ten pitcher who was mainly a shortstop in junior college, and all of a sudden he's a pitcher that is going to knock on the door of the big leagues really soon. Medlen pitched in 38 games last season and here were his numbers: 1.53 ERA, 39 hits allowed in 47 innings, 12 walks, and 63 strikeouts. Incredible! Then he went to the Hawaiian League and pitched in 11 games. Medlen posted 27, yes 27 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. Contrary to reports, Medlen did not have elbow trouble in Hawaii. He ended a little early for a tired (or dead) arm, but there was absolutely no injury. This kid just blows people away, and he's got a chance to start out in AA in 2008 and then, well who knows. But don't forget about him at all.
Sung Ki Jung - Four years ago Jung helped Rome win the Sally League title. Then he had to go into the South Korean army and did not return until this past season. Jung picked up where he left off, posting a 1.30 ERA between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi. Now you have to consider him a prospect. Jung has filthy stuff, and he did well in the Arizona Fall League to show everyone that he is no longer a soldier, but once again a pitcher. If he goes back to Mississippi and does well, Jung will be an option to go to Atlanta.
Clint Sammons - Here's the best candidate to back up Brian McCann in Atlanta next season. Sure, the Braves may bring in another veteran, but Clint Sammons is already tempting the team to put him on the roster. They know he can play defensively in the big leagues today. Offensively, he still needs some work. But again, as the backup, the biggest asset is defense and Sammons has that down. Sammons will probably go to camp and compete with Corky Miller (again) and another similar type veteran. Don't be shocked if Sammons wows Bobby Cox with his defense and wins the job.
Brayan Pena - The catcher who can't catch. Pena has defensive problems behind the plate, and that's why the Braves moved him around a bit to get him more versatility. He's a hitting fool, with an average close to .300 right now in the Dominican Winter League. Pena will have to go to camp and compete for a reserve role, with the ability to play first, third, the outfield, and as the third catcher.
Martin Prado - This kid is really finished with his minor league career, or at least he should be finished. Prado hit .316 in Richmond last season. He has hit close to .300 in every year of his minor league career. He can play second and third, so the Braves might give him a chance to be a reserve behind Kelly Johnson and Chipper Jones. However, if they bring in a veteran (as expected), Prado might be kicked out of the picture. Might the Braves trade Prado? We'll see.
Brent Lillibridge - Is the former Pirates' prospect ready? Well Lillibridge's numbers improved when he got up to Richmond, so that leads you to really wonder if he is, in fact, ready for the big leagues. His wrist injury will keep him from playing winter ball, which could lessen his chances of being in the centerfield derby next March. But with the ability to play second, short, and the outfield Lillibridge has a great chance at being on the Atlanta roster at some point next season. His speed (42 steals in 2007) brings something to the table that no one else can provide.
Brandon Jones - It looks like the Braves are ready to give Jones a chance to be in a platoon with Matt Diaz. Jones had 100 RBI in his minor league season, and like Lillibridge he seemed to get even better at the higher level in Triple-A. Jones is playing in the Mexican League right now and doing well, so unless he's traded expect Jones to be apart of the roster next season. How good is Jones? Well he could be another Reggie Sanders-type player, and the Braves may finally find an answer for left field, which has had a revolving door this entire decade.
Gregor Blanco - Frank Wren has started to mention Blanco as a dark horse for the centerfield competition. But if the Braves were so high on him, why wasn't Blanco called up in September? He had a good season in Richmond (.282, 23 stolen bases), but his limit may be as a fourth outfielder. And then again, perhaps Wren was talking about him to trade him.
Jordan Schafer - We've saved the best for last. Jordan Schafer is the Braves future centerfielder. It's just a matter of when and not if he'll get the job. Could he be ready at the end of spring training, even with no time above High-A? Well possibly, but it's unlikely. Chances are the Braves will want him to see just a little bit of time in Double-A Mississippi. But this kid has answered every challenge put in front of him in the last fourteen months. Could he be ready to take that next step? This will be the most compelling story of spring training. Schafer has all the ingredients to be a star, and the Braves can't wait for him to get to the big leagues.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Braves Show's Bill Shanks talks about centerfield…