Gwinnett will head into the 2010 season today with a healthy mix of veterans and youngsters. They have a bevy of live arms, particularly at the back end of the bullpen, and a versatile group of hitters that, for the most part, excel on defense.
Gwinnett's top starter from a year ago, right hander Todd Redmond, returns to lead the rotation. Despite his successes, he was named the Southern League's pitcher of the year in 08 and led Gwinnett in wins, innings, and strikeouts in 09, he was taken off of Atlanta's 40 man roster at the end of Spring Training. Redmond is an innings eater who is basically a finished product and will work to refine his game and hope for an opening on Atlanta's staff.
Right hander James Parr also returns, though he was only able to make 15 appearances between Gwinnett and Atlanta before his season ended with arm troubles. He was able to avoid major surgery, but his innings will likely be limited early in the season. Though he'll be in Gwinnett's rotation, his best chance in Atlanta is out of the bullpen. Lefhanded pitcher Jonny Venters also returns after an up and down season that saw him pitch well for Mississippi, 4-4 with a 2.76 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 12 starts, but inconsistently for Gwinnett, 4-7 with a 5.62 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in 17 starts. Despite though underwhelming numbers at the higher level, Venters nearly made the Major League team out of Spring Training as he wowed Bobby Cox with his sinker. Hopefully the confidence of the legendary skipper will lead to a fruitful 2010.
Right hander Ryne Reynoso pitched poorly in one late season start for Gwinnett in 09, but was solid over the course of the season for Mississippi, with a 7-9 record, 3.47 ERA, and 1.26 WHIP. An outfielder in college, Reynoso has made huge strides in his three professional seasons, with a surprisingly advanced feel for pitching and a willingness to pitch to contact that makes up for his less than impressive stuff. Rounding out the rotation is right hander Chris Resop, who returns to the Braves after spending the last year and a half playing in Japan. The converted outfielder throws a radar gun wowing fastabll, but throws it with little movement. Unfortunately his secondary pitches are underdeveloped and he's never been able to dominate at the higher levels. Resop has only started 2 games in his American professional career, but apparently was a starter in Japan, though his results weren't great. It will be interesting to see how long this experiment lasts.
Gwinnett will have some serious thunder coming out of the bullpen, beginning wiht closer Craig Kimbrel (above). Kimbrel has been dubbed "the right handed Billy Wagner" and that moniker is about as apt as possible. He's as small as the future Hall of Famer, with almost idential mechanics, aside from the arm being used, and similar results. He can dial it up in the high 90s, but lacks command with both his fastball and secondary pitches. If his control was better he likely would have broken camp with Atlanta. Still, regardless of how much his command progresses, Kimbrel's Major League deubt will come soon enough; an arm like his can't be kept in the minors for too long.
Setting up Kimbrel will be sidearming right hander Cory Gearrin. Despite overwhelming hitters, combining for a 2.30 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 47 games between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, he was held down at the lower level for most of the year due to a numbers crunch at the higher levels. Though he wasn't even an official invitee to Major League Spring Training, Gearrin nonetheless managed to impress manager Bobby Cox, who continually called on him to join the Altanta squad on roadtrips. Like most sidearmers, Gearrin gets the majority of his outs on groundballs, and though his strikeout numbers declined last year, down to 8.6 K/9 after collecting 14.1 K/9 in 08, he showed a level of control he'd never found before, walking just 1.8 per 9 compared to 7 per in 08.
Right hander Jeff Lyman also made an impression on Cox during Spring Training and after some forgettable years as a starter he seems to have found his nitche in the bullpen. Splitting the year between Mississipi and Gwinnett, he had the best season of his career in 09, with a 5-9 record, 3.32 ERA, and 1.37 WHIP. Left hander Mike Dunn, acquired from the Yankees in the Javier Vazquez trade, also split last year between AA and AAA, with a 4-3 record, a 3.31 ERA, and 1.42 WHIP. Also orignially a starter, Dunn has picked up several miles an hour on his fastball, and more bite on his breaking pitches since moving to the pen. He made his Major League debut last season, appearning in 4 games for the World Champions, and will likely spend some time in Atlanta's pen before 2010 is done.
A pair of vets, righ Scott Proctor and lefty Mariano Gomez will aid the youngsters. Proctor missed all of 2009 recovering from Tommy John surgery and likely would have made Altanta's roster out of Spring Training if they had been more convinced that he could be relied on to pitch on back to back days. He has a been a top flight reliever in the Majors, even leading the American League in appearances in 06. His stay in Gwinnett will be as short as his recovery requires it to be. Gomez, who is entering his 11th professional season, has been getting better each year, as he utilized the leverage from his 6'6" frame to post a 8-4 record, 1.99 ERA, and 1.11 WHIP in 47 games for Gwinnett last season. He isn't overpowering but he's been highly effective as a left hander out of the bullpen.
Rounding out the bullpen is lefty Tim Gustafson. After missing most of the 2008 season with Tommy John surgery, Gustafson pitched for Rome, Myrtle Beach, and Mississippi last season, coming on strong at AA toward the end of the year with a 2-3 record, 3.79 ERA, and 1.44 WHIP in 7 games (5 starts). He relies on guts and guile to get outs, so it will be interesting to see how he performs as a swingman out of the pen. Veteran Vladimir Nunez, entering his 15th professional season with 254 Major League games on his resume, including 24 with Atlanta the last 2 years, will start the year on the disabled list, but will be an important part of the pen upon his return.
Clint Sammons returns to Gwinnett for his third AAA season. Sammons is one of the top defensive catchers in the game, but his offense lags far behind. In 161 AAA games, he's hit just .225 with a .609 OPS. He is the very definition of a backup catcher and will get his at bats in Gwinnett, keeping ready in case he is needed because of an injury to Brian McCann or David Ross. JC Boscan is even more of a career backup than Sammons, having not been a regular starter in over a decade. 2010 will be his 14th season in professional baseball and the 8th that he's spent a part of the year at AAA. All but 2 of his years in the game have been with the Braves and the organization has come to have a deep respect for his leadership and knowledge.
Freddie Freeman (above) will be Gwinnett's main attraction as Atlanta's future first baseman will work to hone his game at AAA for the first time. With the ascension of right fielder Jason Heyward to Atlanta Freeman assumes the title of the Braves' top prospect. And despite the phantom knocks on his game, he's earned it. He is a superior defender at first, fully capable of one day winning multiple Gold Glove award, and has an advanced approach at the plate, choking up on the bat giving him solid control to spray line drives. He has emerging power and a good eye at the plate, working a .356 on base percentage for his career. To give some perspective, when Chipper Jones turned 20 years old early in the 1992 season he was playing for High A Durham in a season that he would split between there and AA Greenville. He would hit 13 home runs, bringing his career total to 29, a number that doesn't top the 32 Freeman has going into his 20 year old season. Brian McCann was similarly bested as the same ages, accounting for just 14 homers and an OBP that hovered just above .300. So for those who are concerned about Freeman's power, it may be time to find some other aspect of his game to question.
Manning shortstop for the G-Braves will be Brandon Hicks, who earned the promotion to AAA based off of a good Arizona Fall League and Spring Training. The right handed hitter had a down year with Mississippi in 09, as his average stayed in the gutter for the second straigh season, hitting just .237 after hitting .235 in 08 with Myrtle Beach. Additionally, his power left him, as he slugged just .373 with Mississippi and saw his OPS drop .110 points from the year before, all the way down to .692. He also continued to strike out too much, whiffing 131 times last year, good for 25% of his plate appearances. Of course, that was an improvement over the year before, where he struck out in 30% of his plate appearances. Hicks will need to make more contact at AAA, both raising his average and regainining his slugging. Fortunately, even when he struggles with the bat he is an outstanding defender and he may see some time aroudnd the diamond at second and third base to make himself more attractive as a Major League option.
Veterans Joe Thurston and Wes Timmons look to take the bulk of the at bats at second and third base respectively. The left handed hitting Thurston, entering his 12th professional season, joins the Braves after spending all of 09 on St. Louis' bench, hitting .225 while filling in at second, third, and in the oufield. While he'll see the bulk of his time at second, he's sure to start some games at third. Timmons, coming off his best professional season in 09, where he hit .283 with a .782 OPS, comes back to Gwinnett to start his 5th straight season at AAA for the Braves. He is an outstanding defensive third baseman who can also fill in at every other position on the infield. Timmons is the unquestioned heart and soul of the Gwinnett team and while his offensvie and defensive contributions are more than adequate, his true value to the team can't be measured on a stat sheet.
Rounding out the infield will be JC Holt and Barbaro Canizares. Holt hasn't been overly impressive at AAA, collecting a .270 average and .673 OPS in 120 games over 3 seasons, and while he'll definitely start some games at second base he'll also spend some time in the outfield, hoping to shape himself into a utility player. Canizares, who was a AAA All-Star in 09 in addition to making his Major League debut, falls on the depth chart due to Freeman's surprise assignement to Gwinnett. Canizares is limited to playing first base, and even there he's bulky and awkward, so the majority of his at bats will come as a DH in games where the team is playing an American League affiliate. Fortunately, he's a competent hitter, who can pound the ball for a high average and slugging percentage. Diory Hernandez begins the year on Atlanta's disabled list and when his ankle heals, likely around mid-season, he'll join Gwinnett's infield, playing second, short, and third.
The diminutive Matt Young (above) returns to Gwinnett after a late season 7 game debut there last year. He spent most of 09 with Mississippi, putting up another great year that saw him get on base at a .421 clip. After spending parts of 4 seasons with Mississippi the left handed hitter owns a fair share of the team's career hitting records. Young is speedy, stealing a total of 43 bases last year, and despite a weak arm, he's an above average defender in both left and center field. He can also play second; ironically enough, back in 2005 he was converted to the outfield to facilitate JC Holt's transition from the outfield to second. Now, years later, Young is the one who has some standing in the organization.
Gregor Blanco returns to Gwinnett for his 4th AAA season after a poor year in 09 that saw him hit just .228 with a .605 OPS in 90 games for the G-Braves and hit .198 with a .488 OPS in 24 games for Atlanta. He has little to no power but is adept at getting on base through walks and bunting. Blanco is a more than capable defender at all three outfield positions and he and Young will likely share duties between left and center field, with Blanco getting the majority of time in center.
Rounding out the outfield are a pair of AAA vets, Mitch Jones and Brent Clevlen. Jones made his Major League debut last year with the Dodgers, in his 10th season in professional baseball. He is a polished, veteran hitter, with a .270 average and .905 OPS in 5 AAA seasons with the Dodgers and Yankees. The right handed batter should be a force in the middle of Gwinnett's lineup while playing mostly right field as well as filling in in left field and at first base. Between 06 and 08 Clevelen played 55 games for the Tigers in the Majors, hitting .233 with a .707 OPS in 80 plate appearances. He's had a bit more success playing AAA for Toledo the last 3 years, hitting .259 with a .774 OPS as a Mudhen. The right handed hitter is an above average defender at all three outfield positions and while there will certainly be some kind of outfield rotation that allows all four players at bats, Clevlen will likely be the man on the bench most of the time.
There's no telling when his wrist will be healed enough to allow him to resume his career, but eventually Gwinnett's outfield will be bolstered by the return of Jordan Schafer. He will take the bulk of playing time in center field when he comes back and will likely cause one of the other outfielders to lose his job.
Gwinnett's starting staff isn't overpowering but it has enough AAA experience and pitching savvy to believe that the pitchers will be able to go deep into games and keep the other team off the scoreboard enough to allow the versatile lineup, which has both power and speed, to win games. The offense looks solid from top to bottom and has enough players with positional versatility to think that the team can withstand both injury and promotions to Atlanta. It's nearly impossible to predict how a AAA season will turn out, given that the team that starts the year in Gwinnett won't be the team that's there at the All-Star break, much less the team that ends the year, and the International League's Southern Division is always strong with perennial contender Durham, but the 2010 Gwinnett Braves look poised to contend and win a bunch of games.
- CF Gregor Blanco
- LF Matt Young
- 1B Freddie Freeman
- RF Mitch Jones
- DH Barbaro Canizares
- 2B Joe Thurston
- SS Brandon Hicks
- 3B Wes Timmons
- C Clint Sammons
- James Parr
- Chris Resop
- Todd Redmond
- Ryne Reynoso
- Jonny Venters
It'd be easy to chose one of the top prospects like Freeman or Kimbrel for breakout peformer, but that we're going to pick Jonny Venters. Coming off of a big spring that saw him impress Bobby Cox and show the flashes of brilliance, Venters finally has had enough time to fully recover from his arm surgery and should be able to utilize his sinker to put up some impressive numbers for Gwinnett and make his Major League debut later on in the season.