Lynchburg Hillcats 2011 Season Preview

Arodys Vizcaino looks to pick up where he left off in 2010.

The 2011 season sees the Braves move their current longest tenured minor league affiliate from Myrtle Beach to Lynchburg. The Hillcats will still be in the Carolina League and Myrtle Beach will become an affiliate of the Texas Rangers. Luis Salazar, who was hit in the eye by a foul ball off the bat of Brian McCann, will be the manager for the Hillcats though he won't be taking the reigns until April 15. Rick Albert will serve as the interim manager until then. The 2011 Hillcats roster should provide a lot of information about the Braves farm system since it is stocked with a bunch of 2010 draftees and a few guys who have something to prove.

Rotation
We may not know who the actual starters will be until about a month into the season because of the tandem starter system that the Braves use in the lower levels, but that won't stop me from making a few assumptions. Arodys Vizcaino is without a doubt the biggest name on this team. The buzz out of spring training had him hitting 101 on multiple scouts radar guns and feeling no discomfort in his elbow. Vizcaino dominated the Sally League and was adjusting to the Carolina league last season when he was shut down for a couple of months with elbow discomfort. He returned late in the year only to be shut down again. Word on the street is that he has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament (the Tommy John ligament) and at some point he is probably going to have surgery on it. Right now he is throwing gas and he will be the ace of this staff until he is promoted or his arm explodes. 

From there the Hillcats will use Cory Rasmus, Willie Kempf, Dimaster Delgado, Zeke Spruill and maybe some Chris Masters and Matt Crim for some soft tossing lefty flavor.

Rasmus was a nice story last year coming back from a couple years worth of injuries and putting up solid numbers between Rome and Myrtle Beach. He is no longer the fireballer the Braves drafted way back in 2005, but he knows how to pitch and a good start to the season would get him a call to Mississippi and just a step away from Atlanta. Willie Kempf dominated three levels of play after being drafted out of Baylor last season. He features average stuff that he compliments with excellent command. His biggest strength is his ability to generate groundballs.

Dimaster Delgado returns to action after missing all of last season when he broke his leg in a car accident. He features above average stuff from the left side, but it is hard to say what he will bring to the table after a year off and such a bad injury. Zeke Spruill has had his ups and downs with the organization on and off the field. 2010 was a terrible year for him on the diamond and he will return to the Carolina League in an attempt to regain his form. His heavy sinking fastball can be a real weapon for him but only if he can get everything straightened out.

Chris Masters and Matt Crim are a couple of soft tossing lefties who will most likely see some time in both the bullpen and the rotation. Masters started 2010 hot but faded as the year wore on. Crim was the 2009 Appalachian League Pitcher of the year and jumped straight to the Carolina League in 2010 where he walked a lot of guys, didn't strike anyone out and gave up a lot of hits. Now he is back there. 

Bullpen
The 'pen could be a real strength for the Hillcats featuring several live arms highlighted by David Hale. Hale was drafted in 2009 and many predicted he would be a late inning reliever in professional baseball. The Braves disagreed and sent him to Rome to start where he failed miserably until they decided to try him as a closer where he dominated posting a 2.16 ERA out of the bullpen. He has a mid 90s fastball that he compliments with a hard slider and the occasional change-up.

Andrew Wilson, Yeliar Castro, Chad Rodgers and Jason Lowey will fill out the rest of the bullpen. Wilson fills the role of bullpen-double-play-induction-specialist with his heavy fastball that generated a 1.88 groundout rate last season. Castro is the long reliever who throws gas without a lot of control. He struck out 60 in 59.1 innings last season and allowed just 45 hits but walked 36. Chad Rodgers missed most of 2009 and part of 2010 due to injuries but came back and had a respectable season in 33 appearances in 2010. He maintained a solid K rate (37 in 45 innings) but surrendered a lot of walks and hits leading to a 4.73 ERA. He will be your lefty specialist out of the 'pen. I will admit I don't know much about Jason Lowey but he did strike out 16 men in 8 innings while allowing just 5 hits last season. He is already 26 but you never know, maybe he is the next Brandon Beachy? Angelo Paulino and Thomas Berryhill will both be big parts of the bullpen this season but will start the year on the DL. 

Catcher
Braeden Schlehuber
and Cory Brownsten will man the backstop for the Braves. Two years ago I was high Schlehuber coming into Rome, but after two seasons of sub .600 OPSs in Rome I don't think his bat is going to take off. He flashed a little power in 2009, but his terrible plate discipline means the chances for improvement are small. Brownsten on the other hand is a solid defender behind the dish and posted an .833 OPS in the GCL last season with an excellent 16/11 BB/K ratio. He was old for the league, but even average offensive production from a catcher would be a bonus in the Braves farm system. 

Infield
The Hillcats infield will be nearly all 2010 draftees with Joe Leonard, Andrelton Simmons, Joey Terdoslavich, Philip Gosselin who will be supplemented by Matthew Weaver and Riaan Spanjer-Furstenburg (AKA RSF). Leonard is a personal favorite of mine though with no real reason. He had a monster season at Pitt in 2010 and the Braves took the third baseman in in the third round and he had a solid if unspectacular debut with Rome posting a combined .270/.310/.439 line between two levels. His elbow ailed him at the end of the season sapping some of his power and his ability to play the field, but he should be good to for 2011. Andrelton Simmons has gold glove potential at shortstop where he has an arm that reached 98 MPH off the mound in college. He posted a .695 OPS in Danville last year, but flashed excellent speed with 18 steals in 22 attempts along with a solid eye and good contact skills (16 BB vs 14 K in 239 AB). The Braves are showing a lot of confidence in him by skipping Rome altogether.

Joey Terdoslavich is supposed to have a lot of power in his bat though it didn't show much in his first season. He did show the ability to hit for a solid average with some doubles power and even a few walks tossed in. He will split time between first, third and DH for the Hillcats. Of all 2010 hitters the Braves drafted Philip Gosselin probably had the best debut with a .767 OPS for Rome including a .374 OBP. He did strike out 51 times in 250 ABs so he has some work to do there, especially if he will be leading off. He plays a solid second base and shows good instincts in the field, at the plate and on the basepaths.

RSF won the 2009 Appalachian League Hitter of the Year Award but failed to repeat that .953 OPS with Rome after injuring himself in the first game of the season and never regained his form after returning from injury posting just a .690 OPS with very little power. He will share time at first and DH with Terdoslavich. Matt Weaver started 2010 hitting below .250 for much of the season before improving in July with a .728 OPS then exploding in August with a .900+ OPS. Was it a fluke or did he make some adjustment that helped him barrel the ball better? I have no clue. His peripherals didn't change much (his walk rate remained consistent with other months at a poor 4.1% and his K rate was in line as well). He did hit a bunch of doubles and all of his home runs in the second half so he was most likely hitting the ball harder. Weaver is listed as a second baseman but played a lot of right field late in the season so look for him to split time in Lynchburg as well

Outfield
Todd Cunningham
, Adam Milligan, Robby Hefflinger
and L.V. Ware will make up the outfield for the Hillcats. Cunningham was the Braves second pick in 2010 out of Jacksonville State. He had a mediocre debut with Rome posting a .679 OPS. He is a smart player who has above average contact ability and a solid eye at the plate. He isn't going to hit a lot of home runs, but that is not his game. He can play all over the diamond and don't be surprised if he plays some shortstop, third or second this year. Milligan is one of the biggest enigmas in the system. He exploded onto the prospect scene in 2009 by posting .985 OPS between three levels. He started 2010 in Myrtle Beach but hurt his shoulder and ended up missing most of the year. Milligan is one of the few true power threats in the organization and could be a big mover in the prospect world if he returns to his 2009 form.

Robby Hefflinger is a bit of a poor man's Adam Milligan: he has a lot of raw natural power but contact skills weak enough that he can't display that power regularly. His .678 OPS in Rome wasn't much to write home about, however that is about the norm there last year. L. V. Ware ( AKA CB's boy) keeps a blog chronicling his journey through the baseball world here. You should check it out. He doesn't have a lot of pop, but he plays an excellent center field and he has good speed (30 SB last season though with 12 CS). Look for him to fill the gaps in the outfield during the season.

Summary
Five of the Braves first 7 draft picks from 2010 are on the roster for the Hillcats and all of them are hitters. That shows both the Braves focus on hitters and college talent from last year in order to supplement the wealth of pitching the system has. The infield defense will be a huge strength for this team with Brownsten, Leonard, Simmons and Gosselin all grading out as average to above average with the glove. The bullpen could also be a strength with a good mix of live arms and ground ball pitchers. The front of the rotation has a chance to be very good with Vizcaino as the main show followed by Kempf and Rasmus (who has already succeeded at this level). The offense will be the wild card. We still don't know what we have with some of these college guys and Milligan didn't blow the doors off the Carolina League in his brief stint there last season. There is a lot of potential here but if the lineup doesn't click then they could end up being just mediocre. 

Projected Lineup

  1. Phil Gosselin 2B
  2. Andrelton Simmons SS
  3. Joe Leonard 3B
  4. Adam Milligan LF
  5. Joey Terdoslavich DH/1B
  6. RSF 1B/DH
  7. Todd Cunningham CF
  8. Cory Brownsten C
  9. Robby Hefflinger RF
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