Gwinnett Braves 2011 Season Preview

Look at that smile! He knows he is going to dominate AAA hitters too.

As with most any AAA roster, Gwinnett is a holding zone for the 15 plus guys on the 40 man roster not lucky enough to make it to Atlanta on opening day and a bunch of other veteran minor leaguers who can't quite crack Major League rosters. The only prospects that are usually found in AAA are guys who are just about ready to contribute in the Show and just some innings against advanced competition to polish the rough spots. In this case the only real 'prospects' playing in Gwinnett will be Mike Minor (assuming he returns to when Jurrjens comes off the DL) and Julio Teheran (somewhat surprisingly). That's not to say there aren't some interesting guys on the team (young and old).

Starting Rotation
As with most of the Braves minor league teams the rotation will be the strength of the team. Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Todd Redmond, Rodrigo Lopez, Jacob Thompson, Yohan Flande and Eirc Cordier (currently on the DL) will be the guys making starts for the Braves this season. The big story is, of course, Julio Teheran. I didn't expect him to be in Gwinnett but the Braves believer in him and he certainly has the stuff to succeed no matter where he starts. In case you have missed it Teheran was universally praised at a top 5 prospect in all of baseball after his breakout campaign in 2010 where he posted a 2.59 ERA in 140 innings with 159 K across three levels of play.

Minor starts the season in Atlanta but will most likely move back to Gwinnett to once (if) Jair Jurrjens comes back from his current injury. Minor had a coming out party last year when he found some extra velocity that sent prospect gurus scrambling to reevaluate his ceiling. He was originally considered a safe pick when the Braves drafted him but when he struck out 146 in just 120 innings while giving up just 93 hits he went from being a probable #4 guy to a possible #2. Todd Redmond continues to be a very solid AAA pitcher. He doesn't get a lot of publicity but he posted some good rate stats last year: 8.6 H/9, 7.9 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. Nothing he does blows you away but he is going to give the team a chance to win just about every time out.

Rodrigo Lopez opened some eyes in spring training after pitching 200 fairly terrible innings for Arizona last season. Lopez is a fly-ball pitcher who doesn't strike out many batters and gives up way too many hits. But he appeared to be renewed in spring training and Gwinnett could catch lightning in a bottle. Jacob Thompson posted a 4.72 ERA in 131.2 innings while allowing 163 hits, 45 walks and striking out just 87. Suffice to say it was not a good year for him. Luckily for Jake he has a very good sinker that produced an outstanding 2.02 ground-ball rate last season. With a better defense behind him in Gwinnett he could see his fortunes improve immensely. Eric Cordier will start the year injured which is par for the course for him. He missed most of 2007-2008 with shoulder injuries but has come back strong the last two season. His fastball still can get into the upper 90s but his secondary stuff needs work and he walks too many batters. If he can get his offspeed stuff under control the could still make it as a starter. Yohan Flande was a former Phillies prospect who actually appeared in the 2009 Futures Game when he dominated the Florida State League in the first half of the season. Since then he has apparently lost the ability to strike out hitters (117 in 150 IP in 2009, 84K in 158 innings in 2010). Flande carries all the signs of the crafty lefty hurler. He gets enough ground-balls to be effective but the lack of Ks will always be worrisome. 

Cory Gearrin
, Stephen Marek
and Jairo Asencio (formerly Luis Valdez) will be the stars of the bullpen this season. Gearrin is the resident ground-ball specialist (a 2.66 GB rate in 2010). He is a career bullpen pitcher in the minors (something the Braves excel at doing) and in 2010 he posted a 3.36 ERA in 80 innings (52 appearances) to go along with 32 BB and 66 K. As long as the walks don't get out of control he should improve on those numbers this year. Stephen Marek looked washed up in 2009 when he compiled a 6.00 ERA between Mississippi and Gwinnett. HE started 2010 without allowing a run in 13 innings for Mississippi before being promoted to Gwinnett where he maintained his momentum and finished the year with a combined line of 1.14 ERA, 63.1 innings, 45 hits, 20 walks and 74 K. Marek could be the first guy called if anyone in the Atlanta bullpen falters. Jairo Ascencio returns to the states after a year of visa troubles kept him out of the country. He has long been considered a future bullpen anchor in Atlanta after making All Star appearances as a closer in the Southern and International Leagues in 2008 and 2009. He pitched well in spring training, but we will have to wait and see how he returns from a year off. 

Anthony Varvaro, Jay Sborz, Jose Lugo, and Scott Proctor will round out the rest of the pen. Proctor made his bid for a bullpen spot in Atlanta in spring training, but he was sent to Gwinnett to get his stuff together. I think Joe Torre broke him personally. Varvaro was a former Mariners prospect who gets a lot of strike outs but walks a bunch as well. He pitched little better than his ERA would indicate last year so he might be coming around. Sborz is pretty similar to Varvaro except he came from Detroit. Sborz appeared in 43 games last season while pitching just 43.2 innings. 

J.C. Boscan
and Wilkin Castillo will share the catching duties in 2011 while Shawn McGill starts the season on the DL. Boscan is a classic minor league journeyman. To give you an idea of how long he has been around Boscan made his first appearance with the Richmond Braves in 2002. He doesn't hit much (.692 OPS in 2010 which was his highest since 2001), but provides solid defense and veteran leadership. Wilkin Castillo will split time with Boscan behind the plate and the Braves shouldn't see much a difference when he does. Castillo is just a little better at the dish with career minor league OPS of .702. He provides a little power but almost no ability to take a walk. He also has the ability to play multiple positions on the field having appeared at every position except CF and SS over the last two season. McGill is a former Independent league player who can take a walk and hit for a little power but can't throw out a baserunner. I have no timetable on his return. 

Manning the infield for Giwnnett will be Barbaro Canizares, Ed Lucas, Diory Hernandez, Dan Nelson, Mauro Gomez and Shawn Bowman. Canizares will reprise his role as Mayor and DH. He made his third consecutive International League All Star appearance in 2010 on the back of .341 average and .907 OPS. He doesn't provide a whole lot of power (13, 12 & 13 HR 2008-10) but he hits a lot of line drives without striking out much. Canizares was released by the Braves on April 3. A sad day for everyone. Mauro Gomez will man first and is Canizares' antithesis at the plate. He hits for good power (42 doubles and 16 homers in AA last year) but strikes out a lot with a low average. 

Diory Hernandez has been around a while and has always flashed glimpses of greater potential. He posted an .821 OPS in Gwinnett in 2009 but missed parts of that season and 2010 with injuries. He is athletic enough to play anywhere in the infield but he isn't really adept at any position. Ed Lucas made a strong bid in the spring to be the Braves utility infielder and I wouldn't be surprised if he made it to Atlanta in that role at some point in 2011. He can play anywhere on the infield and has spent time at all the OF positions in his minor league career. He produced an .878 OPS in 2010 for Omaha showings solid power (13 HR in 352 AB) and good plate discipline (52 BB). 

Dan Nelson played for 5 different teams in 3 leagues in 2010. Like Lucas he can play all over the infield and will take some walks and he'll run into one every now and then. Shawn Bowman hit 22 home runs in the Eastern League last season but you would have to go back to 2005 to find the last time he broke 10. What was it about last season that helped him find his power stroke again? I have no clue but he will man third for Gwinnett and 2011 and hopefully provide some of that power for the middle of the order. 

Jordan Schafer
, Willie Cabrera, Jose Costanza, Joe Mather
and Wilkin Ramirez will all split time in the outfield in 2011. Schafer's woes have been well Chronicled here at Talking Chop. He is finally healthy and will get another chance to prove that 2007 and 2008 were the real Jordan Schafer and not the aberrations. Willie Cabrera is a personal favorite of mine (as you hopefully know) but really a non prospect. He spent most of 2010 hitting above .320 with a lot of doubles in Mississippi but got out of rhythm after a callup to Gwinnett late in the season. Wilkin Ramirez was picked up from Detroit last season for basically nothing. He is a former top prospect with an intriguing power/speed combo but with very little concept of the strike zone. He is going to hit some homers and steal some bases but he will most likely hit below .250 with a staggeringly low OBP.

Jose Costanza is a classic speedy center fielder. He hits for a good average  (.319 in AAA last season), takes some walks (.394 OBP) and steals a lot of bases (83 the last two seasons). He sounds like a guy Atlanta could use. Mather also made his bid to be the utility infielder for Atlanta this season but was never seriously in contention. He has flashed power in the past (31 HR combined in 2007) and ever had a decent showing in 2008 with the Cardinals but he has just never been able to put it all together. He has the ability to play all the corners as well. 

This is a very balanced team and could go a long ways. The starting rotation has a lot of veteran arms supplemented with two best pitching prospects the Braves have. The bullpen will be one of the best in the league with Gearrin, Marek and Asencio holding down the late innings. The lineup is very balanced with a lot of versatility. The top six hitters should be very good with a lot of power and patience mixed in. The bottom third could be a weakness depending on who is in the game. 

Projected Lineup
There is a lot of versatility on this team so they could run out a different group just about every day but here is my shot:

1. Jose Costanza CF
2. Ed Lucas 2B
3. Joe Mather 1B
4. Shawn Bowman 3B
5. Mauro Gomez DH
6. Wilkin Ramirez LF
7. Willie Cabrera RF
8. Diory Hernandez SS
9. J.C. Boscan C

Breakout Player
It is hard to pick a breakout player on a team full of veterans and journeyman but I will go with Wilkin Ramirez. He will be in his age 25 season and it will be his fourth round of AAA. I wouldn't be surprised to see him get hot for a season and put up some really nice stats. 

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