Spring Training Dish: Braves Camp

Editor’s note: Assistant editor Chris Kline is spending three weeks
covering spring training in Florida’s Grapefruit League. Today’s stop:
Braves camp. Coming Wednesday: Pirates camp in Bradenton.

KISSIMMEE, Fla.–You don’t win 14 division championships in a row
without being able to funnel talent through the system. And although
the Braves have graduated a bushel of homegrown talent in the last two
years, there is still a ton of potential impact players and depth in
the organization.

That goes back to Atlanta scouting
director Roy Clark and his staff’s ability to recognize talent,
particularly in the Braves home state. But the organization continues
to be a player in the international market, particularly in Venezuela,
signing shortstops Elvis Andrus and Luis Hernandez, catcher Maximilano
Ramirez and righthander Jose Ascanio over the last five years.

Dayton
Moore might have a new title in the organization–assistant general
manager for baseball operations–but his job duties haven’t changed
much from his previous role as director of player personnel.

“The
only thing that’s really changed is I have a Blackberry now,” Moore
said. “I’m kidding–I’m doing a lot more on the major league side. But
really, this thing has changed my life. It knows where I am better than
I do half the time.”

We caught up with Moore, after we
reached him on his Blackberry at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, which
was filled with middle-school cheerleaders preparing for a competition
. . . until we made our way past CrackerJack Stadium and onto the back
fields at Disney’s pristine complex.

Baseball
America: Let’s get right to righthanded pitching depth. It’s always
been a major strength of the organization, but right now it looks a
little thin. You’ve graduated a bunch of arms, but how do you feel
about the depth of righthanded pitching in the system now?

Dayton Moore:
Without a doubt, we focus on our pitching every year in the draft. And
there’s a strong focus in our international program on pitching as
there is with pretty much every organization. But we feel we have a
strong core of young pitchers that will develop. Do we need to continue
to pound the pitching in the draft, be aggressive internationally,
continue to develop and protect them? Yeah, but I wouldn’t say we’re
thin, but I do believe we do need to add to our depth.

BA: Comparatively, the lefthanders look deeper than they’ve ever been, which has to be pretty exciting.

DM:
Lefthanded pitching is something we’ve obviously struggled with at the
major league level–we’ve always been a little thin there. So we’ve had
a strong effort in the last three to four years to improve out
lefthanded pitching depth and we feel pretty good about some the young
guys that we have. Jake Stevens in particular is a guy that I think is
ready to bust through and Matt Harrison; another young pitcher we have
with a lot of upside who we expect to have at Myrtle Beach as well as a
guy like Chuckie James who I want to say has held opponents to
something like a .184 average against him over his minor league career.
We do feel good about that and you know, Paul Snyder used to talk about
this all the time: you’ve got to have 20 average or better pitching
prospects to get two or three of them to the major leagues just because
so many things happen along the way.

So we always have
signed and drafted a lot of pitching and taken a lot of pride in
developing them, nurturing them properly within the system to give them
every opportunity to be successful.

BA: Outfielders
are perhaps the area that’s graduated the most in an organization that
really relied on the system last year. What is there to like
outfield-wise?

DM: We’re going to
have a great core of young outfielders in Rome in Ovandy Suero,
possibly (2005 third-round pick) Jordan Schafer; Jamie Romak is a guy
we really like just to mention a few. Brandon Jones, who I believe is
as strong an outfield bat as we’ve had in the organization. He
certainly is a more advanced hitter than Kelly Johnson was at the same
stage, Ryan Langerhans at the same stage. This will be somewhat of a
defining year for him at Myrtle Beach and if he gets off to a good
start, we won’t hesitate to move him after a couple hundred at-bats and
give him an opportunity to meet that next challenge. We do have some
young guys coming up and we’re encouraged by it.

BA:
Whenever anyone mentions the Braves, the first thing they talk about is
developing pitching. But, like we all started to notice with the
emergence of Brian McCann and the development of Jarrod Saltalamacchia,
you guys develop catchers too.

DM:
We’ve got a great catching instructor here who’s also our field
coordinator in Chino Cadahia. He does a tremendous job and has been
working with catchers since he worked with Pudge Rodriguez when he was
coming through the Texas organization.

But you know, five,
six years ago, we all sat down and talked about our catching depth
because we didn’t have a lot of depth at that position. And for so many
years we had Javy Lopez just a foul tip away from not having anybody to
bring up. Eddie Perez was certainly there and everybody was comfortable
with Eddie, but after that, we had no idea who was going to come up if
something happened to Javy.

So that was always a sort of
insecurity with us and we just made a concerted effort to scout and
sign some guys we thought had a chance to be frontline major league
catchers. And you can never really have enough of those guys that play
a premium position and play a premium position well.

BA: Should it be construed as a big deal that Saltalamacchia was taking ground balls at first base in big league camp?

DM:
We’re committed to Salty staying behind the plate. And he’s worked so
hard. I remember when we drafted him and some of our scouts sitting
around and some thought he could play third or first base, some felt he
could stay behind the plate, some didn’t. But I believe the consensus
among baseball was that he wasn’t going to stay behind the plate
because everybody thought he was going to hit. And if everybody felt he
had that hitting combination along with his ability to catch, there’s
no way we get to him in the sandwich round that year.

So I
think it was probably a consensus throughout baseball whether he was
going to be able to stay behind the plate or not. That being said, he
has taken a lot of pride in that position, Chino has done a lot of work
with him and I know Salty credits Chino for a lot of the help. The plan
is to continue to develop him behind the plate. There’s no doubt he and
Brian McCann both have the athletic ability and the hands and the foot
quickness and the agility to play first base or other places. That will
take care of itself in the long run and we just want Salty to go to
Double-A–where he’s never had an at-bat–and concentrate on continuing
to improve as a catcher, continue to make adjustments as a hitter and
this time next year maybe we’re forced to evaluate our decision and
come up with a more direct plan. We’ll make that decision when we feel
like it needs to be made.

BA: Part of the reason
there’s so much hype was based on his season last year, then what he
did in the Arizona Fall League and then the Olympic Qualifier in
Phoenix. The guy has done it all, and continued that in big league camp
. . .

DM: He definitely has, no
question. You know, he has a very calm, relaxed demeanor and I think
that serves him well as a player. But he’s one of those guys–and I
wish I had the ability–to turn it off a little bit. When Salty’s away
from the game, he can have fun and relax a little bit and on the field
he has fun. He just has a great approach to the game. I think he’s
going to have a tremendous career. But he’s a serious kid too–he just
knows how to have fun with it. He gets it.

BA: Let’s play some compare and contrasting. Elvis Andrus vs. Yunel Escobar. What are their strengths/weaknesses?

DM:
Yunel is closer to the major leagues. He’s much more experienced, and
is a stronger, more physical player. He has a little more power in his
bat at this stage and he can either be a Miguel Tejada or an Alfonso
Soriano. He’s going to profile as that offensive middle infielder who
can hit in the middle of the order.

Elvis is more of a
relaxed, even-keeled player–very polished as a 17-year-old. Elvis
doesn’t have a lot of the flair or the trademark-type style as some of
the gifted infielders do from Latin America. He’s more of a sure,
fundamentally sound guy. He really has some strength in his hands as a
hitter. There’s no doubt in our minds he’s going to be able to stay at
short, and maybe he’s a Derek Jeter-type guy.

I don’t want
to put unrealistic expectations on guys, but he has that presence and
that awareness, the poise and that natural leadership ability.

BA: How about Van Pope and Eric Campbell?

DM:
Both of them profile as true third basemen. They can play the position,
make the backhand play, they can make body control plays, they have
more than enough arm to play anywhere on the diamond. They both have
power, they both are guys that will beat you–they’re competitors–and
the one difference is Eric’s maybe a half-grade better runner.

Eric
is a guy that I could see moving around playing multiple positions a
little more than Van Pope. Not to say that he’s more athletic because
that term can be misused on the baseball field. But I do believe Eric
could play second base for us, he could play shortstop in a pinch, and
he’s definitely an above-average to plus third baseman for us.

You
know, Pope kind of reminded me of a Ken Caminiti–just real strong. And
Campbell, maybe a Scotty Rolen-type guy. He does everything a little
more fluid.

But I think Van Pope’s going to have a monster
year. He left here at 212 pounds in instructional league and he looked
good. He’s at 200 right now and his body has tapered to it. He looks
like a big leaguer right now. He’ll start in Myrtle; Campbell will
start in Rome.

BA: This might be a silly question at
this point in time, but do you emphasize any one area in particular
with pitchers or position players in the system?

DM:
Well, one thing that’s interesting about all those guys that came up
last year is none of them hit over .300 in the minor leagues except
Brayan Pena. Brian McCann’s first at-bat in the major leagues was a
fastball away; he hooked it to second base and got the guy over to
second. I’ve seen him do it a thousand times–OK, not a thousand, but
I’ve seen him do it a lot–where’s he’s taken that fastball away. Mac’s
swing naturally goes through the middle of the field and he knew the
importance of getting that runner over.

Bobby Cox expects us
to play team baseball. Jeff Francoeur needed to know how to bunt,
Marcus Giles needed to know how to bunt, because when they come up to
Atlanta they’re not hitting (No.) 3, 4 or 5.

We work hard on
things with our pitchers–it’s nothing innovative–but we like our
pitchers to be on the right side of the rubber, we like four-seam
fastballs and your direction’s very important. Keeping our pitchers
healthy is the No. 1 goal. We want to keep them healthy, some guys need
to be on different pitch counts than others and if you just have a
blanket program, you’re going to lose guys. It’s the same game for
everybody, but everybody’s body type is different, pitchers have a
different length from their fingers to their elbows or from their
elbows to their shoulders, some guys are low-waisted some guys are
high-waisted. Just because one guy’s perceived to have a bad delivery,
it might be a good delivery for somebody else if he repeats it and he
throw strikes. So there’s no one absolute that we try to go by, we just
try to trust our scouts’ vision for the player and direct that vision
in a way that’s going to allow that player to be successful.

We
try to go to their strengths. Those strengths are why they were drafted
and signed and the vision of the scout saw those strengths helping our
team win championships. Let’s continue developing those strengths and
not spend so much time on the weaknesses that we lose the strengths.

WIGWAM WISPS

• Among some of that lefthanded pitching depth, Braves officials have been very impressed with 2005 first-rounder Beau Jones and 2003 third-round pick Matt Harrison
this early in camp. Jones is expected to start the season at low Class
A Rome, while Harrison will begin the year in the high Class A Carolina
League.

“Jones has looked good,” Moore said. “He’s a
three-pitch guy who really spins the breaking ball and he’s a
tremendous competitor as I know Baseball America knows.

“And
Harrison’s throwing well also. We expect him to be in Myrtle
Beach–very good fastball command that he backs up with a changeup.
We’re hoping for a tremendous year out of him.”

• Outfielder Brandon Jones
broke out with .312-8-35 numbers in 231 at-bats last season, mostly
split between Rome and Myrtle Beach and the Braves are counting on him
to contribute in Double-A this season. Jones, a 24th-rounder out of
Tallahassee Community College in 2003, missed two months last season
with a broken hand. It’s taken him some time to find a comfort zone
since he’s moved around during his short career, and that comfort zone
should come into play with a full season in Mississippi this year.

“Brandon’s
a little introverted in a good way,” Moore said. “Him being comfortable
is all he needs because there’s not much you do with his swing. In
talking to (scouting director) Roy Clark, he felt
like he needed more of a trigger, more of a launch to get his hands
going a little bit because he’d swung the aluminum bats for so long.

“He
has a little bit of a trigger going, but not to a point where it’s
taken away from his natural path to the ball. A guy like Brandon with
his hitting tools, you just want to give him repetitions, let the
pitcher be his hitting coach and let him make the adjustments he needs
to do. This year, once he starts to figure out what pitchers are trying
to do to him and adjust to that a little more, I think he’s going to
continue to take off. There are a lot of natural ingredients in there.”

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