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Spring Training Dish: Braves Camp

by Chris Kline
March 21, 2006

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.

SPRING TRAINING - GRAPREFRUIT LEAGUE
3/29: Spring Training Dish: Orioles Camp
3/28: Spring Training Dish: Red Sox Camp
3/27: Spring Training Dish: Twins Camp
3/24: Spring Training Dish: Phillies Camp
3/23: Spring Training Dish: Devil Rays Camp
3/22: Spring Training Dish: Pirates Camp
3/21: Spring Training Dish: Braves Camp
3/20: Spring Training Dish: Nationals Camp
3/17: Spring Training Dish: Dodgers Camp
3/16: Spring Training Dish: Mets Camp
3/15: Spring Training Dish: Marlins Camp
3/15: Q&A with Jim Fleming

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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