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Interview with Bill Shanks

Here's an interview I just ran over at Baseball Digest Daily with Bill Shanks. It gives some nice insight into the Braves through the eyes of someone who covers the team on a regular basis.

I had the opportunity today to interview Mr. Bill Shanks, a true expert on the Atlanta Braves,. Many of you know Bill from his book, Scouts Honor: The Bravest Way to Build a Winning Team (which I highly recommend!). What you may not know is that Bill also hosted and produced a weekly television show on the Atlanta Braves from 2001 to 2004 that was seen throughout the southeast in over 25 million homes each week. In 2003, Bill was the play-by-play man on coverage of Rome Braves and Greenville Braves minor league baseball games. And today, Shanks continues to provide extensive coverage on the Atlanta Braves at his web site at Bill joins us today to provide some insight into the current makeup of the Atlanta Braves and what we can expect from this team in the years to come.

Joe Hamrahi: Looking back on the 2005 season, what surprised you most about this Atlanta Braves ballclub?

Bill Shanks: I think I'm most surprised about Julio Franco still being so productive. When he had a tough April, I thought it was over for him. But he's bounced back and remains a significant force on this team. I am not surprised one bit at how well the kids have done this season. I wrote many articles clamoring for them to be the focus of this team, knowing that they'd be able to handle the responsibility to being productive major league contributors. They are not a surprise at all.

Joe: Which of the rookie players did you feel performed at a higher level than expected?

Bill: That's hard to say. Again, knowing these kids as I do, I expected them to be able to handle the pressure and responsibility of being an Atlanta Brave. These kids have been groomed in the minor league system to do what they've done. Could I have expected Jeff Francoeur to hit .350 for two months? No, but I'm not surprised one bit that he's done very well. I think I'm most proud of Pete Orr, Wilson Betemit, and Ryan Langerhans. Orr has shown everyone why he was so valuable in the eyes of the minor league managers. Betemit was almost traded several times, but finally proved this season he's a solid player. And Langerhans could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle after Bobby Cox fell in love with Kelly Johnson, but instead Langy got his chance and has taken advantage of his opportunities. Those three rookies don't get the publicity Francoeur, McCann, Davies, and Boyer get, but they've really been important to this team.

Joe: What are the rumblings about where Andy Marte may wind up defensively? And how does the team shake down after that?

Bill: Well, that's a million dollar question. I'm still not convinced the Braves know exactly how this is going to shake out with Andy. I do know that people are making a mistake by judging Andy on his brief trial in the big leagues. First, they are judging him against the great early success enjoyed by the other rookies. And secondly, many rookies are going to struggle a bit out of the gate. Marte is still a fabulous prospect, and he's still a baby. If it were up to me, I'd send Marte to play in the Dominican this winter and allow him to play a little bit of first base and a little bit in the outfield. Then next season I'd ease him into the gameplan by using him at first, third, and the outfield at least once a week at each position. He'll get his at bats. I would not abandon the option of using him at another position, since it's obvious that Chipper is just more productive and happier being back at third base. There's absolutely no reason to trade Marte, since we don't have any glaring need that would require a trade involving such a highly-rated prospect. It's not like we have a need for a starting pitcher, where we could use the excess at third base to go acquire another arm. We're pretty much packed everywhere. Marte's bat will get him somewhere, but he's going to have to prove he can play somewhere other than third to get more of a chance with the Braves.

Joe: Will Chuck James get a shot at the rotation next year? Why wasn't he considered a higher ranked prospect before the start of the season?

Bill: I really doubt Chuckie will get a shot at the rotation. We've got all five of the regular starters (Smoltz, Hudson, Hampton, Thomson, and Ramirez) scheduled to return (as long as Thomson's option is picked up, which it will be). Plus, you've got Jorge Sosa, and then truthfully Kyle Davies is first in line to be a starter, especially if they do decide to trade one of the five. So I think Chuck's best chance will be as a candidate for a spot in the bullpen. He's lethal against left-handers, so he's got a shot at being a very productive situational lefty reliever. As of now, it doesn't look like there's any room for him in the rotation. He's the eighth man in a five-man rotation, which means he'll probably be a reliever. He's gotten people out since the day he first put on a Braves uniform. His numbers are unbelievable, but since he doesn't throw hard or have outstanding stuff that blows you away, he doesn't get a whole lot of press. But he's a very solid pitching prospect, and there's no reason to believe he can't continue his excellence at a higher level.

Joe: Joey Devine was up for a cup of coffee a few weeks ago. Obviously we now know he was hurt during the stretch when he gave up 2 grand slams. Nevertheless, do you see the Braves taking their time with him after the rough start he encountered? Or will they throw him right into the mix with Boyer, McBride, Foster, etc?

Bill: I'm not sure about what will happen the rest of this season with Joey, but there's no doubt in my mind about next year. He'll go to Disney next spring with a fantastic shot at being apart of the Atlanta bullpen. I saw Joey's last minor league appearance in Pearl, and even though he gave up a grand slam that night (all runs were unearned since they made three errors in that inning), there was no doubt he was ready to contribute at the big league level. He's got electric stuff, and he's got the mentality to be a major league reliever right now. So it's unfortunate he got hurt, but I think the main thing the Braves want now is for him to be ready to make the club next spring. He's got a chance to be very, very good.

Joe: What are the odds that Furcal resigns with Atlanta next year? And if he doesn't resign, who play SS?

Bill: Not to cop out, but I think it's 50/50. There's an interest on both sides to get something done, but if it's going to take more than $8 million per season, it's just going to be hard to get a deal completed. They could trade Thomson and Estrada to get a little flexibility with the payroll, but I can't see them being able to pay more than $8 million to Furcal, as long as the payroll stands at the $80 million dollar level. I'm sure Furcal wants to stay, so if he can accept a three-year deal around $25 million (which has been rumored to be offered to him last winter), then there might be a chance for him to return. There have already been rumors that the Cubs might throw a lot of money his way, and if a team does offer him close to what Edgar Renteria got from the Red Sox last winter, he'll probably leave. But I won't be shocked if he pulls an Andruw Jones and decides to stay in Atlanta for less money. With the presence of Yunel Escobar and Elvis Andrus in the minor leagues, two players projected to be major league starters at shortstop, the Braves must decide if they should devote that large a portion of their payroll to a veteran with young options on the horizon. If Furcal doesn't re-sign, I think Wilson Betemit would be given the chance to be the starter. Then if he does not work out, Escobar could be an option as soon as 2007, with Andrus not far behind.

Joe: Is there a chance Betemit winds up at SS?

Bill: I really think so, and I'm actually hoping Betemit gets his shot at short. While I love what Furcal can bring to the team, I think the money that could go to Furcal can be saved for our younger players. I'd like to give Betemit a chance to play everyday. I've always believed in Betemit's ability. He'd be a different player than Furcal in that he wouldn't be a leadoff hitter and his defense would not be as solid. But I think Betemit could become an Edgar Renteria-type player if given the chance to play everyday. He's a solid defender, and he's got a chance to hit 15 home runs in a season. If he did not work out, for whatever reason, the Braves would have other options on the horizon. But I have confidence in Betemit's ability to be a good major league player.

Joe: Where do you feel Dan Kolb fits in on this roster next year? Or does he fit in at all?

Bill: Kolb will be non-tendered this winter. They won't go to arbitration with him. Dan needs a new, fresh start. I still think he has talent, and he'll probably go to Detroit or Pittsburgh and save 25 games next season. But his mind was messed up when he blew those early save opportunities in April. The pressure of replacing John Smoltz was just too much for him. So he needs a fresh start with another organization, and I'm sure he'll get that opportunity this winter.

Joe: Can you give us an idea of some of the prospects down at A ball and AA that may not be household names, but could really figure into the Braves plans over the next few years?

Bill: If the Braves need another utility-type player, Wes Timmons might be an option. He's a versatile Pete Orr-type that helps his teams win. I think a pitcher to keep an eye on is Chris Waters. He had shoulder surgery and missed a full season, but he returned to Myrtle Beach this year and made progress. Waters has the talent to be a left-handed reliever in the big leagues. If he continues to bounce back and keeps his velocity up, he could be called upon next summer if they needed another lefty reliever. Right-hander Kevin Barry doesn't get a lot of press, but he should go to Disney next spring and battle for a bullpen spot. And there are several relievers that a year from now could be getting consideration: lefties Dan Smith and Will Startup, along with Rudy Quinonez and Michael Nix. Those are older guys who could jump quickly and become options very quickly with good performances in High-A and AA.

Josh Burrus is getting a lot of publicity right now, and rightfully so, but I think we should also watch out for Brandon Jones, who'll probably be back in Myrtle Beach next season. He's an outfielder who is just starting to scratch the surface with his talent.

Joe: What do you make of Dayton Moore's promotion to Assistant GM? Is Schuerholz contemplating retirement soon? Will someone take over Moore's role?

Bill: I think Dayton is in line to become John Schuerholz's replacement as Atlanta's General Manager. Dayton is an extremely bright guy who is very loyal to this organization. If he became Atlanta's GM, he'd be here for the next 25 years. He'd be like another John Schuerholz. Dayton works extremely well with his staff. There's a respect factor with him that you also see with John. People who work for Dayton want to do well for him, because he respects them in return so much. I think John is seriously contemplating retirement after the 2006 season. He turns 65 years old in three weeks, and he has told me that he looks forward to spending more time with Karen, his wife. So I think the change could happen as soon as after next season. Terry McGuirk will have to decide between Frank Wren, John's capable assistant, and Dayton Moore. It'll be a tough choice, but I think Dayton might have the edge. I can just envision Dayton being the GM for the next quarter century. He'll continue the tradition that John has started with this organization. For now, Dayton will continue leading the farm system and scouting department, working very closely with Roy Clark and J.J. Picollo. Dayton's title just changed, but he'll pretty much be doing the same job he's had the last three years.

Joe: If you were to provide a scouting report on Jeff Francoeur, what would it say?

Bill: A winner. A leader. Legit five-tool talent with outstanding, perfect makeup. An above average player in every category except plate discipline. But don't get caught up in that. Francoeur will do the little things to help his team win a ballgame, even if he goes 0-4 with 4 strikeouts. He's an above average runner, and his defense is outstanding. His energy is contagious; he makes players around him better. Francoeur will fall in line with Chipper Jones and Dale Murphy in being the leader of this organization for the next fifteen years. He's the kind of player that will lead his team to a World Series title.

Joe: Brian McCann is often less noticed when talking about the young players on this team. Yet he stepped in admirably for Estrada and drew praise from the pitching staff. What did McCann's contribution mean to the team this year, and do you think the Braves will look to move Estrada now that they know McCann is capable of handling the job?

Bill: Estrada is gone. I think there is little doubt that Brian McCann has proved he is ready to become the full-time catcher on the Braves' team. McCann is a better receiver right now. The pitchers love throwing to him, while Estrada still has many issues defensively. Offensively, Brian is going to be so much better than Estrada. Brian McCann is going to be another Jason Varitek-type catcher. He's going to be a leader on the field defensively, and he'll provide 20 homers and 80 RBI every season. He saved this team this season. If they had to rely on Eddie Perez or Brayan Pena, they would have been in trouble when Estrada got hurt. The Braves will try to trade Estrada this winter, and probably go out and find a veteran backup to spell McCann once a week. Brian is going to be a great player for this organization for many years to come.

Joe: Going into this offseason, what do you feel are biggest needs for the organization?

Bill: The biggest need they have is to make decisions on key issues. Do they have any glaring need to help the big league roster? No. They could make a few subtle changes (non-tender Kolb, trade Estrada) and bring back much of the same roster and probably be a favorite next spring. These kids are just going to get better. So it's not going to be like last winter when you knew they needed an outfielder (or two) or two winters ago when they had to go replace Sheffield. The most pressing need might be at shortstop if Furcal leaves, but again, there are internal options available where they might not need to go outside the organization to find a replacement.

Instead, they have to make key decisions. Can Marte play somewhere besides third base? Would Chipper move to another position (first, outfield)? Do they re-sign Furcal or let Betemit take over and wait on Escobar and Andrus? Can they lock up Giles in a long-term contract? Can Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans be productive in left field? Should Jorge Sosa be a starter, a reliever, or should he be traded to maximize his value? Is Kyle Davies ready to take over a rotation spot? Are Devine and Macay McBride ready to step into relief roles? Where do Chuck James and Anthony Lerew fit in?

A big decision will be in the bullpen, where they could re-sign Kyle Farnsworth. If he leaves, they'll have to decide whether to pursue Billy Wagner, only if Furcal leaves and there is money available. Wagner has always wanted to come to Atlanta, so that's a possibility. But Farnsworth would be cheaper, and if Devine or Boyer develop into a closer, it would be easier to move Farnsworth to the setup role than an expensive Wagner.

They don't need much of anything major to compete for the next several seasons. They must allow these young players to play. They'll make small changes here and there, but I don't think there are too many glaring needs. The depth in the organization provides the internal options that are necessary if any weakness or need arises.

Joe: Who do you feel will be the toughest competition for the Braves if/when they make the playoffs this year? And why?

Bill: Houston. Everybody's afraid of the Astros for the three (or four if you count Lidge) obvious reasons. I think it would be terrific for the Braves to get past the first round. Then, if Smoltz and Hudson are on, they could be a very dangerous team. The kids make the Braves a wildcard, in the original definition of the word. There is an energy on this team that you couldn't buy with highly paid free agents, and it all points to the rookies. They may not be the best team this year, but they are a team that could be very dangerous. I think a series with the Cardinals would be exceptional baseball.

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