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Talking Chop Round Table: Braves Shortstops

As part of season reviews for major league players and top prospect ranking for minor league players, we here at Talking Chop thought it would be a fun idea to get all of our bloggers together with the help of Google Docs and debate the various aspects of each position in the Braves organization.

The participants are, yours truly (gondeee, indicated by MG), yondaime4 (indicated by MF), royhobbs (indicated by DH), and cbwilk (indicated by CBW).

Here is the round table for shortstops in the Braves organization:

MG: Will Yunel Escobar ever grow up and realize that he can be a super-star if he just polished the edges a bit? Watching Derek Jeter run out ever ground ball and watching Escobar loaf down to first on ground balls shows how far he still has to go, but he has the hitting ability and the defensive ability to come close to being as good as Jeter.
CBW: I don't know if Escobar will ever really grow up in the way we all want him to. I certainly hope so. I think a big part of it is the major cultural difference between how the game is played here compared to how it's played in Cuba. The impression I get after seeing these same kind of things with so many Cuban players is that they seem to look at the game from more of a kind of pro wrestling entertainment standpoint, where all the overblown emotions are part of the excitement added to the game. You see the same kind of thing affect some Japanese players where what we would consider excessive politeness gets them in trouble, like where a pitcher tends to be afraid to pitch inside for fear of hitting someone. I think he's made huge strides as far as the maturity thing goes and the majority of that can be attributed to Bobby Cox. He's perfect for somebody like this because he doesn't mind yanking a guy if he doesn't act right, but he's also going to follow that up with fatherly encouragement. You can look at Escobar's 2006 season in Mississippi and see that he didn't do as well under a manager who wasn't willing to provide that same kind of nurturing support, as Jeff Blauser basically rode him the whole season; it was bad enough that Blauser lost his job in the organization. It's probably the kind of thing that's always going to be an issue, but hopefully we keep the right kind people in charge to help him from hurting himself.
DH: Baseball always will and always has been a game. And the last time I checked, games are meant to be fun. As great of a career that Derek Jeter has had, and is still having, accolades and records aside, he just doesn't look like he's having any fun playing it. I have no problems with players that wear their emotions on their sleeves. Also, I have no problem with the way that Escobar sometimes celebrates with himself when he makes a close play and guns down a base-runner. To answer the question, everyone grows up eventually, and Escobar will be no exception, in enough time. Whether or not it will be soon, and he'll reap the rewards of early(ier) stardom, or if it will be after he's 30, and just wants to enjoy some success, who knows. He's had great baseball instincts from the day he was called up, and I have no qualms saying that he's my favorite player on the current ML-roster, and only a part of that has to do with the numbers he puts up. I love to watch the guy, and whether the Braves are winning or losing a game, he's often the most interesting player on the field.
MF: I'll go with Danny here and just say that he is one of the most interesting players the Braves have had in a while. He is obviously a great defensive SS and a solid contributor with the bat. The amount of runs he saves with his glove on a yearly basis most definitely outweighs the amount of runs he may allow through his bonehead miscues. The guy has a lot of energy, something the Braves never appeared to have in abundance in the past.

MG: Does anyone think the Braves will try to trade Escobar again this off-season? There's no Furcal out there that we can go after (as it turns out that was the plan last year). I wonder if the Braves are tiring of Escobar's act.
CBW: I really don't think he's going anywhere. The guy is an integral part of the team and it's nice to be able to look at one of the most important positions on the field and say it's covered. You take an average 162 games over his career, and you're looking at a shortstop giving you a .301 average, .801 OPS, 13 homers, 72 RBIs and sterling defense. And now that the Braves have figured out he's going to perform better lower in the order I think you can expect him to get better. The attitude issues are troubling, but I don't think they're out of control. He's a force on both sides of the ball and I just don't think it makes sense to trade him when he should be entering his prime.
DH: I don't think he's going anywhere. Not to rag on Diory Hernandez, but it was a completely different team with Escobar out, and the quality of player Escobar is with as many years he has left under team control, I can't imagine that the team's going to ship him off. The team only tried to use him as a trade chip last season, for starting pitching (Peavy), because they needed starting pitching, but the one of the more apparent needs going into this off-season is a consistent source of offense. With Escobar being one of the few staples of consistent offense in the 2009 season, it's even more justification why the team probably won't really think about moving him.
MF: They would have to be blown away or have a solid contingency plan on picking up another SS via a trade because there are no viable in house options to replace the guy. And I don't think Bobby wants to lose his defensive prowess no matter what headaches Yunel has given him. I just don't see him going anywhere in the next couple of years.

MG: After Brandon Hicks and Mycal Jones, our shortstop prospects are pretty lean. Is there any hope for the guys below them?
CBW: I know a lot of people are incredibly sour on him, and he didn't get much love on this list, but I'm still a big fan of Diory Hernandez. Yes, he was very bad in his time with Atlanta, but I don't really think he was ready for that kind of playing time in the Majors. He had another great year in AAA around that failure though, hitting .319 with an .821 OPS, and what I think is more impressive is that after basically sitting around and not playing for a month with Atlanta he was still able to play well when he returned, hitting .277 with a .739 OPS in 94 at bats after returning to AAA. Sure, those aren't spectacular numbers, but his swing was a little messed up from his time in the Majors and he had to be rusty. He'll be 26 next year, so he's not going to be a star, and in fact his best position in the long run will probably be second base, but he's a good hitter and I think he'll be helpful to Atlanta in 2010. After him though, I don't want to be negative, but no, I don't hold a lot of hope for these guys. Randy Gress is a great guy and the kind of player you need in the minors, but he's no prospect. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know much about Lovett and de los Santos, but neither exactly lit up the GCL. I guess they're both young enough to turn things around, but they're gonna need to do it quick. And then, when you look at it and say maybe Hicks' best position will end up being third base and Jones' best position will end up being second base, it make you glad that Escobar looks like he'll be around awhile.
MG: When you put in that way, "that there really is no future major league shortstop in the minors," then it is fortunate that we have a guy as good as Escobar and under control for as long as we have him (three more years, I believe). The Braves keep taking these "filler" guys like Lovett and Adair and Gress in the later and mid rounds of the draft, but aside from Jones they haven't nabbed a strong shortstop candidate since Hicks. Perhaps that's more a reflection of how hard it is to draft good shortstops who can both hit and field.
MF: No, no there isn't. De los Santos is probably the best bet long term right now but like CB said, he didn't really light things up. I just don't see much else to get excited about at the moment, but given our draft tendencies last year it wouldn't surprise me to see us pick up some near ready college prospects in the upcoming drafts. Granted that is what we tried to do with Jones...

MG: Hicks will have a lot to prove this year in the AFL. He showed a lot of promise the last two years, even with the strikeouts, but all we seem to be left with are the strikeouts. I still like his speed and his size/power combination. If he can improve that strike zone judgment with more experience then I think he could be pretty useful.
CBW: Even after the down season, I'm still fairly high on Hicks. He just turned 24, so he's a bit old to really be thought of as a top prospect, but he's got an impressive, strong body and his defense is outstanding, so there's a lot to like. As far as hitting, he and Travis Jones are pretty similar in that they've supplemented low batting averages with power and speed, but Hicks' physical tools tend to put him in a better light. Even though his numbers looked decent at Myrtle Beach in 08, I still felt like they rushed him to AA and it's pretty clear that he struggled. It's becoming obvious that Mississippi's park is affecting the guys who want to hit home runs and you can see it in his home/road splits; he hit .258 with a .754 OPS on the road, but just .214 with a .624 OPS at home. He seemed to turn things around in the second half of the year, so you'd think that's a sign that he was learning to turn those fly balls into line drives. I'm encouraged by the second half strides the guys in Mississippi made and I think it's a good sign for Hicks. He's probably always gonna strike out at a fair clip and hit for a lower average, but if he can keep that power/speed combo and great defense, he's going to be valuable.
MF: I think Hicks is going to need to pull a Chris Carter (of Oakland) on us and develop a better understand of the strike zone at a higher level. I am with CB in that I still have some hope for him and I think if he can turn some Ks into walks he could be a solid contributor at the major league level. Even now if his approach stays unchanged I think he has major league value as a defensive replacement with a little pop. If you don't let him get overexposed you are looking at a solid defensive sub with power off the bench. There aren't a lot of those around.

MG: I wasn't thrilled with the debut of Mycal Jones. Especially with his lack of production against left handers. I expected a lot more from a college guy drafted that high, but we seemed to have gotten more of a raw athlete than a refined player.
CBW: He didn't exactly dominate the way you'd want a guy his age to, but I will say, when I saw Danville he was the most impressive of the position players. He's definitely an athlete and he had great instincts and a strong enough arm at SS. I think his body will force him to have to play second base in the future, but let him play short until he just can't handle it anymore. I think looking at his June numbers, when he hit .280 with a .899 OPS, is a lot more indicative of his talent level, as he clearly got winded by the length and grind of the professional season, hitting .250 with a .657 OPS in August. Most people don't realize how tough that first season is and it's upsetting to see it affect an older player so much, but even RSF's amazing season was made a little less so by his late season dropoff. I don't know what to make of the struggles against the lefties, could be bad luck, could be he's just not good against them. We'll have to see next year. I think at his age he really needs to start out next year at Myrtle Beach. Like a lot of our middle guys, he might not be the greatest prospect cause he's older, but I still think he has a lot of value.
MG: He was our third pick, so I certainly hope he becomes a great prospect. He's not much older than the two guys drafted above him, but he certainly didn't play with the talent that Hale and Minor played with, or for as long as they played with that good collegiate talent. I just can't escape the fact that we fell in love with Mycal's tools and overlooked everything else. Or maybe it was most prospect outlets saying that we over-drafted him. Whatever sours me, it's souring me on Jones just a tad. Even with that, though, I strongly considered ranking him ahead of Hicks; mainly because of those elevated physical abilities.
MF: I am always of the opinion that a guys first season in pro ball should just be considered a wash. Especially when it is college guys who are adjusting to wood bats full time and they are playing a bit more than they are used to. I expect him to rebound next year at Rome (if he starts there). Also 44% of his total hits went for extra bases which is an excellent rate.

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