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Braves prospect retrospect: David Justice, Ron Gant star for 1989 Richmond Braves championship squad

We continue our look at Atlanta Braves prospects of yesterday with the 1989 International League champion Richmond Braves.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals

There were quite a few notable names on the Triple-A Richmond Braves team in 1989 that played meaningful roles for Atlanta Braves powerhouse of the 1990s. But before they were everyday big leaguers, they helped Richmond capture its second International League title in four years.

In today’s edition of days of prospects past, we look at that team. But before we get to the breakdown, catch up on those prospect retrospects you missed:

Richmond rolls to the championship behind solid pitching and notable bats

Jim Beauchamp led Richmond to an 81-65 record that season. That was four games better than the Columbus Clippers in the West and the second-best record in the International League behind the 83-win Syracuse Chiefs.

The Braves were actually one of the worst — if not THE worst — offenses in the league. They finished last in runs per game (3.76), were tied for last with a .674 OPS and second to last in home runs (70) and batting average (.247).

But it was a pitching coach named Leo Mazzone that led arguably the best pitching staff in the league that year. Richmond had the best ERA (3.07) and piled up the most saves while allowing the least home runs. They sported the second best WHIP (1.25) and tied for the best strikeout-per-nine rate with 6.2.

Who were some of the big names on that team?

David Justice, the postseason machine

The 1989 season was Justice’s last in the minors. The season prior, Justice was on the Greenville Braves in the Southern League and finished as runners-up and that kind of became the Justice MO. Justice played 14 big-league seasons and 10 of them ended in the postseason.

Justice was drafted in the fourth round of the 1985 MLB draft out of THE Thomas More College. He showed pretty nice power right off the bat (excuse the easy pun), blasting 10 home runs in his half-season pro debut and following that up with a 22-home run campaign in his first full season. For that 1989 Richmond Braves, Justice led the team in home runs (12), while driving in the second-most runs (58). He slashed .261/.360/.430 and struck out just 66 times while walking 59.

Justice saw 16 games with the Atlanta team in that 1989 season, and then had the dubious honor of replacing Dale Murphy as the everyday right fielder. He responded by picking up the 1990 National League Rookie of the Year. Justice had some big seasons for the Atlanta Braves, including a 40-homer campaign in 1993 and was on pace for a career season in the strike-shortened 1994 season. And then came 1995.

The Braves were rolling in 1995, but Justice fell out of favor with the Braves faithful with some select words on their fandom during the World Series. One swing of the bat, of course, made all things forgiven.

(Tony Pena is the best part of the home run.)

Justice’s 1996 was shortened by a shoulder injury and he was traded in 1997 to the Cleveland Indians. He became a Braves Hall of Famer, enjoying eight of his 14 seasons with the Braves. He finished his Braves career with a .275/.374/.499 slash line, 160 home runs and 522 RBI.

Ron Gant, the future Mr. 30/30

Gant, like Justice, was a fourth-rounder, selected in the 1983 MLB Draft out of Texas high school. The infielder worked his way up the ladder pretty quickly and had a memorable rookie season with the Braves, hitting .259/.317/.439 with 19 home runs, 60 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 1988. His second season was not as pretty.

Amid a sophomore slump in 1989, Gant was sent to Richmond. He transitioned into an outfielder and contributed 11 home runs and 13 doubles to go along with an .829 OPS in 63 games. Gant returned to the bigs a changed man in 1990, the first of two-consecutive 30/30 campaigns. In 1990, Gant slashed .303/.357/.539 with 32 home runs and 33 stolen bases and followed that up with a 32 home run, 34-stolen base season in 1991. After just missing his third 30/30 season in 1993 (36 home runs, 26 stolen bases), Gant broke his leg in an ATV accident, missing the entire 1994 season. He’d never play for the Braves again.

He certainly left his mark. He slashed .262/.326/.466 in his seven-year Braves career, blasting 147 home runs and swiping 157 stolen bases. He became a familiar face on Braves broadcasts for awhile as well.

The rest of the Richmond Braves championship squad

There were plenty of memorable names on that 1989 title-winning team. Let’s take a look back at those that stood out.

Kent Mercker: Mercker, the Braves 1986 first-rounder, was the ace of the 1989 Richmond Braves squad. He surprisingly had a losing record, going 9-12 with a 3.20 ERA and a team-high 144 strikeouts. Mercker debuted with Atlanta that same season as a 21-year-old and played eight seasons with the Braves, jettisoning to Baltimore after the 1995 World Series season.

Mark Lemke: The Braves found Lemke in the 27th round of the 1986 MLB draft and he turned out to be a nice find. Lemke was part of the 1990s run, playing 10 of his 11 MLB seasons in Atlanta. He hit .279 with a .729 OPS, chipping in 22 doubles, seven triples and five home runs for the 1989 Richmond squad.

Tommy Greene: Greene would hardly pitch for the Braves in the big leagues, but etched out an eight-year career. After his 1989 season in Richmond (91-2, 3.61 ERA, 125 strikeouts) Green was the No. 80 prospect in baseball.

Mike Stanton: No, not that one. Stanton actually hardly played for Richmond, opening the season as Greenville’s closer and then finishing the season in the Atlanta Braves bullpen. Stanton pitched in just 13 games for Richmond, but went 2-0 with eight saves, not allowing a run over his 20 innings. Stanton went on to have a 19-year career as a left handed specialist.

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