Gwinnett players prove strong models

Freeman, Minor show future isn't so bleak for Braves after all

Freddie Freeman hit .319 with 18 homers and 87 RBIs in Triple-A ball this year. (Gwinnett Braves)

By Josh Jackson / Special to | October 13, 2010 6:00 AM

This offseason, will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

On paper, the Atlanta system may look like it's in the midst of a dark age. Only one affiliate finished 2010 with a record above .500, and that affiliate -- the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves -- was 72-71. But scattered throughout the organization's rungs is a plethora of Minor League veterans and a bevy of young talent, a couple of whom are among the brightest prospects in baseball.

Braves organizational All-Stars

Catcher -- Ryan Delgado, Danville, (45 games): The Braves' pick in the 32nd round of this year's Draft, Ryan Delgado dove into pro ball head first. The catcher had four hits, including a double, and three runs scored over his first four games and only got better from there. He homered in back-to-back games toward the end of August and finished the season with six roundtrippers and a .301 average. Of his 46 hits in the short Appalachian League season, 20 went for extra bases, and he won an Player of the Week award -- an impressive debut season by a late-round pick.

First baseman -- Freddie Freeman, Gwinnett (124 games): Like former roommate Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman has the potential to be a fixture at Turner Field for many years to come. Freeman was taken in the second round of the '07 Draft, in which Heyward went in the first, and all indicators show he's made steady improvement through the pro ranks. Playing at the Triple-A level for the first time, he hit .319, which was a career high. He also belted 18 homers, which was matched by just two other Braves Minor Leaguers and surpassed by none. He drove in 87 runs and scored 73 while leading the International League in hits (147) and total bases (240).

"It's not very often that you're going to see a 20-year-old outmatch Triple-A," said Gwinnett skipper Dave Brundage. "He was fun to watch, one of the more enjoyable players that I've ever had. He was a young man [who] started out slowly, then progressed, matured and developed himself into a Major League ballplayer."

Freeman's efforts earned him a spot on the Atlanta roster in September, and he surely looks forward to competing for a Major League job in Spring Training in 2011.

Second baseman -- Elmer Reyes, GCL Braves (six games)/Danville (53 games): Elmer Reyes, a 20-year-old Nicaraguan who spent 2009 in the Dominican Summer League, wasn't fazed by the transition to a new country. He hit .301, the third-best batting average in the Atlanta Minor League system. The Braves started him in the Gulf Coast League, where he drove in three runs in his first game, stole two bases and scored three times in his third and homered in his fifth. He proved too hot for that circuit after just six games, and he doubled 15 times, tripled twice and homered five times in 53 Appy League games. Reyes ended up with a .363 on-base percentage and a .472 slugging percentage across the two leagues.

Shortstop -- Matt Lipka, GCL Braves (48 games)/Danville (four games): An 18-year-old out of a Dallas-area high school, Mike Lipka was the Braves' first pick in this year's Draft and the 35th overall. He showed he has speed to burn, stealing 21 bases in 24 tries across the GCL and the Appy League, and he also demonstrated a keen eye. Lipka hit .288 and had an on-base percentage of .344 -- he walked 15 times and struck out 24. In 52 games, he managed to cross the plate 34 times. His 58 hits in the GCL put him in second place on the leaderboard in the league, and his 20 steals there were just two short of the circuit highmark.

Third baseman -- Wes Timmons, Gwinnett (114 games): "I thought [Wes Timmons] had an outstanding year," Brundage said.

It's tough to disagree with him.

Timmons, who turned 31 this summer, walked nearly twice as often as he struck out, posted the sixth highest batting average in the Atlanta Minor League system and was among league leaders in bases on balls and on-base percentage -- he reached in 40 percent of his plate appearances. Timmons, who turned 31 in the middle of the season, stole 19 bags in 27 attempts, surpassing his previous career high of 12 thefts in a season. He put a slow start to the year behind him by slapping out two hits April 30, three the following day and four the day after that. He also went 4-for-4 with a double, a walk, four runs scored and an RBI on July 30. Timmons made nine errors over 114 games.

"He's a little bit like those fine wines. He gets better with age along the way," said Brundage. "He's not the best looking player -- he's not a six-tool guy -- but I'd take him on my ballclub every day. He does so many things well. He's probably the best team player I've ever managed. He gets the most out of his ability, and not a lot of them can say that."

Outfielder -- Matt Young, Gwinnett (134 games): Matt Young finished his season with an IL-best 39 stolen bases, which he nabbed in just 46 tries, and he had one fewer hit than teammate and league leader Freddie Freeman. He was also among the best in batting average (.300), doubles (33), on-base percentage (.380) and runs scored (88).

"Matt Young is more talented than I anticipated. Don't be fooled by his size and stature," Brundage said. "He's not a guy you can watch one night. What he brings to the table each day is something that a lot of others don't. He plays the game with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He looks in the mirror every day and sees he's still 5-foot-6. I think that's part of what drives him. To me, I look at him and I don't see a guy 5-6; I see a guy 6-5.

"He's going to be a Major League ballplayer."

Young, who signed with the Braves in 2004 after going undrafted that year, was named Southern League Best Hustler last season and won two Player of the Week awards this year.

Outfielder -- Willie Cabrera, Mississippi (99 games)/Gwinnett (eight games): Willie Cabrera, whom the Braves picked in the 2005 Draft, was seventh in the Southern League with a .306 average and fourth with 37 doubles. He walked 29 times and struck out 36 in Double-A. Cabrera was stymied while trying to make the adjustment to Triple-A over eight August games, but combined for 172 total bases in 107 contests between the Southern and International Leagues. He stole 13 bases this year, which is more than twice as many as he's taken in any other pro season. He had nine three-hit games and three four-RBI games in the Southern League.

Outfielder -- Cory Harrilchak, Rome (60 games)/Myrtle Beach (58 games): Among the talented prospects playing in the Arizona Fall League is Cory Harrilchak, who had 26 doubles, stole 22 bases, scored 60 runs and hit .287 between Class A and Class A Advanced ball this summer. This year marked Harrilchak's first full season -- the 14th-rounder from last year's Draft had played 60 games in the Appalachian League and was named a Postseason All-Star. He wasn't an All-Star in either the South Atlantic League nor the Carolina League, at least partly because his time was divided evenly between the two -- he played 60 games in the former and 58 in the latter.

Designated hitter -- Barbaro Canizares, Gwinnett (126 games): While it may be strange to include a designated hitter on a list of a National League organization's top performers, Barbaro Canizares had too good an offensive season for him to be omitted here on the basis of his position.

"Cani loves to hit," Brundage said, "and there's no question he can hit. He's got a great passion for hitting -- one of the most consistent hitters I've managed."

Canizares is a first baseman by trade, but with Freeman in that spot for the G-Braves, Canizares was relegated to DH duties for most of the 2010 campaign. His .341 average led the entire Braves organization -- including the Atlanta team -- and earned him the IL batting title. It was the highest mark in the league since 2006, and he also belted 13 homers, collected 28 two-baggers and slugged .504.

"He's [also] one of the more enjoyable players," said Brundage. "He's got such a great sense of humor, and he's a very well liked teammate."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Mike MinorMississippi (15 games, 15 starts)/Gwinnett (6 games, 6 starts): That Mike Minor put up a 5.98 ERA over his first nine Major League games is of no real concern to the Braves. The 22-year-old southpaw not only had a fine season down on the farm, but he also showed he can make adjustments at different levels and improve as time goes by. He did drop some jaws at Double-A Mississippi (he reached double digits in strikeouts in four starts there), but his work in the International League was even more impressive.

"He made a great impression. We've got two young pitchers who came up from Double-A that were years ahead of their age," Brundage said of Minor and Brandon Beachy. "They were mature when they stepped on the mound beyond their years. And to watch Mike Minor make his Triple-A debut in Toledo and have that command and not having spent a lot of time in the Minor Leagues. ... Some guys get it and some guys don't."

Minor never allowed more than three runs in a Triple-A appearance -- and that happened only once -- and he delivered two shutout outings, including a July 30 start in which he gave up one hit and two walks while whiffing eight over seven innings.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Brandon Beachy, Mississippi (27 games, 6 starts)/Gwinnett (8 games, 7 starts): With apologies to Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy had the finest season of any right-hander in Atlanta's Minor League system. Beachy, who will join Harrilchak in the AFL, cruised through the Southern League, going 3-1 with a save over 27 games -- six starts -- while amassing 100 strikeouts and walking just 22 and holding opposing hitters to a .200 batting average. A move up to Triple-A hardly slowed him down; he went 2-0 with a save, a 2.17 ERA, 48 strikeouts and six walks over seven starts and one relief appearance with Gwinnett. The Braves entrusted Beachy with three starts in the Majors during their playoff run, and he held his own by posting a 3.00 ERA and striking out 15 in 15 innings.

"He's a very mature young man, and very polished," said Brundage. "He came on the fast track. His work ethic, his emotional control is off the charts. He's got one goal in mind, and he certainly accomplished it by reaching the big leagues. He got there with a great work ethic. But for him to step in and pitch arguably the biggest came of the year, against the Phillies in Philadelphia?

"He's one of the more developed young pitchers. It's hard to find a kink in his armor.

"These two young men?" Brundage said of Minor and Beachy, "The game certainly has not sped up on them. They're both good athletes. They both have the capacity to improve because they're mentally mature and they're such good athletes."

Relief pitcher -- Craig Kimbrel, Gwinnett (48 games): Craig Kimbrel scattered 21 big league appearances between May and October, and his success with the Braves -- he was 4-0 with an 0.44 ERA and earned a save in his only opportunity -- was hinted at by what he did with Gwinnett. Krimbel saved 23 games (which tied him for third in the International League) in 26 chances, going 3-2 with a 1.63 ERA over 48 appearances. The third-round choice from the 2008 Draft held opposing Triple-A hitters to a .148 average, and he struck out 83 and walked 35 over 55 2/3 innings at the level.

Josh Jackson is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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