This offseason, MiLB.com is 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.
Following a disappointing 2014 campaign, the Braves are trying to move forward by taking a step back. Gone is general manager Frank Wren, and now in charge is president of baseball operations John Hart. The entire front office has been shaken up, with a renewed focus on scouting and player development -- the same staples that propelled Atlanta's success in the 1990s and early 2000s. That focus means opportunity is in the air for Atlanta's top Minor League performers.
Taking over as director of player development under Hart is Dave Trembley, who served as bench coach in Houston in 2013 after a two-year stint as the Braves' Minor League coordinator. He inherits a system with a few jewels at the top and some exciting talent in the lower levels. At Triple-A, catcher Christian Bethancourt proved his readiness for a Major League look, while at Double-A, top prospect Jose Peraza emerged as one of the Minors' most electric talents. There are intriguing arms, too, although most of the top performances in 2014 came from less touted prospects.
Atlanta's system is a relatively good place to be unheralded, though. The team has a history of churning out surprisingly effective Major Leaguers -- Brandon Beachy, Andrelton Simmons and Kris Medlen all soared from way off the radar to key big league roles, to name just a few. Peraza and Bethancourt could make a similar impact soon, with others, like teenager Ozhaino Albies, a little further down the pipeline.
Braves Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Christian Bethancourt, Gwinnett (91 games), Atlanta (31 games): This is Bethancourt's third straight appearance as a Braves Org All-Star. Long touted as one of the Minors' most talented defensive catchers, the 23-year-old posted solid offensive numbers in his Triple-A debut (.283 average, .716 OPS). He showed a renewed focus at the plate in Spring Training that translated into a successful Minor League campaign and a 31-game stint in the Majors.
"You saw that the guy came into camp with a different mentality," said assistant director of player development Jonathan Schuerholz. "He knew what was expected of him. He knew he needed to handle himself the right way. There's still some growth there to be done; there's always growth to go through. But the guy went about his business the right way and there are only good things yet to come."
First base -- Joey Meneses, GCL Braves (four games), Rome (58 games): Schuerholz, promoted to the front office this offseason, was the manager at Class A Rome in 2014, and he considers Meneses to have the best right-center power of any right-handed hitter he's coached. That pop arrived early this season as Meneses batted .301 with eight homers -- five to right or right-center field -- in his first 45 games. Among the highlights was when Meneses hit for the cycle on May 10.
A wrist injury landed him on the disabled list for all of June and July, and he struggled to regain his form after returning. But he still finished with a .288 average and .850 OPS.
"His swing stays through the zone very well for a long period of time, and that enables him to stay on the ball," Schuerholz said. "He was a force for us in the Rome lineup until he got hurt."
Second base -- Jose Peraza, Lynchburg (66 games), Mississippi (44 games): Peraza is the gem of the Braves' farm system and did not disappoint in 2014, hitting .339 with 60 stolen bases while successfully transitioning from shortstop to second base -- a move made mostly in deference to Andrelton Simmons, as the Braves were very high on Peraza's glovework at short. Double-A Mississippi manager Aaron Holbert thinks there are still refinements to be made at the keystone, but Peraza's raw skills should enable him to become a stellar defender at second.
The Braves recently traded second baseman Tommy La Stella to the Cubs, opening up the position for 2015. It may not happen on Opening Day, but Peraza is expected to plug that hole at some point in the near future. When he does, he'll bring stability up the middle and provide Atlanta with its first true top-of-the-order threat since Michael Bourn hit free agency after the 2012 season.
"I see him breaking into the Major Leagues and becoming an everyday guy in the near future," Holbert said. "He still has things to work on, especially getting familiar with the position when it comes to positioning, getting used to the different spin off the bat on the right side compared to the left side. With his work ethic and his ability to adjust, he'll have no problem whatsoever."
Shortstop -- Ozhaino Albies, GCL Braves (19 games), Danville (38 games): Schuerholz got his first look at Albies in Spring Training this year, and the Curacao native made a considerable impression. The 5-foot-9 infielder is undersized but packs surprising strength for a 150-pound teenager. He hit .364 with an .891 OPS and 22 steals, showed the athleticism to shine at shortstop and even took on a leadership role as a 17-year-old making his stateside debut. Albies should open 2014 with Rome and has a chance to rocket up the Braves' Top 20 prospects list after debuting at No. 20.
"It looks like he's just out in the backyard playing, when he plays," Schuerholz said. "He's one of our top shortstop prospects. He made a couple plays in instructs that were out of this world -- like, 'How did he get to it?' He's quick, has a good arm, looks a little like Jimmy Rollins at times."
• For more on Albies, Peraza, Kubitza and others, head to the blog »
Third base -- Kyle Kubitza, Mississippi (132 games): The 2011 third-round pick continued his steady climb through the system with an outstanding offensive season in a notorious pitchers' park, batting .295 with a .405 on-base percentage and 50 extra-base hits. Holbert praised Kubitza's plate approach and thinks he'll hit for more power than his eight homers suggest.
Defensively, Kubitza is working to be average at the hot corner. Holbert saw a lot of progress this year, with Kubitza placing an emphasis on improving his angles and footwork.
"We worked a lot on his movements, lateral movements and angle to the ball," Holbert said. "He has an extremely strong arm, which will play at any level. It's a matter of continuing with footwork drills, proper angles. … If he can keep his angles, he'll be just fine."
Kubitza was added to the 40-man roster last month and could hit his way to Atlanta sometime in 2015.
Outfield -- Kyle Wren, Lynchburg (76 games), Mississippi (56 games): Last month, the Braves traded Wren to Milwaukee, a move that came after Kyle's father, Frank, was fired as general manager. The 2013 eighth-round pick had an excellent first full season with the Braves, though, batting .290 with 46 stolen bases across two levels. When he was at his best, Wren was playing "the little man's game," according to Holbert, which means using the bunt and keeping the ball on the ground to take advantage of his above-average speed.
"The most important thing for him is to stay on top of the ball, stay with his level swing," Holbert said. "Get infield hits, hit line drives, stick to a singles and doubles approach compared to possibly trying to drive balls over the outfielders' heads."
Cedric Hunter, Mississippi (120 games): Hunter was a third-round pick by the Padres in 2006 and earned a brief Major League cameo in 2011. But he's spent the last three years bouncing between Double-A and Triple-A with different organizations. Hunter didn't begin the season as a regular for the M-Braves, but by May he'd established himself as a key cog in the lineup. The 26-year-old hit .295 with 14 homers and an .881 OPS overall and, perhaps more importantly, he was able to mentor the younger position players around him.
"He led by example as well as being a vocal leader," Holbert said. "He made sure guys understood their roles, what was expected of them by their peers. I totally respect and appreciate everything he did for me as a manager as well, how he made a ton of young players play the game the right way and have the right mental mind-set on a daily basis."
Sean Godfrey, Danville (16 games), Rome (35 games), Lynchburg (11 games): Godfrey graduated high school without a college scholarship offer, then worked his way from a walk-on to a standout at Ball State. Drafted in the 22nd round in 2014, he opened eyes in the Atlanta organization by rocketing through three levels behind a .321 average and .822 OPS. Godfrey went 18-of-20 on stolen base attempts and played center field for Lynchburg as the Hillcats chased a playoff spot down the stretch.
"He swings like he's looking to do damage," Schuerholz said. "He goes and gets it in the outfield. He's a gamer. Just a good teammate, a good piece to have in your lineup."
Honorable mention: His offensive stats were just OK, but it's an exciting sign for Atlanta that Connor Lien began putting things together with Rome. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he has a lean, muscular frame and raw athleticism that allows for plenty of projection. Until this season, however, he hadn't shown much with the bat. The 2012 12th-rounder put some things together in 2014, though, hitting .275 with five homers and 16 steals with the R-Braves while playing all three outfield spots. At Triple-A, speedster Todd Cunningham put together another quietly effective season as the everyday center fielder, batting .287 with 19 steals.
Utility player -- Barrett Kleinknecht, Lynchburg (five games), Mississippi (105 games): It'd be tough for a player to embody the utility role better than Kleinknecht, who played every position except center field and pitcher this year. Carrying around all those gloves didn't hold back his bat -- the 26-year-old hit .270 with a .755 OPS as one of Mississippi's better offensive players.
"He's a very valuable player to have on any team in any organization with his versatility," Holbert said. "That's been the main reason he's been able to persevere and stick around the game as he has."
Right-handed pitcher -- Williams Perez, Mississippi (26 games): After working through three levels in 2013, Perez was a rock in Mississippi's rotation this year, posting a 2.91 ERA over 133 innings. His formula is simple: keep the ball in the strike zone and try to induce ground balls. He excelled at both in 2014, walking 2.6 batters per nine innings while posting a 1.8 groundout-to-flyout ratio.
"He has a very good sinker -- that's the No. 1 pitch," Holbert said. "It's really sad when you face a pitcher and know what's coming, know he's going to throw that sinker right there, and they still can't hit it, which speaks volumes about how good that sinker is."
Left-handed pitcher -- Yean Carlos Gil, Rome (27 games): The 23-year-old had Tommy John surgery in 2012 and logged only 49 2/3 innings the following year, so 2014 was likely to be a key season in Gil's career. The Braves are happy with how things broke, as Gil pitched a career-high 126 1/3 innings while managing a 3.35 ERA in the South Atlantic League. So impressed was Atlanta, it gave him a spot on the 40-man roster in November, despite the fact he's never pitched above Class A.
"He has a good idea of what he is," Schuerholz said. "He's self-aware. He knows he's not going to blow anybody away. He's not working at 97, but if he needs 94, he can get that. He can spot in and spot out within the zone, makes use of his secondary pitches, his change and breaking ball. He can pitch back in any count. He really came on this year."
Relief pitcher -- Chasen Shreve, Mississippi (36 games), Gwinnett (10 games), Atlanta (15 games): This year marked Shreve's third stab at Double-A after earning demotions to Lynchburg in 2012 and 2013. Determined to start moving the other direction, he made a conscious decision to change who he was as a pitcher. In Spring Training, he mentioned to M-Braves pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn that he was capable of throwing harder but had held back in past years to gain better control, like childhood heroes Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Lewallyn instructed him to rear back and fire more often, and a few months later Shreve was a Major League reliever. In the Minors, the 24-year-old left-hander posted a 2.67 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 64 innings.
"He was a guy that, the last two years, he was a crafty type guy who would move in and out," Holbert said. "He went from 88-89 to 93-94 or whatever it was, and it stayed.
"It was very strange, if you ask me. It was a different approach and a different way, but it worked out for him. I wish all those other years, we would've seen that same Chasen. Maybe he would've been in the Majors even sooner."