Recent Braves picks fuel strong year

Pitchers Graham, Gilmartin lead Atlanta's group of All-Stars

By Jonathan Raymond / Special to | October 3, 2012 6:31 AM

This offseason, 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.

The Atlanta Braves have long had a reputation for running a tight ship throughout their Minor League system, and this year was a perfect example of that.

Braves affiliates earned three trips to the postseason with Danville going to the Appalachian League playoffs and Rome appearing in the South Atlantic League postseason, while Lynchburg captured the Mills Cup crown in the Carolina League.

Additionally, the team's 2011 Draft class made a big splash in its first full season, with four picks from last year earning Organization All-Star honors. "There's some special talent [in the 2011 class], so far we like what we've seen out of several of our kids," Atlanta assistant general manager and director of player development Bruce Manno said.

Braves Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Christian Bethancourt, Mississippi (71 games): Bethancourt, the Braves' No. 2 prospect and's No. 53 overall, earned his Organization All-Star spot with his defense, which is widely viewed as among the elite of anybody at any position in the Minors. The 21-year-old Panama native has arguably one of the best arms behind the plate throughout the Minor Leagues and hit .241 for Double-A Mississippi before going down with a fractured left hand in August.

"You can't forget about Bethancourt. He broke his hand, but he can catch and throw as good as anybody I've ever seen," Braves Minor League field director Dave Trembley said. "Reminds me of Jose Molina. The question with him is offensively, but I think he's going to come around and he's going to be a front-line receiver."

First baseman -- Ernesto Mejia, Gwinnett (133 games): Mejia made his Triple-A debut after spending all of last season in Mississippi -- where he hit .297 with 26 home runs -- and didn't miss a beat. The Venezuela native led the International League with 92 RBIs, hitting .296 with 24 homers and a .502 slugging percentage, the third-best mark on the circuit. That production led to the 26-year-old collecting Midseason and Postseason IL All-Star honors and taking home the IL Rookie of the Year Award as well.

"He put up big numbers," said Trembley. "He had a real big season in Gwinnett, and what he did to make himself a better player was bring his walks up and his strikeouts down. He's got some kind of power."

Second baseman -- Tommy La Stella, GCL Braves (five games), Lynchburg (85 games): La Stella, an eighth-rounder out of Coastal Carolina University in 2011, batted .328 and slugged .543 in his debut with Class A Rome that summer. He followed up nicely in 2012, hitting .299 with a .389 on-base percentage and a .466 slugging mark. He delivered six home runs and 56 RBIs while adding 13 steals and 22 doubles. The No. 19 Braves prospect's strong bat warranted his selection as a Carolina League Midseason All-Star.

"Tommy's tool is the bat," Trembley noted. "We're looking to improve him around the bag. I thought he made improvements on his pivot and his ability to turn to the double play this year. His bat's going to take him -- he uses the whole field."

Shortstop -- Nick Ahmed, Lynchburg (130 games): A second-round pick by the Braves out of the University of Connecticut last year, Ahmed was another recent Atlanta selection to enjoy a big season. The No. 10 Braves prospect led the Class A Advanced Carolina League with 40 steals and 84 runs scored, establishing himself as a future top-of-the-order threat. The 22-year-old hit .269 with a .337 OBP for the Hillcats while flashing strong gap power with 36 doubles. He was named to the Midseason and Postseason Carolina League All-Star squads. Ahmed will play for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League.

"Ahmed had a real good year at Lynchburg and offensively really improved," Manno said. "He was able to steal bases, and his defense is that of a prototypical shortstop. He's a real gamer, steps up in big moments, as he did in the Championship Series. We're looking forward to next year and where [he] can go from there."

Third baseman -- Edward Salcedo, Lynchburg (130 games): A heralded international signing out of the Dominican Republic by Atlanta in 2010, Salcedo made the leap from Rome this year and proved to be one of the most important cogs in the Hillcats' Mills Cup run. His 17 homers tied for fifth in the league while he also flashed good speed, stealing 23 bags for the second year in a row. The Braves' No. 9 prospect hit .240 and slugged .412 with 61 RBIs this year as a relatively young player in the league, having turned 21 at the end of July.

Salcedo will be joining Ahmed on the Desert Dogs in the AFL.

"He's an offensive player, a very good baserunner with a strong arm," said Trembley. "I think Salcedo is one of our top offensive potential guys in the system. He has the potential to hit 25 home runs in the big leagues, 30 doubles, steal bases. He reminds me of a player I was managing in 1994 in Birmingham -- Carlos Lee. He's going to hit."


Jose Constanza, Gwinnett (88 games), Atlanta (36 games): The 29-year-old Dominican Republic native has established himself over the past two years as one of the first players the Braves call on when injuries strike in Atlanta. In 78 games in the Majors over the last two seasons, he's hit .284 with a .334 on-base percentage with 12 steals. This year, Constanza's league- and system-leading .314 average, along with his .380 OBP and 14 steals placed him on the IL Midseason All-Star team.

"Constanza's a catalyst. He's done a real nice job when he went to the big leagues," said Trembley. "He's a plus runner and he had a real nice year in Triple-A."

Todd Cunningham, Mississippi (120 games): Atlanta's No. 12 prospect took a real step forward in 2012, posting a .309 average -- good for third in the Southern League -- while also finishing in the top 10 on the circuit in on-base percentage (.364), stolen bases (24) and runs (77). The 2010 second-round Draft pick also showed a slick glove in center field, where Trembley believes he has a long-term future. The 23-year-old was a Southern League Midseason and Postseason All-Star.

"Cunningham can play all three [outfield positions], but center field is probably his best spot," Trembley said. "He's a switch hitter, decent baserunner with good speed and he was the Braves' Minor League Player of the Year. I think you'll see him at Triple-A next year."

Robby Hefflinger, Lynchburg (37 games), Rome (84 games): Hefflinger's calling card is his power production, which was in no short supply this year. The 22-year-old finished fourth in the system with 69 RBIs and tied for fifth with 16 home runs. He finished with a .267 average and slugged .456 while adding 29 doubles. The 2009 seventh-rounder finished with career highs across the board, and Trembley praised his power potential.

"He has light tower power," said Trembley. "He's 6-4, 220 pounds, and we need to do with him what we did with [Evan] Gattis, which is to push him along in the system. He had a solid second half with Rome, hit a lot of home runs and drove in some runs. But he can hit with power -- you don't have a lot of guys in your system that have that kind of power."

Utility -- Evan Gattis, GCL Braves (four games), Lynchburg (21 games), Mississippi (49 games): Gattis wasn't healthy for all of 2012, but when he was, he hit just about everything in sight. The 26-year-old batted .305 between the three levels with 18 home runs, 67 RBIs and a .607 slugging percentage. Despite missing some time, the slugger managed to finish third in the system in home runs and fifth in RBIs, earning him a second straight Organization All-Star nod after he hit .322 with 22 home runs in 88 games for Rome last season. Gattis will spend the offseason playing left field in the Venezuelan Winter League with Maracaibo, according to Trembley.

"We see him as a potential Major League bat, he's a power guy. The ball makes a bit different sound when he hits it," Trembley said. "Our thought is, looking down the road, we could use the power bat in the corner outfield, but he's also really improved his catching, his ability to throw. I think he'd be an interesting guy on a Major League club, especially in the National League. He can catch, play some first and now he's going to play left."

Right-handed pitcher -- J.R. Graham, Lynchburg (17 games), Mississippi (nine games): Graham, another 2011 selection, was taken by Atlanta in the fourth round last year. The 22-year-old went 9-1 with a 2.63 ERA for the Hillcats in the first half, putting him on the Carolina League Midseason All-Star team and earning a promotion to Double-A. He finished the year 12-2 overall with a 2.80 ERA. He struck out 110 and walked 34 in 148 innings. The organization's No. 5 prospect led the system in ERA and had the second-most wins.

"J.R. started the year in Lynchburg and went to Double-A, and his starts [for Mississippi] were good," said Manno. "Development-wise, he's where he should be and continues to get better each time out. [He is] a big part of our future."

Left-handed pitcher -- Sean Gilmartin, Mississippi (20 games), Gwinnett (seven games): Gilmartin was the team's first-round selection in 2011, going 28th overall out of Florida State University. He progressed quickly, making it to Triple-A by the end of July. The 22-year-old finished with a 3.84 ERA in 157 innings between the two levels, striking out 111 and walking 39. Atlanta's No. 4 prospect was named to the Southern League's Postseason All-Star team.

"Gilmartin has command of all his pitches," said Trembley. "I think you'll see him in the mix at the Major League level next year. He has tremendous work habits, very good poise. He's a [Tom] Glavine-type guy -- not a hard thrower but a great finesse pitcher."

Reliever -- Juan Jaime, Lynchburg (42 games): Jaime, a 25-year-old Dominican Republic native, has an electric arm, racking up 73 strikeouts with 33 walks in 51 1/3 innings this season after missing all of 2010 and 2011 due to Tommy John surgery. The Braves' No. 18 prospect recorded a 3.16 ERA for the Hillcats and finished second in the Carolina League with 18 saves (tops among Atlanta farmhands).

"Jaime got it up to 100 [mph] this year, and he's working on a breaking pitch," Trembley said. "If he develops his breaking ball, I think he has the chance to be a real solid setup or closer type. He's lost weight, gotten in shape, and as a guy who missed two years, his arm is fresh."

Jonathan Raymond 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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