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Move brings majors closer

It's still a difficult, uphill journey from Class AAA to the majors, no matter how close the minor league team is.

Seeing your ultimate goal nearby makes it seem a little less steep, though.

"It's like dangling the carrot out there," outfielder Matt Young said. "You'll definitely be able to see the end of the tunnel."

"It will be awesome to have the AAA team so close to Atlanta," pitcher Todd Redmond said. "It is something we're all excited about."

With the move of their International League team from Richmond to Gwinnett County, the Braves will have their top farm team just a little more than 30 miles away.

When you combine that with a chance to play in a new state-of-the-art ballpark, it's no wonder that prospective members of next season's Gwinnett Braves are excited.

"We've all talked about it and we're pumped," pitcher Tommy Hanson said.

Hanson, Redmond and Young are three of about a dozen players expected to make the jump from Class AA Mississippi to Gwinnett next season.

Hanson, the Braves' minor league pitcher of the year, and outfielder Jordan Schafer could go right to Atlanta with impressive major league spring trainings. If they don't, though, they will be just up 1-85.

"I don't know much about the Atlanta area, but I guess a lot of us will find out next year," Hanson said. "Turner Field is awesome and I hear that the new ballpark in Gwinnett will be, too."

Gwinnett will be the Braves' third new minor league stadium in six years, following Class A Rome and Mississippi.

"Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann opened them and we got them a couple years later," Young said. "Now it is our turn."

"I'm definitely not afraid to open a new stadium," Redmond said.

Redmond came to the Braves from the Pittsburgh organization at the end of spring training and was named pitcher of the year in the Southern League after leading the circuit with 13 victories.

"This organization is still new to me, but I've felt right at home from the start," the right-hander said.

"He doesn't have great stuff, but he knows how to pitch and he's a winner," Mississippi manager Phillip Wellman said of Redmond. "Hitters don't square up his pitches."

Hanson is the pitcher with great stuff. He tossed a no-hitter for Mississippi and was 11-5 with 163 strikeouts in Class AA and Class A after a promotion from Myrtle Beach.

"He can dominate," Wellman said of Hanson, who will pitch in the Arizona Fall League.

Solid pitching, along with some timely hitting, was the key to Mississippi's turnaround. The team rebounded from a 2-15 start to the season to win the second-half title in the South Division and then won the postseason Southern League championship.

"It was definitely a wild ride," said Young, who hit .289 and led the team with 30 stolen bases. "I think we're still celebrating."

Hanson, Redmond and Kris Medlen, moved from the bullpen, headed a strong rotation, and Luis Valdez set a team record with 28 saves.

"Medlen got to use his three quality pitches as a starter and not many hitters wanted to face Valdez," Wellman said.

Mississippi hit just 88 home runs but came through at the plate in the clutch time after late in the season.

Schafer, suspended for 50 games in April for violating the ban on HGH use, got hot in August and finished with 34 extra-base hits and 51 RBIs in 84 games. He will play winter ball in Mexico to make up for the time he missed this year.

"We didn't have the most talented team in the Southern League, but we hung in there and never quit," Wellman said. "It ended up being a great season. These guys are winners."

The players don't see why that can't carry over to next season in Gwinnett.

"You always want to win, no matter what team you are on or at what level," Hanson said. "It was a great feeling to win it all. I'm sure everyone would like to do it again."

Richmond fell to the bottom after winning the International League Governors' Cup championship in 2007. But in the minors, every season is different thanks to a mostly new cast of characters.

SideBar: POTENTIAL GWINNETT BRAVES

A dozen players who helped Mississippi win the Class AA Southern League title in 2008 are likely to make the jump to Class AAA Gwinnett next season.

Jordan Schafer, 22, OF: Bounced back from suspension to regain his status as Atlanta's top position prospect.

Tommy Hanson, 22, RHP: Braves minor league pitcher of year will likely be in Atlanta sometime next year.

Todd Redmond, 23, RHP: Southern League pitcher of year led Mississippi and SL with 13 victories.

Kris Medlen, 22, RHP: Great athlete who moved from the bullpen to rotation in midseason at Mississippi.

Luis Valdez, 24, RHP: Set a Mississippi record with 28 saves and struck out 77 in 651/3 innings.

Stephen Marek, 25, RHP: Acquired along with Casey Kotchman from the Angels in the Mark Teixeira trade.

Deunte Heath, 23, RHP: Won 13 games in AA and A, starting season by going 9-2 at Myrtle Beach.

J.C. Holt, 25, 2B: Hit .285 and swiped 22 bases with Mississippi after starting slowly at Richmond.

Isaiah Ka'aihue, 23, 1B: Led Mississippi with 14 homers and ranked near the top of the Southern League with 88 walks.

Van Pope, 24, 3B: Ready for AAA in the field, but batted only .260 in his second season with Mississippi.

Matt Young, 25, OF: Hit .289 and led Mississippi with 30 stolen bases while drawing 68 walks.

Kevin Gunderson, 24, LHP: Former College World Series standout for Oregon State had 15 saves in AA and A.

- Guy Curtright