1. Tommy Hanson
Minor League Baseball markets its product as a preview to greatness. Come see stars before their brightest hour. The biggest beacon for the G-Braves' inaugural season was right-handed pitcher Tommy Hanson.
The 22-year-old had never pitched a game in Class AAA before the season began yet the preseason buzz surrounded the top prospect in the Atlanta Braves' organization. He started opening day. His face covered the marketing material and the media guide. Whatever the expectation, Hanson was exceeding it.
In his first start, he struck out 10 in 4 1/3 innings in a no-decision at Charlotte. That is 10 Ks in 13 outs recorded. The fewest he ever struck out in a game was six and his 3-3 record does no justice to his 1.49 AAA ERA.
With each minor-league start the excitement about a new dominant Atlanta Braves' pitcher grew. And on June 7, Hanson outgrew minor league baseball. He left for the big leagues after 11 starts, six at Gwinnett Stadium. With him went the opportunity to buy a $6 ticket to see rising a major-league star. At least one.
Hanson has yet to lose a game in the big leagues. He is 4-0 with a 2.85 ERA and is the first NL rookie pitcher to beat the Red Sox and the Yankees in consecutive starts. His 90 minor league strikeouts still rank him third in the International League in total Ks even if he hasn't pitched a game in the league since the end of May.
In every way Hanson fulfilled the promise of Class AAA baseball. For two months, Hanson trotted out to the mound every five days at arm's length from the fans and spent the intervening games signing autographs. Now every five days he is on TV and tickets to get close to him cost a bit more than $6.
2. Rotation rotation
Tommy Hanson was not the lone source of hype surrounding the G-Braves' pitching staff. There were pitchers with big league innings and others with plenty of potential. The opening day rotation read: Tommy Hanson, Jo-Jo Reyes, James Parr, Charlie Morton and Todd Redmond. All but Hanson and Redmond had big-league experience. Hanson was the top prospect and Redmond was the Class AA Southern League Pitcher of the Year in 2008.
Reyes and Parr lasted one start before Atlanta called. Reyes went into the starting rotation and Parr to the bullpen. Their exits opened the door for Kris Medlen to prove he can log more than a few relief innings and gave Jerome Gamble some time away from Class AA Mississippi.
The shakeups continued when Medlen was called to Atlanta, followed by the trade of Morton and the promotion of Hanson. In all, Gwinnett started 16 different pitchers before the All-Star break and Redmond is the only pitcher from the preseason rotation still in the current rotation.
3. Penultimate end of Glavine
For nearly two decades no Major League Baseball team focused more on winning with pitching than the Braves. The names Maddux, Smoltz, Avery, Glavine defined Braves' baseball for more than 10 years. And from the first day Gwinnett Stadium opened, Tom Glavine connected a sparkling new franchise to the legacy of the organization's past. Glavine pitched a simulated game on cold afternoon in April that coincided with the stadium's planned open house. Afterwards he joked that the stadium was nice and close to his home, but he hoped he would be driving downtown to pitch in the future. Glavine pitched twice more at Gwinnett Stadium, but never again made the drive to Turner Field to pitch.
His second start was a weekday day game. An announced crowd of 5,571 showed up at Gwinnett Stadium. He threw five innings, gave up six hits and didn't allow a run. Glavine said he felt stronger after the start, but six days later after another good rehab start in Rome, the Braves released the 300-game winner. It was the end to a Hall of Fame career in a Braves' uniform and it made its last turn in Gwinnett.
4. Local son comes home
He was just 1-for-3 with an RBI and a walk, but Brian McCann's return home was anything but average. The major-league All-Star catcher played his first game in his home county since high school when he made one rehab start with Gwinnett, testing out his new prescription glasses. They worked well enough, his hit was a double, and despite his lost games in the major leagues he still took part in his fourth straight All-Star game this week.
5. New stadium less crowded
A total of 10,427 fans showed up on April 17 to watch the G-Braves open their new stadium. People piled in as soon as the gates opened and blankets covered the outfield berm. Even after watching their new team lose 7-4, the crowd gave a standing ovation. Another 10,000-plus showed up the next night. Since then, the stadium has only hosted that many people two more times.
The G-Braves are 0-4 in front of crowds of 10,000-plus and just 5-11 in when 6,000 or more fill the stadium. But this is only 16 out of 45 home games. There were 29 games with less than 6,000 people. The average is just below 6,000 at 5,903, but that puts the G-Braves at 10th out of 14 International League teams in attendance. Columbus, the other team with a new stadium, leads the league with an average gate of 9,371.
6. Call-up crew
Outside of the pitching staff, only a few G-Braves have earned a trip to the big leagues so far, but once up (or down) there nearly all have had an impact.
Catcher Clint Sammons started the year as the backup catcher and returned once more in late April. Outfielder Brandon Jones was the first in-season call-up and he hit .308 in five games filling in for the injured Garrett Anderson. Gwinnett's No. 1 and 2 hitters, Diory Hernandez and Gregor Blanco, were both gone by June 2 and neither has returned. Class AAA All-Stars first baseman Barbaro Canizares was called up on June 11 and hit .235 in four games before Casey Kotchman came off the disabled list.
But the most memorable call up for an everyday player was Brooks Conrad. The second baseman ended his first big-league game with a game-winning home run and in 10 games is hitting .355 with eight RBIs, two home runs, two triples and a double. At the break, Conrad remained with the big-league club while Kelly Johnson continues to rehab with Gwinnett.
7. All over all the bases
There is no way to classify what Wes Timmons has done for Gwinnett. He plays every position in the infield and made his first All-Star game this season, even if it was as an add-on. Why it was an add-on is what makes Timmons' season great. There was no position to vote for him to play. He has not logged enough innings at any base to have a true position and he is not a designated hitter. What he does do is get on base. Timmons ended the first half of the season on a 36-game on-base streak. That number is even more impressive considering his No. 2 spot in the lineup often leaves him sacrificing his at-bat to move runners around.
8. AL East of IL
In all, Atlanta has tapped the G-Braves 14 times for players during the first half of the baseball season. Some stuck, some didn't, but the revolving roster keeps the G-Braves transactions nearly as interesting as its on-field division race.
Gwinnett came to the All-Star break five games over .500 at 48-43 and in third place in the International League South. In any other division Gwinnett would be no worse than second. Norfolk and Durham are tied for first in the South and the G-Braves must try to catch two teams it is just 10-14 against so far (only four of those wins came in 13 games at home).
9. What's next
The second half is less than half of the Class AAA season for Gwinnett, with just 52 of its 144 games remaining. It has five series and 19 games with south division leaders Norfolk and Durham and ends the year with a three-game homestand against division foe Charlotte. The biggest question remains the pitching rotation, which just began to stabilize before the All-Star break. It is not at the same level it was without names like Hanson, Medlen and Morton throwing every five days. The team may get the injured James Parr back in the second half and Jo-Jo Reyes, currently a rehabbing major leaguer, could return to the rotation. In the end, the team down the road winning is more important, and that is the biggest question, creating all the others. Who will stay? Who will go? Who will come up? Who will be the next star?