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Braves system stuck in losing rut

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Midseason managerial dismissals are rare in the minor leagues, but Matt Walbeck was fired by Atlanta recently after Rome lost 20 of 22 games in the Class A South Atlantic League.

It has been that kind of year in the lower levels of the Braves farm system.

Atlanta is rich in prime prospects, rating near the top in most rankings. But the Braves are near the bottom on minor league success this year.

The Braves would be at the bottom, in fact, if it wasn't for the success of Gwinnett, which is battling for a division title in the Class AAA International League.

The G-Braves went into the weekend 10 games over .500. The five teams under them in the system were a combined 73 games below.

Developing players is the priority in the minor leagues, not posting winning records. But it is the goal of every farm system to have success in both areas if possible.

"Learning how to win is part of a player's development," Braves director of player development Kurt Kemp said in spring training. "You don't want a losing atmosphere."

But outside of the G-Braves, the losses have been piling up for Atlanta's farm teams. It is a continuation from last season. For the first time in years, not one team in the system made the postseason.

Atlanta's six farm teams were a combined 313-373 in 2010, a .457 winning percentage. Even with Gwinnett at 10 games over .500 going into the weekend, the teams were a combined 173-236 this year. That's a dismal winning percentage of .423.

Struggling the most is Rome, where Rick Albert replaced Walbeck as manager on July 7. Going into the weekend, the R-Braves were 6-15 in the second half and 31-60 overall -- both the worst in the South Atlantic League.

Rome was hardly alone, though, when it came to suffering through a long season of losing. Lynchburg had the worst record in the Class A Advanced Carolina League, sitting at 6-14 in the second half and 36-54 overall. Class AA Mississippi had the next-to-worst record in the Southern League at 34-57 -- just a half-game better than Carolina.

The problem is a lack of quality depth in the organization, especially position players. With Freddie Freeman joining Jason Heyward in Atlanta this season, the Braves no longer have a prime hitting prospect in the minors. There are certainly plenty of pitching prospects at all levels, but many of them have just so-so records because of a lack of support.

Take Mississippi for an example. The M-Braves boast a talented starting rotation led by Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino. But the group is a combined 21-26 despite everyone having an ERA under 4.00.

The only highly considered position prospect at Mississippi is Tyler Pastornicky. The shortstop went into weekend batting .300 and had 20 stolen bases as one of the few bright spots offensively for the M-Braves.

Mychal Jones was moved from shortstop to center field this season and has had a year to forget. He is batting .214 after missing the first month of the season because of a foot injury and being suspended for 10 days later after a DUI arrested.

Despite its record, Lynchburg has at least been the site of a breakthrough season by shortstop Andrelton Simmons. The 21-year-old native of Curacao was hitting .302 going into the weekend in his first full season and living up to his hype defensively.

Edward Salcedo, who received a Braves record international bonus of $1.6 million, seems to have settled down at third base with Rome, but still had 30 errors. The 20-year-old Dominican was batting .277 with 10 homers.

Matt Lipka, the Braves' first-round draft choice in 2010, was hitting .237 with 16 stolen bases for the R-Braves as a 19-year-old. The shortstop had committed just seven errors.

There is no questioning Atlanta's recent success in player development, not with Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Brandon Beachy, Freeman and Heyward playing prominent roles in Atlanta, and Julio Teheran and Mike Minor waiting in the wings.

But when it comes to wins and losses, the Braves' minor league system is suffering through a down time at every level except Class AAA. It's up to the G-Braves to give the system a playoff team this year.