Saturday, May 17, 2014

1995 Reflections: Danville Braves

Maybe because the Braves have been so abysmal lately scoring runs, I started to think of the last time the Braves actually looked good. Certainly the Braves have looked "good" since 1995, but they certainly haven't won it all since. Nineteen years ago, the Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians for their first World Series title in Atlanta.  It was supposed to be the first of many titles, but ultimately, it was their only one of "The Streak." At the time, I had one of those huge satellite dishes where you would move the satellite to different locations to pick up stations that you paid for. The NBC station that came with our plan was the Atlanta-area affiliate and I stayed up in my house to watch the entire Game Six. I was just 13.

Now, you can flip that number the other way.

So, starting this week, I wanted to look back at 1995, but not the major league team. Those names are fairly well known. What I wish to look at is the minor league affiliates of 1995. The Braves fielded eight minor league teams that season and I could easily write eight different articles, but I am going to skip both the GCL and DSL teams simply because (1) I can and (2) too many random names that no one will ever care about. With that done, we are left with six teams and today, the Danville Braves of 1995 will get their review. Interestingly, Danville remains the only team that is still an active Braves affiliate.

The Braves moved their Appalachian League team to Danville, VA in 1993 after a decade in Pulaski, VA. Their manager for the 1995 season was Max Venable, a veteran of 727 major league games between 1979 and 1991, mostly with the Giants as a 4th outfielder. He even spent 1992-93 in Japan playing for Chiba Lotte. After coming back state-side and retiring, he joined the Braves system in 1994, managing the Idaho Falls Braves of the Pioneer League before Atlanta ended their relationship with the Pioneer League. The Braves brought Venable to Danville the following season, replacing Paul Runge, who moved up the chain in the system. Venable's managerial career came to a close after 1995, but he apparently has continued to coach in the Padres and Mariners system since. Most recently, he was the hitting coach for the SK Wyverns in Korea. His son, Will, has played for the Padres for several years while his youngest son Winston played for the Chicago Bears.

Behind the plate for the D-Braves in 1995 was often Corey Pointer, a former 2nd round pick out of Texas. He played well, giving the Braves a middle-of-the-lineup threat while slashing .278/.370/.500. A long way away from the bigs, Pointer was a rising prospect in the system heading in 1996 and he banged out 15 homers before a late August trade to the Pirates system as part of the Denny Neagle/Jason Schmidt deal. Pointer would spend the next four seasons in the Pirates system, including a pair of seasons with the future Braves affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats. He had good power, but he never sniffed the .278 average he posted during his one year with the Danville Braves.

On the right-side of the infield was Moe McWhite and a platoon of Angel Espada and Adam Cross. McWhite, a switch-hitting corner infielder, had joined the system the previous year as a 20th rounder and was in his second season with Danville. He was much improved, slashing .260/.313/.494 with a team-leading 12 homers and an almost 300 point increase in OPS from the previous year, but it would be his last season in the system. He would join the independent-level Catskill Cougars for three seasons and played five more games with the the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs in 1999 before calling it quits. Meanwhile, Espada was a 42nd rounder in 1994 out of New Jersey. He hit .301 with the D-Braves in 1995 with 16 steals and one of his 16 career homers, but he washed out of the system after a .558 OPS in 1996. He would spend a year-and-a-half in the Mets system, never getting out of A-ball, before becoming a regular fixture in the Atlantic League, especially the Bridgeport Bluefish between 1999-2007. A career .311 hitter in the Atlantic League, Espada never left independent ball after the Mets cut bait. Espada would later become a minor league hitting coach and manager in the Marlins system. A much more notable career than Cross. A Virginia native, Cross was an undrafted free agent who hit .304 for the D-Braves in 1995 with 15 steals. Two years later, he was out of organized ball.

Over at short, the D-Braves had Australia-native Ben Utting. The Braves were beginning their run as a regular in Australia scouting. Notably, they would sign Damian Moss and also added former prospect Glenn Williams to the system. Utting, a left-hand hitting middle infielder, had little power and good speed. He would hit just .234 in 1995, mostly with the D-Braves, but he did walk a lot. He would stagnate in A-ball before being cut after 1997. He also played a couple of years in independent ball, in Taiwan, and in his native Australia. After his career was over, Utting became a coach and a sports equipment dealer down under. Tony Anglen was a recent draftee, having joined the D-Braves after finishing up at Arkansas State. The 3B spent one season in organized ball, slashing .253/.325/.344 with 14 steals.  The 1995 D-Braves also had Rob Sasser at third, though he only played a dozen games at Danville before joining Eugene. Sasser would later get selected by the Anaheim Angels as a Rule 5 pick and in 1998, got one at-bat with the Texas Rangers. He would play until 2006, but never was able to get back to the majors.

Robert Duncan, Jayson Bass, and Eric Pickett manned the outfield from left-to-right. Duncan OPS'd .646 with four extra-base hits before being cut before 1996. Bass, a ninth rounder in 1994, fared better, slashing .224/.305/.317 with a team-leading 24 steals and sticking in the system until 2000, where he would finally get released. He played with the Pirates system, in the Atlantic League, and in Korea, but never played in the bigs. Pickett, selected five rounds ahead of Bass in 1994, OPS'd a miserable .574 and after a .224 season in 1996, his ball-playing career came to a close.

While the offensive side sported only one future major leaguer (he of one game and one at-bat), the D-Braves pitching staff had three future major leaguers, led by 18 year-old Bruce Chen. The native of Panama had joined the system for a nine-game run in 1994, but played for Danville for the first time the following season. He struggled at times, finishing with a 3.97 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. He would later find success in the system, finishing in the Baseball America Top 100 for three consecutive seasons, including the #4 best prospect in 1999. After some solid relief for the Braves in 2000, Chen was sent to the Phillies for Andy Ashby to bolster the Braves rotation. Chen would famously pitch for eight more teams after the Phillies. Since 2009, Chen has found a home with the Kansas City Royals, where he has started 110 of his career 222 starts. But in 1995, he was just a rookie-league pitcher who played second fiddle to...

Winston Abreu. An 18 year-old out of the Dominican Republic, Abreu was also in his second season with the Braves system. He struck out 90 in 74 innings, leading the team in both marks, and also paced the team with a 2.31 ERA and six wins. Abreu would suffer through a host of injuries that limited his 1996, wiped out his 1997, and limited his 2000 season. Still, he showed a lively arm and always struck out a lot of guys, including 171 in 1999. Needing an extra arm, the Braves made him the player to be named later in a deal that brought Rudy Seanez to the Braves in 2001. Abreu would not play in the majors for the Padres, nor the Cubs who picked him up next. Or the Royals, Yankees, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks. Instead, Abreu would finally get to the bigs with the Baltimore Orioles in 2006 for 7 forgetful games. He also pitched in 26 ugly games for the 2007 Nationals. After a season in Japan, he would appear in five games for the Rays and Indians in 2009, but has never been able to stay for very long in any one place. Over the last three years, he has played in Mexico and state-side in the independents. He's currently the Bridgeport Bluefish closer.

After Chen and Abreu, things were really ugly for the D-Braves. Joe Giuliano posted a 7.25 ERA for Danville and after a "meh" season in 1996, the Braves cut him. He spent four more years in the minors with the Reds, but never made it to AA. William Wise was only slightly better, posting a 5.63 ERA in 10 starts for Danville. He would repeat the level in 1996 and his career was done after 1998. Lefty Jimmy Osting was a fourth-rounder in 1995 out of Trinity High School (Louisville, KY). He sucked in his first season, but became a solid minor leaguer, whose impact was stunted by injuries. Osting would join Chen in the 2000 trade to the Phils for Ashby. Osting ended up pitching in three games out of the pen for 2001 Padres and making three starts for the Brewers in 2002, but two years later, his playing days were over. Since then, Osting has opened the Ostingers Baseball Academy.

Danville only saved 18 games and all but three of those saves were spread out between three pitchers. Lanky Ken Raines, a southpaw out of Western Michigan, nailed down six saves for Danville before being promoted to save eight more for the Macon Braves. He would be cut before 1996, though. Kevin Loewe was the second-to-last pick of the 1995 draft. Another college lefty, this time from Maryland, Loewe posted a 3.79 ERA and 5 saves with Danville, but was cut along with Raines before the 1996 season and after a season in the independent Frontier League, his career came to a close. Undrafted righty, Keith Cooper, was also one-and-done. He posted a sweet 1.65 ERA and 0.92 WHIP with Danville, but at 22, he was old for the level. He spent a year in independent ball, but was soon starting the next chapter of his life.

One notable stat came from Jacob Shumate. In the 1994 draft, the Braves selected Shumate with the 27th overall selection out of Hartsville, SC. He had great velocity, but the Braves were given the unenvious task of trying to help Shumate control it. In 1995, it was super ugly. He started the year with Macon and was later demoted to Danville where things got really weird. In 13.1 ING, he walked 32, struck out 16, hit two batters, and uncorked FOURTEEN wild pitches. How he only hit two batters is a miracle. He finished the year with 33 wild pitches and he would eclipse that mark in 1998 with 40! Atlanta finally said goodbye to their former first rounder after 2000, where he enjoyed some of his only success in the minors. With Greenville, he saved 18 games and posted a 4.14 ERA. He still walked 41 in 45.2 ING with 10 WP. After a year in the Brewers system, Shumate's "Wild Thing" career came to a close. In 312.1 ING, Shumate walked 436 batters, struck out 323, hit 43 batters, and was charged with 125 wild pitches. To be nice, one of his walks was intentional. Shumate is one of only seven players out of the 1994 first round that failed to make it to the big leages. Former Mets outfielder Jay Payton, from Georgia Tech, was selected two picks after Shmuate, who is now a math teacher.

All told, Danville went 27-40, the second-worst record in the league. They had a decent enough offense for the Appy League, but their pitching staff was regularly beat up on, despite finishing third in K's. They were also did in by some terrible catching, by Pointer and Company, that saw them get charged with 29 passed balls, eight more than the next closest. Bass did finish 7th in the system in stolen bases with 24 while Raines finished fourth in saves.

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