Saturday, June 21, 2014

1995 Reflections: Richmond Braves

For the past month and change, I have been looking at the minor league affiliates for the 1995 Atlanta Braves. For me, it has been both a look back at those prospects that never panned out and also, a nice glimpse at what that World Series-winning team had in the pipeline with players like Andruw Jones and Kevin Millwood still in the minors. I hope you, the reader, had a little fun looking back. As this is my Saturday column, I need a replacement. I will stick with the minor leaguers of the past, but instead of looking at a year's minor league system, I have a list of players for the "What Could Have Been" team. Next Saturday, I'll reveal at least one player for that team.

But this week is about the Richmond Braves. For an organization whose minor league teams finished a combined 89 games under .500 at the minor league level, the R-Braves were a bright spot for the parent club. Only the 71-70 Macon Braves and 75-66 R-Braves finished above .500. The Braves had a long, long relationship with the capital of Virginia that began in 1966 and continue until 2008 when the Braves, following a exhausting battle for a new stadium, finally moved their AAA team to Gwinnett. The Richmond Braves won five titles, including their fourth in 1994. The '95 squad still had plenty of talent, but not as much as the Norfolk Tides, who had all three of the next generation of Mets pitchers go through Norfolk that year in Jason IsringhausenBill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson.

Managing Richmond that year was Grady Little, who was in his 16th year of managing despite being just 45. He joined the Braves system in 1986 and worked his way up from rookie ball to AAA in 1993. His third year as R-Braves manager would be his last and he left the Braves system for MLB positions as a coach with the Padres, Red Sox, and Indians. He got his first big league managing job in 2000 with the Indians and led Cleveland to a pair of 90-win seasons before heading to Boston where he picked up 93 and 95 wins, but would notably be let go after failing to remove Pedro Martinez against the Yankees in the ALCS. After a pair of seasons with the Cubs as a consultant/instructor/scout, Little got his next job when the Dodgers hired him. Again, he won games, but two years was all he got. In six seasons as a major league manager, Little has a 539-433 record.

Behind the plate was long-time minor leaguer Eddie Perez. Originally signed in 1997, Perez was a catcher/first baseman throughout his career in the minors, but once he made it to Richmond under Little in 1994, he rarely needed his first-base glove. As expected, Perez's minor league numbers are underwhelming. His career-best OPS was .725 in 1991 mostly at Durham. He never hit more than nine homers. But his defense was very good and he made his MLB debut in 1995, including hitting his first homer off former nasty right-hander Mike  Jackson. When Greg Maddux's personal catcher, Charlie O'Brien, left after 1995 for Toronto and a second career designing catcher's helmets, Perez took over his role. He actually had a great hitting season in 1998, slashing .336/.404/.537. The following season, after Javy Lopez was limited by injuries, Perez set many new highs due to just playing a lot, but he only OBP .299. He would catch fire in the NLCS against the Mets, though, going 10 for 20 with 2 2B and 2 HR, winning the series MVP. After injuries killed his next two seasons, the Braves said good bye to their six year backup and he played in Cleveland for a year before posting possibly his best season with the Brewers in 2003, hitting .271/.304/.420 over 375 PA with a career high 11 homers. After the season, he returned to Atlanta in 2004 and struggled in his typical backup role. He played 15 games with the Braves in 2005 before an injury just about killed his season. After rosters expanded, he appeared as a pinch hitter in a 12-3 win against the Rockies, grounding back to the mound. It would be his last major league at-bat. Perez came back for a 13 game run with Mississippi as a player-coach in 2006 before joining the big league club as the bullpen coach for the 2007 season. He has held that spot since.

Most often at first base was Tyler Houston. A former top prospect who was Bryce Harper before that diva, Houston had reached Richmond at the end of 1993 and stagnated. He hit just .255/.298/.404 in 1995 and split time between catcher, first, third, left and right field. It was a disappointing turn of events for the guy who had been selected second overall in 1989 after the Orioles picked Ben McDonald. As far as bWAR goes, Houston's career MLB bWAR of 1.5 ranks 11th of players selected in the 1989 first round. Nevertheless, the Braves liked his versatility and power left-hand bat (sometimes) and Houston spent the first three months of 1996 with the Braves before they shipped him off to the Cubs. From there, he spent the next seven years rarely staying for long in one spot. He did hit .279/.326/.475 with 37 homers in 252 games with the Brewers from 2000 to midseason of 2002. After struggling with the Phils in 2003, Houston returned to Nevada and coaches little league and varsity baseball.

At second was a pair of players who received about equal time. Jose Munoz was originally a Dodgers product who topped out at AAA for three seasons with the Dodgers before becoming a minor league free agent. After a year with the Red Sox system, Munoz spent one year in Richmond, hitting .290 with 7 steals in 17 attempts. Ouch. Like Houston, he played other positions, including short, third, left and right. He spent 1996 in the White Sox system and spent 17 games in the majors for his only action in the "show." After getting cut after the season, Munoz tried his luck in Mexico before eventually retiring after nobody else came calling. Limited by injuries, Tony Graffanino also got 50 games at second with the R-Braves in 1995 where he struggled badly, OPSing .544. It was a stark change from the solid hitting Graffanino had displayed since being selected in the tenth round of 1990. After getting healthy, Graffanino slashed .283/.350/.436 in 1996 with the R-Braves and got to the majors for 22 games. After two years coming off the bench for the big league club, Graffanino was a victim to the numbers. With new Brave Bret Boone coming aboard in 1999, his double play partner Walt Weiss, not to mention Keith Lockhart and Ozzie Guillen on the bench, there was little room for Graffy. Remember, the Braves also added Brian Hunter for first-base depth following Andres Galarraga's bout with cancer. Graffy wasn't jobless for long and joined the Rays system. He would go on to play in 750 games in the majors after the Braves cut him.

Ed Giovanola had seemed to climb the ladder with Graffanino and the double play combo was back together in Richmond. Giovanola avoided the injury big and slashed .321/.417/.427 with the R-Braves and even got a 13 game run with the big league club where he went a miserable 1 for 14. After two years of getting frequent flier miles between Atlanta and Richmond, Giovanola was waived after 1997 and he landed in San Diego, where he received his most playing time. He hit .230 with a .652 OPS over 166 PA in 1998. He would spend about half of 1999 with the Padres as well, posting an awful .518 OPS. His big moment came on August 25th against the Phils when he entered with 2 outs in the 7th and the Pads down 15-1. Oh, forgot to mention that he entered to pitch. He gave up a hit and got a flyball to end the six-run bloodbath of the 7th before working around two walks to throw a scoreless 8th. He even got an at-bat in the ninth and singled. His career was over after 1999.

Over at third base most of the time was MLB veteran Mike Sharperson. With 550 games in the majors, including a trip to the 1992 All-Star Game, Sharperson had been cut ahead of the 1994 season by the Dodgers and was in his second straight season mostly at the minor league level. The 33 year-old spent most of the season with Richmond, hitting .319 with 16 doubles. He also got into seven games with the big league club, going 1 for 7 with 2 RBIs. He went to San Diego the following season and by May 26th, he was on his way back to the majors and had just been recalled to join the Padres in Montrael. Sadly, he was involved in a car accident that claimed his life. He was just 34.

A variety of players got the call in left field. Nobody played more than 34 games and we'll skip past these hodgepodge of names and go to Brian Kowitz, the normal center fielder. Selected in the 9th round out of Clemson in 1990, there was a good deal of hope with Kowitz, who had speed and was projected to have developing pop. He originally made it to Richmond in 1993 and posted an .801 OPS with the International League Champs in 1994. His numbers fell the following season, though like many starting position players for the R-Braves, Kowitz did get a shot to play in Atlanta and he hit .167 over 28 PA. The Braves soured on him and he spent 1996 with the Blue Jays and Tigers organizations, but he hit even worse. His career was effectively over at that point, though Kowitz played 13 games for Aberdeen in the Atlantic League in 2000. He's now an instructor with former major leaguers Larry Bigbie and Val Majewski at former Cardinals Matt Morris's The Baseball Warehouse.

Getting the bulk of time in right field was Bobby Moore. He had made it to the majors with the Royals for a cup of coffee in 1991, where he went 5 for 14. After that season, the Braves sent infielder Rico Rossy to the Royals to acquire Moore, who had good speed and not much else. He spent 1992 with the R-Braves and OPS'd .604. After spending most of 1993 in the Mexican League, Moore landed back in the Royals organization in 1994 before ending the season BACK IN Richmond. After a 60 games with the R-Braves in '94, Moore played 108 games with the R-Braves in 1995 with a .673 OPS. After one more season with Richmond, his career was over after 1996 after never getting back to the majors after his short run in 1991. He joined the Braves as a coach and has spent ten of the last 12 years with Rome as their hitting coach with two years in Lynchburg in the same capacity.

In 1995, the Richmond Braves had five pitchers get at least eleven starts and some of them played a big role for major league teams. The best prospect of the group was Jason Schmidt, who entered the season as the 42nd best prospect. His numbers in 1995 pushed him to 11th after he had a 2.25 ERA in 116 innings for the R-Braves to go with a 1.25 WHIP. He also appeared in nine games in the majors with two starts. Blocked by a veteran pitching staff, Schmidt was ticketed for more minor league work, but did start 11 games with the Braves in 1996 before late August when the Braves packaged him with a pair of prospects for Denny Neagle. Schmidt would show glimpses of a breakout campaign, but unfortunately for the Pirates, it never came until they sent him to the Giants. While logging over 1000 innings in San Fran, Schmidt posted a 3.36 ERA with nine shutouts and a Cy Young runner-up season in 2003. Injuries ultimately limited him to 43.1 ING after 2006 and after 2009, he basically called it quits.

Lefthander Terrell Wade was a top prospect as well. Why he didn't go by his given first name, Hawatha, is rather perplexing. Wade was actually an amateur free agent in 1991 out of Rembert High School in South Carolina. This is why scouts earn the big bucks when they find an undrafted free agent who makes it to the majors. He had an explosive strikeout arm that K'd 208 in 158.1 ING during 1993. In Richmond during 1995, Wade was a disappointing hurler, posting a 4.56 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and 7.9 K/9. He did finish the year with the Braves for three games and became a regular fixture out of the bullpen in 1996 when he had a 2.97 ERA despite a worrisome 1.49 WHIP. He even appeared in three games in the postseason that year. After a rough 1997 landed him back in the minors, Wade was selected by the expansion Devil Rays after the season. He started two games in 1998 with the Rays to finish up his major league career. After 2000, he was stuck in independent ball, even returning to Macon for their new independent team in 2003. He got roughed up in three games with Nashua during 2006 as part of his final professional action.

Righty Matt Murray had started the season with Greenville, but started 19 games down the stretch with Richmond with a 2.78 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. He made it to the majors for four games with the Braves, including a start, before the Braves sent him to Boston to complete a deal that landed Mike Stanton with the Red Sox. With the BoSox, Murray got hammered in 3.1 ING. He would spent the next four seasons trying to get back to the majors, including a return to Richmond in 1996, but wasn't successful. Right-hander Chris Seelbach had been picked in the 4th round of 1991 by the Braves and after nine games with Greenville, Seelbach made it back to Richmond for a 14 game run in 1995. Later that season, he was the player to be named later in the Alejandro Pena trade with the Marlins. After two seasons in AAA for the Marlins, Seelbach spent one year with the Mariners before returning to the Braves organization in 1999. He would appear in seven games with the big league club in 2000-01 with little success. After 2001, he headed to Japan to finish his career with an uneven two seasons with Nappon Ham. After a 3.60 ERA in 2002, it ballooned to 5.61 in 2003.

If Damon Hollins was the "Mayor" of Richmond, Brad Woodall was the city manager. Woodall arrived in 1993 for 57.2 ING. From there, he was stuck in Richmond ala Todd Redmond. He even threw three shutouts during 1994 with a 2.42 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. But, behind the Big Three and more, Woodall was buried in the International League. The UNC product did appear in 18 games with the big league club between 1994-96 and posted a miserable 6.50 ERA. After 1997, Woodall finally left the organization and went to Milwaukee in 1998 where he got his biggest taste of the big leagues. He started 20 out of 31 games for the Brewers with a 4.96 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 138 innings. He also homered off future Brave John Thomson. Woodall failed to make the Brewers in 1999 and got waived where the Cubs acquired him. After he wasn't productive, Woodall headed back to the minors. After a year off possibly because of injury, he came back to pitch for Long Island in the Atlantic League and while he was solid, he never got back to the majors. Since retiring, Woodall spent a couple of years in the Rays system as a coach before becoming a pitching coach with UW-Madison. He also opened the Woodall Baseball Academy and penned A Parent's Guide to Pitching.

Saving games for the R-Braves was 30 year-old Rod Nichols, who nailed down 25 saves to go with a ridiculous 9.5 K/BB rate. 57 strikeouts to SIX walks...including one intentional. That's serious control coming out of the pen. Nichols had already logged 95 games in the majors, all but four with the Indians, between 1988 and 1993. After finishing 1995 with five ugly outings with the big league Braves, Nichols returned to Richmond in 1996 and saved 20 more games with a 1.99 ERA, but did not appear in the majors. After a season in Japan, Nichols retired and eventually transitioned into coaching in the Phillies system. Since 2013, he has been the bullpen coach for the Phillies.

Richmond only had a +14 run differential in 1995 as a product of the league's worst offense (3.96 R/G, .690 OPS). That's how a team with the second best pitching in the league finishes just nine games over .500. Silver lining was that pitching staff was the youngest in the league and threw 14 shutouts. Overall, it was a good season, though the R-Braves definitely would have preferred a bit more offense to give their pitching staff more of a chance to get the old dubya.

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