The Braves announced a list today of 22 non-roster invitees for spring training, featuring a couple former first-rounders and a second baseman in the running for a major league spot.
A notable invitee is Tommy La Stella, a second baseman who will be 25 years old this season and is considered in the running as a possible replacement for Dan Uggla. Uggla still holds the starting spot at second base for the Braves, but if he were to remain on the same path that produced a .179 average and .303 wOBA in 2013, or get traded, his shorter leash means La Stella could take over sooner rather than later.
La Stella relies on a major league quality hit tool that produces hard contact and line drives. He hit .343/.422/.473 in 324 plate appearances for Double-A Mississippi last year, and the Braves may want him to get Triple-A at-bats before putting him on the major league roster, but he has hit at every stop so far and is within the age period where he needs to be earning big league at-bats.
La Stella's play during spring training might be the most scrutinized of any Brave. He has been the most-discussed player this winter for his steady play in the minors and the impatience among fans with Uggla. Aside from a good hit tool, the rest of La Stella's tools are around average. So making solid, steady contact and finding holes are crucial for him.
J.R. Graham and Jason Hursh are two of the better prospects in the Braves system. Graham was limited to eight starts in 2013 because of a shoulder injury, and he might return to Mississippi for a brief time this season, but he should get his first Triple-A experience this year. Hursh was the Braves' first-round pick last season and looked good in his limited pro time. He should progress quickly with his advanced power stuff, but I don't expect him to remain in big league camp for an extended period.
Matt Lipka was given an invite, which seemed surprising to me at first, but I have to remember he will already be 22 during the season and should get his first taste of Double-A. Lipka was the Braves' first pick in 2010, but it's been a slow process for the raw outfielder. His walk rate decreased to 5.1 percent with Advanced-A Lynchburg this past season, but he improved his stolen base rate while swiping 37 bags. Lipka is very athletic and will rely on it to succeed in the upper levels, but he needs to continue to improve at the plate and make better contact. He'll probably start 2014 at Mississippi.
Notable invited pitchers are Cody Martin, Yunesky Maya, Daniel Rodriguez, Atahualpa Severino and Shae Simmons. Any of the previous arms could see time in Atlanta soon as relievers. Martin and Simmons are actual prospects, though neither has an impactful ceiling. Simmons has received lofty expectations as a closer, and it's possible, but relief prospects are tough to project. It'll be worth watching his big league spring outings.
Mat Gamel was signed as depth for the corner infield and will likely see time in Atlanta this season as a bench bat. The Braves saw Phil Gosselin's skill set as a utility type this past season.
The last notable name is Edward Salcedo, a third base prospect who may repeat Mississippi after hitting .239/.304/.372 with 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases last season. Like Lipka, it's been a slow process for Salcedo, but the potential for power and speed from a corner infield spot remains. The Braves are giving Salcedo a taste of big league camp, and I'm sure they're hoping he steps forward in 2014.
The full list:
PITCHERS (11): RHP Lay Batista, RHP J.R. Graham, RHP Jason Hursh, RHP Mark Lamm, RHP Cody Martin, RHP Yunesky Maya, LHP Daniel Rodriguez, RHP Gus Schlosser, LHP Atahualpa Severino, RHP Shae Simmons and LHP Ian Thomas.
CATCHERS (4): Matt Kennelly, Steven Lerud, Braeden Schlehuber and Jose Yepez.
INFIELDERS (6): Mat Gamel, Phil Gosselin, Tyler Greene, Mark Hamilton, Tommy La Stella and Edward Salcedo.
OUTFIELDER (1): Matt Lipka.