Minor League Report: Gregor Blanco
Unheralded center fielder has impressed in Braves camp
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When the Braves began their search for Andruw Jones' replacement during the offseason, Gregor Blanco's name was seldom mentioned as a legit candidate. But since the start of Spring Training, many people have changed their opinion of Blanco and gained the belief he'll be in the Major Leagues very soon.
Arguably the biggest surprise in Braves camp, Blanco has proven that the impressive numbers he produced in the Venezuelan Winter League were no fluke. Along with added upper-body strength, he has impressed many with an enhanced maturity level.
"He's just a good player," Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez said. "He's getting better and better. He's learning the game and now he's recognizing that it's time for him to be recognized in the big leagues."
While spending the winter as a coach in Venezuela, Perez got a chance to see Blanco rank second in the league with a .345 batting average. More importantly, he got a chance to see that the 24-year-old outfielder no longer felt he had to play with a flair for the spectacular.
"He's one of those guys who three years ago you saw make a play and you said, 'Why?'" Perez said. "Now when he makes one of those plays, he says, 'Why did I do that?' He's learned and he's one of the best players from Venezuela now."
Braves manager Bobby Cox has been impressed with Blanco and has said he expects the youngster to be in the big leagues soon. But at the same time, he can't guarantee Blanco will even begin this season in Atlanta.
Josh Anderson, whose base-stealing ability seemingly separates him from Blanco, has also enjoyed a good camp and seems to be the favorite to win the job to serve as the Braves' fourth outfielder. If this proves true, many in Venezuela will likely be surprised that Blanco is going to have to start another season at Triple-A Richmond.
"He's one of the most famous players down there," Perez said. "That's why everybody expected him to make this team. They thought it would be easy for him to make the big leagues, but it's not."
Early cuts: The Braves announced their first round of cuts from big league camp on Wednesday night. Headlining the list was right-hander Charlie Morton, who will have a shot to be in Triple-A Richmond's starting rotation, and catcher Tyler Flowers, who will take his powerful bat to Class A Myrtle Beach.
Given the chance to increase his confidence during another Minor League season, Morton has a chance to be in the Atlanta rotation within the next two seasons. As for Flowers, the Braves will keep him at catcher in the Minors, much like they did Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with the understanding he might be able to help them as a first baseman in the future.
Hernandez debuts: During his first big league camp, Jordan Schafer has proven why the Braves consider him to be their center fielder of the future. Many of the coaches have said they believe he'll be ready for the Majors later this year.
But he's not the only impressive young center fielder in the farm system. The next best outfield prospect is Gorkys Hernandez, who was obtained from the Tigers in October. The speedy 20-year-old outfielder has made a good first impression in Minor League camp and was given a chance to play a few innings in a Grapefruit League game on Monday.
After getting his first look at Hernandez, Cox said, "He just looks like a player."
Earlier in camp, the veteran skipper gave Schafer the same simple compliment.
Wounded Yellow Jackets: Right-handed pitchers Lee Hyde and Tim Gustafson, a pair of Atlanta natives who played together at Georgia Tech, will both miss most of the upcoming year while recovering from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.
Hyde has made just 24 appearances since being selected in the fourth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.
Gustafson, who was a ninth-round selection in 2006, was a wide receiver for Parkview High School's state championship football teams in '02 and '03. Another wide receiver on that team was Jeff Francoeur and the team's quarterback was Clint Sammons, who is the top catcher in the Braves' Minor League system.
Another pitcher seemingly destined for a second Tommy John surgery is Erik Cordier, who was obtained last March from the Royals in exchange for Tony Pena Jr. A former first-round selection, the 22-year-old right-hander underwent the same surgical procedure in 2006.
Class of '07: Brandon Hicks, who was selected in the third round last year out of Texas A&M, made a good first impression on Cox. While being used as an extra during last Saturday's Grapefruit League game against the Astros, the 23-year-old shortstop hit a two-run ninth-inning homer and also turned an impressive double play.
In 55 combined games last season with Rookie Level Danville and Class A Rome, Hicks hit .285 with seven homers and a .413 on-base percentage. Early thoughts that he projected as a future third baseman have subdued as he's impressed with his defense at the shortstop position.
What they're saying: "Lillibridge's speed on the field plays above average. I think Brett has the ability to get up to speed quickly, which is a great asset at shortstop." -- Braves director of player development Kurt Kemp on Brent Lillibridge, who led the Braves organization with 42 stolen bases last year
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.