Braves release Triple-A slugger Mejia so he can play in Japan

The Braves released Ernesto Mejia his release from their 40-man roster so the veteran Triple-A first baseman could go play for the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League. The Braves and Seibu reached an agreement regarding Mejia’s services and he’ll report to Japan next week.

One of the most prolific power hitters in minor league baseball in recent years, Mejia, 28, was batting .354 with seven homers and 24 RBIs in 20 games for Triple-A Gwinnett in his third season with the team.

He played in 937 games over 12 minor league seasons without a major league callup, with all but one of those years in the Braves organization. Mejia racked up 78 home runs and 284 RBIs in 404 games over three seasons from 2011 through 2013, including one year in Double-A and two in Triple-A.

“Once we signed Freddie Freeman to a long-term contract this winter, it was pretty obvious that he was going to be our first baseman for the forseeable future,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “And in Erny’s (Mejia) case he’s played great, he’s done everything we could’ve asked him to do at Triple-A, but there just wasn’t a spot.

“We thought we had a deal this winter with another Japanese club, and that fell through. This one surfaced in the last couple of weeks.”

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Joey Terdoslavich will likely get most of the first-base duties at Gwinnett after playing right field when Mejia was at first base. If the Braves needed to fill in for Freeman, manager Fredi Gonzlez said third baseman Chris Johnson or catcher Evan Gattis could fill in for a game or two, but if Freeman were out for any significant stretch Terdoslavich would be called up to fill in. That would likely have been the case even if Mejia was still at Gwinnett.

Mejia has a .282 career average with 149 home runs and 598 RBI in the minor leagues, including two seasons in the Dominican Summer League and the past decade in American minor leagues from rookie ball through Triple-A. He hit a career-high 28 homers in 2013 and led the International League in RBIs each of the past two seasons.

Many Braves fans wondered why Mejia never got a shot at the big-league level. He’s a below-average defensive first baseman and very slow runner, and he doesn’t have any experience at other positions. The Braves and most other teams, particularly National League teams, want versatility from bench players.

Some in the Braves organization thought that his big power and offensive production in the high minors might draw trade interest from American League teams willing to give him a shot as a bench player or designated hitter, but those offers never came despite the Braves making it known they would listen.

“(Mejia) is a good player,” Gonzalez said, “now he gets an opportunity to go play in the major leagues of Japan, showcase himself in a little higher baseball that Triple-A, their major league system over there. And he gets a chance to do well for his family. I expect him to do well, put up some big numbers. I’m sure he’ll get a nice (contract), or at the very least he gets a chance for other (major league) clubs to see him.

“I’m happy for him. We couldn’t ask more from him. It was just a bad situation.”

Wren said, “It works out well, where he can go over and, you know, get a chance to support his family and make some money and establish himself over there, and who knows what happens after that? A lot of players have come back here after going over there and done very well.”

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