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March 31, 2010

On the Beat

Mid-Week Update

by John Perrotto

One of the biggest questions on the Grapefruit League circuit this spring has been: Who is the better prospect, Jason Heyward or Stephen Strasburg? Both Heyward, the Braves' right fielder, and Strasburg, the Nationals' right-hander, have been the talk of Florida throughout the exhibition season

BP's player development guru, Kevin Goldstein, ranked Strasburg as baseball's top overall prospect coming into spring training, and Heyward as the second-best. Scouts who watched both play this spring have no doubt that both have Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in their futures.

For now, Heyward has to be considered at least slightly ahead of Strasburg if for no other reason that he will be in the Braves' Opening Day lineup and making his major-league debut when they face the Cubs next Monday at Turner Field in Atlanta. Strasburg, meanwhile, will begin his professional career with Double-A Harrisburg of the Eastern League and debut with a start at Altoona on April 11.

Thus, Heyward will lead a cast of intriguing players who will make their major-league debut sometime in 2010, many who will start off in the minor leagues before beginning to populate big-league rosters sometime in May then throughout the summer. For now, though, all eyes will be on Heyward and everyone with the Braves believes he will be able to handle all the hype.

"He's a very special kid," manager Bobby Cox said. "Guys like him don't come along every day. I've never seen a rookie like him. It's not just as a player but as a person. He's a very mature kid. He'll be able to handle everything thrown at him. If he couldn't, we wouldn't be taking him north with us."

PECOTA expects the 20-year-old Heyward to have a solid rookie season with a .274/.344/.462 slash line along with 19 home runs. Cox sounds like he believes Heyward will exceed those totals, observing, "He does everything so well. He runs above average, throws above average with above-average accuracy, runs the bases well above average, catches everything that's hit to right field and just doesn't go up to the plate swinging at everything, and he'll take a walk if the pitcher doesn't give him anything to hit. He's just a 20-year-old kid but he plays like he's a whole lot older. I think we're all excited to see exactly what he can do."

Another rookie outfielder who will be counted on heavily by a team with legitimate post-season hopes is Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson, who will make his major-league debut next Monday as the leadoff hitter against the Royals at Kansas City. Manager Jim Leyland said before spring training that Jackson, who was acquired from the Yankees at the winter meetings in the trade that sent Curtis Granderson to New York, would have to earn his spot on the team. Jackson has done just that.

"He's an impressive kid and an exciting player," Leyland said. "You could tell right away this spring that he could play a good center field and that he could run. The biggest question was if he could hit and we think he can. Things are different when you leave spring training and they add a second deck to the stadiums and the lights come on. He'll struggle at times like all rookies do I think he has the ability and toughness to survive the rough stretches."

Jackson also has the pressure of replacing a popular player in Granderson, and PECOTA isn't exactly bullish with a median projection of .253/.316/.383 with 10 homers and 16 stolen bases. However, Jackson says he is motivated by being traded for an All-Star.

"I knew this was the opportunity I had been waiting for and didn't know if I would ever get with the Yankees," the 23-year-old Jackson said. "I started working out harder than ever after the trade. I did everything I could to be as prepared as possible when I got to spring training. I spent more times in the cages. I ate better. I got more sleep. You don't know how many opportunities you're ever going to get in this game. I wasn't going to risk blowing it."

Beyond Strasburg, there are plenty of other big-time prospects who should wind up playing big roles with their major-league teams at some point this season. Among them are Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman, Rangers first baseman Justin Smoak, Athletics outfielder Michael Taylor, and Blue Jays first baseman Brett Wallace.

"It's always exciting to see the really talented kids come up from the minor leagues," said Cox, who will retire at the end of this season following 29 years as a major-league manager. "It gets everyone pumped up and it helps keep you young."

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Those who have been around Cubs manager Lou Piniella this spring say he seems rejuvenated. However, he takes exception to that observation. The Cubs finished second in the National League Central last season after winning the division the previous two years, and a perception that the fiery skipper had lost his spark had started to grow .

"I was hurt by it, because that couldn't be further from the truth," Piniella told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I've got no quit in me. I never had and I never will. I'm very competitive."

Piniella, though, admittedly toned down his on-field theatrics last season. He has come to understand that kicking dirt and his cap all over the infield during an argument with the umpire is not becoming of a 66-year-old man.

"'I like myself a heck of a lot better, I'll be honest with you,'' Piniella said. ''I don't like getting kicked out of games and sitting in my office and having a beer and thinking, 'What the hell did I do that for? I know the fans enjoy a show. I remember when I first started managing, (Yankees owner George Steinbrenner) would call me into his office and say, 'Look, part of your job is to put some fannies in the seats, and when you go out there to argue, put on a damn good show.' And it worked then but it doesn't now.''

Speculation that Piniella might retire after this season has also led some to believe he has mellowed. However, he says finishing second last year makes him hungrier than ever in 2010, even if he is now Sweet, More Mellow Lou.

'Believe me, I come to the ballpark every day, and I want to get the job done for this club, for the new owners and for the city and the organization, and, of course, for the players," Piniella said. "There's no apathy in me, believe me. No. If there was any apathy in me at all, I'd go home. I want to win. The losses hurt.''

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The Rangers' Ron Washington is the manager clearly on the hottest of hot seats after news leaked earlier this month that he admitted to club officials last season that he had used cocaine and would have flunked an upcoming random drug tested administered by Major League Baseball. However, another manager whose seat is just slightly cooler than Washington's is the Royals' Trey Hillman.

Hillman is 140-184 in his two seasons with the Royals, and they slipped from 75-87 in 2008 to 65-97 last season. The Royals hoped Hillman could get the franchise turned around after five seasons as a successful manager in Japan, but it hasn't happened. He is also in the final year of his three-year contract but says he does not feel any additional pressure.

 “I haven’t done anything different than I’ve done the last two years,” Hillman told the Kansas City Star's Sam Mellinger. “I have as much energy and as much passion for the game of baseball.”

The knock on Hillman last season was that he lost his clubhouse and the players tuned him out. In an effort to change the atmosphere, GM Dayton Moore made a number of roster moves in the offseason that included signing catcher Jason Kendall, left fielder Rick Ankiel and center fielder Scott Podsednik as free agents, and trading for White Sox second baseman Chris Getz. Those players are also expected to fit Hillman's preferred style of "smallball."

“I just think it gives you more bullets and options to win a ballgame no matter where you’re playing,” Hillman says. “Then you add to it that we do play 81 games in a big ballpark at Kauffman Stadium, and I think it exemplifies the points I think are important for a winning club.”

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Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez complained last spring about the team policy that banned long hair and jewelry. Thus, the gift he received from owner Jeffrey Loria last weekend for winning last season's NL batting title was both ironic and humorous. Loria presented Ramirez with a diamond-studded pendant with ".342" on it, signifying his star player's batting average in 2009.

"We don't wear jewelry on the field, but I know Hanley likes it off the field," Loria said.

Loria prides himself on developing close relationships with his players. Ramirez was understandably touched by the gesture, saying in response, "I'm going to save it in my safe. Once in a while I'm going to wear it. Every time I see that I'm going to remember Jeffrey."

The Marlins will give replicas of the necklace to the first 5,000 fans who attend the home opener against the Dodgers on April 9 at Sun Life Stadium.

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees, always looking ahead, have reportedly made Rays left fielder Carl Crawford their top target in free agency next winter, with Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth being the back-up plan. … The Rangers have renewed interest in trading for Red Sox corner infielder Mike Lowell, though he may need to begin the season on the disabled list after fouling a ball off his knee last weekend. … The Giants play three exhibition games at AT&T Park beginning Thursday and will use that forum to test both Nate Schierholtz and John Bowker in right field to see who handles the position better in the swirling winds of China Basin. … Former All-Star closer  Chad Cordero won't make the Mariners' opening-day roster but should be in the major leagues at some point this season for the first time since having shoulder surgery in 2008. … Two players who will begin the season at Triple-A but made major impressions this spring in major-league camp were Brewers right-handed reliever John Axford and Mets first baseman/outfielder Chris Carter, acquired from the Red Sox last August in a trade for Billy Wagner.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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