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May 29, 2001

Touring the Minors

Organizational Overview: Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros

by Keith Scherer

This week's tour takes us through the Mariners' and Astros' farm systems.

Seattle Mariners: Early-Season Organizational Review

Ichiro Suzuki isn't the only reason the Mariners are this season's Story. In 1998, they lost Randy Johnson. Before last season, they lost Ken Griffey Jr. Over the winter, it was Alex Rodriguez. And yet the Ms have improved steadily to where they won the wild card last year and now boast a winning percentage of .750, best in the majors. The Phillies, Twins, and Padres and pleasant surprises, exploding economic fallacies as they go, but they probably won't be playing in October. The Mariners, on the other hand, are well out in front of the Oakland A's--the preseason sweetheart of analysts everywhere--and presumptive favorites to get back to October, this time as division champions.

At some point this season, the Mariners will face a challenge. Either something is going to go wrong, or the A's are going to get hot. Having disgorged its superstars over the past few seasons, can the team stay within the organization to maintain its run? Or will it have to suffer the irony of having to sell its top prospects for bad teams' stars?

Just like their parent club, the Tacoma Rainiers (Triple-A) have their league's best winning percentage (.688). Their pitchers lead the PCL in ERA and are second in opponents' average, while their batters are first in on-base percentage, and second in batting average and runs scored.

Four regulars are batting above .300. First baseman Todd Betts is posting a .337/.415/.550 season, with excellent plate discipline. The problem is that no one takes him seriously as a prospect. At 28, he's too old for that. The same can be said of shortstop Ramon Vazquez (.349/.436/.463), Scott Podsednik (.327/.367/.425) and slugging outfielder Juan Thomas (.318/.369/.598, with 12 home runs). At first glance the numbers look nice, but those slugging percentages aren't that impressive, especially when we account for the PCL enhancement (although the Rainiers play in a pitchers' park). PCL or no, there's some good stuff happening in this lineup. These guys aren't young, but if they keep it up, they could get the chance to prove themselves worthy of a Quadruple-A classification.

I have written in this space that the Mariners, whether by luck or by design, manage to shelter their developing pitchers from harsh batting climates, even in hitters' leagues like the PCL and Texas League. One of this year's questions for the organization was whether Greg Wooton's performance in 2000 was legitimate (15 walks in 179 innings at New Haven, with a 2.31 ERA and six complete games). He was coming off an injury, and at 26 he was old for Double-A. This season he has already walked 13 batters in 53 innings, that's still good, but not stunning, and he needs to be stunning to get a shot. His hits-to-innings ratio is upside-down (66 in 53 innings), though there is the PCL factor to consider.

The rest of the Rainiers' rotation has been solid. Robert Ramsay (3.09 ERA in 43 2/3 innings; 37 hits, 18 walks, and 35 strikeouts) is 27, like Wooten, and needs to stun if he's going to get a chance. Imagine Dicky Gonzalez in four years, but without the exposure to major-league hitting. That's what you have here. Ramsay would be worth a shot on a desperate team--like, say, the Mets--but the Mariners aren't desperate. Accentuate the positive: a labor dispute wouldn't be all that terrible if these were the kind of pitchers we'd see as replacement players.

Joel Piniero (3.51 ERA in 48 2/3 innings; 24 walks and 37 strikeouts) are developing nicely and should get a call-up. A troika of non-prospect relievers has been outstanding: Kevin Gryboski, Jimmy Turman, and Brian Fuentes all have ERAs below 2.00, with excellent ratios to justify the ERAs, especially Fuentes, who has 42 strikeouts in 32 innings. Guys like this really are out there, everywhere.

At San Antonio (Double-A), the Missions are second from the basement in their division's standings, last in batting average, last in runs, last in homers. Juan Silvestre, the organization's Player of the Year last year(according to Baseball America), is batting .214/.248/.322. In my PCL profile I wrote of Willie Bloomquist: "It's been said that he helps his team win by doing the little things that don't show up in a box score. Well, I prefer the things that do show up in a box score, and Bloomquist does a few of those, like steal some bases, hit for gap power, and control the strike zone." Well, he's batting .243/.291/.283, with six doubles and no other extra-base-hits. Whatever he's doing, it sure isn't making it to the box score. He does have 13 steals for a team that's last in runs. Where would they be without him?

The pitching staff isn't last but it's not good. Jeff Heaverlo got some write-ups in the annuals, but there was concern that he gave up too many hits. He's doing it again, only worse. He gave up 170 in 155 2/3 innings last year, and this year it's 60 in 49 2/3 frames. He's reputed to have a great slider, and he manages a good strikeout rate (one per inning this season, as he did in 2000) even though he doesn't throw hard. His K/BB ratio is the same as it was last year at about 3 to 1. He has yet to dominate, but he's worth watching. He'll be in Tacoma next season with Wooten and Ramsay.

At San Bernardino (high-A), Shawn McCorkel is putting up decent numbers again, but he'll be 24 in a few weeks. He's too old for this league, so no one should get excited about him. At Wisconsin (A), leadoff hitter Jamal Strong is batting .361 with 32 steals and excellent plate discipline (37 walks/22 strikeouts). Branch Rickey used to teach his scouts to focus on speed, since it's something you can't teach. John Sickels says Strong is the fastest player he's ever seen. He has 11 doubles in 166 at-bats, so his gap power is developing. With that speed and batting eye, he has time. He's on his way to Tacoma. His teammate Everett Johnson didn't make the annuals, but he has a 1.77 ERA with solid ratios: 56 IP/46H/11BB/59K.

Houston Astros: Early Season Organizational Review

The forgotten team in the National League is the Houston Astros. Going into the 2000 season, they were the favorites to win the NL Central. Many analysts predicted them to win the World Series. The move to Enron appeared to have set their pitchers' equilibrium aslant, as injuries and improbably bad luck combined with the vertiginous pitching to drive the Astros well out of the playoff race and into the second division. The dictates of probability made the Astros a cinch to improve this season, and with the anticipated returns of Billy Wagner and Shane Reynolds, Houston was a reasonable pick to reassert themselves in the Central. Two months into the season, and they have improved from a winning percentage of .444 to .500, four games out of first place. The Cubs will falter. Even at .500, the Astros are in the hunt.

The Astros recently called up their top prospect, Roy Oswalt, to help the pitching staff. Before blowing up on Sunday, he had been even better than advertised through his first 11 2/3 innings. He's the crown jewel of the major leagues' most underrated farm system. The team has been rumored to be interested in securing David Wells from the White Sox, a move that would cost them some choice prospects. Rather than overpay for a goutish lout of dubious worth, could the team improve itself by again promoting from within?

The New Orleans Zephyrs (Triple-A) are right behind the Tacoma Rainers for the PCL's best ERA. The batters are ninth in batting average, eighth in runs scored, third in home runs, seventh in on-base percentage and sixth in slugging. Nothing great, but good enough for the best record in their division and the third-best in the PCL.

Oswalt has already made it to Houston. Tony McKnight is the organization's current Ron Darling, a highly-regarded prospect who doesn't have overpowering stuff. McKnight packs a curveball, change-up, a low-90s fastball, and makeup. He's not a power pitcher, with only 37 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings, but that's an improvement over his Double-A rate from last season. His K/BB ratio is 2.8, also an improvement over last season (1.8). All in all, it's a nice follow-up to his brief stretch with the parent club last season. He seems a little like Brad Radke to me. Jim Mann has pitched only 25 1/3 innings, but his 1.78 ERA and 32/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio are worth tracking.

Brian Powell and Josh Driskill aren't thought to be prospects, but if you never knew that you might be interested. Powell has a 2.36 ERA, with 61IP/53H/11B/32K. Driskill's ERA is higher at 4.00, but his strikeout rate is solid (50 in 60 2/3 innings), his control excellent (3.6), and his WHIP is tolerable (1.28). The problem with Driskill is that he's 30. Powell is 27, which isn't too old but it's old enough. Like acne won't necessarily make someone too ugly, but ugly enough. I watched Double Indemnity for the first time last night. Before then, everything I knew about Edward G. Robinson I learned from Looney Tunes. He was less of a caricature than I expected, but not much less. The same probably holds true for Powell and Driskill.

Keith Ginter was a terror last year, winning the Texas League MVP in a runaway. Chris Kahrl warned me not to make too much of it. He said Ginter is fine but no one over whom to lose wages. Ginter is in fact doing fine, but he won't be forcing Craig Biggio to the outfield any time soon. His .276 average is fair, as is his .358 OBP. His .494 SLG is better that that, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 57/17 is poor. Compare his numbers to the .333/.457/.580 he put up last year.

Adam Everett is exactly the kind of player who ignites the debate over whether to play the guy with the bat or the guy with the glove. At shortstop, it can go either way. Everett still has no bat:: .225/.345/.352. Well, he has a little bit of bat. Royce Clayton has no bat. Everett does have plate discipline, with 21 walks against 24 strikeouts. Third baseman Morgan Ensberg and exile Chris Truby provide the offense here. Ensberg has 15 homers in 174 at-bats to complement his .305/.385/.621. In 10 games, Truby has hit .415/.478/.756. This should translate well to Enron.

The Round Rock Express (Double-A) have the best record in the Texas League, winning at a .688 clip. I'm sure you knew about him, but Tim Redding is the sleeper your friends will be keeping quiet about all next winter. He has two mid-90s fastballs, a power curveball, and a developing change-up. He's 8-1 with a 1.32 ERA, having allowed 40 hits and just three home runs in 68 1/3 innings. His 18 walks and 79 strikeouts are a substantial improvement over last season's ratio, which was good enough. He is utterly dominating his league.

Carlos Hernandez is a 20-year old left-hander with a terrific curve. He struck out 115 in 110 2/3 innings (9.35/9 IP)last year, and has improved that to 64 in 53 innings (10.86/9 IP) this season. He has allowed only two homers and has kept his strikeout-to-walk ratio above 2/1. He was slated for A ball at Lexington the season, so we should take his performance seriously.

Brad Lidge and Greg Miller haven't pitched much, but they've been dominant when they have. Brad Lidge's ERA is 1.73 with 42 strikeouts in 26 innings, and a 6:1 K/BB ratio. The bad news: he has been on the DL for three weeks. Uncertain prognosis, variety of arm problems. Miller has allowed just 10 hits in 20 innings, with 17 strikeouts against seven walks. Travis Smith is a journeyman minor leaguer and too old for this level, but his 1.79 ERA is hard to ignore. He has allowed only 30 hits in 50 1/3 innings, with a K/BB ratio of 6:1. For all of these pitchers, keep in mind this is a hitters' league. Puff up the numbers accordingly.

The Express lineup is driven by 2B Dave Matranga, this year's Keith Ginter. Matranga is hitting .338/.424/.600. Outfielder Jason Lane is a former College World Series hero. The Houston outfield is packed, but Lane's performance is hard to ignore: .337/.436/.696. He has a good walk rate, decent command of the strike zone, and can steal a base. He's leading or almost leading the league in most of the meaningful batting categories. Outfield mate Kyle Logan is at .354/.423/.535. And yes, it's a hitters' league, so take these numbers down a little. They're still good. Now what to do with Moises Alou, Lance Berkman, and Richard Hidalgo?

The Lexington Legends (A) have at least four pitchers worth watching. Mike Nannini is a top prospect. Like Tim Redding, he's a short right-hander, the same size as Greg Maddux and Tim Hudson, but short by scouting standards. Nannini has an ERA of 2.22, with 59 strikeouts in 65 innings and a 6:1 K/BB ratio. Tony Pluta was born in 1982 and has been pitching for only three years. Accordingly, he has an immature delivery, but he throws 98 mph. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine saw him strike out 12 batters in 5 1/3 innings, including the first five he faced. My friend sat in the first row behind the plate and said Pluta's stuff was "ungodly." The numbers don't support that estimation, but they're great for someone so green:a 2.78 ERA in 48 1/3 innings, with 40 hits, 32 walks, and 53 strikeouts.

Rob Stiehl has a 1.58 ERA with only 19 hits allowed in 40 innings and 46 strikeouts against 24 walks. He's supposed to be learning a change-up as he gets work as a starter, though the Astros intend to make him a closer. Ryan Jamison has a good slider and change-up, and a late-moving fastball. His K/BB ratio is 9.6-to-1, with 48 strikeouts in 40 innings. He has allowed only 28 hits. He should be in Double-A. Nick Roberts needed to get his strikeout rate up to earn John Sickels's endorsement. Roberts struck out 107 batters in 139 1/3 innings last year. That's a rate of seven per nine innings. This season, Roberts has struck out 68 in 67 innings, or 9.0/9IP. His K/BB ratio is 6-to-1. The Legends' rotation is loaded. The lineup is much less so.

The Michigan Battle Cats (A) have two pitchers worth watching: Juan Campos and Chad Qualls. Qualls is a prospect and his numbers show it. 52IP/45H/7BB/54K. Campos has nice numbers but get this: an 11:1 K/BB ratio. Don't look him up, as he's not in the annuals.

Keith Scherer is an attorney practicing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and son. You can contact him at KJSbaseball@aol.com.

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