July 3, 2001
Touring the Minors
San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers
Both teams appear to be in stasis. That's not the case. A review of each organization's minor-league system reveals that the Padres are improving much faster than their major-league record suggests, and the Tigers are at long last proceeding, if slowly, and if perhaps too slowly to catch up to the Indians, White Sox, and Twins.
San Diego Padres
Kevin Brown, Ken Caminiti, and Greg Vaughn led the 1998 Padres to the World Series, where the Yankees swiftly dispatched them. In the years since that World Series appearance--and the loss of their stars that followed it--the Padres have gone 74-88 (.457), 76-86 (.469), and 36-40 (.474). That's movement in the right direction, but we're still talking about degrees of ugly. Still, the Padres have shown signs of being a dangerous team this year, and a winning 2001 season is an attainable goal.
Similarly, attendance at Padres games has been declining. They had been planning on holding off on being competitive until next season, much like the Tigers had planned on doing before they opened Comerica Park and the Pirates before they opened PNC Park. It can be a silly adaptation of "wait 'til next year," as if winning in a lame-duck park could hex the new field or cost the organization luxury-box subscriptions. Of course it's a promotional gimmick designed to lure investors, voters, and public officials, but it's also corpspeak for "I'm between jobs, but I have a sure thing lined up, and if you can just loan me bus fare until payday I'll pay you back with interest."
But the Padres have to adjust to winning in Qualcomm, because the planned opening of the new park has been postponed indefinitely. (For a thorough look at the Padres' stadium fiasco, see the team essay in Baseball Prospectus 2001. The new target date is 2004.) Last week's five-game streak might be a random spike, but the team is going to break .500 soon, and within two years be challenging for the division title. Without much attention, the Padres have developed and stolen as much talent as any team in the National League, including the Cubs and Astros.
As Chris Kahrl notes, the Padres have the foundation of a solid lineup, with young, high-quality players at every position. Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko handle San Diego's infield corners right now, but there are two outstanding corner prospects moving speedily through their minor leagues.
Sean Burroughs, whom we ranked this year as the second-best prospect in baseball, is 20 years old and already hitting .333 at Triple-A Portland. The question about Burroughs has been whether he'll develop power. The left-handed hitter has only three home runs in 180 at-bats, and he's slugging a modest .456. Given that the PCL is a hitters' league, Burroughs's power numbers are superficially poor, but keep in mind that he's 20, facing Triple-A pitchers for the first time, and playing in a pitchers' park. His positives include a .397 OBP, a 17-game hitting streak, and solid control of the strike zone (18 walks and 22 strikeouts). He led the Southern League in fielding percentage last year, so the only thing left to work on is power. If Nevin is traded, Burroughs will be called up to take his place and will handle the transition. Qualcomm doesn't favor power hitters anyway, so his ability to get on base and hit line drives will translate well enough to keep him in the lineup.
The Padres' other monster batting prospect is Xavier Nady, a tremendous power prospect who is being converted from third base to first base and, given that Klesko is probably staying in San Diego, eventually the outfield. Coming out of college he would have been a first-rounder, but because Nady's agent is Scott Boras, teams were afraid of taking him and the Padres stole him in the second round of last year's draft. Like Burroughs, Nady is playing in a pitchers' park in a hitters' league--Lake Elsinore in the California League (High-A)--batting .304 and slugging .544, with 15 home runs in 270 at-bats. His strike-zone judgment is decent and improving (33 BB, 58 K). He's learning at least one new position, but is still probably too advanced for the Cal League, so he should be in Double-A or Triple-A by season's end.
With Nady and Nevin batting right-handed, and Klesko and Burroughs batting left-handed, the Padres are rich with options at the corners. The organization's middle-infield prospects had been less interesting until last week, when D'Angelo Jimenez was stolen from the Yankees. Prior to suffering a broken neck in a February 2000 car accident, Jimenez was one of the top prospects in baseball, a switch-hitter with decent strike-zone judgment, a willingness to take walks, and power potential.
When he was with the Yankees there was talk about moving him to second base or third base, but that was due to the presence of Derek Jeter in New York rather than any shortcomings afield. He's good enough at shortstop to play there for San Diego, especially since the organization is light on genuine shortstop prospects.
Nady, Burroughs, and Jimenez give the Padres three of baseball's best infield prospects. Cesar Crespo, over from the Marlins, is the hope for second base. He was batting only .273 at the time of his call-up, weak for the PCL, but he draws walks, doesn't strike out much, and steals bases. Someday not too long from now, Kevin Towers will let Rickey Henderson go. It will be the right move for this organization, timed correctly, and a perfect opportunity to phase Crespo into the leadoff role.
In a pitchers' park like Qualcomm Stadium, speed, defense, and gap power are desirable qualities. Current Padre center fielder Mark Kotsay fits the model. Jeremy Owens (Double-A Mobile, Southern League) has the tools to make it to San Diego within a couple of years. He's the best defensive outfielder and best base-runner in the organization, with the system's best arm.
Owens is not purely a tools project, unlike most of the Pirates' and Devil Rays' highest-rated prospects. His strike-zone judgment is poor (38 BB, 100 K) and he whiffs far too often (in more than a third of his at-bats, leading the league), something that shows in his .226 batting average. But he is third in the Southern League in walks and he has drawn a free pass more than 10% of his plate appearances. He's not a power hitter, but he's not a weakling either, having slugged .426 last season. One problem aside from the strikeouts is that he'll be 25 in December and needs to keep moving through the system. He gets on base, runs well, and fields like Kotsay. There's a place for him on the future Padres. Mike Darr's place.
Mobile's other interesting outfielder is left-handed hitter Graham Koonce, who led the organization in walks and RBI last season while repeating at Rancho Cucamonga (High A) in the California League. He's 26--maybe too old to take seriously--but he leads the Southern League in walks and has great judgment (107 walks and 105 strikeouts in 2000, 56 BB/46 K in 2001). He slugged .505 last year and is at .510 this year. He's the Padres' Jack Cust, just a little less noticed because he's older.
As deep as the Padres are in hitting prospects, their pitching resources might be just as good. The team has begun drawing on this strength already, using Wascar Serrano and Brian Lawrence to fill holes in the rotation. Having moved from hitter-friendly Las Vegas to the pitchers' park in Portland, the Padres' Triple-A affiliate is fourth in the PCL in ERA, third in opponents' batting average, and second in home runs allowed. PGE Park is a pitching environment a lot like Qualcomm.
It's interesting to note that Portland has used 17 starting pitchers this year, with no pitcher starting more than 10 games. Relievers start and starters relieve; by all appearances, the Padres are using Portland as a developmental camp.
Serrano is back down from San Diego. He has been in pro ball for six years and got creamed in four Triple-A starts last year. He has two fastballs and a developing slider, with ratios that are still marginal: 1.8 K/BB, 7.8 H/9, 5.2 K/9. He doesn't allow many home runs (four in 51 2/3 innings). It's the PCL, so you expect a pitcher's numbers to be a little shaky, but Portland is a pitchers' park. John Sickels grades him at a B+, and Baseball America rates him as the team's #2 prospect. He'll get his chance, but he needs time in Portland.
The only survivor from the Padres' 1996 draft is Jason Middlebrook, a hard-throwing right-hander who fell off the prospect lists because of poor control. He has been promoted to Triple-A from Mobile, where he posted a 1.20 ERA in 50 2/3 innings. Middlebrook has had decent numbers in four Triple-A starts: a 2.28 ERA in 23 2/3 innings, 17 hits, 14 strikeouts, and nine walks. We wrote briefly about Jeremy Powell in this year's book, but he also didn't make the prospect lists. The Expos dumped him from the 40-man roster and the Padres signed him. He leads the PCL with a 1.59 ERA, and has 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings and a K/BB ratio of 4.5 to 1. His HR/9 ratio of 0.2 is great in any environment. Having the season of his life, he was sold to Japan earlier this month.
The stars at Mobile are Dennis Tankersley and Mike Bynum. We included Bynum in our preseason list of the Top 40 prospects based on his pedigree and solid performance as the ace of Rancho Cucamonga's staff last year, when pitching in a hitters' haven he allowed a .224 batting average and struck out more than a batter per inning. Double-A hasn't been as easy for the left-hander; he had a rough time in a short run there last year, and this season his ERA is 4.13, he's allowing a hit per innings, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is less than 2 to 1. More bad news: Bynum went to the DL at the end of May with a minor knee injury. The good news is that his strikeout rate before the injury was still solid at 7.2 per nine innings.
Tankersley, a 38th-round pick by the Red Sox, was on fire at Lake Elsinore and earned a promotion to Mobile by posting a 0.52 ERA in eight starts. Since his promotion he has a 2.83 ERA, 5.7 H/9, 13 K/9, and a K/BB of 3.5 to 1. His fastball and slider are too much for the minors. The PCL will be a better challenge for him, but he'll be in San Diego before next year is finished.
The Padres' Lake Elsinore affiliate is dominating the California League. Its 53-21 record is the league's best, while the pitching staff ranks first in ERA, hits allowed, home runs allowed, strikeouts, and K/BB ratio. The only noted prospect in the rotation is Jake Peavy, a fastball specialist who keeps the ball down and manipulates release angles. He destroyed the Midwest league last year and is humming through the Cal this year with a 3.33 ERA, 12.0 K/9, 7.0 H/9, and a K/BB ratio of better than 4 to 1. Ben Howard wasn't on the prospect lists, but he should be next year. He started the Cal League All-Star game, then tossed a 16-strikeout, no-walk, 7 1/3-inning and gem on June 25. He has a 2.79 ERA and his ratios are excellent: 7.1 H/9, 9.4 K/9, 3 to 1 K/BB. He throws in the mid-90s, with a hard slider and a developing change-up. Howard has had control problems in the past, but this year the organization changed his arm slot and the results have been dramatic.
Left-hander Mark Phillips, last year's top pick (#9 overall), has a mid-90s fastball but had to go to extended spring training. He's now in Eugene (Low A) developing his secondary pitches. The Padres took Phillips just two slots after the Rockies drafted Matt Harrington. The Rockies failed to get Harrington signed, his stock dropped when he then pitched in the Northern League, and the Padres picked him up in the second round of this year's draft.
Whatever his problems in the Northern League, Harrington was the consensus best player available in last year's draft. As they did with Nady, the Padres may have stolen Harrington. This was the kind of shrewd, low-risk move an organization on the rise makes. Very A's-like.
In 1987, Detroit back-doored into the playoffs when the Blue Jays lost the last seven games of the season, including all three in the final series against Detroit. The Tigers then lost the AL Championship Series to the Minnesota Twins, four games to one. In the 14 years since, the franchise has been flailing.
Randy Smith came to work for the Tigers after the 1995 season. They won 53 games in 1996 and then zipped up to 79 wins the next year. It's well established that teams or players who improve or decline drastically in one year tend to regress the next year. The Tigers won 65 games in 1998. Holding steady, they won 69 games in 1999 and then got back up to 79 again last year. This year, they're on pace to win about 77 games. Under Smith's custodianship, the Tigers have posted winning percentages of .327, .488, .401, .429, .488, and .438 (through games of 6/26).
I recalled that back before I dropped out of college, my priorities were just like that. Rather than attend class or get a job, I sold my plasma for beer money. I even sold my body to the Hazelton clinic--twice--so I could pay my rent.
For years, the Tigers have sent their best pitching prospects to the majors without having them pass through Toledo for exposure to Triple-A hitting. The IL is the most competitive league in minor-league baseball. It would have made sense for the Tigers to expose their young pitchers to that kind of competition, especially since the team wasn't going anywhere any time soon, the Tigers haven't had a good rotation since the 1980s, and their pitching prospects have been weak since Andrew McCarthy last got regular work.
In 1998, the Toledo staff was last in ERA. 1999? Last. 2000? Next to last. In 1998, the staff was last in strikeouts, in 1999 it was next to last, and again near the bottom last year. K/BB ratio from 1998 to 2000: last, last, last. Did the Toledo staff do so poorly because the Tigers kept their best pitchers from playing there? A look at the team's Double-A affiliate in the Southern League allows the inference that this is an institutional problem. The affiliate was last in the Southern League in strikeouts in 1998, next to last in 1999, and near the bottom again in 2000. The K/BB ratios and ERAs for the three-year period weren't as bad as the strikeouts, but they were mediocre. An institutional problem of poor scouting and misguided player development.
This year, the Tigers are trying something new: they're letting their pitchers spend some time at Triple-A before being made to labor under Garner. I'm not arguing cause and effect here, but the Toledo staff ERA is in the top half of the IL this season. Its strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and batting average allowed are in the middle of the league. The staff has allowed the circuit's third fewest home runs. The Double-A affiliate, having moved to Erie and the Eastern League, has a staff that is third in ERA, fourth in strikeouts, fourth in batting average allowed, and in the upper half for K/BB ratio. Erie's record is 50-25, best in the league.
Unlike the Padres, the Tigers do not have a great lineup in the making. It's hard to tell what the club wants to do. Even when losing in the early 1990s, the team still had an identity: Cecil Fielder and Mickey Tettleton and a station-to-station offense geared to win by being the first team to ten runs. But this team is incoherently designed. Bobby Higginson and Roger Cedeno understand the concept of plate patience. Higginson and Brandon Inge are superior in the field. Cedeno steals bases as well as anyone in baseball. But the rest of the club is filler.
The best-hitting prospects the Tigers have are at positions they don't need to fill. Eric Munson was the third player taken in the 1999 draft. He was drafted as a catcher and then moved to first base, but he hasn't shown that he'll hit like a first baseman. He's second in the Eastern League in RBI and sixth in walks. On the other hand, his strike-zone judgment is still weak and his .444 SLG is poor for what was expected of him. Teammate Mike Rivera leads the league in home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage--as a catcher!--and is hitting .299/.361/.656. His 23 home runs give him a ratio of approximately one for every ten at-bats. He hits, Inge fields and throws. Maybe the Astros could use another of Smith's catchers. Like Robert Fick, Munson and Rivera seem like residue from the Fielder era rather than the start of something new.
Omar Infante is a 19-year old shortstop hitting .303 with 16 stolen bases at Double-A. His negatives are that he draws walks in less than 10% of his plate appearances, and he strikes out more than twice as often as he walks. He needs time to develop. With Deivi Cruz already not getting on base for Detroit, there's no need to rush Infante.
Erie's most interesting batting prospect this year is Andres Torres, a center fielder who has the best arm in the Tigers' minor-league system. He can get on base (.398 OBP) and hit for average (.300). He stole 67 bases in 2000 and has 18 this year. That's a package of tools and skills that could push Juan Encarnacion out of the lineup within two years.
At Western Michigan (A), the Tigers have two more speedy outfielders, Miles Durham and Nook Logan. Neither hits for power, and neither has developed enough plate discipline yet, but Durham has 31 steals and Logan has 39 while batting .300. Not that either of them will make it to the majors, but their presence here suggests (but in no way proves) that the Tigers are aware of the need to developing fast outfielders who can cover Comerica Park's large gaps. The park cuts down on home runs but not batting average. The Rockies are doing something similar to compensate for the vastness of Coors Field, but this might be coincidence. I have no evidence to suggest that Smith has Dan O'Dowd's degree of forethought.
All the regular members of this year's Toledo rotation could eventually make it to Detroit. Not that any one of them is special. All five have upside-down H/IP ratios. They have good control, but low strikeout rates, and the inability to keep the ball out of play could be dangerous in Comerica's spaciousness. Adam Pettyjohn is probably the closest to the majors. He's a finesse left-hander with a tailing mid-80s fastball and a decent curve. Injuries led to a loss of control. This year his K/BB ratio is 3 to 1, his BB/9 is down to 2.1, and his strikeout rate is up to six per nine innings.
The Tigers don't have highly regarded pitching prospects. Among the pitchers they do have, Shane Loux grades out about as well as any of them. At 21, he's young for Triple-A and he's getting hammered. He has a 5.22 ERA, a strikeout rate of 3.8 K/9. Right-hander Mark Johnson wasn't regarded at all in the preseason lists, but he's doing as well as anyone in the rotation. His numbers are adequate, just like Pettyjohn's: league-average ERA (3.89), a few more hits (94) than innings (90 1/3), and a K/BB ratio of 3 to 1, though he gives up a few more home runs (11 for Johnson, 7 for Pettyjohn). Going into the season, Adam Bernero was, like Loux, at the high end of the Tigers' pitching prospects. And like Loux, he's getting drilled: an ERA of 5.23, with 11.2 hits allowed per nine innings and a K/BB ratio of less than 2 to 1.
The Toledo staff is improved, but the best of the Tigers' young arms are at Erie and below. Nate Cornejo might be the next farmhand to make the big league rotation. He's 6-5, 200 pounds, with a sinking fastball and a slider. The Padres stole Nady and Harrington; the Tigers shrewdly picked up Cornejo in the second round of the 1998 draft, after he had been downgraded because of knee problems. He was in Double-A last year, and this year as a repeater he has improved his strikeout rate, K/BB ratio, and H/IP. He has been worked hard in the past, so one potential problem is that he is second in the Eastern League with 102 IP.
Randy Leek is the token finesse lefty. His numbers are good but not great. He has good control (K/BB ratio of 4.6 to 1), and a decent K rate for a finesse pitcher (7 per 9/IP). On the downside, he has allowed 13 HR in only 90.1 IP.
The Tigers' best relief prospect comes out of the Erie bullpen in the person of Shane Heams. He owns the organization's best fastball and solid enough ratios to merit a callup: 9.0 K/9, 3.7 H/9, and only one home run allowed in 44 innings. He needs to improve his control, though.
At the A-ball level (Lakeland and Western Michigan) the Tigers have a collection of solid pitching talent, all of whom are posting good numbers this season: Calvin Chipperfield, Tommy Marx, Fernando Rodney, Andy Van Hekken, and Lee Rodney. Fernando Rodney has a 98-mph fastball that hasn't overpowered anyone yet, while Lee Rodney wasn't written about in the preseason but is pounding the Midwest League with 86 strikeouts in 82 innings, and a K/BB ratio of 2.3 to 1. 2000's top pick, Matt Wheatland, spent the first part of the year in extended spring training, recuperating from a strained rotator cuff.
With guys like these, along with the Erie staff and Johnson and Pettyjohn out of Toledo, the Tigers are rich in projectable 4th and 5th starters and middle relievers to fill in between Jeff Weaver and Matt Anderson. Phil Garner's reluctance to trust young pitchers could be an advantage for the Tigers, since it might encourage them to develop their pitchers patiently rather than rush them to the majors. Even so, the Tigers still don't have a truly good prospect in their system, at the plate or on the mound. They took Anderson with the first pick in the 1997 draft, and he hasn't worked out. In that same draft, the Tigers took Cardinals prospect Bud Smith, but couldn't sign him. He'd be a great change of pace coming right behind Weaver in the rotation. Assuming, that is, that the Tigers could have developed him as well as the Cardinals have. The Tigers took Eric Munson in the first round in 1999, and his progress has been slow. In between those mistakes, they had a good 1998 draft, which yielded Weaver, Marx, Inge, Torres, and Cornejo.
Some organizations favor tools (Pirates, Devil Rays), and others favor skills (A's, Astros), but for years it was as if the Tigers appear to favor neither. There are some indications that the organization is developing a philosophy, but there are counter-indicators too, such as the hiring of Garner, the concern with the cost of baseballs, and the retention of Randy Smith.
The Padres and Tigers have been consumed with ballpark issues the last few years. Both are trying to develop winning teams to coincide with the cosmetic renaissance. The difference is that the Padres have a coherent approach and will break .500 within the next two years. The Tigers do not and will not.
Keith J. Scherer is an attorney practicing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and son. You can contact him at KJSbaseball@aol.com.