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June 3, 2010

Future Shock

Org Watch: Surprising Starts

by Kevin Goldstein

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Each week, The Org Watch will take a look inside the minor league systems of three organizations. It will look at the progress of top, surprise and sleeper prospects, and see whether help that might be needed for the major league club can be found on the rosters of its minor league squads. After focusing on the three worst teams and then three of the best, on Wednesday we'll consider three of the most surprising.

• The San Diego Padres are off to an almost amazing start in the crowded NL West, but the one area where they really need help from their system -- hint: it involves hitting -- can't really be helped if the system is the answer.

• The Cincinnati Reds are getting it done with starting pitching and solid bats. Now they need to address a train wreck of a bullpen. Converting a couple starters might do the trick.

• The Toronto Blue Jays are competing in the AL East, and mashing the ball, even without much help from first base. And while Jays fans will point to the presence of a top first-base prospect, they may be eyeing fool's gold.

San Diego's Empty Offense

As the calendars flip to June, everyone is still waiting for the Padres to turn into a pumpkin, but instead, they remain atop the West Division standings with the National League's best record. They are the biggest surprise in baseball, but their system hasn't matched the big league progress -- the story at the minor league level has not been such a positive one after the season's first two months.

The system has had some bright spots, including right-hander Simon Castro, who skipped up to Double-A and has a 2.44 ERA in the Texas League, as well as shortstop Drew Cumberland, who's finally healthy and converting his tools into skills to lead the California League in runs scored while sitting among the top five in batting and slugging percentage. But for the most part, it's been a rough year on the farm.

The problems begin with Donavan Tate, the No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft, and a player who received a $6.25 million bonus, a record for a high school player. A sports hernia prevented him from playing last year, and an ATV accident that resulted in a broken jaw slowed his development down more this spring. What almost seems like a curse continued as he tried to get ready to play this spring -- Tate strained his shoulder and then suffered a concussion after getting hit in the head by a pitch in extended spring training. So between his delayed signing and all of the injuries, he's lost nearly a year of development. The good news is he's finally expected to make his pro debut later this month for Eugene when the short-season Northwest League starts up.

On the field, things haven't been much better.

In 2009, Jaff Decker was the best offensive player in the Midwest League, but after he missed the first five weeks of the season with a hamstring issue, he's been a complete nonfactor at High-A Lake Elsinore, batting a miserable .140/.210/.263 in his first 15 games. Of even greater concern are the 25 strikeouts in just 57 at-bats, and just three walks from a player who drew 85 free passes in just 104 games last year. For a player whose bat is his only tool, he's currently without one, and he's not the only one scuffling.

Another breakout player in 2009, third baseman James Darnell, hit .311/.424/.536 between San Diego's two A-level teams last year, slugging 20 home runs and drawing 87 walks. He looked to be ready for Double-A, but instead has looked completely overmatched, managing just a .220/.295/.380 line so far for San Antonio.

And the offensive struggles continue from there, as exciting young hitters Rymer Liriano, Edinson Rincon and Everett Williams have all disappointed mightily at Low-A Fort Wayne, combining to hit .216 with six home runs and 148 strikeouts in 138 games. For a team whose weakness at the big league level remains on the offensive side of things, the prospects who San Diego were hoping would be the future answer have delivered nothing but question marks so far.

The Reds: Ahead of Schedule, But ...

The Reds were seen as an up-and-coming team entering the 2010 season, but everything has moved way ahead of schedule thus far, as the team leads the National League Central behind a young corps of talent that seems to be peaking early, strengthened by a few shockingly good performances from veterans like reliever Arthur Rhodes and catcher Ryan Hanigan.

A stable rotation (until Homer Bailey's injury) has allowed the club to be patient with top prospect Aroldis Chapman, but the bullpen has been a wreck, as the roster currently houses three relievers (Carlos Fisher, Mike Lincoln, Nick Masset) with ERAs north of 7. Unfortunately, even in a relief role, the minor leagues offer little help, as Logan Ondrusek has been tried (and failed), while neither the Double- or Triple-A squads have anyone who looks like they can provide and help. With that in mind, if the Reds want to truly compete in the Central with the Cardinals, they'll need a solution, and it might be time to convert some Triple-A starters to relief roles, if only temporarily. Two prime candidates for the experiment, and currently blocked in starting roles are right-hander Matt Maloney and southpaw Travis Wood.

A 26-year-old who has been pitching for Louisville since the end of the 2007 season, Maloney has been a consistent performer as a finesse righty who depends on the ability to hit his spots and change speeds, and his type of game could work in the middle innings, while Wood's plus changeup and ability to shut down lefties could give manager Dusty Baker more options other than a current group that does little more than get lit up like a Christmas tree on a regular basis.

Just a suggestion.

For Jays, Wallace an Illusion

While the homer-happy Jays have little to complain about offensively, one of the few rough spots in the lineup has come at first base, where veteran Lyle Overbay is scuffling at just .212/.289/.386. The obvious answer is to call up their top hitting prospect, and Brett Wallace's .288/.352/.527 line at Triple-A Las Vegas seems to indicate a certain amount of readiness -- but a closer look shows there is still much work to be done.

With 11 home runs in 205 at-bats, Wallace's power has seemingly taken a step forward, but six of his home runs have been hit in the friendly confines of the home park in Vegas, where, as a team the 51s are slugging .484. In addition, of his five road shots, two have come at Colorado Springs, and two at Salt Lake, even larger launching pads than Vegas.

Even with those games, Wallace is hitting just .260/.306/.460 on the road, with that low on-base percentage pointing to an even bigger issue -- his regressing plate discipline. For a player with a reputation as an on-base machine from his college days, Wallace has walked just 15 times in 205 at-bats this year, and in none of his three pro years has he met the often-used minimum standard of once per 10 at-bats. First-base prospects are expected to hit for average, draw walks and hit for power. Wallace is doing one of those things, but his power is a bit of a myth, and the walks are something that might not have ever been there in the first place.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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