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July 18, 2001

Touring the Minors

The Triple-A All-Star Game

by Keith Scherer

Readers of this column often raise questions about our use of the term "prospect." There appears to be some confusion as to how a player may project to make the majors and yet not be regarded as a prospect. Last week's Triple-A All-Star Game in Indianapolis game offered some illustrations that might clarify the distinction.

There is no consensus definition of what makes a prospect, but factors generally taken into account are the player's age relative to his league, his pedigree (where he was drafted and at what age), his time spent at a particular minor-league level (players who have breakout seasons when repeating a league are to be regarded with skepticism), tools (physical gifts such as foot speed, arm strength, and power), and skills (such as strike-zone judgment for hitters, and command and makeup for pitchers).

An extreme example of a non-prospect Triple-A All Star would be a 30-year-old second baseman drafted from college, now having a breakout season in his third year in the International League, with a decent batting average and a few steals, but a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio and a poor stolen-base percentage. An extreme example of a Triple-A All Star prospect would be a tall, fast, strong, 21-year-old outfielder who was drafted in the second round, and who has moved through three levels in two years, dominating each. With minor modifications, the first profile could be P.J. Forbes, and the second could be Adam Dunn. When scouting for prospects, we're looking for young players who have the physical gifts and mental toughness to excel--not merely survive--at the major league level.

The rosters for the International League and Pacific Coast League squads were dominated by players who are not considered prospects, as the term is used by performance analysts. In fact, 14 of the 25 players on the IL's roster didn't rate profiles in Baseball Prospectus 2001. While the game did feature some blue chippers, most of its stars will spend the remainder of their careers getting the occasional whiff of major-league coffee, but mostly just being tossed around as PTBNLs. In that sense, the game served as the Quadruple-A All Star game as well.

Observations from this year's Triple-A All-Star festival, regarding prospects, non-prospects, and sundries:

  • The game was hosted by the Indianapolis Indians, the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate and reigning Triple-A champions. Victory Field is a gorgeous park, with a broad and colorful sunset view of the modest Indianapolis skyline. The park favors pitchers slightly, but its dimensions suggest it should kill offense, especially right-handed batters. The wall in left-center is 418 feet away. The park's concourses are wider than any I've seen and the staff is courteous and knowledgeable. It's a more enjoyable place to watch a ballgame than Miller Park.

  • As I noted in the profile of the Phillies' organization, Brandon Duckworth (Reading) wasn't drafted after his senior year of college, so he hasn't been highly regarded until recently. He has had to prove himself at every level, and this year he started the All-Star Game for the International League. Duckworth has maintained his excellent ratios from last season, with a K/BB ratio of nearly 5-to-1 and more strikeouts than innings pitched. Those reflect his skills. His tools are a low-90s fastball and a curve that was rated the best in the Eastern League last season.

    In this game he pitched only two innings but tied a Triple-A All-Star record by striking out five batters. In the first inning, he used that 12-to-6 curve to get Keith Ginter (New Orleans) on a called third strike that caused giggles in the press box. Duckworth will be in Philadelphia very soon and will have a better career than recent call-ups Nelson Figueroa and Dave Coggin.

  • Jack Cust (Tucson) lost the home-run contest to Chris Latham (Syracuse). Cust made our Top 40 Prospects list this year, while Latham didn't make it into the book.

    Latham is slugging .582 this year, but beware: last year at Colorado Springs, an extreme hitters' park, Latham slugged .393. He's a journeyman minor leaguer, repeating Triple-A at 28. He has decent strike-zone judgment, draws walks, and steal bases. Those skills should translate well to any league. His recent call-up by the Blue Jays should last a while, but he's a late bloomer with a short career as a fifth outfielder ahead of him.

    On the other hand, Cust is 22 and in his first season at Triple-A. Watching the two in batting practice and in the contest, the difference is clear. Latham hits with some power, but the ball explodes off Cust's bat. He lined pitch after pitch out of the park and into the traffic on West Street. Cust has excellent plate patience. The knocks on Cust are that he doesn't hustle and can't field, but the coaches and media at the All-Star Game who have seen him play say that he is a very hard worker and that he is putting in extra time trying to bring his defense up to major-league standards. He went 2-for-2 with a walk, including a double he legged out on pure hustle, belying his reputation. When he gets to the majors he will get on base and hit for immense power. Comparisons to Jim Thome aren't hyperbole. Latham will get to the majors a little sooner, but Cust will last much longer and have an All-Star career. In short, Cust is a prospect and Latham isn't.

  • Ginter, the PCL's starting second baseman, is slugging .468 with 10 home runs and 22 doubles. Last year, he slugged .580 with 26 home runs and 30 doubles, running away with the Texas League MVP award. Even adjusting for league and park factors, that's a lot of power for a guy with his build. He' s listed at 5'10", 190 pounds but he looks smaller than that in person. This year, he's having some trouble with the strike zone. He has struck out 97 times in 301 at-bats, with only 34 walks drawn. His OBP is .368, down from the .457 he posted in 2000. It's his first time through Triple-A and with Craig Biggio having a solid season, Ginter has time to develop. He's just 25, with solid skills and a decent glove, and he is reputed to have a solid work ethic.

    The IL's second baseman is P.J. Forbes, who isn't in our book. He's not on the lists compiled by John Sickels or Baseball America. He's a 30-year-old journeyman having the season of his life. An alum of the talented Wichita State teams of the late 1980s, Forbes was the oldest player in this All-Star Game. He has a .295 batting average, but nothing else star-like in his numbers. He's a starting All-Star, which is a nice personal achievement, but he's not a prospect.

  • Explaining how music sounds is difficult, so we use analogies. We might say, "The band sounds like Neil Young and Crazy Horse produced by Brian Wilson." Similarly, analogies help convey the impressions minor leaguers make upon observers. Sometimes the analogies get out of hand, with a Rolling Stone-esque puerility that obfuscates the truth as it embarrasses the observer.

    During the ESPN2 broadcast, the announcers compared Tacoma designated hitter Juan Thomas to Frank Thomas. Juan Thomas is in fact large, but he's wide through the hips and fat, whereas Frank Thomas still has the body of an NFL tight end. Like Frank Thomas, Juan Thomas hits for power. His 420-foot home run in the All-Star Game is what set the announcers off. But he has 101 strikeouts in 336 at-bats, with only 20 walks. Frank Thomas has a batting eye that is among the best in history. Juan Thomas is a 29-year-old journeyman DH who has spent time in the independent leagues, repeating Triple-A. Frank Thomas might be a Hall of Famer. Juan Thomas, father of five, is a wonderful story for the features section of the Tacoma News Tribune, but he's no Frank Thomas. The difference between Juan Thomas and Frank Thomas is the difference between Crash Davis and Mike Piazza.

  • Adam Dunn (Louisville) was the story of the game. A year ago he was in A ball. This year, he has already conquered Double-A and Triple-A. The All-Star Game was a farewell party for him, as he'll be starting for the Reds just as soon as they trade Dmitri Young or Alex Ochoa. Dunn is 6'6", 230 pounds, with a quarterback's poise and air of celebrity. More than any other player in the All-Star Game, he has the presence of a star. In the game, he hit two home runs, one reaching Cust's province on West Street, for a combined distance of approximately 900 feet. The two homers tied Ryan Klesko's Triple-A All-Star Game record, and IL manager Bill Evans left Dunn in the entire game to give him a chance to hit a third. Dunn is the next Sure Thing.

  • The Warm Fuzzy of the evening was provided by Calgary closer Johnny Ruffin. Ruffin, who was one of the NL's best relievers in 1994, has spent the last 15 of his 31 years bouncing around pro baseball, playing in America, Japan, and Mexico. In the game, he worked two perfect innings, racking up five strikeouts, all swinging, including one against Dunn. The performance was so impressive and unexpected that several members of the press retrieved their Player of the Game ballots to remove Duckworth's name in favor of Ruffin's. He has two high-80s sliders and a mid-90s fastball, so gifts have never been a problem. His problem has always been command. This year, as a result of changing his arm slot, Ruffin has 44 strikeouts in 30 innings, with only nine walks. He now has command. PCL manager Tony Pena spoke truly when he said that Ruffin uses the sliders in combinations that "make guys look real fonny."

  • This might be coincidence, but during batting practice there was a marked difference between the way the balls left the bats of Cust, Sean Burroughs (Portland), Eric Byrnes (Sacramento), and Nick Johnson (Columbus), and how it looked coming off the bats of power hitters like Ramon Castro (Calgary) and Juan Thomas. Cust's group drilled series upon series of line-drive homers, seat-smashing fouls, and long, low rockets into the gaps. Castro and Thomas had more and longer batting practice homers, but they puffed plenty of duds too.

  • Juan Uribe (Colorado Springs) is expected to push Neifi Perez off of shortstop, or out of the Rockies' organization altogether. His fielding is Gold Glove caliber, and though his strike-zone judgment needs work. it was a pleasant surprise to see him hitting hard like the guys in Cust's company. Uribe was a bit too low in the minors to make our Top 40 list, but he is quietly ascending to top prospect status.

  • When the festivities began at the skills competition Tuesday, Ruben Quevedo (Iowa) was rumored to be part of the Cubs' deal for Fred McGriff. It was surprise haul for the Devil Rays, an organization that typically eschews skills for tools and that would be expected to shy away from a short, fat pitcher. The price seemed steep, given Quevedo's development this season: 121 2/3 innings, 102 hits, 130 strikeouts, 41 walks, 10 home runs. By game time, Quevedo was out of the deal, replaced by Jason Smith and Manny Aybar, much more in keeping with Tampa Bay's modus operandi.

    Before the game, Quevedo signed autographs with his shirt tail untucked and while experiencing a pitiable case of bedhead. He had the appearance of a freed hostage flaunting his untidiness like a war wound. During the game, Quevedo pitched three innings, changing speeds and working both sides of plate expertly. He gave up a bomb to Dunn, but otherwise pitched efficiently and well. He's a good example of a non-prospect who should have a nice career as a steady fourth or fifth starter. In contrast, the IL used Mark Johnson (Toledo), whom I wrote about in the Tigers' profile. Johnson will get major-league work as a fifth starter, but not for long. He's a good example of what "Quadruple-A player" means.

  • While we don't give much attention to minor-league relievers, three relievers from the All-Star Game are worth noting. None of them made the book, but each has an excellent shot at making the majors this season. Oscar Henriquez (Norfolk) could enable the Mets to move Armando Benitez. A Chubby Checker lookalike, Henriquez has 43 strikeouts in 37 1/3 innings, with only one home run allowed. He has trouble with control, having walked 19 batters already, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is still better than 2 to 1. Buffalo's Roy Smith carried a 1.07 ERA into the All-Star break, with 45 strikeouts and 15 walks in 33 2/3 innings. He's a side-armer with a release point that's very hard for both lefties and righties to pick up. He's an excellent candidate to spend the next few years in a set-up role. Jim Mann (New Orleans) should make it to Houston before September, giving Larry Dierker an alternative to overusing Billy Wagner. Mann has a 1.49 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings, with only ten walks and four home runs. He's big, and has nasty billygoat chin hair and a fiery attitude. At the post-game party, he was yelling good-naturedly at Tony Pena, his manager at New Orleans, to "Pitch me every day, mother[lover]...pitch me every day!"

  • Lastly, there was a Calvin Pickering (Rochester) sighting. He was spotted being thrown out on a grounder to deep short that Bill Veeck might have beaten out. Someone said Pickering has lost a lot of weight, but even if that's true he still has Tommy Lasorda's physique and locomotive gait.

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.

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