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February 20, 2003

Prospectus Feature

Touring the Minors: The Pacific Coast League

by Keith Scherer

Pacific Coast League Profile

BATTERS                          PITCHERS

 AVG   OBP   SLG   REQA        ERA   H/9   BB/9   K/9   K/BB
.275  .345  .432   .791       4.52   9.5    3.2   7.0    2.2

COMBINED RUNS PER GAME: 9.9

The Cubs, Padres, Astros, Giants, and A's are among the best-run and best-stocked minor league operations in baseball and they each have an affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. It's not too much of a stretch to say that the two best hitting prospects in the high minors will play in the PCL this year, as will the game's two best pitching prospects. The minors' most extreme pitcher's park is here, along with Colorado Springs, among the minors' top three hitters' parks. Inspired by an episode of The Simpsons, baseball in Albuquerque has been revived after a couple years' hiatus. The PCL is famous for its pinball scores but there are other, better reasons to pay attention to it this year.

American Conference, East Division

Oklahoma Red Hawks (Rangers)
Park Factor: 952
Each of the last two years we have chosen a Rangers' third baseman as the top prospect in the game, Hank Blalock in 2002 and Mark Teixeira this season. At age 21 last year, Blalock got more than 150 plate appearances in the majors and couldn't handle it. He was demoted early and spent most of the season in Triple-A. In his first exposure to the PCL, he hit .307/.363/.457, a performance that when translated was a decline of about 25% from 2001. The Rangers are giving him another chance this year, and the PECOTA system projects him to get back to his 2001 level:
                EQBA    EQOBP   EQSLG
2001 A          .303    .352    .459
2001 AA         .272    .349    .453
2003 Maj        .275    .346    .450

In this year's book Rany Jazayerli says say that Teixiera "has been a major league-caliber hitter since his sophomore year of college." He dominated advanced-A and Double-A last year, and PECOTA projects that he would maintain his performance if the Rangers had him jump Triple-A as they did with Blalock:

 

                EQBA    EQOBP   EQSLG
2002 A          .256    .331    .474
2002 AA         .263    .346    .497
2003 Maj        .272    .346    .474

Expectations are higher now for Teixeira than Blalock, but PECOTA still has them close. Teixeira is likely to start the year at Oklahoma City, but he should be in Arlington before the season's over. Blalock was the first to the Show, Teixeira is the hotter prospect, but the interesting race is to determine who gets to play third, and who has to move to first base or the outfield. Teixeira's fielding could be the most important story in the PCL.

New Orleans Zephyrs (Astros)
Park Factor: 880
An illustration of park effects. This is the most extreme pitchers' park in baseball. New Orleans is one of only two parks in the game with a Park Factor below 900. It's no surprise that the Zephyrs led the PCL in team ERA, or that one of their pitchers, Jeriome Robertson, had the best ERA in the league. But take a look at Robertson's raw numbers compared to how the performance looks when translated to a global norm:
                IP       H      BB       K      HR      ERA     
2002 Actual     180     160     45      114     13      2.55
2002 Translated 159     186     48      82      17      4.28

Robertson is expected to compete with Tim Redding and Peter Munro for the last slot in the Houston rotation this year. If he makes the rotation it'll be a different world for him, because Houston is one of the majors' most hostile pitching environments, and this is a big part of the reason PECOTA projects Robertson's 2003 ERA with Houston to be 5.40, nearly three runs higher than his league-leading figure from last year. Houston would be a rude awakening from Robertson's recent experience at home; his home/road ERA split was 1.97/3.36 in 2002.

In each of the last three years the Astros have had a pitching prospect light up the minors: Roy Oswalt in 2000, Redding in 2001, and Kirk Saarloos in 2002. Unlike Robertson, none of them had more than a half dozen starts at Triple-A before being promoted. Robertson's just not in their class. He's a quadruple-A pitcher made pretty by park effects and chance. Redding and Saarloos had some trouble adjusting to the majors, but PECOTA projects each of them--and Munro--to have an ERA a full run better than Robertson. Over the last three years the Astros have been producing as much high-quality pitching talent as any organization. They have more coming soon, but for prospects coming out of extreme parks, the Triple-A numbers can be deceiving. If you're in a fantasy league and you're thinking of taking a chance on Robertson, it's something to keep in mind on draft day.

Nashville Sounds (Pirates)
Park Factor: 922
As an indication of how far they have come since the chuckleheads were run out of town, last year the Pirates won the Topps Organization of the Year Award, which is based on a point system for the number of players that have received Topps awards during the season. Six Pirate minor leaguers won Player of the Month awards, four were All-Stars, two won Trautman awards for being their league's best player, and the minor league system had the second-highest overall winning percentage. It was a good year for the organization, but the successes were at the lower levels of the minors. Check back here in two years. Sean Burnett needs a full year in Double-A, but if he makes it to Nashville before the summer's over it will be interesting to see how he handles the hostility.
Memphis Redbirds (Cardinals)
Park Factor: 916
Baseball America gave the Redbirds the 2002 Frietas Award for being Triple-A's exemplar of sustained excellence "in the business of minor league baseball." The Cardinals' minor league system has atrophied over the last couple of years but is being restocked with college talent, and several of their most promising pitchers have begun healing. The Peoria staff led the full-season minor leagues in ERA, but the best of that group won't arrive in Memphis until next year. The system's best prospect--and most valuable trade bait--is Jimmy Journell, a top-tier talent with a dicey medical history. Just as Teixeira's fielding is a small story of huge importance to the Rangers, Journell's brittleness will be more important than the numbers he racks up this year. Rhett Parrott handled the jump to Double-A just fine in spite of an EQSO9 rate of 4.0. His 2.86 ERA at New Haven translates to a 3.70 in a neutral universe, but PECOTA projects Parrott's marginal skill set to be worth a 5.68 ERA in St. Louis. As we note in this year's book, he's really not the next Brad Radke. A strong performance in Memphis would make him an ideal principal in a deadline trade.

American Conference, Central Division

Salt Lake Stingers (Angels)
Park Factor: 1048
Bobby Jenks was the last player to make our Top 40 Prospects list this year. Alternately regarded as the next Nick Neugebauer or the real-life Nuke Laloosh, Jenks throws 100 mph and isn't even close to sticking in the majors. He had a great run in the Arizona Fall League but didn't do well in A or Double-A, so the PCL will be rough on him. Chris Bootcheck is a scout's prospect but, as we note in the book, he projects to be rotation backfill, and to make it even that far he needs a full developmental year in Salt Lake.

Robb Quinlan won the PCL's Most Valuable Player Award. It's his second MVP, as he won the award in the Northwest League in 1999. A 26-year old corner outfielder, Quinlan has hit well at every level. His .333 batting average wasn't a home-friendly fluke. He batted 80 points higher on the road. He's a line-drive hitter and the knock against him has been that he doesn't have enough power to start in the majors, but his situational hitting was good enough for him to lead the league in RBI. Over the past three seasons he has driven in 276 runs in 392 games, an average of .7 per game, which projects to 114 over a 162-game season. Last year was the first time he failed to draw a walk in at least 10% of his plate appearances. He'll start the year in Triple-A, but if he boosts his walk rate he'll maintain his average and make it to Anaheim before the season's over. The profile looks at least superficially like that of John Barnes, seen this spring trying to break in with the Pirates as a backup outfielder.

Omaha Royals (Royals)
Park Factor: 961
Ian Ferguson led the minors in victories last year with 18, going 12-1 in the Carolina League and 6-2 at Double-A. He's a finesse pitcher with an equivalent walk rate just over 2.0 and a strikeout rate floating around 5.0. His equivalent and expected ERAs have improved at each of the five levels he's seen:
                        EQERA   PERA
2000 Short-season A     7.25    7.06
2001 A                  7.21    6.78
2001 Advanced A         6.03    5.53
2002 Advanced A         4.63    4.44
2002 Double A           4.07    3.91    

He hasn't had any adjustment problems yet, but PECOTA projects his major league ERA to be 5.88, so he needs at least one full "prove it" year at Triple-A. Jimmy Gobble is a fellow finesse pitcher, with a translated strikeout to walk ratio of about 5:3. A lefty, he's their most highly regarded pitching prospect. Like Ferguson, he handled Double-A well but needs to prove he can succeed at Triple-A in spite of a weak strikeout rate. Due to an injured groin, Gobble pitched only 70 innings last year, so the Double-A sample is a bit undersized.

Iowa Cubs (Cubs)
Park Factor: 964
In this year's book, Rany demonstrates the parallel between Albert Pujols after his year in A-ball and Brendan Harris, who was in A-ball last year. Rany notes that Harris is the biggest sleeper prospect in the game. Harris will likely start the year at Double-A, but if he continues to hit like he did last year there (.321/.345/.547 in 13 games, after hitting .329/.396/.547 in 110 games in the Florida State League) he'll be in Iowa before midsummer and mentioned along with Teixeira as one of the game's best hitting prospects. The Cubs have been waiting on Dave Kelton as their third baseman of the future, and last year they tried him at first base, but Harris's development and Hee Sop Choi's emergence are likely to force Kelton to the outfield, if not this year then next. Since Dwight Smith and Jerome Walton in 1989, Doug Glanville is the only quality position player the Cubs have developed, so they'll take Kelton wherever they can place him, so long as he continues to hit. He was named the Southern League's best hitting prospect in 2002. Mark Bellhorn is holding a place for one of these two.
Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Rockies)
Park Factor: 1088
In his second season in the PCL, Jack Cust stagnated. He went from a good hitters' park to a better one, but his stats didn't show it:
                 BAV     OBP     SLG    
2001 Tucson     .278    .419    .525
2002 Col Spg    .265    .409    .524

The Rockies' outfield is crowded enough without him, so he could start the season back in Triple-A. Coming up behind him is Brad Hawpe, MVP of the Carolina League, where he hit .347/.448/.587 and got himself onto the prospect lists. He'll start the year in the Southern League but is in line for a quick promotion to Triple-A. Blocked by Todd Helton at the major league level, Hawpe is quixotically being moved to the outfield. Cust's bad defense is well-known, and he will have trouble staying in the lineup at Coors because left field is so large there that he doubles its expansiveness. But Hawpe is even slower than Cust and so far his outfield play has been dismal. So even though the two mashers might be the ideal corner outfielders for some Coors fantasists, it's scary to think what would happen to the Sky Sox rate of runs allowed if the two of them play the outfield at the same time. Kevin Burford is the Rockies' darkhorse prospect. He projects as a .279/.359/.455 hitter right now in the majors and I'm betting on him to be the Sky Sox MVP this year. Like Hawpe, he's blocked by Helton, but he'll make the majors as Helton's understudy, which isn't such a bad role when you consider the amount and frequency of injuries Helton has been suffering.

A few teams have better arms, but while no one was paying attention the Rockies assembled the most underrated pitching talent in the game. Behind Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook, the Rockies have Cory Vance and Jason Young, both likely to spend at least half the year at Triple-A. A minor story to watch is how Scott Dohmann and Chris Buglovsky handle the jump from A-ball. As finesse pitchers in a brutal pitching environment, they'll need a good defense behind them, which makes the prospect of a Cust/Hawpe outfield amusing.

Pacific Conference, West Division

Edmonton Trappers (Expos)
Park Factor: 991
The Expos' Triple-A affiliate at Ottawa was 90 miles from Montreal; now their top talent is 1,820 miles (more than 3,000 kilometers!) from home. Josh Karp threw 45 innings in Advanced A, and 87 more in AA. Drafted out of college, he's advancing quickly and threw well in the Arizona Fall League. A changeup specialist with a passable fastball and slurve, Karp's numbers have been superficially impressive but they don't translate well yet. He needs a full season in Edmonton before he'll be ready to join the big league club, wherever it'll be by then. A scouting consideration: the distance from Edmonton to Washington, D.C., is over 1900 miles; to Portland it's 700.
Portland Beavers (Padres)
Park Factor: 913
Because of injuries and poor performance, the San Diego Padres used 59 players--37 of them pitchers--in 2002, which according to the PCL's official website is a record. The Beavers used 55, second highest in the PCL. At the beginning of the season the Padres' best talent was concentrated at Mobile. Mike Bynum, Eric Cyr, Ben Howard, Jake Peavy, Oliver Perez, and Dennis Tankersley all spent time in Double-A and the majors last year. All of them but Perez and Peavy worked in Portland too. The Padres have as much pitching talent as any team, but only Perez is ready for full-time work in the majors. The Padres' bullpen appears to be full, so the Portland rotation could feature five of the best pitching prospects in the high minors. Tagg Bozied and Jake Gautreau need more time in Double-A, but Xavier Nady should see San Diego this season. The three of them and Khalil Greene made the Top 40 list, giving the Padres a balance of choice hitting and pitching talent to draw from cheaply over the next couple of years.
Albuquerque Isotopes (Marlins)
Park Factor: 1020+
Named after an episode of The Simpsons, the Isotopes will play in a hitters' park. The Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate was the last team to play here, and as prospects Dodger hitters were often overrated because park effects weren't appreciated then as much as they are--we hope--now. This is the opposite of the problem Houston has with New Orleans. The Fish now have to be careful not to overrate their hitters and underrate their pitchers based on what happens in Albuquerque. Florida is awaiting Jason Stokes (No. 11 on our prospect list) and Adrian Gonzalez (No. 24), two 21-year old first basemen. Gonzalez was young for Double-A last year, but he's the one they want to trade, so he should beat Stokes to Albuquerque, where the park effect could be the Marlins' most valuable player.
Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
Park Factor: 946
Injuries have destroyed what two years ago was one of the best collections of pitching talent in the minors. This year's expected rotation of Ken Cloude, Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche, Jeff Heaverlo, and Bobby Madritsch has had at least a half-dozen serious surgeries among them, but would have been a first-class "prospect" rotation a few years ago. The Mariners have done a good job finding parks that protect their pitchers from mental abuse, but they just haven't been able to keep them healthy. Madritsch was recently the subject of a human interest story by Peter Gammons. A 26-year old lefty with a 95-mph fastball, Madritsch was Baseball America's 2002 Independent League Player of the Year. In 1998 the Reds took him in the sixth round of the draft--the Kearns/Dunn draft--but he had shoulder surgery after the season and was released in 2000. His Northern League totals for 2002:
ERA     IP      H       BB       K
2.30    125     94      36      153

Chris Snelling (No. 10) should be in Tacoma's outfield by midsummer and Shin-Soo Choo (No. 16) will join him next year. In two years they could join Ichiro to form an all-lefty, Pacific Rim outfield. Snelling made his MLB debut last year at age 20 and Choo won't be 21 until July, but they have already shown power and patience:

Snelling                AB      BB       BAV     OBP     SLG
2000 A                  259     34      .305    .398    .483
2001 Advanced A         450     45      .336    .421    .491
2002 AA                  89     12      .326    .429    .506

Choo                    AB      BB       BAV     OBP     SLG
2002 A                  420     70      .302    .417    .440
2002 Advanced A          39      9      .308    .460    .564

If Clint Nageotte--minor league strikeout king in 2002 and prospective top pitching prospect in next year's book--starts well in San Antonio he could get a midseason promotion to Tacoma, especially if one of the starters suffers an injury relapse.

Pacific Conference, South Division

Las Vegas 51s (Dodgers)
Park Factor: 1067
Las Vegas might be an even better hitting environment than Albuquerque, so all the caveats that apply for the Marlins still apply for the Dodgers. Joe Thurston's bound for Los Angeles, Luke Allen's headed to Denver, and the Chin-Feng Chen age is almost behind us, park boost notwithstanding. Paul Lo Duca had his breakthrough late and there's no guarantee that he's going to remain behind the plate past this season, so there's time yet for Dave Ross (.287/.389/.519) to get his shot. He strikes out in about 29% of his plate appearances, but as long as he continues to draw walks more than 10% of the time, he should maintain his production. If he makes it, there'll be room for Koyie Hill in Las Vegas, where a boost in counting stats would garner attention.
Tucson Sidewinders (Diamondbacks)
Park Factor: 1051
The Diamondbacks' minor league system is universally recognized as being among the least talented, and except for Chad Tracy the talent on the Sidewinders' 2003 roster looks like it caps out at filler. The Arizona staff is set, but within a year there could be room at the back of the rotation for one of their four marginal starter prospects, Oscar Villarreal, Mike Gosling, Andrew Good, and Steve Randolph. Gosling throws in the mid-90s, but his equivalent strikeout rate was under 5.0 last year. He allowed only 7 homers in 166 innings and reportedly has the makeup scouts and GMs like. Good did well in his first full year at El Paso, allowing only 1.3 walks per nine innings, with a 5-to-1 strikeout ratio, while pitching an in extreme hitters' park. Randolph was in the top 10 on the PCL's leader board for ERA, even though he allowed 4.5 walks per nine. ERAs are variable, and with Randolph his ERA follows his walk rate:
                ERA      IP     BB       K      BB/9    K/9
1999 AA         2.64     44     23       38     4.7     7.7
2000 AAA        8.78     13     19        6     13.1    4.2
2001 AA         5.16     75     53       66     6.4     7.9
2001 AAA        6.33     21     19       16     8.1     6.9
2002 AAA        3.47    163     81      129     4.5     7.1

He has the strikeouts you like to see but he's still allowing too many walks. There is no trend here--Randolph's ERAs at Tucson are improving but the sample size before 2002 is too small--so it's hard to tell what he'll do this year. He'll be 29 this May, but he's a lefty, so he could still get a chance if he suppresses that walk rate. Last year was his first full season, and some injury risk remains.

Tracy will be the Diamondbacks' Opening Day third baseman in 2004. He hit .344/.394/.486 at El Paso last year. A lefty, he has enough zone control (57 walks against 70 strikeouts over the last two years) but not enough patience yet (he has yet to draw walks in at least 10% of his plate appearances). We note in the book that with some luck he could challenge for a couple of batting titles in his career. Arizona thinks he can field well enough, but Clay Davenport's metrics don't, as Tracy rated a -9 in the field last year.

Sacramento Rivercats (A's)
Park Factor: 971
In keeping with their enthusiasm for continuity, the A's promoted the manager and pitching coach from their Midland affiliate to take over field duties for the Rivercats.

The best of the last year's Midland pitchers is Rich Harden, who is gaining a reputation as the premiere pitching prospect in the minors. Splitting time between the California League and Texas League, he dominated both last year, with strikeout, homerun, and hits allowed rates much better than league average. His control was fine in Advanced-A, but his Texas League walk rate of 5.6 was much worse than league average. He has some growing to do in Sacramento, and the A's rotation is full for 2003, but Harden should be in the majors to stay by next spring and at the front of the rotation by 2005. John Rheinecker was Midland's finesse lefty, who turned in a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 7 strikeouts per nine innings. His equivalent strikeout rate is just over 5.0, and there is some thought that he has a better chance of making the majors as a reliever, which in light of the A's rotation depth and Harden's presence nearby might be the path of least resistance.

Fresno Grizzlies (Giants)
Park Factor: 1040
The Giants have announced that the fifth starter's job is Ryan Jensen's to lose, so Jerome Williams, Rich Foppert, and Kurt Ainsworth, could all be in Fresno to start the season. They rank 8, 13, and 19 on our prospect list, and PECOTA projects that each of them would have an ERA just a tick above 4.00 this year in San Francisco. Boof Bonser almost made the list, and Jeff Clark could make it next year. Of the three that made the list, Williams ranks highest, but many think that Foppert is the best pitching prospect in baseball. The Grizzlies play the Rivercats May 23-26, June 26-29, July 17-20, and August 11-14. Somewhere in there Harden will face Williams, Ainsworth, or Foppert at least once.

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