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July 11, 2003

Prospecting

Futures Game Preview

by David Cameron

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This Sunday at 5:30 p.m. EST, Major League Baseball will present the fifth annual showcase of the premier minor league talents in the game. It receives an ESPN2 time slot usually reserved for reruns of the 1976 World Strongest Man competition and gets about the same amount of national attention, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better place to watch talent assemble. There are eight major league All-Stars this year who have participated in one of the four Futures Game contests, and that number will only rise as improving players like Lance Berkman, Joel Pineiro, and Brett Myers find their way to the big stage in the coming years. However, since the game doesn't receive much in the way of promotion (shocking, I know), people still ask questions. So, here are some answers.

Why should I watch an exhibition game?

The Futures Game doesn't count in any standings and isn't part of a season, so by definition, it is an exhibition. However, there is a pretty compelling case to be made that minor league games don't count, either. The point of minor league baseball is development and evaluation, not wins and losses. While most All-Star games have the stigma of being relaxed occasions with minimal effort involved, the opposite is often true with the Futures Game. Most of these kids have never played in a major league ballpark before, nor have they had upwards of 20,000 people in the stands when they take the field. This is their first exposure to national television, and adrenaline often takes over. Last summer, Adam Wainwright, who regularly pitches between 88-92, was clocked at 97 MPH. These kids have something to prove. This is not a friendly game of backyard softball.

Well then, who should I be watching?

Unless you're attending the game and getting there two hours early, you're simply not going to be able to see all 50 players on the roster. To ensure that you don't take a food run at the wrong time, I've broken the rosters down into four groups. If you want to see the next superstar in major league baseball, be glued to the television when the blue-chip players are in. If you want to make sure you see the most exciting play of the game, focus on the tools-laden athletes, who are almost guaranteed to make you spill something as you jump off the couch. If you like human interest stories about self-made men, then you're a blue-collar kind of guy (or gal). With no offense intended to their immediate family members, group four can also be labeled the bathroom break crew. If you see a match-up of two fringe prospects coming, seize the opportunity to get more food. Just make sure you don't get stuck in the kitchen, because you never know who might come jogging in from the bullpen.

The Blue Chippers:

United States:

C: Joe Mauer, Twins SS: J.J. Hardy, Brewers RHP: Zack Greinke, Royals RHP: Edwin Jackson, Dodgers RHP: Clint Nageotte, Mariners

World:

3B: Andy Marte, Braves (Dominican Republic) RHP: Rich Harden, Athletics (Canada) RHP: Ervin Santana, Angels (Dominican Republic) RHP: Chin-Hui Tsao, Rockies (Taiwan)

These guys are among the best prospects in the game, and all nine have frontline potential. In the first four versions of the Futures Game, Alfonso Soriano, Sean Burroughs, and Jose Reyes all stepped up and made the game their personal stage. Odds are that one of the players listed above will be the guy everyone is talking about on Monday.

There are people on both sides of the Mauer versus Mathis debate, but Mauer is still the better prospect in my mind. Mathis' .327/.384/.526 line is more impressive on the surface, but his hitting environment needs to be taken into consideration. The average California League hitter has put up a .275/.348/.410 line, while their Florida State League (where Mauer spent most of his time) counterparts managed a .249/.324/.349 effort. Mauer's performance, relative to his league, is just as impressive, and his defensive skills and physical advantages give him the edge. Both were drafted out of high school, however, and history has not been kind to early round catchers who didn't attend college.

Given BP's oft-stated TINSTAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) mantra, it may be weird to see six pitchers listed as blue-chippers. When you begin to look at their date of birth, it gets even more odd, as three of them are not yet 20 years old. However, prospect analysis is a balancing of both risk and reward, and while the risk of teenage arms has been well documented, these three offer a tremendous reward. Jackson and Greinke have both reached Double-A and begun to find success despite their young age; both profile as front-of-the-rotation starters. Kazmir has posted an eye-popping 13 strikeouts-per-nine-innings as a professional, and has simply toyed with hitters three and four years older than himself. While understanding the inherent risk involved with young arms, there are times that the potential makes them worth the risk. These three belong in that group.

There are a few elite prospects that are not going to be attending for various reasons. Casey Kotchman is still recovering from a torn hamstring, the most recent in a long line of injuries that have kept him off the field. Laynce Nix and Dan Haren were named to the roster, but Texas and St. Louis decided that their future was now and promoted them to the big show. Angel Guzman was recently shut down with a sore shoulder and also had to be replaced on the World team roster. Regardless, this is the only time of the year where you'll see nearly every prominent star prospect in one game.

The Tools Stars:

United States:

C: Jeff Mathis, Angels 2B: Josh Barfield, Padres RHP: Gavin Floyd, Phillies

World:

C: Guillermo Quiroz, Blue Jays (Venezuela) 3B: Edwin Encarncaion, Reds (Dominican Republic) OF: Franklin Gutierrez, Dodgers (Venezuela) OF: Alexis Rios, Blue Jays (Puerto Rico) OF: Felix Pie, Cubs (Dominican Republic) RHP: Merkin Valdez, Giants (Dominican Republic) RHP: Denny Bautista, Marlins (Dominican Republic)

These are the guys who sell blue jeans. Gutierrez has the kind of raw power that makes getting to the game early for batting practice worth it. Pie (pronounced pee-ay, unfortunately) has the raw speed to be a sprinter if baseball doesn't work out. Floyd's combination of a mid-90s fastball and 12-to-6 curve on a 6'5" body is what scouts dream of. All have performed well enough to earn their spots on the team, but they've made their reputations with pure athletic ability.

A lot of people would place Gavin Floyd among the blue chippers, but I'm taking the conservative route with him. His stuff is very good, but his performance hasn't always been up to par. As the opposite of Mauer, Floyd benefits greatly from the Florida State League, and has managed just 7.85 strikeouts per nine innings this year, a slight improvement from the 7.59 K/9 he posted in the South Atlantic League last year. When he starts missing bats with the regularity of Nageotte or Tsao and can hold his own in parks that aren't generous to pitchers, he'll move into the elite group as well.

Alexis Rios has also opened a lot of eyes by leading the Eastern League in hitting at age 22 and displaying a penchant for the base on balls for the first time in his career. However, after drawing 11 walks in his first 67 at-bats, he's managed just 17 in his next 246 trips to the plate, and his strikeout rate is back to its old levels. He's shown some definite improvement, but he's got some more growth to do.

The Blue-Collar Group:

United States:

SS: Khalil Greene, Padres 3B: Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox OF: Dave Krynzel, Brewers OF: Grady Sizemore, Indians RHP: John Maine, Orioles RHP: John VanBenschoten, Pirates LHP: Neal Cotts, White Sox

World:

C: Justin Huber, Mets (Australia) 2B: Ramon Nivar, Rangers (Dominican Republic) LHP: Travis Blackley, Mariners (Australia) RHP: Edgar Gonzalez, Diamondbacks (Dominican Republic) LHP: Jorge de la Rosa, Red Sox (Mexico)

Unlike the track stars, these guys are just baseball players. Their best traits are only evident between the white lines and they outperform the expectations created from the scouting reports. They have some skills--Sizemore had to be bought out of a football scholarship--but playing baseball is what they do best. An inning or a few at-bats in a single game is not the best way to appreciate their talents. You may walk away from the game underwhelmed by the John Maine experience. Watch him enough times, though, and he'll begin to grow on you.

Van Benschoten's success as a pro is tempered by his competition, as the Pirates have been very conservative with him. After shocking the world and selecting him as a pitcher, they let him dominate the South Atlantic League in 2002, than gave him a half-season in the Carolina League this year before finally moving him to Double-A. Already 23 years old, he's got a solid fastball and an advanced idea how to pitch, but his secondary offerings aren't major league quality yet. Between his limited experience against players of a similar caliber and his already advanced age, I believe it's premature to project stardom on him for now.

Neal Cotts has gotten himself on the map with eye-popping strikeout rates, but is an unusual pitcher. His curveball is terrific, which helps compensate for just average velocity, but his control is poor. Usually, soft-tossers succeed by throwing a lot of strikes, but Cotts walked 87 men last year and has already issued 45 free passes in 73 innings this year. For a guy with just one major league pitch, command is a necessity, and Cotts' isn't there.

The Fringe Prospects:

United States:

1B: Ryan Howard, Phillies 1B: Adam LaRoche, Braves 2B: Chris Burke, Astros 3B: Chad Tracy, Diamondbacks OF: Steve Smitherman, Reds RHP: J.D. Durbin, Twins RHP: Chris Narveson, Cardinals RHP: Preston Larrison, Tigers LHP: Royce Ring, Mets

World:

C: Pete LaForest, Devil Rays (Canada) 1B: Chin-Feng Chen, Dodgers (Taiwan) 1B: Rene Reyes, Rockies (Venezuela) 2B: Robinson Cano, Yankees (Dominican Republic) SS: Jose Castillo, Pirates (Venezuela) OF: Alexis Gomez, Royals (Dominican Republic) RHP: Shawn Hill, Expos (Canada) RHP: Seung Song, Expos (Korea) RHP: Chien-Ming Wang, Yankees (Taiwan)

Most of these guys made the roster out of necessity or lack of competition. Fringe may be a bit harsh for Tracy and Burke, but they aren't likely to become impact major league players. History tells us that one of these guys is going to make me look foolish in 15 years, but I've yet to find anyone who knew that Luis Gonzalez or Jamie Moyer was going to become an All-Star the first time either guy stepped on a field.

That game was great! Now what?

While the rest of the country mourns for three days without a meaningful baseball game, you can now bask in the glory that is minor league ball. No matter where you live, there is a game going on within a reasonable distance of your house. You will likely have your pick of more than one. There are 13 minor league teams within 100 miles of my house, for instance. Pick one and head to the park. You will find yourself going back.

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