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May 18, 2004

Prospectus Today

Biding Their Time

by Joe Sheehan

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One year ago today, Dontrelle Willis had a 4.91 ERA in 11 innings. Over in the American League, Angel Berroa was hitting .246/.313/.366 with two home runs and one stolen base. Despite having virtually no visibility six weeks into the season, those two players would go on to win the Rookie of the Year awards in their respective leagues.

So it should come as no surprise that right now, there are no great candidates for 2004 rookie honors. Some young players have held their own: Khalil Greene has outplayed Kazuo Matsui in the NL, with Chad Tracy and Jose Castillo also off to good starts. In the American League, there's Gerald Laird and Doug Waechter. In both leagues, there are a bunch of relievers with 15-20 good innings under their belts: Kevin Gregg, Ryan Madson, Akinori Otsuka, Jason Frasor and Justin Duchscherer.

Other than Greene, the best prospects in baseball haven't yet had an impact on the season. Joe Mauer was everyone's preseason choice for top rookie in the AL, but he suffered a knee injury in the season's second game and has yet to play a third. Jeremy Reed didn't make the White Sox out of the spring training, and hasn't hit for any power at Triple-A. B.J. Upton has reached Triple-A, but Julio Lugo's solid performance means that the Devil Rays can take their time moving Upton to the majors.

Given the caliber of competition, it's entirely possible that at least one RotY award winner has yet to make his major league debut. If Willis and Berroa can win the award based entirely on what they did after mid-May, certainly other players can. So which prospects currently in the minors are set to make the leap, and garner award votes come the fall?

  • Zack Greinke, Royals. The Royals have been trying to walk the line between letting Greinke's performance--23/6 K/BB, 2.51 ERA at Triple-A--drive his advancement, and managing his 20-year-old right arm--less than five innings a start so far. Greinke gets both the scouting and performance sides of the aisle excited, and given the Royals' brutal rotation, it's likely that he'll be tapped as savior before the All-Star break.

    While it's harder to manage a young pitcher's workload in the majors, unless Greinke is going to party like it's 1899 and start every third day, he can't make a difference to the Royals' 2004 season. Hopefully Tony Pena will manage both his arm and everyone's expectations. It's the most important job left to him this year.

  • Justin Morneau, Twins. I've been tempted to start a "Free Justin Morneau!" campaign, but given how Erubiel Durazo and Ramon Castro have handled their work-release programs, it might be time to retire the concept.

    Morneau should have been the Twins' Opening Day DH, and he should have the everyday DH job right now. He's tearing up the International League (.360/.420/.647), the same way he tore up the Eastern League in 2003 (.329/.384/.620). Morneau is a major league hitter whose time is being wasted at Triple-A, and the Twins have to recognize that, stop with the ridiculous Jose Offerman nonsense and let the masher get on with his career. He could pull a Willie McCovey and win the Rookie of the Year award in 200 at-bats.

  • Edwin Jackson, Dodgers. Jackson was roundly expected to make the Dodger rotation out of spring training, after last September's 2-1, 2.45 cup of coffee. He didn't pitch very well in Florida, though, and instead opened the year in Las Vegas. Unlike fellow 20-year-old Greinke, Jackson's performance hasn't cried out for a call-up: 4.75 ERA, 30/19 K/BB in 41 2/3 innings. The Dodgers need help in the rotation, however, and Jackson is still ahead of Joel Hanrahan (4.21 ERA, slightly better peripherals) in their minds. The next time he puts two good starts together, his third will probably come in the majors.

  • Alexis Rios, Blue Jays. Rios moved from "signability mistake" to "top-15 prospect" in a year's time, making what appeared to be a big leap forward in 2003 and in winter ball after the season. He hasn't sustained his gains in '04, starting the season .235/.269/.366 for Triple-A Syracuse. Most disappointing has been his seven walks in 153 at-bats.

    Regardless, he's likely going to be the majors within a month, as the Blue Jays have been playing with somewhere between three and three-and-a-half outfielders all year, and they desperately need a right-handed hitter in their lineup. Rios' promotion will be the first of many Jays call-ups over the next four months, as they begin the transition from the Carlos Delgado era into what they hope will be an extended challenge of the AL East's aging top dogs.

  • Joe Blanton, Athletics. The top prospect from the A's famous 2002 Moneyball draft, Blanton has allowed just one home run in 50 2/3 innings for Triple-A Sacramento, posting a 2.66 ERA in the process. The most popular scenario has him being promoted in the second half, with Rich Harden moving to the bullpen to be the strikeout-getting right-hander they've been missing. I expect something more imaginative, involving a trade of Harden, Barry Zito or Blanton himself. Regardless, Blanton will be in the majors by August 1, and should, like Zito and Tim Hudson, be effective immediately.

  • Anastacio Martinez, Red Sox. E-Sheehan (614). Martinez was my sleeper pick on this list...great in Florida, coming off a nine-strikeouts-in-three-innings game over the weekend, pitching for a team that's been messing around with 17 crappy second left-handers in the bullpen in a division filled with targets for a nasty left-hander.

    One problem: he's not left-handed. I mixed him up with Mike Gonzalez, who he went back and forth as part of the Lyonpalooza affair last summer. Martinez is more likely to become trade bait than to have an impact on a Red Sox bullpen that's lousy with good right-handed pitchers. Once dealt, I can definitely see him ripping off 140 innings of effective relief for less than a million bucks over two-and-a-half years.

    Quite frankly, the Sox could use Gonzalez (0.96 ERA, 33 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings for Nashville) back.

  • Dallas McPherson, Angels. Ah, serendipity. If I'd completed this article when I'd intended to, McPherson never would have been in it. Since then, Troy Glaus has been sidelined with a shoulder injury, and surgery will keep him out for somewhere between two months and the rest of human existence, opening the door for McPherson to make the majors as soon as this summer. This would be an advanced timetable, but the Angels have already promoted one hitter directly from Double-A--Casey Kotchman--to cover an injury, and they have fewer viable options to play third base than they did for first base.

    McPherson, one of three Angels prospects to make our top 20, is raking at Arkansas: .298/.371/.504, although his strikeout rate is high enough (38 in 141 at-bats) to cause concern. The presence of Glaus was expected to force him to right field, but now that the Angels have Vladimir Guerrero and a clipped Glaus, McPherson may reach the majors at the hot corner. What he might do with the opportunity is an open question; he wasn't expected to be ready this soon, and his problems making contact could be exacerbated in the major leagues. Consider him high-risk/high-reward, and watch carefully.

  • David Wright, Mets. Like McPherson, Wright wasn't expected to come this quickly. A combination of his performance (.350/.465/.607 for Double-A Binghamton) and Ty Wigginton's (.213/.244/.350) may change that timetable. For a third baseman, Wright has shown a broad base of skills, including 14 stolen bases and defense that, while not spectacular, is more than adequate for third base.

    Right now, there's no talk of promoting Wright. As the Mets come around to the idea that they're not going to win this year, though, they'll have to be tempted to let him start his major league career in a low-pressure environment, in the hopes that he can help make it a high-pressure one in 2005.

Honorable mention goes to the Twins' Jesse Crain (24/7 K/BB in 21 IP at Rochester), the Mariners' Bobby Madritsch (41 K, 41 2/3 IP at Tacoma, waiting for Freddy Garcia trade), the Cards' Adam Wainwright (probably behind Dan Haren, though), the Devil Rays' Jonny Gomes (slugging .740 for Durham) and the Royals' David DeJesus (once the Royals see that it's not about '04 any longer).

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

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