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May 19, 2004

Can Of Corn

The Kinston Trio

by Dayn Perry

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It wasn't so long ago that the Indians, almost by acclimation, were deemed to have the best farm system in the game. That's a fleeting honor by nature, as great systems are generally loaded with talent in the high minors--talent that isn't long for the farm. Indeed, mashers like Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner are now plying their trade in Cleveland. Brandon Phillips exhausted his prospect status and the patience of his handlers, but he's renaissancing in Buffalo this season. The gaggle of high-ceiling arms once in the system is now splitting time between major league duty and the injury docket.

All that said, replenishment is in the offing. The Indians' High-A Carolina League affiliate in Kinston has been far and away the most dominant team in the minors thus far. At 27-9 (a tidy .750 winning percentage, which translates to 108 wins over a 144-game schedule), the Kinston Indians are playing Chet to the rest of the 'Lina League's Gary and Wyatt. All without the transmogrification-cum-comeuppance in the end.

Unless you're the Giants, success isn't reducible to one player, but in Kinston's case it may be reducible to three. So ready yourselves for the "Kinston Trio."

The Carolina League is a notorious pitcher's circuit, which makes the performances of a couple of Kinston hitters in particular all the more impressive. Grainger Stadium, where Kinston toils, has park factors for the last three seasons of 969, 974 and 982. In spite of the hostile environs, Ryan Garko is hitting .359/.457/.656, and Michael Aubrey checks in at 306/.391/.477.

First, some perspective. Garko is 23, Aubrey is 22, and right-hander Fausto Carmona, Kinston's best pitcher to date and the third member of our trio, is, at age 20, one of the youngest players in the Carolina League. Kinston as a team, with an average age of 22.92, has the second-youngest roster in the loop, which has a mean age of 23.22. As you can see, all three players are at or below the average age for the league.

Garko, a third-rounder last year out of Stanford, failed to impress in the short-season New York-Penn League last season, but he's obviously figured something out since then. It's early, but his tremendous power display in the Carolina League is certainly promising. I don't expect him to continue batting in the .350s, but if he can maintain an Isolated Power of .250 or greater, he's going to be one to watch in terms of power potential. He's spent more time at first this season than catcher, which is a concern in terms of his ceiling. If he's able to stick at catcher--his college position--obviously his value will be much higher. But right now he's losing time behind the dish to the manifestly inferior David Wallace. If Wallace continues to underwhelm at the plate (.167/.188/.200), Garko might settle in at catcher. The Tribe would do well do give Garko every chance to stick at catcher, provided the rigors of the position don't overly tax his offensive production.

Aubrey, a Tulane product and first baseman, has as much upside as any hitter in the Indians' system, save for possibly Grady Sizemore. The 11th overall pick of the '03 draft, Aubrey, in most quarters, was hailed as the top college hitter available last year after Rickie Weeks, and it surprised most observers when he fell to the Tribe at 11. He signed barely a week after being drafted for $2.01 million, and promptly manhandled the Sally League (.348/.409/.551, 138 AB). The plate discipline has been lacking thus far, although it hasn't been abysmal. His walk rates at Tulane were solid his freshman and junior campaigns, sub-par his sophomore season, suggesting that he may never be a 100-walk talent. In any case, if Aubrey's power and ability to hit for average progress as expected, he'll be fine with only modest plate patience. Although his season-to-date has been strong, it's not indicative of his top-shelf potential. Scouts say he gets a little pull-conscious at times and can have trouble with inside fastballs. On the plus side, he sports a good glove at first, and has put up the numbers thus far.

Despite being only 20 years old, Carmona ranks fifth in the league in strikeouts. He also boasts a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40.1 innings of work. Heretofore, Carmona, who was signed in 2000 as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican, has been an unrivaled control artist. Coming into this season, in 310 innings of work, he'd struck out 175 and walked only 37. That's a K/BB of 4.7, thanks mostly to his sub-atomic walk rate. He led the Sally League in ERA in 2003 and posted the best strike percentage in the organization, mostly because of the outstanding command he has over his occasionally mid-90s fastball. The knock on him has been that his breaking pitch, a slider, isn't a plus offering yet; that he's fanning a batter per inning this season in the Carolina League, which is much better than his K rates of previous seasons, may be a sign that he's deepening his repertoire and pitching to contact less often.

One thing to monitor is Carmona’s home run rate. Up until this season, he surrendered homers at a rate of 0.44 per nine, but this season he’s giving up 0.89 per nine. If he’s getting more whiffs by working up in the zone and, ergo, allowing more homers, that could be a problem in future seasons. On balance, though, the organization has to be pleased with the skills growth that he’s showing this season.

It's certainly early, but if these performances hold up to a reasonable degree, they won't be in the low minors for long, and the Kinston Trio might all wind up on our 2005 Top 50 Prospects list.

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