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July 7, 2004

Can Of Corn

Swish, Kaz and King Felix

by Dayn Perry

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With our minor league All-Star series safely behind us, let's take a closer look at what's going on of late with a few notable prospects around baseball...

  • I've written before about the outrageous potential of Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez. Well, he didn't turn 18 until April, and he's already in Double-A. He made his high-minors debut last week against Frisco and in six innings fanned eight, walked two and surrendered only a single run.

    How Hernandez fares the rest of the season in the Texas League will be more one of the more engaging subplots to be found in 2004. With a high-90s fastball, a hammer curve that's easily the best breaking pitch in the system and a staggering record of performance, Hernandez is a deeply special talent. Here's hoping he doesn't succumb to the panoply of hazards that await young pitchers.

  • Readers of Moneyball will certainly recall the name of Nick Swisher--the player A's GM Billy Beane refused to scout because he didn't want other organizations to glean his intense level of interest in the Ohio State outfielder. The A's were eager to snag Swisher with the 16th overall pick of the 2002 draft. Swisher's performance coming into this season had been a mixed bag.

    Swisher had a nice debut in the Northwest League in '02 (13 games, .250/.433/.455), but a college-trained hitter playing short-season ball should do well. He struggled after a promotion to the Cal League, but considering he skipped Low-A altogether, that's not entirely surprising. In 2003, the A's started him back at the Cal League, and Swisher fared much better (51 games, .296/.418/.550). Before mid-season he was in the Texas League, where he failed to hit.

    This season, the organization, given Swisher's struggles at Double-A in 2003, was expected to start him off back at Midland. Instead, he was promoted to the PCL, where he recouped his hitting skills. In 75 games at Sacramento, Swisher has hit .263/.436/.506. He's always been patient at the plate, but this season he's drawn an astounding 77 unintentional walks in 330 plate appearances. His ISO of .243 is also quite impressive. Swisher obviously has a bevy of peripheral skills, but his ability to hit for average is dubious.

    The A's say they like his defense in center, but other observers doubt he has the range to stick. Given the premium the A's now place on team defense, it's more likely he'll wind up at a corner outfield spot or at first base. Such a move would raise the bar for him offensively. A switch-hitter, Swisher has good power from both sides of the plate, but sometimes he gets a bit homer-happy and tends to pull off the ball. Still, his plate discipline is incredible, and the raw power he's shown this year and at times in the past (he posted an ISO of at least .200 in the Northwest League and in his second time through the Cal League) is promising. Given his struggles at Double-A last year, his success this season is somewhat surprising. That's a promising development for Swisher. On the downside, Swisher is showing some pronounced home-road splits. Away from Sacramento this season, he's hitting a far less impressive .226/.379/.470.

  • Many of us were expecting a big year from Dodgers 1B James Loney this season. But a look at his '04 batting line (.254/.342/.366) reveals that's not happening. Still, there are mitigating circumstances. Loney missed a month with a broken finger, which, besides the lost time adjusting to the Southern League, may have hampered him beyond the games he missed.

    At age 20, he's also comfortably below the average age for Double-A, and Jacksonville does play as a modest hitter's park. Additionally, things may looking up for Loney. Baseball America's J.J. Cooper wrote a recent blurb about an impressive home run Loney hit off Carolina's Bill Murphy last week, and Loney is batting .316/.435/.421 for the month of July (but move us to DEFCON 5 on the sample-size alert scale). Still, Loney is a first baseman, and he needs to show more power at some point. The numbers eventually need to catch up to the scouting profiles. If Loney can manage to stay fully healthy for an extended period of time, as he did in 2002, we may again see impressive numbers from him. He's one to watch down the stretch.

  • The Marlins have endured woes at the catcher position all season. Ramon Castro duped me and many others into believing he was ready to break out this season, if only given the playing time. Instead, he's been to productive catchers what Scott Baio is to Italian-American method actors.

    Mike Redmond has been tolerable as Castro's replacement, but his production (.274/.339/.360) has been sub-optimal. Anyhow, Redmond's recent back maladies prompted the Fish to call up Josh Willingham, who was leading the Double-A Southern League in EqA when he got the call. Willingham's already 25, so he's likely not a star in waiting. However, besides his impressive work this season, Willingham is a career .269/.400/.472 hitter with excellent patience and some pop. The Marlins under Jack McKeon have shown a willingness to allow unproven players to test their mettle, so Willingham may get more than a perfunctory look. If he manages to wrest regular duties from Redmond and Matt Treanor, he could provide the Marlins with some strong on-base numbers from the catcher position.

  • After what was by his standards a lackluster start to the season, Mets lefty Scott Kazmir (who ranked 12th on our 2004 Top 50 Prospects list) is turning it around.

    Since June 1, Kazmir, in 32.2 innings for High-A St. Lucie, has allowed 1.72 R/G, fanned 32, walked 13 and allowed just one homer. Looks like his devastating fastball-slider combo is once again confounding hitters.

'Til next time...

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