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March 2, 2006

Future Shock

State of the Systems: AL Central

by Kevin Goldstein

{Ed. Note: Kevin Goldstein's Future Shock will appear on BP.com 4-5 days a week.--JDE}

This is part one of a six-part series in which I'll look at all 30 major league systems, arranged by division. I'll talk about what's working, what's not, and identify a few names to look out for (or beware of) in 2006.

Chicago White Sox

  • What's Working: A team's player development system has two purposes. One is to provide talent to the major league club. The other is to provide valuable trade commodities. General Manager Kenny Williams has focused on the second of those during his tenure, dealing hordes of prospects at the trade deadline from 2002-2004. While for the most part he chose to stand pat in 2005 (and we all know how that worked out), he made up for it this winter by dealing both his top position prospect (outfielder Chris Young) to Arizona in the Javier Vazquez deal, and his top pitching prospect (lefty Gio Gonzalez) to the Phillies as part of the Jim Thome swap. So the system lags behind others in terms of pure talent. So what? They just won a World Championship for the first time since there were Tsars in Russia, and they're well primed to make another run at it in 2006. The cost of all this success is a hit on the farm system--and it's well worth it.

  • What's Not Working: With Young off to join the embarrassment of riches in Arizona, the system is bereft of impact-level prospects. Their top starting pitchers--Lance Broadway, Ray Liotta and Sean Tracey--project as no more than middle-to-back of the rotation starters, while no position players look like sure things to be any improvement over what the White Sox currently have.

  • 2006 Rookies: 2003 first-round pick Brian Anderson is lined up to take over center field from the departed Aaron Rowand, and while he's nowhere near the defensive whiz that Rowand is, he should be an immediate doppelganger of Rowand at the plate, and PECOTA agrees. If for some reason he fails, Jerry Owens could be waiting in the wings.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: A 2005 fourth-round pick out of Michigan, second-baseman Chris Getz hit .307 in his pro debut with a fantastic 36/12 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 238 at-bats, most of them at full-season Kannapolis. He also has some defensive chops and good speed, and could become a low-rent version of Dustin Pedroia.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Outfielder Ryan Sweeney looked like a second-round steal after a strong performance in big league camp prior to the 2004 season, and while he's performed admirably while dealing with a wrist injury and being rushed through the system, he's yet to show any ability to hit for power, including just one (count 'em: one) home run last year at Double-A. The equation is pretty simple: corner outfielders + little power = backups.

Cleveland Indians

  • What's Working: The team is now approaching the nexus of their second major rebuilding phase since the early 90s. The John Hart version led to six division titles in seven years, and the Mark Shapiro version, led by home-grown stars Victor Martinez, C.C. Sabathia and Grady Sizemore (originally drafted by the Expos, but developed primarily by Cleveland) should be a contender for years to come. With most of their top position players graduating to the majors, the Indians re-stocked the cupboards by getting one great prospect (third baseman Andy Marte) and one pretty good one (catcher Kelly Shoppach) in the Coco Crisp deal.

  • What's Not Working: The Indians have had some major bad luck with pitching prospects lately. Jeremy Sowers looks like a good one, but top prospect Adam Miller missed the first half of 2005 with an elbow injury, and then was highly ineffective when he returned. In addition, righthander Jeremy Guthrie continues to edge closer to a $3 million write-off, and J.D. Martin, who was on the verge of delivering on the promise of his spectacular 2001 debut, went down and required Tommy John surgery. Among position players, the system is completely bereft up the middle, with no significant prospects behind the plate or at the middle infield positions.

  • 2006 Rookies: Fernando Cabrera (more on him in a second) moves into the classic rookie-apprentice setup role, and should be the first to get save opportunities should Bob Wickman falter. The Indians are trying to figure out how to get Ryan Garko's bat into the lineup, and replacing Ben Broussard at first base with the ex-Stanford star is not out of the question. It's hard to imagine the Indians taking very long to realize that Marte would be an immediate upgrade over Aaron Boone.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Fernando Cabrera was untouchable at Triple-A Buffalo last year, and was almost as good in 15 games with the big league squad. His stuff is closer-worthy, he throws strikes, and his makeup is tailor-made for late-inning situations. I think he's one of the best relief prospects in the game.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Sowers was the sixth pick in 2004, and has gone 14-4, 2.37 in 27 minor league starts, with a fantastic 149/29 K/BB ratio in 159 innings. There's nothing wrong with Sowers, but I don't see stardom for him, as he's more of a command/finese specialist who doesn't overpower opposing hitters. I think he may have a better chance than any prospect in baseball to be a consistent 10-14 game winner, but I can think of many more prospects that have a better chance of being a star. Outfielder Brad Snyder is generally considered their top position prospect, but his power is average at best, and his ability to make contact (158 Ks in 513 at-bats last year) leaves us with far more questions than answers.

Detroit Tigers

  • What's Working: Quite a bit more than used to be. Justin Verlander had, with little argument, the best stuff of any college pitcher in the 2004 draft, but his performance rarely matched his stuff. He put up wicked strikeout numbers at Old Dominion (427 in 336 innings), but he constantly struggled with his control, his ERA went up every year, and he was never more than a game over .500 while pitching against anything but top-flight college competition. The Tigers bet on the arm, and that gamble looks like it will pay off handsomely as Verlander is one of the top righthanded prospects in baseball, reaching Detroit just three months into his pro career. Add in the skyrocketing stock of fellow righty Joel Zumaya, whose velocity has gained 10+ mph since he was drafted in the 11th round of the 2002 draft, and the Tigers have a 1-2 pitching prospect punch better than any team in baseball. Betting on tools is possibly becoming a theme with Detroit's drafting, as they happily snagged ultra-toolsy but highly-unproven outfielder Cameron Maybin when he tumbled to No. 10 overall last June.

  • What's Not Working: With Curtis Granderson proving himself worthy of an everyday job in 2005, the system is now pretty barren when it comes to position players after Maybin, who is still very far away. Outfielder Brent Clevlen was the Florida State League MVP, but repeating a level is always a red flag. Third baseman Wilkin Ramirez offers lots to dream on, but is still very much a work-in-progress with plenty of holes in his game, both offensively and defensively. 2003 No. 3 overall pick Kyle Sleeth was one of the top pitchers in the draft that year and was expected to be right up there with Verlander and Zumaya, but he missed all of 2005 with an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery.

  • 2006 Rookies: Verlander and Zumaya will both battle to break camp at the big league level--and while Verlander has the early inside edge on a job, both should get significant innings in Detroit at some point in the season. No position players should see much playing time, but shortstop Tony Giarratano could be a good-glove/bad-hit option in the middle of the infield if something goes horribly wrong.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: A scout turned me on to third-baseman Kody Kirkland during his 2002 debut with the Pirates, and while he's had some bumps in the road over the past two seasons, he put up solid numbers in the Florida State League last year, and has the tools to build on them at Double-A this year.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Many are big fans of righthander Humberto Sanchez' size (6-6, 230) and stuff, but he's injury prone, has conditioning problems, and has consistent trouble finding the strike zone.

Kansas City Royals

  • What's Working: The good news is, when your team stinks at the big league level, you get a nice, juicy high draft pick. While the club completely whiffed when they took way-too-raw fireballer Colt Griffin in 2001, they've done well since. The club nabbed the best college player available last June with the No. 2 overall pick, taking Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon. 2004 first-round pick Billy Butler has been better than anyone expected, reaching Double-A in his first full season. The two picks in the years before that are mixed bags featuring significant upsides and significant question marks. 2002 first-rounder Zack Greinke rocketed through the system, but struggled in 2005 before his mysterious disappearance from camp this week. 2003 No. 5 overall pick Chris Lubanski led the California League in RBIs last year, but nobody will trust it until they see him perform outside the friendly confines of High Desert. Lubanski is incredibly difficult to scout--while he was productive in 2005, he's morphed into an entirely different player than the one who was drafted. Coming out of high school, Lubanski was a speed-demon with a little pop who profiled as a classic leadoff man/center fielder. Not yet 21, he's already lost a step or two, but added significant power, and now looks like a corner outfielder who bats in the middle of the lineup. It's a strange transformation, and we don't have a whole lot of meaningful historical precedent.

  • What's Not Working: Um . . . everything else? Six years into the decade, the Royals have had one pitcher (Paul Byrd in 2002) win more than 10 games, and with Greinke in limbo, there's no obvious candidate to become the second. J.P. Howell's curveball is fantastic, but it's hard to see him as more than a No. 4 or 5 starter, while 2004 first-round pick Matt Campbell's tough 2005 season ended with always-scary labrum surgery. The darkhorse is righty Luis Cota who has plenty of stuff, and plenty of inconsistency.

  • 2006 Rookies: I know the Royals' free agent signings have been criticized ad nasuem, but seriously, your only decent high-level position prospect (Justin Huber) has everything it takes to be a solid if unspectacular first baseman for the major league minimum and you sign Doug Mientkiewicz? What don't I get here? At least Huber will get some ABs when the annual Mike Sweeney injury strikes.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: A difficult category for this team. Gordon and Butler are both fantastic prospects and worth their lofty reviews, but after that, the system is fairly barren, and there are few players worth even taking a flyer on. Cota may be worth the risk, hoping that his stuff will finally show itself on a more regular basis.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: PECOTA loves him, and his breakout season after moving from behind the plate offers plenty of reason for optimism, but Justin Huber from a scouting standpoint "is what he is," and offers very little in the way of projection. So while he can hit for a decent average and draw a fair amount of walks, his middle-of-the-road power prevents him from ever being a true impact first baseman at a position where the offensive expectations are gargantuan. Still, he's way better than Doug Mientkiewicz. For the record: this is my first column at BP, and I just spelled that last name correctly for the second time--that's taking risks, my friends.

Minnesota Twins

  • What's Working: The November 2003 trade that sent A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for two minor leaguers and an inexperienced Joe Nathan is beginning to look more and more like one of the more lopsided trades in recent memory, and that's weird, because it's not like Pierzynski is a bad player. However, Nathan has saved 87 games in two years, Francisco Liriano has developed into the game's top pitching prospect, and Boof Bonser could hit the big leagues this year in a bullpen role. The Twins have concentrated primarily on high school talent in the draft, and the results are impressive, though their forays into the college pitching market (including Scott Baker, Matt Garza, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey) also could pay quick dividends. As a team, the Twins lean heavily on pitching and defense, and the ability of the system to continually supply the big league squad with quality arms should be fine for years to come.

  • What's Not Working: Position-player wise, there's not much to pick from. Outfielder Jason Kubel had a monster 2004, but suffered a severe injury in the Arizona Fall League and missed all of 2005. The good news is that speed has nothing to do with his skills, and his bat should come back around once he shakes off the rust. Already weak on the left side of the infield, there are no obvious successors to fill those holes. The team has no catching prospects to speak of, but when you have Joe Mauer, does that matter?

  • 2006 Rookies: Early talk has Scott Baker as the front-runner for the Twins No. 5 rotation spot. This is ridiculous, and not a slight against Scott Baker, who's a pretty darn good pitching prospect. However, it almost seems that Baker is going to get the spot because he's somehow earned it based on age and experience. Liriano is the best pitching prospect in the game, and if given 30 starts, I'm convinced he'd be among the American League top 10 in both ERA and strikeouts. So, while it might not be "fair" for Baker to be passed over, the game is about winning, and Liriano gives them the best chance.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: It seems that many have forgotten about Kubel, who hit .352-22-100 in Double- and Triple-A in 2004, and looked very good in his brief major league time before the devastating injury. PECOTA sees him developing into a .300 hitter with a .500 slugging, and I think the system undersells his power potential. He could force the Twins to get his bat into the lineup by June.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: A 2002 first-round pick and the best athlete in the system, outfielder Denard Span had a breakout season on paper in 2005, batting .339/.410/.403 in the Florida State League and .285/.355/.345 after a promotion to Double-A. He's a true center fielder, but at the plate, he's going to have to hit .300+ at the big league level to have any value offensively, as he offers little when it comes to secondary skills.

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

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