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March 3, 2006

Future Shock

State of the Systems: AL East

by Kevin Goldstein

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This is part two of a six-part series in which I'll look at the State Of The System for all 30 major league teams. I'll talk about what's working, what's not, and identify a few names to look out for (or beware of) for 2006.

Baltimore Orioles

  • What's Working: A lot more than what used to be. In 2003, the Orioles took Nick Markakis with the No. 7 overall pick, and surprised those listening to the draft when they announced him as an outfielder. Markakis was a two-way star at Young Harris JC in Georgia, and most teams preferred his power stuff on the mound as a lefthander. At this point, it looks like the Orioles made a smart decision. 2002 first-round pick Adam Loewen has gone from possible bust to somebody to be excited about again, and the Orioles should be commended for their patience with him. After a miserable 2004 draft that included the debacle surrounding unsigned first-round pick Wade Townsend, the 2005 draft class has the potential to be a monster. Outfielder Nolan Reimold had a late-season slump at Bowling Green (when the upper-level scouts were coming to see him), and the Orioles were able to steal him in the second round. First-round pick Brandon Snyder was impressive in his pro debut, supplemental first-rounder Garrett Olson was absolutely sparkling, and third round pick Brandon Erbe has the potential to be a bigger steal than Reimold.

  • What's Not Working: Snyder is the only decent non-outfield position prospect in the entire system, and whether he's a catcher or a third baseman in the end is yet to be determined. For a team that needs help immediately, the overwhelming majority of their best talent is at least two years away.

  • 2006 Rookies: Not officially a rookie, righthander Chris Ray steps into the closer role, and while he's a step down from B.J. Ryan, he has the skills to perform admirably. Markakis could enter the lineup in the second half with a strong start at Triple-A.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: With all the disclaimers about teenage pitchers in full effect, I'm still very high on Erbe, who struck out 57 in 30 innings in his pro debut, despite not turning 18 until Christmas day. He has a nearly perfect pitching body, and already touches 98 mph--so while there's still so much that can go wrong between now and the time Erbe would be ready for the majors, all the planets seem to be aligned as we enter the season.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: I have no problem with the argument that Markakis is a very good prospect and the best in the Baltimore system. However, other than his ability to hit for average, none of his other numbers pops out at you. His power is somewhat projectable but currently middling, he draws a decent but not overwhelming amount of walks, and he's a good runner, but not any sort of danger on the basepaths. To put him in the elite class is still doing a lot of dreaming.

Boston Red Sox

  • What's Working: The Red Sox have done a wonderful job lately in developing quality pitching. Both Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester had breakout seasons, while the almost equally impressive Anibal Sanchez was used in the Josh Beckett trade. Like the Orioles, Boston's 2005 draft has impact potential. Getting outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and closer Craig Hansen with back-to-back picks late in the first round was a coup, and they followed that up with a 3-for-3 performance in their trio of supplemental first-round picks, getting polished college infielder Jed Lowrie and a pair of high-ceiling arms in Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden.

  • What's Not Working: The Red Sox are anything but stocked when it comes to position players, particularly when it comes to infielders and catchers. Jason Varitek is one of the best catchers around, but the inclusion of Kelly Shoppach in the Coco Crisp deal is a little puzzling. Varitek, 34, is nearly at the scary age for catchers, and there no obvious candidate to step in should something go wrong.

  • 2006 Rookies: Papelbon will likely have to wait until 2007 for a rotation slot, but should give the team 80-100 good innings in the long relief/spot starter role. Hansen reached the majors after just 13 minor league innings, and should find his way back into the bullpen quickly after beginning the season at Triple-A. Adam Stern projects as a solid fourth outfielder, and could immediately step into that role.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Bowden is a lot like Nolan Reimold, in that many high-level scouts didn't see him at his best, and he fell to the 47th overall pick. It's easy to find high school pitchers who can throw hard, but Bowden adds what is already a plus breaking pitch and very good control.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: OK. Here we go. Dustin Pedroia. There, I said it. I'm not saying Pedroia is not good--he's plenty good, but I see no evidence on any level (other than PECOTA), that he'll be a star. I have upgraded my opinion on him in the past year to the point where I think he could be a major league starter on a first-division team, but I'm ending my enthusiasm there. Much of PECOTA's projections revolve around comps, and Pedroia's list includes some interesting names. No. 1 is Gary Sheffield, the year before he exploded in San Diego. No. 3 is Marcus Giles two years before a huge season in Atlanta. No. 4 is Adrian Beltre two years away from his breakout 2004 campaign that netted him $64 million from Seattle. All of these players had lots of projection in them based on their tools, and that's something PECOTA can't know Pedroia lacks. So what I'm left wondering is, when less than 12 months from now, Pedroia is the same as he is now (and again, a pretty nice second baseman), and those current comparables at the top of the list are no longer comparable, what will the card look like then?

New York Yankees

  • What's Working: This is a system on its way up, but it's going to require patience. Because the Yankees are always good at the major league level, they never get a high draft pick, and their annual forays into the free agent market leave them with even fewer picks. Compounding the problem was that until 2003, the Yankees did a horrible job with what few picks they did have. The 2003 and 2004 drafts showed a little more promise, and new scouting director Damon Oppenheimer had a solid 2005 set of selections--despite Big George's insistence that the club hand out no major league deals to draftees, preventing them from selecting Craig Hansen in the first round. It will be interesting to see if what the Yankees did with Austin Jackson will be the beginning of a trend. Jackson entered the draft with possible first-round talent, but also a perceived stronger desire to play basketball, where he was one of the top point guards in the country with a full ride to Georgia Tech lined up. So teams shied away from Jackson, but the Yankees took him in the 8th round and lured him away from hoops with $800,000. Just like the free-agent market, the Yankees are uniquely able to draft and get under contract some of the more difficult signability players in any year, and it's an ability that they should take advantage of more often. Beyond the improved drafting, a dramatic shift in international scouting is also paying dividends. Always one of the bigger spenders in Latin America, the Yankees have gone away from getting involved with the big names (like Wily Mo Pena for $2.44 millioin in 1999), and instead spreading a number of six-figure bonuses around to a number of talents, which has stocked the low levels with some exciting high-ceiling talents like outfielder Jose Tabata and shortstop Eduardo Nunez. As you can see by the size of this paragraph, even at the minor league level, things are always interesting in Yankee-land.

  • What's Not Working: Despite the unquestionable uptick in the system's overall talent pool, there's still plenty to make up for from the moribund years early in the decade. Nearly all of the system's top players have yet to play above the Low-A level, and the upper levels are filled with minor league veterans and fringe prospects.

  • 2006 Rookies: None, zero, nada, nunca, zilch. If there is a player in the current Yankees system getting significant playing time with the big league club this year, that means that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Tabata is potentially one of the most exciting prospects in baseball--his distance from the major leagues is the only negative thing one can say about him. At the same age of most American high school sophomore and juniors, Tabata hit .314 in the Gulf Coast League, walked more than he struck out, led the league with 22 stolen bases, and showed big-time power potential. He'll play in a full-season league this year, and he doesn't turn 18 until August 12. His ceiling is as high, if not higher, than any low-level prospect in the game, but he so far from it there's just so much that can go wrong.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Eric Duncan may have won MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League, but the AFL record book is littered with names like Steve Pegues and Orlando Miller. So do you want to base your excitement off those six weeks, or his 316 minor league games in which he's hit .258 with just OK power and a ton of whiffs? Add in the fact that he's not really a third baseman and he is moving to first, and I'll take a pass.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • What's Working: The Devil Rays have drafted very well in recent years, and the strength of their system gives Devil Rays fans plenty of reason for optimism. Delmon Young and B.J. Upton (stuck in prospect limbo) are two of the most valuable young commodities in the game, and the Rays have some good pitching prospects who are close to being ready (Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel), as well as a nice group of young arms who have impressed in their early careers--especially righty Wade Davis, who led the New York-Penn League in strikeouts last year.

  • What's Not Working: The Devil Rays astute drafting could take a hit without the guidance of former special assistant Tim Wilkin, one of the best scouting minds in the business, who took his services to the Cubs in what may be the top non-signing of the year. Other than projectable shortstop Reid Brignac, the system is extremely weak up the middle.

  • 2006 Rookies: At this point, if you're the Devil Rays, leaving Young and Upton in the minors is a waste of their time and yours, even though there are no obvious positions for them to step in and play. However, does anyone doubt that Upton, even with 40 errors, would be more valuable overall at shortstop than Julio Lugo? Doesn't Aubrey Huff at first base and Delmon in right field make more sense than giving Travis Lee another full-time job when he hasn't deserved one since Pavement was still putting out records?

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: I'm still willing to put chips down on the future of Elijah Dukes. When scouts talk about him, you can hear them drooling over the phone at his potential, and despite a solid .287/.355/.478 season at Double-A, he's still very far from what he can become. The problem is makeup. Dukes comes from a highly-troubled childhood in inner-city Tampa, has had a number of brushes with the law and a fair share of ejections and suspensions. The Devil Rays have worked very hard with him on the off-the-field issues, including a pair of mandatory anger-management classes. Makeup is a very funny thing, and as a single word it tries to incorporate so many subjective things about a player's personality that may or may not have an effect on the ability of that player to succeed as a professional. Despite all the distractions, one aspect of Dukes' makeup is good--he works hard at becoming a better baseball player, and one would hope that with those tools, he could be successful enough to easily distance himself from his past."

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Had he been draft-eligible after an incredible sophomore season at Rice, Niemann might have been the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft. But since then, he's had a minor elbow surgery his final year of college, pitched just 31 innings since signing, and had (again minor) shoulder surgery last October. Mix in the ugly recent track record of Rice pitchers in the pros, and it's a scary combination.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • What's Working: The Blue Jays have a nice supply of quality arms who are close to being ready to contribute. Righthander Dustin McGowan is all the way back from Tommy John surgery, 2004 first-round pick David Purcey has 174 strikeouts in 149 minor league innings, and righty Casey Janssen went 13-4, 2.18 in his full-season debut while reaching Double-A.

  • What's Not Working: It's a pretty weak system and I think every bit of blame goes to the way the Blue Jays draft. The draft is about getting impact players in your system, and Toronto just plays it way too safe. In 2005, with the sixth overall pick, the Blue Jays selected the best college lefty in the draft, Ricky Romero. While it's very easy to project Romero as a No. 3 or 4 starter who can get there in quick fashion, it's very difficult to project him as anything more. When you have the sixth pick in the draft, and players having star potential (including college ones like Troy Tulowitzki) are still on the board, it makes little sense to go the safe route. The same goes for past No. 1 picks like Aaron Hill (2003) and Russ Adams (2002). All are very solid players, but have little impact potential. The Blue Jays make picks like this continuously past the first round as well, leaving a weird system that has as many prospects as any in baseball who could get to the big leagues, but far fewer prospects than most one can project as starring there.

  • 2006 Rookies: Not a whole lot here. Catcher Guillermo Quiroz is now two injury-plagued seasons away from his 2003 breakout campaign, but could work his way into the catching rotation. McGowan will start the year in Triple-A, but he's first on the speed dial should the big league club need an arm.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Taiwanese import lefty Chi-Hung Cheng showed flashes of brilliance at times in his full season debut at Low Class A Lansing, and allowed two earned runs or fewer in 11 of his last 16 starts. He also led the league in walks due more to his inability to throw any pitch straight than any sort of standard command problems. Just 20 years old, he could take off with a little more fastball and a few minor adjustments.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Righthander Brandon League was given a big league job last year, and I just don't understand why. The only positive thing about him is that he can force radar guns to use that rarely seen third digit. So what do we have? We have a pitcher with amazing velocity. The problem is, we also have a track record of 400+ minor league innings that mean very little when it comes to League's performance. This is one of those disconnect players. He throws 100+ mph, but he's never struck out more than a batter per inning at any level. At some point, you have to stop getting excited about the tool if it's not generating any results.

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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