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March 9, 2006

Future Shock

State of the Systems: NL East

by Kevin Goldstein

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This is part five 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) in 2006.

Atlanta Braves

  • What's Working: As usual with the Braves, quite a bit. The Braves serve as the most successful example of the traditional scouting and player development model, and continue to prove that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has developed into the best catching prospect in baseball, and teenage wonder Elvis Andrus gives them another potential impact player at shortstop. Usually focusing on high school talent in the draft, the Braves took North Carolina State reliever Joey Devine with their first pick in June. He was the first 2005 draftee to reach the majors, and while he wasn't ready, he's still the Braves' closer of the future. Second-round pick Yunel Escobar is a Cuban defector who can play in the middle of the infield and should move quickly. The Braves continue to develop arms, with Blaine Boyer, Chuck James, Anthony Lerew, and Macay McBride all reaching the big leagues last year, with various levels of success.

  • What's Not Working: While the Braves continue to develop pitching, a number of top arms have taken a step backwards. Once considered one of the gems of the system, McBride now projects as no more than a middle reliever. Jake Stevens, who had a 2.27 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning in 2004, saw his stuff drop a tick or two across the board last year. Drafted around Saltalamacchia in 2003, righties Luis Atilano and Jo Jo Reyes have both not panned out as expected.

  • 2006 Rookies: After last year's rookie cornucopia, the 2006 roster is pretty much set. The pitchers listed above who reached the big leagues in 2005 should once again get some here-and-there innings.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: A second-round pick in 2004, third baseman Eric Campbell had a so-so pro debut and spent the beginning of 2005 in extended spring training before going to the Appy League, where he hit .313/.383/.634 and played good defense. He has plus power (18 home runs in 262 at-bats) and speed (15 stolen bases), and is one to watch when he makes his full-season debut this year.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Chuck James' 2005 statistics are astounding. Pitching 161.3 innings across three levels, James had a 2.12 ERA, allowed just 103 hits, and compiled a ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio of 193-36. Based on the numbers alone, it would be easy to assume that James is among the top pitching prospects in baseball. Quite simply, he is not. James has fantastic command of good stuff and throws one of the best changeups around--profiling as a No. 3 or 4 starter. His GB/FB ratio of 0.35 has also been the subject of discussion, and it is decidedly not a point in his favor.

Florida Marlins

  • What's Working: Well, if you look at just the Marlins' system, it's pretty fantastic, especially when it comes to pitching. This is the kind of thing that happens when you trade Josh Beckett, Luis Castillo, Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, Mike Lowell, Guillermo Mota, Juan Pierre and Ron Villone for a grand total of 14 prospects, nine of whom could be considered good or better. The system is absolutely loaded with pitching, especially after they had five picks among the first 44 in June and used them to take five more arms.

  • What's Not Working: Their positional depth is just average at best, and particularly weak up the middle. Still more potential than sure-thing, Hanley Ramirez is their only top prospect at catcher, second base, shortstop or center field.

  • 2006 Rookies: Yes, many of them--and all over the place.

    With no idea where to start, I'll just go around the diamond. Josh Willingham is most likely the starting catcher, which is well and good, except that he can't really play the position on any acceptable level. He already has a history of knee injuries and of 65 opposing base stealers in the PCL last year, Willingham threw out a grand total of nine. Willingham can (and will) hit, but defensively, it could be a nightmarish merry-go-round on the basepaths. Mike Jacobs will play first base, and I agree with PECOTA on him--good power, poor on-base skills. Rule 5 draftee Dan Uggla is a grinder who will likely start at second base now that Pokey Reese is out of the picture (in more ways than one). Uggla is not without skills, but he shouldn't be a major league starter for any team. The prize of the Beckett deal was Ramirez, who will battle Robert Andino for the shortstop job. While Ramirez has yet to live up to his sizeable reputation, he should be the clear choice for the job at this point. Both players are plus defenders, but Ramirez at least has a chance to do something with the bat.

    Right now it looks like the Marlins will have an all-rookie outfield as well, with Chris Aguila in left, Eric Reed in center, Jeremy Hermida in right. Aguila is entering his 10th season in the Marlins system, and should be able to hit for a little average, but little else. Reed is out of the Jason Tyner mold, which is not a compliment. Hermida is the star here, and an early candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. I think PECOTA is really missing the boat on him, though. His similarity index is just 20, so he's an unusual player, and most of his top comparable players were unathletic, while Hermida is a good athlete who went 25-for-27 in stolen bases last year. While writing these system breakdowns, I've looked at the PECOTA card for nearly every player I've mentioned, and there may not be a rookie who I think has a better chance of hitting better than his 75th percentile projection than Hermida. Also, keep in mind that with this team many things could change--especially in the outfield. There are many rumors of the Marlins sending one of their pitching prospects to Tampa Bay for Joey Gathright, which would make left field a battle between Aguila and Reed.

    What, you want more rookies? Fine. Lefty Scott Olsen and righthander Josh Johnson are battling for the No. 5 starter job, with Johnson holding the early lead, and Yusmeiro Petit waiting in the wings. Acquired from the Twins, righty Travis Bowyer will begin the season setting up Joe Borowski, but could be closing by mid-season...not that there will be many opportunities for saves.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Outfielder J.T. Restko's .313/.414/.494 numbers in his full-season debut last year may just be the tip of the iceberg. He has already proven he can hit for average and knows how to work the count, but the 6'5" 21-year-old is just beginning to learn how to tap into his power. Among my top sleepers in the game.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: At this point, Hanley Ramirez is still intriguing, but he's had three full seasons to put up a big season statistically and has yet to do anything close to it. Makeup has long been an issue with him, and maybe the pressure of playing in the big leagues will be what he needs to turn it around. The glass-half-empty guy would say it could also be a recipe for disaster.

New York Mets

  • What's Working: Well, they still have Lastings Milledge. They also spent $2.1 million in the summer to sign the best amateurs from the Dominican Republic (outfielder Fernando Martinez) and Venezuela (righty Deolis Guerra). It's nearly impossible to say anything else positive here.

  • What's Not Working: Already weak after trading for Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca, the Mets' system is basically now a bizzaro world version of the Marlins' system. The cupboards are bare. 2004 first-round pick Philip Humber will miss most of the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, as injuries and pitchers from Rice seem to be synonymous these days. Acquired in the Kris Benson trade, righthander John Maine might be the best healthy pitching prospect in the system other than 2005 first-round pick Mike Pelfrey, and that's just a sad state of affairs

  • 2006 Rookies: It's a veteran team. Maine could be the first guy to get a call should an injury hit the rotation, but he's nothing to get excited about. Anderson Hernandez can hit for average, has excellent defensive skills and good speed, and is coming off a monster winter campaign in the Dominican League. He could get a look if Kazuo Matsui continues to falter, but in reality, he's no more than a singles hitter with poor on-base skills.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: I'm going to take Milledge here, just because I'm much higher on him than PECOTA is. To hit .337/.392/.487 in Double-A at 20 is a remarkable achievement and an excellent indication for future stardom. Milledge's tools only make that more likely, and scouts see him adding power to his game as well. His plate discipline is lacking, and he's still learning how to steal a base, but everything about him screams future star to me.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Righthander Brian Bannister had a 2.74 ERA last year while splitting time between Double- and Triple-A, but his lack of velocity will hinder his ability to set-up his plus-plus curveball in the big leagues.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • What's Working: It's a bad system, but there are some bright spots, particularly on the mound. If Cole Hamels is healthy (the biggest health 'if' in all of prospect land) he can likely retire major league hitters right now. Along with Gio Gonzalez, acquired from the White Sox in the Jim Thome deal, the Phillies have the best 1-2 southpaw punch in the minors. Righthander Scott Mathieson had a good year in the Florida State League, and really opened eyes in the Arizona Fall League. The team has produced some prospects from the international market as well. Australian Brad Harman could be a real find, while infielder Welinson Baez gives Phillies fans the mandatory "Toolsy Exciting Dominican Kid."

  • What's Not Working: The Phillies have had trouble producing position players of late, and that trend should continue for a couple more years. After what was seen as a breakout season in 2004, center fielder Michael Bourn regressed mightily at Double-A, while fellow outfielder Greg Golson is still all-tools/zero-production. With no first-round pick in 2005, taking local-product Mike Costanzo with their second-round pick seems like a bit of a reach. He hit a decent .274/.356/.484 in the New York-Penn League, but also struck out 89 times in 281 at-bats.

  • 2006 Rookies: Really none to speak of. Two-time Rule 5 pick Shane Victorino was the International League MVP and has the inside track to earn the fourth outfielder's job, where he should be a valuable bench player. If Hamels can stay healthy, he could be a factor in the second-half of the season. If BP would let me use a font size of 200 for the "If" in front of Hamels' name in the previous sentence, I would.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: A 2004 second-round pick who starred at Oklahoma State with White Sox third base prospect Josh Fields, catcher Jason Jaramillo has good defensive skills and a knack for contact. He's not a future star, but just finding somebody who projects as a solid everyday catcher can be an achievement in today's game.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: Among the best athletes in baseball, Golson hit .264/.322/.389 in his full-season debut last year--hitting just four home runs, drawing just 26 walks, and leaving plenty of room for improvement in the outfield. His ceiling is right up there with many of the top prospects in baseball, but at this point he is so far from it that nearly everything will have to fall in to place for him to get there.

Washington Nationals

  • What's Working: Not much, but let's blame Major League Baseball. While still in Montreal and under what was basically receivership by MLB, the scouting staff was reduced to a bare-bones level, limiting their ability to effectively find amateur talent. While Ryan Zimmerman may not end up as the best player from the 2005 draft, he certainly was the one most ready to help immediately and will be an instant factor in the Nationals' lineup.

  • What's Not Working: The system is very light on position prospects. Ian Desmond is a toolsy shortstop who is still learning how to play, while Kory Casto has put up big numbers, but at 24, has yet to play above A-ball. The system has no left-handed starting pitching prospects unless Mike Hinckley can re-find his stuff.

  • 2006 Rookies: Zimmerman is a Rookie of the Year candidate and could be among the best defensive players in baseball right now. 2004 first-round pick Bill Bray is a big lefthander who could be a very effective set-up man for Chad Cordero.

  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Outfielder Justin Maxwell could be a forgotten commodity, and that's understandable. While at the University of Maryland, Maxwell projected as a first-round pick in 2004 before he missed the season with a broken right arm. He returned for his senior year to prove himself, but missed most of the season with a broken bone in his hand. Maxwell is big (6'5", 225 pounds) and ultra-athletic, with plus power and speed, and showed good plate discipline in college.

  • Don't Believe The Hype: I have no doubt at all that Zimmerman will be an above-average third baseman for years to come, but his lack of power prevents me from seeing stardom for him. PECOTA sees him as having roughly a 50% chance of star level production (defined as an EqA greater than .280) over the next few years. His low similarity index and a comparable players list loaded with hitters who had far more power (or power potential) than Zimmerman both temper my enthusiasm.

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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Fantasy Article LABR of Love, v2006 (03/09)

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