April 7, 2006
Another Opening Day
No ESPN Sunday Night extravaganza--hell, no television at all for the most part--but Thurday was opening day for the minor leagues. Folks who know me well know I look at every box score every day, and here are 24 things that excited me on day one. To be honest with you, though, it could have been 50 if I had the time. Let the games begin.
International League (AAA)
Casey Janssen going five innings and taking the loss for Syracuse: Janssen and lefty David Purcey give the Blue Jays a pair of starters with fewer than 10 Double-A games under their belt, but with Janssen 24, and Purcey turning 24 later this month, both can afford the jump. Janssen, who was the talk of Blue Jays camp, was great through four, fell apart in the fifth, and ended up getting out-dueled by Rochester (Twins) righty Boof Bonser, who allowed two hits and struck out eight over six shutout innings.
Tom Gorzelanny striking out eight over four shutout innings for Indianapolis: Lefthanders who throw hard are hard to come by, and Gorzelanny is the best pitching prospect in the Pittsburgh system, and possibly better right now than most of the Pirates rotation.
The 2-3-4 hitters in Durham's lineup: If you live in the Triangle down in North Carolina, get to Durham and get there quick, as I get the feeling that this isn't going to last very long. On Opening Day however, as righthander Jason Hammel was striking out seven in five shutout innings, shortstop B.J. Upton, right fielder Delmon Young and left fielder Elijah Dukes each had two hits, with Upton adding a double, a stolen base and, just as importantly, no errors.
Pacific Coast League (AAA)
Clint Nageotte going five no-hit innings: The 2002 minor league strikeout king, Nageotte was converted to the bullpen by the Mariners in mid-2004, and the conversion was a complete disaster, as he was both ineffective and rarely healthy. It will be interesting to keep an eye on what happens now that he's back in the rotation.
The battle of the prospect-laden infields in Tucson: Salt Lake (Angels) begins their lineup with Erick Aybar (SS), Howie Kendrick (2B), Dallas McPherson (3B) and Kendry Morales (1B). Tuscon (Diamondbacks) countered with Alberto Callaspo (2B) leading off, followed by Stephen Drew (SS), with Chris Carter (1B) and Brian Barden (3B) batting 5-6. Drew went deep in his first at-bat of the season and Carter had three hits, but Aybar and Kendrick combined for five hits and four RBI in the Stingers' 9-3 win.
Chad Billingsley's Triple-A debut: Two runs on four hits over five innings is no small feat in Las Vegas. With the Dodgers looking more like a MASH unit than a baseball team, Billingsley could end up in La-La Land sooner than later.
Eastern League (AA)
Carlos Gomez leads off for Binghamton: The Mets have done little to hide their enthusiasm for Gomez, a 20-year-old Dominican with all five tools. Still, having him skip the Florida State League seems like a reach for Gomez, as his speed (64 stolen bases in 2005) is the only tool that has shown up in games so far. He was 1-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base last night, but he hit just .275/.331/.376 last year at Low Class A Hagerstown--not exactly the kind of numbers that suggest he's ready for this kind of push.
The return of Shawn Hill: Hill had a breakout season in 2003, but struggled in 2004 and then missed all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Last night Hill pitched in a game for the first time since August of 2004, allowing one run on four hits over six innings, striking out six and not issuing a single walk in Harrisburg's 2-1 win over Erie.
Southern League (AA)
Walk-off home run: Sometimes it's not about prospects, it's about exciting baseball. Chattanooga (Reds) got six one-hit innings from Phil Dumatrait, but Jacksonville's (Dodgers) Danny Muegge matched him for five innings, and solid bullpen work from both teams (including two hitless innings from Jacksonville lefty Greg Miller) took it scoreless into the bottom half of the ninth. There, journeyman catcher Brad Cresse launched a Mike Nannini pitch into the night with two outs for the 2-0 win.
Ray Liotta keeps getting it done: With a career 2.16 ERA in 229 innings, the White Sox were comfortable moving Liotta to Double-A despite the fact that he spent most of 2005 at Low A Kannapolis. Three days after his 23rd birthday, the lefthander allowed one run over five innings, but the bullpen let him down in a 6-3 loss.
Texas League (AA)
The Brandon Wood show continues: Wood is pretty much all by himself when it comes to prospects in the Arkansas lineup, but he picked up where he left off in 2005 by going 2-for-4 with a double, three RBIs and (what else?) a home run. He could be primed for another year at the top of the minor league leaderboards...unless he gets moved to third base, which could accelerate his advancement to the big leagues.
Travis Blackley returns to the site of his greatest success: In 2003, Blackley went 17-3, 2.61 for San Antonio, leading the minor leagues in wins and earning Texas League pitcher of the year honors. Three years later, he attempts to regain his momentum after a miserable 2004 big league debut and an entire 2005 season lost recovering from shoulder surgery. The lefthander never was and never will be overpowering, but three hits over six innings is at least the first step in the right direction in some time.
Sixteen innings of prospect-y goodness: The marathon of the day took place in Tulsa, where the home team topped Wichita 9-8. It seems weird talking about the prospect-laden lineup on a Kansas City affiliate, but here we are. With premium bats Billy Butler (4-for-8) and Alex Gordon (2-for-7 with a home run in his pro debut) batting 3rd and 5th respectively, the Wranglers' lineup also includes some interesting mid-level prospects like outfielders Mitch Maier (who homered) and Chris Lubanski (1-for-6 with three whiffs). Lubanski is the only one coming off a full-season at High Desert in the California League, and despite his .301/.349/.554 season there, nobody is going to believe in him until he does it at Double-A. In the meantime, Tulsa features the best left side of the infield in the minors with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (2-for-7 with two doubles) and third baseman Ian Stewart (2-for-6 with a double and a triple).
California League (A+)
Landon Powell is back: Oakland's 2004 first-round pick missed all of 2005 rehabilitating after knee surgery, and it was a year he couldn't afford to lose. Drafted as a college senior, Powell is now 24 years old, has less than 40 professional games on his resume and has been passed by fellow 2004 draftee Kurt Suzuki on the A's catching depth chart. A 2-for-4 (both doubles) night at the plate in a 5-2 loss to Modesto was encouraging.
Carolina League (A+)
Salem comes back: The biggest story on a prospect level in the Salem/Potomac matchup was Avalanche (Astros) righthander Jimmy Barthmaier's nine strikeouts over five innings. Barthmeier is one of those big-money-to-late-picks guys ($750K in the 13th round to steer him away from football), and he combines with lefty Troy Patton to give Salem a big 1-2 punch. On a game level, the Astros affiliate got a game-winning bases-clearing double from catcher Lou Santangelo in the bottom of the 9th for a 4-3 win.
Boston first-rounders in Wilmington: Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and shortstop Jed Lowrie are both highly polished first-round picks from 2005 who are skipping Low A, and could reach Double-A as early as this year. They each had two hits and they each had a triple, combining for three runs and five RBI in an 8-3 win over Myrtle Beach.
Florida State League (A+)
The minor league ace vs. the rehabbing pro: The most intriguing matchup going into the night was in Clearwater, and it did not disappoint, as A.J. Burnett made his first start for the Blue Jays (though not exactly in the location they expected). Burnett allowed one run on three hits over four innings, but was outshined by the enigmatic Cole Hamels (Phillies), who fired six shutout innings, striking out seven. Hamels is only in High A so that he can begin the season where it's warm--he'll be in Double-A soon.
I still think Charlie Fermaint is underrated: I went over Fermaint's backstory last month, but the Brewers surprisingly jumped him to Brevard County, where he went 3-for-5 with a double, a walk and three stolen bases in a 9-4 win over Daytona (Cubs). Fermaint is just one part of a Manatee roster loaded with intriguing bats, from 2005 No. 5 overall pick Ryan Braun manning third base to the Venezuelan double-play combo of Alcides Escobar and Hernan Iribarren.
Mike Pelfrey makes his long-awaited pro debut. Five shutout innings, two hits, and six punchouts is a good way to get the New York hype machine going early. The ninth overall pick last June, Pelfrey was generally considered the best college pitcher in last year's draft, and finally agreed to terms in the offseason. He was impressive in spring training and, like Hamels, is only in the Florida State League so he can begin the season in a friendlier climate. He should be in Double-A by mid-season, and could be in the Met rotation by early 2007.
Midwest League (A-)
Blanks outshines Maybin: Tigers 2005 first-round pick Cameron Maybin made his pro debut, going 2-for-4 with a triple in West Michigan's 5-3 loss to Fort Wayne. The story of the game, however, was Wizards (Padres) first baseman Kyle Blanks, who hit a pair of home runs, including the game-winner in the 8th. Blanks, who won't turn 20 until after the season, is a 6'6", roughly 280 pound man-child, but believe it or not, grades out as an average runner despite his enormous frame. He's a phenomenal athlete whom the Padres paid $260,000 to last May as a draft-and-follow, and some in the San Diego organization compare him to Dave Parker. Just a warning--Blanks slugged seven home runs in his first 14 games last year, then finished the season with a 34-game power outage.
Kyle Waldrop stays back in Beloit: Last year, the Beloit Snappers (Twins) had one of the most exciting rotations in baseball, featuring Anthony Swarzak, Jay Rainville, and Waldrop--along with 2005 draftees Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey after June. Four of those five began the year at High Class A Fort Meyers, but Waldrop, a 2004 first-round pick who struggled with a 4.98 ERA in 152 innings last year and only 108 strikeouts, stayed behind. He fired 5.1 shutout innings last night, striking out six, so that he could be joining his ex-teammates in Florida by mid-season.
South Atlantic League (A-)
An embarrassment of riches: The Yankees system still lags behind most, but they've amassed a tremendous number of high-ceiling/high-risk/high-tools players at the lower levels, and three of them are on display at Charleston. Center fielder Austin Jackson and shortstop C.J. Henry give the Riverdogs a backcourt (both were premier high school hoops stars) that ranks with any Division I school in the nation, while 17-year-old outfielder Jose Tabata has a ceiling so high it's almost not visible to the naked eye. The trio was just 2-for-12 in their season debut, but for the first time in quite a while, the Yankees system provides plenty of reasons for excitement.
A historical rotation: Chris Volstad gave up five runs in four innings last night, but the Marlins rotation at Greensboro will be worth watching on a daily basis. After Volstad, the staff includes lefties Aaron Thompson and Sean West, along with righthander Ryan Tucker. That's four first-round picks from one team's draft in a single minor league rotation. We don't have the data to figure it out (welcome to the world of minor league research), but I'll put down a big bet that this has never happened.
The most surprising two homer day: In 2004, outfielder Dexter Fowler was one of the top athletes in the draft, but he fell to the 14th round because teams knew that it would take significant money to lure him away from college, where he had Division I offers in both baseball and basketball. Negotiations were slow, and the Rockies signed him for $925,000, but he didn't make his debut until 2005. In 62 games for Casper in the Pioneer League, Fowler hit an impressive .273/.357/.409 with 18 stolen bases. He also had 73 strikeouts in 220 at-bats. Because of his plus tools across the board, he's an obvious breakout candidate, and last night's two bombs for Asheville could either be a fluke or a sign of things to come.