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May 23, 2006

Future Shock

AL Central Roundup

by Kevin Goldstein

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Chicago White Sox

  • Triple-A Charlotte (7-3 in last 10 games; 32-10 overall)

    The Knights have the best record in the minor leagues, and even Pythagenport thinks they should be 29-13, so it's not all luck. Third baseman Josh Fields (.333/.410/.589) has been carrying the offense while Ryan Sweeney (.298/.368/.423) continues his singles-hitting ways, but the strength of this team is the pitching staff, which has a team ERA of 2.67. That said, it's not exactly a prospect-laden rotation, as their best starter, Charles Haeger is a knuckler; another two, Tim Redding and Stephen Randolph, fall into the Triple-A veteran group, and the remaining two, Sean Tracey and Heath Phillips have fringy stuff.

  • Double-A Birmingham (3-7; 19-25)

    Despite the losing record, the Barons' rotation is actually far more interesting on a prospect level. 2005 first-round pick Lance Broadway saw his ERA rise nearly a full run to 2.47 in his last start when he allowed seven tallies in four innings, which tells you that he's been otherwise fantastic. All but forgotten about after missing 2005 with athroscopic surgery, 2004 first-round pick Tyler Lumsden has been just as good (2.53 ERA), including 15 scoreless frames in his last two outings. Entering the year as arguably the top arm in the system, lefty Ray Liotta has delivered six shutout innings in three of his nine starts, but just 25 strikeouts in 49.2 innings is a big red flag. The offense features little to talk about other than Corey Smith. Cleveland's first-round pick in 2000, Smith was a bust with the Tribe and San Diego, but he's hitting .347/.488/.622 and, even more surprisingly, has committed just three errors after averaging nearly 40 per season over the last three years. Throw in much-improved walk and strikeout rates, and the fact that at 24 he's not crazy old, and he may be back on the radar. A very light blip way off in a corner ... but there.

  • High Class A Winston-Salem (7-3; 21-19)

    One of the most boring teams in the minors for prospect watchers ... this team is barren. The best position player is probably catcher Donny Lucy, who is no more than a backup in the big leagues, and that's only if everything goes right. 2004 fourth-round pick Lucas Harrell, a good-sized righty with a low-90s fastball, has added a decent curveball and allowed just 21 hits in 42.1 innings. So now he needs one more pitch instead of two.

  • Low Class A Kannapolis (2-8; 8-33)

    And you think the Royals and Marlins are bad. At least they're not cruising along at a sub-.200 clip. How bad is it? At the plate, the Intimidators (bad name this year, no?) are last in the Sally League in runs, last in walks, last in average, on-base percentage, and slugging; and first in strikeouts. In the field, they've committed 82 errors in 42 games, good for a team fielding percentage of .951 and 74 unearned runs. As flawed as the run/earned run measurement is, that's still 1.76 unearned runs per game--more than half of what the offense is averaging (3.45) per contest. That is how you go 8-33.

Cleveland Indians

  • Triple-A Buffalo (6-4; 23-22)

    Looking at the Bisons' lineup is like looking at a traffic jam in the sense that there's a whole lot there, but nobody's really going anywhere right now. Remember when Ryan Garko looked like a better option than Ben Broussard? Well, now he's repeating Triple-A and hitting .272/.397/.408. Remember when Andy Marte was the next great third baseman? Well, now he's repeating Triple-A and hitting .242/.322/.346. Lefthander Jeremy Sowers has a Bob Gibson-esque 1.07 ERA in nine starts, but I keep staring at those 32 strikeouts in 59 innings and wondering how that's going to work in the big leagues.

  • Double-A Akron (8-2; 23-18)

    The Aeros also have some players for whom patience is starting to wear a little thin. 2003 first-round pick Brad Snyder is batting .245/.322/.406 while continuing to whiff once every three at bats, and righty Adam Miller (4.21) is now 18 months removed from greatness. The good news is that first baseman Michael Aubrey is back, with 'back' being the key word as fans collectively hope for his to hold up every time he moves.

  • High Class A Kinston (8-2; 29-12)

    A 2003 sixth-round pick out of Eastern Michigan, outfielder Ryan Goleski looked like a bit of a sleeper after batting .295/.370/.525 in his full-season debut, but he collapsed in 2005, batting .212/.276/.382 for the K-Tribe. Back in the Carolina League, Goleski has already had a three home-run game, is batting .327/.435/.654 and leads the Carolina League in home runs and RBI. One caveat: he's 24. Also 24 is outfielder Brian Barton, who is batting .336/.440/.578 but carries the same concerns. As far as players who are actually in the right place for their age, 2005 first-round pick Trevor Crowe is looking like a perfectly-molded leadoff man, with 34 walks in 148 at-bats for a .419 on-base percentage to go along with 17 stolen bases.

  • Low Class A Lake County (4-4; 21-21)

    With most of Cleveland's 2005 draft picks coming from the college pool and now playing at Kinston, there's little to talk about one level below. Outfielder John Drennen (.324/.410/.426), a supplemental first-round pick last year was one of the top high school hitters available, and while he has a sweet swing, he's still a little undersized and projects as a corner guy--and whether or not he develops the power associated with the position is debatable. Remember back in 2002 when some people got excited about shortstop Chris De La Cruz, who hit .367 in the Appy League? It's four years later and he's still in A-ball.

Detroit Tigers

  • Triple-A Toledo (3-7; 20-22)

    The lineup is mostly full of retreads like Ryan Ludwick, Josh Phelps and Tike Redman, but second baseman Ryan Raburn does intrigue. A fifth-round pick in 2001, Raburn's power has increased every year and, while he's repeating Triple-A, he's batting .284/.371/.514 with improved plate discipline and defense. Four of the Mud Hen starters have ERAs under 3.20, but Wil Ledezma is the only one who projects as any sort of long-term option.

  • Double-A Erie (8-2; 19-22)

    Third baseman Kody Kirkland leads the Eastern League with 10 home runs, but a .217 batting average and 63 strikeouts prevent any classification of the season as a breakout. Adding to the disappointment is the middle infield combination of shortstop Tony Giarratino--who has to hit more than .231/.281/.341 for the team to get something out of his plus-plus glovework--and second baseman Juan Francia--who hit .290 last year for Erie in 72 games, but is barely halfway to the Mendoza line (.106/.156/.118) in 85 at-bats. The most impressive arm has been righty Humberto Sanchez, who is the organization's top pitching prospect now that Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya have graduated. A 6-foot-6 behemoth who can get it into the upper 90s at times, Sanchez has allowed two or fewer earned runs in seven of eight starts and struck out 59 in 49 innings.

  • High Class A Lakeland (8-2; 24-18)

    First baseman Jeff Larrish became a stathead favorite in college at Arizona State after a junior season that featured plenty of power and plenty of walks, but he didn't sign with the Dodgers and, after a disappointing senior year, went in the fifth round to Detroit. He's batting .271/.392/.503, pretty good numbers for the Florida State League, but his lack of athleticism and unorthodox swing mechanics turn some off. Righthander Jair Jurrjens has yet to allow more than two earned runs in any of his nine starts, but he's more of a control pitcher with a decent fastball that he commands very well. He's still a tick of velocity and a real breaking ball away from being a future rotation candidate.

  • Low Class A West Michigan (4-6; 25-15)

    Everything was going great for 2005 first-round pick Cameron Maybin during the first month of his pro career, as the toolsy outfielder was hitting .330, drawing his share of walks (.409 on-base percentage), and more than one-third of his hits had gone for extra bases (.510 slugging). Then he succumbed to a strange injury that caused his right index finger to lock in an extended position, making it impossible to grip a ball or bat. Orginally thought to keep him out for a significant time, the good news is that an MRI showed that surgery was not necessary, and Maybin is expected to return by mid-June. Shortstop Michael Hollimon (.255/.372/.407) is the latest in the long line of older college hitters who cause a little too much excitement by dominating the New York-Penn League in their pro debut. See Chiaravolloti, Vince.

Kansas City Royals

  • Triple-A Omaha (3-7; 18-23)

    Mark Teahen is batting .302/.423/.465 since going back to Triple-A, but let's face it, that era is over. Teahen will never hit for power and Alex Gordon is the future. At shortstop, Andres Blanco has always been known for his glove, but he entered this year with career minor league averages of .257/.333/.309, having never hit more than 14 extra-base hits in a season. This year, Blanco has 10 extra-base knocks in 131 at-bats, and his .282/.324/.405 line once again gives hope that he can be useful in the big leagues, even if it's just as a utility player. On the mound, J.P. Howell's rush job to the big leagues last year is still having its effects (5.67 ERA).

  • Double-A Wichita (6-4; 18-25)

    Alex Gordon is batting .317/.399/.543 and he's clearly better than most of the current Royals lineup, but calling him up just means starting his service clock and making him start his big league experience by being part of one of the worst teams in recent memory. Waiting until 2007 and letting Gordon (who has eight home runs and 11 stolen bases) gun for a 30-30 season in the Texas League is the better option. I'd say something about the pitching staff here, but I once made a blood oath to never include Barry Armitage, Junior Herndon and Ryan Snare in the same sentence. Oh, wait...

  • High Class A High Desert (3-7; 21-21)

    Converted first-baseman Mike Stodolka's deal with the devil continues (.319/.427/.595), but the fact that no other regular has an OPS over .851 while playing in High Desert shows you just how bad the lineup is. Billy Buckner (2.39 ERA) and Daniel Christensen (54 strikeouts in 50.2 innings) have made some nice adjustments to pitching in the best hitting ballpark in the minors, while Luis Cota (7.83 ERA) still has some work to do in that regard.

  • Low Class A Burlington (8-2; 19-21)

    And you thought the High Desert lineup was bad: try a team batting average of .216, a team slugging of .288, and only one player with an OPS over .700, and that player is Miguel Vega who's spending his fourth year in the system and is only at .713. It's not like much was expected of the team in the first place, but shortstop Chris McConnell, who hit .333/.408/.496 in two years of short-season baseball has been especially disappointing (.168/.263/.218).

Minnesota Twins

  • Triple-A Rochester (6-4; 25-17)

    Shortstop Jason Bartlett is batting .325/.343/.481 and among the minor league leaders in doubles with 18, yet Juan Castro keeps his job in the big leagues. No, I don't get it either. Outfielder Jason Kubel (.283/.343/.475) is still working his way back to 2004 form, while Jason Tyner's .336/.389/.413 line would be interesting if we were still wards of the Clinton administration. On the mound, reliever Pat Neshek (53 strikeouts in 30 innings) deserves a shot.

  • Double-A New Britain (7-3; 18-19)

    Two of the top young hitters in the system, third baseman Matt Moses (.297/.340/.480) and outfielder Denard Span (.302/.343/.352) both got off to red-hot starts but have cooled down in May. It's especially bad news for Span, who needs to hit well over .300 to be of value, as he has just 10 walks and 43 of his 48 hits are singles. The big news with the Rock Cats was the Double-A debut of righthander Matt Garza who, after dominating the Florida State League, struck out 13 over 7.2 shutout innings while allowing one hit. One of the minor league's best pitchers all year--with a 1.21 ERA, 66 strikeouts in 51.1 innings and just 28 hits allowed--Garza is basically this year's Francisco Liriano, going from a good prospect to great one.

  • High Class A Fort Myers (5-5; 23-19)

    With Garza gone, there is no more debate as to who the Miracle's ace is, as righthander Kevin Slowey, the club's second-round pick last year, has a 1.33 ERA in nine starts with a minor league-leading 70 strikeouts in 54.1 innings, making the Twins pitching depth an absolute embarrassment of riches. The news is not so good on the offensive side, as second baseman Alexi Casilla (.303/.333/.406) leads all regulars in OPS, while shortstop Trevor Plouffe (.212/.345/.277) is matching last year's slow start.

  • Low Class A Beloit (6-4; 22-19)

    First baseman Erik Lis was a ninth-round pick out of Evansville last June, and while a 22-year-old college player hitting well in the Midwest League in rarely something to note, his .356/.444/.616 line is impressive enough to be significant, as is his ability to hit for power (17 doubles, seven home runs) while walking more than striking out. Supplemental first-round pick Henry Sanchez is a gargantuan (6-foot-3, 260 or so pounds, depending on the day) teenager with, not surprisingly, tremendous raw power, but that power has yet to show itself in games (two home runs in 121 at-bats) while Sanchez struggles to make contact (.215/.286/.322 with 46 strikeouts in 121 at-bats).

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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