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June 22, 2006

Future Shock

Midpoint American League Report

by Kevin Goldstein

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The minor league regular season is over at the end of August, which means we've reached the halfway mark. Let's take a look at whose stock has risen and fallen, who the candidates are to be each team's top prospect in my postseason rankings, and what unresolved questions need to be answered as we officially move into summer.

Baltimore Orioles

Great Leap Forward: After exploding onto the scene last year in the New York-Penn League, righty Radhames Liz has brought that success into the High Class A Carolina League, striking out 85 in 69 innings with a 2.34 ERA for Frederick. Reliever James Hoey is 23 and too old for the Sally League, but it's hard to argue with 46 strikeouts in 28.1 innings and 18 saves.

Not What We Expected: 2005 first-round pick Brandon Snyder struggled with injuries and hit just .194/.237/.340 at Delmarva before getting sent down to short-season Aberdeen. After becoming the first position player from the 2004 draft to reach the major leagues and hitting 22 home runs at Frederick last year, outfielder Jeff Fiorentino has been a mess at Double-A Bowie (.207/.286/.353).

Open Questions: Can lefty Adam Loewen figure things out at the big league level? Wouldn't Nick Markakis be better off at Triple-A? Will Snyder's demotion boost his confidence or shatter it?

Who Will Be Number One: Loewen is on his way to over 50 major-league innings, and he'll therefore lose his prospect status--and even still, his inconsistency remains bothersome. Outfielder Nolan Reimold is having a good year at Frederick (.274/.401/.486), but it's not exactly a No. 1 prospect kind of year. It could come down to Liz and righthander Brandon Erbe. Erbe's numbers are equal to if not better than Liz' while pitching one level below him at Delmarva, but the fact that he's four year's younger could put him over the top.

Boston Red Sox

Great Leap Forward: The obvious choice here is Jonathan Papelbon, and while everyone thought he would succeed immediately in the big leagues, nobody thought he'd be among the best closers in baseball this soon. From the "out of nowhere" files comes 2005 32nd-round draft pick Jeff Natale, who is batting .323/.471/.528 across Boston's two A-level squads, but is 24 years old and possibly smaller than Dustin Pedroia.

Not What We Expected: Shortstop Jed Lowrie has struggled through an injury-plagued season at High-A Wilmington, hitting just .230/.321/.296 when he does get in the lineup. In his second year at Double-A Portland, outfielder Brandon Moss has been on fire of late, but his .748 OPS is still 30 points lower than last year's disappointing campaign.

Open Questions: Will outfielder Luis Soto and shortstop Christian Lara ever live up to the expectations from their short-season performances? Will anybody step up to give the Red Sox a legitimate power prospect?

Who Will Be Number One: With all of the injuries to pitchers at the big league level, Jon Lester will likely no longer be a prospect by season's end, especially after last night's performance. That could leave an opening for 2005 first-round pick Jacoby Ellsbury, who is living up to the Johnny Damon comparisons with a .335/.405/.453 showing at High Class A Wilmington.

Chicago White Sox

Great Leap Forward: Third baseman Josh Fields is dominating at Triple-A Charlotte with a .318/.400/.556 line, and there are some rumors spreading that he'll be moved the left field in order to get his bat into the White Sox lineup, with Scott Podsednik moving to center and Brian Anderson getting sent down. Knuckleballer Charlie Haeger got hammered in his one big league start, but with a 1.59 ERA in 84.2 innings at Charlotte, he'll eventually get a chance to make up for it.

Not What We Expected: After leading the Southern League in hits last year and given a shot to compete for the opening day centerfield job, Jerry Owens has been unable to take advantage of Anderson's struggles, batting .244/.305/.317 at Charlotte. Shortstop Robert Valido has seemingly hit a wall at Double-A Birmingham (.208/.269/.315).

Open Questions: While he is just 21 and batting .302 at Triple-A, will Ryan Sweeney's power (four HR in 212 at-bats) ever become more than a myth? Will the team be able to take advantage of their system-wide depth in starting pitching to make some moves at the trade deadline?

Who Will Be Number One: If Fields stays in the minors, he looks like the easy choice. If not, it's wide open, as the system will then be lacking any big time prospects.

Cleveland Indians

Great Leap Forward: Corner infielder Kevin Kouzmanoff has proven that last year's explosion was for real, batting a ridiculous .428/.483/.678 at Double-A Akron before landing on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. Lefty Jeremy Sowers has a 1.39 ERA in 15 starts for Triple-A Buffalo and has allowed more than two earned runs only once. He could be the rare lefty starter who projects as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter despite lacking plus velocity.

Not What We Expected: Righthander Adam Miller (3.97 ERA at Double-A Akron) is still well off from the 2004 dominant version, while teammate and 2003 first-round pick Brad Snyder has just plain regressed (.252/.331/.412).

Open Questions: Is Ryan Garko's disappointing year at a Buffalo (.249/.356/.434) the result of a skill drop or frustration? Will first baseman Michael Aubrey, who has played a grand total of 42 games over the past two years, ever be healthy again?

Who Will Be Number One: Sowers is likely going to pitch his way out of eligibility, leaving no obvious candidate. 2005 first-round pick Trevor Crowe has certainly worked his way into the mix with a .329/.449/.470 season at High Class A Kinston.

Detroit Tigers

Great Leap Forward: After putting up a 5.56 ERA at Double-A Erie last year, gigantor righty Humberto Sanchez brought his outstanding performance in the Arizona Fall League into the regular season, reaching Triple-A with a combined 1.49 ERA in 90.2 innings with 103 strikeouts. Righthander Jair Jurrjens continues to prove he's a real prospect, reaching Double-A at 20 with a 2.08 ERA in 73.2 innings at High Class A Lakeland.

Not What We Expected: After winning Florida State League MVP honors in 2005, outfielder Brent Clevlen is batting just .211/.296/.298 at Erie. Third baseman Wilkin Ramirez is still all tools/little performance (.210/.244/.345 at Lakeland).

Open Questions: With the system so overbalanced in pitching, can they resist the temptation to rush center fielder Cameron Maybin? How much will first-round pick Andrew Miller cost, and should we just assume he won't pitch again until 2007?

Who Will Be Number One: Right now it's Maybin or Sanchez, with Miller having the ability to enter the picture if he signs early enough to impress in his pro debut.

Kansas City Royals

Great Leap Forward: It's really hard to find a candidate here. Both Alex Gordon (.301/.404/.511) and Billy Butler (.319/.382/.500) have had very good years at Double-A Wichita, and while they should be commended for living up to lofty expectations, it's not any sort of surprising leap. 2004 second-round pick Billy Buckner has a 3.89 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 83.1 innings--numbers that look pretty good when you realize he's pitching for High Class A High Desert.

Not What We Expected: Chris Lubanski's 2005 explosion now looks like a High Desert creation, as he's batting .241/.318/.385 for Wichita. After batting .333 in two short seasons, shortstop Chris McConnell's full season debut at at Low-A Burlington has been nothing short of a nightmare (.170/.262/.207).

Open Questions: Why isn't No. 1 pick Luke Hochevar signed yet? How could the team have drafted him without a deal in place? Will any prospect other than Butler and Gordon really step up? Will Luis Cota ever look like the pitcher that got over $1 million as a draft-and-follow?

Who Will Be Number One: It looks like Gordon is in line for no more than a September callup, and if that's the case, nobody will pass him up.

Los Angeles Angels

Great Leap Forward: Beyond the numerous big name prospects, nearly all of whom have either met or exceeded expectations, some young talent in the system has also really stepped forward in baseball's deepest system. Shortstop Sean Rodriguez has already tied his career high with 14 home runs as part of a .299/.360/.530 line at High Class A Rancho Cucumonga, while teammate Jose Arredondo has been the California League's best pitcher--with a 2.16 ERA in 75 innings and an even 100 strikeouts. Big money draft-and-follow Stephen Marek throws strikes and has been clocked in the upper 90s several times at Low Class A Cedar Rapids, where he has a 2.29 ERA in 14 starts.

Not What We Expected: Jeff Mathis flopped when given the starting catcher job, but Mickey Tettleton clone Mike Napoli has stepped in and performed more than admirably. After getting $1.425 million as a 18th round pick in 2004, first baseman Mark Trumbo hasn't looked like a guy who deserved first-round money, batting .225/.283/.399 at Cedar Rapids.

Open Questions: Can Mathis become a prospect again? Despite having a good team, will the Angels make some roster moves to get prospects who are ready like Jered Weaver and Howie Kendrick into the everyday rotation and lineup?

Who Will Be Number One: Kendrick enters the second half in the lead, but both he and Weaver have a good chance of losing prospect status by the end of the year. Brandon Wood lurks in the distance.

Minnesota Twins

Great Leap Forward: Pitching, pitching and more pitching. 2005 first-round pick Matt Garza has put himself among the top pitching prospects in the game, reaching Double-A and compiling a 1.35 ERA in 80 innings with 100 strikeouts in his first full season. While 2005 second-round pick Kevin Slowey remains at High A Fort Myers for now, his numbers are even better, with a 1.10 ERA in 81.2 innings, allowing just 48 hits and amassing a 92/7 K/BB ratio.

Not What We Expected: 2004 second-round pick Anthony Swarzak remains far more potential than performance, allowing 78 hits in 69 innings at Ft. Myers with a 4.57 ERA. After getting off to a hot start at Double-A New Britain, third-baseman Matt Moses is hitting .213 in his last 40 games and just .243/.297/.404 overall.

Open Questions: With Jason Kubel establishing himself in the majors, will any batter in the minors establish himself? Will shortstop Trevor Plouffe ever hit? Will Denard Span ever add any skills to his game other than running really fast?

Who Will Be Number One: Betcha it's a pitcher! Garza has a pretty big lead over anyone else, based both on his performance and his stuff.

New York Yankees

Great Leap Forward: 2005 third-round pick Brett Gardner hit .323/.418/.433 with 30 stolen bases for High Class A Tampa, earning him a promotion to Double-A Trenton. $800,000 eighth-round pick Austin Jackson is concentrating solely on baseball for the first time in his life, and with a .260/.349/.359 line at Low Class A Charleston, his transition has been pretty seamless. Those are not great numbers, but he's showing a good approach at the plate, and that can be half the battle with somebody so young and raw.

Not What We Expected: 2003 first-round pick Eric Duncan was a fashionable choice as a breakout candidate following his MVP campaign in the Arizona Fall League, but he hit .209/.279/.255 in 31 games at Triple-A Columbus without a single home run in 110 at-bats. Nearly half of the opening day lineup at Tampa tanked in the season's first few months, with highly-regarded prospects like outfielder Tim Battle (.133/.188.184), shortstop Eduardo Nunez (.184/.223/.340) and third baseman Marcos Vechionacci (.178/.242/.237) all finding themselves demoted to Charleston after miserable starts.

Open Questions: Do the Yankees have anybody in the minor league system to use in trades other than righthander Philip Hughes, who is understandably untouchable? Just how good can outfielder Jose Tabata be? He's batting .310/.371/.453 for Charleston, and if he was growing up in this country, he'd still be in high school.

Who Will Be Number One: Right now it's gotta be Hughes, but if Tabata develops into one of the top prospects in baseball over the next two years, I don't think a lot of people will be surprised.

Oakland Athletics

Great Leap Forward: After batting .346 in his pro debut last year with 14 doubles in 155 at-bats, outfielder Travis Buck has maintained that pace, batting .326/.393/.545 between High Class A Stockton and Double-A Midland with a minor-league leading 32 doubles in 279 at-bats. After getting shut down with a sore arm last year, former College World Series hero Jason Windsor was the first minor-league pitcher to 10 wins and has struck out 82 in 77.2 innings. His stuff isn't great, but he's one of those guys where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and he's close to getting a look.

Not What We Expected: Top prospect Daric Barton has missed two weeks with an elbow injury and will likely miss about six more. Before that, he was struggling for the first time in his career at Triple-A Sacramento (.259/.389/.395). Speaking of bum elbows, toolsy outfielder Javier Herrera has missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Top 2005 pick Cliff Pennington (.203/.302/.277) is in the hitting-friendly California League, yet didn't get above the Mendoza line until this week.

Open Questions: Will Dan Meyer (5.07 ERA at Sacramento) ever pitch like he did in the Atlanta system? How serious is right hander Craig Italiano's shoulder injury? Is there a decent lefthander in the entire system?

Who Will Be Number One: Barton will likely remain No. 1, as his statistics become much better when you realize that's a 20-year-old player doing it in Triple-A. Buck could be his lone competition, but he's one level lower and two years older.

Seattle Mariners

Great Leap Forward: Picked up off waivers jast year, former Dodgers and Indians prospect Francisco Cruceta has a 3.54 ERA at Triple-A Tacoma, 92 strikeouts in 76.1 innings, and at 24 (he turns 25 in July), might be younger than you think. Infielder Yung-Chi Chen is batting .335/.384/.474 at High Class A Inland Empire, but lacks any one outstanding tool.

Not What We Expected: In 2003, righthander Clint Nageotte and lefty Travis Blackley comprised the best 1-2 punch in the minors at Double-A San Antonio. Three years later, Nageotte has a 5.45 ERA at Tacoma with his stuff taking a step backwards across the board while Blackley has a 4.56 ERA back in the Texas League after missing all of 2005 while recovering from shoulder surgery.

Open Questions: With just 45 games of professional experience, why is 2005 first-round pick Jeff Clement going to Triple-A Tacoma this week after recovering from minor knee surgery? While he is hitting .306 for Inland Empire, shouldn't Matt Tuiasosopo be expected to have more than one home run?

Who Will Be Number One: Clement has more upside than any hitter in the system, and it's not even close, but Brandon Morrow, the fifth overall pick two weeks ago, immediately becomes the team's top pitching prospect.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Great Leap Forward: Shorstop Reid Brignac has had an offensive explosion at High Class A Visalia, batting .327/.379/.551. While few are surprised at righty Wade Davis' domination at Low Class A Southwest Michigan, lefty Jason McGee, a fourth-round pick in 2004, has actually outpitched Davis, with a 2.31 ERA in 74 innings and 94 strikeouts.

Not What We Expected: Since being the fourth overall pick two years ago, righthander Jeff Nieman has had a sore shoulder and then minor (if there is any such thing) shoulder surgery, pitching a total of 35 innings since signing. Meanwhile, third baseman (well, in the lineup, but not really in any sort of future reality) Wes Bankston is starting to earn a permanent "injury-prone" label in front of his name as well. As far as Triple-A Durham goes, forget about the performances; the behavior of some elite prospects on that team has been an embarrassment to the organization and not exactly something that earns a gold star for the new regime.

Open Questions: Is anybody concerned that Delmon has zero home runs in 87 at-bats? Is the organization any closer in figuring out what to do with B.J. Upton? Does the housecleaning to get some of this young talent to the big leagues begin in July or in the offseason?

Who Will Be Number One: Delmon. Yes, he did an idiotic thing. But that really doesn't have any effect on his ability to play baseball.

Texas Rangers

Great Leap Forward: There's not really an obvious candidate here, as there's no big breakout performance in their minor league system. Ian Kinsler has been very good at second base for the big league squad, though I think his batting line in June (.264/.317/.491) is more in line with his actual skill set. Jason Botts' battering of Pacific Coast League pitching (.318/.373/.615) prompted the Rangers to deal away Phil Nevin and give Botts an everyday job, where he's held his own.

Not What We Expected: While shortstop Joaquin Arias made the Futures Game, there should be some sort of rule to prevent players with sub-.300 on-base percentages (.270/.297/.371 at Triple-A Oklahoma) from being selected. Polished college bats are supposed to dominate Low Class A ball, but Stanford's John Mayberry seemed like a reach in the first round last year, and 12 months later, it still looks like a reach (.226/.322/.409 at Clinton).

Open Questions: John Danks seems to be coming around at Double-A; can Thomas Diamond do the same? Will Edison Volquez do better in big league trial number two, which could happen soon? If the Rangers want to make a deal in July, do they have anything other than the DVD trio and Eric Hurley to offer?

Who Will Be Number One: Volquez will likely no longer be a prospect at season's end, and I personally think Hurley has surpassed Danks and Diamond as a prospect. After compiling a 2.92 ERA in 14 starts for High Class A Bakersfield, comparing the three will be much easier as Hurley is expected to be promoted to Frisco soon.

Toronto Blue Jays

Great Leap Forward: After shooting through three levels last season, righthander Casey Janssen found himself in the major league rotation after just four starts at Triple-A Syracuse. A model of consistency when it comes to batting average, outfielder Adam Lind hit .312 in 2004, .313 in 2005, and is at .313/.360/.520 at Double-A New Hampshire this year, though his 12 home runs already ties a career-high.

Not What We Expected: Big lefty David Purcey was pushed to Triple-A, but struggled to a 5.40 ERA in 12 games as his inability to throw strikes (38 BB in 51.2 IP) finally caught up with him. Some folks got a little too excited by Chip Cannon's 32 home runs last year, as now he's at .246/.329/.461 at New Hampshire, without a real defensive home, and turning 25 years old at the end of the year.

Open Questions: How many times are people going to get excited about Brandon League only to be disappointed? With a 0.00 ERA in June, I think we're on time No. 23. Fool me once... By taking Travis Snyder with the 14th overall pick in June, does the player development stuff need a refresher course in bringing along high school players?

Who Will Be Number One: Potentially the hardest choice in the American League, and one that will come down to philosophy. Who's the better prospect--the safe pick with a very good chance to get there (pick from many), or the player with the highest ceiling, yet the farthest distance from it (Snider)?

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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