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June 23, 2006
Midpoint National League Report
The minor league regular season is over at the end of August, which means we've now 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.
Great Leap Forward: Righthander Micah Owings began his first full season at Double-A Tennessee, but the move turned out to be anything but aggressive, as last June's third-round pick was bumped to Triple-A at the beginning of the month and won his first two starts, including a six-inning no-hit performance in his Tucson debut. Credit the Diamondbacks staff for turning his slider into a plus pitch to complement what was already a very good fastball. A 14th-round pick in 2004, Mark Reynolds blasted 19 home runs for Low Class A South Bend last year, but has absolutely exploded at High Class A Lancaster, batting .336/.418/.672 and challenging for the minor league leads in home runs (20) and RBI (64).
Not What We Expected: 2005 No. 1 overall pick Justin Upton certainly has not been bad (.279/.349/.392) by any measurement, but many anticipated an Alex Rodriguez-like breakout. Fellow 2005 first-rounder Matt Torra has missed the entire season recovering from labrum surgery.
Open Questions: Will Reynolds and uber-prospect Carlos Gonzalez (.315/.366/.550) be able to make the adjustments at Double-A like Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin did, or struggle like former big time prospects Jamie D'Antona (.244/.341/.455) and Jon Zeringue (.215/.280/.313) have? Will Upton turn it on in the second half? What moves will be made between now and 2007 to get Stephen Drew, Quentin, and Chris Young in the big league lineup?
Who Will Be Number One: Good question. The candidates are numerous, as the Diamondbacks have as many as five prospects who could be No. 1 in many other organizations. Second half performance will play a large role in figuring out who has the edge.
Great Leap Forward: A first-round pick in 2000 who took a slow but steady path through the Atlanta system, slugging first baseman Scott Thorman finally broke through at Triple-A Richmond, batting .324/.394/.570 and earning his first big league call up earlier this week. Speaking of slow developers, big lefthander Jo-Jo Reyes, a second round pick in 2003, has also finally showed up at Low Class A Rome, with a 2.99 ERA in 13 starts while leading the organization with 84 strikeouts in 75.1 innings. Yes, it's his fourth year as a pro, and he's only in the Sally League, but at the same time, he's still just 21.
Not What We Expected: Possibly the biggest disappointment in the minor leagues, Jarrod Saltalamacchia entered the year as the top catching prospect in the minors and was expected to improve upon his .314/.394/.519 numbers as he escaped Myrtle Beach. Instead, he limps into the second half with a batting line of .212/.319/.320. Joining Salty on the mystery train is righty Anthony Lerew, who began the year as alternative starter option No. 1, and now finds himself demoted to Double-A Mississippi after giving up five or more runs in seven of 12 starts for a 9.38 ERA at Richmond.
Open Questions: With Thorman up in the big leagues, is the Triple-A lineup now historically bad? No current starter has an OPS over .713. When 2005 first-round pick Joey Devine returns to action next week, can he pitch his way back to "closer of the future" status?
Who Will Be Number One: Got me. There's really no obvious candidate at this point. Do we give Saltalamacchia a one-year mulligan, or just bank on the ridiculous potential of shortstop Elvis Andrus, who has held his own (.273/.330/.357) at Rome as a 17-year-old?
Great Leap Forward: Righthander Sean Gallagher got mediocre reviews last year despite earning the Cubs minor league pitcher of the year award. This year the performance continues (2.30 ERA in 13 starts at High Class A Daytona before earning a promotion to Double-A West Tenn), but the stuff has taken a major step forward as well--including a fastball that has gone from 88-90 mph to 92-94. Catcher Mark Reed (.343/.388/.429) leads the Midwest League in batting average.
Not What We Expected: After collapsing in 2005 at High Class A Daytona, 2004 Midwest League home run champ Brian Dopirak missed almost the entire first half with a broken foot, and is homerless in 50 at-bats for West Tenn. Meanwhile, 2005 Midwest League home run champ Ryan Harvey is following in Dopriak's footsteps at Daytona (.208/.248/.343).
Open Questions: Was Triple-A too aggressive an assignment for centerfielder Felix Pie (.257/.323/.400)? Is Rich Hill proof that there is such a thing as a 4A pitcher? $7.25 million for fifth-round pick Jeff Samardzija? Really?
Who Will Be Number One: 2005 first-round pick Mark Pawelek has a chance to pitch his way into the spot with a big half-year at Boise, and Pie is still a candidate based on his youth and potential. Coming on strong is Donald Veal, who is big, left-handed, throws hard, and has allowed just 45 hits in 73.2 innings for Low Class A Peoria while striking out 86.
Great Leap Forward: First baseman Joey Votto has returned to 2004 form, batting .315/.387/.563 at Double-A Chattanooga and competing for a Triple Crown in the Southern League. 2005 first-round pick Jay Bruce has exceeded expectations at Low Class A Dayton, batting .290/.346/.537 with 39 of 75 hits going for extra bases.
Not What We Expected: A second-round pick in 2004, outfielder B.J. Szymanski is a lesson in why you take raw, athletic high school players, but not college ones. At 23, Szymanski is only in Low Class A, batting .231/.310/.455, and has a strikeout for every 2.49 at-bats. Catcher Miguel Perez is hitting just .223/.283/.287 at Chattanooga, and while he doesn't have to hit a ton because of his outstanding defensive skills, he certainly has to hit more than that.
Open Questions: 2004 first-round pick Homer Bailey has two no-hit outings, has allowed fewer then two runs in six of 13 starts at High Class A Sarasota, yet has also given up four or more runs six times. With that kind of inconsistency, why rush him with a promotion to Double-A? Can the team resist the urge to also push Bruce and lefthander Travis Wood?
Who Will Be Number One: It's between Bailey and Bruce. While Bruce has closed the gap some, it's probably not enough to pass up Bailey, one of the few pitching prospects with true No. 1 potential.
Great Leap Forward: Catcher Chris Ianetta is raking at Double-A Tulsa to the tune of .331/.429/.649, giving the Rockies the legitimate prospect behind the plate that they so desperately need. Before spraining an ankle, outfielder Dexter Fowler was doing an impressive job of translating tools into performance at Low Class A Asheville (.306/.374/.488).
Not What We Expected: Third-baseman Ian Stewart was bonkers in spring training, but at .253/.333/.440, he hasn't dominated in the regular season since 2004 in the Sally League, hitting in the friendly confines of Asheville. Infielder Matt Macri was moved from shortstop to second base, which meant a step forward with the bat was a necessity--but that hasn't happened at Tulsa (.246/.300/.382).
Open Questions: Can talented righthander Ubaldo Jimenez actually have an entire season of health and effectiveness? Can the team give us any rational explanation for taking Greg Reynolds with the No. 2 overall pick two weeks ago?
Who Will Be Number One: At this point, one could argue that shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (.274/.347/.460 at Tulsa) gets the edge over Stewart because of the position he plays.
Great Leap Forward: With so many prospects thrust into big league jobs, most of the quickly rising stocks have been at the major league level. The biggest surprise by far has been second baseman Dan Uggla, who is batting .313/.366/.532 and leads all major league second baseman in VORP. The minor league system is filled with arms, with small righty Jose Garcia and giant lefty Sean West doing the most so far to improve their stock.
Not What We Expected: The team's top pick last June, righty Chris Volstad has given up 109 hits in 93.1 innings at Low Class A Greensboro while striking out just 65. Jason Stokes is hurt yet again, and 2003 first-round pick Jeff Allison has gone from depressing story to feel good story and back to depressing.
Open Questions: Who is the best hitter in this system? The system is loaded with pitchers, but it's hard to find a single bat to be excited about.
Who Will Be Number One: With so many of last year's prospects now in the big leagues, it's fairly wide open. Righthander Anibal Sanchez has been good-not-great at Double-A Carolina, with a 3.15 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 85.2 innings, and probably has the lead going into the second half.
Great Leap Forward: Outfielder Hunter Pence hit 31 home runs last year, but scouts were not sold on him and he was a little old for the Sally League. Jumped up to Double-A Corpus Christi, Pence has lost nearly all of his doubters, batting .294/.347/.574. Catcher J.R. Towles is hitting .331/.401/.560 for Low Class A Lexington, but he'll probably get the same criticism Pence did until he repeats it at a higher level.
Not What We Expected: The 2005 draft ain't looking so hot these days. First-round pick Brian Bogusevic made just five starts at Lexington and allowed 18 runs in 12.2 innings before getting shut down with a tender elbow. He's just returned and is pitching in the New York-Penn League. Supplemental first-round pick Eli Iorg is batting .247/.294/.401 for Lexington, which isn't good, and even worse when you look at his birth date--because of a Mormon mission in college, he's 23.
Open Questions: Will righty Jason Hirsch get a look in the second half? What did Houston see in first-round pick Max Sapp that others didn't? They're not really going to call up Koby Clemens--batting just .227/.313/.307 at Lexington--in September, are they?
Who Will Be Number One: Pence is the likely choice in a system that lacks elite prospects.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Great Leap Forward: The major league squad has once again been beset by injuries, allowing a number of prospects to contribute at the big league level, but the biggest surprise is outfielder Matt Kemp. Kemp, who played last year in the Florida State League, hit .327/.402/.528 at Double-A Jacksonville, and has a 1.000+ OPS in the majors after 21 big league games. Outfielder Sergio Pedroza is batting .284/.454/.555 at Low Class A Columbus, but falls in the "beware of experienced college hitters in the Sally League" category.
Not What We Expected: Joel Guzman has hit a mediocre .289/.345/.426 at Triple-A Las Vegas, and earned a brief major league look, but he has gotten some negative reviews from scouts. If you analyze his career numbers, they become far less impressive when you look at him as a first baseman/left fielder, which he is now, as opposed to a shortstop, which he was then. Infielder Blake DeWitt is batting .274/.338/.399 at High Class A Vero Beach, and has an overly-lofty reputation for a player who has never really produced much.
Who Will Be Number One: Righthander Chad Billingsley looks like he might be up for good, leaving LaRoche as the clear choice unless his injury ends up more serious than expected. Lefthander Scott Elbert and first-round pick Clayton Kershaw should also rank highly.
Great Leap Forward: Righthander Yovani Gallardo has become one of the better pitching prospects in the minors, with a 2.09 ERA in 77.2 innings for High Class A Brevard County with 103 strikeouts against just 23 walks.
Not What We Expected: Most everyone expected much more from 2005 first-round pick Ryan Braun, who is batting just .274/.346/.438 at Brevard County but nonetheless received a mid-season promotion to Double-A Huntsville. There he'll join first baseman Brad Nelson, who was demoted to Double-A after putting up a .215/.311/.362 line at Triple-A Nashville and is now almost four years removed from his 2002 campaign when he led the minor leagues in RBI.
Open Questions: What does outfielder Nelson Cruz (.298/.383/.539 at Nashville) need to do in order to get a legitimate shot? Is 2004 first-round pick Mark Rogers' current three game streak (20.2 IP, 5 H, 29 K) a real sign of things coming together?
Who Will Be Number One: Right now it's Gallardo, unless the answer to the question about Rogers (above) is 'yes.'
New York Mets
Great Leap Forward: Cuban righthander Alay Soler went from almost being written off to becoming an important part of the major league rotation in about seven weeks. The biggest signee ($1.4 million) in last year's international market, outfielder Fernando Martinez has hit .321/.384/.473 at Low Class A Hagerstown, but has also been limited to just 31 games thanks to a variety of injuries.
Not What We Expected: Outfielder Carlos Gomez is hitting just .220/.293/.323 at Double-A Binghamton, but he's not completely to blame as having him skip a level after hitting .275/.331/.376 in the Sally League was nonsensical. Anderson Hernandez stopped hitting just when he had a shot at the big league second base job while first baseman Brett Harper, who smacked 36 home runs last year, didn't go deep in 65 at-bats at Binghamton before going down with a shoulder injury.
Who Will Be Number One: It's going to come down to whether or not Milledge and Pelfrey are still prospects at season's end. If they are both ineligible, Martinez could be the choice if his knee isn't a long-term concern.
Great Leap Forward: Lefthander Cole Hamels has remained relatively healthy and become an integral part of the Phillies rotation. Fellow southpaw Matt Maloney has been unhittable at Low Class A Lakewood (1.56 ERA in 80.2 innings), but as a 22-year-old from a big college program, we can't be sure what they have here without a more challenging test.
Not What We Expected: 2004 first-round pick Greg Golson is repeating the Sally League, yet his stats have gone backwards (.208/.246/.316). But Golson isn't alone as far as offensive prospects moving in the wrong direction. Witness Golson's teammate, Welinson Baez, who raked in the New York-Penn League last season but is at .207/.273/.302. High Class A Clearwater anticipated a strong left side of the infield with top 2005 pick Mike Costanzo (.248/.331/.366) at third base and Australian Brad Harman (.229/.316/.300) at shortstop, but neither has hit a lick.
Open Questions: Is it time to give up on Gavin Floyd? Will anybody start hitting?
Who Will Be Number One: If lefthander Gio Gonzalez fails to return to his April form, it just might be first-round pick Kyle Drabek, which says as much about the system's talent as it does about Drabek's.
Great Leap Forward: Tom Gorzelanny seems to get a little better each year, as the lefty has a 2.53 ERA in 15 starts for Triple-A Indianapolis with a sub-1.00 WHIP. First baseman Steven Pearce is 23, and not out of A-ball yet, but he leads the organization with 18 home runs and 60 RBI. Righthander Josh Sharpless is rapidly approaching a spot in the big league bullpen, striking out 47 in 37.1 innings between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis.
Not What We Expected: Catcher Neil Walker missed the first six weeks of the season recovering from wrist surgery, but he's still looking to recover his hitting skills (.256/.308/.364) at High Class A Lynchburg. Chris Duffy (.187 EqA) and Nate McLouth (.224) have both proven that the Pirates might have to wait for Andrew McCutchen before they have a real live center fielder.
Open Questions: Will John Ven Benschoten, who hasn't pitched since 2004, pitch in 2006 at all? How about Bryan Bullington, who also has yet to show up in a box score? Will first-round pick Brad Lincoln be doomed to the same fate?
Who Will Be Number One: It's McCutchen or Lincoln--what we see from here on out will hopefully make the decision a little easier.
St. Louis Cardinals
Great Leap Forward: Signed in 2002 as a 47th-round draft-and-follow, 24-year-old outfielder Terry Evans entered the year with a career batting line of .239/.303/.394 in 398 minor league games. This year, he's suddenly the best fantasy player in the minors (if there was such a thing), batting .317/.381/.601 between High Class A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield with a minor league-leading 21 home runs while throwing in 25 stolen bases to boot. It's easily the most unexpected performance in the minor leagues this year, and we just don't have enough information to go on yet as to just how real it is. The Cards thought they had a sleeper in Jaime Garcia, but many more people know his name now that the 19-year-old lefty was promoted to Palm Beach after striking out 80 over 77.2 innings at Low Class A Quad Cities with a 2.90 ERA.
Not What We Expected: The big question about 2005 first-round pick Tyler Greene was if he would hit, and with a .216/.298/.310 line at Palm Beach, it's still a pretty big if. Outfielder Cody Haerther seemed poised for a breakout at Springfield, which is not the term than comes to mind based on his .222/.279/.394 averages.
Open Questions: How will the club handle the next couple of years with an older lineup in the majors and no hitting prospects at Double- or Triple-A who can help? Considering the weakness of the system, wouldn't the organization have been better served with some riskier picks in the draft as opposed to building organizational depth?
Who Will Be Number One: Chances are that righthander Anthony Reyes will no longer be a prospect once October rolls around. That could leave 2005 first-round pick Colby Rasmus as the system's lone combination of production (.304/.369/.477 at Quad Cities) and ceiling.
San Diego Padres
Great Leap Forward: There is no obvious giant breakthrough in the Padres system. Catcher George Kottaras is showing unprecedented power and patience (.280/.402/.488) at Double-A Mobile--a tough place to find any sort of success offensively. The two-headed first base/designated hitter combo of Kyle Blanks (.294/.391/.475) and Daryl Jones (.265/.351/.469) have both impressed at Low Class A Fort Wayne.
Not What We Expected: Injury problems have plagued each of San Diego's last two first-round picks. Cesar Carrillo reached Triple-A before getting shut down with a "loose elbow." 2004 first-round pick Matt Bush, who couldn't afford to miss development time after a miserable .221/.279/.276 season last year, sat out the entire first half of the season recovering from a broken leg.
Open Questions: If Bush is a complete offensive zero again this year, do the Padres try him on the mound? Can 2005 second-round pick Cesar Ramos maintain his effectiveness (3.03 ERA at High Class A Lake Elsinore) while averaging less than a strikeout for every two innings?
Who Will Be Number One: It's between Carrillo and Kottaras, with the final ruling on Carrillo's elbow playing a significant part in the judgement.
San Francisco Giants
Great Leap Forward: Outfielder Fred Lewis has recovered from a disappointing 2005 to hit .276/.401/.480 at Triple-A Fresno. Lefthander Jonathan Sanchez made three dominant starts at Double-A Connecticut before moving to the bullpen and earning a promotion to the big leagues after compiling a 1.15 ERA in 31.1 innings with 46 whiffs. He's been used sparingly since moving up, but has yet to allow a hit in eight appearances.
Not What We Expected: After batting .300/.407/.400 in his full-season debut at Low Class A Augusta, infielder Marcus Sanders has pancaked at High Class A San Jose (.213/.302/.265). Slugger Eddy Martinez-Esteve had just two home runs in 92 at-bats at Connecticut before injuring his shoulder in early May. Another star from last year's excellent San Jose squad, outfielder Nate Schierholtz has also hit a wall at Double-A (.234/.298/.347).
Open Questions: Can we now assume that Merkin Valdez (4.21 ERA at Fresno) will never again be the pitcher who showed so much promise in 2003? Will first-round pick Tim Lincecum be brought to the major leagues quickly as a reliever, or be groomed as a starter with a longer ETA?
Who Will Be Number One: I can't see anyone currently in the system I'd take over Lincecum.
Great Leap Forward: Third baseman Kory Casto has taken a step forward in on-base skills and power with a .300/.426/.536 line at Double-A Harrisburg, but he'll probably have to move to a corner outfield slot in deference to Ryan Zimmerman. First baseman Larry Broadway is hitting a career high .331 at Triple-A New Orleans, but the power (seven home runs in 257 at-bats) has dropped significantly. It's important to note that even with the breakout players, they're only semi-breakouts in a very weak system.
Not What We Expected: The rotation at High Class A Potomac began the year with the Nationals three best pitching prospects--yet the entire trio has disappointed. Righthander Collin Balester has a 5.86 ERA while 2002 first-round pick Clint Everts isn't much better at 5.76. Lefty Mike Hinckley has shown signs of life with a 3.98 ERA, but has only 36 strikeouts in 72.1 innings.
Open Questions: Will this June's draft, which looks excellent on paper, provide a much-needed boost to a stagnant system?
Who Will Be Number One: Right now, I honestly have no idea, which tells me it might be one of their two first-round picks, third baseman Chris Marrero and righthander Colton Wilems. I ran this question by an American League scout who said, "I would bet their top prospect five weeks from now is in somebody else's organization today."