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August 28, 2006

Future Shock

Monday Morning Ten Pack, 8/28/06

by Kevin Goldstein

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Alex Gordon, 3b, Double-A Wichita (Royals)

The best offensive prospect in baseball? One could certainly make the argument. In his last 50 games, the number two overall pick from last year's draft has slugged 19 home runs and driven in 59. With home runs in three of his last four contests, he's batting .415 in his last 15 games with eight home runs. Overall, his season averages now sit at .326/.431/.602 and he enters 2007 not only as the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors, but as one of the top third baseman in the American League, period. Looking at the list right now, I'd only take Alex Rodriguez over him.

Luke Hochevar, rhp, Low Class A Burlington (Royals)

The number one pick in June made the third start of his pro career on Saturday, and it was business as usual as Hochevar struck out five over 3.1 innings while giving up an unearned run on three hits and a walk. With 9.1 innings in the books, the former Tennessee star has a perfect ERA of 0.00, giving up four singles and two walks while striking out 10. He'll have one more regular season start on Friday, and then it will be off to the desert for some Arizona Fall League action. His command is still a bit rusty from the time off, but he's already pitching at 93-94 mph and touching 96 while also showing a plus breaking ball. Mid-2007 for a big league debut is well within reach.

Tim Lincecum, rhp, San Jose Giants

In the age of ubiquitous communication, information can come from anybody, anywhere, and at any time. Last night while looking at boxscores from the day's games, an IM window popped up from somebody who sees as much California League action as anyone, who was watching San Jose take on Visalia. Four simple words: "Tim Lincecum is sick." Sitting at 95-96 mph and touching 98 on numerous occasions, Lincecum allowed one hit over 5.2 shutout innings, allowing one hit, walking two and striking out 11. In 26.2 innings as a pro, Lincecum has 49 strikeouts and has limited opposing batters to a .138 average. At 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, Lincecum's ability to do what he does is often referred to as "freakish." One of my few hobbies outside of baseball is reading a lot and collecting a little concerning sideshows of the early 20th century, in particular, human oddities. In that world, there were two types of performers--the real deal, and "grifts," or fakes--and part of the interest in attending such shows was the debate over which attractions were the genuine article. Those who thought Lincecum was a grift dropped him to the 10th overall pick... and they were wrong.

Justin Masterson, rhp, Short-season Lowell (Red Sox)

On Saturday, the Red Sox put together one of the best minor league events of the year. With the big league team on the West Coast, the organization put together a double-header at Fenway Park anyway--with Short-season Lowell playing game one, and Triple-A Pawtucket playing game two. A sellout crowd was a testament to the fanaticism of the Red Sox faithful, and one of the more impressive performances was delivered by Masterson, a second-round pick out of San Diego State who delivered four shutout innings. For a 6-foot-6, 250 pound behemoth with a plus fastball, Masterson's command of the pitch is uncanny, as shown by an impressive 32/2 K/BB ratio in 27.2 innings while allowing just 15 hits. The four innings was a season high, leaving one to wonder if the Red Sox are thinking of reversing their initial conversion of Materson from starter to reliever.

Jonathan Meloan, rhp, Double-A Jacksonville (Dodgers)

Sleeper alert! A fifth-round pick in 2005 out of Arizona, Meloan missed the first five weeks of the season with a sore elbow, and has been treated with kid's gloves since returning, pitching in short stints every five days or so. The thing is, nearly every time he goes out, he's untouchable. On Friday it was no different as Meloan whiffed five over a pair of hitless innings, giving him 21 strikeouts in 9.2 Double-A innings and 89 punchouts overall in 51 frames across three levels. This is not a nifty, tricky pitcher fooling hitters with marginal stuff. Meloan is sitting at 92-94 mph, touching 97, and his curveball has morphed into a plus-plus spiking monster. 2007 could be a coming out party for him when the Dodgers take the reigns off.

Adam Miller, rhp, Double-A Akron (Indians)

In 2004, Miller was one of the top righthanders in the minors, finishing a dominant second-half with an exclamation mark when he hit 100 mph in a Carolina League playoff game. 2005 turned into a nightmare, however, as the 2003 first-round pick missed the first part of the season with a strained elbow and struggled mightily in his return, with a 4.82 ERA at High Class A Kinston and a .318 opponent's average. He's back. On Saturday, Miller struck out eight over seven innings while allowing one run, and in his last nine Double-A starts, he has an ERA of 0.92 and 63 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. While he's not throwing 100 mph anymore, his fastball is still more than plus--sitting at 94-96 while touching 98--but his refinement of a two-seam sinker and much-improved changeup have turned him into a much better overall pitcher, one who could be ready for the big league rotation in early 2007.

Andrew Miller, lhp, High Class A Lakeland (Tigers)

How many innings does it take for arguably the best pitcher in the draft to be ready for the big leagues? The Tigers' answer is five. On Saturday, Miller pitched two shutout innings in the Florida State League, striking out three, and then learned that he's coming up to fill a spot in the American League Central leader's bullpen. Miller has been every bit as good as advertised so far, striking out nine over five scoreless innings while getting his fastball as high as 98 mph to go along with a biting slider. Even as a LOOGY, Miller has immediate value. He's faced five left-handed hitters as a pro so far, walking one and striking out the other four. His long-term role is obviously as a starter, but this shouldn't do any damage to Miller's development--if anything, it's a great way to get him a taste of the major league lifestyle, and the quality of hitters he'll be facing in the end. The Tigers should be praised for their inventiveness and aggressiveness in improving their team down the stretch in an unorthodox way.

Jeff Niemann, rhp, Double-A Montgomery (Devil Rays)

While the Devil Rays system is already known for their array of offensive prospects, they've had plenty of pitchers take big steps forward this year as well. As the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, Niemann was thought to be a savior, but signed too late to pitch that year, and was limited to just 31 innings in 2005 due primarily to shoulder soreness. The frustration mounted this year, as Niemann took longer to recover from a Mumford procedure than expected, and didn't make his debut until mid-June. Over the last month, Niemann has finally begun to look like the pitcher the Devil Rays hoped to see when they gave him a $5.2 million big league contract. Saturday night, he allowed one run over six innings, and in five August starts, the former Rice star has surrendered just 18 hits in 29 innings while striking out 33. At 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, Niemann is the power pitcher's power pitcher, with solid command of a 94-97 mph fastball as well as a sweeping slider that is at times unhittable. Saying the Devil Rays are going to be pretty good pretty soon is pretty fashionable these days, and Niemann's health and performance is only adding to the argument.

Carlos Pena, 1b, Triple-A Pawtucket (Red Sox)

Maybe it just feels good to go home. Pena went from a starting big league first baseman to Triple-A journeyman in one year, but he's enjoying his time in the system of his hometown Red Sox. Pena hit home runs on Friday and Saturday, and added two more hits on Sunday for the PawSox, giving him a .459 (17-37) average with four home runs in 11 games since coming over from the Yankees. The Red Sox could use the former Northeastern star's lefty power bat in September, but the way the American League East standings are looking these days, it might be too little, too late.

Chris Valaika, ss, Short-Season Billings (Reds)

On Sunday, Valaika went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts, ending the longest hitting streak in the minor leagues this season at 32 games, a new Pioneer League record. The third-round pick out of UC Santa Barbara hit .374 (49-for-131) during the streak, and is batting .329/.393/.530 overall in 63 games. While people still aren't sold on the stocky Valaika's ability to stick at shortstop, everyone is sold on the bat speed and the gap power as he's far outperformed first-round pick Drew Stubbs, whose inability to make contact remains a big concern in the pros.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  The Streak,  A's,  The Who,  Big League Debut,  Jeff Niemann

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