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September 6, 2006
Great Leap Forward, American League
This is part one of a four part series in which we'll look at which players saw their stock rise and fall the post in each organization. We start today with the American League, and the good. These are not the best players in the system by any means; they're the players that most exceeded expectations. For example, while Billy Butler and Alex Gordon each had fantastic seasons for the Royals, they were both expected to do so; so they'll have to wait for the Royals Top 10 Prospects to get their honors.
When the Orioles gave outfielder Nick Markakis, their top prospect, a big league roster spot on opening day, it looked like a rush job. Even more so when he hit .182 in April. Let's just call Markakis a fast learner. He got better every month and has hit .353/.401/.647 since the All-Star break, putting hopefully an abrupt end to any sort of debate about who is better, he or Melky Cabrera.
Honorable Mention: Lefthander Garrett Olson proved that last year's heavy workload was no problem and was effective at Double-A Bowie, while 2000 first-round pick Beau Hale deserves props for simply throwing more than 100 innings for the first time since 2002.
Boston Red Sox
Last year, righthander Jonathan Papelbon finished the year in the Red Sox bullpen, where he pitched very well. However it was more like, "wow, that's a really nice arm" well as opposed to "he could have one of the best seasons by a closer, ever" well. Thrust into the stopper's job with Keith Foulke injured, Papelbon has done just that. Currently sidelined with a sore shoulder, Papelbon has just one of many bizarre injuries to strike down the Red Sox' playoff chances in the second half; assuming no structural damage, the Red Sox bullpen has an anchor going well into the next decade.
Honorable Mention: Second baseman Jeff Natale, while old for the level, came out of nowhere to hit .304/.446/.469 with the two A-ball teams, while third baseman Chad Spann found his stroke again with a .294/.361/.472 campaign at Double-A Portland.
Chicago White Sox
After batting .252/.341/.409 at Double-A Birmingham last year, the White Sox remained high on third baseman Josh Fields, as their former first-round pick's tools remained top notch, and he was just one year removed from dedicating half of his time to football. Their optimism proved to be well-founded this year, as Fields hit .305/.379/.515 for Triple-A Charlotte, leading the league in runs scored and finishing third in slugging. His numbers dipped in the second half, and his strikeout rate is a concern, but he could go into spring training with a shot at a job if they move him to a corner outfield slot.
Honorable Mention: Outfielder Aaron Cunningham for being the lone bright spot at Low Class A Kannapolis (.305/.386/.496), and righthander Charles Haeger, for giving hope to knuckle ball fans everywhere.
In 2004, corner infielder Kevin Kouzmanoff hit .330/.394/.526 at Low Class A Lake County. People said he was too old for the league. Last year, he hit .339/.401/.591 for High Class A Kinston. People said he was too old for the league. This year he hit .379/.437/.656 between Double- and Triple-A, went deep in his first two major league games, and nobody really cares how old he is anymore.
Honorable Mention: Righty Scott Lewis led the minor leagues in ERA (1.48) under a highly restricted workload, and outfielder Ryan Goleski led the organization with 27 home runs and 106 RBI.
After putting up a 5.56 ERA last year at Double-A, giant righthander Humberto Sanchez returned and was one of the top pitchers in the minor leagues during the first two months of the season. He was slowed by an elbow injury after moving to Triple-A, which prevented him from helping the big league club down the stretch. If he's healthy to start 2007, he's yet another young power arm to join all the others in Detroit.
Honorable Mention: While old for the league, shortstop Michael Hollimon's .278/.386/.501 line at Low Class A Western Michigan is nothing to sneeze at, nor is 20-year-old righty Jair Jurrjens 3.36 ERA in 12 starts at the Double-A level.
Kansas City Royals
While the Royals system is top heavy with hitters like Gordon and Butler, not many prospects took any sort of major step forward in 2006. Righty Chris Nicoll used excellent command of a four-pitch mix to compile a 3.04 ERA across the two A-level teams with 166 strikeouts in 150.2 innings.
Honorable Mention: Lefty Brent Fisher showed his debut wasn't a fluke by striking out 107 in 72.1 innings in the short-season leagues, while outfielder Mitch Maier hit .370 in his last 40 games for Double-A Wichita, finishing at .306/.357/.473 and establishing new season highs in hits, walks and RBI.
Los Angeles Angels
Shortstop Sean Rodriguez' season was well documented in Tuesday's ten pack. Here's exhibit No. 342 in his favor: After drawing 23 walks in 74 games from Opening Day until the end of June, Rodriguez garnered 35 walks in his final 61 contests, as his history of taking free passes returned to its historic rate without affecting any other part of his game.
Honorable Mention: Righthander Nick Adenhart has come all the way back from Tommy John surgery to establish himself as one of the top righthanders in the minors, while big-budget draft-and-follow Stephen Marek bounced back from a mediocre pro debut to lead the organization with a 2.38 ERA.
Going into the season, righthander Matt Garza certainly looked like a solid first-round pick. But nobody expected this. Beginning the year in the Florida State League, Garza rocketed through the system, reaching Triple-A by mid-July and compiling a 1.99 ERA in 135.2 innings while allowing just 87 hits and amassing a 153/32 K/BB ratio. He's looked good at times in the big leagues, pressed into action by Francisco Liriano's injury, and should have a decent shot at an Opening Day rotation slot in 2007.
Honorable Mention: Righthander Kevin Slowey may not have moved as fast of Garza, but his K/BB ratio is still a ridiculous 235/30 in 220.2 pro innings. Taken off the Angels' scrap heap, infielder Alexi Casilla began the year in the Florida State League and finished in the majors after reaching Double-A and batting .318/.386/.398 with 50 stolen bases.
New York Yankees
Outfielder Melky Cabrera's stock dipped significantly in 2005 when he hit a combined .269/.319/.402 between Double- and Triple-A, but after a .385/.430/.566 mark with Columbus in April, he was the obvious candidate for a big league shot when the Yankees outfield began to look like a M*A*S*H episode. By simply being pretty good, Cabrera has been pretty valuable, and even though he's just 21, there's nothing about his game to say he'll one day be a star corner outfielder, as he just doesn't have the power for the position, and he's not good enough defensively to play center. Nonetheless, the switch-hitter has lined himself for a long major league career.
Honorable Mention: Hurricane Tyler Clippard was all but untouchable in the second half and finished fifth in the minors with 175 strikeouts, while Chase Wright won Most Valuable pitcher honors in the Florida State League after compiling a 1.88 ERA thanks to a pretty sweet curveball.
Two years ago, Marcus McBeth was an athletic outfielder with one of the strongest arms in the minor leagues. There was only one problem. He couldn't hit. Converted into a reliever last year and armed with a 92-95 mph fastball and plus slider, McBeth took to the role quickly, and finished fifth in the minor leagues this year with 32 saves and 86 strikeouts over 70.1 innings at three levels.
Honorable Mention: While turning 24 in December tempers one's enthusiasm a bit, third baseman Jeff Baisley hit .298/.382/.519 at Low Class A Kane County while establishing a new franchise record with 110 RBI. After getting shut down in the second half of last year with arm soreness, righty Jason Windsor went 17-2 between Double- and Triple-A, tying the minor league lead in wins despite missing time to make two big league starts.
Last season at Low Class A Wisconsin, the Mariners had a glut of middle infielders and Yung-Chi Chen was often the odd man out, and the least regarded. This year, with much of the same cast joining him at Inland Empire, Chen out-hit them all, batting .342/.388/.478 for the 66ers and .295/.365/.443 at Double-A Inland Empire. He doesn't have the secondary skills to profile as an everyday player, but his ability to play all around the infield should equate to some kind of career.
Honorable Mention: A fourth-round pick last June out of Youngstown State, lefty Justin Thomas had 162 strikeouts in 166.1 innings while holding his own in the California League. A former Cleveland prospect that was picked up off waivers, 25-year-old righty Francisco Cruceta finished second in the minors with 185 strikeouts in 160.1 innings at Triple-A Tacoma.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
A fifth-round pick in 2004, lefthander's Jacob McGee finally pitched in a full-season league and led the Midwest League with 171 strikeouts in 134 innings while giving up just 103 hits. With a solid fastball and a plus-plus curve, McGee is the real deal, and one of the better southpaws around.
Honorable Mention: After pitching just six innings in his pro debut, 2005 fourth-round pick Jeremy Hellickson led the New York-Penn League with 88 strikeouts in 72.2 innings while limiting batters to a .195 average. Righthander Andy Sonnanstine led the minor leagues with four shutouts, and finished among the Southern League top three in wins, ERA and strikeouts.
In a system with very little to get excited about, second baseman Ian Kinsler was handed the second base job and when he's been healthy, he's been very good, with an OPS higher than his mark at Triple-A last year.
Honorable Mention: While he played four years of college and turns 25 in a couple of weeks, outfielder Ben Harrison hit .287/.376/.496 while reaching Double-A. Outfielder Steve Murphy proved his 2005 debut was not a fluke with a .283/.335/.506 showing at High Class A Bakersfield.
Toronto Blue Jays
While outfielder Adam Lind entered the year as one of the few quality bats in the system, his power ceiling left many questioning his ability to profile as a corner outfielder. Those questions are answered as Lind was on the verge of an Eastern League triple crown before moving up to Triple-A and hit .330/.394/.556 overall. His September showing with the big league club will define his chances of earning a big league job in spring training.
Honorable Mention: In a return engagement to Lansing, Taiwanese lefty Chi-Hung Cheng led the organization with 154 strikeouts in 143.1 innings while putting up a 2.70 ERA. Fellow lefty Davis Romero proved that even a finesse/command lefty can get to the big leagues if he has enough finesse and enough command.
Tomorrow: AL Disappointments