February 18, 1998
Prospect Report: AL East
Possible breakouts and names to watch in 1998BALTIMORE ORIOLES
The Orioles' best prospects are probably a couple of years away from making an impact in the majors. Two who might appear with Baltimore in 1998 are Danny Clyburn and Nerio Rodriguez.
Clyburn had his first truly strong season at Triple-A last year, most notably improving his strike zone judgment. His future with the O's depends on a spot opening up for him in the outfield, and his improvement being for real. Neither is a sure bet.
Rodriguez is a right-handed pitcher who was originally a catcher, meaning he hasn't thrown too many pitches at a young age. He is expected to make the Orioles some time during the '98 season, probably in middle relief. If he learns how to pitch, he could be a closer in the future, but not yet.
Meanwhile, Calvin Pickering is the team's most fascinating prospect, a slugging first-baseman in the Cecil Fielder mode, but he won't hit the majors for a couple of years. Some people think righty Sidney Ponson is the club's best pitching prospect, but he has trouble staying in shape and was injured most of the second half of last season. And Ryan Minor is a 24-year-old 3B who played basketball in college. His baseball development is thus a bit behind what you'd expect for his age; even though he impressed last season in A-ball, he has a ways to go before he's ready for the majors.
BOSTON RED SOX
Like Baltimore, the Red Sox have some interesting prospects who will make an impact in future years, even with the loss of Carl Pavano. Unlike the Orioles, though, Boston has a few players who should do well in the big leagues in 1998.
Centerfielder Michael Coleman is Boston's most talked-about current prospect. John Sickels, among others, has noted that Coleman seems to be making the transition from "tools" player to "skills" player, and he certainly has both a high level of potential and the opportunity to break into the Red Sox' lineup, at least on the platoon level, in 1998. He is only 22 years old and could use more time at Triple-A to solidify his skills. Until that time he remains an unknown quantity, although clearly more impressive than he was a year ago.
Brian Rose and Robinson Checo have chances at the starting rotation this year. Rose (this is Brian L. Rose, not Brian K. Rose) has a nice enough fastball, won lots of games at Triple-A last year, and is only 22 years old. His strikeout numbers are not great, though, suggesting he may not reach the heights some are predicting for him. Checo is already 26 years old, having spent time in Japan prior to coming to the Sox' organization. He suffered through some injuries last year, and will likely carry an injury cloud over him for some time to come, but he was very good whenever and wherever he pitched, including Boston.
Two infielders deserve mention for their 1998 potential. Donnie Sadler has played several defensive positions for the Sox during his rise through their system, and looks to be a good gloveman at second base if left there. His bat was anemic, however, and his chances for stardom have greatly diminished. Meanwhile, Arquimedez Pozo remains a top prospect who may have to wait until he's fifty to get the major league shot he deserves. At times it appears as if the only people who don't appreciate Pozo are the people in charge of whichever front office happens to own his contract at any particular time. Pozo still has a ability to produce a solid big league career if given a chance.
NEW YORK YANKEES
Given their reputation as free-spending tycoons, the Yankees might surprise fans with the quality and depth of their farm system. This team has some excellent prospects who will have an impact on the big leagues, for New York or for someone, in the next few years.
Leftfielder Ricky Ledee has been stalled by some aging sluggers on the Yankee roster, and a hamstring injury in '97. The road is clear for '98, however, and Ledee is ready for the bigtime, perhaps in a platoon situation in the beginning, but eventually as a productive regular.
Mike Lowell has a shot at the third base job. Scott Brosius is not as bad as he looked last year, but neither is he a great player; with a good spring, Lowell could impress the Yanks into keeping him around, and in a fair competition, he could beat Brosius out for the starting job.
Eric Milton went to Minnesota in the Knoblauch trade, but the Yankess still have some useful pitchers in the system. Mike Jerzembeck is 26 years old and has already impressed at all minor-league levels. He has some injury history but seems to have passed through that, regaining his fastball in the process, and he is ready to perform in the majors. If (when?) pitchers like Irabu fail, Jerzembeck could step into the rotation.
And no, Homer Bush will not be a star in 1998. Or 1999. Or 2000...
TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS
The Rays (or is that D-Rays? Devils?) will have a crappy lineup in 1998. Some of the crap will be aging former stars, while other crap will come from the team's hitting prospects. The pitching prospects, on the other hand, are encouraging.
Esteban Yan could be one of the best setup men in the majors. No one notices these guys, and on a team that could easily lose 100 games, perhaps no one will care. But Yan can pitch.
Rolando Arroyo is Yet Another Pitching Cuban Defector (tm) who arrives with plenty of hype and a suspicious birth certificate. Personally, I'm not convinced any of these guys except Livan has been worth a damn yet, but they keep on coming, with the burden not only of having to produce on the mound but also of having to represent freedom in the face of the Commie menace. (Not that it's on the subject, but you always hear talk about how Castro was a decent pitcher but not good enough to make the majors, and how history would have been changed if he'd just been more impressive in his U.S. tryout back in the day. Was he a lefty, or did that come later?) Arroyo will pitch for Tampa Bay, and could compile 200 innings, but I wouldn't bet on them being 200 good innings.
Dan Carlson will finally emerge from 17 years with the Giants' AAA affiliate to pitch in the major leagues. Carlson has never looked like a world-beater, but for many years he did look at least good enough to receive a decent shot in the bigs. It took an expansion draft to get him his chance, and I hope he succeeds.
Rick Gorecki and John LeRoy are projects who might get tested at the major league level with the expansion club. LeRoy could have the higher upside, while Gorecki, recovered from major surgery, might be closer to being ready now (he pitched at Triple-A four years ago before his injury).
Then there's the hitters. Miguel Cairo has the inside line on the starting second base job. His defense is ok. He doesn't draw walks. He should steal some bases if you're looking for Rotisserie help, but Cairo will not be a good hitter in the majors.
In the book, we called Bobby Smith the second-worst pick in the expansion draft. Nothing against Smith, who might have made a decent backup shortstop at the major league level, but the presence of Kevin Stocker ensures that a backup is all Smith will ever be, which hardly seems worth a draft pick.
In the outfield, Bubba Trammell will hit 20 homers and play leftfield like a DH. I'm not sure he qualifies as a rookie; actually, I'm not sure he qualifies as a leftfielder. Meanwhile, we have referred in the past to Kerry Robinson as an improved version of Luis Polonia, but now that the original Looie has arrived in Tampa, it would appear Robinson won't get a chance to show what he can do. Lastly, Rich Butler is another tantalizing outfielder from the Toronto system. Teams can't seem to get enough of these former Toronto OF prospects, so he has a chance at some playing time.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Toronto is at an interesting crossroads, one result of which is that they only have one prospect who has a realistic chance of contributing to the big club this season. Not because they lack for young players, but because most of those young players are either a year away from the majors, or already in the majors, the outfield of Cruz, Stewart and Green being the best example of the latter.
The main prospect here is Tom Evans, who appears on the Baseball Prospectus Top 25 Prospects list. Evans is a sabermetric dream: he walks, he has some power, he plays good defense. He is also lodged behind Ed Sprague, meaning he'll have to be better than good to get anyone's attention. We tend to overrate players like Evans, because they represent so much of what we find important about a player's real contributions on the field. In fact, since Evans is worst at what some place great importance on (batting average), and since his power is ok but not great, he stands a chance of missing out on a potentially excellent career.
Worth mentioning more for their potential in 1999 and beyond than for anything they might do this season are pticher Roy Halladay and infielders Kevin Witt and Andy Thompson. Halladay has two good pitches and a terrific upside, but is only 21 years old and should spend more time in the minors. Witt, a firstbaseman, and Thompson, a third-sacker, are closer to being ready but also need another year.