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May 1, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Fight Money

by Bryan Smith

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"I'm not sure it would be such a great idea in the major leagues; maybe if the money was bigger. Can you imagine handing a $10 million a year player $300 for a 2 for 5 day with two RBI?"
-- C.J. Nitkowski, New York Times

Extra motivation. This is what proponents of fight money use as reasons for the existence of the policy in Japan-players have tangible motivations to get hits, wins, saves, homers, you name it. In Japan, management allots the manager money to dole out after each victory; starting pitchers like Kei Igawa could earn enough to buy a new computer after each win.

Like Nitkowski, I don't believe it would work in the major leagues. Does Gil Meche and his $11 million salary really need a reason for an extra thousand bucks? Will that sharpen his performance? No. But again, I turn to Nitkowski to find some use for it in the States: "the minor leagues might be the place to do it. With those terrible salaries guys get-on average probably $1,600 a month-a few extra dollars would mean something." There, he's onto something, but for most organizations, wins in the minor leagues are meaningless-no major league team will spend five figures on making sure their prospects are paid for a South Atlantic League championship. But to give a top prospect extra motivation... maybe that's something teams would hand out money for. Where fight money makes sense to me is to set developmental goals for players (which most teams do at the season's onset) and reward them for meeting them. My work here is done.

Yes, I know, I don't see Jeffrey Loria agreeing to do this either. So, for lack of a better option, I'll bring fight money to the computer screens of BP readers. While the BP kitty wouldn't allow me to throw thousands of dollars to worthy prospects, I have enough Monopoly money to pass around. So, every month at BP, I will attempt to find prospects across the minor leagues being held back by one noticeable flaw. We'll point those out, and if a player can show the ability to fix the flaw over time, he'll earn some valuable time in my monthly column.

Normally, this article will be three-pronged: distributing fight money to the previous month's highlighted players, extra fight money distribution to the month's surprises, and finally, highlighting the new month's developmentally-challenged players. Since this is the article's inauguration, the first section is missing this month, so we'll skip straight to doling out $10,000 of fake money to April's hidden gems:

$1,000 to Justin Cassel, RHP, White Sox (High-A): His older brother has Tom Brady as a friend. Matt was his back-up with the Patriots, but it's Justin who has a chance to end up with the better career. I thought about going with a couple different White Sox pitching prospects for this list-Justin Edwards, Dewon Day, Jack Egbert-but Cassel got the nod thanks to a five-to-one groundball-to-flyball ratio. Cassel keeps the ball down in the zone, and as a result his ordinary stuff led to an extraordinary April.

$3,000 to Tommy Hanson, RHP, Braves (Low-A): In 2001, the Braves Low-A affiliate was treated to 184 strikeouts from a 6'6" pitcher with a mid-90s fastball and a hammer curve. Five years later, Adam Wainwright was closing out the World Series. While older for his level than Wainwright in 2001, Hanson offers a very similar scouting report, with the same big build and the same assortment. He might reach 184 strikeouts, but if he continues to strike out 42 percent of the batters he faces, they won't all be in Low-A.

$750 to Eli Iorg, OF, Astros (High-A): Iorg had a disappointing 2006 after being part of Tennessee's Omaha run the year before, the capper to a college career good enough to get him picked by Houston in the first round. A Mormon mission put his career on hold, so he's old for his level, but Iorg had a great April, showing coaches the tools that made him that top pick in 2005. In 20 games in April, Iorg had eight steals and eight doubles, and played good outfield defense to boot. At worst, his ability to crush left-handed pitching should lend himself to a career on a big league bench down the road.

$1,500 to Chris Lubanski, OF, Royals (Double-A): For his entire career, managers have written Jacque Jones into the lineup against southpaws, seemingly hoping that particular game would be the day he learns to hit left-handed pitching. For some players it never happens, for others, it does over time. After hitting just .225 with 30 strikeouts in 102 at-bats against them last year, I thought Lubanski was destined to be a platoon hitter. Lubanski offered reasons for cautious optimism with his April, however, going 7-for-24 with four walks and two strikeouts against southpaws. His career projections literally hinge on that one column.

$1,250 to Clint Sammons, C, Braves (High-A): Repeating the level at 24, Sammons used his April to hit half as many home runs (four) as he hit all of last season. Already strong-armed behind the plate-Sammons threw out 40 percent of attempted base stealers last year-he's gunned down 13-of-21 attempts a month into the season. He's probably a backup catcher in the end, but as someone who will eventually be able to give Brian McCann days off against southpaws, he's a valuable developing commodity.

$1,500 to Dan Stange, RHP, Diamondbacks (High-A): Inexplicably left off my Baseball America Pioneer League Top 20 prospect list, Stange had six saves in April thanks to deception, big-time velocity, and a plus slider. While the California League has been particularly tough on pitchers this April, Stange did not let it bother him, keeping 20 of his 26 balls in play in the infield. A deep sleeper as prospects go, Stange will not last in Visalia much longer at this pace.

We'll close things out today by pointing out my six players for May with clear developmental needs:

Fernando Martinez, OF, Mets (Double-A)
May Fight Money Development: Swing Leverage

From 2004-2006, only three Major Leaguers hit sixty percent or more of their balls in play straight into the ground over an entire season, and no one has been above sixty-five. While Luis Castillo, Ichiro Suzuki, and Derek Jeter appear to be the right company to be in, for players who aren't historically unique, more groundballs usually mean more outs. This can do much to explain Fernando Martinez's troubles in April, as the teenager has hit groundballs in 68.8 percent of his balls in play. Martinez showed good power in the AFL last fall, so the Mets must preach to Martinez the need to elevate the ball in the coming months. Most of this will come naturally, but better the Mets indicate to Martinez that hitting five line drives in a month is not acceptable than allow him to figure it out on his own.

Justin Masterson, RHP, Red Sox (High-A)
May Fight Money Development: Pitching low in zone

For sinkerballers, the rules are pretty easy: never throw the baseball up in the zone, ever. Generally, Justin Masterson is a good example of this-he was a nasty groundball pitcher last season at San Diego State, and in the California League in 2007, he's posted a 2.12 groundball-to-flyball ratio. However, Masterson got cuffed around for a 6.26 ERA in April, due to a 13.7 hits per nine. At first look, we assume the latter number will come down, as his monthly BABIP was .412. But if Masterson isn't careful, his BABIP will stay high, as he has been guilty of elevating the baseball. How do we know? Masterson has allowed 39 line drives or fly balls of his 85 balls in play, good for 28 hits. A continued focus on keeping the ball low in the zone is all Masterson needs for a more successful May than his April.

Kevin Whelan, RHP, Yankees (Double-A)
May Fight Money Development: Tempo out of stretch

Hammered in his last outing when he allowed six baserunners in 1.2 innings, Whelan's scoreless streak ended in his sixth appearance of the season. The first five had looked good, as Whelan was showing the ability to pitch multiple innings, get left-handers out, and close out games. However, the scoreless streak overshadowed his largest weakness-a really slow delivery. In his first five games, Whelan allowed just ten baserunners, and in seven instances, one of the baserunners stole a base cleanly. Whelan turns walks and singles into doubles with his slow motion and poor holds of runners on base, as baserunners are a perfect 10-for-10 off of Whelan in his professional career. While it hasn't hurt Whelan in the ERA column yet-there were no steals in the game he was lit up-the Yankees should attempt to quicken Whelan's delivery before opponents begin to exploit him much more painfully.

Matt McBride, C, Indians (Low-A)
May Fight Money Development: Defensive focus

After struggling at the plate his first two years at Lehigh, McBride hit 12 home runs and struck out just 15 times in his junior season. A gap-power hitter with a good plate approach, the Indians nabbed McBride in the second round last June on the strength of positive reports on his glovework. In the early going, McBride has not disappointed at the plate, showing patience, more doubles power, and good contact skills in a low-level league. However, what's been disappointing is McBride's once-praised catch-and-throw abilities. McBride was just 2-for-19 throwing out runners in April, causing some concern about a shoulder injury that plagued him last season. The Indians will likely look for some improvement behind the plate before moving McBride up to the Carolina League, a more suitable level for his hitting skills.

Brian Bogusevic, LHP, Astros (Low-A)
May Fight Money Development: Arsenal to right-handers

Someone I tabbed as a breakout candidate before the season, I had noticed Bogusevic was a rare breed-a fastball-slider southpaw with an odd reverse-platoon split. Most often these players do well against left-handed hitters, but sliders aren't always as dangerous against right-handed hitters. Last season, however, left-handers slugged .621 against the former Tulane ace. With an improved slider, Bogusevic has improved in this regard in 2007, allowing just three hits and a walk in 19 plate appearances against left-handed hitters so far. However, right-handed hitters are now catching up, responsible for his 4.34 ERA in April by hitting .365/.459/.540. Part of his problem can be attributed to bad luck, but it also indicates Bogusevic must make an improvement on his below-average change and gain better command of his fastball before he will be able to fulfill my preseason expectations.

Emmanuel Burriss, SS, Giants (High-A)
May Fight Money Development: In-game Adjustments

Sample sizes are going to call into question the veracity of this pick, but really, who are we if we can't enjoy fun April stat nuggets? The Giants drafted Burriss last June for his speed in anticipation of his filling a leadoff role: he walks and he runs. Burriss has hit just .218 in an aggressive High-A assignment this April, but his most interesting numbers are in his splits. Burriss batted in the first inning in all the 21 games he started in April, and in his first shot at a pitcher, he was 7-for-18 with his two extra-base hits and three of his 10 walks. In the second through seventh innings, times often reserved to face the starter again, Burriss was just 8-for-56 with four walks. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this via e-mail, but for now I just suggest the Giants work on his plate approach, and throw the speedster some monopoly money to encourage him to make some in-game improvements.

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

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