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May 9, 2007

Future Shock

State of the Systems, NL East

by Kevin Goldstein

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Atlanta Braves

Triple-A Richmond (20-7; International League)

It's one of the more hard-to-find transformations around, as outfielder Gregor Blanco has gone from prospect to organizational player, and then back to prospect again. The 23-year-old Venezuelan center fielder continues to improve his leadoff man skills, drawing 19 walks in 26 games while hitting .329/.452/.435 overall to lead the offense. Also getting notice is shortstop Yuni Escobar (.310/.340/.410), who isn't showing a ton of secondary skills, but is flashing fine contacts skills and his usual excellent glove work. Most of the team's excellent record is the product of a veteran pitching staff that has compiled an initial 2.37 ERA. It's not exactly prospect-laden, but after trying out older, experienced players at the back of the big league rotation, the Braves are finally giving the real prospect from Richmond's staff, righty Anthony Lerew (1.37 ERA in five starts) a look, and he pitched well in his season debut on Tuesday night.

Double-A Mississippi (20-11; Southern League)

Even with stud catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.309/.404/.617) temporarily in the big leagues after a sizzling start, there's still plenty to get excited about in this lineup. Shortstop Brent Lillibridge (.270/.374/.387) is drawing walks and stealing bases, but a disturbingly high strikeout rate is keeping his numbers down a bit. The big breakout is coming from outfielder Brandon Jones (.293/.336/.561) who is finally tapping into his raw power by hitting seven home runs, half of his previous single-season high, in just 123 at-bats. On the downside, third baseman Van Pope (.165/.225/272) has been nothing short of awful. On the mound, top pitching prospect Matt Harrison (3.35 ERA) has made four excellent starts, two average ones, and one bad one, while sleeper Dan Smith just keeps on rolling. Compared by one observer to a larger version of Chuck James, Smith has a 2.41 ERA, nearly a strikeout per inning, and like James, an alarmingly low groundball-to-flyball ratio (0.58). Closer Joey Devine is still missing bats, with 18 strikeouts in 15.1 innings, but also missing the strike zone often as well with seven walks and three hit batters. The good news is that he's yet to give up a home run.

High-A Myrtle Beach (14-16; Carolina League)

The Pelicans welcomed center fielder Jordan Schafer to the team this week, and no player in the organization has had more of a breakout campaign in the early going. Gifted and toolsy, Schafer hit .372/.441/.636 in 30 games for Rome, showing the power, hitting skills, and outstanding defense, leading one scout compare him to "Steve Finley with an arm." The Braves hope he'll jumpstart an ugly offense that has lost slugging third baseman Eric Campbell to a strained thumb that will likely keep him out until June. After coming out of nowhere last year to lead the organization with 28 home runs, first baseman Kala Kaaihue has come down to earth (.224/.337/.447). I've been far more critical of shortstop Elvis Andrus than most, and after a .245/.320/.382 start, I'm probably not letting up anytime soon; being young and having a high ceiling in wonderful, but at some point you have to hit a little bit. Lefty reliever Kevin Gunderson was seen as a player without a high ceiling, but one who could move quickly. Instead, he's lost his command, issuing 10 walks in 13.1 innings as part of a 6.08 ERA in 11 games.

Low-A Rome (9-21; South Atlantic League)

Only hitting a combined .233/.298/.341, the R-Braves are going to desperately miss Schafer. The best-hitting starter on the team right now is arguably infielder Chase Fontaine, and he's only hitting .250/.331/.306. After showing big power in the short-season leagues, outfielder Jon Mark Owings (yes, he's Micah's brother) has four home runs in 79 at-bats, but that's the only good thing to say about his overall performance (.203/.241/.418), as he's shown no versatility in his approach at the plate. Luckily, some of the rotation starters have been outstanding, and they're all good prospects to boot. The biggest highlights have been 2005 first-round pick Beau Jones, who had a tough year at Rome in 2006, but is now excelling in a bullpen role, with a 1.69 ERA in 21.1 innings and just 14 hits allowed. The bigger story has been draft-and-follow right-hander Tommy Hanson, who has 45 strikeouts in 30 innings while consistently dealing in the mid-90s. He could rocket up prospect lists by the end of the year.

Florida Marlins

Triple-A Albuquerque (16-15, Pacific Coast League)

Much like last year, all the Marlins' good young talent is at the big league level. The Isotopes' best hitter? None other than former Pirates prospect Chad Hermansen, a 1995 first-round pick (.352/.419/.491). Other veterans taking advantage of the hitter-friendly environs include John Gall (.311/.364/.500) and Val Pascucci (.255/.333/.564). Despite a healthy .282/.353/.534 line and stealing 15 bases without getting nabbed, Reggie Abercrombie is likely out of chances. The pitching staff has few prospects, but veteran Justin Miller has a 1.23 ERA and five saves in seven games to go along with 13 whiffs in 7.1 innings; he could get a look soon.

Double-A Carolina (13-18; Southern League)

On a pure prospect level, there are some fringy guys showing nice signs of life, including third baseman Grant Psomas (.272/.377/.515), who has found his power stroke, and outfielders Brett Carroll (.271/.363/.500) and Jai Miller (.253/.375/.430), who are finding that the first step to converting tools into performance is a better approach at the plate. Rotation stalwart Gaby Hernandez has pitched better than his 3.79 ERA suggests, striking out 33 in 35.2 innings while allowing 30 hits and walking just six. After getting battered around in the big leagues, Dutch righty Rick Vanden Hurk whiffed 10 over six innings in his first start back.

High-A Jupiter (14-17; Florida State League)

Big seasons by older college players in Low-A are always something to be wary of. After Brad McCann (.283/.295/.478) fell apart last year, first baseman Gaby Sanchez (.248/.325/.339) is this year's version of an old player at a lower level. When 23-year-old corner infielders beat up Low-A pitching (as Sanchez did, hitting .317/.447/.603 at Greensboro last year), it usually doesn't mean squat. Joining the ugly parade is 2005 second-round pick Kris Harvey (.203/.292/.291). Luckily, like his dad Bryan, Kris can bring some mid-90s heat on the mound before we have to totally write him off. One of the lone bright spots has been catcher Brett Hayes--known more for his defensive prowess, he's off to a .344/.411/.469 start. Meanwhile, a much ballyhooed rotation of five first-round picks has been anything but impressive. It started before the season, when Sean West had to depart for major shoulder surgery, and then 2006 first-rounder Brett Sinkbeil hit the disabled list after two starts with what was reported as minor forearm tightness, yet he still hasn't pitched for nearly a month. Of the three remaining healthy arms, Aaron Thompson (3.78 ERA), Ryan Tucker (4.91), and Chris Volstad (4.23) aren't blowing anyone away, combining to strike out just 64 batters in 101 innings. The silver lining: righty Jacob Marceaux looks much more comfortable in a relief role, posting a 1.59 ERA in eight games.

Low-A Greensboro (18-12; South Atlantic League)

Pegged as a sleeper despite a .231/.307/.333 batting line at Greensboro last year, the Marlins felt super-athlete Greg Burns was just getting ready to explode, and with a .315/.402/.404 line in the first 27 games, he's at least smoldering. The real explosion has occurred with fellow outfielder John Raynor, who's batting .359/.478/.543. A ninth-round pick last June, Raynor is 23 (uh oh--just like Sanchez last year), but he's got power, speed, and center field skills which should earn him a promotion soon. A third-round pick in 2005 who did little last year, southpaw Matt Goyen has a strange line in 21.1 innings with plenty of missed bats (31 Ks) and plenty of bats not missed (25 hits allowed, including five home runs).

New York Mets

Triple-A New Orleans (15-17; Pacific Coast League)

After starting off the season wasting away on the Mets bench, Lastings Milledge went on a 13-for-39 tear before suffering a foot injury that will keep him out until at least the end of May. Carlos Gomez can contend with Milledge in the pure tools department, but has cooled down from a hot start to .287/.370/.385. Another cool-down has occurred on the mound, as 2004 first-rounder Philip Humber has given up 13 runs over 16 innings in his last six starts, ballooning his ERA up to 4.86. There's not much else in the way of pitching prospects here, as former Marlin Jason Vargas remains a shadow of the pitcher that had a solid half season in the big leagues two years ago.

Double-A Binghamton (8-18; Eastern League)

By going 10-for-24 in May, top prospect Fernando Martinez is up to .316/.385/.418. Good numbers to be sure, but now take into account that he's the same age as most high school players who will be drafted next month, and it becomes awfully special. He's the only point of light in an otherwise miserable lineup, as first baseman Mike Carp (.267/.356/.400) scuffling a bit, and it's pretty much time to write off guys like Brett Harper (.232/.300/.341) and catcher Mike Nickeas (.209/.286/.256). Although potentially rushed up to Double-A for his full-season debut, 2006 draftee Kevin Mulvey has held his own with a 3.68 ERA in six starts.

High-A St. Lucie (14-17; Florida State League)

Another sleeper pick looking good so far is multi-faceted outfielder Sean Henry, batting .273/.355/.473 in 31 games while leading the team in home runs and walks despite being the smallest guy in the lineup on some days. Among the other prospects, first baseman Nick Evans (.292/.377/.492) is off to a solid start, but shortstop Emmanuel Garcia is doing practically nothing (.187/.257/.198). With just one extra-base hit in his last 37 games, his stock is dropping. Two Top 10 Prospects in the rotation have had up and down seasons. Right-hander Deolis Guerra (3.60 ERA) fired five shutout innings in his season debut and six scoreless frames two weeks later, but in his other four starts he's given up 12 runs in 19 innings; only 18, you might forgive him some inconsistency. Southpaw John Niese (3.42 ERA) has been equally frustrating, delivering five one-hit innings in his season debut, and then not getting out of the first inning in his last start.

Low-A Savannah (6-23; South Atlantic League)

The organization anticipated a breakout year from 18-year-old shortstop Juan Legares, but he's back in extended spring training after putting up a .222/.276/.370 line in 22 games. The more productive middle infielder has been second baseman Hector Pellot (.268/.372/.433), who is looking much improved from 2006, when he had a 551 OPS in Low-A. Righthander Josh Stinson got some attention for a 1.79 ERA in his pro debut, but with just 19 strikeouts in 40 innings last year and 13 in 20.2 frames this year (and a 4.79 ERA), wake me up when he starts missing some bats.

Philadelphia Phillies

Triple-A Ottawa (14-13; International League)

The Lynx somehow have a winning record despite having only two everyday players with an OPS over 700, not that there's anyone in the lineup to talk about. The only semi-prospect playing daily is catcher Jason Jaramillo, and hitting .263/.330/.300 is more semi- than prospect. Left-hander J.A. Happ (2.33 ERA) continues to baffle opposing hitters by changing speeds and hitting his spots, while Zach Segovia has a sub-standard ERA (4.41) and a shocking total of just six strikeouts in 32.2 innings.

Double-A Reading (15-14; Eastern League)

While third baseman and top 2005 draftee Mike Costanzo leads the team in home runs with five, he's suffering through an otherwise miserable campaign (.218/.263/.382) that includes 41 strikeouts in 110 at-bats and 12 errors at the hot corner. Speedy center fielder Javon Moran (.310/.363/.398) has scored 27 runs in 28 games, but his secondary skills beyond his speed are notably lacking. While failing to dominate in the manner he did last year at Lakewood, crafty right-hander Matt Maloney has been solid (3.06 ERA) while also contributing two doubles and a triple at the plate. Fellow right-hander Kyle Kendrick (4.15) has much better stuff, but far less pitchability.

High-A Clearwater (21-10; Florida State League)

There has definitely been some progress with athletic Greg Golson (.278/.302/.421), but with 45 strikeouts and six walks in 133 at-bats, there is still much work to be done. Also looking better from last year is third baseman Welinson Baez (.260/.327/.448). The Threshers' top hitter by far has been outfielder Jeremy Slayden (.327/.433/.540), but the former Georgia Tech star turns 25 in July and needs a challenge more in line with his experience. Aussie infielder Brad Harman (.234/.252/.315) is suffering through his second straight down year after a promising 2005. An all-prospect rotation has seen 2006 second-round pick Drew Carpenter (2.39 ERA) out-pitch top prospect Carlos Carrasco (4.78) who is clearly off from his 2006 form, giving up six home runs in 32 innings--as many homers as he gave up all of last season.

Low-A Lakewood (15-12; South Atlantic League)

Shortstop Jason Donald's hot bat (.358/.421/.509) was documented on Monday, while his double play partner, the more highly-regarded Adrian Cardenas, has also heated up of late to raise his averages to .279/.325/.404. The Phillies put a lot of faith in former first-round pick C.J. Henry when they acquired him from the Yankees in the Bobby Abreu deal last summer, and he's rewarded them with a .211/.279/.447 line in his second Sally League go-round. Former 2006 first-rounder Kyle Drabek continues to frustrate, with a 5.08 ERA after giving up 15 runs over 21.1 innings in his last four starts. Eclipsing Drabek of late has been Dominican teenager Edgar Garcia (2.95), who throws hard, and throws strikes.

Washington Nationals

Triple-A Columbus (14-16; International League)

The only prospect in the lineup was Kory Casto, who was admittedly great (.324/.419/.730) before getting the call. After that, it's a roster that has included Brent Abernathy, Manny Alexander, Robin Jennings, D'Angelo Jimenez, George Lombard, Darnell McDonald, Abraham Nunez, and Michael Restovich. On the mound, righty Emiliano Fruto (3.08 ERA) still has great stuff but can't throw strikes (20 BB in 26.1 IP), while former Dodgers prospect Joel Hanrahan (1.69 ERA) was well on his way to a major league look before the injury bug struck. Veteran righthander Chris Booker as assumed closer duties and could find himself back in the majors soon, as he's whiffed 20 in 12.1 innings.

Double-A Harrisburg (7-22; Eastern League)

Seen as a system sleeper before a disappointing 2006, first baseman Josh Whitesell has put himself back on the prospect map after hitting .360/.452/.585 in his first 25 games. Like the Triple-A squad, there's little to talk about when it comes to hitters, as the outfield is a three-headed monster of toolsy washouts in Rogearvin Bernadina (.260/.324/.313), Tony Blanco (.200/.265/.333), and Frank Diaz (.212/.284/.294). The news is much better on the pitching side of things, as the top arm in the system, righty Collin Balester, has increased his strikeout rate and compiled a 2.51 ERA in six starts. Just as encouraging is former top prospect Mike Hinckley (2.97), who is healthy for the first time in nearly three years and limiting opposing hitters to a .218 batting average. The news is not as good for closer Zechry Zinicola (9.00 ERA), who has struggled with his command.

High-A Potomac (14-14; Carolina League)

Entering the year as a player running out of time, shortstop Ian Desmond (.256/.323/.444) is showing some signs of life, but many are left to wonder if it's too little and too late. One of the best hitters in the Carolina League, third baseman Brandon Powell's .333/.426/.630 line can be disregarded, as the career minor leaguer turns 27 in August. On the same high school team as Scott Kazmir and drafted before Kaz (oh, you silly Expos, how I miss you), Clint Everts (3.46 ERA) is pitching better than he ever has since Tommy John surgery nearly three years ago. Short of stature but able to deliver mid-90s heat, reliever Alexis Morales was moved up to Double-A after starting the year with and ERA of 0.00 and 19 strikeouts in 13.1 innings.

Low-A Hagerstown (11-19; South Atlantic League)

While he's been prone to streaks and slumps, top 2006 draftee Chris Marrero (.281/.304/.448) has gotten solid reviews from scouts, and homered in three straight games last week. Another high 2006 pick, shortstop Stephen King has failed to garner the same positive reviews for either his work at the plate (.178/.248/.262) or in the field (10 errors). Always intriguing and seemingly always injured, outfielder Justin Maxwell leads the team with five home runs, but at .217/.309/.470, that's the only positive thing to say about his play. The team thinks they have a bit of a sleeper in outfielder Mike Daniel (.300/.394/.527), who leads the team in several offensive categories, but is a college talent drafted in '05 who crashed and burned in this league last year. The Nats have kept their top young arms in extended spring training so far, although former Baylor star Cory Van Allen (3.05 ERA) has been dominating lesser competition by striking out 24 in 20.2 innings without yet issuing a single walk.

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

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