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June 14, 2007

Future Shock

State of the Systems, AL Central

by Kevin Goldstein

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Chicago White Sox

Triple-A Charlotte (28-37; International League)

Brian Anderson is back at Triple-A, and with a .256/.333/.380 line, he's likely not coming back anytime soon. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, Ryan Sweeney is also stagnating, batting .296/.364/.432, with his power potential looking more and more like it will be permanently lodged on the potential side of the ledger. With Joe Crede out for an extended time, the White Sox will finally get an extended look at Josh Fields, who was hitting .283/.394/.498 and still striking out a ton (60 K in 205 AB), but also adding a significantly more patient approach (39 BB) to his resume. Bad news for knuckleball fans, as Charlie Haeger has a 5.77 ERA in 13 starts, allowing 126 baserunners in 73.1 innings. On the slightly more positive side of things, 2005 first-round pick Lance Broadway has a 3.27 ERA, but with more walks (32) than strikeouts (31) in 66 innings, there's little reason to think he could help in the majors.

Double-A Birmingham (30-35; Southern League)

Second baseman Chris Getz was one of my breakout candidates for 2006, and that expectation might be coming to fruition a year late. Not any kind of future star, but a player with enough plate discipline and contact skills to be of value, Getz is hitting .316/.408/.426 and giving the organization some possible post-Iguchi options. Outfielder Tom Collaro remains interesting for his incredible raw power, he has no clue at the plate, with 11 walks and 71 whiffs in 264 at-bats, but he has 18 doubles and 13 home runs while playing in one of the toughest hitter parks in the game. Taking advantage of that environment has been lefty Gio Gonzalez (2.87 ERA). He has two major league pitches right now in his fastball and curve, and has used them to strike out 88 in 69 innings, though he does lead the team in home runs allowed--a trait that has marred his prospect status throughout his career.

High-A Winston-Salem (35-29; Carolina League)

The best player on the team in the eyes of scouts remains outfielder Aaron Cunningham (.285/.360/.475). His greatest strength is his lack of weaknesses--he has gap power now (with potential for more), he's drawing walks at the highest rate of his career, and he's stolen 18 bases. First baseman Micah Schnurstein (.309/.382/.626) leads the minor leagues with 45 extra-base hits, but players in their sixth pro season shouldn't be in High-A. Last year's first-round pick, righty Kyle McCulloch (3.50 ERA), is about as boring as Broadway as prospects go, and like Broadway, he's not missing any bats.

Low-A Kannapolis (29-36; South Atlantic League)

After leading the Pioneer League in home runs last year, first baseman Chris Carter (.290/.383/.342) is proving that it was no fluke with improved home run, walk and strikeout rates from the previous year. Super-massive sleeper alert for Faustino De Los Santos--a 21-year-old broadly-built Dominican, De Los Santos has a 2.54 ERA in 63.2 innings, allowing a measly 35 hits while striking out 74. The scouting reports are starting to come in, and they're nearly as impressive as the numbers: the right-hander's heat sits in the 91-94 mph range, touches 96, and he's also throwing a hard slider with plenty of tilt. Keep an eye on this one.

Cleveland Indians

Triple-A Buffalo (35-29; International League)

Third baseman Andy Marte has taken his second demotion in good stride, batting .333/.417/.714 in June with five home runs in his last 51 at-bats; don't give up on him quite yet. Meanwhile if you want to give up on Shin-Soo Choo (.270/.344/.362), that's understandable, while fellow outfielder Brad Snyder (.261/.351/.455) keeps doing just enough to make one wonder if he'll ever figure it all out. When Jeremy Sowers was mercifully sent down the Triple-A, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for the Adam Miller era to begin, but the Tribe's top prospect is currently on the shelf with a tendon injury in his middle finger. He's taken some bullpen sessions, is expected back soon, and could be in the big leagues by the All-Star break.

Double-A Akron (36-26; Eastern League)

Trevor Crowe's season is not just the biggest disappointment in the Cleveland system, it's arguably the biggest in all of prospect land. After an incredible full-season debut, Crowe looked like a quality future leadoff man. Instead, he's simply never gotten going at Double-A, sitting at .191/.289/.256 on the season, and having not hit more than .200 in any one month. Fellow outfielder and 2006 breakout player Brian Barton is having no such problem, hitting .314/.413/.467--the only thing missing from last year is the power. Despite a 4.03 ERA in 11 starts, big-time prospect Chuck Lofgren was promoted to Buffalo thanks mostly to 65 strikeouts in 60.1 innings. Lefty Scott Lewis led the minor leagues in ERA last year, but the Eastern League is far different from the Sally League, and his 3.88 ERA shows that Lewis is merely pretty good, and nowhere near pretty great.

High-A Kinston (41-22; Carolina League)

It's hard not to root for first baseman Michael Aubrey. A never-ending string of injuries, most of them related to a chronic back problem, limited the 2003 first-rounder to just 42 games in the last two years, but he's come back with a bang, taking the field in late May and hitting .400/.492/.800 in 13 games before moving up to Akron. He was just a temporary part of a great offense that has features outstanding years from 2006 top pick Wes Hodges (.318/.392/.534), and catcher Max Ramirez (.297/.415/.524), the latter of which is still trying to make up for defensive inefficiencies. The most interesting pitcher on the staff is Taiwanese import Sung-Wei Tseng (3.88 ERA), who's been more up than down, but tends to have some issues will elevating his pitches and for some reason has a strange reverse split, as righties have a 752 OPS against him versus just 604 against lefty bats.

Low-A Lake County (29-35; South Atlantic League)

The organization finally got infielder Jared Goedert to stop torturing Sally League pitching--by promoting him after a .364/.475/.715 line in 46 games. He was a polished college player in Low-A, and playing in a bandbox, so remain cautious. Also mashing is third baseman Matt Whitney, but it's hard to figure out what it means. A first-round pick in 2002, Whitney severely broke his leg prior to the 2003 season, and has never hit or stayed healthy since. Now all of a sudden he's hitting .294/.358/.538, but at the same time, he's 23 years old, and he's now a first baseman. A second-round pick from 2006, Steven Wright has pitched much better than his 4.72 ERA might indicate, with 68 strikeouts and just 13 walks in 61 innings.

Detroit Tigers

Triple-A Toledo (36-30; International League)

What kind of odds could one have gotten 12 months ago that former Tiger Carlos Pena would be tearing up the American League while Chris Shelton (.284/.411/.424) would have four home runs in 229 at-bats at Triple-A? A 27-year-old spending his third year in the Mud Hen lineup, Ryan Raburn (.290/.401/.554) can play all three outfield positions, consistently hits for power, and mauls lefthanders; there are plenty of bench outfielders in the big leagues with less talent. A desperate need at the big league level for bullpen help has the team jerking around Eulogio de la Cruz again. The Dominican fireballer seemed to be finally hitting his stride in the Erie rotation, but he was moved up to Toledo and put in a relief role in order to prepare him for a big league look. That look has been delayed as de la Cruz has given up 11 base runners in 5.2 innings while recording just one strikeout.

Double-A Erie (33-28; Eastern League)

Nobody is quite sure what has gotten into third baseman Kody Kirkland, but nobody is complaining much either. After batting .217/.290/.453 last year at Erie, Kirland has improved to .254/.341/.472, and with 26 walks in 58 games, he's already equaled last year's total. The slugger, on the other side of the diamond, Jeff Larrish, is hitting just .237/.355/.479, and like Kirkland, aiming for a future Three True Outcome title more than anything else. After beating up the Midwest League last year, yet getting criticized for his age and lack of defensive skills, former shortstop Michael Hollimon has slid over the second base, moved up two levels to a more appropriate league, and continued to produce a bit, posting solid rates (.263/.381/.432). Is 2006 first-round pick Andrew Miller up in the bigs for good after four Double-A starts? The Detroit Free Press shows us that an interesting clue might be found in the souvenir shop. Ground-balling finesse righty Dallas Trahern went 4-0, 1.42 in four April starts, but scouts have always bemoaned his lack of a true out pitch. Eastern League hitters have no problem with it, accumulating 33 hits in his last four starts, batting .311 in the process.

High-A Lakeland (28-35; Florida State League)

The bad news on Cameron Maybin is that he's hit just two home runs in his last 47 games (and those came in the same contest) and has struck out 68 times in 216 at-bats. The good news is that he's nevertheless hitting .310/.410/.454 while still being very far from realizing his full potential. Also far from his potential, but just flat-out not performing, is Wilkin Ramirez, who had been moved from third base to left field, and is hitting just .261/.296/.404. Things are looking no brighter for 2003 first-round pick Kyle Sleeth. After getting demolished in the Eastern League, he's given up 11 runs over nine innings since moving down. Remember his name every time somebody tells you that Tommy John surgery is no big deal anymore.

Low-A West Michigan (36-29; Midwest League)

Multi-faceted outfielder Gorkys Hernandez (.309/.362/.381) has proven he can hit, and proven he can fly by stealing 26 bases, but now he needs to add some other secondary skills to his game, starting with better pitch selection and little more juice in the bat. While the home park is a pitcher's heaven, no amount of mitigating factors can excuse the performances of high-profile draftees Brennan Boesch (.284/.314/.387) and Scott Sizemore (.226/.364/.323), two college products who should be dominating at this level. A pitcher who should be dominating the circuit and is actually doing so is 2006 eighth-round pick Chris Cody. A little lefty who works with a breaking ball and changeup, Cody has been giving the younger hitters in the league fits, with a 1.72 ERA in 13 starts.

Kansas City Royals

Triple-A Omaha (32-33; Pacific Coast League)

Outfielder Billy Butler (.277/.395/.511) has been in a downward spiral since returning to the minors, batting just .221/.344/.442 in 26 games since coming back down. It's not a huge concern, and a fairly common occurrence when young players get a brief taste of big league life and then find themselves back on a bus. The bigger story in the minors has been the performance of minor league journeyman 1B/DH Craig Brazell, who leads the minor leagues with 22 home runs, many of them from a five-day stretch in late May in which he had four two-home run games. Since then, he's hit .222 with just two long balls in 17 games. The pitching staff is not loaded with prospects, but the team has gotten disappointingly little from lefty Tyler Lumsden, who has a 5.90 ERA, just three quality starts in 11 attempts, and has given up eight home runs in 58 innings, a surprisingly high total for a groundball pitcher.

Double-A Wichita (25-39; Texas League)

Back at Double-A more because of a numbers game than anything else, former first-round pick Chris Lubanski keeps plugging away with a good but not great season (.291/358/.493), and between his being limited to left field defensively and not hitting lefties (.222/.357/.289), his future isn't quite so bright. In a similar vein, Mike Stodolka made an impressive transition from pitcher to first base last year, but the 2000 first-round pick is now pushing 27, and first basemen who hit .270/.375/.449 at that age aren't that special. The real concern involves the number one overall pick of the 2006 draft, Luke Hochevar. While the right-hander has struck out 72 in the same number of innings, he also has a 4.75 ERA and has given up 82 hits, including 11 home runs. Scouting reports are matching the stats as well, with scouts particularly pointing to the former Tennessee star's tentativeness on the mound.

High-A Wilmington (29-34; Carolina League)

It's bad offensive team, both on a performance (.252/.323/.348 as a team) and scouting level. Second baseman Josh Johnson has a ton of athleticism and draws a lot of walks, but at .209/.344/.225, that's all he's doing. A big-time sleeper alert for right-hander Daniel Cortes. A 20-year-old right-hander who was considered a bit of a throw-in from the White Sox as part of the Mike MacDougal deal, Cortes is a highly projectable six-foot-five right-hander who already has two plus pitches--a low-90s fastball with heavy movement, and a solid curve. He's yet to win a game this year in eight starts, but his 38 strikeouts in 37.2 innings and a 3.58 ERA tell the real story. Former Dodger Julio Pimentel is a sinker specialist with a 2.86 ERA and a groundball/flyball ratio over two, but how far can you go when you can't strike out a batter for every two innings (30 K in 63 IP)?

Low-A Burlington (27-37; Midwest League)

Jeff Bianchi was a 2005 second-round pick, and has teased with his potential for two years, batting .414/.500/.721 in two injury-plagued seasons that kept him in the Arizona complex league, but now that he's finally playing in a real league, people are wondering what's happened, as the 20-year-old middle infielder is at just .235/.261/.294 in 34 games. Making more room for Bianchi is fellow shortstop/second baseman Chris McConnell, who was moved up to Wilmington despite hitting just .231/.311/.311. Reliever Tyler Chambliss has some eye-popping numbers, including 47 strikeouts and just 26 hits allowed in 37.1 innings, but he's more of a polished college product with a nifty breaking ball than any kind of future bullpen ace.

Minnesota Twins

Triple-A Rochester (32-29; International League)

While infielder Alexi Casilla (.233/.250/.256) struggled in his big league debut, he's gunning for another chance with a .378/.451/.533 run in 11 June games. He's still in line to replace Luis Castillo at second base next year. On the negative side, it's almost time to give up on former first-round picks Matt Moses (.231/.253/.319) and Denard Span (.230/.283/.304), which is a shame, as they play positions (third base and center field) where the organization will eventually needs on the big league level. After a disappointing and injury-riddled spring training, top prospect Matt Garza (3.41 ERA) has been doing yeoman's work for the Red Wings--rarely dominating, but delivering quality starts in seven of his last ten outings.

Double-A New Britain (31-27; Eastern League)

The Twins were hoping for bounceback campaigns from both players on the left side of the infield, and the pair has been neither good nor bad. Trevor Plouffe (.268/.319/.418) got off to a blistering start, hit just .231/.289/.316 in May, and now he's hot again with 23 total bases in 11 June games; the former first-rounder (2004) might yet live up to his initial promise. Third baseman David Winfree (.264/.313/.421) took a large chunk of last season off to assess his commitment to baseball; he has as much raw power as anyone in the system, but needs significant work on his approach. After looking like a breakout candidate in the Florida State League, right-hander Kyle Waldrop is having trouble keeping it up at Double-A, with a 6.21 ERA in five starts.

High-A Fort Myers (28-36; Florida State League)

With anything even close to a decent offense, the Miracle would be at or near the top of the standings, as they're barely averaging over three runs a game while batting a composite .221/.299/.296. The only everyday player with an OPS over 700 is Erik Lis (.266/.353/.406), who probably lacks the offensive firepower to be an every day first baseman and/or left fielder, but will always be able to tell his kids he took Roger Clemens deep during one of the Rocket's 2007 tune-ups. The pitching staff is loaded with talent, the most surprising of which has been the resurgence of Jay Rainville, a first-round pick in 2004 who missed all of last season recovering from shoulder surgery. While his velocity is still off (he's sitting in the upper 80s), the right-hander still has a power curveball, and has put up a 3.00 ERA in 14 games, delivery his best start of the year with seven shutout innings and seven strikeouts on Tuesday night. Ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the system prior to the season, righty Eduardo Morlan has been converted to closer, where his plus command of a very good fastball/slider combination has served him well. The Cuban émigré has four wins and nine saves to go with 48 strikeouts in 34.2 innings. Surprisingly, he's been deadly against left-handed batters, limiting them to a 5-for-54 (.093) mark with 22 strikeouts and just two walks.

Low-A Beloit (41-23; Midwest League)

The Twins' top two 2006 draftees are young, raw, toolsy...and struggling mightily. First-rounder Chris Parmalee (.226/.297/.412) has tremendous raw power, but the holes in his swing are getting exposed (60 strikeouts in 199 at-bats), and he's bet nothing short of hopeless (.152/.220/.261) against lefties. Second-round selection Joe Benson is more of a pure toolsy center fielder with speed and power potential, and while he's sitting at just .233/.317/.356, he's shown some life of late, going 11-for-19 in his last five games. The story on the mound remains Jeff Manship, a 14th-round pick last June who received third-round money. Like many pitchers in the system, Manship has excellent control of a deep but not overpowering arsenal, and he's carved up Midwest League hitters, putting up a 1.49 ERA in 72.1 innings while giving up just 44 hits, walking eight, and generating a ton of groundballs. He's clearly ready for a bigger challenge.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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