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June 21, 2007

Future Shock

Midwest League All-Stars

by Kevin Goldstein

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The Midwest League All-Star Game took place on Tuesday night in Geneva, Illinois, home of the Kane County Cougars. In addition to talking to a number of players before the game, I was able to watch the game from some of the best seats in the house, surrounded by team officials and the guys with the radar guns. Here's a not-so-quick review of the game, complete with a few thoughts on a number of prospects. These are just notes that were taken in chronological order.

  • Jeff Manship of Beloit (Twins) started the game for the West, and it's pretty easy to see why the righty has been moving up prospect lists. He leads the league with a 1.49 ERA in 72.1 innings while allowing just 44 hits and compiling a crazy-great 74-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and Manship showed absolutely pinpoint control of a low 90s fastball that touched 93. He gave up a cheap run thanks to some questionable defense while getting a pair of strikeouts on breaking balls, including a hard curve that made Lansing (Blue Jays) outfielder Travis Snider look silly to end the inning. At 22, he doesn't belong in this league, and chances are he'll be in the Florida State League sooner than later.
  • Speaking of moving up to the Florida State League, Sean Watson of Dayton (Reds) started for the East, in what was his final league appearance; he was scheduled to catch a plane for Florida after the game to join the Reds' High-A affiliate in Sarasota. Watson pitched a scoreless inning, primarily working low and away from batters. He has better velocity than Manship, but less control; also like Manship, he recorded a pair of strikeouts, both on breaking balls. He still pitches like a closer, starting all five batters he faced with either two or three consecutive fastballs, and there was no sign of any change-of-pace offering.
  • The only player to get a hit off Watson was first baseman Brandon Buckman of Quad Cities (Cardinals). A 19th-round pick last year out of Nebraska, Buckman had been in contention for a Triple Crown much of the season and was the only player on the West team to have a multi-hit game. He was the biggest guy (6-6, 220 or so) in a uniform this night, his third-inning double was the second hardest hit ball of the game, and scouts were impressed with his swing, while curtailing their projections due to his age. They want to see what he'll do at more advanced levels, but at least they're interested. They'll get their first shot at seeing Buckman against better competition this week, as he was promoted to High-A Palm Beach after the game.
  • Walking up to the press box to join the television broadcast of the game for an inning, I was excited to see Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw taking the mound. Play-by-play man Jeff Hem handed me an easy one by simply asking for my thoughts on Kershaw, and I got one of those ice embarrassing moments: while I'm calling the him the best left-hander in the minors and projecting him for everything from 20-win seasons in the big leagues to the key for peace in the Middle East, he promptly grooves his fourth pitch of the game to Cedar Rapids (Angels) slugger Matt Sweeney, who goes opposite field with it for the game's only home run. Sweeney is a very real prospect and one of the few sleepers in an Angels system that features a number of high-profile prospects. He's a teenager with good hitting skills and plus-plus raw power, but he needs to refine his approach and find a defensive home; he's been pretty awful at third base so far this year. Luckily, Kershaw made me look good from there on out, sitting at 94-96 mph with his fastball and recording a pair of strikeouts, including one on a curveball that absolutely froze Cedar Rapids outfielder Chris Pettit to end the inning, a pitch that color commentator (and WGN sports anchor) Dave Kaplan nearly ran out of adjectives for. Speaking to a scout later in the game, Kershaw was by far his most impressive arm of the night.
  • Omar Poveda of Clinton (Rangers) took the mound in the third and had an awful inning, but he's still notable since he's one of three highly-regarded Clinton prospects who made the All-Star team in their second Midwest League go-round. All of them seem to have learned from the experience of struggling for a year:

    Omar Poveda 
    
    YEAR AGE IP    H  BB  K   ERA
    -----------------------------
    2006 18 149.1 167 37 133 4.88
    2007 19  78.2  61 22  68 2.83
    
    K.C. Herren
    
    YEAR AGE  AB HR BB SO  AVG  OBP  SLG

    ------------------------------------ 2006 20 303 2 36 81 .221 .306 .294 2007 21 222 4 22 44 .329 .390 .554 John Whittleman YEAR AGE AB HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG

    ------------------------------------ 2006 19 466 9 60 97 .227 .313 .343 2007 20 231 12 42 48 .320 .417 .571

    That's three significant improvements. Still, Poveda wasn't overly impressive this night. He's big and projectable, but his fastball was average, and he primarily relied on his changeup and curveball, with the former far more advanced than the breaking ball. Whittleman reached base in two of three plate appearances, and was a compelling presence in both interviews and batting practice, but his defense continues to lag behind at the hot corner: he cost his team a run in the first inning with a bad play on a slow roller towards him.

  • West Michigan (Tigers) outfielder Deik Scram led off the third inning with a four-pitch walk, and he was able to show-off his plus-plus speed when he came around to scored on Dayton (Reds) infielder Justin Turner's double. Scram would earn MVP honors in the game, but scouts ee him as an older corner outfielder without enough pop to play there every day.
  • Scram's teammate, center fielder Gorkys Hernandez, got to show off the best wheels in the game, beating out an infield single to plate Travis Snider in the third, and than easily stealing second base before the inning came to an end.
  • West Michigan's ace is Chris Cody, who currently leads the Midwest League in strikeouts (92) while ranking second in ERA (1.77). That said, the scouting reports don't match the numbers, as Cody is small and relatively old for the league (23); his fastball sits in the mid- to upper 80s, and he relies on control and a nifty curve ball. Those two offerings can give less experienced hitters fits--and did so when Cody cruised through a perfect fourth.
  • Dayton (Reds) center fielder Drew Stubbs came in the game during the sixth inning, but still got three plate appearances, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout. The eighth overall pick in the draft last year, despite many teams having major concerns about his strikeout rate, Stubbs is batting just .253/.348/.369 with 73 whiffs in 249 at-bats. "I mean, you just look at him, and that's a Rocco Baldelli body," lamented one scout. "But he just has no bat speed."
  • The East began to pull away in the sixth with a two-run inning to extend their lead to 6-2, as Clinton (Rangers) catcher Chad Tracy was getting exposed as a real liability defensively. It's not really his fault--with the only other catcher on the roster--Hank Conger of Cedar Rapids (Angels)--out with a balky back, Tracy was forced into action despite having caught just nine times all year due to his limitations behind the plate. In those games, he gunned down only two of 17 attempted base stealers, an the East ran wild on him on Tuesday, swiping five bases. Tracy added a throwing error, and had significant difficulty in just receiving balls. "It's the All-Star game, and what they're doing to this kid is almost unfair," said one team official in attendance. A third-round pick out of Pepperdine last June, Tracy has been playing primarily left field all year, and is batting .281/.344/.469.
  • The later innings were pretty uneventful, but Quad Cities (Cardinals) reliever Elvis Hernandez opened some eyes in the eighth by striking out the only two batters he faced. A lanky Dominican, Hernandez delivers 92-94 mph fastballs and a very good slider using a whip-like motion and a low three-quarters arm slot, one that scouts insist givse him trouble against left-handed batters, who get an extended look at the ball coming out of his hand. The stats agree, as righties are hitting just .198/.294/.278 against him, while lefties have no such trouble at .274/.330/.476. It's a definite concern, and one that makes it hard to project him as anything more than a situational reliever, but for one night and two batters, he was electric.
  • Lansing outfielder Travis Snider (Blue Jays) played all nine innings and had a strange outing, never putting a ball in play while drawing three walks and striking out twice. It was a different story in batting practice, as Snider put on a show. It's an overused scouting cliché, but the ball really does make a different sound coming off of his bat.
  • Top Five Prospects From The Game (must play to be eligible)

    1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Great Lakes (Dodgers): Nobody can remember the last lefthander in this league with his combination of size and stuff. In pre-game interviews, every player I asked to name the toughest pitcher in the league picked Kershaw, except for one, who listed him second after Manship.

    2. Travis Snider, OF, Lansing (Blue Jays): On the other side of the fence, the overwhelming majority of pitchers named Snider as the toughest out in the league. Batting .333/.379/.505, Snider only put his swing on display during batting practice, which was more than enough to impress the scouts in attendance.

    3. Gorkys Hernandez, OF, West Michigan (Tigers): Hitting .300 and leading the league with 28 stolen bases, scouts wonder just how good he can become if he develops a more patient approach at the plate and taps into some of his raw power.

    4. Jeff Manship, RHP, Beloit (Twins): Even though he got $400,000 as a 14th-round pick last year, that money is looking like a steal as the former Notre Dame star is next in a system loaded with deep-repertoire strike throwers.

    5. Sean Watson, RHP, Dayton (Reds): With impressive velocity and a plus breaking ball, Watson could move quickly as a reliever, but will get every shot at developing the third pitch that would allow him to stay in the rotation.

    Sleeper Alert! Matt Sweeney, OF, Cedar Rapids (Angels): Down the middle or not, Sweeney taking a mid-90s fastball the other way for a laser-guided home run was an impressive feat of hitting, and he's one of the best young power prospects in the league.

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

    Related Content:  The Who,  Travis Snider,  Interviews,  Quad-a

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