October 16, 2007
Wait 'Til Next Year
On the Cusp of a Decision
In his two-part preview of the Arizona Fall League, Kevin Goldstein covered the gamut of top prospects playing this season. However, while the AFL is perennially the premier winter league for the game's best young players, organizations also use the league for another purpose-as a last-ditch tool for evaluating and anticipating the shape of their 40-man rosters, and thus, it ranks as baseball's biggest windows into who may or may not become available in the Rule 5 Draft. Last season, after a 8.58 ERA in the AFL, the Twins decided they could better use a 40-man roster spot on someone else rather than Kevin Cameron. However, in that same performance, the Padres saw something in Cameron, and made him a Rule 5 pick, resulting in one of the draft's best choices.
Every season, the Rule 5 Draft includes more players from the Arizona Fall League than any other baseball league. After identifying more than 40 position players and 60 pitchers in the league that could be eligible to be drafted in two months, I have picked the players that should cause their current organizations the most angst when 40-man rosters are frozen in November. Many of the players-like Justin Towles, Chin-Lung Hu, or even Bob McCrory-will without question be protected, while many of the other 100 will be exposed with little chance to change hands this winter. Surely, the prospects of getting picked from out of the group in the middle shrank after the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement added a year of protection to all prospects, resulting in giving organizations another year to evaluate them, like the Dodgers with Blake Dewitt.
However, as last season's 19-person draft showed, the change in the CBA does not eliminate such free talent from the marketplace entirely. While Matt LaPorta, Evan Longoria, and Justin Maxwell are the big stories we'll follow in this season's AFL, here's a group of players that will be even more closely watched in the next month:
A shortstop for Texas Tech in 2003, Colonel was drafted by the Rockies in the fifth round after he struck out just 12 times in 169 at-bats, while batting .373 in his final season in the Big 12. The Rockies knew Colonel wouldn't stick up the middle, but he has shown some athleticism in five minor league seasons, stealing 61 bases. While always a good contact hitter, Colonel's power started showing up this season, when he hit 47 doubles in the Texas League, helping him post the best Isolated Power (.186) of his career. Colonel killed lefties this season (.358/.416/.610), and with experience at all three outfield positions and both corners, his defensive versatility would make him an asset on a bench. If Colonel doesn't do that well in the AFL, the Rockies may lose him, as it's hard to see him making it onto a 40-man roster that already has Garrett Atkins, Ian Stewart, and Matt Macri already in the system at Colonel's main position.
Dickerson might seem an iffy choice, but given the Rule 5 Draft's considerable past history with fifth outfielders, Dickerson isn't that inconceivable. An athlete that plays a pretty good center field, Dickerson looked to be a longshot as the Reds leadoff hitter of the future when he hit .303/.410/.408 in the Midwest League in his full-season debut. However, despite an improved ability to hit for power, since then Dickerson has seen his contact skills erode, leaving his career minor league batting average at a paltry .255. While he would struggle to post a good average in the Major Leagues, a team insistent upon carrying a quick fifth outfielder could use him effectively as a defensive replacement, pinch-runner and left-handed option off of the bench. Although Dickerson is a good bet to strike out once every three plate appearances, his solid patience and decent power should command some attention from some AFL scouts.
When September brought the out-of-contention White Sox the opportunity to reach into their minor league system and try out a variety of arms, it became very obvious the organization does not think highly of Egbert's future. Many in Chicago were calling for the right-hander with the system's best numbers to get a call-up and a spot start, but the White Sox held steadfast against bringing Egbert up. Egbert's formula for success is simple enough-pump his high-80s two-seamer low in the zone, and get as many groundball outs as possible. That worked well this season, as Egbert generated twice as many groundball outs as flyouts. Egbert's sinker will have to sustain him in higher levels, where hitters stop swinging through his pedestrian slider. He might only be targeted by relatively non-competitive teams looking to fill out their rotations next season, but he might reward the one willing to take the risk.
The Rule 5 Draft has a long history in deception-it's been said that Roberto Clemente hardly played in Montreal in his stateside pro debut so that he could be hidden from scouts' eyes. However, organizations will generally find good talent. That's why I think that, should the Braves decide in December not to place Sung Ki Jung on their 40-man roster, he will be headed elsewhere. After a solid 53-game, 11.2 K/9 season with Low-A Rome in 2003, Jung was unable to return to the United States in 2004, as he had to perform military service in his native South Korea. Jung was then away from pitching for three seasons before returning this spring, and it was if he'd never missed a beat. Jung's low, three-quarters delivery creates a lot of deception, and his low-90s fastball and solid slider were death on Carolina League right-handed hitters (.111/.190/.122). While the Braves are hoping teams aren't interested in a 28-year-old with three years missing from his pitching resume, success in the AFL will get Jung plenty of attention.
Problems with projectability and a commitment to the University of Miami prevented Rosen from going higher than the fifth round in 2002, but the southpaw was considered one of the nation's premier prep southpaws. What was true then is still today-despite a 5'11" frame, Rosen works consistently in the low 90s and touches 94 mph with his fastball, and throws a pretty good slider as well. It's become obvious that he's best suited for a relief role, and in 2007, the Diamondbacks' patience in grooming him as a reliever finally paid off. After years of posting horrible walk rates, including 41 in 44 1/3 innings in 2005, Rosen began to pitch more consistently in the strike zone in his Double-A debut. Rosen was a victim of his own impressive 2.05 GB/FB ratio, as he allowed an absurd .420 BABIP; perhaps with a better defense behind him in the AFL, Rosen will post much better hits allowed numbers in winter ball. Should he continue to stay within the zone, it should lead to a Rule 5 selection if Arizona decides that their patience has run thin.
Given the Dodgers' loaded farm system, and players ahead of Wade on the totem pole like Justin Orenduff or even Greg Miller and Xavier Paul, there's probably almost no chance that he'll make L.A.'s 40-man roster. While Wade is our most realistic draft-eligible player on this list, he also might be the list's largest stretch. That's because Wade's shtick is pretty everyday-he's a right-handed reliever with good command, and tough on right-handed batters. However, he also has good stuff-a fastball that reaches 93, and two good off-speed pitches-perhaps good enough that Wade would fit in just fine with a major league bullpen. He has some work to do in the AFL to get his shot in somebody's spring training camp, but keep an eye on him.
The Cardinal Crisis
In compiling this list, I stumbled onto something pretty strange-perhaps no organization will be more invested in evaluating their own players for 40-man roster spots than the Cardinals. While the team sent pretty good prospects such as Mitch Boggs and Mark Hamilton to the Mesa Solar Sox, the rest of the Cardinals players on the team are being evaluated, likely against each other. The Cardinals currently have 39 players on their 40-man roster, and while free agencies will shrink that number in November, there might only be two spots for the following four players:
You can probably trust that the Cardinals won't open next season with a middle infield of Brendan Ryan and Adam Kennedy, so if they exercise as many back-up options as possible, Hoffpauir will be on their 40-man roster. It would be a good decision, as Hoffpauir is an outstanding contact hitter who also offers good patience and a little pop. With experience at third base and shortstop he'd be a great asset on a big league bench, and should the Cardinals not protect him, Hoffpauir would be an early favorite to go towards the top of the Rule 5 Draft.
Just like the middle infield, the Cardinals are also not particularly deep in the outfield (especially with Juan Encarnacion's career in question). Hence, Mather is an asset. A third-round pick out of the Arizona prep scene in 2001, a combination of injuries and a lack of power hampered Mather's first six seasons in the Cardinals system. However, in his second consecutive healthy season, Mather broke out, delivering 31 home runs across Double- and Triple-A. A tough power hitter with enough athleticism to play both corners and center field in a pinch.
A Missouri product, McClellan was a middle-rounds steal in the 2002 draft, but after starting for much of his first four seasons in the system, Tommy John surgery finally relegated McClellan to his true home in the pen. His return from surgery went well this season, as McClellan focused on commanding his low-90s sinker, which resulted in twice as many of his caught balls in play to be hit on the ground than in the air. Before surgery, McClellan's best pitch was his curveball, and if he could get it back to its old point, McClellan would have a tremendous two-pitch combination to offer a team coming out of the bullpen.
Like Mark Rosen, Motte will be a test of the Cardinals and their patience with a player just turning the corner. Way back in 2003, Motte was a middle-round draft selection as a catch-and-throw catcher from little Iona College. The team tried hard to keep Motte behind the plate, but after a 2005 in High-A where his .172/.198/.279 line wasn't much different from his career line, the team finally decided to make Motte a reliever. It proved a good decision, as Motte instantly seemed to have 93-97 mph fastball he could throw with good command. The key for Motte will be further developing a sinker and/or a splitter, but if his numbers from June 1 on are an indication, the Cardinals converting him was a fantastic choice: 33.1 IP, seven runs allowed, 47 strikeouts, and only 12 walks.
If I had to guess, I would say the Cardinals opt to retain Hoffpauir and Motte, leaving Mather and McClellan exposed; both make fine Rule 5 Draft candidates. However, all decisions are far from being made, and Arizona Fall League performance may well decide each player's ultimate fate.