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March 17, 2008

Future Shock

Monday Ten Pack

by Kevin Goldstein

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Gordon Beckham, SS, University of Georgia

Similar to last year's crop, this year's draft is light on college middle infielders. Luckily, this draft does have Gordon Beckham. After going 1-for-5 in Friday's opener of a three-game series with Arkansas, Beckham went off on a tear for the rest of the weekend, going 4-for-6 with a pair of doubles Saturday, then adding four more hits in five at-bats with a pair of home runs on Sunday. In 15 games for the bulldogs, Beckham is now hitting a remarkable .507/.553/1.014, or 35-for-69 with nine home runs. He's a solid defender with good athleticism, and the only real knock against him is he free-swinging approach. Nevertheless, he could slide into the single-digit picks of the first round if he keeps hitting like this.

Aaron Crow, RHP, University of Missouri

It was a weird line to be sure. Don't take that as a bad thing, as the right-hander, already considered by some to be the top college arm in the upcoming draft, had the best start of his career, striking out 15 in a seven-hit shutout against Toledo in which he did not walk a batter. Still, a line like 9 7 0 0 0 15 immediately has one immediately wondering if Crow suddenly started pitching for Rice, and anticipating a pitch count in the 140s. However, he threw just 107 pitches, including 87 for strikes. Four extra outs (one double play, three caught stealing) certainly helped, but at the same time, Crow whiffed 15 and still averaged just 3.45 pitches per batter. With mid-90s heat, a wipeout slider, and (obviously) excellent control, Crow is moving up draft boards, not that he wasn't already high. He'll get a stiffer test next weekend against Baylor.

Christian Friedrich, LHP, Eastern Kentucky

Eastern Kentucky is not exactly a baseball hotbed; Braves outfielder Josh Anderson, selected in the fourth round five years ago, is the highest-drafted player in the history of the school. The top pitching alumni is mid-90s Padres reliever Gene Walter, who finished his pro career with four wins in 128 games. All that's about to change because of Friedrich, who has gained 30 pounds and roughly 10 mph to his fastball since graduating from high school, and who now stands to be a top 10 pick in June. On Friday, he took a no-hitter into the seventh against Illinois, lowering his ERA to 2.19 in 24 2/3 innings while holding batters to 13 hits and striking out 37. Mid-90s heat is his calling card, and although many see him as a reliever in the end, this kind of arm strength in lefties is rarely seen.

Chase Headley, LF, Padres

Initially, Headley's conversion from third base to left field seemed curious, but it was designed to get his bat into the big leagues, and based on his performance this spring, that bat could be in the big leagues on Opening Day. Another strong weekend boosted his spring numbers to .400/.412/.867, and with just two weeks to go going into the season, Headley is the clearly leader for the everyday big-league job. PECOTA is not a fan of Headley at all, but bet the over.

Philip Humber, RHP, Twins

Humber made last week's Ten Pack, but his story keeps getting better, as he fired three innings of no-hit relief over the weekend to run his spring total to nine scoreless frames while allowing just three hits. Now, Humber has gone from, "Hey, the new kid looks kinda good," to "Hey, the new kid might be our fifth starter." The former first-round pick of the Mets and Tommy John surgery survivor has been moved into the rotation and will get a start this week to state his case, but whatever happens he's making the Johan Santana deal look at least a little better.

Andy Marte, 3B, Indians

No longer a prospect, but certainly an unproven big leaguer, Marte got off to another bad start this spring, but his bat came alive over the weekend, as the former top prospect went deep on Friday and added two more taters on Saturday. Hitting .242 but leading the team with four bombs, Marte is out of options, and this weekend has likely earned him a bench role in which he could get time at third and first bases and designated hitter. He'll never be the player people once thought he would be, but his kind of power could still end up having some major league value.

Manny Parra, LHP, Brewers

The Brewers are sorting through a complicated battle for roster spots on their pitching staff, as eight arms have legitimate shots at earning rotation jobs, but with Ben Sheets and Jeff Suppan the obvious choices for the No. 1 and 2 slots, it's more like six players and three openings. Because they have some flexibility in what they can do with him, Parra will likely begin the year in Triple-A, but in reality, he's easily one of their five best options. Another strong performance over the weekend lowered his spring ERA to 0.64 in 14 innings, over which he's allowed just seven hits and struck out 15. He's ready, and if the Brewers do the right thing and make an admittedly tough decision to put him in the big leagues, they might lose a player in the process, but they would also improve their chances in a competitive NL Central.

Steven Pearce, OF, Pirates

Over the weekend, the Pirates basically sent their franchise's future down to the minors, dispatching Pearce center fielder Andrew McCutchen, and third baseman Neil Walker down to their minor league camp. Of the trio, Pearce was the only one with a real shot of opening the year in the big leagues, and to his credit he did his best to make the decision difficult, leading the team with four home runs and 10 RBI. In the end however, the team's inability to deal incumbent right fielder Xavier Nady means Pearce will be part of the most interesting Pirates Triple-A team in recent memory. Along with the other two, he'll likely be up at some point during the season, and in 2009 Pirates fans will actually have something to look forward to other than the best stadium in the game.

Kyle Russell, OF, University of Texas

Last year, as a sophomore-eligible draftee, Russell led NCAA Division I in home runs, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he was playing at a top-notch program in a top-notch conference, and in a home park that is pitching-friendly. Teams fearing his bonus demands passed on him in the draft, before the Cardinals finally popped him in the fourth round. They were unable to sign him, not because they didn't try, or didn't want to; they just didn't feel he was worth seven figures because of his loopy swing and propensity for strikeouts. Returning to college for his junior year, Russell had seen his stock drop significantly, hitting just one home run in 51 at-bats as part of a bizarre .255/.480/.373 line that includes 18 walks and 17 strikeouts. Sure, he's getting pitched around, but at least as this point, with last year's holdout, he cost himself hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Merkin Valdez, RHP, Giants

We'll excuse you if you've forgotten about Valdez. His breakout season that turned him into a top prospect was in 2003, and since then he's dealt with nagging minor injuries, command problems, a move to the bullpen, and finally Tommy John surgery that cost him all of the 2007 season. Now 26 and out of options, Valdez is still pitching out of the bullpen once again, and according to scouts is looking better than he has in years, throwing strikes with a fastball that has lost a few ticks from his heyday but is still a plus pitch, while also still getting excellent two-plane movement on his slider. The Giants are likely going to break camp with him in the bullpen, giving Bay Area fans another reason to watch a team that isn't going to win very many games.

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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