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April 9, 2008

Future Shock

Kane County Cougars Game Report

by Kevin Goldstein

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It wasn't exactly the perfect day for a ball game. The temperature was in the 40s and the cold wind reminded one far more of winter than spring. But it was the home opener for the Kane County Cougars, the minor league team I live closest to, and it's been seven months since I'd seen a minor league baseball game. Add in the news that a good friend from the scouting world would be there, and attending was a no-brainer.

There's still a whole lot of visible rust in the first week's games. The Cougars, an A's affiliate, topped Burlington (Royals) 13-5 in a game that featured three errors, four unearned runs, nine walks, and--despite the fact that no pitcher was overly impressive--27 strikeouts. Getting into the groove was an issue for more than just the players: consider the scout in the stands who couldn't get his radar gun to measure anything but breaking balls for no apparent reason, and every one of those registered at exactly 26 mph, every time out.

This is not the kind of game where one will look back and think about all the future big leaguers they saw on that cold April afternoon. Neither roster is especially impressive, as Oakland has loaded their High-A Stockton club as one of the best in the minors, but left the Cougars with little top talent. The same goes for Burlington, which has shortstop Mike Moustakas, the second overall pick from last year's draft, and little else.

Seeing Moustakas for the first time is a bit of a surprise. You know just from reading his listed height and weight that he's not the massive slugger one would expect from a player who set California high school single-season and career home-run marks. While he's listed at six-foot even and 195 pounds, he looks downright short, thick, and stocky, and while he was never tested at shortstop during the game, all it takes is a visual to realize he has little chance of staying there, which already the overwhelming consensus among the scouting community. "Does that look like a shortstop to you?" I asked the scout. "That looks like a stocky second baseman to me," he responded. "Hell, that looks like a catcher to me," he concluded. "And he's got a 70 arm, easy, but it would take a lot of guts to try that." Getting away from the negative for a bit, while the game featured three home runs, Moustakas smote the hardest-hit ball of the game, a tomahawk single to right field that didn't have any loft but was past Cougars second baseman Matt Ray before he even had a chance to react. He also struck out twice, including once looking on an outstanding curveball that came back to catch the outer edge of the plate and had one scout joking, "I'm guessing he never saw that pitch in high school."

Then there's outfielder Corey Brown, a supplemental first-round pick last June out of Oklahoma State, who was given a bonus roughly one-eighth that of Moustakas'. Brown's calling cards are power, above-average speed, and strikeouts by the bushel. That's pretty much been the story so far this season, as the center fielder is batting .286/.318/.476 with 10 whiffs in 21 at-bats. Brown clearly doesn't like the cold; wearing a full fleece hoodie under his uniform, he was more bundled up than even the Latin American players. It's also easy to see where all the strikeouts come from, as every swing is a full, vicious hack. At the same time, he had three singles, including a nifty piece of hitting where he went the other way with a breaking ball on the outer half of the plate, showing a good two-strike approach and in-pitch adjustment to the pitch's velocity and location. He remains an interesting player to watch in a loaded Oakland system.

The starting pitching matchup was intriguing both on a prospect and a personal level. Starting for the Cougars and making his Oakland system debut was Scott Mitchinson, who was acquired over the winter in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. A long time ago (OK, four years ago, but that's an eon in the prospect world), Mitchinson was a semi-prospect in the Phillies system. In his 2004 debut as a 19-year-old, the Australian righty had a 1.75 ERA in 10 Gulf Coast League starts with an almost unfathomable 60-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 2/3 innings. Not surprisingly, Mitchinson is a command and control pitcher who sits in the mid-to-upper 80s and throws two breaking balls--one a slow looping curve that gave the young Burlington lineup fits, the other a harder, more slurvy type of pitch that he has problems throwing for strikes, and which is far less effective. He struck out eight over four innings, but also allowed eight baserunners. He's also 23 and still in Low-A, so any chances for a big league career are slight.

An even bigger, but more familiar (at least to me) longshot took the mound for the Bees. Righty Zach Peterson put his name all over the UIC record book, and just because he's local, I'd already seen him pitch plenty of times before. Despite his impressive college career, he went undrafted, though he had an impressive debut after signing with the Royals last summer, with a 2.89 ERA in 56 innings with Idaho Falls, as well as 67 strikeouts against just eight walks. Peterson didn't get drafted for a reason--like Mitchinson, he's already 23, and he's not especially physical or projectable. His fastball sat in the mid-80s, and he didn't show much in the way of secondary pitches. He was just a guy who hits his spots and changes speeds and relies on some defensive help. Even the defense couldn't assist much with that repertoire though, as Peterson gave up eight runs on ten hits over his three innings, often elevating his stuff--which is a nightmare when you don't have much stuff in the first place.

In the end, I'm certainly not here to make so proclamation about seeing the next great thing, but that's a rare thing when you go check out a game at the Low-A level. Still, any game you see can have something interesting to see if you know what to look for, and despite the cold, it was great to get back to the grind.

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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