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April 30, 2008

Future Shock

AL East Notebook

by Kevin Goldstein

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Baltimore Orioles

The Bedard Trade Down On The Farm : Most of the focus so far on the return from Seattle for Erik Bedard has been on the two players in the majors. Center fielder Adam Jones has mixed moments of greatness with streaks of little production, while George Sherill has stepped into the closer role, racking up an impressive save total with the kind of peripheral numbers that scream, "There's trouble ahead!" However, the Orioles received three more players--all big power pitchers--in the deal, and the results so far in the minor leagues have been a mixed bag.

Clearly at the top of the heap is right-hander Chris Tillman, who has a 3.31 ERA in a quartet of starts at Double-A Bowie, including five no-hit innings three days before his 20th birthday. Already in possession of plus velocity and a plus curve, Tillman is an improved changeup and better control (12 walks in 16 1/3 innings) away from putting himself among the top pitching prospects in the game.

Coming out of the bullpen is gargantuan righty Kam Mickolio, who is listed as having 256 pounds on his six-foot-nine frame, and that almost seems a little light when you see him. Delivering low- to mid-90s heat from a very low three-quarters delivery that borders on sidearm, Mickolio's pitches are very difficult to pick up for right-handed hitters, but, like many pitches of his style, his future ability to consistently retire big league lefties remains in doubt.

The sleeper is Tony Butler, the 2006 third-round pick who had a phenomenal pro debut, but struggled last year with command, conditioning and a series of minor injuries. Still, six-foot-seven lefties who throw downhill in the low 90s are hard to find, and while Butler has been quite hittable in five appearances at Low-A Delmarva, giving up 25 base knocks in 23 frames, the fact that he's walked only two batters points to some progress.


Boston Red Sox

The Other Guy At Portland: While most of the focus at Double-A Portland this year has been on the outstanding performance of Justin Masterson as well as his impressive pro debut in a spot start for a flu-ridden big league team, don't forget about Michael Bowden. Last year, Bowden was one of the few arms to rise to the challenge of pitching effectively at High-A Lancaster, though he was inconsistent following a promotion to Double-A, where he was one of the youngest pitchers in the league. Back in the Eastern League this year, Bowden has pitched much better than his 3.70 ERA, and in his last outing he fired six shutout innings while striking out 11. One scout who recently saw the 21-year-old pitch both this year and last has seen nothing short of a transformation. "He's a totally different guy now," said the scout. "First off, he's in better shape--a more slender, tapered build. And while last year he was in the upper 80s when I saw him, this year he sat at 94 mph--and I mean just parked there--his low was 93, and he backed it up with a 12-to-6 hammer curve." The 2005 supplemental first-round pick has always gotten poor reviews for his mechanics, and while the scout understood where the concerns came from, he didn't share the same long-term concerns. "He's going to turn off scouts on first view," explained the evaluator. "His arm action is a little jerky, his delivery is stiff and rigid, and that could scare you, but it never changes. He repeats it every time and it's just what he does--so it's not so bad."\


New York Yankees

Trenton's Outfield? Good, Not So Good, and a Sleeper: One of the more impressive outfield trios anywhere in the minors plays for the Yankees' Double-A affiliate, and so far it's been a case of good, not good, and people figuring out what to make of the other.

After beginning the year 2-for-16, center fielder Austin Jackson has been on a roll of late, getting hits in all but two games since the slow start while hitting .318 in the process. He also continues to show a much improved approach at the plate as well as better routes in center. He's yet to go deep in 104 at-bats, and while hitting in Trenton doesn't help matters, it's nonetheless a disappointing total. Other than the power, though, all systems continue to be go. It's just the reverse for Jose Tabata. This was the year many thought the young Venezuelan would explode, but so far he's been inert, batting just .200/.308/.233 in 24 games with only three extra-base hits, all of them doubles. At 19, he's still extremely young for the level, but questions about his overall potential are starting to sprout.

While left fielder Colin Curtis has the best pure numbers of the trio at .307/.388/.420, scouts aren't really sure what to make of him. He certainly has a solid line-drive bat to go with excellent plate discipline, but without the speed to play center or the power to profile well as a corner outfielder, most have trouble seeing him as more than a left-handed bench outfielder, but a good one at that.


Tampa Bay Rays

And The Best Pitching Biscuit Is...: While all eyes are on a staff that includes Wade Davis and Jacob McGee--with David Price aiming to join them soon once he recovers from an elbow train--the most impressive statistical performance so far on Tampa's Double-A staff belongs to southpaw James Houser, the kind of prospect who gets lost in the shuffle in a system as deep as the Rays' is, but one who might be more well-known elsewhere. A third-round pick in the 2003 draft, the 23-year-old Houser has a 1.30 ERA in five starts so far for the Biscuits--and how awesome is a logo with a tongue made of butter?--allowing just 16 hits in 27 2/3 innings. Tall and skinny (almost to a fault), Houser effectively commands an average velocity fastball and solid curve to set up his plus changeup, the kind of three-pitch match that profiles him well as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Unfortunately, it will be hard to find that kind of opportunity in this system.

Where's Desmond Jennings? That's the subject of a pretty commonly received email. No worries, folks, while the five-tool outfielder--currently ranked as the No. 18 prospect in the game--did have minor off-season knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, that's not what's keeping him behind, but rather a back problem that flared up during spring training. He's healthy, playing scrimmages in extended spring training and running well enough to steal bases. Expect to see him in box scores for High-A Vero Beach soon. [Ed. note: After publication, it has been learned that Jennings' timetable has been delayed, and that his return to action could be delayed to late May or early June.]


Toronto Blue Jays

Flight Of The Fisher Cat: Second baseman Scott Campbell is off to one of the better starts in all of the minors, batting .417/.470/.517 for Double-A New Hampshire. A 10th-round pick out of Gonzaga in 2006, Campbell hit a solid .279/.397/.390 last year at Low-A Lansing, but the Blue Jays jumped him up a level due to his age (23). He's not particularly gifted with tools in any way, but he's a solid second baseman with a good eye at the plate and an outstanding feel for contact. He's not a big-time prospect yet, but if you're looking for a reason to root for him, he's got a shot to become the first native of New Zealand to ever reach the big leagues.

Too Quick On Snider? Joining Campbell last week at Triple-A was the system's top prospect, outfielder Travis Snider. Originally slated to begin the year in the Eastern League, Snider was quietly placed on the roster at High-A Dunedin to begin the year, where he hit .279/.333/.557 in 17 games. Impressive numbers to be sure, but 22 strikeouts and just five walks in 61 at-bats, as well as a .436 average on contact, had it looking a bit fluky. Still, the Blue Jays stuck to their guns and moved him up once the weather warmed up, and the 20-year-old has really scuffled against more advanced pitching, going 3-for-25 in his first seven contests with a whopping 16 strikeouts. It's not yet something to be concerned about, and he's still an elite-level talent, but the decision to move him up was an interesting one; if you look deep enough, a direct relationship to the Frank Thomas situation--which brought Adam Lind to the big leagues--bumped non-prospect Eric Nielsen to Triple-A, and created the opening with the Fisher Cats for Snider.

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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