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October 14, 2008

Future Shock

Who are the Next Rays? NL Version

by Kevin Goldstein

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Last time out, we handicapped the American League bottom-feeders in an attempt to find the next Rays-like leap forward, so today, we look at the National League.

Cincinnati Reds

Resume: They have nine straight losing seasons including a quintet of fifth-place finishes.

Going Well at the Major League Level: This is a team with an impressive collection of young talent. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are just beginning to scratch the surface of their abilities, Edinson Volquez was one of the National League's top starters this year, and Johnny Cueto has flashed plenty of promise. Brandon Phillips is a solid power/speed second baseman, and Edwin Encarnacion still has most believing that he'll be an above-average third baseman.

Not Going Well at the Major League Level: The Reds are a unique combination of potential or current stars alongside some massive holes. They have no catcher, no shortstop, and the Adam Dunn trade leaves them with no outfielders of note beyond Bruce. Aaron Harang took a tremendous step backwards, and Homer Bailey is leaving many to now wonder if he'll ever live up to his potential after struggling in consecutive seasons trying to break into the big leagues. An inability to round out the rotation was one reason the Reds couldn't finish .500 this year, as Josh Fogg, Bailey, and Matt Belisle went a combined 3-16 with a 7.61 ERA.

Going Well at the Minor League Level: There are many impressive young hitters in the system, especially at the infield corners: Yonder Alonso, Todd Frazier, Juan Francisco, and Neftali Soto. Drew Stubbs continues to make progress with his contact issues and is a multi-tooled threat with outstanding defensive skills in center field. Chris Valaika continues to hit at every level.

Not Going Well at the Minor League Level: The system is very low on pitching talent across all levels. Devin Mesaraco, their 2007 first-round pick, did little to impress scouts during his first full season, leaving them with few answers at the positions where the big-league team needs the most help.

Cashflow: At just under $75 million, the Reds are spending some money, but the budget is tight. Harang and Bronson Arroyo will both be paid eight figures over the next two years, but there are no contracts that are disastrous.

Moving for Young Talent: Arroyo and Harang could both be moveable in the right situation, but the club is more optimistic that they'll be key parts of a resurgence, as opposed to veterans to be used in trades for prospects.

Outlook: Let's call it semi-bright, but not perfect. There are a number of young stars in the big leagues, but the pipeline in going to be dry for a time, leading to a one-to-two year transitional period. They need to develop or acquire some pitching in order to become a contender.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Resume: The last time the Pirates had a winning record, George Bush's dad was the president and Bob Walk was in the rotation. That's 16 straight losing seasons, including four in a row of 90-plus.

Going Well at the Major League Level: Under new management, the Pirates began their rebuilding process in 2008, and now have a younger group of talent. When healthy, Ryan Doumit is one of the best offensive catchers in the league. Nate McLouth shocked everyone by hitting 26 home runs and earning All-Star honors. Acquired in mid-season trades, Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss should both fill starting jobs over the long haul. The pitching staff is very young, and Paul Maholm took a major step forward this year.

Not Going Well at the Major League Level: Despite impressive minor league resumes, Moss and Andy LaRoche both showed very little following their trades to the Pirates. The team's middle infielders are horrible, with Sanchez and Jack Wilson both finishing the year with OPS marks well under 700. Youth isn't everything when it comes to pitching, as Zach Duke, Ian Snell, and Tom Gorzelanny have all taken major steps backward after showing initial promise.

Going Well at the Minor League Level: They have a near-ready center fielder of the future in Andrew McCutchen, which also allows them to move McLouth to a corner where he fits in better defensively. Pedro Alvarez adds a much-needed instant impact-level prospect to the system. In addition, the new administration's commitment to scouting and player development was shown with massive over-slot bonuses to Robbie Grossman and Quentin Miller.

Not Going Well at the Minor League Level: General manager Neal Huntington inherited a mess. Brad Lincoln, their 2006 first-round pick, was only so-so in his return from Tommy John surgery, and 2007 first-round pick Dan Moskos was out of shape this year and a mess mechanically. Overall, the system is wading-pool shallow.

Cashflow: The Pirates have a sub-$50 million payroll and aren't spending money at the big-league level. Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson will earn more than $13 million in 2009, but after next year both contracts come off of the books. The next few seasons will involve making a number of decisions on which players will be offered long-term contracts.

Moving for Young Talent: They did that this year, and at this point, the rebuilding move is in full youth-movement mode.

Outlook: There isn't enough talent yet in the system to project greatness. This was a long-term project all along, and it still looks that way; they're moving in the right direction, but it's going to be a slow grind.

San Francisco Giants

Resume: Their long-ago eight straight winning seasons, including four post-season appearances, have been followed with four straight losing campaigns.

Going Well at the Major League Level: Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are the best under-25 one-two rotation combo in the majors. Pablo Sandoval continued to hit at every level, and Fred Lewis has developed into a solid everyday outfielder.

Not Going Well at the Major League Level: The offense is a dead zone. Bengie Molina's 16 home runs were the most by any player on this team that plated only 640 runs on the season. Not only are they bad, but they're generally old, and the only under-30 players with over 250 at-bats this year were John Bowker, Jose Castillo, and Eugenio Velez-none of whom were good. No starter other than Cain and Lincecum had a sub-5.00 ERA, and the Barry Zito deal has been nothing short of a disaster.

Going Well at the Minor League Level: Some excellent drafts and a commitment to international signings have allowed the Giants to begin a turnaround of their once-poor minor league system. Madison Bumgarner is one of the top pitching prospects in the game, and one of several prospects on a Low-A Augusta squad that have impressed. The system lacks high-ceiling arms after Bumgarner, but is nonetheless deep in solid big-league types.

Not Going Well at the Minor League Level: The upper levels are barren, so there is little immediate help on the way. Angel Villalona is one of their few real power prospects, and 2008 first-round pick Buster Posey instantly became the top prospect in the system.

Cashflow: The Giants lopped nearly $15 million off of their payroll this year, but they still have plenty of franchise-busting long-term commitments-primarily almost $95 million for five more years of Zito, and $44 million for four more years of Aaron Rowand. It's not an enviable position, and almost forces a commitment to youth.

Moving for Young Talent: Zito is all but untradeable without picking up a huge chunk of the contract. Molina and outfielders Randy Winn and Dave Roberts are entering the final years of reasonable contracts, and should be worth something to someone at next year's deadline.

Outlook: The future of the Giants' pitching staff looks top-notch, but it's still a mystery where the runs are going to come from. They need to find and develop some bats, and they won't be a threat until at least 2011.

Washington Nationals

Resume: After finishing at .500 during their first year in the nation's capital, they've reeled off three straight losing seasons, and are coming off of a 102-loss campaign, the worst in the 32 years of the franchise.

Going Well at the Major League Level: There is precious little to report. Jesus Flores and Lastings Milledge show plenty of potential as long-term solutions up the middle. Ryan Zimmerman is an outstanding defensive third baseman who doesn't do enough with the bat, but he's young and has some potential, just not as much as many think. If Elijah Dukes can keep his head screwed on straight, he could be outstanding.

Not Going Well at the Major League Level: There's just not a whole lot of talent here, especially in the pitching department. When Tim Redding is your ace, you're in all sorts of trouble. Nobody in the current rotation projects as a top starter, but John Lannan and Collin Balester have possibilities at the back end of the rotation.

Going Well at the Minor League Level: Jordan Zimmerman took a big leap forward in 2008, and projects as a mid-rotation starter by 2010. Michael Burgess offers plenty of power and patience as a high-ceiling outfielder.

Not Going Well at the Minor League Level: Oh, there is so much not going well in this organization. Top batting prospect Chris Marrero got off to a bad start and then missed most of the season with a broken leg. Ross Detwiler, a 2007 first-round pick, was a shadow of his college-version self while putting up a 4.86 ERA at High-A. Not signing first-round pick Aaron Crow didn't help matters in a shallow system that could not afford such a gambit.

Cashflow: With a $55 million payroll, the Nationals aren't spending a lot of money, but then they don't really have a lot to spend. They're not on the hook for any horrible contracts, although Austin Kearns isn't worth $8 million next year. They're trying to do the right thing on a scouting and player-development level, but with few results.

Moving for Young Talent: There's just not much here. Maybe someone would have minor interest in Dmitri Young or Ron Belliard to add roster depth, but that's about it.

Outlook: This is a bad team with a bad minor league system, and little room for optimism.

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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