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May 6, 2009

Future Shock

The Kane County Cougars

by Kevin Goldstein

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Christina Kahrl entered the year with a BBWAA card and a self-imposed directive to attend games and try to change the way a game story is delivered. It's an awesome task, and her initial riffs have been a successful exercise. I myself have been trying to get out to the ballpark more, but of course my trips involve much smaller stadiums, far superior parking, and seats a few rows behind home plate with the scouts. My closest home park is that of Kane County in the Single-A Midwest League, as Elfstrom Stadium is just a quick 30-minute run down Route 38.

In the past, I spent a lot of time monitoring pitching rotations and lineups to make sure I could bear down on someone when I went to a game, but those opportunities have been few and far between this year. Overall, the Midwest League is having a down year prospect-wise, and in addition the Cougars themselves have no Top 11 prospects on the roster. Still, nice weather brings out a desire to get to the game, and if there's one thing I've learned so far this season, it's that you don't need to see top-flight prospects to have fun at the ballpark. I'm not sure if I was looking for something different or new as much as I was looking for something interesting. Here are some notes on the home team from my first month of Midwest League action.

  • One of the highest high-profile players on the Cougars is right-hander Brett Hunter. A seventh-round pick last June, Hunter barely pitched last spring, but signed for a $1.1 million bonus on the basis of past performance, as his heat regularly sat in the mid-90s when healthy. He's getting nowhere close to that this year, with his fastball sitting at 88-91 mph while touching 93, although it takes a great deal of effort whenever he ramps it up. With a 7.07 ERA in four starts and more walks (13) than strikeouts (12) in 14 innings, Hunter is obviously struggling, but it's his mechanics that are the most troubling thing to see. His distinct wrist snap prior to delivery is more of a distraction than anything else, but it does him no favors when it comes to synchronization. The real problem is his arm action; when a pitcher kicks and his front foot lands, you want to see his arm already in slot, but Hunter's hand is still dropped when the foot lands, his body to fly open, and it simply drags his arm along for the ride. He's nowhere close to what scouts saw during his prime with Pepperdine and Team USA.

  • The Cougars rarely begin the year with much in the way of prospects, but that situation changes after the draft, when the polished college types that Oakland often drafts arrive to get their professional feet wet. Then begins my annual adopt-a-Cougar program, where I look for a sleeper among some of the lower-round draft picks. Last year it was Michael Richard, an 11th-round pick out of Prairie View A&M gifted with speed and on-base skills, but hampered by his poor defense at both shortstop and second base. This year's early choice was David Thomas, a 14th-round pick last June out of tiny Catawba College in North Carolina. Small but not without tools, Thomas hit .284 with four home runs, five stolen bases, and eight walks in just 17 games, but he ceded the title when he was quickly promoted to High-A Stockton, where he's continuing to produce.

  • While I don't yet have an immediate replacement for Thomas, Jeremy Barfield is an early candidate. An eighth-round pick last year, Barfield is just 2-for-17 since taking Thomas' spot on the roster, but he certainly looks the part; unlike older brother Josh Barfield, Jeremy is physically more similar to his father Jesse Barfield at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. That said, the reason I like him has nothing to do with baseball. In an age where every minor league player's walk-up music is some modern hard rock or rap (or hybrid) designed solely to make me feel old, Barfield walks towards the batter's box to the Sugar Hill Gang's "Apache," from 1981. It has nothing to do with baseball, but it makes me smile every time, and that's good enough for me.

  • The highest draft pick in the rotation for Kane County is Anthony Capra, a fourth-round pick out of Wichita State. While he doesn't blow anyone away with his stuff, he's clearly too good for the Midwest League, as he sports a 2.14 ERA in his first four starts, striking out 28 over 21 innings and limiting the league to a .187 batting average. Capra has fringy velocity at 87-90 mph, but he complements it with an outstanding changeup, a plus secondary pitch that he has the ability to locate exceptionally well to both sides of the plate. With that pitch, he's just far too much for hitters at this level. As one scout explained, "He's got side-to-side with his fastball location, and now with that changeup, he can go back and forth as well. You can do that at this level, and these hitters don't have a chance."

  • The two best position-playing prospects on the team might be the left side of the infield: fifth-round pick Jason Christian, who has slid over from shortstop to third base this year, and Dusty Coleman, a 28th-round pick who signed for an over-slot bonus of $675,000 as a sophomore-eligible selection. Long and downright skinny, Christian has shown in-game gap power with plenty of projection and surprising speed, but his adjustment to third has been a rough one so far. He's a very good defensive shortstop, but he was tested six times on rifle shots down the line in Saturday's contest against Beloit, and he was only able to handle one of them. Christian will need to make adjustments from the athleticism/range position of short to the read/react skill set required for the hot corner. The defensive chops are there, so there's still reason to believe that he'll eventually work out at the position. Coleman has been a big surprise for scouts, batting .309/.404/.556 with surprising power, especially to the opposite field. In a shallower organization, he'd receive more attention, and based on the early scouting reports he certainly deserves it.

  • The best line from a scout so far this year occurred Saturday night, when the closer (in name only) turned a 3-1 lead into a 6-3 deficit by walking batters and giving up a grand slam. It looked like trouble when the Cougar pitcher who was tracking pitches in front of us told us that Jose Guzman is working on a breaking ball in the bullpen, but hasn't thrown one in a game yet. If you're going to be a one-pitch pitcher, that one pitch had better be special, but Guzman was throwing 89-92 mph fastballs with no command. Looking at a roster sheet after Guzman was pulled from the game, one talent assessor noted, "Fifth-year pro, Low-A, no breaking ball... sometimes these reports really just write themselves."

  • During the middle of Saturday's game with Beloit, Snappers starter Sean Morgan took a 3-1 count to Franklin Hernandez, causing one scout to turn to me and say, "you could be a witness to history here." I had no idea what he was talking about until a quick direction to the stat sheet showed that Hernandez had yet to draw a walk in more than 70 at-bats. He didn't draw one that night either, and going into Tuesday's game, the streak was still alive at 84 at-bats without a free pass. While that kind of player is a rarity in the Oakland system, the Cougars actually have two of them, as fellow outfielder Mitch LeVier has gone 70 at-bats without a walk.

I'll be back next week with an "other team" Midwest League notebook.

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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