April 8, 1998
Prospect Report: NL East
Possible breakouts and names to watch in 1998
As far as hitters, the cupboard's getting bare for the Braves. Andruw Jones will be their last dynamite property to reach the majors for a while, and he's here to stay. Tony Graffanino has no real competitors for the second base job with the departure of Mark Lemke. He's been better than Lemke for years, and was just wasting time caddying for him last season. Look for a league-average year at second from him. Wes Helms will start the season in the minors; he hit well in AA last year after being blown away at Richmond. Although his strikezone judgement is improving, both that and his fielding need work, so we probably won't see him for more than a cup of coffee in September. Damon Hollins is an outstanding centerfielder, and although he'll return to Richmond to open the season, would give the Braves everything they're expecting out of Gerald Williams and more.
Kevin Millwood is an excellent pitching prospect who wasn't overmatched in his heady rush to the majors last year. The Braves obviously don't need much from their fifth starter, which makes it as good a position as there is in the major leagues for a young pitcher to be in. Look for Millwood to get 20-25 starts. In the bullpen, Kerry Ligtenberg was an asset down the stretch last season, and he'll be counted on again this year. In addition, lefty Adam Butler has cracked the squad after a year as Greenville's closer; the organization has been favorably impressed with his work ethic. Both Ligtenberg and Butler have good stuff, but with Bobby Cox, there is the danger that early good impressions could lead to workloads that will slag them early.
Sheesh, where do we begin? Thanks to the "fire sale", the World Champs both added to their bounty of prospects and cleared some space for the kids to play.
At the plate, the Marlins have Mark Kotsay ready to take over in CF. Kotsay is a dynamite hitter, and should be a good major-leaguer right now. He's got excellent plate discipline from the left side of the plate, and has the range for center; there are questions about his arm. Todd Dunwoody didn't make the Opening Day roster, but he'll be up at some point if anyone struggles or once Sheffield takes one of his month-long breaks. Dunwoody is another excellent defensive player, and has some speed and pop at the plate; unfortunately, he'll swing at almost anything. He should wind up getting ~200 PA in 1998. At 1B, the future belongs to former Padre Derrek Lee, a monstrous power prospect who enters the season in the majors. At 6'5", Lee is just growing into his frame and is already of the strongest men in the game. He wasn't great at Las Vegas last year, but finished strong. He should top 25 HR if he gets 600 PA, with more to come as his patience and contact improve. At season's start, however, he's splitting time with Ryan Jackson, another solid prospect, although he's more than a year older than Cliff Floyd. Although Jackson is useful, he won't have Lee's future. Also in the mix at first is Kevin Millar, who's as old as Jackson, but he's a right-handed hitter with good power. The Marlins may wind up letting the older Jackson and Millar platoon so that Lee can log a few months as a regular in Charlotte, but if any of them get hot, he'll probably get rewarded for it with a bigger share of playing time. Luis Castillo won't start the season as the Marlins starting 2B, but eventually beating out Craig Counsell shouldn't be difficult for this talented young player.
Putting Josh Booty here is sort of a misuse of the word "prospect", but he's starting the season as the Marlin 3B with Bobby Bonilla's health problems, and he's technically a rookie, so he should probably be mentioned. I'm expecting about a .500 OPS and a quick exit to the minors. Dave Berg, many times the player Booty is, will wear a major league uniform, at least until Bonilla returns. He's not much of a prospect, but he's no Josh Booty.
The Marlin pitching staff has been gutted since last year. We'll begin with the starting staff. Rafael Medina cooks with gas, but his control is very much in question. He blew people away in winter ball after battling with injuries and ineffectiveness in Las Vegas, so he could put together a full season in the rotation with the occasional flash of greatness. Another probable starter for the Marlins is Eric Ludwick, who's still a prospect despite being in his fourth organization by 26. He throws hard, and is probably more polished than Medina at this point. Also in the rotation is righty Brian Meadows. The nicest thing you can say is that he'll take his turn in the rotation until the petitions from fans for protective netting around the entire field stack up. Because of that, don't be surprised to see Andy Larkin come up at some point, no matter how badly he's struggling in Charlotte's bandbox. Kirt Ojala will wind up in the rotation at some point, essentially by default.
In the bullpen, the Fish start off with rookie RHP Oscar Henriquez (from the Astros), and LHPs Jesus Sanchez (from the Mets) and Vic Darensbourg (somebody from their own organization). Sanchez was a fine starting pitcher prospect in the Mets' chain, and he may get an eventual tryout in the rotation. Darensbourg is... well, left-handed, a Marlins lifer, and a potential surprise of Ed Vosberg proportions. Henriquez is highly touted for his outstanding fastball, but long-term concerns involving his durability exist because of a chronic health condition and the medications involved in keeping it under control. Manuel Barrios also came over from the Astros in the Alou deal, and he ought to be up at some point as a good middle reliever and setup man.
Not this year, Felipe. The team has lost so much talent over the last few years, there's not a whole lot left. The Expos should not only be solidly out of contention all season, they may wind up being the worst team in the majors this year.
Brad Fullmer is the big name here. He hit for excellent power wherever he played last season, but probably isn't ready to be handed the 1B job quite yet. The Expos have other options, though they aren't good ones, so Fullmer might have to go back to the minors to work on his plate discipline a bit at some point this season. Former first-round pick Hiram Bocachica's career at SS looks to be over. The Expos are mulling other defensive responsibilities for the defensively-challenged Bocachica, with CF topping the list. He has a live bat, and should be a solid major league hitter wherever he ends up, but don't expect him to make the big club this year. Jose Vidro is not a viable long-term answer at third or second for the Expos (though Shane Andrews doesn't appear to be, either), but as long as Orlando Cabrera struggles, he'll get major league playing time. Cabrera had an awful spring, and has major problems controlling the strike zone, but he's also less than a year removed from the Florida State League, so he'll need to adjust at Ottawa for a good chunk of this season before returning to the majors. Either Raul Chavez or Bob Henley could break in at some point as Chris Widger's caddy behind the plate, but both will have to recover from spring injuries first, and both are being pushed from behind by Mike Barrett. In the outfield, Darond Stovall will stick around as a fresh pair of legs to replace Rondell White (he of the aching knees) in centerfield; with Santangelo's early struggles in center, he could wind up getting ~200 PA this year. The guy we'd like to see? Jon Saffer, who's already proven himself at AAA, has power and discipline, and is basically everything the Expos need to give them some measure of offense.
In the rotation, les DesperExpos will open with two rookies in the rotation: lefty Trey Moore and righty Javier Vazquez. Moore isn't really a prospect; he doesn't throw hard or have outstanding control, and his callup is a sign of injuries to more important prospects, notably Carl Pavano and Matt Wagner. Pavano should be up at some point, even without the organizational pressure to remind lonely season ticket holders that they did get somebody for Pedro Martinez. Chances are good that he'll be outstanding from the start. Vazquez is only 21, and has all of six starts above A-ball, but he's a legitimate four-pitch starter with a good (and improving) fastball. Its dangerous to have him up this soon, but the Expos didn't really have many alternatives. In the pen, rookie RHP Shayne Bennett and LHP Rick DeHart should both survive the year, although Bennett's forkball has a nasty tendency to stop forking and become a souvenir when he isn't being just wild.
NEW YORK METS
The Mets have very little in the farm system that will be of much use to them this year.
Masato Yoshii, a Japanese league veteran signed by the Mets, fits into their rotation somewhere, where he'll probably spend most of the year. He wasn't as heralded as Hideki Irabu, but he doesn't appear to have Irabu's weight problems or attacks of infantilism either, so that's a plus. Second baseman Ralph Milliard (picked up in the Leiter deal with Florida) could squeeze out Carlos Baerga later on this season, if the Mets decide they aren't even a longshot at the wildcard and that they're serious about '99.
No Scott Rolen this year. The Phillies look to start Desi Relaford in place of dearly departed Kevin Stocker at SS this season. Relaford's star has been falling for years, and at this point it's very likely he will never be a useful major league hitter. He's got some speed, and he's not as punchless as Rey Ordonez, but those aren't really rare or useful attributes. He's already being referred to by Phillies fans as "Guppy," as in "G-reat UP-side," in reference to the consistently rosy things the organization has to say about him. Second baseman Dave Doster is too old to be called a good prospect, and he's probably not going to get much time in the majors this year with the Mark Lewis signing; this is unfortunate, because Doster is the better defensive player with similar offensive skills. Unfortunately, the expectation is that at some point Marlon Anderson will be the major league 2B, which could happen by September; at this point, Anderson is mostly hype about his intensity level and physical skills. Billy McMillon should be playing regularly with the Phillies at some point this year, but with his luck he won't see a single AB. He's a fine corner OF with power and patience, and the Phils could easily move Gregg Jeffries to 1B and Rico Brogna to the waiver wire to accommodate him, but hey, I guess they have their reasons for not playing him. The best of the lot is Bobby Estalella behind the plate, but he's also out of luck with Mike Lieberthal's outburst of power last year.
On the mound, you won't be seeing too many new faces, although some pitchers are still technically rookies: relievers Wayne Gomes and Darrin Winston, for example. Ryan Brannan should eventually come up to either replace Ricky Bottalico or work as his setup man. If the Phils really purge their rotation of veterans and leftovers, you might see Carlton Loewer come up, not to mention sophomores like Cal Maduro; because of their perpetual injuries problems with people like Mike Grace, Tyler Green, and Mark Portugal, you may see them anyways.
Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @davepease