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April 12, 2001

Touring the Minors

Pacific Coast League Preview

by Keith Scherer

Davenport Translations:        ERA     BA    OBP    SLG
Pacific Coast League          4.84   .277   .348   .435

According to Clay Davenport's ratings in Baseball Prospectus 2001, the Pacific Coast League (PCL) is approximately as competitive as the Japanese professional leagues and not quite as challenging as the International League. The PCL is now and has always been a hitters' league.

Notwithstanding Davenport's conclusions, the PCL will host a more interesting crop of prospects than will be playing in the International League. Ryan Anderson won't be back until next year, but Corey Patterson, Roy Oswalt, Chris George, Carlos Pena, and Craig House will see time in the league before their obligatory summertime call-ups.

In addition to those prime prospects, there are plenty of stories to follow in the PCL this season:

American Conference: East Division

Memphis Redbirds (St. Louis Cardinals, Park Factor 958)

In 2000, the Redbirds lost the Triple-A World Series to the Milwaukee Brewers' Indianapolis affiliate. The Redbirds' parent club is loaded with veteran talent, so the organization has the luxury of easing its prospects into the majors.

Chad Hutchinson has begun the year in St. Louis, but could be back in Memphis if he doesn't improve his control over last year. It was probably an aberration, but in his 8 1/3 innings at Memphis in 2000 he walked 27 batters. If he's throwing strikes, he has #1-starter ability, but if he's not he'll be in Memphis. Bud Smith went 17-2 with two no-hitters last year in Double-A. He's not a dominator, but he has terrific ratios, pinpoint control, and command of a curveball and change-up. Denigrate him as a finesse pitcher, and downgrade him as a prospect because he doesn't throw gas, but he's more likely to end the season in St. Louis than Hutchinson is.

The Cards have been grooming a couple of bullpen options here, Gene Stechschulte and Jason Karnuth, though Karnuth's inability to strike out anyone (28 whiffs in 78 innings last season) could keep him down on the farm. Stechschulte went north when camp broke but could be back soon. Position players to watch are Bill Ortega, a right-handed-hitting left fielder from Cuba, and Luis Saturria, a raw and toolsy Dominican outfielder, neither of whom look to break into the Cards' lineup this year.

Oklahoma Red Hawks (Texas Rangers, Park Factor 945)

The Red Hawks' Carlos Pena and the Iowa Cubs' Hee Seop Choi are the best first-base prospects in the game, and they're playing in the PCL. Like Choi, Pena can field and hit. Unlike Choi, Pena is blocked by a good player at the major-league level. He could play well in Arlington right now, but he'll get a few hundred at-bats in Oklahoma before his call-up, He isn't likely to be here next year.

Left fielder Kevin Mench is 23 years old and moving quickly through the system. He has excellent strike-zone judgment, will take a walk, hits for power, and steals a few bases. He blasted the Arizona Fall League. Prior to that, Mench led the Florida State League in fielding percentage and racked up 12 assists, but afield he's reminiscent of clodhoppers like Greg Luzinski and Ben Grieve. We'll know what he can do soon enough, since he's not far from Texas. My guess is that he'll be just like Rusty Greer. With Alex Rodriguez and Randy Velarde manning the keystone for the Rangers, Mike Young (shortstop) and Jason Romano (second base) will be given plenty of time to develop into utility options for Johnny Oates.

The Rangers need pitching, but there isn't a lot of help on the way. Jovanny Cedeno could see time in Oklahoma by the end of this season. He's beef-jerky thin at six feet and 160 pounds, so health is a concern, but he has put up good ratios and he fields well. He's probably the best pitching prospect the Rangers have, though Aaron Myette, acquired in the Royce Clayton trade, has a future (assuming he is recovered from the hand he broke punching a dugout wall). He's in the Rangers' bullpen but might be sent to Oklahoma if he needs innings or if his control is wobbly.

New Orleans Zephyrs (Houston Astros, Park Factor 888)

The Zephyrs play in the most pitcher-friendly park in the league, but in the PCL "pitcher-friendly" is a relative term.

The Cubs' farm system is getting a lot of attention this spring, but the Astros might have talent on par with the Cubs, at least in Triple-A. Like the Iowa Cubs, the Zephyrs have pitchers: Roy Oswalt, Tim Redding, Tony McKnight, and maybe Mike Nannini. Oswalt has the fastball, curve, change-up, makeup...a complete package. He's Grade A and will get an opportunity, so he's a great prospect. Redding has great ratios, high velocity, and gets lots of strikeouts. Some are bothered by his height, which is the same as that of Tim Hudson and Greg Maddux, but sensible people have no complaints about him.

McKnight's Triple-A ratios have been unimpressive, and his strikeout rates are low, but he has been compared to Ron Darling. Kevin Kerrane's Dollar Sign on the Muscle has an anecdote about Darling that stems from when he was at Yale. His fastball was coming in at 86 mph, and the scouts were quarreling about his future. The consensus was that his makeup overcame any deficiencies in his velocity. McKnight appears to be getting the same benefit of the doubt. This year should move the argument one way or the other, but if he improves, the Astros will have at least three quality starters in New Orleans, four if Nannini gets here this year.

The Zephyrs can also match the Cubs' infield prospects, with Keith Ginter at second base, Adam Everett at shortstop, and Morgan Ensberg at third base. While Bobby Hill was playing in the Atlantic League, Ginter was running away with the Texas League MVP. Ginter and Ensberg get on base and hit for power, and they field well enough to play, even start, in the majors. Everett is learning how to hit, but it's his fielding that will get him promoted.

Nashville Sounds (Pittsburgh Pirates, Park Factor 944)

Kerrane's book discusses "negative scouting." The idea is that if you focus on a player's faults, you'll become convinced he's not a major-league prospect, and you'll be right 92% of the time.

In recent years, the Pirates have been so poor at developing their talent that negative scouting would be the epitome of pragmatism. The best pitching prospects at Nashville are uninspiring, interchangeable left-handers. The best hitting prospects, Tike Redman and Alex Hernandez, are tools freaks who project as fourth outfielders. Craig Wilson is interesting because he has power, but he has little strike-zone judgment and not much to offer in the field. Baseball America commits itself to filling out prospect lists of 30 for each team. 30 is an arbitrary number, so we shouldn't think that the players filling out those lists are any less arbitrary than the number itself. When scouting the Sounds, just go negative.

American Conference: Central Division

Las Vegas 51s (Los Angeles Dodgers, Park Factor 1052)

What's a 51, you ask?. It's something from Area 51. You know those little space alien head decals? If so, then you've seen the team logo. It's true that Luke Prokopec is an alien, but he's from Australia, not Area 51. He's in Los Angeles for now. The Dodgers are renowned for their United Nations approach to team composition, so the Las Vegas nickname is in keeping with a theme.

The Triple-A affiliate doesn't play in Albuquerque (park factor 1075) anymore, but Las Vegas is still a hitters' park. Hitters can be expected to suffer a drop-off when they move to Chavez Ravine, and the pitchers will experience a converse effect. It might look like the Dodgers' pitching prospects do better, and their hitters worse, in the majors than in Triple-A, but that's not really the case. This is a perfect example of the value of normalization.

However the numbers come out after being translated, the Dodgers' farm system has been weak of late and there isn't anything especially endearing about the current group at Las Vegas. Kris Foster and Chad Ricketts are a couple of Matt Herges types who could be sleepers in the Dodgers bullpen. Chin-Feng Chen will be the only real attraction. He inexplicably hit the skids last year but most analysts expect him to rebound. He should make the jump from Double-A to Triple-A this season, and if he has in fact gotten himself together, he could be in Los Angeles by September. If not, he might never be heard from again, all in keeping with a theme.

Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Colorado Rockies, Park Factor 1111)

The obligatory euphemism for Freddie Mercury was "flamboyant"; for Craig House it's "funky." No capsule or scouting report will fail to note how unorthodox his delivery is, how painful it looks, how discombobulated it seems. "Funky" is not a mere euphemism; the word could have been invented for him as onomatopoeia for the sounds ripping through his shoulder. The obvious concern here is health, but for now he terrorizes batters with 100 mph heat and a vicious slider, racks up gaudy K ratios, and will bring his funkiness to Coors Field before the year is over. While minor-league relief prospects aren't usually worth getting hyped up about, House is one of the two most exciting pitching prospects in the high minors (along with Nick Neugebauer).

Guys like House aren't all that prone to park effects because they don't put the ball in play all that often, so Colorado Springs shouldn't be a hindrance for him, though a park factor of 1111 in the PCL is a threat to any pitcher's well being.

The Sky Sox ought to be one of Triple-A's best teams. House could be complemented on the staff by Shawn Chacon, Randy Dorame, Josh Kalinowski, Robert Averette, and Tim Christman. That's as many decent pitching prospects as you'll find in any organization. The Rockies have never had a pitching prospect come through, but this group looks promising. House is the nastiest, but Chacon has heat, a curve, and a change-up. If his control is good, he'll be in Colorado. Left-hander Kalinowski is a curveball strikeout pitcher coming off an injured elbow, and it's uncertain when he'll make it back; when he does he'll be good. Watch for him later in the season.

Dorame and Averette were picked up for Tom Goodwin and Brian Hunter, respectively. They're low-risk/high-yield finesse pitchers with good breaking stuff, and could be a striking--and useful--contrast to House and Chacon. It's still debatable whether finesse guys can pitch in at altitude, so Colorado Springs will be a good proving ground. Christman gets lots of strikeouts and suffers a lot of injuries. If healthy, he could be Mike Myers.

Among the position players, Brett Butler will have a major-league career, if only as a part-timer.

Omaha Golden Spikes (Kansas City Royals, Park Factor 961)

The Royals had the youngest staff in the majors last year. In consecutive seasons they have finished last and next-to-last in runs allowed. In 1999, their bullpen was the worst in major-league history. All the while, the Royals have been stocking their farm system with pitchers, and their low minors are chock full of high-draft-pick pitchers.

At Triple-A, the focus is on left-hander Chris George. His fastball hits the mid-90s, but his change-up is his best pitch. He controls the running game and keeps batters off balance by masterfully changing speeds. George had bad ratios in eight starts at Omaha last year, but that won't keep him in Triple-A.

Behind him, Mike MacDougal will likely start the season in Double-A, but he, too, is on his way to Kansas City and should join George in Omaha this season. His pitches have a lot of action, especially his fastball, which is among the best in the minors. If his control is in check, he'll get to Omaha early. Bullpen help is close at hand as well. Shawn Sonnier has been racking up a ton of strikeouts in A ball and Double-A as a closer, and has the ratios and makeup to justify optimism that he'll soon be doing it in Kansas City. Jeff Austin's prospects are of low wattage because he doesn't strike anyone out (57 in 126 2/3 innings at Omaha last year). Maybe he'll look better if sandwiched between George and MacDougal. He'll eventually get a call-up, if for no other reason than that he typifies what appears to be the Royals' pitching philosophy: put the ball in play.

Iowa Cubs (Chicago Cubs, Park Factor 945)

Most eyes will be on Andy MacPhail's Pygmalion, Corey Patterson. Upon Patterson's demotion to Triple-A, talk show callers were coughing up analogies to Mike Harkey, Lance Dickson, and Brooks Kieschnick. Patterson should have a much better career than that crowd, but it's not yet clear whether he'll be Tim Raines or Gary Pettis.

In the New Orleans Zephyrs commentary above, I noted that the Astros Triple-A affiliate had as much talent as the Iowa Cubs. That's more of a compliment to the Zephyrs than a criticism of the Cubs. The rotation here should have Ben Christensen, Joey Nation, and John Webb, all three of whom throw strikes and know how to pitch. Juan Cruz could be better than those three, but he might not make it Triple-A this year; then again, he might jump straight to Chicago. Carlos Zambrano will be closing games in Iowa, unless the organization switches him back to being a starter. He's only 19, needs a lot of work, and shouldn't be rushed, especially to pitch for a coach who has said publicly that Zambrano can't be trusted. The right side of the infield--first baseman Hee Seop Choi and second baseman Bobby Hill--will be in Chicago by September.

The Cubs' minor-league operation was recently rated second in Baseball America, and a lot of that talent will play in Iowa this year. If I were a GM, though, I'd just as soon have the Zephyrs.

Pacific Conference: North Division

Salt Lake City Stingers (Anaheim Angels, Park Factor 1103)

When they moved into Salt Lake City, the Angels changed the affiliate's name from Buzz to Stingers. They're not fooling anybody. My better angel tells me that I should strive during this Lenten season to be charitable. As St. Paul tells us, we could have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge, but without love we are nothing. So I have been trying to come up with something nice to say about the Angels.

Tacoma Rainiers (Seattle Mariners, Park Factor 916)

I have noted previously that the Mariners do a marvelous job of sheltering their pitchers from harsh environments. This is true even in the hitters' haven that is the PCL.

It'll be interesting to see if Greg Wooten continues to thrive in this program. He had spectacular numbers last year, but he did it as a 26-year-old in Double-A, so forgive our skepticism. Old prospects who have breakthrough seasons are uncomfortably like that guy who hung around the high school five years after graduation, still picking up high-school girls. It's not quite the achievement it would have been before he became Humbert Humbert. That's not to denigrate Wooten's performance, because he lost a lot of time battling back from injuries. But he's 27 now and the scouts think the PCL is where we'll find out if he's for real.

Joel Piniero will join Wooten in the Rainiers' rotation if he's not relegated to long relief. He has command of several pitches and he has major-league makeup, but since his fastball is ordinary he projects as a back-of-rotation starter for the Mariners. Willie Bloomquist is the Mariners' second baseman of the near future. It's been said that he helps his team win by doing the little things that don't show up in a box score. Well, I prefer the things that do show up in a box score, and Bloomquist does a few of those, like steal some bases, hit for gap power, and control the strike zone. Juan Silvestre, last year's California League MVP, could be in Tacoma sometime this year. He has power but his strike-zone judgment is poor. In the field, he has limited range but throws well. Analysts think his season may have been more attributable to park effects than talent. If he does well at Double-A, he could quickly find himself in Tacoma. He reminds me a very little bit of Carlos Lee.

Edmonton Trappers (Minnesota Twins, Park Factor 1030)

When someone moves your cheese, what do you do? If you're a patron of a local coffee shop in the Northeast and Starbucks runs your favorite place out of business, you smash the windows. If you're an alliance of independent booksellers run out of business by Borders and Barnes & Noble, you call the lawyers and file an antitrust action. If you're the Minnesota Twins and the stakes of poker get uncomfortably high, you fold and wait to be dealt a can't-lose hand, figuring the odds have to--just have to, right?--turn in your favor at some point. The challenge is to stay in the game long enough to draw that hand.

The can't-lose hand the Twins have been counting on could be going bust. Michael Restovich, Michael Cuddyer, and Matt LeCroy were expected to give the Twins some legitimate candidates for Rookie of the Year by this year or next. Last year, their development went awry, with all three players suffering a precipitous drop in production. This year, all three should see time in the Trappers' lineup, and their ability to rediscover their power strokes will be essential to the Twins' immediate fortunes, since the major-league club needs nothing so much as power.

What if these players stagnate, and the Twins find their cheese moved again? They'll likely keep folding and waiting. All the while, alternatives abound. Bobby Kielty, an outfielder not as aggressively touted as Restovich, hit .407 this spring and slugged .574, and was called up when Torii Hunter went on the disabled list. Like 2000 PCL MVP John Barnes, all he has done is produce. The Twins moved Kielty's cheese. I'd love to see him smash Carl Pohlad's windows.

Calgary Cannons (Florida Marlins, Park Factor 1114)

Except for Josh Beckett, the Marlins' best prospects are already in Miami.

Pacific Conference: South Division

Sacramento RiverCats (Oakland A's, Park Factor 951)

The RiverCats are developing a reliable pipeline of backup talent for the A's. Eric Byrnes and Mike Lockwood look like decent fourth-outfielder types, while Bert Snow, Chad Harville, Todd Belitz, and Chad Bradford will find their way into the major-league bullpen. (Harville is actually on the major-league roster, but on the 60-day DL.)

Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder...anyone else on the way? Justin Miller isn't quite at that level, but he turned in solid ratios last year. He has command of three pitches and has a legitimate chance to be a starter in the majors. Cory Lidle will start the season here, but should be in Oakland before May and in the A's rotation well before Miller.

Mario Encarnacion is the only potential star here, but as of yet he's still long on tools and short on skills. He's been developing for a long time, and if he were in the Pirates' organization you could write him off. Since he's with the A's, take heart. He could break through at any time.

Portland Beavers (San Diego Padres, Park Factor Redesigned)

Due to ongoing construction at their home park, the Beavers will begin the season by playing on the road for the entire month of April. A handful of those games will be designated as home games but will be played in Pasco, Washington, home of the Rockies' Northwest League affiliate.

When it was in the Northwest League, the park in Portland favored pitchers. Apart from Sean Burroughs, the Padres' best prospects are pitchers and many will pass through Portland this year and next. Brian Lawrence, Wascar Serrano, Junior Herndon, and Mike Bynum should be in the rotation. None of these guys excites prospect hawks, but watch as they slowly wend their way toward Brian Tollberg's corner of the locker room. Serrano and Herndon got slapped around in Triple-A last year, but should rebound and eventually get a shot at making the Padres. Lawrence is a control specialist who bores the scouts with his skills. A finesse pitcher who's only as tall as Greg Maddux, Lawrence will need to keep performing to overcome the tyranny of received wisdom. Good thing is, he will.

Sometimes prospecting isn't so much about finding the next superstar as it is about finding cheap, useful help. The Padres should be rich with cheap, useful pitchers. Along with the New Orleans Zephyrs, Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Iowa Cubs, and Charlotte Knights, the Beavers have one of the most promising rotations in Triple-A.

Tucson Sidewinders (Arizona Diamondbacks, Park Factor 1082)

When Alex Cintron is your organization's premier prospect, you're in trouble. At Triple-A, Lyle Overbay could be useful, if he ever gets a chance to play ahead of Mark Grace, Erubiel Durazo, and Jack Cust. Pitching hopefuls John Patterson and Jeremy Ward are out for the season. Bret Prinz looks like he'll be fair, but he's a reliever. Coming up next on Animal Planet: Jeff Corwin sojourns to Tucson in search of the elusive Sidewinder Phenom.

Fresno Grizzlies (San Francisco Giants, Park Factor 1062)

The Giants don't often develop starting pitchers, but they have three on the way that ought to make it. Kurt Ainsworth, Ryan Vogelsong and Jerome Williams are three similar pitchers, all with a solid low-90s fastball, and each with a couple of reliable backup pitches. Ainsworth has the slider and curve, Vogelsong has the curve and change-up, and Williams has the change-up, slider, and curve. Williams might not make it all the way to Fresno this year, but when he does he won't be there long. Ainsworth and Vogelsong could get to San Francisco by the end of this season, but first they'll have to conquer the PCL.

First baseman Damon Minor is the organization's best power prospect, but he's 27 and his time is getting short. I have no data to support this, but he might even be a little bit stigmatized by being the twin brother of the bust known as Ryan Minor. A bit like women after a certain age having a better chance at drowning in their bathtub than finding a husband, old first-base power prospects might be more likely to end up in Japan than in the major leagues, cf. Alex Cabrera.

Keith Scherer can be reached at KJSbaseball@aol.com.

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