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May 19, 2010

Future Shock

Org Watch: Orioles, Astros, Mariners

by Kevin Goldstein

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Each week, Org Watch will take a deep look inside the minor league systems of three organizations. It will look at the progress of top prospects, surprise and sleeper prospects and see whether help that may be needed for the major league club can be found within the rosters of its minor league squads. Today, we start at the bottom with the three worst records in baseball.

Baltimore Orioles: Not The Help You Need

This was supposed to be a year in which the Orioles stepped forward. Nobody expected them to compete for a post-season birth, but 2010 was supposed to represent the beginning of a turnaround built upon a nucleus of young talent -- all of which has disappointed this year. Matt Wieters is still trying to find his big league power swing, Adam Jones has regressed from a talented free swinger to a complete hacker, and Nick Markakis has become a power line-drive hitter with just two home runs.

And sure, the pitching staff is bad, but Brian Matusz has been wonderful at times, with classic youthful inconsistency, and Triple-A starters Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta should be big helps to the rotation, with others like Double-A groundball machine Zach Britton aren't far behind. So why the despair?

It's because what the Orioles are left with is an offense currently ranked 13th in the American League in runs, but a system so imbalanced it's currently is in no position to help.

The top hitting prospect for the O's is third baseman Josh Bell, who arrived last July from the Dodgers in the George Sherrill deal. Expected to be the club's third baseman in 2011, Bell's first showing against Triple-A has exposed some major holes in his game, as his .250/.281/.431 batting line shows how his lack of plate discipline is catching up to him, while concerns about his struggles against left-handers have become larger due to his 2-for-25 (.080) mark against them for Norfolk.

The scary thing for Baltimore is that not only is Bell their top hitting prospect, he might just be their only one. Even giving the young players mulligans for their poor start, the Orioles have some gaping holes in their longterm line-up at several positions, and nobody to fill them. Much like Bell at third base, former first-round pick Brandon Snyder was expected to step into the first-base job next year, even though scouts were concerned that the .300 hitter with average-at-best power didn't profile well at the position. First base prospects have to be great, not good hitters, and Snyder's .202/.288/.298 line for Norfolk has few thinking that he's still the answer. As for shortstop, currently manned by plug-in Cesar Izturis, there's nobody even to discuss as a potential replacement, even on a short-term level.

Make no mistake, the Orioles are playing well below their ability right now, but even if they were, questions about where their runs are going to come from over the next five years would still be hanging out there.

Houston Astros: The Worst Situation In Baseball

Pirates and Royals fans think they have it bad, and their long-term history of losing seasons is worthy of their misery, but if one were to take a snapshot right now, and ignore the past, no team in baseball has a more bleak future than the Houston Astros.

By now, we know the big league squad is the worst combination of both bad and aging, but once one combines that with one of, if not the worst system in baseball, it's difficult to project anything but years of ineptitude ahead.

Even the one player who was expected to help in 2010, catcher Jason Castro, likely will not be ready anytime soon. The 2008 first-round pick ended up more than a bit overrated coming into the year, based on a somewhat fortunate showing at the high-octane environment of Lancaster in the California League. During the second half of 2009, his lack of true power was exposed, and that trend has continued into 2010, as he's batting a strange .260/.389/.298 for Round Rock. Plate discipline has always been a strong point, but he has no above-average tools. Like all catchers, Castro is not a runner, but his line-drive swing has led to just four extra-base hits in 30 games for the Express, all of them doubles, and scouts don't see him hitting more than 10-12 homers per season long term, while his defense, like the rest of his game, is solid, yet unspectacular.

When J.R. Towles bombed out in the big leagues (again), the Astros were hoping that a hot Castro would be ready to bring some youth to the team. Instead, they turned to Kevin Cash. That's the Astros in a nutshell.

Seattle Mariners: Did The Club Do Dustin Ackley Wrong?

Pitching and defense is all the rage these days, yet the two teams seen as the leaders in the movement are both in panic mode, as the city of Boston is a mental wreck, with a .500 record and the occasional crushing defeat, such as Monday's Papelbon meltdown tossed in, while the Mariners have been mired in last place in the American League West for much of the season.

The movement towards pitching and defense has worked, at least in the sense that the club is in the top three in run prevention, but nothing can make up for an offense averaging just over three runs per game. The No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, Dustin Ackley, was supposed to help boost the offense as early as this year, but everything has gone backwards, and that blame could lie on how he's been handled.

The one aspect of Ackley's game that earned universal praise from scouts going into the 2009 draft was his bat. While there was debate over his power, and where he'd ultimately end up defensively, he was seen as a lock to hit .300 in the big leagues, and polished enough to get there as early as late-2010.

After playing primarily at first base in college due to arm injuries, most expected the Mariners to move Ackley, who runs well, to the outfield for his pro debut. But they surprised many by announcing that he'd being his pro career at second base. Surprise number two came with an aggressive Opening Day assignment to the Double-A Southern League, and the results so far have been disastrous.

After going just 5-for-46 (.109) in his first 11 games, Ackley has picked it up a bit in May, but every time it seems that he's getting going, another slump occurs, including a recent 1-for-12 run that left his line entering Tuesday's action at a lowly .198/.345/.298. While 34 games is hardly a large enough sample size to move a player too far down the charts, multiple team officials have questioned the logic of Seattle's development decisions.

"I just don't get it," said one front office official, speaking of Seattle's double-barreled challenge. "Why not let him work into the new position at High Desert where you know he'll hit and build confidence," he continued, referring to Seattle's High-A affiliate and one of the best hitting parks in the minors. Philosophies aside, even more jarring was the scouting report the official recently received. "We just had a scout turn him in as a fringe prospect less than a year after he was taken No. 2 overall in the country," he added. "Right now he can't do anything. He's struggling to play second base and there is no guarantee than he can stay there. Every tool is a concern -- he's not even running well."

Again, there are some signs of life out of Ackley in May, and we are just over a month into his pro career, but there are now genuine concerns about his start, and it's quite possible that some of the blame lies in the Seattle front office.

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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