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September 2, 2009

Prospectus Today

Feeling Expansive

by Joe Sheehan

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The boxscores of September 1 are usually populated by new names, old names, and some names we've just forgotten. With that in mind, let's dive and take a look at some of the new additions to the morning ritual of seeing who did what in which ballgame.

The lost baseball seasons of 2008 and 2009 will only be redeemed for the Indians if the prospects they received in the dump trades of those years are the core of future contenders. Tribe fans got a glimpse of those contenders last night, as Michael Brantley, part of the CC Sabathia deal, and Carlos Carrasco, acquired as part of the Cliff Lee package, made their major league debuts. It didn't go well for Carrasco, who allowed six runs in three innings of a 5-8 loss. Nevertheless, his track record indicates that he's ready to be a mid-rotation starter in the majors; I'm not sure there's a lot of upside here, but the Indians could use league-average starters, and he'll be one.

I'm more interested in Brantley. A cursory look at his 2009 line shows that he didn't adjust terribly well to Triple-A, as he lost 50 points off his batting average. Look deeper, though, and you find that his skills remained intact. He walked about as often, hit for about as much power-which is to say not much-and sustained his dominance on the basepaths, swiping 46 bags in 51 tries. Brantley struck out more than he had before, but still in just about nine percent of his plate appearances, less often than he walked. Brantley hit ninth last night, but he could be the player who finally pushes Grady Sizemore out of the leadoff spot and into the second or third slot he should have been hitting from all along.

The concern I have with Brantley is the same I have with Jacoby Ellsbury, just to name one example. If you don't show some modicum of power, it's going to be hard to draw walks, because pitchers will have no reason to not challenge you as the count runs deep. There are exceptions to this-Lance Blankenship, Ed Yost-but for the most part, you need to be some kind of threat with the bat to draw four balls. Brantley's dropoff in BABIP in 2008 could be a statistical blip, or it could be a sign that he can't make enough hard contact to be a major leaguer. We just don't know yet. If Brantley is a player, then the Sabathia trade will turn out to be a big win for the Indians, who already have Matt LaPorta in the lineup.

The best prospect to make a return to the boxes yesterday was Cameron Maybin, who pinch-hit in the Marlins' 4-3 loss to the Braves. It's now been nearly two seasons since Maybin was the key part of the Marlins' trade of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers, and in that time he has just 122 MLB plate appearances. The team made him its everyday center fielder to start the season, but he lost that job a month in thanks to a .202 batting average and was sent to Triple-A. He played well there, batting .319/.399/.463, but his replacement Cody Ross did as well, and the Marlins elected to keep Maybin down until Tuesday. For a team that is in some need of an offensive spark, the Marlins could do worse than to start playing Maybin every day at the expense of Ross and Jeremy Hermida, to see if they can catch lightning in a bottle. At the least, let's hope that Maybin has seen the last of the minors, because he'll start next season at 23 years old, and has just about proven he's done with the Pacific Coast League.

Maybin got that pinch-hit at-bat against Tim Hudson, who was pitching in the majors for the first time since July 23, 2008. having undergone Tommy John surgery in the interim. Hudson was fairly effective on a tough night, as the game was delayed three hours by rain. His return isn't as heralded as you might have expected it to be simply because the Braves' starting pitching hasn't really been crying out for help. With Ken Kawakami pitching well, it will be interesting to see how the Braves play this out. Given the presence of two young starters in Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, some kind of plan that keeps Javier Vazquez and Derek Lowe on regular rest while shuffling the other four in as needed may be the best option. The Braves are just three games behind the Rockies in the wild-card chase, and they have arguably the best pitching staff in the league; that's a dangerous team.

A few years ago, Neil Walker was seen by some as one of the best position-player prospects in the game, a switch-hitting catcher making steady progress at a young age. The Pirates converted him to third base in 2007, judging his glove to be substandard and hoping his bat would develop better if he was playing at another position. The latter didn't happen; after a solid season at Altoona in 2007, Walker stalled at Triple-A. He has a career .291 OBP at the level, with three strikeouts for every walk drawn. He was better in '09 than ever before, but still sported a .311 OBP. His third-base play hasn't been good, with 63 errors and 63 double plays in three years at the hot corner. Walker pinch-hit last night, finally making his debut and grounding out to second. The Pirates could, I imagine, set up a failed-prospect showdown next spring, having Walker take on Andy LaRoche for the third-base job. It would be entertaining in a sad way, like those summer tours that pull together three bands whose last hits were released as Cassingles.

Justin Maxwell is a bit like Walker, although I think the hype around him was mostly me buying too much into the opinion of a guest on a radio show I co-hosted about two years ago. I'm not going to sell out the analyst, who is a very good one who's been doing this since I was working in QuarkXpress every day. Suffice to say they liked Maxwell a whole lot. He lost his 2008 season to a wrist injury then had a strikeout-plagued 2009 one, and now the Nationals have Nyjer Morgan, so it's not clear that Maxwell has any hope in DC, but Morgan's injury probably gives him two weeks to impress the team. He batted leadoff and played center field last night, and will do so until Morgan returns or he shows he can't do the job.

One of the most random transactions of the decade involved Jeff Fiorentino, who was yanked out of A-ball back in 2005, in his second season of pro ball, to help the Orioles through a roster crunch in May. Fiorentino was the regular center fielder for two weeks, hit .250 with two walks and three extra-base hits, then was sent directly back to the Carolina League-not even meriting a promotion for his efforts-and wasn't even recalled that September. He did make it back to Baltimore the following year, and after a rousing game of Waiver Daisy Chain found himself back in the O's organization again last summer. He got into Tuesday night's game after Adam Jones hurt himself. His path to playing time pretty much depends on others' misfortune… just as it did back in 2005.

J.J. Hardy didn't spend as much time in the wilderness as did Fiorentino. His month in Triple-A served mostly to prove that the Brewers' inability to compete in the NL Central this year wasn't entirely his fault. Alcides Escobar hit an empty .286 in Hardy's stead, and the Brewers' season has meandered into irrelevance. Hardy didn't cover himself in glory, either, batting .254/.284/.451 with just three walks in 74 plate appearances. How he plays over the next five weeks will determine whether the Brewers can get anything at all of value for him this winter.

I think the Jason Giambi signing by the Rockies was interesting largely because it's for so limited a purpose. There's no DH, Giambi can barely play one position, and that position is filled on the Rockies by a franchise icon with good defensive skills who is having a bounce-back season. The only thing Giambi is on the roster for is to serve as a pinch-hitter, which he did last night, drawing an RBI walk in the seventh inning. Giambi is a great use of an expanded-roster slot, a player who can reach base and still pop a long ball, making him useful to start and finish an inning. His limitations matter less in a 40-man world-you can always pinch-run for him, and you never need him to don a glove-than on a 25-man roster. He may, should the Rockies reach the postseason, even be worth a spot on the playoff roster. It was a nice, low-cost pickup by the Rockies.

--

Some quick non-September 1 catchup notes:

  • I love the Scott Kazmir deal for the Rays. He's just not a particularly good pitcher, and even at his best has durability issues both in-game and in-season. He's a slight-build power pitcher, a max-effort guy, and he's never really addressed his command problems. The Rays have five guys better than him and two more coming. Maybe Kazmir improves the Angels in the short term, given that team's back-end issues, but the Rays won the deal, and I thought so even before Chone Figgins II was named as the third guy in the trade.

  • The Dodgers getting Jim Thome is exactly like the Rockies getting Giambi, only they gave up a little something. Thome can't play the field and will only be asked to do so maybe once or twice. His job is to get on base to start innings so that someone can run for him, or bat with two outs and no one on in the hopes of making a one-swing rally. For a team that gets no power at all from its bench, Thome is a godsend.

  • White Sox fans may be calling their team's deals "White Flag II," but they made sense. The White Sox have a vanishingly small chance to beat out the Tigers in the AL Central, and the dropoff from Thome to Scott Podsednik-the worst of the five-man rotation sharing outfield and DH duties-is small over the course of a month. Getting Carlos Quentin off the field and into the DH slot is actually a positive for the team; Quentin runs like he's nursing a gunshot wound. Jose Contreras is a starter somewhere between replacement-level and average, and won't be missed. The Sox are maybe a half-game worse for these trades, in the short term, and it won't take much long-term benefit to make up for that.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Jeff Fiorentino,  Triple-A

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