It’s hard to beat minor league baseball for a low-cost, low-hassle evening at the ballpark. I’ve been spending quite a few of my evenings lately in California League parks, mostly checking out teams in that league’s Northern division. Today and Friday I’ll run down some of the prospects on the five teams in that division, covering the High-A affiliates for the Giants, Rangers, A’s, Rockies, and Devil Rays.

There’s no rigorous method for choosing prospects listed here. In particular, the omission of certain players (like Vince Sinisi and John Hudgins in today’s piece) shouldn’t be read as a dismissal of them as prospects.

San Jose Giants (San Francisco affiliate)

  • Matt Cain, RHP, Age 19; Giants’ 1st round pick in 2002 out of Houston High School in Germantown, TN
    2004 Stats: 72 2/3 IP, 89 SO, 17 BB, 3.10 RA

    Last year, Cain played second fiddle to Hagerstown teammate Merkin Valdez in Giants prospect discussions, largely because Cain missed half the season with a stress fracture in his elbow. This year, the tables have turned: Valdez is the one who’s missed a big chunk of the season with arm troubles, and Cain is the one treating Class-A hitters like Little Leaguers. Cain’s peripheral numbers are terrific–a California-League-leading 89 strikeouts out of 294 batters faced (30%), with only 17 walks. He’s second in the league with a 1.86 ERA, although that masks the relatively high number of unearned runs he’s given up (his RA is 3.10).

    Your eyes can be deceiving when it comes to player evaluation, but Cain is an impressive pitcher to watch. He’s got a fluid, compact motion–heavy in leg drive–that looks a lot like Mark Prior‘s. He throws a nasty fastball that reportedly reaches into the mid-90s, though it topped out at 92 on the night I saw him. And he complements that with a 75-80 mph knee-buckling curve that he throws with good command. His 85-mph change-up is a work in progress. He doesn’t throw it often in the California League–Class-A hitters have more than enough trouble with the first two pitches–but he’ll need it more often as he rises through the system.

  • Brad Vericker, 1B, Age 23; Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Point Loma Nazarene University in 2003
    2004 Stats: .301/.403/.595, .342 EqA in 195 PAs

    After a 2003 in which he tied the Salem-Keitzer club records for doubles and home runs, and finished as the third-best hitter in the Northwest League according to Clay Davenport’s minor league EqA, Vericker is back at it offensively. This year, he’s fourth in the California League in slugging, and fourth in EqA. But the really good news about Vericker comes from watching him play–I think that concerns about his inability to play defense were overblown. In the games I’ve watched, he’s shown good range, good hands, and even a strong arm at first. Even better news: He’s been playing first more and DHing less as the season’s gone on, showing that the Giants are taking him more seriously as a prospect.

  • Fred Lewis, CF, Age 23; Giants’ 2nd round pick in 2002 out of Southern University
    2004 Stats: .314/.407/.448, .310 EqA in 225 PAs

    Lewis has developed quite a bit since I saw him in Hagerstown last year. In particular, he’s starting to show a little bit of a power stroke. His Isolated Power (Slugging Average minus Batting Average) is .134 this year, compared to .086 in 2003 and .075 in 2002. A lot of that ISO number comes from his six triples, which are due as much to his speed as to his swing, but that’s OK: As Nate Silver and PECOTA will tell you, speed is not a bad thing for a young player to have. Lewis’ work in center is as solid as ever. There are still some caveats–like Vericker, he’s a little old for the level–but Lewis is showing signs of turning out better than your average tools goof.

  • James Garcia (RHP) and Dan Trumble (OF)

    What’s a guy gotta do to get a promotion? Garcia and Trumble are not what you would call elite prospects. Both are 24, a year or three older than their California League peers. But each is long overdue for a chance to test out his skills against more challenging competition.

    Trumble probably showed enough last year with his tremendous power numbers–21 homers in just 334 plate appearances–despite a .206 batting average. But even if that batting average was enough evidence to have him start in San Jose for the third year in a row, he’s surely earned a shot at Double-A by now. He’s second in the California League with 14 homers, fifth with a .576 Slugging Average, and is the sixth-most valuable position player overall in the league, according to Clay Davenport’s Runs Above Replacement Player. And yes, his batting average is a healthy .295.

    Garcia, who’s one of my favorite pitchers to watch in all of baseball, is an even more puzzling case. With his dominating 2003 peripheral numbers last year–105 Ks out of 319 batters faced (33%), against 35 walks–and his late-season promotion to Triple-A Fresno, Garcia looked like a good bet to wear a major league uniform sometime in 2004. But no, he’s back mowing down California League hitters again this year: 52 strikeouts out of 170 batters faced (31%), against 13 walks. Garcia is the best pitcher I’ve seen at making minor league hitters look silly. He does it not with his 90-mph fastball, but with an 80-mph slider that (based on the ridiculous swings I’ve seen) must be impossible to read. That pitch isn’t going to fool major leaguers like it is the 21-year-olds Garcia is currently facing, but he still has a good chance of helping a major league bullpen in the near future. With the San Francisco pen needing all the help it can get, the Giants should give some serious thought to moving Garcia along.

Stockton Ports (Rangers)

  • Jeremy Cleveland, OF, Age 22; Rangers’ 8th round pick in 2003 out of the University of North Carolina
    2004 Stats: .315/.373/.492, .311 EqA in 261 PAs

    If there’s anything to the theory that a youngster who hits doubles will turn into a home-run hitter as he ages, then Cleveland has a very bright future. First, he hits doubles. He was second in the Northwest League with 20 of them last year, and he’s tied for fourth in the California League with 18 so far this year. Second, he really looks like a kid who will put on some more muscle as he ages. We’re not talking Lara Flynn Boyle skinny here, but, given his power numbers throughout his college and minor league careers, I expected someone a little bigger.

  • Joaquin Arias, SS, Age 19; Signed by the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic
    2004 Stats: .283/.324/.385, .264 EqA in 219 PAs

    OK, now we’re talking Lara Flynn Boyle. Arias was the Player to be Named Later in the Alex Rodriguez trade. It’s hard to know what to make of him yet. The major reasons to be excited are his youth, coupled with the fact that he’s holding his own in High-A. And, like Cleveland, there’s the meat-on-his-bones angle as well. Arias is listed as 6’0″ (he looked taller than that to me)…and 155 pounds. Needless to say, there’s a lot of development–both physical and baseball–in his future. Unfortunately, there weren’t many balls hit in his direction on the nights I saw him, so I can’t even give a rough impression about his defense. He made a few routine plays, although his 21 errors suggest that he sometimes has trouble with those.

  • Nate Gold, 1B, Age 24; Rangers’ 10th-round pick in 2002 out of Gonzaga
    2004 Stats: .217/.315/.357, .255 EqA in 271 PAs

    The Ports have had more than their share of disappointing performances in the early going–Wes Littleton, Jose Garcia, Anthony Webster to some extent–but none bigger than Gold. Last year, he was the fourth-best hitter in the Midwest League according to EqA, but he simply hasn’t been able to get anything going against California League pitching this season. His batting average and power have both suffered big drops from 2003. At age 24, he doesn’t have a lot of spare development time for a slump like this.

On Friday, we’ll go through the remaining three teams in the California League North: Modesto (A’s), Visalia (Rockies), and Bakersfield (Devil Rays).

Thank you for reading

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