Today, I’m wrapping up my series on level-by-level minor league All-Stars. I’ve already put together my Low-A Team, High-A Team and Double-A Team. This time, in what’s bound to come as a surprise, I’m going to look at my Triple-A All-Stars.
Putting together a Triple-A team is a bit of a challenge given the criteria I’ve set. I’m looking for a blend of performance and genuine prospect status. Triple-A, as you probably know, is fertile ground for retreads and Quadruple-A types, which provides a fairly low level-wide signal-to-noise ratio in terms of prospects. So, for all their merits, you’ll see no Lou Colliers, Joe Vitiellos or Mike Colangelos here. What you will see are the best prospects who have spent most of the season at Triple-A and haven’t exhausted their prospect status in recent seasons. Before the money runs out…
C – J.R. House, Pirates (PCL), Age: 24
Remember him? House, long about 2001, was one of the more ballyhooed prospects in the game. He was Sally League MVP in 2000, then suffered injury upon injury–losing almost two full seasons–as he attempted to climb through the system. He returned from Tommy John surgery last season, which raised further questions about his suspect throwing arm. There’s speculation that he’ll eventually be moved to first or an outfield corner, but for the time being he’s still behind the plate. Obviously, his value is much greater if he’s able to stay there.
As for offense, House lacks plate discipline but shows good raw power and an ability to hit for average. Over time, he’s learned to use all fields and improved his pitch-recognition skills. Coming into this season, House had a career line of .308/.376/.499, and he began recouping his stock with a very strong showing in the AFL. This season at Nashville, House is hitting .287/.350/.575 despite playing in one of the PCL’s toughest hitter’s parks; an ISO of almost .300 from a premium defensive position is something to behold. Continued health and patience from the organization with regard to his defense are necessary for him to reach his potential, but he’s healthy and hitting once again.
Runner-Up: Guillermo Quiroz, Blue Jays (IL), Age: 22
1B – Justin Morneau, Twins (IL), Age: 23
Morneau, the latest cause celebre for roster watchers around baseball, is indeed out of things to prove in the minors. But because of a bottleneck of corner defender/DH types in Minnesota, Morneau will soldier on as a Red Wing. Morneau had already turned heads when he led the Twins in batting as a 20-year-old in spring training 2002. He’s at best an adequate defender, but he’s something special with the bat. He boasts excellent bat speed, a classic left-handed swing and excellent power potential. After an uninspiring 40-game stint in Minnesota last season, some concerns were raised about his ability to adjust to breaking pitches at the highest level. However, his performance this season during a brief call-up has quelled some of those worries. Morneau’s walk rates have been merely adequate, but his tremendous power potential and ability to hit for average are beyond reproach. His line at Rochester (.320/.391/.632) says it all.
Runner-Up: Jon Knott, Padres (PCL), Age: 26
2B – Chris Burke, Astros (PCL), Age: 24
Heretofore, Burke has been a modestly promising utility-infield type with a mixed record of performance. This season, however, he’s raising his stock quite nicely. New Orleans is one of the toughest hitter’s parks in all of Triple-A, but Burke is nevertheless putting together a career year of .327/.407/.515. The walk rate is solid, and the power numbers are promising for a middle infielder. Some of the shine came off Burke as a prospect after he struggled mightily at Double-A Round Rock in 2002, but that was after skipping over High-A entirely (the Astros at that time were operating without a High-A affiliate). Burke shows good defensive instincts at second, and while his arm isn’t strong, it is enough for right-side infield duty. His solid season may have given the Astros the cover they need to pass on Jeff Kent‘s $9 million option for next season.
Runner-Up: Antonio Perez, Dodgers (PCL), Age: 24
3B – Garrett Atkins, Rockies (PCL), Age: 24
It’s not a particularly strong field of third basemen at the Triple-A level (David Wright and Dallas McPherson haven’t been there long enough to count), but Atkins is the choice. Atkins, who was drafted as a first baseman but was shifted across the diamond in deference to Todd Helton‘s honker of a contract, showed excellent plate discipline in the lower rungs of the system and was a career .303 hitter coming into this season. He hasn’t shown much power, and while this season’s SLG of .504 might lead some to believe Atkins has experienced a spike, let’s remember this is Colorado Springs. With Ian Stewart and Jeff Baker in the same system, Atkins’ place at the front of the third-base queue figures to be short-lived. Think Chris Snopek plus some power and minus a little defensive utility.
Runner-Up: Justin Leone, Mariners (PCL), Age: 27
SS – B.J. Upton, Devil Rays (IL), Age: 19
Nineteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to do this. While in most circles, the D-Rays’ assault on non-crappiness this season is the most prominent reason for optimism, the true hope is that Upton lives up to his gargantuan potential and wins a couple of MVPs along the way. Upton has been on a ruthlessly fast promotion schedule, and, other than a 29-game power outage at Double-A last season, he’s met every challenge despite being much younger than his peer group. From a scouting standpoint, he has it all: throwing arm, speed on the bases, quickness with the bat, range, raw power. From a performance standpoint, he’s just as impressive. This season at Durham, he’s hitting .304/.412/.506, with a .200-plus ISO and 28 unintentional walks in 187 plate appearances. That’s good for a .315 EqA. The Rays have already made much noise about promoting him soon, but even a call to the majors before his 20th birthday likely won’t derail this talent. He’s the best prospect in baseball.
Runner-Up: Jason Bartlett, Twins (IL), Age: 24
OF – Jonny Gomes, Devil Rays (IL), Age: 23
The Rays, for all their sins, do have a fine collection of high-upside hitters within the system. Gomes is the guy who gets the least attention, but he’s a fine one. He put up ridiculously good numbers in the low minors (.574 SLG and 91 walks at High-A Bakersfield in 2002), but stumbled a bit last season in his first taste of the high minors. He strikes out quite a bit, but offsets that source of annoyance by doing almost everything else well. His defensive instincts are raw, but he has good speed and works hard, so time alone may render him a better defender. Coming off a strong showing in the AFL, Gomes, despite battling a groin injury earlier this season, is hitting .269/.378/.637 with a homer every 10.7 at bats. His .325 EqA ranks fourth in the International League, and any fretting about his performance decline last season has been laid to rest.
OF – Grady Sizemore, Indians (IL), Age: 21
Plucked from the smoldering ruins of the Expos’ system in the Bartolo Colon trade of 2002, Sizemore has tremendous potential and an upward-trending performance profile. He’s shown less patience in the higher rungs of the minors, but his power and ability to hit for average have improved. Last season, Sizemore smacked 50 extra-base hits in the Eastern League despite being only 20 years old for most of the season. Sizemore has good range in center and runs the bases extremely well. This season, Sizemore is hitting .299/.368/.458, which isn’t all that impressive at first blush. But consider: He’s playing a key defensive position, he’s still only 21, and he’s hitting .357/.400/.522 for the month of June.
OF – David DeJesus, Royals (PCL), Age: 24
Budget constraints (self-imposed or otherwise) may have been the impetus for the Carlos Beltran trade, but the confidence DeJesus has inspired as the center fielder of the future also played a role in the blockbuster nonpareil of the young season. DeJesus, a Rutgers product, has solid defensive skills in center–enough to keep him there for a few years, anyway–but often plays the field with Popeye Doyle abandon. It’s the latter quality that’s led to a run of shoulder injuries over the years. With the Beltran swap, his time in the minors is likely done, but prior to that DeJesus was hitting .315/.400/.518 at Omaha. In most seasons, he’s shown excellent plate discipline, and while his power numbers have been solid, that’s all they’ve been. This year, the spike in SLG and ISO is a welcome development. He’ll have every chance to prove himself after being called up, with Beltran now in Houston.
Runner-Up: Jeremy Reed, Mariners (PCL), Age: 23
Runner-Up: Nick Swisher, A’s (PCL), Age: 23
SP1 – David Bush, Blue Jays (IL), Age: 24
The Jays selected Bush in the second round of the 2002 draft, and he hasn’t looked back since. His stuff isn’t tremendous, but he has command of four pitches, which serves to keep hitters off balance. He’s shown tremendous command at every stop, and this season is no exception (4.4 K/BB ratio at Syracuse). Bush was a catcher in high school and a closer in college, so his usage history shouldn’t be a source of concern. Scouts say he’ll be a third starter at the highest level, but the numbers point to something better than that.
SP2 – Joe Blanton, A’s (PCL), Age: 23
Blanton, one of the vaunted Moneyball draftees, has exceptional command of a mid-90s fastball, sports a plus slider and curve and is working to refine his change-up. Coming into this season, Blanton boasted an unseemly career K/BB ratio of 5.74 and had fanned more than a batter per inning. This season, his numbers aren’t impressive on the surface (102 IP, 69 K, 21 UBB, 108 H, 5.12 R/G), but there are mitigating circumstances. First, the PCL, of course, is a tough league for hurlers. Second, Blanton, coming into this season, had pitched only 42 innings above the Low-A Midwest League. Another point in his favor is that he’s surrendered only four homers on the season. He’ll likely be in the Oakland rotation to start 2005, if not sooner.
Runner-Up: Ben Hendrickson, Brewers (IL), Age: 23
And that’s a wrap. I’ll be back on Friday with a minor league All-Star teams mailbag.