It’s time, once again, to take a look at the young players with no major league experience who have the highest PECOTA ratings heading into the 2007 season. These aren’t necessarily the top prospects in their respective organizations, just the ones whose recent work translates the best for the upcoming action. Some are down deep in their chains and won’t be seen this year in spite of what it appears they might do. Others will see significant playing time at the top level while others should but won’t, owing to their club’s infatuation with veteran players or contractual obligations to lesser lights.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Atlanta Braves (19.7 Projected VORP)
The Braves have two of the top eight projected catchers in baseball heading into the season. Brian McCann, hands down, is the National League leader. There’s probably not much sense in bringing Saltalamacchia–who hasn’t been to Triple A yet–to the bigs at this point since he’d only get to start about 30 games or so. It’s got to be nice to know he’s there, though. The runner-up would be Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks at 17.9, except he did get into six games last year, so he doesn’t fit into the strict guidelines that inclusion here demands.

First Base
Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds (31.0)
Votto had a nice year in Double-A in 2006, poking 46 doubles and posting a better walk rate than he did at High-A the year before. His projection is three times higher than incumbent first sacker Scott Hatteberg, but one has to admit that Mr. Patience is a pretty cheap date.

Second Base
Eric Patterson, Chicago Cubs (34.9)
Among position players with no big league experience, Patterson has the highest projected VORP heading into 2007. That and $4.50 will not get him a cup of coffee at a Wrigleyville Starbucks. Looking at the Cubs depth chart, he’s buried behind Mark DeRosa and The Riot (as read by Sean Connery as rendered by Darrell Hammond). The DeRosa signing remains a curiosity. Should it fail–and PECOTA is thinking it will with De Rosa at 7.2–Patterson will be right there in Iowa, logging his first real Triple-A time.

Third Base
Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals (34.2)
If you can think of a reason why he should spend two minutes in Triple-A you’re way ahead of me, and let’s not talk about starting his clock too early. Gordon turns 23 in a couple of weeks. By his 23rd birthday, George Brett had well over 1,000 major league at bats. Gordon could have been a passable major leaguer last year and would stand a chance of being the number-two man in the league behind Alex Rodriguez this year if given a full season. Royals fans deserve something for their ticket dollar this year. Give them Gordon.

Brent Lillibridge, late of the Pittsburgh Pirates (29.7)
He was on the Pirates when I started writing this piece a couple of nights ago. He’s on the Braves now, thrown in with Mike Gonzalez in exchange for Adam LaRoche. He has every chance of being the key guy in the trade, however. He’s got a higher projected VORP than LaRoche. It’s not that LaRoche won’t do well enough in a Pirates uniform–he will, being a decent ballplayer right in his prime–it’s just that you would think a productive corner man would be easier to come by than a young shortstop with the eighth-highest projection in the National League. One would hope the Braves give Lillibridge a shot at the second base job at least. Rookie Martin Prado (7.2) has the pole position there, though. The Pirates should have traded Jack Wilson and kept Lillibridge, although that’s easier said than done given Wilson’s contract. Failing that, they should have bandied Lillibridge’s PECOTA around the league and tried to get more for him.

Left field
Jonathan Jay, St. Louis Cardinals (19.4)
Jay did not make Kevin Goldstein’s list of top 10 Cardinals prospects, but he projects highly in what continues to be a depleted-looking Cardinals outfield picture. While not the prospect that Colby Rasmus is (he’s runner-up in center), their projections for 2007 are about even. One of Jay’s comps is another Cardinals farmhand, Cody Haerther. His projected VORP is 11.1, which is almost equal to that of Juan Encarnacion‘s and higher than Preston Wilson‘s.

Center field
Felix Pie, Chicago Cubs (25.3)
Pie has a higher projection than every Cubs outfielder save for newcomer Alfonso Soriano. He’s higher than Matt Murton and Jacque Jones–the other two projected starters–and much higher than Daryle Ward and Angel Pagan, the backups. Another year in Triple-A won’t kill him since he will only be turning 22 in a couple of weeks.

Right field
Hunter Pence, Houston Astros (21.1)
Pence is getting to the point where he’s just about ready for the show. His projection is nearly as high as Luke Scott. Better yet, he’s three years younger. If Jason Lane doesn’t revert to 2005 form and Scott does, Pence could find himself with a job sooner rather than later.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston Red Sox (34.9)
For their grand expenditure, the Red Sox have landed themselves the pitcher with the 16th-highest PECOTA heading into 2007. It’s true, guys like that aren’t wandering around the streets outside of ballparks very often, so one can begin to understand why so many teams were ready to chip a chunk off the money block for him. When you look at the list of top starters and your team’s name isn’t attached to any of them, it’s no wonder the checkbook gets whipped out.

Second is Tim Lincecum (31.4) of the Giants. In his brief professional career, he has so badly mistreated low-level minor league hitters that his PECOTA places him at the top of the list for Giants starters–and that includes Barry Zito and Matt Cain. He’s not penciled into the rotation at the moment, but who would you rather have going for you, him or Brad Hennessey? If nothing else, he is needed in the majors as soon as possible for his entertainment value.

The next runner-up is Kevin Slowey (26.5) of the Twins organization. He’s yet to pitch above the Double-A level but he’s also yet to do anything wrong. He’s surrendered fewer than six hits per nine innings, struck out more than a man per inning and has been stingy with the walks and bombs as well. He’ll be 23 on May 4. He’ll be frustrating your favorite team soon enough, unless your favorite team is the Twins.

Skroo-Uppz: (Skroo-Uppz is a copyrighted feature of this author)
Last time out I discussed the one-game club and missed a member of the Class of 1999 who, like classmate Yamid Haad, managed to log more big league playing time in 2006. Reader Hyatt Lazear reminded me that Joe Winkelsas got into seven games with the Brewers last year and, although he did not pitch very well, he at least got to wipe a significant chunk of his career 54.00 ERA off his slate. Since doing a third of an inning with the Braves back in ’99, Winkelsas has made nine career stops, including a stint in the independent Atlantic League. We should all be so persistent in pursuit of our dreams.

Thank you for reading

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