This is part four of a six-part series in which I’ll look at the State Of The System for all 30 major league teams. I’ll talk about what’s working, what’s not, and identify a few names to look out for (or beware of) in 2006.

Chicago Cubs

  • What’s Working: The North Siders have a good-not-great system that is helped by the Cubs’ willingness to take perceived “signability problem” players in the draft, and properly judge the likelihood those players will sign. Eric Patterson looks like he could be an eighth-round steal from the 2004 draft, and the Cubs pulled another coup in 2005’s first round, getting high school lefty Mark Pawelek with the 20th pick. Among the best high school pitchers in the draft, Pawelek’s relationship with Scott Boras scared many teams off, but he was the first first-round pick to sign, inking for an over-slot but relatively tame $1.75 million.

  • What’s Not Working: As recently as three years ago, the Cubs’ system was absolutely loaded with pitching, but many of their top arms have been slow to develop. Righthander Angel Guzman, for instance, was expected to be a rotation fixture by now. Instead, a seemingly non-stop run of injuries has limited him to just 66 innings in the last two years. Righthander Bobby Brownlie has never found the stuff he showed in college, and his fastball is now 6-7 mph slower than it was at Rutgers. Righthander Jae-Kuk Ryu was involved in the embarrassing “Birdgate
    incident and missed most of 2004 with elbow problems. Righthander Grant Johnson,
    the team’s top pick (second round) in 2004, missed the first two months of 2005 with an injured quad, and was ineffective after he returned. Beyond the pitching, first baseman Brian Dopirak, who made a run at the Midwest League home run record
    in 2004, completely fell off the table in the Florida State League.

  • 2006 Rookies: Well, Ronny Cedeno should be the starting shortstop, but with Dusty managing, one gets the feeling that he’s just a 2-for-12 start away from being benched for perpetual out machine/wily veteran Neifi Perez. I like Cedeno quite a bit, and feel that if given the opportunity, he’ll hit closer to his PECOTA card’s 75th percentile than his weighted mean, after batting .355/.408/.518 at Triple-A last year and .300/.356/.375 with the Cubs on the rare occasions that Baker would put him in the lineup. Outfielder Matt Murton is technically not a rookie, but should be the starting left fielder. Of course, if Todd Hollandsworth was still around, Dusty would make sure the kid learned his place on the bench.
  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Beyond Pawelek, who was absolutely outstanding in his pro debut, the Cubs took another high-ceiling lefthander in the second round with Donald Veal, a raw high-risk/high-reward guy with plus-plus velocity for a southpaw and plenty of “natural lefty movement.”

  • Don’t Believe The Hype: Righty Sean Gallagher was the Cubs’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2005. He did not allow an earned run in his first six starts last year, including a pair of six-inning/no-hit outings. Gallagher is another one of the disconnect pitchers who dominate with excellent command and a good breaking ball as opposed to dominating stuff–the kind of formula that doesn’t translate well as one moves up the ladder. With an upper-80s fastball, he’ll have a tough time repeating that kind of success against more advanced hitters.

Cincinnati Reds

  • What’s Working: The Reds’ system is downright awful, but at least there’s some hope now after the most recent two drafts. Homer Bailey was the best high school arm in the 2004 draft, and his 2005 season showed plenty of reason for optimism (125 Ks in 104 innings), while also indicating that the Reds might have to exercise a little more patience than expected (4.43 ERA, 62 walks). The 2005 draft featured a pair of high-ceiling players. Outfielder Jay Bruce‘s stock went up continuously throughout the spring and he wound up going 12th overall and leaving a strong impression with scouts in his pro debut. The club’s second-round pick, lefthander Travis Wood, was thought to be a raw arm-strength guy, but he showed a good changeup and absolutely dominated in his debut, allowing just 28 hits in 49 innings while striking out 67.
  • What’s Not Working: After mentioning those three prospects, my list of good players in the system is completely depleted, and all three of those players are–at a minimum–two years away, with Bruce and Wood more likely 3-4 years out. The Reds lack any players at the upper levels who project as major league regulars.
  • 2006 Rookies: Chris Denorfia could break camp as an extra outfielder, a role he’s well suited for, though he projects as nothing more. The Cincinnati rotation is not exactly filled with good or especially healthy options, so fringe guys like Justin Germano and Elizardo Ramirez could get the occasional look, though there’s nothing in their scouting reports or track record to indicate that they are any better than what is already there. Righthander Travis Chick could be a sleeper here if he can regain the velocity and command he showed with the Padres in 2004.
  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Righthander Sam LeCure is an interesting case. Seen as a solid draft prospect at the University of Texas entering 2005, LeCure missed the entire year due to academic problems, but still went in the fourth round. So what we have here is the rare college pitcher with a very fresh arm, and he struck out more than a batter per inning in his pro debut.

  • Don’t Believe The Hype: Outfielder B.J. Szymanski has athleticism (he was a two-sport star at Princeton), size (6-5, 215) and plenty of tools, but he’s still a very raw product at 23 with just 72 pro games to his credit. He’ll have to begin translating those tools quickly to avoid being well behind the traditional development curve.

Houston Astros

  • What’s Working: The Astros have done a pretty good job on the pitching side of things lately, with righthander Jason Hirsch and lefty Troy Patton both taking one giant step forward with big 2005 campaigns. PECOTA doesn’t seem to trust Hirsch yet, and that’s understandable, as his season was one of the bigger out-of-nowhere stories of the year. Patton is three-and-a-half years younger, and has never struggled (though admittedly at lower levels than Hirsch), and I agree with PECOTA that he’s a better prospect. The system features plenty of other power arms (Matt Albers, Jimmy Barthmaier and Felipe Paulino to name just a few) who lack the polish of Hirsch and Patton, but offer plenty of upside.
  • What’s Not Working: As good as the Astros are doing in the arms race, the system is really struggling when it comes to developing position players. The team responded by taking hitters with eight of nine picks after selecting lefthander Brian Bugosevic (a two-way player at Tulane) in the first round. Considered the prize of the Billy Wagner trade, Taylor Buchholz has hit a wall at Triple-A, leaving Ezequiel Astacio to be the saving grace. Outfielder Mitch Einertson tied an Appy League home run record in 2004, but hit just 7 longballs in 355 ABs last year in a season that included a month-long absence to address personal issues.
  • 2006 Rookies: The lineup is pretty much set, but with a back of the rotation that includes Wandy Rodriguez and Astacio, plenty of pitchers from the Triple-A rotation–including Hirsch, Buchholz and fireballer Fernando Nieve–could get a look.
  • I Like Him Better Than Most: Infielder Brooks Conrad is a little small, doesn’t run especially well, and is nothing special with the glove. That said, he can hit a little, has surprising power, draws a decent amount of walks, and steals a few bases. At 26, he is what he is, but deserves a shot. Unfortunately, he’s still not better than a 40-year-old Craig Biggio.

  • Don’t Believe The Hype: Outfielder Hunter Pence was Houston’s top pick (second round) in 2004, and he slugged 31 home runs in 453 at-bats last year. That said, beware of Low A sluggers who are old for the league (Pence turns 23 next month). His power dropped and his strikeouts spiked after a promotion to High A, and scouts don’t like his hitting mechanics.
  • Milwaukee Brewers
    • What’s Working: Behind scouting director Jack Zduriencek, the Brewers are ready to become a real major league team again, producing a potential all-star (J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks) in each draft from 2001-2003. 2005 first-round pick Ryan Braun has good chance to give them a fourth. Beyond the great drafting, the Brewers have also suddenly become a major player in the international market as well, signing righthander Rolando Pascaul, generally considered the best free-agent Dominican arm, for more than $700,000 last September, and last month they inked another top Dominican pitcher, Wily Peralta, for $450,000.
    • What’s Not Working: There have been a few bumps in the road, particularly on the mound. Two of their top pitching prospects, Mike Jones and Manny Parra have been sidetracked by injuries, while 2004 first-round pick Mark Rogers has a high ceiling, but could take a little more work than expected to reach it after an inconsistent full-season debut.
    • 2006 Rookies: Fielder steps in at first base, and should be an immediate impact player. If I were to place a wager on any prospect hitting 50 home runs in a season, Fielder would be my guy. The only concern is that he enters the game with old player skills. That could limit his career length, but he should be among the home run leaders annually for the next 10+ years. Dana Eveland and Jose Capellan could both be decent bullpen arms, while Corey Hart‘s ability to play multiple positions could equal plenty of frequent flyer mileage between Milwaukee and Nashville.
    • I Like Him Better Than Most: Just 17 when drafted, outfielder Charlie Fermaint offers plenty of tools, and the Brewers have taken it slow with him. He’ll finally play a full season in 2006, but in three years of primarily short-season ball, Fermaint has hit .277/.333/.484 in 141 games with 23 home runs and 29 stolen bases.
    • Don’t Believe The Hype: Lefthander Zach Jackson tied for the minor league lead with 16 wins last year before being dealt by the Blue Jays in the Lyle Overbay trade, but his regression as he moved through the Toronto system is disturbing, especially for a finesse lefty:
      Level       IP   ERA BB/9  K/9   AVG   OBP   SLG
      High A    59.1  2.88  0.9  7.3  .247  .263  .326
      Double-A  54.0  4.00  2.0  7.2  .277  .321  .379
      Triple-A  47.1  5.13  4.0  6.3  .323  .394  .460

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    • What’s Working: The Pirates have done a decent job of developing pitchers who can help at the major league level, and would have even more if they could keep them healthy. The system added some much needed impact position players in 2004 and 2005 with first-round picks Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen.
    • What’s Not Working: Among position players, there are no players at the upper levels who deserve to be everyday players in the big leagues, which of course doesn’t mean they won’t be given the chance in Pittsburgh. 2001 first-round pick John Van Benschoten missed all of 2005 with shoulder surgery, as did lefty Sean Burnett. Adding to the MASH unit was 2002 No. 1 overall pick Bryan Bullington (yes, the Pirates took him over B.J. Upton), who had labrum surgery after the season and will miss at least the first half of 2006.
    • 2006 Rookies: The Pirates haven’t had a decent center fielder this decade. Chris Duffy takes over this year, and he comes into the season needing to hit .320 to have value, as he’s a free swinger with no power. Nate McLouth waits in the wings, but he’s defensively better suited to a corner. Paul Maholm is a favorite to win a rotation job, yet he projects as more of a No. 4 or 5 rather than a future star.
    • I Like Him Better Than Most: A fifth-round pick last June, righty Jeff Sues has an injury history, but also has two plus pitches: a fastball that can get into the mid-90s and a good slider.

    • Don’t Believe The Hype: PECOTA
      loves him
      , but McLouth is one of those players who does many things
      well, but nothing outstanding. As a corner outfielder (he’s fringy at best in
      center), he’ll hit well below the average ISO of a National League corner outfielder–which is in the .180s–and I don’t see him hitting for enough average or drawing enough walks to make up for it. Maholm put up a 2.18 ERA
      in six big league starts last year, but he’ll need to miss more bats (26 Ks
      in 41 innings) to stay successful. Fellow southpaw Tom Gorzelanny may be the
      better long-term option.

    St. Louis Cardinals

    • What’s Working: After starting pitcher Anthony Reyes, nearly anything one can positively say about the system revolves around the club’s 2005 draft, the first under new scouting director Jeff Luhnow. With four picks among the first 46, Luhnow mixed things up, starting with a tooly high school outfielder (Colby Rasmus) and a polished college player (shortstop Tyler Greene) in the first round. With his two supplemental first-round picks, he once again split his hand with one college arm (Mark McCormick) and one high school pitcher (Tyler Herron). All four players are immediately among the top prospects in the system. After Reyes, higher level pitchers like Chris Lambert and Adam Wainwright could be worth a look soon.
    • What’s Not Working: Getting some depth in the draft was key for the Cardinals, who entered 2005 with no positional prospects worth mentioning, other than outfielder Cody Haerther, who is still no more than just a decent prospect. The system is exceedingly weak when it comes to catchers and lefthanded arms.
    • 2006 Rookies: The big league lineup is set, and it’s not like the Cardinals have any hitting prospects who are blocked. Reyes is the favorite to win the No. 5 starter’s job, and has the rare combination of plus stuff and plus command. He’s been relatively healthy as a pro, but his ugly injury history in college will remain in the back of everyone’s minds until he goes 30+ starts for a couple of seasons in the bigs.
    • I Like Him Better Than Most: Outfielder Daryl Jones, a third-round pick last June, hit just .209/.311/.286 in his debut. Despite that, he’s a raw product with top-of-the-line tools. Most of these players turn out to be Reggie Abercrombie, but a good number of them turn into Eric Davis, which is why you keep an eye on them. Jones did show a decent eye and marked improvement when moved to the leadoff slot. He’ll require 400+ minor league games to put it all together . . . if he puts it all together.

    • Don’t Believe The Hype: While Greene has the skills to be a major league shortstop, his ability to reach base or drive the ball more will determine if he bats second or seventh in the lineup. Travis Hanson had 20 home runs in Double-A last year, but he’s a sloppy defensive player, and PECOTA is as unimpressed as I am.

    Thank you for reading

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