Every Tuesday during the minor league regular season, Kevin will tour the affiliates of one division, telling you who’s hot, who’s not, and who’s generating buzz. He starts off with the American League Central.
Chicago White Sox
- Triple-A Charlotte (International): 3 wins, 1 loss; 10 runs scored, 4 allowed)
A couple years ago, Red Sox righty Charlie Zink was a bit of a favorite in internet baseball land because he was a knuckleballer and he came from a tiny art school. Unfortunately, Zink wasn’t really that good. Now comes Charlie Haeger, who does the same thing, but better, and nobody’s talking about him. Haeger has a good backstory–he retired after 2002 before returning with the new pitch–and much more success than Zink ever had, winning 14 games between High-A and Double-A in 2005 while allowing less than a hit per inning. In his Triple-A debut on Saturday night, Haeger allowed just one hit over seven shutout innings, striking out six and walking just two. In one way, the White Sox are the wrong organization for Haeger to be in, because of their pitching depth at the big league level. In another way, they’re perfect, as manager Ozzie Guillen has proven that he’s not afraid of the unorthodox.
- Double-A Birmingham (Southern): 1-3, 5/11
The Barons are just not scoring runs. Outfielder Tom Collaro has produced 40% of their runs with a pair of solo shots (the only two home runs the team has hit so far), while still being, well, Tom Collaro (8 strikeouts in 14 at-bats). However, this team has some serious pitching. Last season’s first-round pick Lance Broadway whiffed 10 over six innings in his Double-A debut, 2004 first-rounder Tyler Lumsden went six scoreless, and lefty Ray Liotta continued to roll after a breakout campaign in 2005. Throw in an encouraging start from Corwin Malone as he tries to regain his prospect status, and this is one of the more interesting rotations around.
- High-A Winston-Salem (Carolina): 1-2, 13/20
- Low-A Kannapolis (Sally): 0-4, 11/26
Francisco Hernandez is a toolsy young catcher who hit just .222 at Kannapolis last year before being sent down and rebounding to hit .349/.405/.524 in the Pioneer League. He’s off to another slow start (2-for-13), but he’ll be given every opportunity to improve on that this year.
- Triple-A Buffalo (International): 2-2, 16/9
The Bisons are pitching well: lefty Jeremy Sowers picked up where left off (6 innings, one unearned run), while righty Jeremy Guthrie (six shutout innings) gives the Indians a reason to be optimistic about his future for roughly the 27th time. Unfortunately, the last 26 times didn’t turn out so well. Throw in righty Fausto Carmona, and the Indians have a wealth of options ready to go if C.C. Sabathia‘s injury is slow to heal or something else goes wrong.
- Double-A Akron (Eastern): 1-3, 7/16
Like Buffalo, the Aeros have gotten some solid pitching. Righthander Adam Miller pitched six shutout innings despite the fact that his velocity has yet to return to 2004 levels; he was around 91-93, where before he was into the mid-90s. Meanwhile lefty Tony Sipp, a 2004 45th-round pick who signed for $130,000, continues to dominate. With nine strikeouts over five innings in his debut, Sipp now has 213 strikeouts in his career over 164 innings, and is one of the better sleepers around.
- High A Kinston (Carolina): 2-1, 20/13
A first-round pick in 2005, Trevor Crowe is getting a head start on justifying that confidence after reaching base in eight of 14 plate appearances and showing early power and speed. Despite being one of the game’s favorites for Team Of The Future, the Indians are not exactly loaded in the outfield. Grady Sizemore is now officially a fixture in centerfield, but neither Casey Blake or Jason Michaels provide any sort of long-term roadblock for the likes of Crowe, or on a more immediate level, Franklin Gutierrez.
- Low-A Lake County (Sally): 3-1, 12/12
- Triple-A Toledo (International): 1-3, 4/10
- Double-A Erie (Eastern): 1-3, 12/16
Don’t blame the rotation, as the bullpen has surrendered 15 of the 16 runs scored against the Sea Wolves. The four starters have allowed just nine hits and one run over 21 innings, and while none is considered a major prospect, to a man they’re a pretty interesting group. Enormous righthander Huberto Sanchez has the best arm of the quartet, while Virgil Vasquez and Nate Bumstead are both known more for their control and finesse than their stuff (both rarely hit 90 mph with their fastballs). On Saturday, righty Preston Larrison tossed five semi-perfect innings, with the only baserunner reaching base on an error. Three years ago, he was one of the jewels of the Tigers’ system. Since then, he’s gotten hurt, gotten fat, and in general, gotten hammered.
- High-A Lakeland (Florida State): 2-2, 13/17
A sixth-round pick last June out of Texas A&M, reliever Kevin Whelan could put himself onto the very fast track. His pro debut (24 innings, six hits, 41 strikeouts) looks like something from the high school ranks, and in his first two appearances with Lakeland, he retired all six batters he faced, striking out four. From the “He’s Still Around?” file, former Venezuelan wunderkind outfielder Jackson Melian, originally famous for his $1.6 million deal nearly ten years ago, is here and already 0-for-12. At best, he’s the guy you need to point to every time somebody raves about Jose Tabata or Fernando Martinez.
- Low-A West Michigan (Midwest): 1-2, 10/17
All eyes are firmly on 2005 first-round pick Cameron Maybin. It was wondered how quickly he’d adapt to tough competition after playing in a weak area for high school talent, but he’s been as good as advertised (6-for-13, 3 XBH) so far.
Kansas City Royals
- Triple-A Omaha (Pacific Coast): 3-1, 15/16
I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but the Royals are going to realize that Justin Huber (3-for-8, HR, 3 BB) is their best option at first base sooner instead of later, no? On a less obvious note, lefty J.P. Howell (six two-hit shutout innings) could quickly get another shot in the big league rotation.
- Double-A Wichita (Texas): 0-4, 22/29
A quick tip for the millions who gamble on Double-A baseball: When looking at Wichita, take the over. They have an impressive lineup, but their pitching staff is a mish-mash of never-was and never-will-be guys, including names from the past like Ryan Snare, Seung Song, and Junior Herndon. Quick question: what happened to Billy Butler‘s patience? Before getting to Double-A, Butler drew 99 walks in 669 at-bats. At Wichita, he has seven in 133.
- High-A High Desert (California): 2-1, 16/19
It’s not quite Rick Ankiel, but Mike Stodolka is now a first baseman. The fourth overall pick in 2000, Stodolka was going nowhere on the mound, compiling a career 4.93 ERA in 492 innings with just 295 strikeouts. Now 24, he’s trying to make it as a hitter, and there were actually some teams who preferred him as a position prospect when he was in high school. Stodolka went 0-for-4 with three whiffs in his season debut, but rebounded to hit a home run in his next game. But then again, this is High Desert.
- Low-A Burlington (Midwest): 2-2, 10/6
- Triple-A Rochester (International): 2-1, 7/7
A first-round pick in 2000 by the Giants, Boof Bonser (and yes, he really did legally change his name to ‘Boof’) was seen as an elite prospect after going 16-4 with a 2.49 ERA in 2001 at Low-A Hagerstown, with 178 strikeouts in 134 innings. He’s one of the many players that went to the Twins in the A.J. Pierzynski deal, and while Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano have paid more immediate dividends, Bonser continues to succeed in the minors. He had a middle-of-the-road 3.99 ERA for Rochester last year, but whiffed 168 in 160 innings, and had a very good season debut this week, striking out eight over six two-hit innings against Syracuse. He’ll have to take a number to get into the Twins rotation, but he could help the bullpen as early as this year.
- Double-A New Britain (Eastern): 1-2, 10/16
Glen Perkins and Justin Jones each struck out seven over five innings in their first starts. Combined, they give the Rock Cats a pair of quality lefties. Perkins is more polished, but Jones is nearly 18 months younger. Both project as big leaguers, but trying to predict future roles in a system this deep in pitching is a useless guessing game.
- High-A Fort Myers (Florida State): 4-0, 32/14
As a middle infielder who could hit a little, Alexi Casilla was in the wrong system with the Angels, but now that he’s in the Twins system (coming over in the J.C. Romero deal), he’s among their best second basemen. Casilla hit .325/.392/.409 in a half season for Cedar Rapids last year, with 47 stolen bases in 78 games. He’s 8-for-18 with a pair of swipes with the Miracle in the early going, and is well worth watching. Oh, but wait, it’s a Twins affiliate, so I have to talk about pitching: 2004 first-round pick Anthony Swarzak, 2005 first-rounder Matt Garza, and 2005 second-round selection Kevin Slowey all impressed in their first starts, combining to allow one earned run in 15.2 innings while registering 17 strikeouts. Where the Twins are concerned, it’s an embarrassment of riches on the mound.
- Low-A Beloit (Midwest): 3-1, 11/7
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