- Triple-A Ottawa (3-3 for the week; 8-8 overall)
This is simply a team without prospects. Their best two hitters are washouts Luis Terrero and Fernando Tatis, while their best two pitchers are organizational relievers Julio Manon and Chris Piersoll. Catcher Eli Whiteside was once thought to have a chance to make it because of his occasional power and above-average defensive skills, but he has to hit at least a little bit to get that shot, and so far he’s 5-for-35 (.143/.139/.286) with 13 strikeouts and nary a walk.
- Double-A Bowie (2-4; 10-7)
Adam Loewen must drive the Orioles crazy. Every time it looks like he’s turned the corner, he takes a step backwards. He was outstanding in the Arizona Fall League, helped pitch Team Canada to a huge upset over the United States in the World Baseball Classic, and then fired eight one-hit shutout innings in his regular season debut, striking out 12. Since then, he’s allowed 11 runs on 18 hits and nine walks in 12.2 innings. It’s borderline annoying at this point.
- High-A Frederick (1-4; 7-8)
Despite being the only Orioles affiliate with a losing record, the Keys are Baltimore’s most interesting team, at least prospect-wise. Outfielder Nolan Reimold continues to build up his resume with a .314/.426/.549 line, and reportedly looks far more comfortable in the field now that he’s no longer occasionally asked to patrol center. Meanwhile, 22-year-old righthander Radhames Liz has been one of the best pitchers in the minor leagues so far. After striking out 82 in 56 New York-Penn League innings last year, Liz began the year with 13 whiffs in five no-hit innings, and in three starts has punched out 33 of the 56 batters he’s faced, while allowing just seven hits. With a mid-90s fastball and a rapidly developing slider, the stuff matches the stats. The only concern is his violent mechanics. From the “Where Are They Now?” files–righty Beau Hale, Baltimore’s first-round pick six years ago who missed all of 2003 and 2004 with shoulder problems (to understate it by a mile), has fired 10.1 innings without allowing an earned run.
- Low-A Delmarva (2-2; 9-5)
Last year’s top pick Brandon Snyder has a confusing stat line. In his pro debut last year, Snyder drew 30 walks in 172 at-bats, as scouts raved about his ability to work the count. This year he has just one walk (and 17 strikeouts) in 55 at-bats, which is clearly affecting his batting average (.255). Righthander Brandon Erbe had a ridiculous pro debut in 2005 after being picked in the third round, and has pitched well so far, with 13 whiffs in 10 innings.
Boston Red Sox
- Triple-A Pawtucket (4-3; 10-8)
First baseman Hee-Seop Choi could be up soon. He’s batting .297/.435/.541, and showing the expected power (3 HR in 37 at-bats) and patience (nine walks). Infielder Dustin Pedroia has played four games at shortstop and two at second base, but I’m still not sure if that .448 on-base percentage is maintainable when his slugging percentage is 100 points lower. Righthander Abe Alvarez–he of the crooked cap, fringy stuff, and fantastic control–has been nothing short of outstanding, allowing just 11 hits in 23 innings with a 1.96 ERA. The 12 strikeouts over that span leaves scouts unimpressed.
- Double-A Portland (3-4; 8-9)
With a composite team average of .211/.292/.290, it’s hard to get excited about this offense, especially since it features a stagnating pair of Double-A repeaters David Murphy (.261/.333/.348) and Brandon Moss (.188/.224/.344). The real stories on this team are in the bullpen. One of last year’s first-round selections, Craig Hansen, is pitching two innings every four days, and has yet to allow an earned run in four appearances while limiting batters to a .111 batting average. Even more impressive is the performance of righthander Edgar Martinez, a 24-year-old converted catcher, who has a 0.00 ERA in 8.2 innings with a stellar 14-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Between that pair and righthander Manny Delcarmen (pitching well in Pawtucket, and just called up), the Boston bullpen looks set for years to come.
- High-A Wilmington (4-2; 8-9)
Mickey Hall seems a bit of a misfit in the Red Sox system as a raw, toolsy high school product. He entered 2006 with a career batting line of .235/.337/.398, but he’s not yet 21, and his second go-round with the Blue Rocks is going better than the first. He raised his average nearly 100 points last week, and leads the team with a .531 slugging percentage, thanks in part to three triples. Last June’s top selection was outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury; he’s batting .333, but has yet to show much power or patience.
- Low-A Greenville (4-2; 7-9)
Infielder Jeff Natale (.373/.486/.644) has his name all over the Sally League leader boards, but he’s also a smallish 23-year-old 32nd round pick who is not going to have believers until he does it at Double-A or beyond. The Drive has two highly-touted young arms in Greenville, and while righties Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden have each struck out a batter per inning, Buchholz has a 1.20 ERA with a WHIP of 1.00 in stark contrast to Bowden’s 9.00 ERA and WHIP of 1.89, thanks to 15 hits allowed in just nine innings. In 2004, the Red Sox gave 12th round pick Mike Rozier first-round money ($1.575 million), but he wasn’t very good last year at Greenville, and has shown no progress thus far in his return engagement.
New York Yankees
- Triple-A Columbus (0-7; 6-12)
As if losing seven games in a row isn’t bad enough, the last six have all been by one run. Eric Duncan could be a lesson in why small sample sizes can be even more dangerous in the minors. The Yankees’ first-round pick in 2003, Duncan received some predictable New York-driven hype despite finishing 2005 with a career batting line of .258/.346/.447, and 311 strikeouts in 316 games. Then he won MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League, batting .362/.423/.734, and followed that with a monster spring (.414/.452/.793). People were talking about him taking over for Jason Giambi in 2007, focusing on fewer than 100 recent at-bats in what basically amounts to exhibition games, while ignoring the 1151 at-bat track record in minor league regular season games. Admittedly a young 21 at Triple-A, Duncan is back to his old ways with the Clippers, batting .250/.300/.328 without a home run in 17 games. Add in the fact that he’s moved to first base, and he’s now well below the offensive expectations for the position. Nobody has ever doubted outfielder Melky Cabrera‘s ability to hit (.338/.392/.479), but he’s baseball’s version of the tweener–not enough power for a corner, and not enough speed for center. Still, as a switch-hitter who makes consistent contact, there’s no reason he couldn’t carve out an Orlando Merced-like career.
- Double-A Trenton (3-3; 3-13)
They’re still recovering from beginning the year with ten straight losses, though there’s not a lot of talent there to sustain long-term success. Outfielder Justin Christian leads the minor leagues in stolen bases with 13; an undrafted player signed in 2004 out of the independent Frontier League, he’s also 26 years old and has more triples (3) than he does doubles (0) or walks (2). The team’s other two outfielders, Bronson Sardinha (.196/.246/.214) and Rudy Guillen (.140/.159/.209) both look as if they’ll never live up to their once-promising potential. The news is much better on the mound, as power righty Steven White (1.75 ERA in 25.2 innings) looks to be all the way back from an injury-plagued 2005 and could move quickly.
- High-A Tampa (3-4; 7-10)
Top prospect Philip Hughes has been every bit as good as expected, allowing just 15 hits in 23 innings while striking out 24 and walking exactly one. He could be in Double-A by midseason, and if it happens by June 24, he’ll still be a teenager. Outfielder Brett Gardner seems to become a more interesting prospect each day. A 2005 third-round pick from the College of Charleston, Gardner is a classic old-school leadoff man, drawing walks in bunches and using all fields when he does swing the bat. He’s off to a tremendous .407/.536/.500 start at Tampa, but his utter lack of power could relegate him to fourth-outfielder status. Outfielder Tim Battle is blessed with incredible tools, but he struck out 195 times last year at Charleston, and already has 22 Ks in 50 at-bats this year, while hitting a miserable .080/.148/.120.
- Low-A Charleston (3-3; 8-8)
I have to admit it, River Dogs box scores are still among the first ones I check daily because of their talented teenage trio. First the bad: shortstop C.J. Henry is batting just .172/.294/.310, and now is on the disabled list with a hamstring pull. Now the good: centerfielder/leadoff man Austin Jackson has scored 14 runs in 15 games, reached base at a .418 clip, and stolen six bases. And now, the in-between: sixteen-year-old outfielder Jose Tabata is batting .308, but he’s yet to show the patience (one walk), speed (three stolen bases), or power (.415 slugging) from his remarkable pro debut.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
- Triple-A Durham (2-4; 10-7)
No, I have no idea what is going on with Delmon Young. The top prospect in baseball is batting a nifty .348, but the rest of his line (21 of 24 hits are singles, zero home runs, a league-leading 12 stolen bases) looks more like something from the next Vince Coleman than the next Albert Belle. B.J. Upton has a hot bat (.391 in his last ten games), and an equally cold glove (eight errors). Enigmatic outfielder Elijah Dukes started strong, but has just one extra-base hit and two RBI in his last nine games.
- Double-A Montgomery (5-2; 11-7)
Wes Bankston is hitting for average but little else (.338/.384/.412), and his conversion to third base has been a complete disaster, with 11 errors in 41 chances. His OPS is 63 points higher than his fielding percentage. Righthander Andrew Sonnanstine had a borderline insane 178/18 K/BB ratio last year, and he’s been able to maintain that at Double-A (22/3 in 22.1 IP) despite fringy stuff. Former Dodger Chuck Tiffany has also had much better stats than stuff, and has now hit a bit of a wall in the Southern League with more walks (eight) than strikeouts (seven) in 12.1 innings.
- High-A Visalia (2-5; 7-11)
While shortstop Reid Brignac is cementing his status as a certified stud (.379/.419/.606, including a three home run game), the bigger step forward has been made by outfielder Shaun Cumberland. A 2003 10th-round pick with plus power and speed, Cumberland has gone deep in three of his last five games, is batting .306/.377/.694 overall, and leads the California League in home runs (seven) and RBI (18).
- Low-A Southwest Michigan (4-3; 7-10)
Righty Wade Davis was a favorite of multiple experts as a breakout candidate this year. So far, those experts are right, as the 2004 third-round pick has 22 strikeouts in 15.2 innings, while allowing just six hits. Less-heralded Jacob McGee is a 2004 fifth-rounder who nearly matched Davis’ statistics last year when they both pitched at Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League. Thanks to one of the best curveballs around, he has an equally impressive 27 whiffs in 19 innings, but his lack of plus velocity has left him a little more hittable (17 hits allowed). If you are looking for batting prospects in the D-Rays system, look elsewhere.
Toronto Blue Jays
- Triple-A Syracuse (2-5; 7-10)
The lineup depends on minor league veterans as opposed to real prospects, but the pitching is definitely where it’s at for the SkyChiefs. Righty Casey Janssen has fired ten shutout innings in his last two starts, and is the most likely candidate to fill in for disabled A.J. Burnett on the big league roster. It’s a remarkable rise for the 2004 fourth-round pick, who started last year at Low-A Lansing, and now has a career minor league ERA of 2.65 in 220.1 innings, with 199 strikeouts and just 31 walks. Josh Banks also has impeccable control (20 Ks, two walks in 23 innings) as part of a staff that boasts a composite strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4-to-1 (137/36). Righthander Dustin McGowan has been converted to a relief role after recovering from Tommy John surgery, and has 16 strikeouts in 11.1 innings.
- Double-A New Hampshire (3-3; 7-9)
Generally considered the Blue Jays’ top hitting prospect, 2004 third-round pick Adam Lind (.311/.354/.623) has gone deep four times in his last five games, and is tied for the Eastern League lead with six home runs–already half the total Lind hit all last year in 126 games at High-A Dunedin. Some may have gotten a little too excited by first baseman Chip Cannon‘s 32 home runs last year, but he turns 25 in December, struggled in 47 games at Double-A last year, and has just two homers in 57 at-bats so far this season. The pitching staff is filled with more control specialists, guys like Ismael Ramirez and Jamie Vermilyea, who have a decent shots to one day be middle relievers in the bigs, but not much more.
- High-A Dunedin (3-4; 8-9)
As usual with the Jays, it’s hard to get excited about nice starts by shortstop Ryan Klosterman (.277/.329/.523) and outfielder Ryan Patterson (.294/.314/.529) after you look at their birthdates. A more reasonable 21, righthander Jesse Litsch has a solid approach and a deep arsenal that he’s used to record 19 strikeouts and just one walk in 17.1 innings.
- Low-A Lansing (5-2; 12-5)
The team is third in the Midwest League in runs, but it’s not because they’re making contact, as the Lugnuts have whiffed 172 times in 17 games–a surprising total for a Low-A team that has 19 players who are 22 or more years of age. Let’s hope that lefty starter Chi-Hung Cheng (2.33 ERA in 19.1 innings) and righty reliever Po-Hsuan Keng (0.54 ERA in 16.2 innings) pitch their way to the majors so we can bring back the old “… and pray for rain” cliché with a much more international flair.