Atlanta Braves

  • Triple-A Richmond (4-3 last week; 9-16 overall)

    What the heck is wrong with righthander Anthony Lerew? Sent to Richmond after a rough spring training, Lerew was seen as somebody who could help this year, but he’s been horrible in five starts, giving up six or more runs in four of them for an 11.51 ERA. Opposing batters are hitting .367 off him with a .656 slugging, all this despite the fact that his velocity has been in its usual 91-95 mph range. Adam LaRoche is a nifty fielder, but a first-baseman with a sub-.800 OPS just isn’t going to cut it in the long term, and Canadian slugger Scott Thorman (.318/.389/.506) is coming on strong.

  • Double-A Mississippi (3-3; 10-14)

    It’s a pretty miserable offensive team, as despite top prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s slow start (.241/.333/.430), he still leads the team in total bases and RBIs. A fifth-round pick in 2005 out of Georgia, righty Will Startup has stepped into the closer role and recorded 18 strikeouts in 12.2 scoreless innings. He doesn’t have pure closer stuff, but he’s definitely entered the picture in the Braves bullpen of the future.

  • High Class A Myrtle Beach (7-0; 15-9)

    The Pelicans are riding an eight-game winning streak, which is pretty remarkable considering that the Carolina League’s worst offense has scored just 36 runs in that span. Obviously, they’re doing it with pitching, and their ace has been lefty Matt Harrison (2.12 ERA in 29.2 IP), a big one (6’5″, 205) who depends more on his command than overpowering stuff. They’d be one of the best staffs in the league if it wasn’t for the continuing struggles of Charlie Morton and Jake Stevens. Stevens saw his stock explode in 2003, when he had a 2.27 ERA with 140 strikeouts in 135 innings at Rome, but he struggled at Myrtle Beach last year, and has been just horrible in 2006, with a 10.13 ERA after five starts.

  • Low Class A Rome (5-2; 17-5)

    Despite the 17-5 record, the top prospects have disappointed. 2005 first-round pick Beau Jones has started slowly, allowing 34 base runners in 17.2 innings, and 17 year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus is hitting just .241/.315/.325. Their top performer–and one of the top hitters in the Sally League overall–has been first baseman Kala Kaaihue (.319/.462/.667), who has shown power, patience, and–unfortunately–the kind of skills that scream overrated minor league slugger.

Florida Marlins

  • Triple-A Albuquerque (5-1; 17-7)

    Shortstop Robert Andino had a fantastic spring, but lost the battle for the big league job to Hanley Ramirez, who had an…ultra-fantastic spring. Ramirez has played well, and while Andino went back to the minors, he hasn’t sulked, batting .300/.347/.489. He’s a fantastic defensive player who could have real value if the bat is for real. Yusmeiro Petit may be starting to show us how deception and control can only get you so far. The gap between his ridiculous stats and his so-so scouting reports was always a concern, and he may have finally hit a wall facing the polished hitters of the Pacific Coast League. In five starts, Petit has a respectable 3.68 ERA, but the strikeouts (16 in 29.1 IP) have disappeared.

  • Double-A Carolina (2-5; 9-16)

    The worst offense in the Carolina league has scored 68 runs in 25 games, while being held to two or fewer 12 times. At the same time, it’s one of those situations where the organization has no talent for the level, as the roster features a number of minor league veterans, including 14 players at age 25 or higher. 2004 first-round pick Taylor Tankersley was converted to the bullpen last year, and he’s limiting Southern League batters to a .184 average so far. Acquired in the Josh Beckett deal, righthander Anibal Sanchez seems to have been almost forgotten about, but he’s allowed just one earned run in his last three starts, could be up as early as this year, and is among the best 20 pitching prospects in the game.

  • High Class A Jupiter (3-4; 8-16)

    Jai Miller still fascinates me, but I admit my weakness for crazy tools guys. He spent two years at Low Class A Greensboro and made little progress, batting .205/.273/.351 in 2004 and .207/.305/.345 last year with a total of 302 strikeouts. Those are awful numbers to be sure, but he also hit 25 home runs over the two seasons, and walked 25 more times in ’05 than ’04, while also striking out 24 fewer times. He’s batting .243/.365/.314 this year, but went 12-for-24 last week, and I’m still keeping an eye on him. Two of the system’s top pitchers, 2005 first-round pick Jacob Merceaux and acquired-in-the-Paul Lo Duca-trade Gaby Hernandez both have ERAs over six, but in a organization this loaded with pitching, they can afford a couple of slow starts.

  • Low Class A Greensboro (3-4; 12-12)

    The rotation–with four first-round picks–has been a mixed bag so far. 2005 top pick Chris Volstad is 4-0 and has shown excellent command, while Sean West fired six shutout innings in his debut before being shut down with shoulder soreness. At the same time, Ryan Tucker and Aaron Thompson are both looking for their first win after a combined 10 starts. C/1B/DH Gaby Sanchez was one of the top hitters in the minors over the first two weeks of the season, but he’s come back to earth, going 5-for-24 last week and not hitting a home run in his last 13 games, after hitting seven in his first 11.

New York Mets

  • Triple-A Norfolk (2-5; 7-18)

    Lastings Milledge‘s hot start has been well-documented, which leaves me with no hitters to talk about, as the Tides are batting .215/.294/.294 as a team, and their average drops below the Mendoza line to .198 when you remove Milledge from the equation. They’ve hit a grand total of seven home runs as a team in 25 games, and veteran catcher Sandy Martinez (yes, he’s still around) is the only Tide with more than one. Righty John Maine has allowed just one run in three of four starts, and could receive a look now that Brian Bannister is on the DL.

  • Double-A Binghamton (2-4; 12-11)

    Another bad offense; first baseman Brett Harper, who hit 36 bombs last year, is still looking for his first after 65 at-bats. 20-year-old outfielder Carlos Gomez, who on paper didn’t look ready to jump two levels to Double-A, has understandably struggled, batting just .205/.301/.261. The good news on the mound is the addition of 2005 first-round pick Mike Pelfrey, and the continued emergence of reliever Henry Owens. Undrafted out of college and a minor league Rule 5 pick from the Pirates in 2004, Owens is 27 years old, but as he’s learned how to pitch, his velocity has moved into the upper 90s and his ability to command that pitch has left Eastern League hitters clueless. In 14.2 innings, Owens has allowed four hits while striking out 33, including 15 of the 22 left-handed batters he’s faced. It’s hard to imagine him getting better, but it’s hard to imagine him not being ready to help soon, either.

  • High Class A St. Lucie (4-3; 14-9)

    Now that he’s 22 and not 20, it’s hard to get excited about Ambiorix Concepcion‘s .333/.396/.448 start. With Pelfrey gone, the real story has been Alay Soler, the Cuban refugee who got a three-year, $2.8 million contract in 2004, but didn’t pitch all of last year while dealing with Visa problems. He was bad in the winter leagues, and downright awful in spring training, but something has clicked at St. Lucie as he’s yet to allow more than one run in any of his four starts, while giving up just 11 hits in 21 innings. At the same time, he’s 26 and was thought to be in the majors by now. Instead, he’ll likely be joining Pelfrey soon at Binghamton.

  • Low Class A Hagerstown (3-3; 10-12)

    Almost the entire story with the Suns has been centerfielder/leadoff man Fernando Martinez. He’s just 17 and will be so until the end of the season, but he’s hit for average (.338), drawn walks (.416 OBP), 10 of his 26 hits are for extra-bases (.519 SLG), and he’s yet to make an error in 20 games. All systems are go.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (4-2; 16-8)

    Cole Hamels has always been filthy, but a combination of dumb luck and dumb behavior limited him to a grand total of 51 innings over the past two years. Finally healthy, he started the year in the warm weather of the Florida State League, and when it heated up a little in Pennsylvania, he moved all the way up to Triple-A. His Barons debut on Thursday definitely fell into the “Announcing My Presence With Authority” category, with 14 strikeouts over seven shutout innings. Go look at the stats of the Phillies starters, and then look at what Hamels did five days ago. He’ll be up soon.

  • Double-A Reading (4-2; 9-12)

    Sometimes it takes talent to get talent. Take the case of Gio Gonzalez, the former White Sox top pitching prospect who came over in the Jim Thome deal. Gonzalez combines two of my favorite traits in pitchers: left handedness and plus velocity. He’s pitched shutout baseball in three of four outings while limiting Eastern League hitters to a .174 average. Righty Scott Mathieson had a 4.14 ERA in Clearwater last year, but was outstanding in the Arizona Fall League and scouts have always loved his big frame and power repertoire. The numbers are catching up to the reviews, as the 22-year-old Canadian has a 37/7 K/BB ratio in 32.1 innings. That’s three big time starting prospects in the upper levels for the Phillies, a situation most teams can only dream about.

  • High Class A Clearwater (1-6; 11-13)

    Though he lacks the projection of Hamels, Gonzalez and Mathieson, lefty J.A. Happ is pitching well, lowering his ERA to 2.51 by not allowing an earned run over his last two starts. He’s a command/finesse guy who doesn’t get his fastball out of the 80s on most occasions, but he’s a nightmare against lefthanded hitters and should make it at the very least as a reliever. I didn’t like it when the Phillies took Mike Costanzo with their first pick (second round) last year, I liked it even less when he struck out 89 times over 73 games in his pro debut, and I still don’t like it (.240/.302/.396).

  • Low Class A Lakewood (4-2; 9-12)

    Everytime you think Greg Golson (.147/.187/.200) is going to break out of his now one-month slump he does something like what he did last weekend, going 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts. Meanwhile, even more pitching is begin to develop at the lower levels. Righthander Kyle Kendrick spent the majority of his first three seasons in short-season ball, but it’s all coming together at Lakewood as the 21-year-old has struck out 31 in his last three starts while allowing just two earned runs in 23 innings. Lefthander Matt Maloney is a polished college product who probably belongs in Clearwater, but that’s not his fault, and he has nearly twice as many strikeouts (35) as hits allowed (18) in 29 innings.

Washington Nationals

  • Triple-A New Orleans (0-6; 10-13)

    2004 first-round pick Bill Bray was supposed to be helping the big league team by now. While he nearly made the Nats bullpen out of spring training, he entered the year with a career ERA of 4.40. He has 16 strikeouts in 12.2 innings for the Zephyrs, but also has a 5.68 ERA and has allowed runs in six of his 10 appearances, not the kind of ratio that gets you to the big leagues. Larry Broadway is 25 and batting .354/.386/.570, but he’s blocked by Nick Johnson. The good news is that Johnson has never played in more than 131 games, so odds are good that Broadway will make his major league debut at some point this season.

  • Double-A Harrisburg (4-2; 15-9)

    Righthander Shawn Hill had a breakout year in 2003, but he had a down year in 2004, as his stuff fell across the board, then he missed all of 2005 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He’s back to full strength with a 1.86 ERA in five starts, and while his strikeouts (22 in 29 innings) have never impressed, he gets plenty of groundballs (nearly 3-to-1 ratio) thanks to a plus sinker. Shortstop Ian Desmond is being rushed through the system for no apparent reason. Desmond was sent to Double-A as a 20-year-old despite career averages of .244/.296/.339. His tools and athleticism provide plenty of reason for excitement, but he’d be better off in the Carolina League, where he’d still be younger than most players and have a better chance for individual success.

  • High Class A Potomac (4-3; 11-11)

    One of the more interesting rotations in the minors has been a disappointment on all levels. 2005 breakout pitcher Colin Balester has a 7.94 ERA in 22.2 innings, 2004 breakout pitcher Mike Hinckley has just seven strikeouts in 20.2 innings and has never refound his stuff from two years ago, while 2002 first-round pick Clint Everts (7.04 ERA) is clearly not all the way back from late-2004 Tommy John surgery.

  • Low Class A Savannah (2-5; 10-13)

    After more bumps in the road than some have to deal with in their entire careers, outfielder Justin Maxwell has finally begun his pro career, and he went deep in his first game. With no first-round selection in 2004, the Nationals took University of Miami catcher Erick San Pedro with the second-round pick. He’s rarely been healthy, and entered 2006 with just 71 pro at-bats and a .155 average. His defensive prowess is well documented, but he’s batting just .161/.235/.258 this year, and already has missed a couple of series with minor bumps and bruises.

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