- Triple-A Iowa (5-5 in last 10 games; 22-27 overall)
One of the more surprising peformers over the first two months of the season has been first baseman Micah Hoffpauir, who is tied for the minor league lead with 14 home runs. A 13th-round pick in 2002 who entered the season having never hit more than 11 home runs in a season, the 26-year-old Hoffpauir slugged 10 in 138 at-bats at Double-A West Tenn and then got flip-flopped with a struggling (.177/.307/.344) Brandon Sing. If the Cubs are going to do that, why not try to ride the hot bat at the big league level and give the team an actual first baseman? He’ll never be a star, and probably never a regular for a full season, but anything that slides Todd Walker back to second base and gets Neifi Perez out of the lineup has to be a good thing, right? The third overall pick in the 2000 draft, Luis Montanez looked like a certain bust before coming alive with the bat when the Cubs moved him to the outfield three years ago. He’s 11-for-38 in his first 11 Triple-A games after batting .369/.438/.489 at Double-A.
- Double-A West Tenn (5-5; 30-22)
Bobby Brownlie is kind of the Cubs’ version of San Diego’s Tim Stauffer. Through no fault of his own, he entered pro baseball as damaged goods, and he’s never been the same pitcher that scouts saw at Rutgers. After giving up 24 hits and 15 runs in 11.2 innings at Iowa, Brownlie is back to Double-A, where his ERA has been nearly cut in half, but is still 5.71. In college he had a mid-90s fastball and a devastating curveball, but the last time he saw 90 mph was probably in a very nice vehicle he bought with part of his $2.5 million bonus. The news is better for former Detroit first-round pick Scott Moore, who salvaged his career with a .281/.358/.485 line in the Florida State League last year, and is batting .275/.350/.517 in his first Double-A experience. With Sing regressing and Brian Dopirak still nursing a broken foot from which he should return soon, Moore might be the team’s best first base prospect, as his glove work at third base is still suspect.
- High Class A Daytona (5-5; 25-25)
The big story here has been righthander Sean Gallagher. Gallagher was the Cubs minor league pitcher of the year in 2005 after winning 14 games and striking out 146 batters in 151 innings at Peoria, but scouts were uninspired by his high 80s fastball. The performance (2.43 ERA in 10 starts, 62 Ks in 59.2 innings) is still there this year in the Florida State League, and the good news is that his heater has taken a dramatic step forward, as what was once a 88-90 mph offering is now sitting comfortably at 90-93. He’s one to watch. On the opposite side is outfielder Ryan Harvey, as the former sixth-overall pick has gone 24 games without a home run and seen his batting line drop to a miserable .170/.233/.296.
- Low Class A Peoria (6-4; 28-21)
Catcher Mark Reed has been doing a pretty nice impression of older brother Jeremy, batting .320/.382/.420 while throwing out half of opposing base stealers. The rotation features Donald Veal, who has an enormous ceiling based on his size (6-foot-4), plus-plus velocity and left handedness. Veal has twice as many strikeouts (64) as hits allowed (32) in 53.2 innings, but his control (34 walks) has been shaky. He’s going to take a while, but has front-of-the-rotation potential. It’s kind of cool to look at a Peoria stat sheet and see Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, and it’s been cool for the Peoria staff to get some big crowds and plenty of big media for a couple of nights, but I’m guessing the Cubs front office would use words other than ‘cool’ to describe the situation.
- Triple-A Louisville (6-4; 21-29)
Outfielder Chris Denorfia keeps on hitting (.338/.402/.469) and possibly reading Under The Knife every day to find an injury at the big league club that will give him another chance. If anything, former first-round pick Ryan Wagner is regressing, as his ERA has risen to 6.26 and he’s allowed 18 hits in 11.1 May innings while striking out just six. Nobody really has a good explanation for what happened to the reliever who reached the big leagues in the year he was drafted and pitched well when he got there.
- Double-A Chattanooga (7-3; 33-19)
While the offense has been helped by nice seasons from minor league veterans like Aaron Herr and Noochie Varner, the most encouraging thing has been the resurgence of first baseman Joey Votto. After batting .302/.419/.486 at Dayton in 2004, the 2002 second-round pick struggled in the Florida State League last year, batting .256/.330/.425. Double-A seemed like a scary proposition, but Votto has found his stroke and hit .294/.373/.500 for the Lookouts, including a .364 mark with 14 extra-base hits in May. The bad news: lefthanders still perplex him (.171 with zero HR in 70 at-bats). Closer David Shafer has appeared in 18 games and recorded a save in 15 of them, while allowing just four runs on 12 hits in 17.2 innings. At 24, he is what he is, but could be in the Cincinnati bullpen by the second-half.
- High Class A Sarasota (4-6; 22-28)
There’s nothing to talk about offensively with this squad, as the only two starters with an OPS over .725–infielder Drew Anderson and outfielder Jay Garthwaite–are no more than organizational players. Righthander Homer Bailey continues to be a riddle wrapped in an enigma and covered with chocolate icing (or however that saying goes)–while he’s allowed 11 runs over 11.1 innings in his last two starts and has an ERA of 3.97, his peripheral numbers (56.2 innings, 45 hits, 64 strikeouts) are borderline dominant. After allowing 16 runs in his first seven starts, 2005 fourth-round pick Sam LeCure has given up 15 in just 11.2 innings over his last three, losing a little bit of luster.
- Low Class A Dayton (3-7; 25-26)
Shortstop Paul Janish, a 2004 fifth-round pick out of Rice, hit just .245/.346/.385 last year for the Dragons in 55 games before requiring Tommy John surgery. This year, he hit .398/.435/.612 before earning a promotion to Sarasota last week. He’ll be 24 at the end of the season, so he’s well behind the standard path, but his ability to make contact and his plus defensive skills should help him get there. More interesting is 2005 first-round pick Jay Bruce. The toolsy outfielder is batting just .263, and an aggressive approach has led to just 15 walks and a .315 on-base percentage, but with 30 of his 51 hits going for extra bases, Bruce is slugging .541 and his future looks awfully bright. And no, I’m not going to continue that and make a reference to that awful 80s song.
- Triple-A Round Rock (5-5; 29-20)
The Express are scoring runs in bunches lately, thanks to outfielders Luke Scott and Charlton Jimerson. Scott had consecutive two-homer games over the weekend, and is now batting .278/.403/.534 while Jimerson went deep three times on Saturday and is batting .296/.322/.558. They both have some holes in their game–especially Jimerson, who has a ridiculously bad 83-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 206 at-bats–but you could see one of them getting a look if Jason Lane continues to struggle. Second baseman Brooks Conrad (.276/.330/.547) has put up good-to-very-good numbers at every level, but being a second baseman in the Astros system has been tough for the last 18 or so years.
- Double-A Corpus Christi (4-6; 30-20)
Outfielder Hunter Pence got off to a tremendous start, but it’s time for him to make adjustments, as pitchers have adjusted to him. He’s batting just .200 in his last 16 games with only two home runs, and pitchers have simply stopped throwing him fastballs. The good news is that comeback player of the year candidate J.R. House (.349/.397/.503) and shortstop Ben Zobrist (.319/.420/.465) continue to hit. Righthander Mitch Albers (2.14 ERA in 10 starts, 1.14 WHIP) has regained the form from his 2004 breakout, and on a pure stuff level, ranks with any Astros pitching prospect.
- High Class A Salem (4-6; 21-29)
The lineup is nearly prospect-less, other than catcher Lou Santangelo (.259/.322/.460) who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but does project as a decent backup with some pop. Lefthander Troy Patton has struggled to a 1-6 record with a 4.01 ERA, but with 30 strikeouts over 22.2 innings in his last four starts, nothing has really changed in his prospect status.
- Low Class A Lexington (7-3; 31-19)
First baseman Ole Sheldon (.377/.480/.534) has one of the best lines in the minors, but he’s not really a prospect as much as he’s an older, organizational first base type. The best player on the Legends who projects as a big leaguer is catcher Justin Towles, who is batting .341/.416/.541 and has suddenly found a power stroke with three home runs in his last four games. The biggest disappointment in the system so far may be outfielder Eli Iorg. The 2005 supplemental first-round pick is batting .224/.274/.327, and because of a Mormon mission during his college career, he’s already 23 but only in his first full season.
- Triple-A Nashville (5-5; 28-23)
The Sounds feature a pretty impressive outfield right now of Nelson Cruz (.291/.365/.566), Tony Gwynn (.320/.360/.401) and Dave Krynzel (.287/.371/.472), and any of the three could contribute should the need for an extra outfielder come up. Cruz offers power and speed, Gwynn offers contact ability, speed and defense, while Krynzel is kind of in-between the two sets of skills. The bad news is that once highly-regarded prospect Brad Nelson is now four years removed from his big year in A ball and is hitting just .215/.311/.362. Big lefty Dana Eveland was the team’s best pitcher before getting called up–that honor now belongs to Ben Hendrickson (2.08 ERA, 0.92 WHIP), who is looking more and more like a classic 4A arm.
- Double-A Huntsville (0-10; 20-31)
The Stars have gone from a .500 team to 11 games under in the span of 12 days, thanks to an eleven-game losing streak in which they have been outscored 55-22. The team is hitting .221/.306/.308 combined, and despite a paltry line of .258/.366/.367, catcher Lou Palmisano leads all regulars in OPS. The only player with more than three home runs is first baseman Greg Sain, and he’s batting .171. Righty Carlos Villanueva (3.52 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) got the big call last week, but PECOTA and scouts agree that righthander + fringy stuff = not much.
- High Class A Brevard County (7-3; 26-23)
Good news, Huntsville fans: this team has some real talent, which bodes well for the Double-A squad next year, if not earlier. Third baseman Ryan Braun has hit very well (.307/.367/.483) for the Florida State League, but his defense (15 errors) remains a concern and could prompt a move–which wouldn’t matter much as his bat will play anywhere. Outfielder Charlie Fermaint (.308/.378/.434) has been a dynamic presence at the top of the lineup with speed and power…and he doesn’t turn 21 until mid-October. The most disappointing recent news out of Brevard County of late has concerned second baseman Hernan Iribarren, who is batting .287/.323/.356 and was suspended for three games when a bat cracked over the holiday weekend and cork flew out. Whoops. On the mound, 2004 second-round pick Yovani Gallardo (2.18 ERA in 10 starts, 77 strikeouts in 57.2 innings) has rocked, while 2004 first-rounder Mark Rogers (7.04 ERA in 10 starts, 2.06 WHIP) has gotten rocked.
- Low Class A West Virginia (5-5; 26-23)
Man, the Brewers have some good young players, as the Power lineup has some more interesting bats who still aren’t old enough to drink. Vertically challenged catcher Angel Salome (.316/.366/.495) now has 118 career RBI in 135 games, 2005 fifth-round pick Mat Gamel (.302/.354/.524) hit nine home runs in May, and outfielder Lorenzo Cain, a draft-and-follow who won MVP honors in the Arizona League last year, is batting .299/.368/.401. A third-round pick last June, intriguing righty Will Inman (1.80 ERA, 1.03 WHIP) went six straight appearances without allowing a run, and has yet to give up a home run in 35 innings.
- High Class A Indianapolis (7-3; 29-21)
Can we make a rule that the nickname of a minor league team cannot match that of a major league team unless said big league club is the parent? Pittsburgh’s Triple-A team being the Indianapolis Indians just causes confusion. The lineup is filled with retread and fringy guys, but infielder/outfielder Yurendell de Caster has been a disappointment (.241/.308/.380) after his monstrous winter in Venezuela. The news is better on the mound as lefthander Tom Gorzelanny (2.57 ERA in 11 starts, 1.02 WHIP) has a 1.87 ERA in six May starts with 41 strikeouts in 40.2 innings and should get a look soon. Also on the second-half call up list is reliever Joshua Sharpless, who was untouchable at Altoona and has allowed one run on four hits in 5.2 innings while striking out seven in four Triple-A appearances.
- Double-A Atloona (7-3; 33-18)
Because he turns 26 in June, it’s hard to get too excited about outfielder Adam Boeve, but he’s hitting .333/.407/.478 and scouts like his skill set. Shortstop Javier Guzman, who hit .306/.334/.413 in Hickory in 2004, and .324/.374/.488 at Hickory last year, struggled after his promotion Altoona last year, and has still yet to solve Double-A pitching (.242/.278/.304). 30-year-old righthander Brandon Knight is a career minor leaguer who spent the last three seasons in Japan, but he has 40 strikeouts in 28.2 innings to go along with a 0.94 ERA while inheriting the closer role from Sharpless.
- High Class A Lynchburg (5-5; 23-26)
After missing the first six weeks of the season recovering from wrist surgery, 2004 first-round pick Neil Walker (.277/.292/.404) is still shaking off the cobwebs, but another late add, first baseman Steven Pearce has added some much-needed punch to the lineup. After batting .288/.363/.606 at Hickory, the 2005 8th-round pick is 7-for-16 with six RBI in five games. The team’s best starter has been Wardell Starling (2.53 ERA in 10 starts, 0.98 WHIP), whose career has been most disappointing since being selected in the fourth round four years ago.
- Low Class A Hickory (5-5; 21-27)
A tough May has transformed 2005 first-round pick Andrew McCutchen‘s line from very good to just pretty good (.297/.364/.448), but last June’s fourth-round pick, shortstop Brent Lillibridge (.306/.417/.489) has picked up the slack. An aggressive hitter both at the University of Washington and in his pro debut, Lillibridge has become a walking machine this year (33 in 180 at-bats) while slugging six home runs and stealing 17 bases. 2004 first-round pick Chris Lambert (5.11 ERA, 1.80 WHIP) was rushed last year, and has yet to adjust to the more polished hitters at Double-A.
St. Louis Cardinals
- Triple-A Memphis (5-5; 18-32)
Outfielder Skip Schumaker (.333/.366/.437) has been one of the Redbirds’ top hitters since getting sent down, but that’s basically going to be his career path–reach the majors, stick around until a better option is found, rake following demotion to Triple-A. Lather, rinse, repeat. Righthander Anthony Reyes has delivered seven quality starts in eight tries and could be in the big league rotation for the stretch run. Meanwhile, outfielder Shaun Boyd (.189/.298/.256) and shortstop John Nelson (.213/.243/.433) are running low on prospect currency, and they started the year on Baltic Avenue.
- Double-A Springfield (7-3; 30-19)
Despite the impressive record, the Springfield roster is about as bad as the Memphis one. After a crazy April, outfielder Reid Gorecki‘s deal with Satan ended, as he hit .231 with two home runs in 23 May games. Fellow outfielders Cody Haerther (.245/.316/.448) and Nick Stavinoha (.270/.291/.397) both entered the season as more highly regarded prospects than Gorecki, but both have been major disappointments.
- High Class A Palm Beach (3-7; 24-25)
Terry Evans leads the Florida State League with 12 home runs, but he’s also a 24-year-old in his fourth season of A ball, so take it with a grain of salt. 2005 first-round pick Tyler Greene continues to struggle mightily at the plate (.212/.297/.318), and he hasn’t exactly been great in the field (17 errors), either. Once one of the top prospects in the system, righty Blake Hawksworth has struggled since 2004 labrum surgery, but his performance this year (2.34 ERA in 10 starts, 1.09 WHIP) provides some optimism, though more missed bats (just 39 strikeouts in 57.2 innings) would be nice to see.
- Low Class A Quad Cities (3-7; 20-28)
For those who have survived this nearly 3,000 word trip through the National League Central, I’m about to reward you. Jaime Garcia. That’s your sleeper. A 6-foot-2 lefthander, Garcia was a 22nd-round steal for the Cardinals last year, as the former Mexican National Team member was all but forgotten about after not signing with the Orioles, who selected him in the 30th round of the 2004 draft. Not yet 20 years old and armed with a low-90s fastball and big breaking curve, Garcia has a 2.28 ERA in nine starts for the Swing, to go along with 59 strikeouts in 55.1 innings. In the non-sleeper category is 2005 first-round pick Mark McCormick (3.74 ERA in nine starts) who is missing bats (55 strikeouts in 43.1 innings, 30 hits allowed) and missing the strike zone (35 walks).