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The minor league regular season is over at the end of
August, which means we’ve reached the halfway mark. Let’s take a look at whose
stock has risen and fallen, who the candidates are to be each team’s top prospect
in my postseason rankings, and what unresolved questions need to be answered as
we officially move into summer.

Baltimore Orioles

Great Leap Forward: After exploding onto the scene
last year in the New York-Penn League, righty Radhames Liz has brought
that success into the High Class A Carolina League, striking out 85 in 69
innings with a 2.34 ERA for Frederick. Reliever James Hoey is 23 and
too old for the Sally League, but it’s hard to argue with 46 strikeouts in 28.1
innings and 18 saves.

Not What We Expected: 2005 first-round pick Brandon
Snyder
struggled with injuries and hit just .194/.237/.340 at Delmarva
before getting sent down to short-season Aberdeen. After becoming the first
position player from the 2004 draft to reach the major leagues and hitting 22
home runs at Frederick last year, outfielder Jeff Fiorentino has been a
mess at Double-A Bowie (.207/.286/.353).

Open Questions: Can lefty Adam Loewen figure
things out at the big league level? Wouldn’t Nick Markakis be better off
at Triple-A? Will Snyder’s demotion boost his confidence or shatter it?

Who Will Be Number One: Loewen is on his way to over
50 major-league innings, and he’ll therefore lose his prospect status–and even still, his
inconsistency remains bothersome. Outfielder Nolan Reimold is having a
good year at Frederick (.274/.401/.486), but it’s not exactly a No. 1 prospect
kind of year. It could come down to Liz and righthander Brandon Erbe.
Erbe’s numbers are equal to if not better than Liz’ while pitching one level below
him at Delmarva, but the fact that he’s four year’s younger could put him over
the top.

Boston Red Sox

Great Leap Forward: The obvious choice here is Jonathan
Papelbon
, and while everyone thought he would succeed immediately in the
big leagues, nobody thought he’d be among the best closers in baseball this
soon. From the “out of nowhere” files comes 2005 32nd-round draft
pick Jeff Natale, who is batting .323/.471/.528 across Boston’s two
A-level squads, but is 24 years old and possibly smaller than Dustin Pedroia.

Not What We Expected: Shortstop Jed Lowrie has
struggled through an injury-plagued season at High-A Wilmington, hitting just
.230/.321/.296 when he does get in the lineup. In his second year at Double-A
Portland, outfielder Brandon Moss has been on fire of late, but his .748
OPS is still 30 points lower than last year’s disappointing campaign.

Open Questions: Will outfielder Luis Soto and
shortstop Christian Lara ever live up to the expectations from their
short-season performances? Will anybody step up to give the Red Sox a
legitimate power prospect?

Who Will Be Number One: With all of the injuries to
pitchers at the big league level, Jon Lester will likely no longer be a
prospect by season’s end, especially after last night’s performance. That
could leave an opening for 2005 first-round pick Jacoby Ellsbury, who is
living up to the Johnny Damon comparisons with a .335/.405/.453 showing
at High Class A Wilmington.

Chicago White Sox

Great Leap Forward: Third baseman Josh Fields is
dominating at Triple-A Charlotte with a .318/.400/.556 line, and there are some
rumors spreading that he’ll be moved the left field in order to get his bat
into the White Sox lineup, with Scott Podsednik moving to center and Brian
Anderson
getting sent down. Knuckleballer Charlie Haeger got
hammered in his one big league start, but with a 1.59 ERA in 84.2 innings at
Charlotte, he’ll eventually get a chance to make up for it.

Not What We Expected: After leading the Southern
League in hits last year and given a shot to compete for the opening day
centerfield job, Jerry Owens has been unable to take advantage of Anderson’s struggles, batting .244/.305/.317 at Charlotte. Shortstop Robert Valido has
seemingly hit a wall at Double-A Birmingham (.208/.269/.315).

Open Questions: While he is just 21 and batting .302
at Triple-A, will Ryan Sweeney‘s power (four HR in 212 at-bats) ever
become more than a myth? Will the team be able to take advantage of their
system-wide depth in starting pitching to make some moves at the trade
deadline?

Who Will Be Number One: If Fields stays in the
minors, he looks like the easy choice. If not, it’s wide open, as the system
will then be lacking any big time prospects.

Cleveland Indians

Great Leap Forward: Corner infielder Kevin
Kouzmanoff
has proven that last year’s explosion was for real, batting a
ridiculous .428/.483/.678 at Double-A Akron before landing on the disabled list
with a hamstring injury. Lefty Jeremy Sowers has a 1.39 ERA in 15
starts for Triple-A Buffalo and has allowed more than two earned runs only once.
He could be the rare lefty starter who projects as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter
despite lacking plus velocity.

Not What We Expected: Righthander Adam Miller (3.97
ERA at Double-A Akron) is still well off from the 2004 dominant version, while
teammate and 2003 first-round pick Brad Snyder has just plain regressed
(.252/.331/.412).

Open Questions: Is Ryan Garko‘s disappointing
year at a Buffalo (.249/.356/.434) the result of a skill drop or frustration?
Will first baseman Michael Aubrey, who has played a grand total of 42
games over the past two years, ever be healthy again?

Who Will Be Number One: Sowers is likely going to
pitch his way out of eligibility, leaving no obvious candidate. 2005
first-round pick Trevor Crowe has certainly worked his way into the mix
with a .329/.449/.470 season at High Class A Kinston.

Detroit Tigers

Great Leap Forward: After putting up a 5.56 ERA at
Double-A Erie last year, gigantor righty Humberto Sanchez brought his
outstanding performance in the Arizona Fall League into the regular season,
reaching Triple-A with a combined 1.49 ERA in 90.2 innings with 103
strikeouts. Righthander Jair Jurrjens continues to prove he’s a real
prospect, reaching Double-A at 20 with a 2.08 ERA in 73.2 innings at High Class
A Lakeland.

Not What We Expected: After winning Florida State
League MVP honors in 2005, outfielder Brent Clevlen is batting just
.211/.296/.298 at Erie. Third baseman Wilkin Ramirez is still all
tools/little performance (.210/.244/.345 at Lakeland).

Open Questions: With the system so overbalanced in pitching,
can they resist the temptation to rush center fielder Cameron Maybin?
How much will first-round pick Andrew Miller cost, and should we
just assume he won’t pitch again until 2007?

Who Will Be Number One: Right now it’s Maybin or
Sanchez, with Miller having the ability to enter the picture if he signs early
enough to impress in his pro debut.

Kansas City Royals

Great Leap Forward: It’s really hard to find a
candidate here. Both Alex Gordon (.301/.404/.511) and Billy Butler

(.319/.382/.500) have had very good years at Double-A Wichita, and while they
should be commended for living up to lofty expectations, it’s not any sort of
surprising leap. 2004 second-round pick Billy Buckner has a 3.89 ERA
and 76 strikeouts in 83.1 innings–numbers that look pretty good when you
realize he’s pitching for High Class A High Desert.

Not What We Expected: Chris Lubanski‘s 2005
explosion now looks like a High Desert creation, as he’s batting .241/.318/.385
for Wichita. After batting .333 in two short seasons, shortstop Chris
McConnell
‘s full season debut at at Low-A Burlington has been nothing short
of a nightmare (.170/.262/.207).

Open Questions: Why isn’t No. 1 pick Luke Hochevar
signed yet? How could the team have drafted him without a deal in place? Will
any prospect other than Butler and Gordon really step up? Will Luis
Cota
ever look like the pitcher that got over $1 million as a
draft-and-follow?

Who Will Be Number One: It looks like Gordon is in
line for no more than a September callup, and if that’s the case, nobody will
pass him up.

Los Angeles Angels

Great Leap Forward: Beyond the numerous big name
prospects, nearly all of whom have either met or exceeded expectations, some
young talent in the system has also really stepped forward in baseball’s
deepest system. Shortstop Sean Rodriguez has already tied his career
high with 14 home runs as part of a .299/.360/.530 line at High Class A Rancho
Cucumonga, while teammate Jose Arredondo has been the California
League’s best pitcher–with a 2.16 ERA in 75 innings and an even 100
strikeouts. Big money draft-and-follow Stephen Marek throws strikes and has
been clocked in the upper 90s several times at Low Class A Cedar Rapids, where
he has a 2.29 ERA in 14 starts.

Not What We Expected: Jeff Mathis flopped when
given the starting catcher job, but Mickey Tettleton clone Mike
Napoli
has stepped in and performed more than admirably. After getting
$1.425 million as a 18th round pick in 2004, first baseman Mark
Trumbo
hasn’t looked like a guy who deserved first-round money, batting .225/.283/.399 at Cedar Rapids.

Open Questions: Can Mathis become a prospect again?
Despite having a good team, will the Angels make some roster moves to get prospects who
are ready like Jered Weaver and Howie Kendrick into the everyday
rotation and lineup?

Who Will Be Number One: Kendrick enters the second half in the lead, but both he and Weaver have a good chance of losing prospect status by the end of the year. Brandon Wood lurks in the distance.

Minnesota Twins

Great Leap Forward: Pitching, pitching and more
pitching. 2005 first-round pick Matt Garza has put himself among the
top pitching prospects in the game, reaching Double-A and compiling a 1.35 ERA
in 80 innings with 100 strikeouts in his first full season. While 2005
second-round pick Kevin Slowey remains at High A Fort Myers for now, his
numbers are even better, with a 1.10 ERA in 81.2 innings, allowing just 48 hits
and amassing a 92/7 K/BB ratio.

Not What We Expected: 2004 second-round pick Anthony
Swarzak remains far more potential than performance, allowing 78 hits in 69
innings at Ft. Myers with a 4.57 ERA. After getting off to a hot start at
Double-A New Britain, third-baseman Matt Moses is hitting .213 in his
last 40 games and just .243/.297/.404 overall.

Open Questions: With Jason Kubel establishing
himself in the majors, will any batter in the minors establish himself? Will
shortstop Trevor Plouffe ever hit? Will Denard Span ever add any
skills to his game other than running really fast?

Who Will Be Number One: Betcha it’s a pitcher! Garza
has a pretty big lead over anyone else, based both on his performance and his
stuff.

New York Yankees

Great Leap Forward: 2005 third-round pick Brett
Gardner
hit .323/.418/.433 with 30 stolen bases for High Class A Tampa,
earning him a promotion to Double-A Trenton. $800,000 eighth-round pick Austin
Jackson
is concentrating solely on baseball for the first time in his life,
and with a .260/.349/.359 line at Low Class A Charleston, his transition has
been pretty seamless. Those are not great numbers, but he’s showing a good
approach at the plate, and that can be half the battle with somebody so young
and raw.

Not What We Expected: 2003 first-round pick Eric
Duncan
was a fashionable choice as a breakout candidate following his MVP
campaign in the Arizona Fall League, but he hit .209/.279/.255 in 31 games at
Triple-A Columbus without a single home run in 110 at-bats. Nearly half of the
opening day lineup at Tampa tanked in the season’s first few months, with
highly-regarded prospects like outfielder Tim Battle (.133/.188.184),
shortstop Eduardo Nunez (.184/.223/.340) and third baseman Marcos
Vechionacci
(.178/.242/.237) all finding themselves demoted to Charleston
after miserable starts.

Open Questions: Do the Yankees have anybody in the
minor league system to use in trades other than righthander Philip Hughes,
who is understandably untouchable? Just how good can outfielder Jose Tabata be? He’s batting .310/.371/.453 for Charleston, and if he was growing up
in this country, he’d still be in high school.

Who Will Be Number One: Right now it’s gotta be
Hughes, but if Tabata develops into one of the top prospects in baseball over
the next two years, I don’t think a lot of people will be surprised.

Oakland Athletics

Great Leap Forward: After batting .346 in his pro
debut last year with 14 doubles in 155 at-bats, outfielder Travis Buck has
maintained that pace, batting .326/.393/.545 between High Class A Stockton and
Double-A Midland with a minor-league leading 32 doubles in 279 at-bats. After
getting shut down with a sore arm last year, former College World Series hero Jason
Windsor
was the first minor-league pitcher to 10 wins and has struck out 82
in 77.2 innings. His stuff isn’t great, but he’s one of those guys where the
whole is greater than the sum of the parts and he’s close to getting a look.

Not What We Expected: Top prospect Daric Barton has
missed two weeks with an elbow injury and will likely miss about six more.
Before that, he was struggling for the first time in his career at Triple-A Sacramento (.259/.389/.395). Speaking of bum elbows, toolsy outfielder Javier Herrera has
missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Top 2005 pick Cliff Pennington (.203/.302/.277) is in the hitting-friendly California League,
yet didn’t get above the Mendoza line until this week.

Open Questions: Will Dan Meyer (5.07 ERA at Sacramento) ever pitch like he did in the Atlanta system? How serious is right hander Craig Italiano‘s shoulder injury? Is there a decent lefthander in the entire
system?

Who Will Be Number One: Barton will likely remain No.
1, as his statistics become much better when you realize that’s a 20-year-old
player doing it in Triple-A. Buck could be his lone competition, but he’s one
level lower and two years older.

Seattle Mariners

Great Leap Forward: Picked up off waivers jast year,
former Dodgers and Indians prospect Francisco Cruceta has a 3.54 ERA at
Triple-A Tacoma, 92 strikeouts in 76.1 innings, and at 24 (he turns 25 in
July), might be younger than you think. Infielder Yung-Chi Chen is
batting .335/.384/.474 at High Class A Inland Empire, but lacks any one
outstanding tool.

Not What We Expected: In 2003, righthander Clint
Nageotte
and lefty Travis Blackley comprised the best 1-2 punch in
the minors at Double-A San Antonio. Three years later, Nageotte has a 5.45
ERA at Tacoma with his stuff taking a step backwards across the board while
Blackley has a 4.56 ERA back in the Texas League after missing all of 2005
while recovering from shoulder surgery.

Open Questions: With just 45 games of professional
experience, why is 2005 first-round pick Jeff Clement going to Triple-A Tacoma
this week after recovering from minor knee surgery? While he is hitting .306
for Inland Empire, shouldn’t Matt Tuiasosopo be expected to have more
than one home run?

Who Will Be Number One: Clement has more upside than
any hitter in the system, and it’s not even close, but Brandon Morrow,
the fifth overall pick two weeks ago, immediately becomes the team’s top
pitching prospect.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Great Leap Forward: Shorstop Reid Brignac has
had an offensive explosion at High Class A Visalia, batting .327/.379/.551.
While few are surprised at righty Wade Davis‘ domination at Low Class A
Southwest Michigan, lefty Jason McGee, a fourth-round pick in 2004, has
actually outpitched Davis, with a 2.31 ERA in 74 innings and 94 strikeouts.

Not What We Expected: Since being the fourth overall
pick two years ago, righthander Jeff Nieman has had a sore shoulder and
then minor (if there is any such thing) shoulder surgery, pitching a total of
35 innings since signing. Meanwhile, third baseman (well, in the lineup, but
not really in any sort of future reality) Wes Bankston is starting to
earn a permanent “injury-prone” label in front of his name as well. As far
as Triple-A Durham goes, forget about the performances; the behavior of some
elite prospects on that team has been an embarrassment to the organization and
not exactly something that earns a gold star for the new regime.

Open Questions: Is anybody concerned that Delmon has
zero home runs in 87 at-bats? Is the organization any closer in figuring out
what to do with B.J. Upton? Does the housecleaning to get some of this
young talent to the big leagues begin in July or in the offseason?

Who Will Be Number One: Delmon. Yes, he did an idiotic thing. But that really doesn’t have any effect on his ability
to play baseball.

Texas Rangers

Great Leap Forward: There’s not really an obvious
candidate here, as there’s no big breakout performance in their minor league
system. Ian Kinsler has been very good at second base for the big
league squad, though I think his batting line in June (.264/.317/.491) is more
in line with his actual skill set. Jason Botts‘ battering of Pacific
Coast League pitching (.318/.373/.615) prompted the Rangers to deal away Phil
Nevin
and give Botts an everyday job, where he’s held his own.

Not What We Expected: While shortstop Joaquin
Arias
made the Futures Game, there should be some sort of rule to prevent
players with sub-.300 on-base percentages (.270/.297/.371 at Triple-A Oklahoma)
from being selected. Polished college bats are supposed to dominate Low Class
A ball, but Stanford’s John Mayberry seemed like a reach in the first
round last year, and 12 months later, it still looks like a reach
(.226/.322/.409 at Clinton).

Open Questions: John Danks seems to be coming
around at Double-A; can Thomas Diamond do the same? Will Edison Volquez do better in big league trial number two, which could happen soon?
If the Rangers want to make a deal in July, do they have anything other than
the DVD trio and Eric Hurley to offer?

Who Will Be Number One: Volquez will likely no longer
be a prospect at season’s end, and I personally think Hurley has surpassed Danks
and Diamond as a prospect. After compiling a 2.92 ERA in 14 starts for High
Class A Bakersfield, comparing the three will be much easier as Hurley is
expected to be promoted to Frisco soon.

Toronto Blue Jays

Great Leap Forward: After shooting through three
levels last season, righthander Casey Janssen found himself in the major
league rotation after just four starts at Triple-A Syracuse. A model of
consistency when it comes to batting average, outfielder Adam Lind hit
.312 in 2004, .313 in 2005, and is at .313/.360/.520 at Double-A New Hampshire
this year, though his 12 home runs already ties a career-high.

Not What We Expected: Big lefty David Purcey

was pushed to Triple-A, but struggled to a 5.40 ERA in 12 games as his
inability to throw strikes (38 BB in 51.2 IP) finally caught up with him. Some
folks got a little too excited by Chip Cannon‘s 32 home runs last year,
as now he’s at .246/.329/.461 at New Hampshire, without a real defensive home,
and turning 25 years old at the end of the year.

Open Questions: How many times are people going to
get excited about Brandon League only to be disappointed? With a 0.00
ERA in June, I think we’re on time No. 23. Fool me once… By taking Travis
Snyder
with the 14th overall pick in June, does the player
development stuff need a refresher course in bringing along high school
players?

Who Will Be Number One: Potentially the hardest
choice in the American League, and one that will come down to philosophy. Who’s
the better prospect–the safe pick with a very good chance to get there (pick
from many), or the player with the highest ceiling, yet the farthest distance
from it (Snider)?

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