Andrew Brackman, RHP, North Carolina State
In some ways, Brackman is this year’s version of Brandon Morrow. Like Morrow last spring, Brackman entered the season as one of the favorites among scouts when it came to evaluating arms with little track record to go on. While control problems and minor injuries limited Morrow during his freshman and sophomore campaigns, for Brackman it was minor injuries and time spent on the Wolfpack basketball team. This year he’s healthy, he’s not playing hoops, and he’s busting out. While it’s early in the season, and the major schools are primarily playing easy series, Brackman was nonetheless able to make dominating a squad like Gardner-Webb look impressive on Saturday afternoon. Striking out eight over five shutout innings, Brackman allowed three hits, two of which were bunt singles. While he’s still pitching primarily off his fastball and has struggled in the cold to get a feel for his curve, Brackman sat at 92-95 mph during the outing and touched 98 on multiple occasions. His 6’10” frame makes the ball look like it’s coming down from a mountaintop. Like Morrow, Brackman is fulfilling scouts’ projections early, and like Morrow, he’s on pace to be one of the first five players selected in June.
When Nick Johnson showed up in Florida this week still limping, and with a return in June seeming like the most optimistic of possibilities, the Nationals’ first base job officially became an open competition. Competitive and the Nationals isn’t something you’ll read about much this year, but that’s what spring training is for. Early indications are that Broadway will be option number one. A third-round pick in 2002 out of Duke (yes, they have a baseball program, too), Broadway has moved through the system at a snail’s pace thanks to a number of minor injury issues, but he should be ready to produce at least at a replacement level. He’s never had that one breakout year, but he’s never had a bad year either, posting a .288/.353/.455 line at Triple-A in 2006. He’s already 26 years old, so the projection is done, and PECOTA forecasts only a .246/.315/.408 line from him. He has more power than that from the left side, and should be a decent placeholder if he can beat out Travis Lee.
The fact that Dukes keeps getting chance after chance is a tribute to his undeniable talent, if nothing else. The Devil Rays are talking loudly this spring about Dukes sticking with the big league team as a guy who can play first base, designated hitter, and back up in all three outfield positions, getting three hundred at-bats or so in the process. That’s as much a function of worrying what would happen with another year in the minors and hoping Dukes will mature a little bit in a big league environment as it is a function of knowing that he can help. He’s their best option at first base offensively, so he’s ready to help, and while one could criticize his non-playing exploits, nobody has ever questioned his desire to get better or the work he puts in to do so, so here’s hoping for a feel-good story by the end of the year.
Todd Frazier, SS, Rutgers
If anything, Frazier has good bloodlines. Older brother Charles was a sixth-round pick by the Marlins in 1999, while another brother, Jeff, was a third-round pick in 2004. Charles fizzled out in Double-A, and Jeff’s career has been a disappointment so far, but by all accounts, Todd is the best of the bunch. At 6’4″ and 220 pounds, the youngest brother is also the biggest, and his power potential may be showing up early, as he blasted three home runs during a weekend series against William & Mary. Currently a shortstop and batting leadoff, scouts see him becoming a third baseman who will hit in the middle of the lineup. Frazier has already worked his way into the latter part of the first round, and all indicators are that he’s moving up.
It’s becoming like a bad joke at this point, one that begins with, “Three Pirate pitching prospects walk into the trainer’s room and…” The news came out this week that Lincoln, the No. 4 overall pick in last year’s draft, has some ‘irritation’ in his right elbow and won’t throw off of a mound for up to a month. After seeing many of their top young arms go under the knife for surgery after surgery, Pirates fans already fear the worst. The Pirates have a young rotation this year, but what they need is a young lineup. Unfortunately, the list of promising position players in the system pretty much begins and ends with Andrew McCutchen. Nonetheless, this is potentially yet another depressing blow for an organization that can hardly afford it.
Some early indications out of Dunedin have McGowan returning to a rotation role, and beginning the 2007 season in Triple-A. A first-round pick in 2000, the soon-to-be 25-year-old righthander has sat at the top of Blue Jays prospect lists for years. Scouts love his body and his stuff, but at some point we have to ask, “When’s the last time McGowan was actually good?” The answer is 2003, as McGowan just hasn’t done all that much since his 2004 Tommy John surgery, while being jerked back and forth between starting and relief roles–evidence that the procedure is still sometimes much more than just a delay in one’s career.
Thompson’s listed height of 5’11” is generous, and radar guns are less so, as Thompson has rarely even touched 90 mph in his five-year pro career. So why are we talking about him? Because the Padres need some lefties in the bullpen, and Thompson looks like he’ll get a shot. Despite said concerns, he might be able to handle the job. Thompson knows how to pitch backwards–both his curveball and changeup are plus offerings, and more importantly for the Padres, he knows how to get lefthanders out and keep the ball on the ground. As part of the rotation at Double-A Mobile last year, Thompson limited lefty batters to a .231 batting average with a groundball-to-flyball ratio of more than two-to-one. Situational lefties are usually a pretty anonymous group, and Thompson has never pitched out of the bullpen, but compared to minor league life, the big leagues offer nicer hotels, nicer transportation, better per diems, and the pay isn’t so bad either, I hear.
Neil Walker, 3B, Pirates
One of the first position-change stories to come out of spring training involves Walker, the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft, moving from catcher to third base. The shift is an understandable one, as Walker was a substandard backstop defensively, but at the same time, it also puts a hit on a prospect that was already on a downturn. Walker’s pure hitting skills aren’t in question (he’s a lifetime .286 hitter in the minors), but at the same time, in 1,046 at-bats, he has just 21 home runs and has drawn only 52 walks. With those kinds of secondary skills, he needs to hit .300+ to have value, and now that he’s made such a dramatic move across the defensive spectrum, the offensive expectations take one giant leap forward. As a result, 2007 goes from being an important year for Walker to a pivotal one.
Another young arm not throwing off the mound yet is Weaver, who is only in the long toss stage while dealing with biceps tendonitis. What makes the story more interesting are some comments made to MLB.com in which Weaver explains that this has always been an issue for him because of his mechanics. While it takes a decent amount of maturity and self-awareness to admit such a thing, it also serves as a cautionary tale for other pitching prospects when it comes to messing around with the natural way one throws a baseball. Weaver is what he is, which is pretty damn good. The history of baseball is filled with plenty of fine arms with so-called bad mechanics yet no injury history until those mechanics were altered. Pitching is simply an unnatural act, and thumbs up to Weaver for simply knowing what he is and not trying to mess with a pretty good thing.
B.J. Upton, 2B/3B/SS/OF, Devil Rays
Everybody has a different answer for what to do with Upton, but on a few occasions during the offseason, it looked like Tampa’s answer might have been to simply trade him. Instead, it looks like they’re going to go a completely different route, grooming the ultra-talented Upton as a super utility player who can be used at six positions. The question now is, if he couldn’t handle shortstop, and the struggles in the field were hampering him offensively, how is learning second base and the outfield going to affect him? It’s an interesting gambit, but I’m still not sure if it’s genius or foolhardiness. I’m not convinced the Devil Rays are sure either.