Over the weekend, in need of an extra outfielder, the Cardinals called up minor league veteran Ryan Ludwick, who started in right field for them on Sunday. So Ankiel waits a little longer for what’s looking more and more like a remarkable return to the big leagues. Friday night, Ankiel went 3-for-5 with his eighth home run of the year, and he’s batting .272/.316/.563 in 103 at-bats while playing a surprisingly decent centerfield. Now 27 years old, the former top pitching prospect in the game still has some holes in his game–he’s an impatient hitter, he struggles against good lefties–but with plus-plus power, a solid glove, and (not surprisingly) a very good arm, they should get him back up to The Show soon.
While Davis languished at sixth on my Devil Rays top 10 in the offseason, make no doubt about it–he’d be the top prospect in some other organizations, and at least in the top three in nearly every other one. Friday night, the six-foot-five power righty was at his best, throwing a seven-inning no-hitter, with one walk the only blemish on the record. In his last three starts, Davis has delivered seven innings each time, allowing five hits in those 21 frames while compiling a 23-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With a mid-90s fastball, power breaker, and clearly improved command, Davis is just one of many intriguing arms in the system that has observers believing that over the next few years it will be the Devil Rays that remove the stranglehold that the Red Sox and Yankees have held on the AL East since 1997.
De La Cruz is one of those guys that just drives prospect hounds nuts. Despite a sub-six-foot frame, De La Cruz has touched 100 mph in the past, but more comfortable sits in the mid-90s, adding heavy sink with the reduced velocity. He’s much more than a one-pitch guy, though, as his power curve is consistently graded at above-average. Yet he rarely dominates, and nobody has a great explanation as to why. That was anything but the case Friday night, when the 23-year-old needed just 101 pitches to fire a two-hit shutout against Harrisburg, striking out 10 and retiring 15 of the other 17 batters on ground balls. It’s hard to see this as a trend, as he entered the game with a 5.48 ERA, but every time he does something like this, everyone sits up and takes notice, wondering if he’s finally turned the corner.
Jason Donald, SS, Low-A Lakewood (Phillies)
Donald was a third-round pick last June out of the University of Arizona, where he spent three years as a fundamentally sound shortstop whose tools and statistics didn’t disappoint, but which also didn’t blow anyone away. While he probably belongs at a higher level than he’s playing at, his statistics are at least entering that ‘wow’ level. Donald officially went off over the weekend, going 8-for-14 with three doubles, two home runs, eight runs scored and six driven in, raising his season averages to .358/.421/.509 in 26 contests. He’ll likely move up to the Florida State League before season’s end, but in an organization with a young, star-level middle infield of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, it’s hard to define his future any more than that at this time.
Last year, Fowler had a breakout year in the Rockies system, as his unquestioned tools converted into baseball skills much sooner than expected. Even more was anticipated as he moved to the California League for 2007, and after a miserable .187/.315/.267 showing in April, Fowler is finally heating up, going 6-for-10 during a weekend tilt with High Desert while drawing three walks and swiping a pair of bases. Now at .250/.395/.323, Fowler’s numbers are still weak, but everything is moving in the right direction for one of the highest high-ceiling prospects around.
On Saturday night, the Pawsox and Buffalo picked up a suspended game, and by the ninth inning, it had gotten out of hand. Already down 12-6 and trying to preserve the bullpen, Buffalo brought in veteran utilityman Trent Durrington to pitch, and after walking in a pair of runs, Pawtucket went into the bottom of the ninth with a seemingly insurmountable 14-6 lead. It was a perfect opportunity to get the struggling Hansen, expected to be the closer of the future when he was drafted two years ago, some ninth inning work. Hansen walked the first batter, and then had trouble fielding a ball against the next. Two singles, a double, a hit batter, and an error by outfielder David Murphy later, Hansen was out of the game, and the score was 14-11. Hoping to salvage something, Pawtucket then put in another struggling reliever for whom high expectations are held–Delcarmen. He got Franklin Gutierrez to pop up for out number one, but then the wheels came off. Shortstop Ed Rogers booted a Luis Rivas ground ball, Ben Francisco singled, Hector Luna doubled, and suddenly the game was tied. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Delcarmen then walked Mike Rose to give the Bisons an incredible 15-14 win. Expected to be an important part of the big league bullpen by now, both Hanson (7.20 ERA) and Delcarmen (7.24) are going backwards. And of course, Durrington now has a pitching victory to his credit.
Will Inman, RHP, High-A Brevard County (Brewers)
Inman entered the season with a career ERA of 1.77 and 193 strikeouts in 158 innings. He’s short, he doesn’t throw especially hard, and scouts wondered how his combination of plus-plus command of only decent stuff would play at the upper levels. So far, so good. Friday night, Inman fired seven shutout innings against Palm Beach, allowing three hits and striking out nine, lowering his ERA on the season to 1.51 in six starts, with 43 whiffs and just six free passes in 35.2 IP. Often for pitchers like this, Double- and/or Triple-A is the real test, so we still don’t know what we don’t know.
Chin-Lung Hu, SS, Double-A Jacksonville (Dodgers)
The hits just keep on coming. Given a rare day off on Friday, Hu was a late-game replacement and doubled in his only at-bat. On Saturday, the 23-year-old Taiwan native had a perfect five-for-five night with three more doubles, giving him 15 on the year, and tying him for the overall minor-league lead. After flying out on Sunday to end the six-for-six streak, Hu added two more hits to raise his season averages to .371/.392/.534. As a prospect for whom the bulk of his reputation is for his glove work, this is an exciting step forward.
Wade LeBlanc, LHP, High-A Lake Elsinore (Padres)
A second-round pick last year, LeBlanc was a classic college over-performer–throwing strikes, spinning a good breaking ball, changing speeds well, and dominating less-advanced hitters. With his polish, the Padres began his full-season debut in the High-A California League, and he gave up nine runs in his first two starts. Those are also the only runs he’s given up this year. On Saturday night, LeBlanc was at his best, allowing just one hit over six innings while striking out 10 Stockton batters. In his last four outings, the 22-year-old southpaw has gone 23.1 innings without allowing a run, giving up just 11 hits, walking six, and punching out 26. With an 85-88 mph fastball, it’s hard to see him ever sitting at the front end of a big league rotation, but it’s not hard to at least see him in one, and that makes him a pretty good prospect.
Jeff Manship, RHP, Low-A Beloit (Twins)
Four years ago, Manship was one of the top high school arms available, but he wanted to pitch at Notre Dame. That plan was shelved for a bit as he required Tommy John surgery before his freshman year. He returned well, and while most teams passed on him as a sophomore-eligible draftee last June, the Twins took him in the 14th round and convinced him to signed for $300,000, or what’s roughly early fourth-round money. Manship fits the profile of many Twins pitchers–he’s a little undersized, but he has a quality four-pitch mix and is a strike-throwing machine. On Saturday, Manship struck out nine over seven innings and allowed one run on four hits, which raised his ERA to 0.92. In 39 innings he’s struck out 45 and walked just three, and should be heading to the Florida State League soon. In a system already loaded with pitching prospects, the Twins just found another one thanks to another heady pick by scouting director Mike Radcliff.