Aaron Bates, 1B, High-A Lancaster (Red Sox)

While Lancaster’s weekend was mostly bad (if not downright embarrassing), Bates provided at least one highlight for the club by smacking four home runs on Saturday. Surprisingly enough, in a circuit known for its small parks and inflated run totals, it was the first time this had been achieved in the 66-year history of the California League. With two more hits on Sunday, Bates is now hitting .301/.442/.641, leading the league in slugging, and tied for the home run lead with 13. But what do we really have here? Always a hitter-friendly park, Lancaster has taken it to the extreme this year. In 23 2007 home games, the Jethawks are averaging 8.2 runs per games, and allowing 8.8; on the road, those figures drop to 5.7 and 5.4. Mirroring that trend is Bates himself, who is hitting .346/.449/.815 at home, and .253/.436/.453 after those long bus rides. As a 23-year-old first baseman, his bat has to carry him, and right now it’s only doing that half of the time.

Kyle Blanks, 1B, High-A Lake Elsinore (Padres)

When your team scores 63 runs over the three-game weekend series, there are plenty of offensive stars to go around, but with 10 leagues and 180 teams to worry about, let’s give the props to Blanks, because we just don’t get to talk about 290 pound baseball players often enough. After missing almost half of 2006 with a mysterious leg infection–as well as some conditioning issues that brought him up over 300 pounds–Blanks is in much better shape this year, which means he’s carrying around 280 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame. Over the weekend Blanks went 11-for-18 with four doubles, three home runs, and 11 RBI, putting his triple crown rate stats at .340/.400/.627 going into the week. Blanks is more of a prospect than Bates–he’s two-and-a-half years younger and, believe it or not, is the better athlete. Even with his size, he’s a slick fielder and a nearly-average runner once he gets going. It’s all going to come down to conditioning for Blanks, who seems to be teetering between auditioning for the big leagues or for a future season of Celebrity Fit Club.

Roger Clemens, RHP, High-A Tampa (Yankees)

Everything about the Clemens situation is unique. Nowhere else will you find a pro-rated $28 million minor league contract. Nowhere else will you find a minor league postgame press conference being broadcast live on national cable. Heck, it’s hard to find a minor league postgame press conference at all. However, Clemens is unique, and appropriately enough the 44-year-old began his annual comeback at Legends Field in Tampa, firing four solid innings for the Florida State League Yankees. Clemens’ velocity was a little light at 89-91 mph, but his breaking ball and command were crisp. It’s only one start for Clemens in Florida, but plenty of players who will never reach the majors can now talk about the day they shared the field with one of the best of all time, and Twins prospect Erik Lis can always tell the story
of when he took Clemens deep, no matter where the first baseman’s career goes
from here. Things get a little more interesting this week when The Rocket
moves up to Double-A and pitches against Portland, in the Eastern League’s version of Yankees/Red Sox, with Boston sending stud righty Michael Bowden to face him.

Gaby Hernandez, RHP, Double-A Carolina (Marlins)

A scout called me late Friday night, clearly excited about what he had just seen. Facing Jacksonville, Gaby Hernandez delivered a strange six innings of no-hit baseball, striking out six, but also walking seven. According to the scout in attendance, Hernandez showed number one potential, but at the same time, he didn’t quite understand the why’s revolving around Hernandez’ game. Sitting at 90-94 mph with a heavy fastball, flashing both a plus curve and slider while mixing in his always effective changeup, Hernandez was literally unhittable; at the same time, he didn’t seem to trust his stuff. He pitched tentatively, at times he threw an ineffective cutter, a fifth pitch that the scout said, “serves absolutely no purpose–he has potentially four pitches, to have him working on a fifth is just idiotic.” Pitching involves two things: the first is stuff, which the 21-year-old righty clearly has, and the second is knowing what to do with it, which at times can be just as hard to find. It can also be the difference between anchoring a big league rotation and wondering what went wrong.

Luke Hochevar, RHP, Double-A Wichita (Royals)

It’s hardly time to go into panic mode, but there is some cause for concern here. In his third start of the season, Hochevar struck out a career-high 11 in 7.2 innings of shutout baseball, allowing just two hits, but since then, he’s struggled mightily. Pitching against Arkansas on Friday night, last year’s No. 1 overall pick allowed five runs in five innings. With 19 runs allowed over 22 innings in his last four starts, his ERA now sits at a surprisingly high 5.44, as Texas League hitters are batting .286 against him while slugging .474. There are some good signs here, though, including 55 strikeouts against 16 walks in 48 innings, but while Hochevar’s curveball and control are as good as ever, his velocity has been off from the start, sitting usually at 89-92 mph, a solid 2-3 ticks off from both his days at Tennessee and last year’s pro debut. Tired arm from the off year, or something more serious? We just don’t know yet.

Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Low-A Great Lakes (Dodgers)

On Saturday night at Kane County, Kershaw had arguably his best start of the year, firing six one-hit innings while striking out nine. It was a nice recovery from his worst start of the year, which happened six days before, in which the 2006 first-round pick gave up seven runs before being pulled in the second inning. Eight starts into the year, Kershaw has delivered six dominant outings and two horrible ones. He has a 2.84 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 38 innings overall, but if you take away the two horrible games, his ERA is 1.05 in 34.1 innings, with just 20 hits allowed, 14 walks and 50 punchouts. Kershaw hit 97 mph on Saturday, and looked arguably like one of the best lefthanders the Midwest League has seen in a generation. If he can avoid the once-a-month-start in which he self-destructs, he could end the season as the top pitching prospect in the game.

Lake Elsinore Storm, Carolina League (Padres)

The Storm’s weekend explosion started with a bang (pun intended) on Friday night with a 30-0 torture of Lancaster. Basically, everyone had a big game. Blanks went 6-for-7 with six runs and four RBI, 2006 first-round pick Matt Antonelli added six hits and five runs, and outfielder Chad Huffman went a perfect five-for-five with two walks, a double, and two home runs. Somehow, catcher Jose Lobaton went hitless, but still managed to score a pair of runs thanks to three walks. On the night, the team went 28-for-53 with nine doubles and six home runs, and they were up 21-0 after four innings. Believe it or not, their 30 runs is not a record–Fresno put up 34 runs on the board in 1947. Nothing really to learn here, but the box score sure is fun.

Matt LaPorta, 1B, University of Florida

For the second straight year, the Gators have disappointed, as they go into this weekend’s SEC tournament as the No. 6 seed with a 28-28 record. They dropped two of three to Tennessee in their final regular season series of the year, and the Volunteers’ basic strategy was pretty clear: No way, no how, was the team going to let Matt LaPorta beat them. On Thursday night, as Florida dropped a 6-5 decision in game one, LaPorta went a perfect 0-for-0 with five walks. He walked three more times on Saturday, and then went 1-for-2 on Saturday with two more free passes. The senior first baseman enters the postseason with a batting line of .419/.591/.838, with 19 home runs in 160 at-bats and an on-base percentage bolstered by 51 walks and 18 hit by pitches. His draft status remains uncertain because of the Boras factor, with rumors are circulating that he could go as high as No. 9 to Arizona, or drop into the 20s.

Justin Maxwell, OF, Low-A Hagerstown (Nationals)

Three years ago, Maxwell went into his junior year at Maryland as one of the top outfielders in the draft–a six-foot-five, 225 pound ultra-athlete with loads of upside. Then everything went wrong for two years, as Maxwell missed the entire 2004 season with a broken arm, and when he returned to school for the 2005 season, he lasted less then two weeks before breaking a bone in his hand. The Nats took him in the fourth round anyway. He began last year in the Sally League, but lasted just three weeks before a broken toe keep him out most of the year. So after three years, Maxwell is finally healthy, and finally producing. After hitting .236/.313/.486 in April, Maxwell has found more than just his power stroke in May, going 10-for-21 in his last five games to raise his season averages to .278/.376/.602. With almost three years on the shelf, Maxwell is already 23 years old, but at least when we talk about him now it’s about baseball and not medical reports.

David Price, LHP, Vanderbilt

As many college teams went Thursday-Friday-Saturday in the final weekend, Price made his final regular season start of the year Thursday night against LSU, and as if there are people who don’t already realize he’s the best draft prospect in the game, Price put an exclamation mark on the season with 15 strikeouts in 8.2 innings, while allowing just four hits. Price goes into the postseason with a perfect 10-0 record, a 2.76 ERA, and 164 strikeouts in 114 innings; he’s allowed just 84 hits, 29 walks, and just one home run. Scouts aren’t really showing up in droves to see him anymore–he has nothing left to prove, and while the Devil Rays are saying all the right things by refusing to show the hand everyone knows they are holding, he’s going No. 1.

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