On Saturday night, Buchholz struck out just four batters, his third-lowest total on the season. But that also didn’t matter, as he also tossed five hitless innings to lower his ERA on the season to 1.69. Pulled after just 65 pitches in order to give him some rest and allow him to be ready for an inning in the upcoming Futures Game, Buchholz has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the minors, and is arguably the top right-hander in prospect land now that many of the players ranked above him have been called up to the big leagues. With three (and maybe four) plus pitches, he has future ace potential. Pitching in front of general manager Theo Epstein, who was in the stands on Saturday, doesn’t hurt his chances of getting a look later this year.
The Cubs have made a run in the last couple of weeks, taking two of three from Milwaukee over the weekend to move to .500 and second place in the NL Central; they’re also just five games out of the wild card. There’s still a pretty big hole on the team however, and that’s at shortstop, where Cesar Izturis has an anemic bat (.250/.301/.311), while Ryan Theriot (.266/.323/.346) hasn’t been much better. Enter Ronny Cedeno. Dispatched to the minors after beginning the year by going 3-for-31, no kind of chaser for an awful 2006 in the starter’s role last year (including a .211 Equivalent Average), but his scouting reports were better than that, and he’s putting everything together since going back to the minors. Currently batting .387/.466/.638 in 45 games as an I-Cub, Cedeno is showing unprecedented power, including five home runs in his last five games. After compiling a miserable strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio of 109-13 for the Cubs last year, he has more walks (23), than strikeouts (21) in 163 at-bats for Iowa. If the Cubs think they’re in it, and it seems like they do (and are), there’s a free in-house upgrade awaiting them in the Hawkeye State.
A first-round pick in 2004, DeWitt kind of drives people nuts. Scouts like his projection and his pretty swing, but the results only match the review half the time, as DeWitt is among the streakiest hitters in the minors. Repeating High-A this year after an awful one-month showing at Double-A Jacksonville last season, DeWitt hit just .211/.255/.368 in April. This was surprising, as many expected his offense to take off once the organization moved him back to his natural position of third base, after a experiment to turn him into an offensive second baseman went awry due to DeWitt’s poor glove work. However, things have improved since, and DeWitt finished up June in style, with a triple, home run, and five RBI on Saturday, closing out the month at .390/.435/.650, and raising his season averages to .292/.330/.459. He’ll get another shot at the Southern League soon.
Glenn Gibson, LHP, Short-Season Vermont (Nationals)
Gibson was classified as a sleeper in my preseason Nationals Top 10 list, but he’s obviously wide awake now. On Sunday afternoon, the 2006 fourth-round pick allowed two hits over five innings, and in 16 innings over three starts, he has a 1.13 ERA to go along with 18 strikeouts and just two walks. His average-velocity fastball plays better because of command and movement, and his curveball and changeup are both highly advanced for a 19-year-old. Add in a long, lean, and projectable frame, and this gives the Nats fans a young pitcher to be excited about.
Cody Johnson, OF, Rookie-Level Danville (Braves)
Johnson was a surprising first-round pick last year, going 24th overall and signing for a $1.375 million bonus when some scouting directors had all but written him off as a one-dimensional slugger following his disappointing senior season in high school. Those other teams looked right when Johnson hit .184 in the Gulf Coast League with just one home run and 49 strikeouts in 114 at-bats. This year, things are a little different, as Johnson hit home runs on Friday and Saturday for Danville, and he’s currently batting .340/.404/.660 in 47 Appy League at-bats with just eight whiffs. It’s early, but it’s definitely a start in the right direction.
The amazing thing about Jones is not that he simply gets better every year, it’s that he improves by leaps and bounds with each campaign. On Saturday, Jones slugged his 18th home run of the year, establishing a new career high by the end of June; he added his 19th on Sunday for good measure. The Mariners have been one of the most surprising teams in the American League this year, and replacing mediocre right fielder Jose Guillen (.264/.338/.424) and a joke at DH in Jose Vidro (714 OPS) with Jones (.315/.385/.588) and an equally hot Wladimir Balentien (.325/.397/.591) could keep them in the race with the Angels down the wire.
Yankee and Red Sox fans have a rivalry that extends all the way down to the minors, as my chats are always loaded with questions comparing one team’s prospect to the other’s at a similar position. Not to be outdone by Buchholz, Kennedy repeated the Eastern League no-hit feat with five hitless innings of his own on Sunday, walking three and striking out nine. After cruising through the Florida State League with a 1.29 ERA in 11 games, Kennedy has quickly adjusted to Double-A, allowing just four runs and 13 hits over 26 innings in his last five outings. On a scouting level, Kennedy is nowhere close to Buchholz-he’s more of a pitchability guy as compared to Buchholz’ overpowering stuff. However, when it comes to setting up hitters, commanding his pitches, and keeping hitters guessing, Kennedy is as good as it gets, and while his ceiling stops at the middle of a big league rotation, he could be ready for that role early next year.
Tyler Mach, 2B, Short-Season Williamsport (Phillies)
While players like Matt Mangini and Corey Brown got all the ink at Oklahoma State this year, it’s actually Mach who was arguably their most consistent performer. Nevertheless, Mach fell to the fourth round of this year’s draft because he’s not especially athletic, and he hasn’t impressed scouts defensively at either third base or second. What he can do is hit, and he has a rare combination of skills that may have him underrated-he hits for power, but he does not strike out. Mach went 6-for-11 over the weekend, including a two home run game on Friday, and is hitting .474/.524/.947 in his first five pro games. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but even before he stepped to the plate for the first time as a pro, he was already one of the more interesting sleepers in a Philadelphia system that is desperate for hitting talent.
Yohan Pino, RHP, High-A Fort Myers (Twins)
The Twins collect pitching prospects the way some people collect aluminum cans, and every year, a few of them make the great leap forward. One of this year’s versions is Pino, a 23-year-old Venezuelan who posted a 1.91 ERA last year at Low-A Beloit, mostly working as a reliever. On Friday, he did what Buchholz and Kennedy did, only he went the distance, firing a complete game seven-inning no-hitter in the first game of a double-header. Like so many Twins prospects, command and control are the keys to Pino’s game. Tall and gangly, Pino has an average fastball at 88-91 mph and an above-average breaking ball, but what makes him so good is his ability to throw any of his pitches at any time for strikes. It’s interesting to note that during his no-hitter, he walked a season-high four batters, an argument for the concept of “too many strikes.” His 1.55 ERA would lead the Florida State League with a few more innings to qualify, but he might earn a promotion before he stakes a claim to the title.
The Brewers like taking players from Wisconsin, and that’s not a bad thing, although there is rarely much to choose from. That wasn’t the case in 2006, as Seidel was easily the best player in the state, a six-foot-six right-hander with Division I offers from major college programs. Despite informing teams that he had every intention of going to college, Seidel couldn’t pass up a chance to begin his pro career with his home state Brewers, who drafted him in the 16th round but gave him third-round money to sign. While he signed too late to make his debut last year, Seidel is trying to make up for lost time, firing six no-hit innings on Saturday in his third pro start, just five days after and outing in which he gave up just one hit over five. Athletic and projectable, Seidel currently has a low 90s fastball with considerable sink, though his secondary stuff remains a work in progress. He has a very high ceiling, and there’s still lots of work to be done, but so far, so good.