Engel Beltre, OF, Low-A Clinton (Rangers)
Neftali Feliz wasn’t the only high-ceiling Rangers prospect on display this weekend at Kane County. Another 2007 acquisition who came over from the Red Sox in the Eric Gagne trade, Beltre is loaded with tools and plays a bit out of control, and is thus incredibly exciting. He’ll swing at anything, but in a 9-for-15 weekend that included a triple, home run, and stolen base, one saw remarkable speed and the present ability to drive the ball–a rare combination in an 18-year-old. The weekend raised his OPS by 115 points with a season line of .295/.331/.446, making him yet another reason that the Clinton team is one of the most interesting in the Midwest League when it comes to watching prospects.
Chris Marrero, 1B, High-A Potomac (Nationals)
After a breakout campaign in his full-season debut that established himself as one of the top young power prospects in the game, the 2006 first-round pick has gotten off to a slow start this year. He’s starting to heat up however, going
7-for-15 with a pair of home runs during a four-game series with Frederick that
took his season averages from a miserable .200/.284/.353 to a far more respectable .240/.321/.430. With his approach and hitting ability, those
numbers should continue to rise, but with six errors on the year at first base,
questions about the glove remain.
Charlie Morton, RHP, Triple-A Richmond (Braves)
Morton has long been an enigma in the Braves system–a player with the kind of scouting reports that should make him a top prospect, but whose performances were hampered by control lapses and some questions about his maturity. He started to turn the corner last year at Double-A, and he’s built on it so far in the International League, firing seven one-hit innings on Saturday to lower his ERA to 2.14 in six outings, while allowing just 20 hits in 33 2/3 innings. Morton can flash three plus pitches at times, with a 88-92 mph fastball that he can dial up to 94 when the occasion warrants, an excellent curveball, and a good changeup with tumbling action and deceptive arm action. With John Smoltz moving to the bullpen and Mike Hampton about as dependable as your average cable TV installer, Morton could be getting a look soon.
Ben Revere, CF, Low-A Beloit (Twins)
Although Revere was ranked as the top prospect in the system before the Johan Santana trade, the Twins
took their usual conservative approach with offensive prospects by leaving the
2007 first-round pick in extended spring training with the plan to open the
year with him in a short-season league. As the saying goes, you can’t keep a
good man down, because Revere basically played his way into a full-season
assignment, and has fulfilled his end lately by going 6-for-13 over the weekend with a pair of doubles and a stolen base. One of the fastest players around, Revere also packs surprising pop into his five-foot-nine frame, and at .393/.433/.464 in seven games, he’s already making what seemed like a
questionable pick at the time seem quite sound.
Justin Smoak, 1B, University of South Carolina
Considered one of the top college teams in the country entering the season, the Gamecocks have not lived up to expectations, but after a bit of a slow start, Smoak is starting to live up to his reputation as arguably the top offensive player in the draft. During a three-game set with Florida over the weekend, Smoak went 5-for-10 with a double, home run, and four walks, taking his batting average over the .400 mark with a triple-slash line of .401/.519/.808 in 48 games with 19 home runs and 44 walks in 182 at-bats. With rumors flying concerning Pedro Alvarez’ bonus demands, Smoak is making a very interesting target for the Pirates, who have the second overall pick in the draft.
John Shelby, OF, High-A Winston-Salem (White Sox)
Off-season deals made Shelby the top offensive prospect in the system following a full-season debut
that included a .301 batting average, 16 home runs, and 19 stolen bases, Shelby
has been hampered by hamstring troubles this year, but finally got in a groove
on Saturday by hitting his first home run of the year, and his second, and his third. As good a game as that is, that’s not really what caught my eye; what grabbed my attention was that this tied a Carolina League record. While it’s happened 15 times in the big leagues, no player in the history of the Carolina League, founded in 1945, has ever hit four bombs in a game.
James Simmons, RHP, Double-A Midland (Athletics)
With all of the A’s movement in the offseason, Simmons has become kind of a forgotten commodity. The organization’s first-round pick last June, Simmons is a right-hander who has a reputation for being a command and control guy, but he also has solid stuff on a scouting level, with a low-90s fastball, outstanding
changeup, and solid breaking pitches. On a strict pitch count to begin the
season, the A’s have loosened the reins on him of late, and he’s responded
well, most recently with a seven-inning, two-hit performance on Saturday. The two hits were both home runs that raised his ERA to 1.45 in 31 innings with a
fantastic (but not surprising) strikeout to walk ratio of 28 to four. While the A’s are loaded with young pitching prospects after their winter deals, Simmons has a good shot at being an established big league commodity by the time the young guns at Stockton are ready to make their mark.
Ian Stewart, 3B, Triple-A Colorado Springs (Rockies)
Stewart is a player who draws highly varied reviews. Some see him as one of the top third-base prospects in the game, others see him as a player who has provided little since a great 2004 season. On April 27th, Stewart had three hits and was hitting .313/.404/.650 in 21 games, and looking very much like the player those that have stuck with him said he could be. Since then, he’s 0-for-26, dropping his averages to .236/.317/.491, leaving those on the other side to say, “I told you so.” Last year’s numbers were helped by
one of the top offensive home parks in the game, and again that’s skewing the
numbers, as Stewart is hitting just .219/.288/.479 in road games. So where am I? Don’t believe the hype.
Matt Torra, RHP, Double-A Mobile (Diamondbacks)
A first-round pick in 2005, Torra missed nearly all of 2006 recovering from
labrum surgery, and his 2007 season started off a complete nightmare: in
his first ten starts for High-A Visalia, he had a 10.67 ERA while allowing 70
hits in 41 1/3 innings, and getting beaten on for a .376 average. Slowly but surely however, he made progress turning things around–he had a 4.05 ERA after the All-Star break, and gave up just eight runs over 34 1/3 innings in his final six starts. From highly regarded to a bit of a sleeper, Torra’s climb towards the big leagues has continued at Double-A, where with another strong outing on Saturday, the former UMass star lowered his ERA to 1.75. While his velocity is not yet up to pre-surgery levels, he still has average velocity and a good curveball, and both pitches play up because of his outstanding command, as evidenced by just two walks allowed in 36 innings. Get him back on your radar.
Zech Zinicola, RHP, Double-A Harrisburg (Nationals)
A sixth-round pick in 2006, Zinicola’s brief pro debut had everyone seeing him as a reliever who could move up very quickly, but suddenly everything fell apart last year, as his command went backwards, his focus faltered, and he ended the
season with a 5.46 ERA in 42 Double-A appearances. Team officials insist that he’s back on track this year and better than ever, and so far the numbers match that assessment. Beginning the year in the Carolina League, Zinicola used his plus sinker/slider combination to fire 12 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and striking out 15. Promoted for that performance, on Sunday he pitched a scoreless ninth and got a save in his first Double-A appearance of the year. He’s back on pace to be a very good set-up man in the big leagues and become the first big leaguer ever with the initials Z.Z.