Chicago Cubs

Bad News Down On The Farm: While the Cubs sit atop the NL Central standings, the news isn’t so good down on the farm, for if you entered the year as a Top 11 Prospect and are not in the majors, chances are you are not doing too well.

  1. Geovany Soto, C, .315/.421/.575 in MLB: Already established as one of the top catchers in the league.
  2. Josh Vitters, 3B, .214/.214/.429 at Low-A: Their 2007 first-round pick had three doubles in his first game, but then went 0-for-10 before going down with a wrist injury.
  3. Donald Veal, LHP, 2.82 ERA; 38.1-37-20-30 at Double-A: The power lefty has taken a bit off his fastball to regain some control, but that hasn’t done much, and now he’s missing far fewer bats.
  4. Jose Ceda, RHP, 5.52 ERA; 31.0-29-18-31 at High-A: He’s currently being used as a starter, but the potential closer still has command troubles, and has been less effective in long outings.
  5. Josh Donaldson, C, .213/.273/.352 at Low-A: Last year’s offensive breakout has followed with the cold, hard reality of life in the Midwest League; at least he has picked it up in May (.273/.351/.515).
  6. Sean Gallagher, RHP, 3.10 ERA; 29-21-9-30 at Triple-A: One of the system’s few bright spots, but he’ll get his second big league start of the year on Friday.
  7. Tyler Colvin, OF, .239/.296/.394 at Double-A: He’s showing a much more patient approach at the plate, but working himself into deep counts is proving more problematic.
  8. Eric Patterson, 2B/OF, .260/.325/.425 at Triple-A: Stagnating a bit at Iowa, Patterson might be trade bait, as it’s clear that he’s not in the Cubs’ future plans.
  9. Welington Castillo, C, .262/.292/.310 at High-A: The defensive stalwart needs to at least hit a little bit–23 games, three walks, and four extra-base hits isn’t going to cut it.
  10. Tony Thomas, 2B, .269/.313/.388 at High-A: Although the former Florida State star hit .370 in his first 11 games, he’s been at just .216 since; scouts have noted an inability to do anything against lefties.
  11. Jeff Samardzija, RHP, 4.81 ERA; 39.1-37-24-23 at Double-A: Still an enigma, wrapped around a wide receiver.

Cincinnati Reds

He Likes-A Valaika: With the recent addition of 2007 draftee Todd Frazier, the Reds affiliate at High-A Sarasota features as much offensive firepower as any team in the league. Leading the way so far has been shortstop Chris Valaika. A 2006 third-round pick out of Cal Santa Barbara, Valaika hit .307/.353/.493 last year in the Midwest League, but struggled following a promotion to Sarasota, where he hit just .253/.310/.332 in 57 games. This year, he’s rebounded, batting .363/.393/.585 and showing unprecedented power with seven home runs in 135 at-bats. One scout who recently saw Valaika came away very impressed. “I like him a lot,” gushed the scout. “He’s got some Eric Byrnes in him just in the way that he’s got that major league carry and swagger.” More importantly, he can hit as well: “He really controls the situation at the plate and doesn’t let it control him–it’s a real fearless approach. And his power is legit–he hits balls out and they get out quickly and go a long way.” The one question about Valaika throughout his career has been whether his athleticism will allow him to stay up the middle, and the scout shared those same concerns, but didn’t think it effected Valaika’s long-term outlook, concluding, “You can put him in left, right, or either infield corner and that bat is going to play.”

Houston Astros

Do We Have To Pick Someone?: Drafting 10th overall this June, the Astros have their highest pick since 2001, and with one of the worst systems in baseball, the pressure is on to make the right selection. Unfortunately, Houston’s run of first-round picks this decade has been nothing short of a disaster:

  • 2000, Robert Stiehl, RHP, El Camino College, 27th overall: A big power righty with outstanding velocity, Stiehl had rotator cuff surgery early in his pro career, but that was just the beginning of a never-ending series of health issues. Released in May of last year, he finished his career with just 233 2/3 IP in seven years.
  • 2001, Chris Burke, SS, University of Tennessee, 10th overall: While he hit a huge post-season home run, he failed time and time again when given the opportunity to replace Craig Biggio at second base. Now a utility player with the Diamondbacks, he’s once again close to hitting his way out of a job.
  • 2002, Derick Grigsby, RHP, Northeast Texas CC, 29th overall: Another power righty from a small school, Grigsby had two personal tragedies occur early in his career, as first his mother died during routine surgery the year before he was drafted, and then his father was seriously injured the following year when he crashed on a motorcycle that Grigsby purchased with part of his bonus money. After just two years of pitching, Grigsby walked away from the game.
  • 2005, Brian Bogusevic, LHP, Tulane, 24th overall: Bogusevic was injured during much of his junior year, and has never recovered the stuff he once showed in college. He currently projects as no more than a reliever with a mix of three pitches, none of which rate as more than average. Currently in Double-A, Bogusevic has a career ERA of 4.90.
  • 2005, Eli Iorg, OF, University of Tennessee, 38th overall: Because of time spent on a Mormon mission, Iorg was already 22 when drafted, so now he’s a 25-year-old in Double-A, and injuries have prevented him from coming as fast as needed.
  • 2006, Max Sapp, C, Bishop Moore HS (FLA), 23rd overall: Seen as an offense-first catcher, Sapp has been anything but. After a .241/.330/.330 line in his full-season debut, Sapp has returned to Low-A Lexington this year, and in between dealing with a groin injury has gone 5-for-32 with 16 strikeouts.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Appropriately-Named Huntsville Stars: While most of the focus on the Double-A Stars has been on top prospect Matt LaPorta (.326/.433/.652) and slugging “third baseman” Mat Gamel (.367/.426/.665), they’re not the only players on the 28-11 squad that is averaging nearly six-and-a-half runs per game and hitting a collective .304/.372/.483. Here are three lesser-known members of the Huntsville lineup who are also playing important roles:

  • One of the top sleepers in the system, center fielder Michael Brantley just turned 21, and has plus speed, a great approach, and is hitting .331/.407/.378. He has very little power and a poor arm, but nevertheless has enough tools and skills to reach the majors.
  • A fifth-round pick in 2006 out of Cal, first baseman Chris Errecart had a rough first full season in 2007, hitting just .262/.331/.392 in the Florida State League. Milwaukee worked with Errecart in the offseason to develop a more patient approach and shorter swing, and it’s paid early dividends, as he’s hitting .293/.385/.520 in 35 games. The bat is really the only tool to speak of, so he needs to continue to build upon his big step forward.
  • At some point, we have to start taking catcher Angel Salome seriously as a prospect. Listed at 5’7″ and 195 pounds, Salome doesn’t impress anyone on sight, yet all he does is hit. Entering the season with a career batting average of .309, Salome has been even better this year, raking to the tune of .390/.424/.545 in his first 22 games. He still needs to improve his defense, both in terms of blocking balls and cutting down the running game, but there are no obstacles blocking the New Yorker from being the Brew Crew’s catcher of the future.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Now If Only They Can Get More Leads To Protect: One of the few bright spots for the Pirates this year has been some solid performance out of the bullpen, and the squad at Triple-A Indianapolis, while not exactly prospect-laden, is getting its own share of solid relief work. Sean Burnett and Mariano Salas have already been brought up to the big leagues from the Indians bullpen, and there could be more to follow.

With a medical record almost as long as his stat line, Burnett was the most impressive of the group of relievers at Indy, allowing just nine hits over 17 1/3 innings while compiling a groundball/fly-ball ratio of nearly 3-to-1. Just as important is his re-discovered velocity, as his sinker has jumped back to its pre-surgery form, sitting at 88-90 mph while touching 93. As a reliever, Burnett only uses one secondary pitch–a low-80s slider with good command and break. Once all but written off because of the constant time he spent under the knife or on the mend, Burnett is showing the stuff to carve out a decent career as a middle-innings type.

Salas is a 27-year-old Dominican who spent years in the Brewers and Orioles systems before landing in Pittsburgh. This year, he had a 0.77 ERA in 14 Triple-A appearances, and had the best pure arm strength on the staff, sitting in the low 90s and touching 95 with his fastball. He also throws a slider and a changeup, and his arm slot and delivery create deception, making him very tough against right-handed hitters, who were batting just .128/.190/.179 against him prior to his call-up.

Among the coming attractions still in Indy is 24-year-old righty Jesse Chavez, who has nearly as much velocity as Sales and arguably a better slider. Chavez has given up just 11 hits in 24 1/3 innings, but he does have a tendency to elevate his pitches at times.

St. Louis Cardinals

Former Hog Is Eating ‘Em Up: Then-Arkansas pitcher Jess Todd was going to do pretty well in last year’s draft anyway, but he probably made himself an extra hundred thousand or two by striking out 17 during an SEC conference game late in the season in front of plenty of scouts. So far this year, Todd is looking to be worth every penny. Used in shorter stints at High-A Palm Beach, a team that opened the year with a tandem starter system, Todd had a 1.65 ERA in seven appearances, allowing just 18 hits in 27 1/3 innings while striking out 35. That was good enough for the Cardinals to push him up to Double-A, where he’s fired 9 1/3 shutout innings, allowing just four hits, in his first two Texas League outings for Springfield. Generously listed at 5’11” and 210 pounds, Todd is built like a pit bull and pitches like one too, aggressively filling the strike zone with a four-seam fastball that gets up to 95 mph and an upper-80s two-seamer that features good sinking action. His breaking ball is an above-average slider, and he’s made some progress with his show-me changeup. Scouts are split as to whether he profiles as a starter or a reliever in the end, but they universally see him as a major leaguer.

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