A Tale Of Two First-Round Picks: Prior to drafting Brian Matusz this year, the Orioles spent each of their last two first-round picks on massive sluggers. Both are playing at High-A Frederick, and are having polar-opposite seasons, both in terms of production, and in how the scouts perceive them.
Matt Wieters, last year’s first-round pick, has been tearing through the Carolina League to the tune of .342/.445/.560, and one scout who recently
bore down on the Keys was as impressed as the catcher’s numbers might suggest, although with some minor reservations. “He might be susceptible a bit to upper-level velocity, and that prevents me from seeing him as a true No. 3 hitter,” said the scout. But, don’t get me wrong-he’s a friggin’ stud who conducts himself like a big leaguer.” At six-foot-five and 230 pounds, some are concerned about his position long term, but the scout had positive things to say about his defense. “I know some will think he’s too big, but for me, he stays back there,” commented the scout. “He receives pretty well and while the feel doesn’t always get in line right, the arm strength more than makes up for it.”
On the other end of the spectrum is 2006 first-round pick Billy Rowell, who is hitting a lowly .237/.295/.362, with just three home runs and 48 strikeouts in 177 at-bats. The scouting report reflects those numbers. “I’m totally off that. Look, when he centers a ball, it’s really good-it’s a lot of power, but it hardly ever plays because he has lots of swing problems and is constantly bailing against lefties.” Defensively, there are real concerns about Rowell’s effort. “He’s just lazy,” said the scout. “I don’t like the energy, and I just sit there wanting to yell, ‘Dude! Move!’I don’t even like how he catches the ball-it’s just annoying to watch him play.
Not Spinning Their Wheels: Even though the Red Sox didn’t have a selection in the 2007 draft until the 55th overall pick, the team still spent a lot of money on a few players who dropped due to signability issues. With a Low-A Greenville roster stocked with young talent, many of these players didn’t see their names in a box score until the short-season leagues began play, and Boston’s New York-Penn League affiliate at Lowell is filled with names to keep an eye on from last year’s pick-fest as well:
- Ryan Dent, SS: One of the Red Sox’ two supplemental first-round picks, Dent is a highly athletic player with plus-plus speed, and scouts saw him as a player with tremendous upside, but also surprisingly raw skills for a player from southern California. He had a two home-run game in his third contest of the season, but is just 2-for-19 since.
- Brock Huntziner, RHP: The team’s third-round pick, Huntzinger is a big, physical right-hander from Indiana with above-average velocity who still needs to work on his secondary offerings. He turns 20 next month and has been outstanding in his first two outings for the Spinners, firing five shutout innings in each start while striking out 11.
- Will Middlebrooks, 3B: With plus power and an outstanding arm, Middlebrooks was seen as a possible first-round talent, but he fell to the fifth because of questionable bonus demands. The Red Sox paid him just under a million dollars to buy him out of going to college, but he’s struggled initially, going 3-for-25 with 10 strikeouts.
- Kade Keowen, OF: A ninth-round pick who signed for six figures, Keowen is a massive presence at the plate, listed on the roster sheet as 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds. He’s always enticed scouts with above-average tools across the board, but has little to show for it production-wise, and that’s continued so far with only two hits in his first 18 at-bats.
- Hunter Stickland, RHP: Selected in the 18th round out of a Georgia high school, Strickland received over $100,000 to sign, and with good reason. He’s a six-foot-five righty who already gets into the 90s, so he has a lofty projection. In two appearances so far, he’s allowed just two hits in eight innings while striking out eight and not walking a batter.
- Drake Britton, LHP: A 23rd-round pick who received second-round money, Britton is a southpaw with good stuff and even better command. In each of his first two starts, he allowed only one earned run over five innings.
Filling Joba’s Slot: While the move of Joba Chamberlain to the rotation was the correct long-term decision, there’s now a hole in the bullpen where there used to be a set-up man who handled those key “bridge innings” between the starter and Mariano Rivera. While they might not arrive this year, there are plenty of prospects in the Yankees’ system who could be filling that role sooner rather than later. In order of prospecty goodness:
- Marc Melancon: Someone didn’t give Melancon the note about Tommy John survivors having problems getting their control back. In 54 innings this year, the former University of Arizona star has walked just 10, while limiting opposing batters to a .209 batting average. Both his sinking fastball and his hard curve rate as plus pitches, and with the way he’s throwing at Double-A (1.57 ERA in 11 games), he could be in line for a September look.
- David Robertson: As a small righty, Robertson doesn’t pass the scouting sniff test, but he keeps getting hitters out, easing concerns about his height. In over 130 innings as a pro, he’s yet to give up a home run, and in 28 appearances between Double- and Triple-A this year, he has a 1.74 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings. With a low-90s fastball and outstanding slider, Robertson may not have Melancon’s upside, but he might get the call sooner.
- J. Brent Cox: Like Melancon, Cox missed all of last year due to reconstructive elbow surgery, and like Melancon he’s impressed people upon his return. Spread across three levels and now at Triple-A, Cox has posted a 1.38 ERA in 22 games. The one knock against him is that he doesn’t miss many bats (only 13 in 26 innings), but he makes up for it by inducing a good number of groundballs.
The New Best Rotation In The Minors: Oakland’s group at High-A Stockton opened the year with that title, but they’ve been broken up since, with Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson moving up to Double-A; Henry Rodriguez arrived there before any of them, but then got sent back when he stopped throwing strikes; and Fautino De Los Santos is on the shelf with elbow surgery. Already in possession of a stud righty/lefty combination at Double-A Montgomery with Wade Davis and Jacob McGee, the Rays’ Southern League affiliate now wears the crown of best rotation in the minors with last week’s additions of David Price and Jeremy Hellickson.
Tampa was very cautious with their number one overall pick last June, and Price was held out for the first six weeks of the season with some elbow soreness. He was good as advertised upon his return, putting up a 1.82 ERA in six starts for High-A Vero Beach, while striking out 37 and walking just seven in 34.2 innings. He’s been good enough that some think he could retire big league hitters right now, and don’t be surprised if he gets that shot by the end of the year.
Hellickson had a breakout campaign in his full-season debut last year, and he’s kicked it up another notch this season, as average stuff/very good command has transformed into above-average stuff and outstanding command. That combination allowed him to compile a 2.00 ERA in 14 starts for Vero Beach, along with an eye-popping 83-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76 2/3 innings. In his last three outings, he pitched 14 scoreless innings while allowing just two hits.
A Trio Of Young Lugnuts: With a bevy of early picks last year, the Blue Jays moved away from the organization’s college-oriented focus and took some toolsy high school talent with their high selections. As a group, they began the year at Low-A Lansing, and while they’ve struggled on a performance level, here’s how one veteran scout evaluated them:
- Kevin Ahrens, 3B, .266/.329/.375: “He’s a switch-hitter with a nice line-drive swing from both sides. It’s doubles type of power. Maybe he’ll hit 15 or so home runs a year down the road, as he’s physically mature for his age and there isn’t much to project in terms of size and strength. He has some strike zone knowledge, but needs to cut down on the swings and misses because he’s not a big power guy. Defensively, he was a shortstop in high school and he’s new to third, but he’s adjusting well to the ball coming in quicker and the longer throws. He’s going to be an average third baseman down the road. He’s a solid prospect with a good potential to be an everyday player.”
- Justin Jackson, SS, .234/.351/.352: “Right now the defense is ahead of the offense. He has soft hands, good agility and an average but accurate arm. He’s got talent and he’s got tools, but right now I really have to project a lot with him. The thing I’m concerned most about is the strikeouts (80 in 231 at-bats) I think part of that is him being too selective and letting hittable pitches go by and putting himself behind in the count. He’s not a fast-track guy, more of a one-level-at-a-time type who is still adjusting to the speed of the game at the professional level.”
- John Tolisano, 2B, .277/.355/.402: “Also a switch-hitter, average athlete with a compact frame, and not much physical projection. I like his swing far better from the left side. I think of him as more of a utility type. His hands are a bit hard and he doesn’t turn the double play well, he could increase his value by learning some more positions.”
Bursting The Bubble On Collins: One of the Lugnuts’ relievers, lefty Tim Collins, has some of the best numbers around. In 17 games he’s allowed one earned run in 31 2/3 innings, while allowing 12 hits, walking 15 and striking out 45. One scout just doesn’t see that kind of performance lasting as he moves up. “He’s maybe the smallest pitcher I’ve ever seen,” said the scout. “He’s listed at five-foot-seven, and that’s generous-he might be five-foot-five.” The scout also felt his stuff falls a bit short. “It’s an overhand delivery, and his fastball is 85-88 mph, and he throws a 12-to-6 curve that’s below average. What he does do is throw strikes, and when you do that in Low-A, you can put up numbers. You have to give him credit though, I was totally blown away to see 88 mph come out of that body. When he was warming up in the bullpen I was wondering why the batboy was throwing off a mound during a game.”