Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox (Triple-A Pawtucket)
Buchholz’ surprising struggles in ’08 were attributed to mechanical problems, but also to a lack of confidence, so Monday’s start was probably the most important of the season for him, as he was coming off of his worst outing of the year. He passed this particular test with flying colors, needing just 96 pitches to deliver his best start of the year against Louisville, a one-hit shutout with no walks and seven strikeouts. In eight starts this year for Pawtucket, he has a 1.30 ERA with less than a hit allowed every two innings. Boston needs to figure out a way to give him another chance.
Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants (Double-A Connecticut)
Bumgarner is still just 19 years old, yet one scout who saw him over the weekend thinks that he could immediately hold his own in the big leagues. Considering where the Giants are right now, however, there’s really no need to bring him up, but it’s strange to think of a teenager who is almost wasting his time being in the minors. Saturday night’s outing against Portland-he struck out 10 over six shutout innings while allowing just two hits-lowered his Eastern League ERA to 0.50 in three starts. The upper levels are clearly not much of a challenge for him.
Juan Francisco, 3B, Reds (Double-A Carolina)
Francisco is such an unusual prospect: it’s easy to get excited about some of his tools, as both his power and arm rate as plus-plus if not better, but at the same time, he’s a bad-bodied and downright sloppy third baseman who will swing at anything. He still entices at times, however, and he certainly did so during a five-game stretch against Carolina over the weekend, going 10-for-24 with a double, three home runs (including two Monday), and nine RBI. Unfortunately, that only raised his averages on the season to .245/.271/.462. The potential is certainly there, but he’ll need to make some adjustments.
Robbie Grossman, OF, Pirates (Single-A West Virginia)
One of the poster boys for Pittsburgh’s new willingness to spend in the draft, Grossman received a seven-figure bonus last year as a sixth-round pick to buy him away from playing college ball at the University of Texas. Toolsy but a little raw, Grossman was holding his own during his full-season debut in the Sally League, and he’s beginning to really pick it up at the plate of late, going 7-for-14 with his first home run of the year over the weekend, and following that up on Monday by drawing four walks and stealing two bases. At .284/.388/.376, Grossman’s line is hardly eye-popping, but he’s just starting to scratch the surface of his abilities.
Carlos Gutierrez, RHP, Twins (High-A Fort Myers)
Everyone loves ground-ball guys, but people especially love to see two-to-one ratios and the hurler who can consistently keep the ball in the park. We’ve seen the occasional extremist with a three-to-one mark, but how about 4.5 to one? That’s where the Twins’ 2008 first-round pick sits right now, and to further add to his legend, when a rehabbing Joe Mauer caught him in April, he called Gutierrez’s sinker the best he’s ever seen, the big leagues included. Gutierrez delivered another five innings without allowing an earned run on Friday, lowering his ERA to 0.98, and for the second straight year, the Twins have a first-round pick that people questioned at the time who is now delivering outstanding results.
Jason Heyward, OF, Braves (High-A Myrtle Beach)
Heyward hit just 11 home runs in his full-season debut last year, but any sensible human knew that there was still plenty to come, as the 2008 first-round pick certainly looks the part at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. It’s coming, and on Monday, after hitting what is already his ninth home run of the year, Heyward has five bombs in his last 11 games to up his averages to .279/.361/.544. These numbers are made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s playing in one of the toughest hitters’ parks in the minors while dealing with numerous small, yet nagging injuries.
Mike Jones, RHP, Brewers (Double-A Huntsville)
In terms of the draft and prospect world, the 26-year-old Jones is almost ancient history. He was the 12th overall pick in the 2001 draft out of an Arizona high school, and he had a very impressive start to his career before being completely sidetracked by both Tommy John surgery and a procedure on his shoulder. That combination would normally get a guy written off, but to Jones’ credit, he’s worked hard to come back, and while he’s hardly a top prospect, he’s being noticed by scouts after reaching 94 mph in the Florida State League and tossing six shutout frames over the weekend in his first Double-A start of the year. It’s hard not to root for him.
Vin Mazzaro, RHP, Athletics (Triple-A Sacramento)
Mazzaro had a breakout year in 2008, leading the Texas League with a sub-two ERA. After an initial rough streak with his command, he’s suddenly aiming for a repeat run this year at Triple-A. On Friday, the sinker specialist delivered eight one-hit shutout innings for the second time in three starts, lowering his ERA to 2.66 in nine games. He doesn’t have the ceiling of a Trevor Cahill or a Brett Anderson, but he could certainly give the Athletics a very good innings-eater by 2010.
Michael Taylor, OF, Phillies (Double-A Reading)
Taylor’s 2008 breakout didn’t quite convince a fair number of doubters after his sub-standard career at Stanford, but another hot streak at Double-A has him looking more and more like an elite-level prospect. A 7-for-18 weekend that included a triple and two more home runs has his Eastern League averages at .319/.372/.600 in 39 games, and he’s clearly making real progress, as the massive slugger has just 17 strikeouts in 135 at bats, including just one in his last 30. Wherever you had him on your prospect lists entering the year, move him up.
Josh Vitters, 3B, Cubs (Low-A Peoria)
Vitters was all I could talk about last week, as he had four straight games with at least three hits and a home run. Data guru Bil Burke found 18 big-league players in our game logs, which go back to the early 1950s, who had a three-game streak like that in the majors, but nobody with four. An 0-for-4 game on Wednesday put an end to it, but Vitters was hardly done, and the 2008 first-round pick has gone deep in three of his last four game to give him one of the more impressive ten-game runs in recent memory; going 20-for-42 with three doubles and seven home runs to up his averages to .355/.381/.612-and an exactly 200 point rise in his OPS. With numbers like those, do you even care that he’s walked just three times?
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