Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hots and Nots - July 15, 2009

Parker has quietly put together an exceptional first-half

When the Diamondback’s selected Jarrod Parker with the 9th overall pick of the 2007 draft, the book on Parker was that he had projection in his 6’2 frame, generated tremendous power—often pitching in the mid-90’s, for his 175 lbs and had the potential to have 4-plus pitches, but had gotten by in high school with mainly his fastball. Arizona took it slow with him in 2008, limiting him to strict pitch-counts and minimizing his use of his secondary pitches during his first few outings. Still relatively raw, he finished with a 117:33 K:BB ratio in 118 innings. This season, Parker has expanded his repertoire, often hitting the high-90s with his fastball. He tore through the California (CAL) League in his first four starts (posting a 0.95 ERA) before being promoted to the Southern (SOL) League at the end of April. In 13 SOL starts, he has no shutouts, but has only allowed more than 2 ERs in only one start since May 2nd. As a 20yo, he has shown an easy, repeatable delivery; flashes of four potential plus pitches; and a tremendous feel for the game. While others may get more attention, no one has been more solid and for this reason, Parker tops our mid-season list.

A couple of notes about the list. This is a list that examines output, age vs. level of competition, and pre-season expectation in an attempt to determine who has put together the ‘best’ season up to this point. It only considers those players that have not yet used up their ‘rookie’ eligibility. It is not necessarily a reflection of the player’s prospect value, nor is it an all-star list that focuses mainly production. At the end of the year, we produce our list as to the season’s biggest movers, but for now we are using the criteria as defined above.

Hot Pitchers –

1) Jarrod Parker, RHP, ARZ – Coming into the season, Parker ranked behind Bumgarner, Feliz, Matusz and Tillman on most lists. While each of those have put up solid seasons, in our opinion, none have done more to answer outstanding concerns than Parker. He is incredibly precocious, and is likely to get a taste of his first Major League action, before his 21st birthday. He has been the model of consistency, allowing more than 2 ERs only once in his last 12 starts and allowing more hits than IP only twice during that span. Most importantly, he has been watched carefully and has a fundamentally sound, repeatable delivery, that looks to allow him to put up big time innings at the front of the Diamondback’s rotation for many years. Understand, that he is still rather raw, and will need to focus on control of his secondary offerings during the second half. His nearly 4 walks per 9IP remains a concern. But if it all comes together as expected, Parker should open the 2010 season as a key part of the Diamondback rotation.

2) Madison Bumgarner, LHP, SFG – Bumgarner received serious consideration for the top spot, as he also is pitching in AA and is 8 months younger than Parker. However, Bumgarner was generally rated higher than Parker to start the season, was slightly outpitched by Parker when they were both in the CAL and his strikeout rate has tailed off considerably over the last 6 weeks. Nonetheless, Bumgarner has amassed a 1.66 ERA, a 1.033 WHIP and a 68:20 K:BB ratio on the year. Over the remainder of the season, Bumgarner will have to reestablish the dominance he showed in the first two months of the season. With a reasonably young rotation in the Big Leagues, and Tim Alderson more Major League ready, the Giants will be patient with Bumgarner, but expect to see him in San Francisco before this time next year.

3) Brian Matusz, LHP, BAL – Matusz was the first pitcher selected in the 2008 draft, and although he got off to a slow start—with a deadline signing, he has really come on as of late, posting a 1.65 ERA, a 1.011 WHIP, and a 107:27 K:BB ratio through stints in the Carolina (CAR) League and ESL. Over his last 6 starts, he has allowed but 1 ER. The Orioles are going nowhere this year, so there is no impetus to rush him. While he could pitch in the Majors now, a September call-up appears more likely.

4) Mat Latos, RHP, SDP – For stretches of the season, Latos has been the Minor League’s most dominate pitcher. Through stops in the Midwest (MWL) League and the SOL, the 21yo, Matos has compiled a 1.37 ERA, an incredible 0.747 WHIP and a 73:12 K:BB ratio. With his dominant showing, the Padres are seriously considering bringing him to San Diego after the All-Star break. But, from our perspective, Latos comes with a few more questions than the previous names on this list. While no one questions his absolutely ‘filthy’ raw stuff, questions about make-up and maturity have dogged him since before he was drafted. There are questions around his mechanics and somewhat violent delivery. There are questions as to how much his attitude and work ethic will allow him to continue to improve. And perhaps most importantly, there are questions as to whether he has enough off-speed stuff to allow him to fit in a rotation, or is he strictly a reliever at the next level.

5) Hector Rondon, RHP, CLE – In fairness, Rondon has pitched at a level we expected heading into the season, but one which appears to be a surprise to most. Through stays in the ESL and the International (INT) League, Rondon has posted a 2.54 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, and a 81:18 K:BB ratio. More impressively, if one removes his two bullpen appearances in mid-May, Rondon’s numbers, as a starter, are a 2.28 ERA, a 0.920 WHIP and a 79:16 K:BB ratio—as a 21yo. Perhaps Rondon doesn’t receive as much credit, because he doesn’t possess a dominating fastball, but he looks well on his way to becoming a solid Big League mid-rotation starter, and he is likely to see Cleveland before this season is out.

6) Travis Wood, LHP, CIN – Certainly the Minor’s comeback story of the year, Wood currently has the Minor League’s best starter ERA at 1.29. To truly appreciate Wood’s place on this list, one has to understand that, after posting a 7.09 ERA in 17 SOL starts, in 2008, Wood had essentially fallen off the Prospect map. In 2008, he walked nearly 5 batters per 9IP. Through 18 starts this year, that rate is under 3.0. At only 22yo, Wood has clearly reestablished himself as a prospect. He still lacks a dominate fastball, but he has new found control, and is missing a lot of bats, as opposing hitters are batting only .189 against him.

7) Casey Kelly, RHP, BOS – A number of teams questioned the Red Sox signing of Kelly to a $3 million deal last June. Afterall, the consensus was that he was a better pitcher than hitter and Kelly definitely expressed the desire to continue to play SS. An odd compromise was reached that allowed Kelly to play the first-half of the season as a pitcher and the second-half as a SS. As a pitcher, Kelly was lights out. Through 16 appearances in the South Atlantic (SAL) League and the CAR, he posted a 2.12 ERA, a 0.826 WHIP and a 74:16 K:BB ratio. While we would have thought that that performance would have been enough to have everyone lose the SS idea, sure enough, this week Kelly appeared in the GCL playing SS.

8) Kyle Drabek, RHP, PHI – When Drabek was shut down for Tommy John surgery in 2007, many wondered if his career was about to come to an end, before ever really getting started. But in 32 innings in his 2008 return, Drabek looked to be recovered. There are no longer any questions, as Drabek has returned with a bang. Through stints in the Florida State (FSL) League and the ESL, Drabek has posted a 2.58 ERA, a 1.163 WHIP and a 110:36 K:BB ratio and looked to be one of the most impressive pitcher in Sunday night’s Futures game. Drabek has the complete package of ‘stuff’ and ‘make-up’ to be a successful Major League #2. Look for him to join the Phillies rotation in 2010.

9) Jordan Lyles, LHP, HOU – When the Astros took Lyles in the supplemental round of the 2008 draft and signed him to a $930,000 contract, many around baseball felt the Astros were continuing their ways that had plummeted their Minor League system to among the game’s worst. In the end, it appears that it will be the Astros that will get the last laugh, as Lyles has developed into one of the game’s best pitching prospects. Through 17 SAL starts, the 18yo Lyles has posted a 2.92 ERA, a 1.118 WHIP and a 118:21 K:BB ratio. Perhaps even more impressive, over his last 41 IP he has a 58:9 K:BB ratio. He still relies on his mid-90s fastball too much and will have to work on his secondary offerings, but he should have plenty of time to work things out.

10) Jenrry Mejia, RHP, NYM – After posting solid results, as one of the youngest pitchers in the New York-Penn (NYP) League in 2008, Mejia appeared to be poised for a breakout season coming into 2009. The Mets were aggressive with the 19yo, jumping him up to the FSL to begin the year. Considering his age, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Through stints in the FSL and the ESL, Mejia has posted a 2.50 ERA, a 1.375 WHIP and a 68:25 K:BB ratio. Mejia is currently pitching predominantly off of his fastball, and without improvement in his secondary offerings looks destined to end up in a bullpen role. If the Mets can be patient with him, he could be a high-90s fastball, front of the rotation starter.

Hot Hitters –

1) Jesus Montero, C?, NYY – It is sometimes difficult to remember, when looking at Montero’s .330/.386/.542 that he has posted in stints in the FSL and ESL this year, that he is still only 19yo. A .900 OPS as a 19yo in AA is rarified air indeed. Forget about what position he will end up playing, because that bat will play anywhere. After finishing out the season in the ESL, look for the Yankees to give him his first big league look by this time 2010…as a 20yo.

2) Alex Liddi, 3B, SEA – Liddi has unquestionably, been the most consistent offensive performer this season, and we can’t say enough about him. There are those that point to his .349/.395/.632 line and credit the CAL and his home park at High Desert. While we recognize his 1.241/.857 Home/Away OPS Split, we feel the need to point out that he is only 20yo, still relatively raw having grown up in Italy, and does have an .857 OPS without the hitter friendly effects of High Desert. Given that we still see significant upside in his development and a glove that will allow him to stay at 3B, Liddi becomes one of the game’s elite prospects. He will have to continue to cut down on his 22% strike out rate as he moves up the ladder.

3) Jason Heyward, OF, ATL – Heyward started the year as a top 10 prospect, and has done little to show that he doesn’t belong there. As a 19yo in the CAR, and now the SOL, Heyward has posted a .302/.378/.530. Arguably he is the best position prospect in the game today.

4) Derek Norris, C, WSN – We were, to the best of our knowledge, the only place to list Norris as a Top 100 prospect at the beginning of the season. After the 20yo has posted a .316/.415/.593 in the SAL, we now have lots of company. Norris has significantly improved his throw and catch and game calling skills. His strike zone management skills have always been advanced. And, as demonstrated by his .593 OPS and 21 HRs, his power has taken a big jump up. With Weiters now in the Majors, Norris trails only Posey and Santana among backstop prospects.

5) Gordon Beckham, IF, CHA – He will only qualify for this list for a few more days, but Beckham became the first position player from the 2008 draft to reach the Majors in a somewhat permanent fashion. Through stints in the SOL and INT, Beckham posted a .326/.378/.526. Upon arriving in Chicago he struggled significantly, going 1 for his first 24 ABs. He made some adjustments, shortening his swing and focusing on going the other way and since June 26th, he is .389/.421/.574. Positionwise, Beckham appears likely to stay at 3B or slide across the diamond and play 2B, as Alexi Ramirez appears to be the White Sox long-term SS. He still has a little loop in his swing that will give him troubles from time to time, but if he moves to 2B, he could provide some of the most production from that position in the Majors.

6) Justin Smoak, 1B, TEX – While Beckham may have been the first player from the 2008 draft to reach the Majors, it’s beginning to look like Smoak may be the player with the best bat. Battling nagging injuries for a good portion of the season, Smoak has posted a .307/.433/.486 on the season. With Chris Davis back in AAA, the path for Smoak to take over 1B in Arlington appears to be clear. At 22yo, look for the Rangers to wait until September before calling him up, but he appears to have a Rafael Palmeiro type career within his grasp.

7) Jaff Decker, OF, SDP – Decker takes a lot of knocks for his name and for even more for his less than athletic looking body, but no one is knocking his bat. The 19yo has posted a .277/.442/.489 in the MWL and he possesses some of the Minor’s best strike zone management skills. Decker will continue to have to prove himself at every level, but appears to have a bat that will take him a long way.

8) Buster Posey, C, SFG – Posey entered the season as the ‘surest’ thing from the 2008 draft class, and continues to hold that title. His excellent catch and throw and game calling skills, would likely get him to the minors by themselves, but his bat looks to be first rate for the position. He will start at AAA this week, after posting a .326/.428/.540 through 80 games in the CAL. The Giants are likely to keep him at Fresno for the remainder of the season, but look for Posey to take over the everyday catcher duties in San Francisco by next May.

9) Tyson Gillies, OF, SEA – After single-handedly manufacturing a run in Sunday’s Futures game, Gillies showed the baseball world what the fans at High Desert have been seeing all season. Through 78 games in the CAL, Gilles has posted a .322/.431/.466, demonstrating quintessential leadoff skills. Gillies controls the strike zone, plays solid defense, and makes things happen. Only 20yo, he will have to show he can continue his offensive production outside of the hitter friendly environs of High Desert, but Gillies is rapidly moving up the prospect charts.

10) Chris Heisey, OF, CIN – The 24yo Heisey is one of those players you want to root for. Lacking any significant skills, Heisey is a ‘grinder’ who, prior to this season, was considered to have the upside of a 4th OF type. After stints in the SOL and INT, Heisey has posted a .350/.420/.585 in what has to be one of the most surprising performances of the season. We are still not sold that he much more than a 4th OF type, but he looks like he will get his chance to prove it.

The Nots –

1) Jeremy Jeffress, RHP, MIL – Jeffress now has a 100 game suspension to go along with his 100mph fastball . He was awful in 8 SOL starts, so the Brewers sent him down to the FSL before he was suspended. There is no doubt that Jeffress throws hard, as evidenced by his 70 K’s in 60 IP. But he often times has no idea where it is going (55 BBs). He is one strike away from being out of baseball for good and the grains of sand seem to be slipping out of that hour glass that was his career.

2) Kyle Skipworth, C, FLA – When the Marlins made Skipworth the 6th overall pick in 2008 they thought they were getting an offensive-minded catcher that had enough defense to potentially stick at the position. Keep that in mind as you look at the .203/.259/.328 that he has posted through his first 369 Professional ABs. At 19yo it is too early to label him a bust, but I wouldn’t want to be the one responsible for that $2.3 million bonus.

3) Shooter Hunt, RHP, MIN – Hunt was drafted with questions regarding his control. It only got worse through his first 70 Professional IP. After allowing the 33 walks in his first 17 IP, Hunt was disabled. He has been on a Gulf Coast (GCL) League rehab assignment where he has 13 walks in 14 innings. I suppose that is an improvement. Like Skipworth, this too looks to be a risky $1,080,000 investment.

4) Engle Beltre, OF, TEX – Beltre was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006 for what at the time, $600,000, was considered big money for a Latin American Signee. His ‘tools’ have created comparisons to players like Andruw Jones, but his production has more often than not resembled Andy Fran. Although still just 19yo, his anemic .219/.274/.304 in the CAL is coming on top of a career .725 OPS entering the season. Just the latest example of a player development process that is broken. With the bonus money that has been paid to International signees over the last three seasons, it isn’t going to take long before Major League clubs begin to reevaluate their International strategy.

5) Kevin Ahrens, 3B, TOR – It is difficult to believe that Ahrens was considered the best prep bat available in the state of Texas in the 2007 draft, as three seasons into his professional career he sits with an OPS around .650. After struggling offensively in the MWL in 2008, it is hard to understand why the Jays felt he was ready for the FSL. Nonetheless, that is where we find him and his .220/.296/.292. Make no mistake, his glove is first rate, but unless something clicks at the plate soon, we are never going to get to see much of it.

6) Kellen Kulbacki, OF, SDP – Kulbacki posted a breakout season in 2008, when he had a 1.017 OPS in the CAL. Figuring that the 23yo was ready for the next step, the Padres sent him to the Texas League to open the year. Unfortunately injuries have derailed the 2009 season and in 38 games with San Antonio he has managed only a .201/.257/.254. There is talent in Kulbacki’s bat, but if he can’t turn around his year in the second half, it will begin to look unlikely that he will ever make an impact at the Major League level.

7) Drew Stubbs, CF, CIN – Regular readers are already familiar with the eternal question I ask rhetorically…”what is the phenomenon that is Drew Stubbs?” I just don’t get it, and frankly I never have since the Reds made him a first round choice in 2006. Stubbs has been old for every level he has played at and still only has a career OPS barely above .750. Yes he can field, and, if you can get him to first base, he can run a little too. But this is a guy that is supposed to profile as a leadoff hitter that strikeout once every 3.5 ABs, with next to no power. 2009 hasn’t been a lot better, as Stubbs has posted a .274/.368/.365 in the INT.

8) Niko Vasquez, SS, STL – The Cardinals felt they got a steal when they tabbed Vasquez in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft. The book on Vasquez was that he hit like a 3Bmen, and played SS like one too. Now midway through his first full season, it likes like the Redbirds were only right about the glove part. After opening the season with a .197/.295/.250 in the MWL, the Cardinals sent Vasquez to the NYP when it opened—with similar results. While, at 20yo, it is too early to write Vasquez off, things are looking anything but promising.

9) Michael Almanzar, 3B, BOS – Maybe when the Cardinals thought that Vasquez hit like a 3Bmen, they had Almanzar in mind. After the Red Sox paid Almanzar the highest bonus ($1.5 million) of the 2007 Latin American 16yo class, they expected big things. His brief stint in the GCL in 2008 seemed to back that up, but it has been all downhill from there. Almanzar opened the season in the SAL, where he posted a .207/.261/.293 and was clearly over matched. When the short season began, he was demoted to the NYP where things have gone even worse. This is an 18yo talent, who is not being developed properly…from here just insert my comments from Engle Beltre above.

10) Lars Anderson, 1B, BOS – Before everyone starts jumping on me, I think Anderson is still one of the Minor’s elite prospects and we ranked him in the Top 25 in our mid-season list. That being said, there were many that predicted that once Wieters and Price moved on to the Majors, it could well be Anderson that assumed the Top spot. Well Wieters and Price are gone, and Anderson is further from the top spot than he was when the season began. When the Red Sox drafted Anderson in 2006, the consensus was that he was the best prep power hitter in that draft. So far in 1230 professional ABs he has collected a total of 37 HRs. In a repeat performance in the ESL this year, he has posted a .272/.366/.413. He is only 21yo and is putting up reasonable numbers in the ESL, so there is no denying his ability to hit, but given that he is relegated to playing 1B, will he hit enough to ever justify the hype?

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