A further examination of players in unforeseen places, a check-in on notable Opening Day assignments. We touched on the Padres and Mariners in yesterday's blog post.
The Mets identified several useful players a bit further down their 2007 draft board—most notably, third baseman Zach Lutz (fifth round), outfielder Lucas Duda (seventh), lefty Robert Carson (14th) and righty Dillon Gee (21st)—but after three years, the organization can't be sure exactly what they got from the top of that draft.
Erstwhile Oregon State closer Eddie Kunz, their top pick at 42nd overall, is trying to get his career back on track as a starter in Double-A. Prep lefty Nathan Vineyard (47th) suffered a shoulder injury and subsequently went AWOL; he's technically on the restricted list. Towering, 6-foot-11 second-rounder Scott Moviel has shown promise, but he's off to a rough start this season.
Richard Lucas, New York's fourth-round selection, is poised to do his part to redeem the ’07 draft. If the name doesn't sound familiar, it's probably for lack of exposure—the 21-year-old third baseman played in just 137 games during his first three pro seasons. The Jacksonville native contended with a knee injury in 2008 and personal issues that also resulted in missed time.
But coming off a cumulative .318/.414/.534 batting line in short-season ball last year, Lucas earned a promotion all the way to St. Lucie to begin the season. The righthanded batter was off to a 9-for-38 (.237) start with two homers and two doubles in the Florida State League. He garnered just 119 at-bats at the low Class A level, and even they were practically ancient history, having transpired in the opening weeks of the 2008 season.
"We knew (Lucas) was a guy we liked, but between the injury and the missed time, we hadn't really seen what he's capable of," director of minor league operations Adam Wogan said. "We challenged him very early in his career, but with (Jefry) Marte and others playing third base, we felt that (Lucas) was the right guy to push.
"Based on his age and experience, we felt he was the best one to put in St. Lucie. And he's handled it well."
One evaluator who saw Lucas in the Rookie-level Appalachian League last summer liked what he saw. "The ball just jumps off his bat, especially to right and right-center field" he said. "He's got what you're looking for in a hitter: bat speed and natural strength. And as pitchers started working around him, (Lucas) showed improved plate discipline. He could become a solid everyday third baseman (defensively), but his bat will have to carry him."
The third basemen playing one level to either side of Lucas are Lutz, who has four home runs in 11 games for Double-A Binghamton, and Marte, who opened the season on the low Class A Savannah disabled list with hamstring injury. When he returns to the Sand Gnats, Marte will once again team with shortstop Wilmer Flores on the left side of the infield. Both 18-year-old prospects spent last season in the South Atlantic League, getting their reps but struggling for long stretches at the plate.
For Flores, those struggles had evaporated in the early going. He was off to a 16-for-45 (.356) start with three doubles and only one strikeout, showing an almost preternatural feel for barreling the ball.
You may want to get used to the name Michael Kohn. The Angels' righthanded reliever just barely squeezed on to the organization's Top 30 prospects list last offseason (as he had with the Pioneer League's Top 20 in 2008), but he won't remain in the shadows for long if he keeps going the way he is now.
In four appearances for Double-A Arkansas, Kohn had delivered four perfect innings, striking out eight batters and notching a save in his only opportunity. The 23-year-old opened eyes in big league spring training, too, compiling a 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 9 1/3 innings. That showing gave Kohn the boost needed to launch him to Double-A, after he finished last season with 22 appearances in the high Class A California League.
"He's a very confident young man," Angels roving pitching instructor Kernan Ronan said. "The batters just continued to swing and miss at his fastball."
Kohn's manager with low Class A Cedar Rapids last year, Bill Mosiello, had this to say: "His ball explodes. He's up in the zone a lot, but guys swing and miss by two feet."
That may be only a slight exaggeration. Kohn has struck out 155 batters (against 37 walks) in 93 pro innings—that's a rate of 15 per nine. He has surrendered just two home runs in that time, the last one coming on May 2, 2009.
Kohn has enough velocity—he sits in the 90-93 mph range and touches 96—but it's his delivery that makes him so effective. His severely short arm swing in back adds maximum deception. Often, by the time the batter picks up the ball, it's already past him. Kohn mixes in his slurvy breaking ball to keep batters honest, whenever he suspects opponents have timed his fastball.
But don't stay to watch the Travelers just to catch a glimpse of Kohn. The Arkansas bullpen also contains righthanders Jordan Walden, Ryan Aldridge (another deceptive reliever who sits in the low 90s) and Ysmael Carmona, who according to Ronan, has one of the best arms in the minors.
The Angels converted Carmona, 25, to the mound in 2005, and the 6-foot-1 Dominican has made steady progress in his six years as a pitcher. (He missed all of the ’07 campaign with injury). He generates 94-95 mph velocity with ease and snaps off a slider with short, late tilt.
The trouble is, Carmona too often misses the strike zone. Exhibit A: 106 walks in 132 pro innings. But he took an encouraging step with Rancho Cucamonga last season, striking out 55 and walking 26 in 42 Cal League innings.
Walden entered the 2009 season as perhaps the Angels' most electric pitching prospect. (We credited him with having the system's best fastball.) But a strained forearm limited him to just 13 starts for the A-Travs, and his 5.25 ERA did not exactly argue for a promotion to Triple-A. So the Angels returned Walden to North Little Rock but with a new job description: relief ace.
"This season, we wanted keep him in shorter stints." Ronan said, elaborating on the organization's motivation behind switching Walden to a relief role. "He's got a bit of a max-effort delivery, so the switch is aimed at keeping him on the field. We want to see what he can do if completely healthy."
In fact serving as dual closer with Kohn, Walden has completed thee shutout innings, allowing two hits and notching a save to go with his 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
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