Minor League Transactions: Dec. 13-23
Please see Trade Central for more on the prospects involved in December trades, and please see my Twitter timeline for more on some of the players referenced in this installment. […]
2005 Top 20 Prospects: Pacific Coast LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Jim Callis
Chat Wrap: Jim Callis took your PCL questions
Tacoma righthander Felix Hernandez entered 2005 with more hype than the latest Harry Potter book. Best teenaged pitching prospect since Dwight Gooden, scouts agreed. Best pitching prospect they'd ever seen, some said.
Though shoulder bursitis knocked him out for a month, Hernandez delivered. Despite winning just nine games and working just 88 innings, he was the obvious choice for PCL pitcher of the year. He toyed with veteran hitters much older than him, throwing three above-average pitches, and was even more spectacular once he joined the Mariners in August.
Behind Hernandez, hitters were the talk of the league. Nashville had the top two position players in second baseman Rickie Weeks and first baseman Prince Fielder, though both had been promoted by the time the Sounds won the playoff championship.
The PCL was uncommonly rich in first basemen, led by Fielder, Tucson's Conor Jackson, Salt Lake's Casey Kotchman and Sacramento's Dan Johnson. Albuquerque's Josh Willingham (a catcher more suited for first base) and Omaha's Justin Huber also made the Top 20, while Oklahoma's Adrian Gonzalez and Colorado Springs' Ryan Shealy just missed.
Unlike most power pitchers, Hernandez is a groundball machine. He gave up just 14 homers in 306 minor league innings, and big leaguers didn't have any success lifting his pitches either. He throws quality strikes with a sound delivery and clean arm action.
"He's the best minor league pitcher I've ever seen. That's the best report I've ever written," one scout said. "There's nothing not to like. What he has now is plenty good enough."
Hernandez will overthrow his fastball or want to rely on his curve too much at times, though that's typical of a 19-year-old pitcher. Only injury problems could keep him from superstardom, so Seattle has carefully monitored his inning and pitch counts. The bursitis is the only blip on his health record.
Weeks has the quickest hands scouts have seen since Gary Sheffield, yet he hit just .259 with eight homers in Double-A last year. The problem was that Weeks' bat was so fast he was getting out in front of most pitches, and once he added a waggle to slow down his swing in spring training, he unlocked the offensive potential that got him drafted No. 2 overall in 2003.
The all-time leading hitter in NCAA history with a .473 career average at Southern, Weeks can launch bombs to any part of the ballpark and has the speed to steal bases. He's still adjusting to big league pitching but could be a 30-30 threat as early as 2006. One scout said Weeks could become Alfonso Soriano with better plate discipline.
Like Soriano, Weeks isn't nearly as impressive in the field. He has improved at second base, showing softer hands and a better double-play pivot. But one manager questioned his footwork and thought he'd have to move to third base, and a scout thought Weeks needed to put more effort into his defense.
He has as much power potential as any player in the minors, and that's what gives him the edge over fellow PCL first basemen Jackson and Kotchman. Fielder can catch up to any fastball with his compact stroke, and his pitch recognition and plate discipline will allow him to hit for average as well. Though he's more athletic than his 6-foot, 260-pound frame would suggest, he'll never be more than an adequate defender.
Weeks has a faster bat and Fielder has more strength, but no one in the PCL could match Jackson's pitch recognition. He picks up the ball so quickly out of the pitcher's hand that he's almost never fooled or loses his balance. Tacoma manager Dan Rohn said Jackson has the best concept of the strike zone he'd seen in his five years in the league.
Jackson doesn't chase bad pitches and he doesn't miss the ones he should punish. He uses an all-fields, line-drive approach rather than selling out for power, and one scout said the ball jumped off his bat more in the Arizona Fall League last offseason than it did this year. But even the most conservative projections give him average home run production in the majors.
"You get the feeling he's going to get a hit every time up," another scout said. "There's not a pitch he can't hit. He has great hand-eye coordination and great feel for the barrel of the bat. He must have Superman vision or something."
Jackson spent his first two pro seasons as an outfielder but lacks the speed to play there in the majors. Though his inexperience at first base showed in 2005, he should be solid there in time.
Cain takes a back seat to Hernandez but few other pitching prospects. He led the PCL in strikeouts and allowed just six runs in his first four big league starts, including a complete-game two-hitter against the Cubs.
Cain's fastball has plenty of armside life and stays in the mid-90s well into the middle innings. He leaves it up in the zone too much, but he has enough zip on his heater to get it by hitters. His hard breaking ball and his changeup have their moments, though they're inconsistent, and he doesn't fully trust his changeup.
Cleaner mechanics should allow him to repeat and command all of his pitches better, and one scout said Cain would benefit in that regard from working with Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti.
Ranking first on this list the previous year and hitting .358 in spring training would have earned most players a starting job in the big leagues. Blocked by Darin Erstad with the Angels, Kotchman instead returned to the PCL intent on addressing concerns about his power. Trying to hit homers only messed up his swing, as he went hitless in his first 19 at-bats and batted .138 with no extra-base hits in the first three weeks.
Once he shortened his stroke and stopped trying to pull and lift everything, he became the same high-average hitter with gap power he always had been. He may peak at 20-25 homers in the majors, but as a potential .320 hitter and Gold Glover, that still would make him a star at first base.
Jackson and Quentin constantly have been compared to each other since Arizona took them in the first round of the 2003 draft. While Quentin doesn't have Jackson's eye at the plate, he has fine plate discipline to go with more raw power and leverage in his swing. Jackson should hit for a higher average and Quentin should produce more homers for the Diamondbacks, and neither should be a slouch in either category.
Quentin also is much more athletic than Jackson. He's a good right fielder with a solid arm, and he got nice jumps when he saw time in center this year. Playing there would expedite his path to the majors because Arizona has several corner-outfield options, but Quentin lacks the natural speed for the position.
Of the eight drafted players on this Top 10, Johnson is the only one who didn't go in the first round. As a seventh-rounder, he has had to earn respect while climbing through the minors one level at a time. He has done exactly that, winning PCL MVP honors in 2004 and sparking the A's offense when promoted in late May.
Johnson centers pitches with a sound swing, drilling hard line drives to all fields. He sees the ball very well and could become a .300 hitter with 20 homers annually. He has worked hard to clean up his body and his defense, and he's at least adequate with the glove.
Considered the third-best player the Astros received when they traded Billy Wagner to the Phillies, Astacio has since far surpassed Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth. His stuff took a huge jump forward in 2004 and he maintained it this season.
Astacio now works with a 92-94 mph fastball with nice sink, a splitter that can be unhittable and a hard breaking ball. When everything is working, he has three plus pitches. He can maintain the velocity on his fastball into the late innings.
Though he has a good delivery, Astacio battles the command of his secondary stuff and his feel for pitching at times. Overcoming that is his biggest need in making the transition to the majors, where he was inconsistent in four stints this season.
Mathis is much more athletic than most catchers. He's more of a grinder at the plate than a sweet swinger, and he figures to be a .270 hitter with 15 homers per year. He needs to do a better job of covering the outer half and laying off breaking balls out of the zone.
He threw out 33 percent of basestealers in the PCL, but observers thought his arm strength was down to merely average this year. Mathis also tied for the league lead among catchers with nine errors. He moves well behind the plate and excels at handling pitchers.
Reyes would have seen more major league time with most other organizations, but all five of the Cardinals' starters stayed healthy all season. St. Louis gave him one start in August to give its rotation an extra day of rest, and he responded by allowing just two hits in 6 1/3 shutout innings against Milwaukee. After returning to Memphis, he fanned 15 in his next outing.
Easily the best prospect in the Cardinals system, Reyes has good stuff and throws it for strikes. His 92-93 mph fastball can touch 95, and his sinking changeup improved significantly in the second half of the season. His slider also is effective, and managers rated his command the best among PCL pitchers.
Reyes would rank higher on this list if he could stay healthy. He had elbow problems in his final three years at the University of Southern California and has been limited in each of his two pro seasons by shoulder trouble. He missed three weeks after spraining a joint in his shoulder in May, and scouts worry that his arm action will lead to further injuries.
A Cuban defector who signed a $3.65 million contact in January, Betancourt hadn't played in 2004 and was largely an unknown. His glove didn't let him stay anonymous for long. After seeing his plus range, arm and hands, PCL observers were convinced he had Gold Gloves in his future.
"He's by far the best defensive prospect I've seen since I've been coaching and managing," Tucson's Chip Hale said. "His hands are special. He's going to be another Omar Vizquel."
The Vizquel comparisons extend to Betancourt's bat as well, however. He has no trouble making contact, but he swings at everything and gets himself out on pitcher's pitches. Betancourt never will hit for power, and while he has average speed, that doesn't make him a basestealing threat.
No longer an overaggressive, dead-pull hitter, Johnson has a much better approach and uses the entire field. He has learned how to tap into his power, hitting 48 homers the last two seasons after totaling 57 in his first five. One scout questioned his ability to hit good breaking balls from righthanders, however.
Built like Vernon Wells, Johnson split his time between center and right field for Portland. He doesn't have true center-field speed, but he has plenty of arm strength for right.
Hitters always have had difficulty making contact against Hill, who had just as much trouble finding the strike zone before 2005. After he cleaned up his delivery and improved his focus, his control improved dramatically. He went from never having pitched above Class A before the season to the majors in June.
Hill easily led the minor leagues with an average of 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings, and he posted double-digit whiffs in six of his PCL starts. Though managers ranked Hernandez' curveball as the best in the league, Hill got Prince Fielder's vote and one scout described his bender as "defying gravity." Not that it would do them much good, but hitters can't sit on his curveball because he also has a 90-91 mph fastball. He also is working on a cutter and a changeup.
Hill's control disappeared in each of his three stints with the Cubs, so he still has much to prove at that level. But his curveball is so devastating that the worst-case scenario is that he'd become a lefty specialist.
Just 22 when he joined Round Rock, Nieve found Triple-A challenging but coped with it well. Though inconsistent, he threw a pair of complete-game shutouts and finished the season with 11 strikeouts in his final start.
His arm is as good as Astacio's. Nieve's fastball sits at 93-94 mph and reaches 97, and he usually pitches on a good downward plane despite being just 6 feet tall. Nieve's slider can be dominating when he stays on top of it, and he also throws a curveball. He can change the speed, look and shape of his breaking balls, making him deceptive.
Nieve still needs an offspeed pitch. He's working on a changeup and learning to trust it. He likes to try to blow the ball by hitters up in the strike zone, which may not work as well in the majors.
Cedeno has strong hands and wrists, giving him bat speed and solid pop for a middle infielder. He has improved his discipline, chasing fewer pitches and using the opposite-field more often. He's a slightly above-average runner who can steal an occasional base.
Even when he struggled with the bat in the past, Cedeno still impressed with his defense. He has a very strong arm, good range and soft hands. One PCL manager said he couldn't believe the Cubs played Neifi Perez regularly instead of Cedeno, whose left hand was broken by a pitch in September.
The Angels decided to take a lefthander with the 12th overall pick in the 2002 draft, and they opted to save a little money by taking Saunders over Scott Kazmir. When Saunders went down almost immediately with tears in his rotator cuff and labrum, it looked like an unfortunate choice. But he avoided surgery and has regained his stuff after missing the entire 2003 season.
Saunders works aggressively with his 91-93 mph fastball and his changeup. He's still refining his curveball, though it only needs to be his third pitch because he'll use his changeup more often against righthanders. He needs to get better at locating his pitches within the strike zone, but he has good control and generally keeps the ball down.
Willingham had one of the quickest bats and best power strokes in the PCL. He hit 12 homers in May and .383 in June before getting called up to Florida, where he soon went on the disabled list for two months with a stress fracture in his left forearm.
Willingham patiently waits for a pitch he can attack and usually takes advantage when he gets one. When opponents try to pitch around him, he's willing to take a walk. He led the minors with a .449 on-base percentage in 2004 and had a .455 OBP in Triple-A this year.
Though Willingham played mostly behind the plate for Albuquerque, scouts don't think he can catch regularly in the big leagues. He has worked hard since converting from a corner infielder in instructional league three years ago, but his catch-and-throw skills are lacking. He threw out just nine of 65 basestealers (14 percent) in the PCL.
Barfield has a reputation as one of the best clutch hitters in the minors. He has consistently hit higher with runners in scoring position, including a .347 mark this year.
But scouts say Barfield's performance reflects his stubbornness. He has a hole on the inside part of the plate, so he pulls off pitches and opponents know the best way to get him out is to work him away. But in crucial situations, Barfield changes his approach, stays on pitches and uses the whole field—making him a better hitter.
The consensus among scouts who saw him in the PCL was that Barfield would be best served by shortening his swing and hitting that way all of the time. He constantly has tinkered with his swing, and though he hit well after adding a trigger at midseason, scouts still weren't totally sold that he'd cut it as a big league regular. They did give him credit for improving his defense and no longer believe he'll have to move off second base.
Willingham probably will follow the path Huber embarked on in 2005. A defensively-challenged catcher in the Mets system before joining the Royals in the three-team Kris Benson trade last year, Huber switched to first base with his new organization. He's still shaky with the glove, but his bat is his ticket.
The MVP of the 2005 Futures Game, Huber has the potential to hit .280 with 20-plus homers and more than his share of walks. He has plenty of bat speed and a willingness to use the entire field. If Kansas City trades Mike Sweeney during the offseason, Huber would be his logical replacement.