Prospect Pulse: Aug. 9




Mike Rizzo was a wanted man, and with good reason.

The Nationals wanted to bolster their front office under their new ownership, and hiring Rizzo as their assistant general manager should do that. Scouting director Dana Brown, as well as the Nats' unfilled positions of directors of professional and international scouting, will report to Rizzo.

"We've got big plans about doing things well domestically, here in the United States, and also abroad, in Latin America . . . and Asia," Rizzo told the Washington Post after his hiring in D.C. was announced. "There's no place too far, no travel itinerary too rough for us to go and figure out ways to put better players into our system."

No scouting director has a perfect track record, and Rizzo had some clunkers with the Diamondbacks, such as early-round picks that never panned out in Jason Bulger (2001), Mike Gosling (2001) and Sergio Santos (2002). But the Diamondbacks excelled at late-round finds in his tenure, such as ace righthander Brandon Webb (eighth round, 2000) Chad Tracy (seventh round, 2001) and Dustin Nippert (15th round, 2002).

In addition to overseeing the domestic draft, Rizzo has also headed up international signings for the Diamondbacks, helping put together the best farm system in baseball over the last six seasons. His replacement will have big shoes to fill.

While the Diamondbacks earned that respect because of their plethora of impact position players--from outfielders like Carlos Gonzalez, Justin Upton and Chris Young to infielders like shortstops Stephen Drew and Pedro Ciriaco--Rizzo has made an effort to bring polished arms into the organization, especially over the last two seasons in the draft.

After taking Justin Upton No. 1 overall in 2005, Arizona took pitchers with their next six picks, nabbing righthanders Matt Torra (supplemental first round), Matt Green (second), Jason Neighborgall and Micah Owings (third), and lefty Mark Romanczuk (fourth).

This past June was again pitching-heavy in the upper rounds, as Rizzo spent his first four picks on more arms, getting righthanders Max Scherzer (first; still unsigned), Brooks Brown (supplemental first), Dallas Buck (third) and lefthander Brett Anderson (second; also unsigned).

There is certainly a trend here, and it's not just bringing more pitchers into the fold, but college pitching from major programs. Anderson is the lone high school draft of the bunch, and as the son of Oklahoma State coach Frank Anderson, Brett is notable for a polished approach more reminiscent of a college pitcher.

"It was a conscious plan, but it was also the strength of each of those drafts," said Rizzo, 45. "We felt like we had a pretty good stockpile of position players. Our inventory there was already very strong. But those drafts were so pitching heavy and so weak with position players that it was a good time to go after arms.

"There has been a lot of quality-college pitching out there the last two years and we really wanted to go after big, physical guys from good programs. And we felt like we got some good ones."

Wild Horses

The pitchers Arizona drafted under Rizzo helped to give the system balance. Righthander Dustin Nippert was the organization's highest-ranked pitcher this offseason, checking in at No. 5.

Nippert struggled in his only major league outing this season, and after winning his first seven decisions this season, he's struggled (8.06 ERA in eight starts) since his return to Triple-A Tucson. Through 98 innings overall with the Sidewinders, Nippert was 10-5, 5.40 in the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League.

"With Nippert, he's a guy who's going to have a definite impact on our pitching staff," Rizzo said before joining the Nationals. "He's been knocked around a little bit, but that's what you have to go through in the PCL at times. He's growing and he'll be a better, smarter pitcher because of it."

Then there is Owings, who has rocketed up the charts this season after going 1-1, 2.45 with a 30-4 strikeout-walk ratio in just 22 innings in his pro debut at high Class A Lancaster last season.

The former two-way star at Tulane and Georgia Tech started this year at Double-A Tennessee and was promoted to Tucson in June. Since he landed in eastern Arizona, all Owings has done is win: He was 6-0, 3.92 in 39 innings.

"We thought all along he was a guy we could fast track," Rizzo said. "He was a warrior at Georgia Tech, he was a warrior at Tulane and he's a warrior now. And he has those intangibles about him where whenever he's on the mound, he makes everyone around him better. It's something you can't really quantify. It's a whole other dimension.

"And he fields his position well, holds runners to go along with that 90-92 mile-an-hour fastball with 95-96 in his back pocket when he needs it, and two quality breaking balls."

Another dimension of Owings' game is his bat--he hit .273 with a homer at Tennessee and already had four multi-hit games in Triple-A.

"He's a legitimate hitter and a legitimate bunter," Rizzo said. "We're talking about a guy who was hitting third at Tulane and pitching on Friday nights. He has that Jason Marquis kind of a package that when he gets to the big leagues, a manager wouldn't be afraid to bring him off the bench if he needed that bat or to get a bunt down. He just has that mentality. If he didn't do what he does on the mound, he'd be a damn good prospect as a hitter. I mean, he's Micah freakin' Owings."

Lefthanded Depth

Though Owings has left the Smokies rotation, the fact the Diamondbacks replaced him with talent shows the improved depth of the system. The organization's two top lefthanders, Greg Smith and Matt Chico, are both currently in the Double-A rotation.

Smith, a 2005 sixth-rounder out of Louisiana State, replaced Owings in the rotation after he baffled high Class A California League opponents to the tune of 9-0, 1.63 in 88 innings. He limited opposing hitters to a .190 average and gave up just three home runs in 13 starts, going 10 outings without giving up a homer at one stretch.

A prototypical lefty with excellent command of an average fastball, slurvy breaking ball and changeup, Smith moved to Tennessee in mid-June and is still adjusting to the change of address. In 32 innings, he's allowed 16 earned runs on 31 hits.

"He just commands the fastball," Rizzo said. "He'll cut it, sink it. He's really a crafty lefty with solid stuff and I've really been impressed with how he's been able to expand the break on his slider this season.

"Those numbers he put up in the Cal League are some of the freakiest numbers I've ever seen. To do it in the Cal League is one thing, but to do it in Lancaster where balls just jump out of that park . . . it's phenomenal."

Chico struggled in his Double-A debut last season, giving up eight homers in just 10 outings and 75 hits in 53 innings overall. The organization sent him back to high Class A to start this season, then promoted him to Tennessee after he went 3-4, 3.75 with 49 strikeouts in 50 innings.

The 2003 third-round pick out of Southern California was the anchor of the Smokies' staff upon his return to Double-A, with a 5-2, 2.24 line in 64 innings.

"He's confident; I don't think that confidence was shaken by what happened to him (in Double-A) last year," Rizzo said. "He's made some adjustments and really learned that he doesn't have to blow everybody away--that 90-92 with location and command consistently is better than just blowing gas at everybody."

Three Is The Magic Number

The Diamondbacks are also high on righthanders Garrett Mock, Ross Ohlendorf and Steven Jackson, who join Smith and Chico in the Tennessee rotation.

Mock, a third-round pick out of Houston in 2004, has better stuff than his numbers indicate. The 23-year-old righthander has a full arsenal of pitches, starting with a heavy four-seamer that touches 95. He also mixes in a cut fastball at 88-92 and rounds his repertoire out with a pair of quality breaking balls. Mock got shelled early in the Southern League, going 1-4, 5.13 in April, but he's come on since the break with 3-3, 3.61 numbers in June and July. Overall, he was 4-8, 4.40 with 104 strikeouts in 117 innings. Still, the high number of hits Mock allows is cause for concern--he allowed 202 hits in 174 innings last season, and had given up 119 so far this year.

"His stuff's been good all year, but sometimes I think he just throws too many strikes and that leads to the high hit total," Rizzo said. "He's a tough nut, and this is a very important year for him developmentally. The hits are one part of the equation, but what you look for is that ability to work through it and he's done that with some success this season."

Ohlendorf, a fourth-rounder in 2004 out of Princeton, spent all of last season at low Class A South Bend before skipping the Cal League. Through 130 innings, the 23-year-old was 7-6, 3.05 with just 18 walks and 78 strikeouts. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Ohlendorf features a sinker that sits anywhere from 90-93, topping out at 95 and backs that up with an average slider and changeup.

"He was a guy who would just rear back and throw hard in college--he just really didn't have a good feel for pitching," Rizzo said. "But as he's toned the fastball down some, he has much, much better command. And I think the most important thing he's learned is how to become a much more intellectual pitcher--take the ground ball and limit your pitch count."

Jackson rounds out the group of strong, physical arms with present stuff and future upside. A 10th-rounder out of Clemson in 2004, Rizzo was scouting Drew Meyer when South Carolina visited the Tigers that season, and came away with a solid impression of the 6-foot-5 righthander. Smokies manager Bill Plummer said Jackson has come along this year by deepening his sinker-slider repertoire, but still must improve his secondary pitches to combat lefthanded hitters. They were batting .331 against him with a .548 slugging percentage.

"He really could have been an all-star for us, but his win-loss isn't great," Plummer said of Jackson, just 4-8 despite a 2.80 ERA that ranks 10th in the Southern League. "His fastball is just 89-90 (mph) but it has outstanding sink. He's got the slider too, but his split has really improved and he commands his changeup better."

Since then, Jackson has come on strong--and like Ohlendorf, the 24-year-old jumped straight from South Bend to the Southern League this season. Jackson has good command of his average fastball, and his size allows him to get an easy downward angle. His fastball might be in the 90 mph range, but it has good late life at the plate, and he can work it to all four quadrants of the zone.

He also features a slurvy breaking ball and an above-average changeup that has played a large role in his 2.94 ERA in 98 innings with the Smokies this season.

"It's almost like we didn't expect this," Rizzo said. "He would have been easy to pass by. But to get a guy in the 10th round that now has a chance to be a No. 4 or No. 5 starter in the big leagues, we feel pretty good about what he's been doing."

QUICK HITS

• While he's not an elite prospect, Mark Reynolds was putting together one of the more interesting seasons in the Diamondbacks system. Reynolds played shortstop at Virginia in an infield that also featured Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Rockies prospect Joe Koshansky at first base. A 16th-round pick in 2004, Reynolds slugged 19 home runs at low Class A South Bend last season and has been one of the minors' top power hitters in 2006, earning a promotion from Lancaster to Tennessee this season. His 26 homers tied him for second in the minor leagues (one behind the Angels' Terry Evans), and he's been versatile, playing left field and all four infield spots while hitting .325/.413/.650 overall.

"I saw him pretty good," a scout with an American League organization said. "Lancaster's park was a perfect fit for him, because his home runs aren't bombs--they are the wall-scrapers, the kind that just get out. I don't know if he's a big power guy. But he does have a good swing and some bat speed, so he is a pretty good hitter.

"He's not a shortstop defensively, but his hands are OK at third base, and he has enough arm. He's just a good baseball player who can hit, is aggressive and shows some athleticism."

• Keep an eye on high Class A Frederick relievers James Hoey and Fredy Deza, who have been dominant in the Carolina League this season. Hoey, a 13th-round pick in 2003 out of Rider, started the year at low Class A Delmarva, where he went 2-1, 2.54 in 28 innings and picked up 18 saves. He already had nine saves in 11 appearances with the Keys, carrying an 0.82 ERA. "He's just filthy," a scout from an American League club said. "He's 94-97 and has a short, quick slider that is devastating."

Deza moved to the pen this year after spending his first six years in the organization as a starter. The 23-year-old Dominican sat at 88-91 mph in the rotation, but the velocity has jumped to 94-97 in mostly two inning stints out of the bullpen.

• Although he was selected to the Future's Game based on a fine season, it appears the Padres' Luis Cruz was blocked behind rookie Josh Barfield in San Diego. Mobile manager Gary Jones says Cruz is much more than a second baseman though, and that may come in handy with the Padres' problems at third base. "He's playing second because that's where we've had playing time, but he can definitely handle the left side of the infield," Jones said of Cruz, who was hitting .272/.306/.448 and ranked second in the Southern League in doubles (31) while placing fourth (52) in RBIs. "He's very good at third base, and eventually I think he'll hit for more power. I wouldn't call him a sleeper prospect but he's in the mix to be a third baseman for us at the big league level."