Prospect Pulse: March 23
Looking at potential breakout candidates for 2007
After unveiling our annual Top 100 Prospects list in our last issue, it's time to go beyond the mainstream and dig deeper to provide some insight into the next wave of prospects that could impact their organizations' depth charts this season.
While several players just missed cracking the top 100 this year--Reds righthander Johnny Cueto, Phillies righthander Kyle Drabek, Devil Rays third baseman Akinori Iwamura, Giants third baseman Angel Villalona, Angels catcher Hank Conger, Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold and Indians lefthanded reliever Tony Sipp among them--those are all familiar names to Baseball America readers. Here is a look into relatively uncharted territory for a glimpse at breakout candidates for 2007.Bryant Thompson, rhp, Diamondbacks
Arizona raves about the athleticism, stuff and makeup of their 2006 fourth-rounder. Though he has yet to pitch an inning as a pro, Thompson flashed mid to upper 90s heat during instructional league last October and showed a plus slider from a low three-quarters arm slot. There are medical concerns, though, as Thompson has two pins inserted into his elbow prior to his last amateur season at Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College.
"With the stuff and the medical history, he says reliever to me--possibly a guy to close," said one scout from a National League club. "He's best in shorter stints, and his stuff can get flat pretty quick. When you take everything into account, especially with the arm angle where it is now, he's a back-end guy. But a back-end guy with good command, and he's not just a two-pitch guy either. His changeup's maybe a 40, 45 (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale) now, but he locates it."Esmil Rogers, rhp, Rockies
Signed as an infielder out of the Dominican Republic in 2003, Rogers moved to the mound last season. Even though he was unimpressive in his first season in the States, going 3-6, 6.96 in 63 innings at Rookie-level Casper, the 21-year-old has power stuff. His fastball was regularly clocked in the mid-90s with late life, and he also flashed a plus curveball and changeup. One scout with an American League team calls him a miniature version of Devil Rays reliever Juan Salas, who was also a conversion project albeit at a later age. "Not similar in body type, but in terms of aggressiveness, absolutely," the scout said. "He's at the stage now where he's just learning the differences in body control from an infielder to the mound, but he's going to be OK. That and having a better plan for attacking hitters; he has plus velocity, but you don't see that showing up in the results. Once he learns when and how to use his breaking ball, he could to take off."Toddric Johnson, of, Athletics
After Johnson was drafted in the 14th round out of Southern Mississippi last June, the 21-year-old moved quickly, reaching low Class A Kane County and holding his own in his professional debut. A wiry strong athlete with slightly above-average speed, Johnson draws Willie McGee comparisons. Though he has an unconventional approach at the plate--his bat lays perpendicular prior to the pitcher's release--he's patient and manages to make consistent contact. "He has an unorthodox stance but makes solid contact," A's director of player personnel Billy Owens says. "His hitting position is fine once the pitcher releases the ball. There's more pop than you think and he can play center field. He shows good range into the gaps."Rick Vanden Hurk, rhp, Marlins
Vanden Hurk missed the first half of last season rehabbing after elbow surgery, and didn't make it back to the mound until mid-July. His fastball velocity was 92-93 mph in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, but it improved by October when Vanden Hurk flashed 96-97 mph early in the Hawaii Winter Baseball season. The 6-foot-5 righthander wore down and his velocity dropped by the end of the fall, due mostly to fatigue. Intimidation is a huge part of Vanden Hurk's game, as he throws from an extreme downhill slope and has no fear in establishing the inner half of the plate. Vanden Hurk complements his fastball with a 12-to-6 curve and average changeup. "He can rush it and needs to keep his body in line," said another scout from an American League club. "Mechanically, he gets out of whack easy, just being such a big-bodied pitcher. But when he stays tall and on a direct line, he can be dominating."Jon Mark Owings, of, Braves
Owings hasn't yet had the breakout season the Braves would have liked when they stole him away from Clemson for $160,000 as a 17th-round pick in 2004. In three seasons, the younger brother of Diamondbacks righthander Micah Owings batted .272/.343/.519 in just 471 at-bats, spending much of each spring in extended camp. Only 31 of those at-bats have come with a full-season club, low Class A Rome. Owings is extremely athletic, and has been compared to a poor man's version of Jeff Francoeur in the past. Like Francoeur, Owings has trouble controlling the strike zone, with 113 whiffs in his short summers against inexperienced arms. But Owings also has plus raw power, and several scouts are predicting a return to the prospect radar this season even if he only does a decent job controlling the zone in his first full season. "If you project his numbers out over a full season, this is somebody to watch," another NL scout said. "He's got pull-side power, and showed he could work the other way some last season. He's athletic with good instincts; a classic right-field guy with above-average arm strength."Jose Martinez, if, Cardinals
Martinez batted .270/.320/.417 at low Class A Quad Cities in his first full season last year, two years after he signed as a nondrafted free agent out of Venezuela in 2004. He split time at shortstop and second base for Aragua in the Venezuelan League, getting further exposure and experience in the Caribbean Series. The Cardinals rave about his instincts, and one source with the club calls him the best defensive infielder in the organization. The performance has been there with the bat since Martinez signed, so the only question is whether or not he'll be able to stay at short. "He doesn't have all the tools. He's a below-average runner, for example, and that may mean he has below average range, but his hands are plus-plus," a front-office official with an American League club said. "So taking the question in range into the equation, he's likely a second baseman at best, a utility guy at worst. He has enough power to generate extra base hits and he has decent plate discipline."Drifting, Falling
In 2005, Joel Guzman ranked No. 5 on our Top 100 Prospects list. Last year, he fell to No. 26, and then, ultimately off the 100 heading into this season.
Based on Guzman's performance over the last three years it should come as no surprise.
First, the 6-foot-6 Dominican native moved off shortstop to third base during the 2005 season, and moved again to first base and the outfield in 2006. Throw in the fact that he fell out of favor with the Dodgers' brass while at Triple-A Las Vegas and was dealt to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline last season and all the pieces were firmly in place for a prospect falling from grace.
"He was abysmal (at Triple-A Durham) after the trade last year," said a veteran NL scout. "No bat speed, no energy, no effort period. He looked like a zombie."
Guzman, whom Los Angeles signed for a then-Dominican record $2.25 million bonus as a 16-year-old in 2001, always felt like he was born to be a Dodger. And when he was traded by the organization, he began to question everything--especially about himself.
"I didn't want to be (in Durham)," Guzman said. "I didn't want to be anywhere. I didn't know anybody on the team, didn't know anything about the organization and how I would fit in. I didn't have any feelings for anything. (Being traded) was something that never crossed my mind. When it happened, I was in shock."
Guzman batted .193/.228/.386 for the Bulls, but as he's quick to point out, those numbers came in just 88 at-bats and on the heels of the most traumatic point in his career.
"People can say what they want about that," Guzman said. "It was a month, it was the end of the season, and I was going through a rough time. That month . . . that month was tough to deal with mentally."
The Devil Rays aren't concerned with last August, and are confident Guzman still possesses huge raw power with the ability to hit for a decent average. The club has no clear-cut first baseman of the future, and that's where Guzman has spent much of the spring.
"He's going to be fine," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "There's a lot to like: He's a power threat, he has outstanding plate coverage, makes good contact and provides a pretty nice target at first base. There is plenty of value . . . and he's still just 21 years old."QUICK HITS
• Rangers lefthander A.J. Murray has apparently recovered all the way from 2006 shoulder surgery. He was scheduled to pitch in games this spring, though he will be used strictly as a reliever. Murray has missed two of the last three seasons with injuries. He went 10-4, 3.63 at Double-A Frisco in 2003, then worked his way back to Triple-A Oklahoma in 2005 before being shut down again.
• The Pirates wasted little time sending righthander Yoslan Herrera out from big league camp and assigning him to the Double-A roster in the first wave of cuts. After signing the 25-year-old Cuban defector to a major league deal worth $1.92 million over three years, there was initial speculation that Herrera would spend the majority of the spring in major league camp. Righthander Serguey Linares, whom the Pirates also signed this offseason, reported to camp three weeks late because of visa issues. The 23-year-old Cuban defector signed for $125,000 and is expected to begin the season at high Class A Lynchburg.
• Twins righthander Matt Garza left an early March outing with a neck strain and was shut down indefinitely as team doctors tried to diagnose the injury. A CT scan did not reveal the cause of the problem, and Garza was slated to visit a neurologist for an MRI at presstime. With Garza's status uncertain, righthander Kevin Slowey could work his way into the mix. "His command is unbelieveable," a scout from an A.L. club said. "Definitely gets the most out of his stuff--smart, smart pitcher. He's not going to be (in the minors) for long."