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Ask BA

If you have a question, send it to askba@baseballamerica.com. Please include your full name and hometown if you'd like your letter to be considered for use in an upcoming column. Also, please understand that we can't respond to every question.

By Jim Callis

December 18, 2002

The Astros' signing of Jeff Kent for two years and $18.2 million was a surprise, because they usually seem to be shrinking their budget rather than expanding it. It's a terrific move on two fronts. First, he'll offer a significant boost in production wherever he fits into the lineup. It looks like the Astros will stick with the underrated Geoff Blum at third base, keep Kent at second and move Craig Biggio to the outfield—which likely would mean they'd trade Daryle Ward.

Second, Houston's fallback plan reportedly was to trade either Carlos Hernandez or Tim Redding to the Rockies for Jay Payton. I know the Astros need a center fielder, but remove Coors Field from his stats, and Payton is average at best at the plate and in the field. He's also eligible for arbitration, and I wouldn't trade a quality, cheap big league arm for him.

The next scheduled Ask BA would fall on Christmas, so this will be the last one for 2002. Thanks for all the great questions this year, and happy holidays to everyone.

    I am curious as to what the Marlins' intentions are with first basemen Jason Stokes and Adrian Gonzalez. Stokes was very impressive in low Class A while Gonzalez had an average year at best in Double-A. Are both of these guys legitimate prospects? Who do you see making the majors first? Where do you see them starting out in 2003?

    Brian Imhoff
    Iowa City

Both of these guys aren't just legitimate prospects, they're very good prospects. They're both 20 and products of the 2000 draft. Gonzalez was the No. 1 overall pick and Stokes was a second-rounder, though the order reflected their perceived signability. Stokes was considered the better player entering the draft. After they turned pro, Gonzalez moved ahead of him because Stokes didn't play after signing late in 2000 and then was injured for much of 2001.

This year, Stokes lived up to expectations, winning the Midwest League MVP award with a .341-27-75 performance. He topped the MWL in batting and homers, and the entire minor leagues in slugging (.645). After batting .312-17-103 in the MWL in 2001, Gonzalez moved up two levels and batted .266-17-96. Comparing them to each other, Gonzalez is the better pure hitter and the slicker defender, while Stokes has more raw power. If I had to pick between the two, I'd take Stokes.

Both have had wrist surgery in 2002. Stokes had a cyst in his left wrist that ended his season in August. He'll move up to high Class A Jupiter next year. Gonzalez had torn cartilage in his right wrist repaired earlier this month and will wear a cast until late January. Because he may miss the start of spring training, it's possible he could go back to Double-A for a brief period if the Marlins decide to be conservative. If not, he'll go to Triple-A.

Stokes played left field in 2001, and that will be the solution for Florida to get both of them in the same lineup. Along with third baseman Miguel Cabrera, they'll form the future heart of the Marlins' order.

Interestingly, BA columnist and Marlins correspondent Mike Berardino has reported that the club is willing to part with Gonzalez in the right trade. Industry sources say that they've been told that Stokes is untouchable, as are Cabrera, lefthander Dontrelle Willis and outfielder Jeremy Hermida.

    Is it safe to say that the Mets made a huge blunder not protecting Enrique Cruz when they did protect the likes of Brady Clark, for example? I had been thinking about a Mets infield of Craig Brazell, Enrique Cruz, David Wright and Jose Reyes for a few months now, and I'm devastated. I understand that Cruz impressed a number of Mets coaches in instructional league. Why didn't Baseball America include Cruz in its list of possible Rule 5 draftees? Is there any hope that the Brewers will return him?

    Peter Berryman
    Savannah, Ga.

The Mets didn't make a huge blunder and we didn't include him in our list of possible Rule 5 draftees because it's going to be difficult to keep him on the 25-man roster throughout the 2003 season, at least not without potentially damaging his career.

Cruz hit .291 in the high Class A Florida State League this year at age 20, but he's still very raw. He had just 29 extra-base hits and 32 walks, so he has a long ways to go to develop power and patience. He really needs to play every day rather than waste a year getting 100-150 at-bats and sitting on a big league bench.

Cruz has played mainly third base and also has the tools for shortstop. The Brewers, who are expected to nontender Ron Belliard this week, are going to have a wide-open competion at second base and may give him a look there. But it's still very difficult to hold onto an unpolished position player as a Rule 5 pick, even if he's the No. 1 overall selection. The last time a hitter led off the Rule 5 draft was in 1994, when the Angels took Tomas Perez from the Expos and then sold him to the Blue Jays.

    Since last January, the Athletics have made a trade with the Rangers, a three-way trade with the Tigers and Yankees and a four-way trade with the Blue Jays, Diamondbacks and Reds. These deals have involved some of the same players and a lot of different prospects. By my accounting, the A's have basically acquired two guys (Erubiel Durazo, Ted Lilly) and given up a number of prospects (Jeremy Bonderman, Franklyn German, Jason Hart, Gerald Laird, Ryan Ludwick, Mario Ramos) who were part of their system prior to the first move, as well as players they acquired along the way (Jason Arnold, John-Ford Griffin, Carlos Pena). Looking at these moves in their entirety, how would you evaluate them from Oakland's standpoint? Is there any one team that really made out in its dealings with the A's? Detroit looks pretty good to me.

    Jeff Shook
    Ann Arbor, Mich.

Jeff's accounting is pretty accurate. The A's also picked up the largely ineffective Mike Venafro in the Rangers trade, and they haven't officially sent John-Ford Griffin to the Blue Jays yet. Word is that Griffin will head to Toronto in a separate but related deal tied to the four-team trade that netted Oakland Erubiel Durazo, whom A's GM had coveted for a while. We'll assume for the sake of this question that Griffin will go to the Jays.

From the Oakland perspective, it's important to remember that the A's have gone to the playoffs three consecutive years on a limited payroll. Beane has worked wonders, but continued success also drives up the salaries he has to manage. Unless Oakland significantly increases its budget from year to year, which hasn't happened, there might be a limited window of opportunity to win the World Series, at least with the heart of this team. Jason Giambi already has departed for more money, and Miguel Tejada might do the same after 2003.

I don't think the A's will rue losing the four players they sent to the Rangers. Ramos, the key to the deal at the time for Texas, bombed miserably in 2002, leading more credence to those who believed he didn't have the pure stuff to succeed against upper-level hitters. Hart, Laird and Ludwick all will play in the majors, but I'm not sure any of them are certain to be everyday players, let alone stars.

But as Jeff mentions, the Tigers made out very well when they gave up Jeff Weaver and got Bonderman, German and Pena from the A's, who received Arnold, Griffin and Lilly from the Yankees. Though Pena's stock has slipped a little, he looks like he'll be Detroit's first baseman for a long while. Bonderman is one of the more precocious pitching prospects and the top talent in the Tigers system. German isn't far behind and could become Detroit's closer in the near future.

Operating on the assumption they'll get Griffin for a lesser player, and already received Arnold for Felipe Lopez, the Blue Jays also have done well for themselves.

A high price to pay for Durazo and Lilly? No doubt. But Durazo and Lilly are going to help Oakland at the major league level in 2003 more than the A's thought Bonderman, German and Pena could. And the future is now in Oakland.

December 11, 2002

I don't get a lot of angst over who gets in and who gets left out of the Hall of Fame. But I'm not so sure that if Pete Rose admits to betting on baseball or jumps through whatever hoops Bud Selig decides he must, he should go straight to Cooperstown. The game's most sacred rule is that you don't undermine its integrity by betting on baseball.

If Rose admits to that and then makes the Hall of Fame and/or is let back into baseball, what does that say about the rule? I'm sure Joe Jackson would be real sorry if he were alive, and his biggest transgression against baseball may have been his lack of intelligence. But I wouldn't enshrine Jackson in Cooperstown either.

    I heard a couple of scouts say they didn't think it was a great idea to move Brandon Phillips to second base. They think that it will hinder his development. I was wondering what you thought about this. Do you think this move will be a permanent one for Phillips, and will Johnny Peralta eventually move into the shortstop position?

    Dan Quinn
    Akron, Ohio

I don't see how moving Phillips to second base will harm him. He's certainly athletic enough to adjust to making the double-play pivot from the other side of the infield, and he's not being asked to start learning the position in the major leagues. He started playing second base toward the end of the minor league season, got in 11 games there for Cleveland during September and spent the entire Arizona Fall League season there. Phillips also isn't lacking for confidence.

It remains to be seen whether the move will be permanent. This spring, several pro scouts told me they thought Phillips would be better off at second base because his speed and range were only average for a shortstop. (Which begs the question, what's so wrong with average?). Peralta lags behind Phillips in both areas and has a much thicker body, so Peralta most likely will have to move to second or third base. Given the current makeup of the Indians organization—though it seems to change almost daily—Phillips is currently the best candidate to play shortstop once Omar Vizquel's contract expires in 2004 (assuming the mutual option for 2005 isn't picked up). John McDonald is a gifted defender, but I don't think he'll ever hit enough to be a major league regular.

    Acquiring Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek provides a one-year roadblock on Hee Seop Choi and Bobby Hill, two prospects who need to show what they can do at the major league level. Why have one of the best farm systems in baseball if you won't use it? What have the Cubs gotten from trades of their minor leaguers? I'm baffled.

    Matt MacArthur
    Frisco, Texas


    What's your opinion of the long-term impact of the Cubs trade? I know they're saying Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek are coming in as backups behind Hee Seop Choi and Bobby Hill, but doesn't Dusty Baker's modus operandi suggest otherwise? He never has been big on rookies, and suddenly the Cubs have $15 million invested in veterans for first and second base. Who's really going to play every day?

    Dave King
    Phoenix


    The addition of Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek appears to be even more evidence that Dusty Baker prefers veterans to young players. I have two related questions. What does this trade mean for the careers of Hee Seop Choi and Bobby Hill? What's the history of Dusty Baker's ability to develop young talent versus his peers?

    Donnell Butler
    Princeton, N.J.

We analyzed this deal as part of our ongoing Trade Central coverage. The primary reason the Cubs did this was to get rid of Todd Hundley, who badly needed to get out of Chicago. It's a financial wash, and the Cubs get the added benefit of getting the bad Grudzielanek and Karros contracts off their books after one year, rather than having Hundley on their payroll for two. Chicago is retooling this year and now will have more budget room when it's a more viable contender in 2004.

The Cubs aren't looking to keep Choi and Hill on their bench. Hill should be their leadoff man for several years, and Choi eventually will supplant Sammy Sosa as Chicago's No. 3 hitter. There's nothing wrong with easing the youngsters' transition by giving them 120-130 starts. Karros can play against tough lefties while Grudzielanek can give Hill an occasional breather while also subbing at shortstop and third base. The only problem is how Karros and Grudzielanek will accept reduced roles, though that would have been trouble with Hundley as well.

Matt's question about what Cubs minor leaguers have yielded in trades may have been rhetorical, but we'll answer it anyway. I compiled this chart of deals Chicago has made using farmhands over the last three years:

2000
Ray King to Mil for Doug Johnston
Eric Ireland to Oak for Matt Stairs
2001
Eric Hinske to Oak for Scott Chiasson, Miguel Cairo
Oswaldo Mairena to Fla for Manny Aybar
Chris Booker, Ben Shaffar to Cin for Michael Tucker
Jason Smith (w/Aybar) to TB for Fred McGriff
Ruben Quevedo, Peter Zoccolillo to Mil
     for David Weathers, Roberto Miniel
Adam Morrissey to Oak for Mark Bellhorn
Jim Deschaine (w/Heredia) to Tor for Alex Gonzalez
Nate Teut to Fla for Jesus Sanchez
2002
Keto Anderson to SD for Winston Abreu
Dontrelle Willis, Jose Cueto, Ryan Jorgensen (w/Tavarez)
     to Fla for Matt Clement, Antonio Alfonseca
Mark Watson to Sea for future considerations
Rick Palma, Tim Lavery to Pit
     for Chad Hermansen, Aron Weston
Gary Johnson, David Noyce to Ari for Damian Miller
PTBN (Ryan Gripp) to Mil for Paul Bako

Scoring those trades very subjectively, I'd give the Cubs eight wins, three losses and five draws. However, that's a gaudier record than they deserve, because five of their victories were straight salary dumps and Hinske looks like a major defeat.

To judge Baker's ability to develop young talent, I decided to look at our Giants Top 10 Prospects list archives and see how those players fared. I quickly noticed that a lot of these players didn't turn out to be very good, and San Francisco also traded a lot of them for veteran help. I don't think you can blame that on Baker preferring experienced players. It's more a case of the Giants constantly being in contention and seeking immediate help. There were some notable Top 10 Prospects who established themselves under Baker, such as Rich Aurilia, Shawn Estes and Russ Ortiz.

    The Dodgers have rid themselves of Eric Karros and I've heard no news that Chin-Feng Chen is considered a possible replacement. Reports of Los Angeles' interest in Cliff Floyd or Jeff Kent keep circulating. I'm curious to know if they feel that Chen isn't ready for the majors. Are the Dodgers in dire enough financial straits to start Joey Thurston at second and Chen at first?

    Alec Milne
    Ottawa

Chen isn't as highly regarded as he was when he tore up the high Class A California League in his 1999 pro debut. Now 25, he hit .284-26-84 in 137 games at Triple-A Las Vegas. Keep in mind, however, that he put up those numbers up in a hitter's park in a hitter's league. He also struck out a Pacific Coast League-leading 160 times and walked 58 times in 511 at-bats.

The consensus among PCL observers was that Chen is more of a mistake hitter, a guy who has holes in his swing and trouble with breaking stuff. He has legitimate power, but he doesn't project as a pure slugger who will hit the best pitching. He can be an everyday big leaguer, but not necessarily for a contender. Defensively, he has a bad arm and is awkward at first base, and he may be best suited for DH duty. The Dodgers almost certainly will find a different option via free agency or trade, and they'll probably move Chen back to left field in 2003.

    In the 2002 Prospect Handbook, Phil Rogers wrote quite favorably about a young White Sox lefty named Arnaldo Munoz. At a very young age he pitched quite well at Double-A this season. Just recently, Rogers wrote a Chicago Tribune column where he made mention of Munoz pitching very well in the Dominican Republic. What are your thoughts on him and how does he project? I tend to agree with Rogers' assessments of talent.

    David Johnson
    Lincoln, Neb.

I tend to agree with Phil as well, and I believe his favorite player in the White Sox system may be Munoz. Phil kept tinkering with our Sox Top 10 Prospects list, eventually settling on Munoz as the No. 9 prospect.

Munoz, 20, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1998. He had a terrific year in Double-A in 2002, going 6-0, 2.61 with six saves and a 78-28 strikeout-walk ratio in 72 innings. He has been even better in the Dominican this offseason, with a 3-0, 1.60 record, three saves and a 63-9 K-BB ratio in his first 32 innings. His best pitch is a nearly unhittable curveball, and he backs it up with an 87-91 mph fastball. Phil thinks Munoz could surface in the Chicago bullpen in the second half of 2003 and possibly emerge as a starter in a couple of years.

December 4, 2002

In case you hadn't noticed, we're keeping Trade Central going on a year-round basis now, rather than stopping at the July 31 deadline. So every time a deal goes down that involves either a major leaguer or a Prospect Handbook-worthy phenom, check with us for in-depth analysis.

    I'm very interested in hearing any information about the Phillies' risky first-round pick, Cole Hamels? Did he throw well in instructional league? Does he show flashes of potential? I haven't heard much about him since he signed in late August.

    Mark D. McGinnis
    Wilmington, N.C.

Hamels didn't pitch much in instructional league, but don't worry, he wasn't injured. Hamels didn't sign until Aug. 23 and wasn't in pitching shape, so he threw in one game and did most of his work in side sessions. He's very polished—the Phillies say he's more advanced than Brett Myers and Gavin Floyd were at the same stage—so his relative inactivity isn't really a setback. Hamels should open 2003 at low Class A Lakewood.

Hamels is loaded with potential, so much so that at least one club though the was the best pitching prospect in the 2002 draft. He lasted 17 picks only because he broke the humerus in his left (throwing) arm while pitching as a San Diego high school sophomore. Unlike Tom Browning, Dave Dravecky and Tony Saunders, Hamels didn't break his arm as a result of pitching. He had hurt it while playing football in the street. Though most teams cleared Hamels medically, they opted for players with less checkered medical records.

Hamels has terrific stuff. He pitches at 90 mph and reaches 93-94 with his lively fastball. He also works with a curveball and changeup. His command of his pitches is another asset, as is his advanced knowledge of pitching.

    Along with Bobby Jenks, Todd Wellemeyer was the righthanded starting pitcher on the official Arizona Fall League all-star team. Is Wellemeyer a guy who is maybe just beginning to get command and put things together as a pitcher? How good of a major league prospect is he at this point? Given the clutter of Cubs pitchers, how suitable would he be for a move to relief?

    Craig Jasperse
    Fargo, N.D.

Wellemeyer has had one of the better arms in the Cubs system for a while and he's really figuring out how to use it. He spent much of his amateur career as a position player before getting a chance to pitch in the Coastal Plain League in 1999. When Chicago drafted him in the fourth round in 2000 out of Bellarmine (Ky.), he was extremely raw.

Things started coming together for him in the second half of 2001 at low Class A Lansing, when he learned to pitch off his 90-94 fastball. His changeup has splitter action, and his slider is his third pitch. This year, he gained some velocity and topped out at 97 mph, while also tightening up his breaking ball and throwing it for strikes more consistently. His changeup continues to dance.

Wellemeyer, 24, went 5-7, 4.13 in 22 starts between high Class A Daytona and Double-A West Tenn in 2002, missing a month at midseason with a back problem. In 120 innings he posted a 124-37 strikeout-walk ratio and held opponents to a .220 average. In the AFL, he went 1-2, 3.12 with 40 strikeouts in 35 innings.

He's one of the better prospects in a solid Cubs system. While Wellemeyer has the power mix teams like in a closer, he also has three viable pitches, so there's no reason to pull him from the rotation at this point.

    I know Kirk Saarloos isn't technically a prospect any longer because of his major league experience, but what do you think of this guy? He struggled a bit in the majors, but he's young and his minor league numbers are too good to ignore. What should we expect out of him at the major league level?

    Tywon Bertram
    DeKalb, Ill.

It wasn't a surprise that Saarloos reached the majors quickly after the Astros took him in the third round of the 2001 draft, out of Cal State Fullerton. But it was a surprise at how quickly he got there, in a little bit less than a year after signing.

Saarloos, a 23-year-old righthander, got roughed up in his first three big league starts, going 0-3, 17.65 and getting sent back to the minors. After getting recalled in mid-July, he won his next five starts and went 6-5, 4.70 overall during his second stint. He was dominant in his time in the minors, going 13-2, 1.45 with 78 hits, 30 walks and 141 strikeouts in 130 innings. He didn't fool major leaguers nearly as much, permitting 100 hits and 27 walks while fanning 54 in 85 innings.

It remains to be seen how effective Saarloos will be as a big league starter. I respect him greatly yet I'm not so sure his long-term role won't be as a reliever. He's not physical, standing 6 feet tall and working in the high 80s, but he gets plenty of sink on his fastball and his changeup and slider are plus pitches. He has a resilient arm but faded at the end of 2002, during which he logged a total of 185 innings. The Astros have a lot of young starters, so their depth could help make a decision on Saarloos.

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