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By Jim Callis

July 30, 2002

This doesn't happen too often. Maybe never. But tonight's Orioles-Devil Rays matchup is the most captivating game on the major league schedule.

That's because John Stephens is making his major league debut. And while Tampa Bay won't provide exactly the sternest test, I can't wait to see what he can do because he has intrigued me for years. Stephens only throws in the mid-80s, but he has won throughout the minors, going 47-25, 2.79 with 764 strikeouts in 713 innings. Phillies outfield prospect Marlon Byrd, who also should be in the majors by now, talked about what makes Stephens so hard to hit before facing him in the Futures Game.

"He puts the ball where he wants," Byrd said. "The guy comes 85 mph on the black, then he comes with a curveball to the same spot that's maybe 20 mph slower. Now he has a cutter that's about 80. He'll go 85 on the black, then 80 with that cutter moving away from you. I can pick up the spin on his pitch, but I can't pick up anything else. He has four pitches that look the same coming out of his hand, and he messes up your timing."

    I know this has partially been discussed before, but the recent trade additions for the Indians have got me wondering about their prospects. In this case, I wonder if there's possibly a better starting pitching staff anywhere in the minors right now than Triple-A Buffalo in terms of overall prospects. The Bisons have Cliff Lee, Jason Phillips, Ricardo Rodriguez, Brian Tallet and Billy Traber, with Lance Caraccioli as a backup. Lee, Rodriguez, Tallet and Traber all made Josh Boyd's recent lists of the top lefthanders and righthanders in the minors. If Francisco Cruceta had been assigned to low Class A Columbus, then Cleveland may have had the top two starting pitching staffs in the minors. What do you think?

    Frank Wright

Ah, the old pitching-rotation question again. As you may recall, I spent a lot of time in the April and May Ask BA researching the best minor league pitching staffs of all time. (To check that out, click on this link to the May archives and scroll down to May 5.) It started with an inquiry about whether the Padres' season-opening rotation at Double-A Mobile (which included Eric Cyr, Ben Howard, Jake Peavy and Dennis Tankersley) was potentially the best ever. Those guys didn't stick together for very long and all since have been promoted to Triple-A or the majors.

I've pored over several minor league rosters and come up with the best rotation at each full-season level of the minors. In Triple-A, Buffalo may have the deepest group of prospects, but I actually like the ceilings of another staff better.

Triple-A: Fresno (Giants)—Jesse Foppert, Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams.

Double-A: Midland (Athletics)—Jason Arnold, Rich Harden, Mike Wood, John Rheinecker.

High Class A: Myrtle Beach (Braves)—Adam Wainwright, Brett Evert, Kenny Nelson, Chris Waters.

Low Class A: Macon (Braves)—Macay McBride, Gonzalo Lopez, Zach Miner, Matt Wright.

While I can't quite give the Indians the nod in Triple-A or low Class A, there's no question that they're stockpiling arms via trades and the draft. They have to be the most improved system in terms of overall talent compared to the end of the 2001 season.

    How could Travis Hafner not make your list of top first basemen? He is hitting .339/.460/.541 in his first year at Triple-A and has hit at every level since he became a pro. He's only a few months older than Eric Munson and has outperformed him badly at every level. I think he's the reason Texas parted with Carlos Pena.

    Doug Kripp
    Hagerstown, Md.

    Why is Travis Hafner not treated as a top prospect? Admittedly he's a little old, but he's flashing some power and has a great eye. I can't imagine there's another player in the high minors with a four-digit OPS who gets less respect.

    Brian Sapp

    Why isn't Travis Hafner recognized as a top prospect? He's 25 years old, a bit old, but is killing Triple-A pitching, has great strike-zone judgment and apparently excellent power. What am I missing?

    David Goldberg

Doug sent his question shortly after I ranked the top 15 first basemen in the minors on July 19, and Hafner inquiries have kept arriving. I was getting asked about Hafner even before I ran that list, so I guess it's time to address him.

Hafner, 25, was a 31st-round pick in 1996 out of Cowley County (Kan.) CC, and returned for his senior year before signing as a draft-and-follow. He didn't do much in low Class A in 1998, his first full pro season, but has hit ever since, with only a wrist injury in 2001 slowing him down. The reason he's not considered a frontline prospect is that he always has been old for his league—he didn't reach Triple-A until this year—and he's limited to first base or DH.

The upper minors are loaded with first base/DH types who can mash, though Hafner's numbers certainly are eye-catching. I almost ranked him 15th on my list ahead of Ken Harvey, and statistically he can state his case against almost anyone. I like him and think he can produce in the majors, but I see him as more in the Brian Daubach/Kevin Millar/Shane Spencer class (with more walks) than as a superstar.

Pena was not traded because of Hafner. The main reasons the Rangers dealt Pena were that they had another sweet-swinging future first baseman on the express route to the majors in Mark Teixeira, and the new Texas administration wasn't as high on Pena as the previous front office had been. As for guys in the upper minors with four-digit on-base plus slugging percentages who get less respect than Hafner, I'll submit two names: Dodgers Triple-A utilityman Mike Kinkade (who was just called up a week ago) and Astros Double-A outfielder Henri Stanley.

    With the recent depletion of the Giants outfield, is there any chance Todd Linden might get a promotion to San Francisco? He certainly has proven himself at Double-A Shreveport thus far. Lord knows that the Giants need any form of help out there. Also, while I'm on the subject of my Louisiana State boys, is there any chance that Brad Hawpe will get a callup to Colorado? His stats are outstanding.

    Anthony Warner,
    Winnsboro, La.

The Giants do need outfield help and did even before hamstring injuries sidelined Barry Bonds, Reggie Sanders and Tsuyoshi Shinjo, not to mention Marvin Benard's knee surgery. Bonds is the only above-average hitter in the bunch, and the Kenny Lofton trade isn't going to solve everything.

Meanwhile, Linden has recaptured the form that made him the top prospect in the Cape Cod League in 2000 and a projected early first-round pick for 2001. He had a so-so junior season at Louisiana State, and there were questions about his ability to make consistent contact, so the Giants were able to snag him with the 41st overall pick in 2001. He didn't sign until September, so he didn't make his pro debut until this year.

The 22-year-old outfielder has proven to be worth the wait. Sent straight to Double-A, he has batted .317-12-52 with a .417 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage in 106 games. He's still striking out (95 times in 378 at-bats), but that's not hampering his production. Still, it would be a bit much to count on him to contribute much to a pennant drive at this point. Rather than put that burden on Linden, the Giants are much more likely to trade for another outfielder, perhaps Randy Winn or even Cliff Floyd.

As for Hawpe, he's having a huge year at high Class A Salem, batting .359-18-76 in 92 games. He's leading the Carolina League in all three triple-crown categories, as well as on-base percentage (.457), slugging percentage (.624) and extra-base hits (52). The caveats are that he's 23, which is old for his level, and he's playing his home games in hitter-friendly Memorial Stadium. In other words, his numbers aren't truly reflective of his ability. I'll be surprised if he's promoted to Colorado in September.

July 26, 2002

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending the Cubs-Phillies game at Wrigley Field, featuring a matchup between Mark Prior, the best young pitcher in baseball, and Brett Myers, who isn't far behind and was making his major league debut. Both guys were very sharp, as Prior gave up two runs over seven innings and blew Pat Burrell away twice, and Myers threw a two-hitter for eight innings to earn the victory.

I also left Wrigley thinking I hadn't seen either guy at his best. Myers didn't throw his signature curveball for strikes, and it's scary to think of how good he's going to be when it's working along with his mid-90s fastball and splitter. The Cubs have been trying to convince Prior that he doesn't have to throw a perfect pitch on the corners every time, which is why he has walked 30 batters in his first 73 innings. Prior's command is tremendous, and once he learns he doesn't have to be quite so fine and/or starts getting more calls from the umpires (Marvin Hudson had a tight strike zone on Wednesday), he'll be even better too. Not that going 4-3, 3.33 with 86 strikeouts in his first 12 starts isn't exciting enough already.

When I got home that afternoon, I learned that Louisiana State third baseman Wally Pontiff had been found dead at his parents' home that morning. That prompted this letter from Florida righthander Ben Hedgecock, who played against Pontiff in the Southeastern Conference and the Cape Cod League this summer:

    As a player at the University of Florida, I have to say that I am deeply saddened by the loss of Wally Pontiff. I never met Wally, but I played against him for two years and he was a great competitor on the field. From talking to his teammates, I know he was a great person off of it too. Although we cannot to do anything to bring him back to us, we can remember him in our actions and our prayers. I have no question to ask Ask BA, but I wanted to send condolences on my behalf and on my whole team's behalf. Playing LSU next year won't be the same without Wally playing third.

    Ben Hedgecock
    Hyannis, Mass.

There's still no word on Pontiff's cause of death, but we'll report it on our website as soon as details become available.

    At what point does Craig Anderson start to be considered a legitimate prospect? He has had success each step along the way and he's only 21. I realize he doesn't throw hard and scouts tend to love fireballers, but he seems to get people out. What's your take? Does he have a shot of crawling into the Mariners Top 10 Prospects list?

    Brian Snelson
    Lynnwood, Wash.

Anderson is a legitimate prospect. He ranked 15th on our Seattle list last year, and would have cracked the Top 10 if he were in an organization that wasn't as stacked with talent. He reminds me a lot of a lefthanded version of Baltimore's John Stephens, because both are Australians with mid-80s fastballs who win with plus secondary pitches and command.

After leading the high Class A California League in strikeouts in 2001, Anderson hasn't missed as many bats in Double-A yet still has been plenty effective. He has gone 7-4 with a Texas League-best 2.54 ERA in 20 starts, allowing 102 hits and 45 walks while striking out 69 in 117 innings. I'd feel better about him if he still was maintaining a strikeout-walk ratio upward of 4-1, like he had previously, but he can't be discounted. He has an excellent chance of making our Seattle Top 10 this offseason.

    I had an opportunity to watch the Perfect Game/Baseball America World Wood Bat Association tournament in Marietta, Ga. I left very impressed with many of the players, but my question regards Ross Lewis of the Ohio Warhawks. He was dominating every time he went to the hill and I saw him consistently hitting 93 mph on many scouts' radar guns. To me, his slider looked almost unhittable. How could this 6-foot-8 monster only be a 31st-round pick by the Angels? How did this kid fall through the cracks? Is it me, or is this kid's ceiling higher than anyone at this national showcase? Where do you project him in next year's draft?

    Dan Wheeler

Lewis, who pitched last year as a freshman at Central Florida CC, was one of the few non-high school kids in the tournament. He was eligible as a college player because he hadn't turned 19 before Aug. 1. He earned six saves and didn't allow an earned run in 16 innings, and was named the event's outstanding pitcher. Lewis actually received more attention as a Jacksonville high school senior than he did at Central Florida CC, which seems puzzling considering his stuff.

At the tournament, Lewis did face a lot of high school juniors and seniors, which may have made him appear more dominating than normal. Still, with his size and velocity, he'll be an easy candidate for the first five or 10 rounds next year. Remember, though, that the Angels will control his rights until a week before the 2003 draft. They may just want to see how he continues to develop before signing him.

BA editor Allan Simpson was on hand in Marietta, and here's his report:

Lewis projects as a closer. He throws from a low three-quarters arm angle, his stuff is nasty and he has command of three plus pitches. His fastball sits in the low 90s and tops at 94. His best pitch is a slider that was unhittable in Marietta. It was a bit of a mystery to some people in Marietta why he hasn't signed.

    With Kevin Youkilis' dramatic rise through the Red Sox farm system this year and his extreme control of the strike zone control (including eight walks and one strikeout in his first seven games in Double-A), where do you see his ceiling? I have heard some bad reports about his mobility at third, so is his future at first base? Also, any news on the Jason Neighborgall negotiations?

    Brian Hancock
    West Orange, N.J.

Youkilis, 23, is a very intriguing prospect in a very thin system. He helped his cause with a strong summer in the Cape Cod League in 2000 after he wasn't drafted as a junior at Cincinnati, then hit .405 as a senior to lead Conference USA and signed as an eighth-round pick last June. In his pro debut, he hit .317-3-28 in 59 games and topped the short-season New York-Penn League with 70 walks and a .512 on-base percentage.

Youkilis has continued to be an on-base machine in his first full season. Going from low Class A Augusta to high Class A Sarasota to Double-A Trenton, he has 70 walks (versus 46 strikeouts) and a .432 on-base percentage. Getting hit by 17 pitches has boosted his OBP, and he's batting .297-4-59 overall. He's not the most sculpted athlete at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, but Youkilis works hard and is a decent athlete for his size. He might have to move to first base down the road, though he has returned to the hot corner full time now that he's no longer on the same club as Tony Blanco, a true third baseman who's one of Boston's better prospect (notwithstanding his strike-zone discipline, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Youkilis').

Youkilis probably will have to hit for more power to get taken more seriously as a prospect, but he's worth keeping an eye on. He's only slugging .399 and teams want more than that out of their corner infielders, even if he gets on base frequently. Peter Gammons reported earlier this year that the Athletics offered Jeremy Giambi to Boston for Youkilis, who really fits the Oakland mold.

As for Neighborgall, he's almost certain to attend Georgia Tech, which also is holding its breath on second-rounders Micah Owings (Rockies) and Tyler Greene (Braves) and third-rounder Scott White (Red Sox). Neighborgall's father floated a $4 million-plus price tag before the draft, and I'm not sure Boston has offered even half of that after drafting him in the seventh round. Scott Boras-advised draftees often don't sign until very late in the summer, when teams are more likely to break from MLB-recommended draft slots, but it looks like the Yellow Jackets will be the immediate beneficiaries of Neighborgall's electric stuff.

July 23, 2002

As a contrast to my Friday diatribe against Drayton McLane's rhetoric, today we present a man telling it like it really is. Talking about the difficult task facing him, Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski addressed season-ticket holders during a luncheon on Friday:

"Dean Palmer. I love Dean Palmer, he's a great guy. If you can trade him tomorrow, give me a call. That's $8.5 million on our budget next year. Damion Easley. I love him, he's a great guy. Tremendous person. He's been hot and he's still not hitting .200. That's $6.5 million for next year, bringing it up to $15 million.

"Matt Anderson, who's a pretty good closer when he's healthy. Could you trade Matt Anderson tomorrow? I'd love to see you try. If you can, give me a call. Danny Patterson, quality setup guy who probably won't pitch next year.

"Bobby Higginson, who's a solid player, is going to make $11.85 million next year. You try to trade him. Put that down. Steve Sparks, who's one of the most wonderful people you'll ever meet in this world, his ERA is over 6.00. He'll make $5.5 million next year. What are we up to now, about $37-$38 million?

"Craig Paquette, if you can trade him, call me tomorrow. He's making $2.75 million next year. So now we're at $40 million. And I don't mean to disparage any of them because they're all big league ballplayers and they've earned whatever they receive. But it just tells you that it's not that easy just to snap your fingers and make some deals. Because I can't trade one of those guys."

Dombrowski regrets being that candid, telling the Detroit News that he's embarrassed for making those comments and apologizing to the players for them. But he didn't backpedal from them either, and he was being honest. Former GM Randy Smith saddled the Tigers with some awful contracts that will preclude them from contending for at least a couple of years.

If Dombrowski wants to commiserate, he can call Dave Littlefield, who's trying to right Cam Bonifay's wrongs in Pittsburgh, or J.P. Ricciardi, who's cleaning up Gord Ash's mess in Toronto. Of course, if their predecessors had done a good job, the new guys wouldn't have been brought in to replace them.

    With the upcoming negotiations over a worldwide draft, how do you see it impacting the quality of players coming from Latin America? I remember reading once when Puerto Rico was included into the amateur draft, the quality of players from Puerto Rico dried up quickly. If this is true, do you see this happening in many other places like the Dominican Republic? Is it because teams won't spend the money to set up baseball academies when other teams might just draft a player away that they have developed to an extent?

    Stanley Chen
    Green Brook, N.J.

    Major League Baseball's proposal of a worldwide draft lasting 38 rounds at first seemed to me like a good idea. MLB probably would institute a bonus slotting system similar to the NBA to keep down rookie bonuses. But what puzzles me is what will happen to the players who aren't drafted. Teams will draft players whom they know they can sign for the specified slot money, and anyone who looks like a risky sign might not get drafted at all. If that happens, would he be able to sign a big contract as an undrafted free agent? I think they should just leave the current draft structure and put a cap on the maximum amount a team can spend for the entire draft.

    Jeff Grover
    Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.

Major League Baseball included Puerto Ricans in the draft in 1989 to stop them from getting six-figure bonuses on the open market, a goal it did achieve. But by making Puerto Ricans wait to be drafted until their senior year of high school, typically at age 18 or 19, rather than allowing them to sign generally two years earlier, had a negative effect on a once-fertile crop of talent.

There have been 32 Puerto Rican-born players who have been named to an all-star team. Check out how their signing dates break down:

thru 1958         6
1959-68           7
1969-78           2
1979-88          15 
1989 and later    2

I'm not sure why Puerto Rico wasn't very productive from 1969-78, but it's fairly obvious it has dried up once again after churning out talents such as Roberto Alomar, Carlos Delgado, Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez in the decade before it was made subject to the draft. Since then, the only all-stars have been 1990 draft-and-follow Jorge Posada and 1992 sixth-round pick Jose Vidro. There aren't even a whole lot of candidates to join them. Carlos Beltran, Felipe Lopez, Joel Pineiro and Javier Vazquez are the only all-star-caliber Puerto Ricans currently in the majors. Our 2002 Top 100 Prospects list had just one Puerto Rican: No. 92 Ramon Vazquez, who has struggled mightily this season.

So baseball faces a dilemma with a worldwide draft. If it makes all players wait until they're high school seniors (or an equivalent age) to be drafted, it runs the risk of drying up talent all over the world. If it allows worldwide players to be drafted at age 16, how can it justify telling Americans (or Canadians or Puerto Ricans) that they have to wait another two or three years? That's a lawsuit waiting to happen, though it would underscore the true purpose of the draft—and it isn't competitive balance. The draft was instituted in 1965 for one reason, and it's the reason it still exists today: to keep bonuses down.

In any case, there are a number of problems a worldwide draft will pose, and I don't think it will significantly alter competitive balance. There's talk that teams and/or the players themselves will have to register potential picks for the draft. So what happens to a player who's registered and not drafted? If he's able to sign as a nondrafted free agent, similar to the current system, then what's to stop a player from telling teams he has no interest in signing, then turning around and signing a lucrative contract with a wealthy club? And if nonregistered players are somehow fair game, how long before a team is accused of hiding some stud prospect to keep him out of the draft and all to itself?

Smaller-revenue teams often build their farm systems by signing players cheaply on the worldwide market. Currently, a club can find a Dominican player, bring him to its academy and work him out for a while, then sign him for a few thousand dollars. With a worldwide draft, that same club might have to draft him in the seventh round, at which point the player will be besieged by agents who know that the average seventh-rounder signs for about $100,000.

The only real competitive-balance benefit from a worldwide draft will be that when a high-revenue club pursues a coveted foreign player, it will have to use an early draft pick on him, leaving a talented domestic player to be picked by another team. The Yankees still could have signed Orlando Hernandez, Wily Mo Pena and Juan Rivera in 1998, but it would have cost them three draft picks in addition to the truckload of money. New York has a seemingly unlimited supply of cash but a finite number of draft picks.

As for the academies, there's talk that Major League Baseball may operate one central facility in various nations in order to grant all team equal access to players. If that doesn't happen, I think some teams may stop operating academies anyway for precisely the reason that Stanley suggests. Why spend the time and money to identify and refine talent when another club can swoop in and draft the player away?

There's no word yet on whether mandated bonus slotting will be part of a revamped draft, but that's a fair assumption to make because it's one thing that both the owners and players can agree on. The owners would save more money, and the players would see less cash go to unproven, non-union talent and likely benefit from a trickle-up effect.

    I was a bit shocked that Shaun Boyd didn't make your list of the top 10 second-base prospects. After all, he's hitting .327/.381/.503 with 43 extra-base hits and 18 stolen bases. After examining the statistics of your top 10, I was even more shocked. The numbers posted by Chris Burke, Antonio Perez, Jayson Nix, Michael Woods and David Espinosa pale in comparison to Boyd's. And it's not like Boyd isn't an athlete or that he's too old for his league. In a recent game, I saw him jerk a line drive over the left-field fence for his eighth home run, slice a single to right and hammer a double into the left-field corner. On the bases he was quick, quick, quick. I realize that his defense is still a bit spotty, but he has fewer errors than several players on your list. Could it be that you are letting your distaste for the overall poor state of the Cardinals system cloud your judgment?

    Neil Skaggs
    Normal, Ill.

The Cardinals don't have a lot of prospects, but I wouldn't say that I have a distaste for the state of the system. I'm just not a huge fan of the 20-year-old Boyd, who was the 13th overall pick in the 2000 draft. He's not old for the Midwest League, but he is repeating low Class A ball after batting .282-5-27 there last year. His plate discipline even has slipped a little bit, which doesn't bode well for him as he advances.

He'll also have to improve defensively. Hairston, Nix and Espinosa all have more errors this season, but Boyd has 23 in 88 games and there's a good chance he'll wind up in the outfield. He's a talented athlete who's showing a lot of improvement, but I want to see more.

    Brendan Harris has been hitting the cover off the ball lately. He is third in the high Class A Florida State League in hitting (.330), first in slugging (.543) and in the top 10 in most offensive categories. I know he was a fifth-round pick last year, and I was wondering what kind of tools he has and how he compares to Bobby Hill. When can Cubs fans expect to see him in Wrigley Field? What big league player does he remind you of?

    Colin Parker
    Kingston, Nova Scotia

    As a Cubs fan since the day I was born, I have noticed the Cubs have had problems developing a third baseman. I know they have David Kelton, but it looks more and more like he's not going to learn how to handle the hot corner. I was wondering about Brendan Harris. Not only has he been playing third base for Daytona, he also been playing second, and I know he played shortstop in the past. What is your opinion on Harris' potential as a hitter and what position he will play?

    Patrick Fischer
    Bradenton, Fla.

    There are two unheralded players in the Cubs system who are simply raking the ball: Mike Mallory and Brendan Harris. My question is whether they're legitimate prospects. What kind of future do these two have?

    C.J. Keller
    Prattville, Ala.

I've been inundated with Brendan Harris questions. He was the all-Colonial Athletic Association shortstop as a William & Mary junior in 2001, when he hit .390-18-69 and led the conference in homers. Harris acquitted himself well after being sent straight to low Class A, batting .274-4-22 in 32 games split between second base, third base and shortstop. This year he's hitting .330-10-41 with 10 steals through 87 games while pulling duty at second and third.

The 21-year-old Harris is essentially an offensive player who's pretty polished with the bat. He could make a little more contact, but he's young and he hits for average, drives the ball and draws walks. Defensively, he projects to be average at best because he lacks range. With Bobby Hill around, it's much more likely that Harris eventually will wind up at third base. He'll probably need another two years in the minors before he's ready for Chicago. It's too early to pronounce him a star and he's not in Hill's class, but Harris could produce along the lines of David Bell or Joe Randa.

Mallory, 21, was a second-round pick out of a Virginia high school in 1999. (A quick aside: The Cubs have done a nice job scouting Virginia, finding players such as Harris, Mallory, Nic Jackson and Jason Dubois.) Once Corey Patterson graduated to Wrigley Field, Mallory took over as the best athlete in the Cubs system. But he showed very little with the bat, hitting .225-22-92 with 278 strikeouts in his first 239 pro games.

Mallory has improved somewhat, hitting .278-12-49 through 94 games at low Class A Lansing, but like Boyd he's repeating the Midwest League. His 83-19 strikeout-walk ratio also is discouraging. He has a Dave Winfield body and tremendous defensive skills, and the Cubs hope he can be their Torii Hunter. Hunter didn't establish himself as a full-fledged big leaguer until his ninth pro season.

July 19, 2002

Here's a new flash for poor ol' Drayton McLane: The number of Astros fans who really, truly care who owns their team may not be much higher than the number of players the club has signed from the first 10 rounds of the June draft. Which is four.

McLane has been in the spotlight recently, for declaring an embargo on Houston's unsigned draft picks and for declaring that he'll sell the Astros if the owners don't get a favorable Basic Agreement from the players. "I have clearly said that there has to be a solution when we sign the new agreement, whether it's signed in two months or two years," McLane told the Houston Chronicle this week. "There has to be a new system. Otherwise, there's no point in me staying in."

Here's guessing that if McLane breaks hearts and puts the Astros on the market, he'll realize a nice return on the $115 million investment he made in 1993.

If Houston doesn't sign any more draftees, including first-round righthander Derick Grigsby (Northeast Texas CC), second-round righty Mitch Talbot (HS/Cedar City, Utah) and third-round righty Rory Shortell (San Diego State), McLane figures his team will save $3 million. While the Astros have stockpiled talent in previous years, it's dangerous to blow off a draft. If Houston doesn't follow up with a strong draft in 2003, the system will feel the repercussions.

Thankfully, Bud Selig has slapped the gag order back on the owners. We won't have to hear any more of this rhetoric from his puppets, at least not from Houston.

    When looking over the Top 10 Prospects lists and reviewing the Prospect Hot Sheet on a weekly basis, it seems there's a shortage of second-base prospects throughout the minor leagues. Outside of Freddy Sanchez (who also could be considered a shortstop) and maybe Joe Thurston, Jake Gautreau and Scott Hairston, I really don't remember seeing anyone else. Who would you consider the top 10-15 second-base prospects in minor league baseball? Has anybody jumped on to the scene with a strong first half in 2002? Are there any second-half prospects poised to make a splash on the major league scene in 2003?

    Dennis Sexton

It seems like I've been doing a lot of rankings in Ask BA. Josh Boyd also started some very detailed rankings by position with today's Scouting Department, focusing on righthanders. I'm sure when he gets around to second basemen in the near future we'll differ at least slightly, but here's my crack at it.

I'm going to keep using the same criteria I've been using, which means I'll consider all players who haven't exceeded the rookie limits of 130 at-bats and 50 innings and aren't on active big league rosters right now. Prospects from the 2002 draft are fair game if they've signed a contract. And for this second base list, I'll only focus on players who have spent the majority of their time in 2002 at that position. That takes Sanchez out of the running.

Keep in mind that while there is a shortage of quality second-base prospects, that's almost always the case. Many big leaguers at that position played shortstop during their minor league careers. I wouldn't say anyone has come out of nowhere this season, but Bobby Hill and Orlando Hudson could be Rookie of the Year candidates in 2003 if they still qualify.

1. Bobby Hill, Cubs
Ready for another taste of majors after demotion straightened him out

2. Orlando Hudson, Blue Jays
See last Ask BA: no reason not to call him up now

3. Jake Gautreau, Padres
May not stay at second if San Diego moves Sean Burroughs there

4. Scott Hairston, Diamondbacks
Promote him to high Class A already

5. Chris Burke, Astros
Has struggled more than expected in Double-A

6. Antonio Perez, Mariners
Needs to stay healthy, start flashing 2000 form again

7. Joe Thurston, Dodgers
Los Angeles may use Joey Ballgame as trade bait

8. Jayson Nix, Rockies
Sleeper prospect can really hit despite lack of attention so far

9. Michael Woods, Tigers
Recovered from knee injury to show power, plate discipline

10. David Espinosa, Reds
Major league contract won't do him any favors

    How would you guys rank the top first-base prospects? There seems to be a wide range of opinion out there. How about: Mark Teixeira, Justin Morneau, Casey Kotchman, Hee Seop Choi, Adrian Gonzalez, Jason Stokes, Brad Hawpe, Chin-Feng Chen, Corey Hart, Lyle Overbay? Where do Jack Cust, Josh Phelps, Xavier Nady, Taggert Bozied and Ken Harvey fit in, if at all?

    Bruce Norlander

You want more rankings? We'll give you more rankings, or at least mine. When I listed my overall Top 20 a few Ask BAs ago, I ranked Kotchman, Choi, Morneau, Gonzalez and Stokes in that order. Teixeria, Cust and Nady are playing other positions, and Phelps is now up with Toronto, so they're eliminated from consideration. Here are my next 10 first basemen:

6. Chin-Feng Chen, Dodgers
Would help Los Angeles more than Eric Karros has this year

7. Eric Munson, Tigers
Contributing a lot of offense despite not hitting for average

8. Lyle Overbay, Diamondbacks
Continues to hit line drives all over field but has no opportunity

9. David Kelton, Cubs
Defensive struggles forced move from third, return to Double-A

10. Corey Hart, Brewers
Budding Richie Sexson is playing more at hot corner these days

11. Brad Nelson, Brewers
Power has come alive in his first full pro season

12. Taggert Bozied, Padres
Tore up high Class A but has really struggled in Double-A

13. Prince Fielder, Brewers
2002 first-round pick gives Milwaukee yet another slugger at first

14. Jesus Cota, Diamondbacks
Handling high Class A after winning Pioneer League triple crown

15. Ken Harvey, Royals
More effective when he doesn't try to hit for power

    Whatever happened to catching prospect Garrett Gentry? He was with the Astros organization last year and had just as good numbers as John Buck. He then was included in the Pedro Astacio trade with the Rockies. I haven't seen his name anywhere this year. Is he hurt? What happened to him?

    Jeff Bradley
    Princeton, N.J.

Gentry hit .299-24-103 in 98 games at low Class A Michigan in 2001, playing through shoulder pain before he finally was shut down with a torn labrum. He had surgery last August, a month before joining the Rockies as the player to be named in the Astacio trade. Unfortunately for the 21-year-old Gentry, he retore the labrum in spring training and required more surgery, which will keep him out for the entire 2002 season.

Incidentally, all three players in the trade came down with shoulder problems. Astacio couldn't pitch for the Astros after last August because of a labrum tear that hasn't required surgery nor prevented him from pitching well this year for the Mets. Scott Elarton, who also went to Colorado in the trade, won't pitch in 2002 after having rotator-cuff surgery.

July 16, 2002

I'm back with more run-support charts from STATS Inc.'s Jim Henzler, following up on the last edition of Ask BA. This time we'll take a look at how much backing pitchers got, compared to their team as a whole. Jim measured a pitcher's individual run support against how many runs his team averaged per game in that season or over his career (expressed in the "Rel" column below).

As I did before, I've included the best performance from the 1990s in each category (and the pitcher's overall rank in parentheses) if it didn't make the top five. And once again, the minimums are 20 starts for a season and 100 for a career, with the data covering from 1920-2001.

Highest Relative Run Support, Season
Pitcher, Year, Team              R   GS   Supp   TmR/G    Rel    W-L     ERA
Monty Stratton, '38 CWS        163   22   7.41    4.76   1.56   15-9    4.01
Bob Hooper, '50 PhiA           133   20   6.65    4.35   1.53   15-10   5.02
Tom Glavine, '89 Atl           152   29   5.24    3.63   1.45   14-8    3.68
Chuck Dobson, '71 Oak          184   30   6.13    4.29   1.43   15-5    3.81
Gene Conley, '59 Phi           120   22   5.45    3.86   1.41   12-7    3.00

Orel Hershiser, '91 LA (13th)  118   21   5.62    4.10   1.37    7-2    3.46 

Lowest Relative Run Support, Season
Pitcher, Year, Team              R   GS   Supp   TmR/G    Rel    W-L     ERA
Ross Baumgarten, '80 CWS        47   23   2.04   3.62    0.56    2-12   3.44
Hal Brown, '64 Hou              37   21   1.76   3.06    0.58    3-15   3.95
Pete Richert, '67 Was-Bal       65   29   2.24   3.84    0.58    9-16   3.47
Grant Jackson, '70 Phi          51   23   2.22   3.69    0.60    5-15   5.29
Jesse Flores, '47 PhiA          51   20   2.55   4.06    0.63    4-13   3.39

Melido Perez, '93 NYY (14th)    84   25   3.36   5.07    0.66    6-14   5.19

Highest Relative Run Support, Career
Pitcher, Years                   R   GS   Supp   TmR/G    Rel    W-L     ERA
Boo Ferriss, '45-'50           560  103   5.44    4.63   1.17   65-30   3.64
Jimmy Jones, '86-'93           527  118   4.47    3.88   1.15   43-39   4.46
Bill Krueger, '83-'95          864  164   5.27    4.57   1.15   68-66   4.35
Jeff Ballard, '87-'94          561  118   4.75    4.13   1.15   41-53   4.71
George Stone, '67-'75          662  145   4.57    4.02   1.14   60-57   3.89

Lowest Relative Run Support, Career
Pitcher, Years                   R   GS   Supp   TmR/G    Rel    W-L     ERA
Jesse Petty, '21-'30           594  153   3.88    4.55   0.85   67-78   3.68
Glendon Rusch, '97-'01         437  114   3.83    4.49   0.85   31-48   5.00
Ron Kline, '52-'70             703  203   3.46    4.03   0.86  114-144  3.75
Lloyd Brown, '25-'40           819  181   4.52    5.22   0.87   91-105  4.20
Johnny Niggeling, '38-'46      610  161   3.79    4.36   0.87   64-69   3.22

It would be very difficult to consider Monty Stratton fortunate in 1938, because in November that year he accidentally shot himself while hunting rabbits, costing him his right leg and his major league career. An all-star in 1937, he returned to pitch in the minors in the late 1940s and 1950s but never made it back to the White Sox. Jimmy Stewart played the lead role in the 1949 film "The Monty Stratton Story," which won an Oscar for best original screenplay.

Four recent pitchers make the lists for best and worst relative support over a career. Jimmy Jones, Bill Kreuger and Jeff Ballard all received plenty of backing, yet managed just a 152-158 record between them. Glendon Rusch was oh so close to having the lowest relative support ever, but the Brewers aren't helping his cause in 2002. In his first 19 starts, they gave him 4.58 runs per game while averaging 4.10 overall, so he's moving in the wrong direction.

    Why haven't the Blue Jays called up Orlando Hudson? Playing Dave Berg every day doesn't seem to make sense for a team building for the future. Joe Lawrence is overmatched by major league pitching at this point. And if they're going to play Chris Woodward, why not bring up Orlando Hudson? Do you think that Hudson's spring-training quote that GM J.P. Ricciardi "looked like he was a pimp back in his day" is the reason that he's still in Triple-A Syracuse?

    Hugh O'Reilly

After Hudson made that comment during the spring, Ricciardi said the two had discussed it and he would let bygones be bygones. I don't think that's being held against Hudson. It was a pretty stupid thing to say, even if Hudson intended it to compliment Ricciardi's sartorial style, but at the same time you can't let personal feelings overrule baseball instincts. (If you do, you run the risk of turning into Dan Duquette.) If Ricciardi thought Hudson were ready to play, he'd be in Toronto.

That said, I don't see a lot of benefits to keeping Hudson at Syracuse, where he's hitting .310-10-36 with 10 errors in 91 games at second base. He has turned 56 double plays, which isn't a high number, so maybe the Blue Jays want him to work on his defense. He has drawn just 33 walks and the new Jays are believers in plate discipline, so maybe they're trying to drive that point home.

The Blue Jays are going nowhere in 2002 and they're overhauling the roster. Berg (.252) and Lawrence (.185) aren't hitting for average, they're not drawing a ton of walks and they're not turning bushels of double plays. I'd call up Hudson tomorrow and see what he can do.

    Who are the top shortstops, college and high school, for the 2003 draft?

    Zach Dubin
    Scottsdale, Ariz.

We wouldn't be Baseball America if we weren't already looking toward next year's draft. And our website's Prospects Plus area (a joint effort between BA and Perfect Game USA) already is previewing the 2004 draft as well.

Much like in 2002, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of pure shortstops at the college level for 2003. It's possible that the first five shortstops drafted could come from high school. Robert Lane (Monroe, La.) and Philip Stringer (Spring, Texas) look like first-rounders at this point, and Jonathan Fulton (Danville, Va.) has a chance to join them. Lance Zawadzki (Ashland, Mass.) and Jerrett Turner (Longview, Texas) should factor into the second or third round, which is where Notre Dame's Matt Macri projects at this point.

Macri could have been a first-round pick coming out of high school in 2001 had he not been so set on joining the Fighting Irish. He probably could have gone that high as either a pitcher or a shortstop, though he made clear his preference to play every day. He also was Iowa's high school football player of the year as a senior after accounting for 36 touchdowns as a quarterback and leading Dowling High to a 13-0 record and the state 4-A championship. It's a tribute to Notre Dame that it made it to the College World Series this year for the first time since 1957, considering that Macri played in just 17 games before requiring Tommy John surgery. Had he stayed healthy and developed as expected, he would have been a likely first-rounder in 2003, and he could regain that status if he shows he's recovered next spring.

Besides Macri, the only other college shortstop who seems a good bet to go in the first three rounds is Baylor's Trey Webb. Tulane's Anthony Giarratano ranks third among the college crop.

    It looks as if the Dodgers might have gotten this draft thing right. Did any scout rate James Loney as good a hitter as he has been? How about Delwyn Young and David Bagley?

    Robb Swanson
    Shasta Lake, Calif.

It's easy to get excited about the Dodgers' draft, considering their poor track record in recent years. But it's a little early to get overly excited. The top four hitters that Los Angeles signed are all off to strong starts at Great Falls: first-round first baseman Loney (.360-4-22, 1.118 on-base plus slugging percentage), third-round catcher Mike Nixon (.297-1-13, .744), fourth-round second baseman Young (.338-4-17, .986) and seventh-round third baseman Bagley (.435-3-15, 1.178). That's encouraging, though it's also just a month of Rookie ball and these guys were all expected to hit.

Loney helped carry Elkins High in Missouri City, Texas, to the 2002 national high school championship. While most teams preferred him as a lefthanded pitcher with the potential for three plus pitches, everyone recognized he had considerable pop in his bat. Nixon was a good scouting job by the Dodgers, who learned he could be signed away from a UCLA football scholarship to play safety.

Young was arguably the top hitter in the California community college ranks. Scouts considered Bagley's bat, which produces power to all fields, his best tool.

July 12, 2002

Sorry that Ask BA is going up so late today, but I spent most of the last two days analyzing trades by the Marlins and Padres for Trade Central.

A while back, I had asked STATS, Inc.'s Jim Henzler some questions about run support. STATS has a database with information on each major league game going back to 1920, and I was curious about which pitchers had the best/worst run support in a season/career. Quite frankly, I had forgotten I had asked Jim about this, but lo and behold a few weeks ago the data arrived in my emailbox.

Here are some run-support leader boards, courtesy of Jim's fine programming skills. The minimums are 20 starts for a season and 100 for a career. I've also included the standout performance since 1990 for each list, with the pitcher's overall rank in parentheses. Again, this data covers from 1920-2001.

Highest Run Support, Season
Pitcher, Year, Team              R   GS   Supp    W-L     ERA
Chuck Stobbs, '50 BosA         172   21   8.19   12-7    5.10
Freddie Fitzsimmons, '30 NYG   233   29   8.03   19-7    4.25
Monte Pearson, '36 NYY         249   31   8.03   19-7    3.91
Monte Pearson, '39 NYY         156   20   7.80   12-5    4.49
Carl Mays, '21 NYY             294   38   7.74   27-9    3.05

Dwight Gooden, '99 Cle (6th)   168   22   7.64    3-4    6.26

Lowest Run Support, Season
Pitcher, Year, Team              R   GS   Supp    W-L     ERA
Hal Brown, '64 Hou              37   21   1.76    3-15   3.95
Ross Baumgarten, '80 CWS        47   23   2.04    2-12   3.44
Jack Fisher, '68 CWS            60   28   2.14    8-13   2.99
Paul Derringer, '33 StL-Cin     71   33   2.15    7-25   3.23
Grant Jackson, '70 Phi          51   23   2.22    5-15   5.29 

Jim Abbott, '92 Cal (26th)      74   29   2.55    7-15   2.77

Highest Run Support, Career
Pitcher, Years                   R   GS   Supp    W-L     ERA
Monte Pearson, '32-'41        1182  191   6.19  100-61   4.00
Ed Wells, '23-'34              846  140   6.04   68-69   4.65
Roy Mahaffey, '26-'36          776  129   6.02   67-49   5.01
George Pipgras, '23-'35       1135  189   6.01  102-73   4.09
Jimmie DeShong, '32-'39        596  100   5.96   47-44   5.08

Aaron Sele, '93-'02 (9th)     1384  241   5.74  114-73   4.38

Lowest Run Support, Career
Pitcher, Years                   R   GS   Supp    W-L     ERA
Skip Lockwood, '69-'80         330  106   3.11   57-97   3.55
Steve Arlin, '69-'74           394  123   3.20   34-67   4.33
Turk Farrell, '56-'69          434  134   3.24  106-111  3.45
Steve Kline, '70-'77           358  105   3.41   43-45   3.26
Dave Lemanczyk, '73-'80        352  103   3.42   37-63   4.62

Jose DeLeon, '83-'95 (22nd)    942  264   3.57   86-119  3.76

A few quick notes before we get into the questions . . . There's no doubt that Monte Pearson received the best support ever, with the best career mark and two of the top five season rates. Dwight Gooden winning just three of his 22 starts in 1999 despite receiving 7.64 runs per game is just amazing, but a 6.26 ERA will help do that for you. It's no big surprise that the pitchers receiving the most support mostly worked in the lively ball era, while those getting the least offense from their teammates mostly pitched in the 1960s. Jim also did some work on pitcher run support relative to his team's runs per game, and I'll present those findings sometime next week.

    How is the situation the Brewers have at first base going to play out? They have Izzy Alcantara at Triple-A and both Corey Hart and Brad Nelson in Class A. Now they've drafted Prince Fielder. It seems like they have a lot of talent at the position. Hart, Nelson and Fielder look to be top prospects. What do you see happening?

    John Hach
    Portage, Mich.

John didn't even mention Richie Sexson, who's far and away the parent club's best hitter. All these guys are having very good seasons. Sexson is hitting .279-19-62 (.878 on-base plus slugging percentage) in the majors, Alcantara is batting .272-22-57 (.891) at Indianapolis, Hart is at .293-20-71 (.948) for High Desert and Nelson is hitting .301-15-82 (.896) at Beloit. After signing for $2.4 million as the seventh overall pick in the 2002 draft, Fielder has hit .360-4-21 (1.079) in his first 23 pro games at Rookie-level Ogden.

Alcantara can hit, but his attitude always has left something to be desired. He's alienated most of the organizations he has been with, and his lack of hustle helped to truncate his big league opportunity with the Red Sox. At this point, he's just Triple-A insurance. I can't imagine he's in Milwaukee's long-term plans.

Assuming the Brewers hold onto Sexson and the three younger prospects, they'd have to figure out how to squeeze all four into the big league lineup by late 2004 at the earliest. Hart has been playing some third base and reports are that he'll be able to stay at the hot corner. When Nelson is ready for Miller Park, he's probably going to have to play first base, which would push Sexson back to left field. The one problem is that Fielder isn't going to be able to play anywhere but first base, which would leave the Brewers with weak outfield corner defense if Nelson tried to handle left field and Sexson moved to right. But those four guys would generate a ton of offense.

    My question is about the Athletics' drafting strategy. Of course, their monetary situation makes the A's draft cheaper college players. They selected shortstop John McCurdy, who had a solid season at Maryland but was of course a signablility/low-bonus pick at No. 26. With the pick right after McCurdy, the Diamondbacks selected Sergio Santos, who gets comparisons to Alex Rodriguez. The A's gave McCurdy $1.375 million and Santos got $1.4 million. Why did the A's pass on Santos if they could have had him for pretty much the same bonus? Did they really feel McCurdy was a better player, or did they think McCurdy was just a safer bet to produce and didn't want to stray from their strategy?

    Mike Mayer
    Woodbridge, Va.

The A's do have to watch their dollars, and that was never more true than this year, when they had four true first-round picks and three more in the sandwich round. But even if they had the resources of the Yankees, I don't think they'd deviate from their beliefs—which start with general manager Billy Beane and permeate the organization—that college draft picks are safer than high schoolers because there's less projection involved, and that performance is just as important as tools.

Both of those philosophies were reflected in their selection of McCurdy. Oakland coveted College Player of the Year Khalil Greene and would have taken him in the first round, but the Padres took the Clemson shortstop 13th overall. In many ways, McCurdy is similar to his former Atlantic Coast Conference rival. He's big for a shortstop (200 pounds on a 6-foot-2 frame), had a huge spring (.443-19-77), left no doubt in scouts' minds he'd hit as a pro and has good instincts. There's some question as to whether either player will be able to play a major league shortstop, but they'll be given every opportunity. McCurdy hit .286-1-10 in his first eight games at short-season Vancouver, though he had committed seven errors.

McCurdy was a classic Oakland draft pick, while Santos would have been the opposite of what the A's normally look for. He came out of a California high school, didn't hit as a senior like pro teams hoped he would and is more about tools than production at this point. He is compared to A-Rod, though that's more on the basis of his body type (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) than anything. Santos does have some offensive potential but has virtually no chance of remaining at shortstop. He batted .150-0-2 in his first seven games at Rookie-level Missoula, and had made four errors in five games at short.

    The Diamondbacks recently traded Duaner Sanchez to the Pirates for Mike Fetters. What other minor leaguers does Arizona have who are marketable might be traded for some starting pitching? Which prospects do the Diamondbacks consider untouchable?

    David Gosling
    Newport Beach, Calif.

David has more interest in this question than most people, because he's the brother of Double-A El Paso lefthander Mike Gosling, Arizona's second-round pick in 2001.

The Diamondbacks don't have a strong minor league system, though they've added some talent in the last few drafts under scouting director Mike Rizzo. I believe the consensus would be that their seven most attractive prospects are: first baseman Lyle Overbay at Triple-A Tucson; Gosling, outfielder Luis Terrero, third baseman Chad Tracy and righthander Oscar Villarreal at El Paso; first baseman/outfielder Jesus Cota at high Class A Lancaster; and second baseman Scott Hairston at low Class A South Bend.

The Diamondbacks are going to need to infuse some young pitching into their rotation at some point, and they can't keep pursuing free agents and ratcheting up the payroll. For those reasons, they'd want to hold onto Gosling and Villarreal, and Tracy is the heir apparent to the falling-apart Matt Williams at third base.

Because Arizona is fairly well set at first base, it could afford to trade Overbay, the most proven player among this group. He won the Double-A Texas League batting crown with a .352 average last year and is hitting .331-11-69 in 84 games this season. Cota has a lot of raw power, but he's expendable because of his position as well. Hairston packs a lot more punch than his older brother, Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr., but the Diamondbacks already have an all-star second baseman in Junior Spivey. Terrero is loaded with tools, but he never has torn the cover off the ball and Arizona might be persuaded to part with him.

July 9, 2002

Faithful reader Joe Hamilton of Shoreline, Wash., pointed out that Antonio Perez already had started his rehab assignment, in response to a question in the last edition of Ask BA. He didn't show up when I did an online search of statistics because he was listed without a first name in the Rookie-level Arizona League, where he went 5-for-15 in five games. He's currently back at Double-A San Antonio, where he batted .297-2-13 in his first 24 games.

Because we're at the midpoint of the baseball season, I thought it would be a good time to revisit my preseason predictions. My original thoughts are in italics, followed by my current impressions.

AL East: Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays. To win this division, the Red Sox would need a lot of things to go right while a lot of things went wrong for the Yankees, and I just don't see that happening. The Blue Jays have a lot of interesting new faces, but they're a year away.

This one looks pretty good. Almost everything has gone as well as the Red Sox could have hoped, and they're two games behind the Yankees, who just fortified themselves with Raul Mondesi (who won't make a huge difference) and Jeff Weaver (who could). The Blue Jays have been disappointing, and I'm surprised the Orioles have hung close to .500.

AL Central: Twins, White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Royals. Eighty-seven wins might be enough here. I'm not sure if the Twins have enough hitting or the White Sox have enough pitching, but I'll lean toward Minnesota. If all of the Indians' young pitching comes together, they might make another run at it.

The Indians looked good for about two weeks, then went in the tank and decided to concentrate on 2004. The Twins have shown more offense than the White Sox have shown pitching, and that has been the difference.

AL West: Athletics, Mariners, Rangers, Angels. The A's big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito will be the difference in a close race. The Mariners counter with Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and James Baldwin, and they just don't stack up. The Rangers will be more respectable but don't have enough arms.

I severely underestimated the Angels, who sit between the Mariners and Athletics in the standings. I still think Oakland's pitching will give them the edge over Seattle by the end of the season.

AL wild card: Mariners over the Red Sox and White Sox.

The Mariners have more resources (prospects, cash) to bolster themselves down the stretch, which will allow them to hold off the Red Sox and Angels.

AL Championship Series: Athletics over Yankees.

The feel-good story (except in the offices of Bud Selig and Carl Pohlad) would be the Twins, but they'll have to settle for the AL Central title. The Athletics have to beat the Yankees sometime, don't they?

NL East: Braves, Mets, Marlins, Phillies, Expos. I'm not excited by the Braves signing Vinny Castilla to play third and having an open sore at first base. But the Mets still don't have a frightening offense, and the Phillies could be as disappointing this year as they were surprising in 2001.

Right on. The Braves are running away with it, and the Mets and Phillies have played like I thought. The Expos are a nice story and are making some interesting moves, but they're not going to catch Atlanta.

NL Central: Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, Brewers, Pirates. Why is everyone conceding this division to the Cardinals? I don't remember seeing anyone picking the Astros, so I'll take the lead. They've got much more pitching than St. Louis and a comparable offense. The Cubs are going to have to wait another season.

To me, the Astros are baseball's most perplexing team. They have yet to play like they can, which is why the pitching-decimated Cardinals and the underfunded Reds are looking down on them. Houston has won eight of its last 10 games to climb within 6½ games of St. Louis, but I'm still not convinced the Astros can come all the way back. Look for the Cardinals to limp home with the NL Central title.

NL West: Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Rockies. Four teams have a chance to win this, but all four have huge flaws. I'll stick with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. The Giants could just as easily finish first as fourth, but they've got four holes in the lineup with Benito Santiago, David Bell, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Reggie Sanders. That's too many.

Johnson and Schilling haven't been quite enough to push the Diamondbacks past the Dodgers, but they should by the end of the season. I wrote off the Giants too easily, and I should just start recognizing that general manager Brian Sabean and manager Dusty Baker are going to keep their club in contention every year. Nothing has gone right for the Padres, whose young hitters have played well below expectations.

NL wild card: Cardinals over the Mets and Dodgers.

If the Dodgers don't blow out Eric Gagne, they should be able to beat out the Giants. In the end, the Expos and Reds won't be particularly close.

NL Championship Series: Astros over Diamondbacks.

I can't pick the Astros any longer, so how about Braves over Diamondbacks?

World Series: Astros over Athletics.

Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux finally pitch the Braves to a second World Series championship over Athletics. Then Atlanta has to decide whether to spend the money to re-sign its aging aces.

    I see your Top 20 Prospects list from you last Ask BA is loaded with position players. Who would you consider the top 10 starting pitchers and the top five relievers in the minors?

    Dale Carriger
    San Francisco

I listed just three pitchers on that Top 20, and shortly after posting it on Friday I learned that one of them, Orioles lefty Erik Bedard, had slightly torn a ligament in his elbow. He'll sit out for six weeks in hopes of avoiding Tommy John surgery. So scratch him at No. 17, move the next three guys up a notch each and put Padres first baseman Xavier Nady in the No. 20 spot.

That leaves me with righthanders Dennis Tankersley (Padres) and Adam Wainwright (Braves) as the only pitchers in the Top 20. Several of the top pitching prospects entering the year either have been promoted to the majors or injured, and there wasn't another arm I felt comfortable ranking that high. But here are my next eight starting pitchers:

3. Brett Myers, rhp, Phillies
Has met every challenge Philadephia has thrown at him

4. Josh Karp, rhp, Expos
Could be moving south to Marlins any day now

5. Jesse Foppert, rhp, Giants
Not fazed by Triple-A promotion in first full year

6. Dewon Brazelton, rhp, Devil Rays
Coming along slowly, but potential is very evident

7. Jimmy Gobble, lhp, Royals
With Bedard hurt, he becomes game's top lefty

8. Jimmy Journell, rhp, Cardinals
Inspiration for all of St. Louis' Tommy John victims

9. Kurt Ainsworth, rhp, Giants
Fellow Giants Boof Bonser, Jerome Williams also rank highly

10. Jason Young, rhp, Rockies
Showing what he can do now that he's healthy

Keep in mind that most of the star relievers in the majors spent most of their minor league careers as starters. That said, here are my top five minor league pitchers who currently are working out of the bullpen:

1. Francisco Rodriguez, rhp, Angels
Has shot through the minors since moving to bullpen

2. Franklyn German, rhp, Tigers
Dominican Lee Smith was included in Jeff Weaver trade

3. Ryan Bukvich, rhp, Royals
Kansas City's biggest strength is minor league relievers

4. Alex Herrera, lhp, Indians
Not quite as unhittable since leaving high Class A

5. Duaner Sanchez, rhp, Pirates
Just traded straight up for Mike Fetters

    For someone who hasn't pitched in some time, Brooks Kieschnick has put up some intriguing numbers at a high level. Any idea what he throws, what he hits on the gun and what his future could be if he keeps it up?

    Doug Kripp
    Hagerstown, Md.

    This year the White Sox have given two former prospects a new look. Jason Dellaero and Brooks Kieschnick have now moved their great arms to the mound. What are their projections? Dellaero looked good at first but really has been hit hard lately. Kieschnick, on the other hand, hasn't given up a run in 12 innings of work at Triple-A. Could either of these guys ever be major league pitchers?

    David Johnson
    Long Grove, Ill.

Kieschnick was our 1993 College Player of the Year after starring as a two-way player at Texas. But he was much more of a prospect as a hitter than as a pitcher, and the Cubs made him a first-round pick as an outfielder. He played parts of four seasons in the majors with the Cubs, Reds and Rockies, but hit just .220-8-27 in 113 games and never could hold onto even a bench job. The Indians signed Kieschnick to a minor league contract in February and subsequently released him. He was picked up by the White Sox in mid-May with the idea of using him as a two-way player at Triple-A Charlotte.

Kieschnick has hit .244-3-19 in 86 at-bats as a DH, and actually has fared much better on the mound despite pitching just twice previously as a pro. He hasn't allowed a run in his first 12 innings while holding hitters to a .154 average. His command has been exceptional as well, as shown by his 14-2 strikeout-walk ratio. Funny thing is, Kieschnick never had a "great" arm. He won at Texas on heart as much as stuff. He relies on a fastball and a curveball, neither of which is a true major league out pitch, but his control and competitiveness have carried him to this point. If he keeps putting up zeroes in Triple-A, the White Sox almost have to give him a look on the mound in September.

Dellaero also was a first-round pick, out of South Florida in 1997 as a shortstop. His fastball has been clocked as high as 94 mph and he owns a career .213 average as a pro, yet he still clings to the notion that he can be a major league shortstop. The White Sox demoted him to Double-A Birmingham to motivate him to give pitching more serious thought, but he hasn't fared too well on the mound. He did work a scoreless inning at Charlotte, but in Birmingham he has posted a 10.13 ERA in 13 innings, surrendering 20 hits and eight walks while fanning 14. I'm less optimistic about his chances of pitching in the majors compared to Kieschnick's.

    If Chase Utley was still at second base, his improved offense after skipping a level might put him on your Prospect Hot Sheet, and if Travis Chapman can get healthy, Utley might end up back at second. In the meantime, how does Utley stack up against the top third-base prospects? He's outperforming Drew Henson by a pretty good margin and hes just 14 months older.

    Joe Resovsky
    Utrecht, the Netherlands

Just have to love those Phillies questions from the Netherlands. A 2000 first-round pick out of UCLA, Utley has jump-started his bat in Triple-A after a lackluster 2001 season in high Class A. Through 90 games, the 23-year-old Utley had hit .267-13-57. But his 23 errors show he still has quite a ways to go defensively after moving from second base, and I'm not sure he's going to make Philadelphia forget about Scott Rolen.

In the last edition of Ask BA, I rated Rangers third basemen Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira as the two best prospects in the game. Just focusing on the hot corner, I'd still put the Yankees' Drew Henson behind them (despite his utter lack of plate discipline, though I'm starting to wonder whether he'll ever recover from his dalliance with football), followed by the White Sox' Joe Crede and the Mets' David Wright. I'd put Utley in the next tier of minor league third baseman, which also would include (listed alphabetically): Tony Blanco (Red Sox), Miguel Cabrera (Marlins), Andy Marte (Braves), Corey Smith (Indians) and Chad Tracy (Diamondbacks).

July 5, 2002

Friend of Ask BA and Japanese baseball expert Gary Garland passed along some interesting quotes from 1998 that he found while doing some research:

  • Mike Hargrove: "He's a good outfielder and he has an above-average arm. He wants to come to the majors? It would be impossible for him to be a regular player there."

  • Vinny Castilla: "He opens his front shoulder early, which cuts his power in half. It will be difficult for him to do anything in the major leagues."

  • Mike Jackson: "They'll find his weaknesses. If they pound him up and in, he won't hit like he does now."

Who were they talking about? Ichiro Suzuki.

    I loved the question and answer about a revised look at the Indians' Top 15 Prospects. I would be interested in your thoughts on the broader picture in regards to prospects. What do you think the Top 20 would look like in all of baseball at this point, considering rising hot shots like Chad Tracy and falling frozen studs like Wilson Betemit?

    Jeff Coward
    Wimberley, Texas

Another fun question. Let's dive right in. I considered all players who haven't exceeded the rookie limits of 130 at-bats and 50 innings and aren't on active big league rosters right now. I didn't look at unsigned picks from the 2002 draft.

1. Hank Blalock, 3b, Rangers
Back on track in Triple-A, should get another look soon

2. Mark Teixeira, 3b, Rangers
Two best prospects play same position in same organization

3. Joe Mauer, c, Twins
Showing advanced hitting ability, power will come

4. Joe Borchard, of, White Sox
Only a broken foot has been able to slow him down

5. Brandon Phillips, ss, Indians
Cleveland couldn't have gotten better prospects for Bartolo Colon

6. Jose Reyes, ss, Mets
Proving last season's breakout performance was no fluke

7. Casey Kotchman, 1b, Angels
See Joe Mauer

8. Hee Seop Choi, 1b, Cubs
Chicago needs to trade Fred McGriff and play Choi now

9. Dennis Tankersley, rhp, Padres
Struggled in first taste of majors, usual self in minors

10. Chris Snelling, of, Mariners
Rocketed to Seattle ahead of schedule before getting hurt again

11. Justin Morneau, 1b, Twins
Best hitter from Northwest since John Olerud

12. Josh Hamilton, of, Devil Rays
Still nagged by injuries but hitting again when he's in the lineup

13. Carl Crawford, of, Devil Rays
Randy Winn may be an all-star, but Crawford will be much better

14. Michael Cuddyer, of, Twins
Tearing up Pacific Coast League while waiting call to Minnesota

15. Marlon Byrd, of, Phillies
No reason he shouldn't be starting ahead of Doug Glanville, Ricky Ledee

16. Adam Wainwright, rhp, Braves
Can't jump to Atlanta next year—or can he?

17. Adrian Gonzalez, 1b, Marlins
Holding his own after skipping a level to Double-A

18. Erik Bedard, lhp, Orioles
Keeps missing bats but needs to stay in one piece

19. Jason Stokes, 1b, Marlins
Closing fast on Gonzalez and could move ahead by end of season

20. Angel Berroa, ss, Royals
Would rank higher if we hadn't just learned that he's 24, not 22

    What happened to Antonio Perez? I know he started the season in Double-A San Antonio, but I haven't noticed his name in the boxscores. I assume he's injured again. How long is he out and how will this affect his prospect status?

    Dave Daugherty
    Council Bluffs, Iowa

Perez, who aged 1½ years in the offseason, did open this year at San Antonio and split time between second base and shortstop, hitting .262-2-10 in 19 games. But after being limited to just five games by a broken navicular bone in his right wrist, he's had problems in that area again.

He was hit by a pitch in April—though the umpire didn't believe him, and Perez had to stay at the plate and homered on the next pitch—and broke the hamate bone in the same wrist. He had surgery to remove the bone and should begin a rehab assigment in the Rookie-level Arizona League soon.

    I live in Las Vegas, so getting to see Joe Thurston play every day is amazing to me. Where does he figure in the future of the Dodgers, and what is his ceiling? He looked better than Bobby Hill when they played Iowa. Thurston has a great swing and his attitude is exceptional. Defensively, he has shown tremendous range since moving from shortstop to second base. Is he a superstar in the making?

    Steve Haws
    Las Vegas

I wouldn't call Thurston a superstar, and I still prefer Hill. Thurston is having a fine season, batting .330-8-33 with 14 steals in 84 games. He still needs to walk more (just 15 times for a .363 on-base percentage), but he's building on the progress he made in the Arizona Fall League after the 2001 season.

A fourth-round pick of Sacramento CC in 1999, the 22-year-old Thurston can have a solid big league career. Unless he improves that plate discipline, he's going to have to bat toward the bottom of the order. But it's beyond me why the Dodgers don't improve their big league club immediately by promoting Thurston and giving him Mark Grudzielanek's starting job.

July 2, 2002

We're going to open today with a little quiz. I'll present a few groups of four numbers, and you pick the one that doesn't belong.

a) .253
b) .355
c) .258
d) .313

a) 13
b) 25
c) 9
d) 12

a) 137
b) 221
c) 152
d) 197

a) .308
b) .409
c) .331
d) .345

a) .374
b) .541
c) .360
d) .427

Most everyone will agree that in each case, the answer is "b." What we're looking at is the last four seasons (in sequence, and prorated for 2002) of Darin Erstad: batting average, homers, runs plus RBI, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. I like Erstad, and I'll concede that he's the heart and soul of the Angels and contributes more than his statistics would indicate.

That said, I'm becoming more convinced that his 2000 season was a career year bordering on the flukish, and that he's an overrated player. He's probably going to finish with a sub-.800 on-base plus slugging percentage for the third time in four years, and he's offering little offense beyond his batting average.

The idea of allowing fans to vote on the 30th man on each all-star squad is a good one, but including Erstad as one of five American League candidates is not. Eric Chavez, Johnny Damon, Magglio Ordonez and Jim Thome are far more deserving.

    With the Indians' recent acquisitions of Ben Broussard, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore, I was wondering where those players would rank on a revised Cleveland top prospects list?

    Nick Lucca
    Ambler, Pa.

Great question. Our Indians correspondent, Jim Ingraham, handled the Top 30 in our 2002 Prospect Handbook, but I'll take a shot and let Prospect Hot Sheet master Josh Boyd look over my shoulder:

1. Brandon Phillips, ss (21)
2. Corey Smith, 3b (20)
3. Victor Martinez, c (23)
4. Cliff Lee, lhp (23)
5. Ben Broussard, 1b/of (25)
6. Billy Traber, lhp (22)
7. Grady Sizemore, of (19)
8. J.D. Martin, rhp (19)
9. Dan Denham, rhp (19)
10. Travis Foley, rhp (19)
11. Brian Tallet, lhp (24)
12. Alex Escobar, of (23)
13. Matt Whitney, 3b (18)
14. Alex Herrera, lhp (22)
15. Fernando Cabrera, rhp (20)

Five members of our Top 15 entering the season no longer qualify for the list. Ryan Drese, David Riske, Jerrod Riggan and John McDonald all have exceeded the rookie limits for at-bats or innings, while Tim Drew was sent to Montreal in the Bartolo Colon trade. Because of that as well as Cleveland's recent trades, the top of this list has changed from pitching-heavy to hitting-heavy. And four of the seven bats on this list have joined the Indians in trades since the end of last season.

Most of these guys are familiar to BA readers and Indians fans. Travis Foley, a fourth-round pick from the same 2001 draft that produced first-rounder J.D. Martin and Dan Denham, didn't make the Top 30 but has outpitched Martin and Denham at low Class A Columbus this year. Cabrera, who ranked 29th on that list, is a sleeper who's starting to open some eyes with his fastball and performance at high Class A Kinston.

Someone could argue that outfielder Ryan Church belongs on this Top 15, but given that he's 23 I can't be overwhelmed by what he's done in Class A. He's still not young for Double-A, where he hasn't been nearly as effective. I've never been a big fan of the Indians' speedy outfielders, such as Willy Taveras and Alex Requena, because they've never hit much.

Matt Whitney, a supplemental first-round pick in June, is off to a slow start at Rookie-level Burlington, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. Second baseman Micah Schilling, another supplemental first-rounder, is also struggling at Burlington but easily could force himself onto our official Top 15 after the season. If the Indians sign first-round righthander Jeremy Guthrie, he'll certainly make the list.

John Hart saw the payroll tightening coming, which is why he left Cleveland to become general manager in Texas. His replacement, Mark Shapiro, has had the thankless job of having to bid goodbye to stars via trades and free agency. Overall, though, his deals and scouting director John Mirabelli's drafts have the farm system looking as good as it has in years. Shapiro's trades haven't been popular, but he couldn't have done a better job of adding prospects.

    There apparently has been some consideration in the Padres organization to move Sean Burroughs to second base. Do you think he can make the move? If so, is it the right move? To me, it seems like Jake Gautreau is establishing himself as the second baseman of the future with the Padres, and they have Khalil Greene and Josh Barfield, who might end up at that position as well. I simply don't understand this move, especially when you consider the defensive shortcomings of Phil Nevin at third base and Ryan Klesko and at first base. What's your opinion?

    Rob Curtis

In the two days before he was put on the disabled list with a sprained shoulder, Burroughs took ground balls at second base. He would have worked at that position in instructional league fall had he not had shoulder trouble.

There's nothing wrong with testing Burroughs there. I wouldn't force him to learn on the job in the major leagues, but if they send him back to Triple-A when he's healthy, he could try some second base at that point. He also could play there in instructional league or winter ball. Finding out if he can play second base is worthwhile, because the Padres have a lot of talented hitters and they have to figure out how to get them all in the lineup.

It's no lock that Gautreau and Barfield will remain at second base, and Burroughs might be better suited to the position than they are. D'Angelo Jimenez and Ramon Vazquez, San Diego's regulars there this season, have been tremendously disappointing with the bat. My guess is that the Padres' second baseman of the future will be Greene, though they also need a shortstop and will give him every opportunity to stay there. Besides the guys we've just mentioned, San Diego also must find a defensive home for Xavier Nady and Taggert Bozied.

    Without a pick in the first two rounds this year, the Cardinals gave first-round money to last year's unsigned 28th-round pick, Blake Hawksworth. It appears St. Louis believes that in a year of junior college, he developed into first-round material. What are your thoughts on Hawksworth and your opinion of the Cardinals' decision to give him a big bonus?

    Jim Schlieman
    Las Vegas

The Cardinals made a wise decision. They didn't have a pick in the first two rounds, so they treated Hawksworth, one of the top draft-and-follow prospects, as if he were a late first-rounder and gave him a $1.475 million bonus. If Hawksworth had re-entered the draft, that's about where he would have gone.

After deciding not to attend Cal State Fullerton in favor of Bellevue (Wash.) CC, Hawksworth got stronger. A righthander, he threw his fastball at 90-94 mph while improving the command of his breaking ball and showing an advanced changeup. Hawksworth is a better prospect than any player St. Louis drafted in 2002, and he has allowed just three hits in 22 at-bats over his first two pro starts at Rookie-level Johnson City.

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