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By Jim Callis

July 27, 2005

This is shaping up as one of the most wide-open baseball seasons I can remember. By my count, 23 teams still have a reasonable chance at making the postseason, but how many of those clubs actually look capable of winning the World Series? Though the White Sox have the best record in baseball, to me they look more like a team ripe for a first-round upset than a champion. Right now, the Angels are my favorite in the American League and the Cardinals are my favorite in the National League, and there's not another club that I have complete faith in.

    What's going on with Casey Kotchman? His numbers really have slid this year in Triple-A and he's still not showing any signs of power. Is there any concern about his performance this year?

    Will Polumbo
    Ann Arbor, Mich.

Kotchman had as impressive a minor league résumé as any prospect entering the 2005 season, having batted .342/.423/.519 since signing as the 13th overall pick in the 2001 draft. But without an opening for him in the majors with the Angels, he headed back to Triple-A Salt Lake, where he hit .372/.423/.558 in 49 games last year.

Naturally, Kotchman destroyed Pacific Coast League pitching, right? Uh, not exactly. He began the year hitless in his first 19 at-bats and was hitting just .138 without an extra-base hit three weeks into the season. His overall numbers are decidedly unKotchmanlike: .285/.368/.423 with eight homers and 53 RBIs in 87 games. The only thing that fits with his past is that he continues to walk (39) more than he strikes out (38).

The one question with Kotchman always has been his power, an especially valued commodity in a first baseman. He hit just 24 homers in 233 pro games in his first four seasons. Some scouts see him as a 20-homer guy, while others say he's an extremely gifted hitter and that power often comes late, and they see him as capable of 30-40 annually. Of course, hitters aren't always able to turn on the power, as the Padres have found with Sean Burroughs.

Scouts in the PCL say that Kotchman messed himself up by trying to produce more homers. He got too pull-conscious and achieved the opposite result.

But as I noted in the July 6 Ask BA about Ian Stewart, season statistics can be misleading. Since reaching his low point at .138, Kotchman has hit .316/.378/.484 with 20 doubles, eight homers and 50 RBIs in 71 games. That's not out of line with his previous performance and it's perfectly fine for a 22-year-old in Triple-A. He's still one of the elite hitting prospects in the minors, though his future power remains a matter of speculation.

    How would you rank the following Yankees center-field prospects in terms of their long-term ability and potential: Tim Battle, Melky Cabrera, Estee Harris, C.J. Henry and Austin Jackson?

    Noel Hirsch
    Hartsdale, N.Y.

Finding a center fielder remains an ongoing concern for the Yankees, but none of these guys is going to solve the problem in the near future. The top prospect of the group is Cabrera, who has performed well all the way up through Triple-A while the others have accomplished little yet and haven't climbed above low Class A.

Cabrera doesn't have the ability to play center field in the majors, and he struggled defensively when New York tried to use him as a big league band-aid. What he can do is hit, and I see him as a .280/.335/.450 corner outfielder. He has average speed and enough arm strength to play right field. As a bonus, he's a switch-hitter and he's still just 20, so he has plenty of time to develop more power than I'm projecting.

If I were trading with the Yankees, and they offered me any of those players, I'd quickly take Cabrera because he's so much closer to the big leagues and a much safer bet to produce. But in terms of pure ceiling and tools, he doesn't compare to the others, all of whom are outstanding athletes. I don't think Battle or Harris ever will hit enough, however, and Henry and Jackson (both 2005 draft picks who could have played college basketball) have just 128 complex league at-bats between them.

Ranking all five as prospects, I'd order them like this: Cabrera, Henry, Jackson, Battle and Harris. Harris didn't make our Yankees Top 30 in the 2005 Prospect Handbook, and he won't make next year's edition either.

    What can you tell me about Rangers draftee Steve Murphy? He appears to be doing very well in the short-season Northwest League.

    Tony Keeler
    Olathe, Kan.

Murphy is doing very well in the NWL, hitting .328/.391/.635 with seven homers, 25 RBIs and seven steals in 33 games at Spokane. He leads the league in doubles (15), homers, RBIs and slugging and ranks in the top five in six other categories.

A 14th-round pick in June, Murphy was something of an enigma for scouts at Kansas State. From a physical standpoint, there wasn't much not to like. He's a 6-foot-2, 205 pounder with solid tools across the board. But after hitting 13 homers as a freshman on Central Missouri State's 2003 NCAA Division II championship club, Murphy hit just 13 homers in two seasons with the Wildcats.

Are 33 games in the NWL enough to make Murphy a top prospect? Of course not. But he does have more tools than a typical 14th-rounder, and he's not just an organization player.

July 20, 2005

It doesn't look like we're going to see many big trades before the July 31 deadline for deals without waivers. Several clubs have yet to decide whether they should be buyers or sellers, and there just aren't that many attractive players on the market. Thus far, the biggest name to change teams is Preston Wilson, and he's not exactly a difference-maker. But as the trades happen, be sure to check out Trade Central for breakdowns of all the big leaguers and prospects involved.

    How you see all of the Mariners shortstops sorting themselves out? Mike Morse is doing surprisingly well in Seattle, Yuniesky Betancourt is holding his own at Triple-A Tacoma, Adam Jones is hitting well at Double-A San Antonio, Asdrubal Cabrera is doing well at high Class A Inland Empire and Matt Tuisaosopo is having a decent year at low Class A Wisconsin. Jones, Cabrera and Tuiasosopo are all teenagers. Can Betancourt hit enough to play regularly in the majors, and do the others field well enough?

    Philip Meneely
    Philadelphia

A year ago in Ask BA, I answered a similar question about the Mariners' shortstop depth. At that point, I ranked their minor league shortstops in this order: Jose Lopez, Matt Tuiasosopo, Michael Morse, Adam Jones, Asdrubal Cabrera and Juan Gonzalez. "It's very difficult sorting them out, as the only easy call is putting Gonzalez sixth," I wrote. "I may be conservative with Cabrera, who's hitting very well in the short-season Northwest League at age 17. On pure upside, Tuiasosopo would be No. 1, but Lopez is five levels ahead of him and playing well in Triple-A at age 20."

Since then, Lopez has lost his rookie/prospect status, Betancourt signed a $3.65 million major league contract as a Cuban defector and Gonzalez was released by the Mariners and re-signed by the Tigers. What hasn't changed is that the Mariners still are loaded with shortstops. Oswaldo Navarro also deserves mention with that group.

Betancourt and Cabrera are both dazzling fielders, while Jones has an absolute cannon for an arm to go with solid range. Navarro has very sure hands and is a legitimate shortstop, though with all the others in the system he already has been shuttling between second base and short and has seen a little time at third base—he'll probably wind up as a utilityman.

Morse and Tuiasosopo probably aren't going to be long-term shortstops. Morse has been decent in the majors so far, but he lacks the first-step quickness and range of an ideal shortstop. Though Tuiasosopo is a good athlete and a former top quarterback recruit, he doesn't have classic shortstop actions and probably will outgrow the position.

As for Betancourt's bat, he should be fine. After not playing at all in 2004, he has jumped right into Double-A and Triple-A at age 23 and hit a combined .280/.305/.420 with 18 steals in 91 games. He needs to draw more walks (13) but he makes good contact (just 30 strikeouts in 379 at-bats) and he has gap power and plus speed. Throw in a defensive package scouts compare to that of Cesar Izturis, and Betancourt does project as a big league regular.

It's still difficult sorting out the Mariners shortstop prospects, but I'll take another crack at it: Jones, Betancourt, Tuiasosopo, Cabrera, Morse (I think he's playing over his head in Seattle right now), Navarro.

    Could J. Brent Cox help the Yankees this season?

    Eric Burt
    East Orange, N.J.

This parallels the dozens of Craig Hansen/Red Sox questions I get in my weekly chats with ESPN.com, and my answer is the same: It's unreasonable to expect anyone to contribute much to a team in the middle of a pennant race in the same year in which he's drafted. It's one thing for a Rickie Weeks to get a September callup or for a Chad Cordero to pitch in a setup role for a team out of contention. It's entirely another to expect Hansen or Cox to get key outs two or three months removed from college.

That said, I do like Cox and think he'll help the Yankees as a setup man in the near future, perhaps toward the end of 2006. He's not Huston Street, his predecessor as closer for Texas and Team USA, but he's not too far removed. Cox has the makeup to pitch in the late innings and a nasty slider that's a strikeout pitch. His second pitch is a sinker that runs in on righthanders. He took the loss in his pro debut for high Class A Tampa on Monday, giving up one run and two hits while recording two outs (both via the strikeout).

    How do you factor in the use of aluminum bats when rating college players? Secondly, how do you factor in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League when rating minor league hitters? I seem to recall a lot of players putting up big numbers there, but not coming close to anything like it in the big leagues.

    Bill Braudis
    Newton, Mass.

When you're looking at statistics, it's important to put them into context. At the college level, they're sketchy to begin with because the level of play is so far removed from the major leagues. Most college players aren't going to spend a day in pro ball. In general, with college players, I won't get excited about the guy just on the basis of his numbers. If he has disappointing stats, that's a big red flag, but the converse isn't true—good stats don't mean he's destined for success. I want to know that he has some tools that will play in pro ball before I'll believe in him.

As for the aluminum bats, in a lot of cases a scouting breakdown can be more illuminating than statistics. Some players have geared their swings to aluminum, and scouts can project that they're going to have trouble hitting with less forgiving wood bats. Summer performances are also important, when players mostly use wood bats and face better competition.

With the Pacific Coast League, the top performers are a better bet for success than those in college but you still have to acknowledge that it's a hitter-friendly league. Hitting 30 homers in the PCL isn't the same as hitting 30 in the International League. And though the PCL is just one step away from the big leagues, there still will be players who stand out in Triple-A but can't hack it in the majors.

July 13, 2005

Commissioner Bud Selig didn't feign any concern over the Olympics dropping baseball. At Monday's press conference to announce the details of the World Baseball Classic, he was asked if the new event would soften the Olympic blow.

Selig responded: "Well, I don't know if, frankly, I consider it a blow. I'm sorry they made the decision that they made, but as far as the sport is concerned, this, if you watch what's going on here today, you understand this sport is being internationalized. It will have a more profound significance in the world as time goes on, and there is no question in my mind that this is going to be this is going to develop into something that will have people from all over the world trying to figure out how they can replicate this set of circumstances.

"So, sorry they made the decision, but we are moving on in a very dramatic way to internationalize the sport. I don't think you could see any better example of what you're seeing here today."

    Who will be the better player between Stephen Drew and Justin Upton? What do you see as their timetables for reaching the majors?

    Jesse Morgan-Young
    Salem, Ore.

Both Drew and Upton factored prominently into Ask BA's April examination of the brother combinations with the most potential. I chose Justin and his older brother B.J. as the No. 1 sibling duo in terms of upside, and of all the younger brothers discussed, I thought Justin was the most promising.

Drew has been unstoppable since finally signing with the Diamondbacks, batting .378/.471/.865 with eight homers and 25 RBIs in his first 19 games at high Class A Lancaster. While that earned him the top spot on our current Prospect Hot Sheet, I'd still take Upton over Drew.

Upton has yet to sign with Arizona as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, though his holdout isn't expected to linger nearly as long as Drew's did. He might have to move off of shortstop, but then again, scouts have said the same about Drew. Both of them are going to be impact hitters, but I'd give Upton a slight nod in terms of power and speed.

Neither player should require much time in the minors. Drew should join the Diamondbacks for good in 2006, and assuming Upton signs this summer, he could be up at some point in 2007.

    I've been a little stunned at the number of strikeouts some of the Red Sox' pitching prospects are compiling. Do these guys (Manny Delcarmen, Jon Lester, Jon Papelbon and Anibal Sanchez) have the potential for major league dominance? Or is Boston just being so cautious about promoting them that they seem better than they really are?

    Judy Blum
    Wilmington, Mass.

All four of those guys are legitimate pitching prospects with terrific arms. Their statistics reflect just how hard it is to make contact against them:

PitcherAgeLevelIPSOSO/9AVG
Delcarmen23AA/AAA435812.1.201
Lester21AA9811410.4.212
Papelbon24AA/AAA93908.7.190
Sanchez21A+/AA839910.8.185

All four pitchers regularly work in the 92-94 mph range and can reach the mid-90s. They all have potential plus curveballs and promising changeups. Lester, who would have been to sent Texas if the Red Sox had completed a trade for Alex Rodriguez after the 2003 season, has been the hottest as of late. An infield hit was all that prevented him from throwing a seven-inning no-hitter in his last outing, which included 13 strikeouts—giving him 50 whiffs in his last 29 innings.

The Red Sox' bullpen has been their weakest link in the first half of the season, so they may call on some of these guys as reinforcements in the second half. Delcarmen has been pitching in relief all year, and Boston may acclimate Papelbon and possibly Lester to the majors in the same role. The Red Sox system is on the upswing, led by those pitchers and position players Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia and Brandon Moss.

    Nelson Cruz of the Brewers is having a good year and recently moved up to Triple-A. Where does he fit in Milwaukee's future? The Brewers seem set at the outfield corners with Carlos Lee, Geoff Jenkins and Corey Hart. Can Cruz play center field?

    Greg Kathman
    Cincinnati

Milwaukee acquired Cruz and righthander Justin Lehr from the Athletics for Keith Ginter last December. While Ginter has returned to Earth after a career year, the 24-year-old Cruz continues to build on his breakout 2004. In 77 games between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville, he has hit .325/.408/.617 with 19 homers, 62 RBIs and 13 steals. He had speed and arm strength to go with his hitting ability, though it would be a stretch to use him as a center fielder in the majors.

The Brewers have some decisions to make on their outfield corners in the next couple of years. Lee is their best hitter and they'll surely pick up his 2006 option for $8.5 million. But when he becomes a free agent after next season, he might command more money than will fit in Milwaukee's budget. Jenkins' numbers have dropped significantly this year, but he's locked up through 2007 with a club option for 2008. Hart isn't tearing it up in Triple-A, and Cruz has surpassed him as a prospect.

My guess is that Milwaukee will begin 2006 with Lee and Jenkins still in its lineup and Cruz in Triple-A. He'll get his chance to start if either Lee departs as a free agent or the Brewers decide to trade Jenkins and can find a taker. Injuries also have a way of creating playing time for youngsters.

July 6, 2005

A lot of Ask BA readers have wondered why certain players didn't make the Futures Game, which is scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Detroit. Much like the All-Star Game doesn't include all of the 64 best players in the majors, the Futures Game won't have the 25 best U.S. prospects and the 25 best international prospects in the minors. Even the best efforts of Baseball America can't ensure that.

We start by submitting a list of six candidates, three for the U.S. team and three for the World team, to the major league clubs, who have the right to make changes. When we put together the two 25-man rosters, we have to take at least one but no more than two prospects from each of the 30 farm systems. And those rosters are subject to change at the whim of Major League Baseball and the 30 big league clubs, as well as if any of the selected players are promoted to the majors.

Though we don't get the 50 absolute top prospects, it's still a star-studded event with the likes of Jeff Francoeur and Delmon Young facing off against Kendry Morales and Hanley Ramirez. It may not carry the same high profile, but the Futures Game is much more enjoyable to watch than the Home Run Derby or the All-Star Game.

    There's a lot of buzz about what's known as the DVD (Thomas Diamond, Edison Volquez, John Danks) among Rangers fans. What do you think of these three promising pitchers and where might they rank if the Top 100 Prospects list was redone at the all star break?

    David Houten
    Lake Forest, Calif.

The Rangers have needed some quality starting pitching for a while, and they're on the verge of getting some in former first-round picks Diamond and Danks and Dominican signee Volquez. You truly can make a case for ranking them in any order, but I'd still stick with the way we lined them up before the season: Diamond, Danks, Volquez.

Among the trio, Diamond has the best 1-2 combination of pitchers with a low-90s fastball and a plus changeup, and his breaking ball gets the job done. He has the best body (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) and has been the most dominant (112-36 strikeout-walk ratio in 102 innings, with opponents batting .197 with four homers). Danks, the lone lefty of the group and the youngest at 20, has the best breaking ball (one of the top curves in the minors) and room for projection on his solid-average fastball. Volquez lights up the radar gun more regularly, pitching at 93-95 mph and peaking in the high 90s, and has made good progress with his slider and changeup.

Diamond ranked No. 52 on our 2005 Top 100 Prospects list, while Danks was No. 59 and Volquez missed the cut. All three of them are very good pitching prospects but not quite yet elite in my book. If we were redoing the Top 100 at this point, they'd all factor in the 26-50 range.

Stewart ranked fourth on our last edition of the Top 100, behind only Joe Mauer, Felix Hernandez and Delmon Young. He was coming off a .319/.398/.594 season in low Class A, and he was a 19-year-old in his first full pro season to boot. He hasn't approached those numbers in 2005, however, batting .256/.344/.447 at high Class A Modesto in the hitter-friendly California League.

There's a simple explanation for this, however. Stewart missed the first month of the season with hamstring problems, and it took him a while to get his timing back. In May, he batted just .211/.276/.342 while drawing 10 walks and striking out 39 times in 114 at-bats. Since then, he's looked like his old self, hitting .307/.415/.564 with 19 walks and 15 whiffs in 101 at-bats. His overall numbers look disappointing, but he's back to destroying minor league pitching. He's still one of the game's top hitting prospects.

    Im curious what you think of the Pirates early selections in the draft. Not so much Andrew McCutchen, but Brad Corley (second round), James Boone (third) and Jeff Sues (fifth). They all seem to have been overdrafted. Would I be wrong in thinking that signability played a role here?

    Wilbur Miller
    Silver Spring, Md.

In the baseball draft, worthiness is in the eye of the beholder. It's so hit and miss, especially after the first round, that teams aren't afraid to buck the consensus to take a player they really want. Based on what we heard before the draft, we projected all three players as sixth- to 10th-rounders. The Pirates obviously liked them more than the consensus, but rest assured that none of the three were signability picks. Corley ($605,000), Boone ($420,000) and Sues ($171,000) all received bonuses commensurate with their slots.

Corley, a Mississippi State outfielder, was projected as a possible first-round pick before going through a power dropoff during the spring. Boone, a Missouri outfielder, is very toolsy like Corley but will need time to adjust to wood bats. Sues, a Vanderbilt righthander, has good stuff with a 92-93 mph fastball, hard slider and average curveball, but runs into trouble with his command. All three players have high ceilings, though they will have to answer those question marks.

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