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

By Jim Callis

Sept. 28, 2005

When I was growing up, my favorite player was Carl Yastrzemski. Part of it was his talent, part of it was his batting stance, part of it was the name (I took great pride in learning how to spell it correctly at age 7) and part of it was one of those 3-D baseball cards I got in a box of Kellogg's cereal. I thought it was really cool how Yaz had played for so long that they had to cram his year-by-year stats lines in with a miniscule type size.

Yaz mostly stays out of the public eyes these days. But the Boston Globe has a great feature on Yaz today, as writer Stan Grossfield drifts down the Merrimack River on a fishing trip with the Hall of Famer.

    With the minor league season over, who would you now rate as the top 10 prospects in the Yankees organization? Is the Yankees system still among the very worst in all of baseball?

    Mitchell Cohen
    East Brunswick, N.J.

Nothing like an incendiary question to kick off this week's Ask BA. I'll go out on a limb here and predict that Yankees fans won't agree with my answer.

Nevertheless, I'll say it: The Yankees don't have a good farm system. It's not one of the absolute bottom feeders, but barring a sudden influx of talent, it will rank in the 21-30 range when we release our organization ratings before the 2006 season.

That ranking doesn't diminish the fact that second baseman Robinson Cano and righthander Chien-Ming Wang have made key contributions to the Yankees this year. I'm still not sold on the fact that either is going to blossom into a star—I'm not a fan of Cano's plate discipline and don't think his defensive skills will allow him to stick at second base, while Wang doesn't miss enough bats for my taste—but the Yankees wouldn't be right in the thick of the playoff race without Cano and Wang.

Their contributions don't figure into our evaluation of the Yankees system because Cano and Wang don't qualify as prospects any longer. New York's biggest weakness is a lack of upper-level talent. The Yankees' best player in Double-A and Triple-A is third baseman Eric Duncan, who has power potential—but he also batted .235 this year and faces a move to first base. Most of the players on my personal Yankees Top 10 below (not guaranteed to match our official Top 10 later this offseason) haven't even reached full-season ball yet, which means they're several years from New York and have less trade value.

Here's my Top 10, with a quick comment on each:

1. Philip Hughes, rhp
Unquestionable stuff but he hasn't stayed healthy.
2. Eric Duncan, 3b
Yankees haven't done him any favors by rushing him.
3. Christian Garcia, rhp
Former catcher is taking well to the mound.
4. C.J. Henry, ss
New York used 17th overall pick in June on athletic hoops star . . .
5. Austin Jackson, of
. . . and spent $800,000 to land another in the eighth round.
6. Eduardo Nunez, ss
Flashy shortstop drew raves in New York-Penn League.
7. Jose Tabata, of
Like Henry and Jackson, a talented athlete on the Gulf Coast League champs.
8. J. Brent Cox, rhp
Mariano Rivera's eventual successor as closer?
9. Marcos Vechionacci, 3b
Played in low Class A at age 18, has nice tools.
10. Tyler Clippard, rhp
Has posted good numbers in Class A with average stuff.

Past experience tells me this question will inspire a slew of others from fans of different teams. I'll warn you now: I'm not going to steal the thunder from our team prospect rankings by breaking down every farm system. But I can tell you our team Top 10 lists will begin running in the magazine and on the website in November. And we will, of course, go 30 deep for each club in the 2006 Prospect Handbook.

    Do you see the Mets bringing Lastings Milledge up next year? If so, will they do it the same way as they did with Jose Reyes and David Wright, bringing him up halfway through the year as a spark for the team? With Yusmeiro Petit, are they looking for a way to open a spot for him in the major league rotation or will they start him off in the bullpen?

    Mike Laidlaw
    Pompton Plains, N.J.

Milledge and Petit should join the Mets at some point next season, though it's likely both will begin 2006 in Triple-A. Milledge has played just 48 games above high Class A and his power has yet to mature, while Petit has just three Triple-A starts (and a 0-3, 9.20 record) under his belt. Both could use a good half-season at Norfolk, and they'll probably get it given the current makeup of the big league roster.

With Carlos Beltran, Mike Cameron and Cliff Floyd all signed to big-money contracts, New York doesn't have an opening in its outfield. Even if the Mets can trade one of them, they may give the first opportunity to Victor Diaz. Pedro Martinez, Kris Benson and Tom Glavine all have huge salaries and rotation spots for 2006, and Jae Seo has pitched well enough this year to slot into the rotation. For the fifth spot, New York could go to arbitration with Victor Zambrano, pick up an option on Steve Trachsel or make an offseason move.

    In 2002, the Cubs drafted Bobby Brownlie in the first round and Luke Hagerty, Chadd Blasko and Matt Clanton in the supplemental first round. It looks like Clanton pitched a couple of innings in 2002 and dropped off the face of the Earth. What's their status?

    Bob Rucinski
    Great Falls, Mont.

The fate of those four shows just how volatile both pitchers and a draft can be. For a while, the Cubs appeared to have pulled a coup by getting Brownlie with the 21st pick and Hagerty with the 32nd. Brownlie was considered the best pitcher in the 2002 draft crop entering the spring, but dropped because of signability and mild injury concerns. Hagerty didn't pitch well at the end of the season, causing him to slide from the middle of the first round. But by the next spring training scouts thought he was better than No. 1 overall pick Bryan Bullington, his former Ball State teammate. Blasko and Clanton were highly regarded as well, and the foursome cost Chicago $5.575 million.

Three years later, the Cubs don't look like they're going to get much out of any of them. Brownlie has reached Triple-A but his stuff isn't what it was at Rutgers. He has a fringe-average fastball and a good curveball rather than his old plus heater and a plus-plus curve, and he now looks more like a middle reliever than a frontline starter. And that's the good news.

Hagerty blew out his elbow in his final spring start in 2003 and required Tommy John surgery. While he was in Marlins big league camp this spring as a Rule 5 pick, he lost his command and never regained it. He had 30 walks in seven innings at short-season Boise this summer.

Blasko led the high Class A Florida State League in ERA in 2003 and emerged as one of the system's top pitching prospects, but he tore his labrum in mid-2004 and hasn't returned to the mound. Clanton pitched just two innings in 2002 before being shut down with a tender biceps, and he has worked just two since. He has had multiple shoulder surgeries and hasn't taken the mound since 2003.

Sept. 21, 2005

The regular season is winding down to a thrilling finish and the postseason is just around the corner. And here at Baseball America, it's prospect season once again.

We've started unveiling our minor league Top 20 Prospects lists. Beginning in Rookie ball and working our way up toward Triple-A, we've run through four leagues so far with 12 more to come.

So you can better understand the process, the writer for each Top 20 also will hold an online chat about his league. If he doesn't get to your question, feel free to send it to Ask BA and we'll try to tackle it here.

    I'm having a hard time with Delmon Young and B.J. Upton, who played the majority of their minor league seasons at ages 19 and 20 and were given millions of dollars to sign, now slamming the Devil Rays. Young called them cheap because he wasn't promoted in September. Upton says he'll only play shortstop and wants to be traded if they move him. Hey, B.J.! Stop making 53 errors per season and I'm sure you would be the everyday shortstop! And just who's going to the bench so these two can play in September? Aubrey Huff? Jonny Gomes? Julio Lugo? That would go over real well in the clubhouse. What's your take?

    Rick Watson
    Palm Harbor, Fla.

I don't have a problem with either Young or Upton sacrificing political correctness and voicing his mind. While the Devil Rays have every right not to promote them to the big leagues, let's join Young and call that decision what it is: cheap. Tampa Bay has tried to float a story that Young tired at the end of the season, but that's hogwash.

Young and Upton mean more to the future of the franchise than any two players in the system. Young handled Double-A and Triple-A as a teenager, winning Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award. Upton, whose bat was ready for the majors coming into 2005, worked on trying to improve his defense all year in Triple-A without making a peep. Organizations almost always reward those types of efforts with a September callup, especially if the players already are on the 40-man roster to begin with.

It looks like Upton will have to move off shortstop, so why not promote him in September and give him some time at third base? The Devil Rays can afford to shift Alex Gonzalez from the hot corner to the bench. And Young doesn't have to play every day, but why not give him some big league at-bats? Giving Huff some playing time at first base and Travis Lee some pine time won't hurt the team.

Tampa Bay just wants to keep Young and Upton from arbitration and free agency as long as possible, but that's a cynical approach that cheats its fans and those players. And there's at least a small chance that Young or Upton may still bear a grudge down the road when they get the opportunity to depart. If I were running a team that has accomplished nothing in eight seasons, I'd be trying to celebrate and not alienate the two brightest prospects in the minor leagues.

    I thought that if Luke Hochevar has lost his college eligibility, he would have much more incentive to sign with the Dodgers. What happens if he doesn't sign and he can't go back to college? What are the rules regarding a situation like this? You mentioned something in an ESPN.com chat about him playing in an independent league next year. How would that be better than signing with the Dodgers for even the original $2.3 million they offered? Also, how important to the Dodgers is this great arm?

    Brian Davis
    Fresno

There are unconfirmed reports that Hochevar has signed a form designating Scott Boras as his agent, which would erase his final year of eligibility at Tennessee. Boras declined to confirm that, but told the Los Angeles Daily News that Hochevar ruined his eligibility when he signed a document naming Matt Sosnick as his adviser. NCAA rules permit baseball players to have advisers and not agents, though that's just semantics and they're essentially the same thing. In any case, Hochevar's own representative has acknowledged publicly that the 40th overall pick in the June draft no longer can pitch in college.

I don't see a scenario where both the Dodgers and Hochever/Boras can both come out as winners following the soap opera that began on Labor Day weekend. Los Angeles since has pulled the $2.98 million bonus that Hochevar agreed to before reneging on it.

If Hochevar doesn't sign with the Dodgers, he'll have to re-enter the 2006 draft. He wouldn't have the option of free agency and picking his own team until he went through an entire draft without being selected. Teams would be hesitant to spend a high draft pick and large bonus on a pitcher who hadn't taken the mound in nearly a year, so Hochevar likely would showcase his stuff in an independent league before next year's draft. Jered Weaver was set to pitch in the Atlantic League this May had he not signed at the last minute with the Angels.

We rated Hochevar the second-best starting pitcher available in the 2005 draft, and landing him with the 40th pick would be a coup for any club. While the Dodgers would like to sign him, they already have one of the game's most bountiful farm systems. Hochevar and Boras publicly accused Los Angeles scouting director Logan White of conspiring with Sosnick to get Hochevar to sign what he termed "a bad deal" (though it would have paid him more than No. 4 choice Ryan Zimmerman got), though Boras later retracted that charge. Part of what made Hochevar attractive was his makeup and mental toughness, both of which the Dodgers have to question now.

It will be a lot easier for the Dodgers to walk away from Hochevar than it will be for him to get another $3 million offer.

    How did the White Sox' negotiations with Jordan Danks turn out? Did he sign or did he attend class at Texas?

    Scott Reimers
    Springfield, Ill.

One of the best power-hitting prospects in the 2005 draft, Danks could have been a late first-round pick had he not told teams that he was intent on becoming a Longhorn and didn't wish to be selected. Some clubs wondered whether that was a negotiating ploy designed to get Danks a similar bonus to the $2.1 million his brother John got from the Rangers as the No. 9 overall pick in 2003.

The White Sox spent a 19th-round pick on Danks, a worthwhile gamble considering the miniscule return that choice usually yields. Danks proved to be sincere, however, and Chicago lost its rights to him when he attended his first class at Texas.

The defending College World Series champions have their usual strong recruiting class. Kyle Russell, a high school outfielder like Danks, also has the potential to be a first-round pick in 2008. Other recruits to watch include corner infielder Brad Suttle and lefty Kyle Walker, both high schoolers, and shortstop Steve Clevenger, who hit .347 at Southeastern Louisiana in 2005.

Sept. 14, 2005

By now, you've probably seen our lengthy story on Luke Hochevar's negotiations with the Dodgers. The day after it came out, Scott Boras changed his story again.

Boras initially said he didn't know the origins of the rumors about Hochevar switching advisers and agreeing to a $2.98 million bonus with the Dodgers. After the story broke, Boras quickly arranged conference calls with himself, Hochevar and selected media outlets. He and Hochevar asserted that Los Angeles scouting director Logan White conspired with agent Matt Sosnick to steer Hochevar to Sosnick and get him to sign what Hochevar called "a very bad contract." That very bad contract would have given Hochevar, drafted 40th overall, more money than No. 4 pick Ryan Zimmerman and paid him his bonus in full by the end of January.

Boras didn't succeed with his latest maneuver, because the club fully backed White and said he would continue to handle negotiations. Shortly thereafter, Boras revealed to the Los Angeles Times that his further investigations revealed that the Dodgers and their officials weren't to blame at all, though he didn't identify White by name.

Boras is clearly mending fences after realizing the Dodgers won't be affected by baseless charges. The biggest question now is this: Why would the Dodgers want to go the extra mile for someone who not only reneged on a deal but also challenged the integrity of their scouting director?

    Watching the Frederick Keys march through the high Class A Carolina League playoffs, they have some interesting prospects on the roster. What's your take on them? Nolan Reimold and Garrett Olson are only a few months removed from college baseball, and they've rolled over every obstacle in their short pro careers. Former Oriole Jeff Fiorentino continues to have his way with the pitching in the lower minors. Adam Loewen has had a very good second half, but his ability to dominate one night and seem clueless the next is frustrating. Finally, former first-round pick Beau Hale has gotten back on the mound for the first time since 2002.

    Will Linthicum
    Taneytown, Md.

Frederick's roll was halted, at least temporarily, last night in a 4-3 loss to Kinston that tied the best-of-five Carolina League championship series at two games apiece. The Keys do have several of the better prospects in an Orioles system that's showing some improvement but still is relatively weak.

Reimold, a second-round pick in June, quickly has become one of Baltimore's top prospects. He's a multitooled outfielder who had no trouble adapting to high Class A, slugging six homers in 23 regular-season games. Olson, a lefty taken in the supplemental first round, has good command of three pitches: a fringe-average fastball, a curveball that's his out pitch and a changeup.

I've never comprehended why the Orioles promoted Fiorentino from Frederick to Baltimore for three weeks in May, less than a year after making him a third-round pick. Fiorentino survived well enough, batting .250 with a homer in 13 big league games, then was sent all the way back to the Keys and continued to perform. He's a good athlete whom the Orioles' former scouting administration wanted to try at catcher, and he has shown more power than the club originally anticipated.

I don't know what to make of Loewen. The raw stuff is there with a fastball and curveball that are easily above average, he's lefthanded and he has a big, strong frame. His control remains erratic because he has trouble repeating his delivery and arm slot. If he ever figures it out, Loewen can be a No. 1 starter, but he's progressing more slowly than Baltimore hoped.

Hale was a first-round pick in 2000, when his fastball regularly cruised into the mid-90s and he showed a slider that had potential to become a plus pitch. But he had two surgeries on his right shoulder, first to repair a torn labrum and then to clean out some scar tissue, and while he has returned to the mound his stuff just isn't the same.

Will forgot to mention CL pitcher of the year James Johnson, a righthander with a low-90s fastball and a hard curveball. Other prospects of note on the Keys' playoff roster include righty Fredy Deza, lefty Dave Haehnel and second baseman Nate Spears.

    What can you tell us about Yankees outfielder Jose Tabata, who played most of this season as a 16-year-old in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League? It seems as if he has a very advanced approach for someone so young. Could he be a real five-tool prospect?

    Ben Delbanco
    New York

Tabata is a five-tool player and he has as much upside as any prospect in the Yankees system. He made his U.S. debut this year in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he hit .314/.382/.417 with thee homers, 25 RBIs and a league-best 22 steals in 44 games.

He's solidly built at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds and will have more power as he gets stronger and more experienced. He drew more walks (15) than strikeouts (14), and while we shouldn't infer too much about his plate discipline when he's facing such raw pitching, that's definitely a positive sign. He has plus speed and the tools to play center field, though he spent most of the summer in left field in deference to Austin Jackson.

Tabata will factor prominently on our GCL Top 20 Prospects list. We'll start unveiling our minor league Top 20s on this website next week.

    Do you have any updates on Rick Ankiel and Josh Hamilton?

    Tim Keene
    Westbrook, Maine

Along with Brien Taylor, Ankiel (2000) and Hamilton (2001) are the most star-crossed players ever to grace the top of our Top 100 Prospects lists.

Ankiel seemed destined for stardom until he fell prey to Steve Blass Disease and Tommy John surgery. He gave up pitching after the 2004 season and is trying to make it back to the Cardinals as an outfielder. He split time between low Class A Quad Cities and Double-A Springfield this year, batting .259/.338/.514 with 21 homers and 75 RBIs in 85 games.

Scouts who saw Ankiel in the MWL say he has legitimate lefthanded power and a right-field arm. He needs to stop being pull-conscious and learn to stay back on breaking pitches. The odds are against him because he's 26, but he could make it back to the majors as a reserve.

Hamilton, whose drug problems have earned him multiple suspensions from Major League Baseball, hasn't played since the 2002 season. The last time he was in the news was in May, when he was arrested after shattering the windshield of a family friend's pickup truck after he had been drinking alcohol. I can't see this story ending with Hamilton having a productive baseball career.

Sept. 8, 2005

A couple of times each year, Ask BA winds up being a day later than expected. I always hate it when that happens, but Labor Day and a full day of phone calls Wednesday conspired against me this week.

Had I written yesterday, however, I wouldn't have been able to salute two players who are too old to be considered prospects in the truest sense of the word. Nationals infielder Rick Short, who flirted with a .400 average throughout the Triple-A Pacific Coast League season and ended as the minors' top hitter at .383, drilled his first big league homer last night, off Dontrelle Willis no less.

Diamondbacks utilityman Andy Green has carried the "has to prove himself at every level" tag forever because he turned 23 shortly after signing as a 24th-round pick in 2000. He has proven himself repeatedly, earning PCL MVP honors this year, and he collected his first big league hit and RBI last night.

    Dodgers lefthander Scott Elbert put up very good stats this season in low Class A. Does he have the makings of a potential ace, and how do his stuff and ceiling project? Also, how does the Dodgers' trio of Class A pitchers Elbert, Blake Johnson and Chuck Tiffany compare to their Double-A trio of Chad Billingsley, Jon Broxton and Justin Orenduff?

    Marty Rafter
    Schweinfurt, Germany

Elbert is a 20-year-old lefty with effortless arm action, a consistent 88-92 mph fastball that tops out at 94 and a slider that can be a plus pitch at times. All that gives him the makings of an ace, though he's a long way from realizing that potential. Johnson has similar stuff, though he's a righthander and lacks stamina at this point. Tiffany, who's a level ahead of those two in high Class A, has average stuff across the board but a lot of moxie to go with it. He projects more as a reliever than Elbert and Johnson do.

Billingsley and Broxton, already in Double-A at age 21, have better pure stuff than those three and they're also more polished. Billingsley has a lively 92-94 mph fastball and two plus breaking pitches, while Broxton has hit 96-98 mph out of the bullpen and complemented his heat with a good slider. Orenduff doesn't overwhelm hitters like they can, but he advanced to Double-A in his first full pro season thanks to the sink on his 88-92 mph fastball and his ability to locate his pitches.

Ranking them in order of prospecty goodness, I'd go Billingsley, Broxton, Elbert, Orenduff, Tiffany, Johnson.

    I'm just looking for some feedback on the Mariners' recent signing of righty Anthony Varvaro. After seeing him this year and based on your predraft ratings, the Mariners look to have made a shrewd move if he can come back from Tommy John surgery.

    Darrell Jackson
    Brooklyn

Before he blew out his elbow in May, Varvaro looked like a second- or third-round pick. He went 9-3, 2.32 at St. John's, ranking sixth in NCAA Division I with 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings, a rate better than that of more heralded teammate Craig Hansen (11.9), who went in the first round to the Red Sox. Some scouts said Varvaro was a more complete pitcher than Hansen, and he carved up college hitters with a 92-94 mph fastball and a hard curveball.

The Mariners took Varvaro in the 12th round, marking the second straight year they spent that pick on a pitcher they knew needed Tommy John surgery. (Wichita State lefthander Steve Uhlmansiek had the operation in 2004 and returned to the mound in the Rookie-level Arizona League this summer.) Considering the very low return rate on 12th-round picks, this type of gamble is always worth taking. Varvaro will report to Seattle's instructional league camp with the idea of beginning throwing again in October.

    What are the rules governing whether a player gets a fourth option year? From what I've read, it seems like a player can get one if he's played less than five years as a professional (for example, draftees given major league contracts), but it's unclear if that's an automatic exception. There are also references to players whose development has been slowed by major injuries being granted a fourth option year, but it's not clear how often that happens or whether it's essentially automatic when a player has missed a full season. I have a specific interest as an Indians fan, wondering about the status of Jeremy Guthrie and Andrew Brown next season, but I'm sure others have wondered about this, too.

    Jay Levin
    Philadelphia

Every played added to a 40-man roster for the first time is granted three option years, allowing the team to assign that player to the minors that year without having to pass him through waivers. A player can move back and forth from the majors to the minors multiple times in a given year, and it still counts as the use of just one option. After a player's options are expended, he has to clear waivers before he can be assigned to the minors.

In some circumstances, baseball rules allow for a fourth option. A player receives a fourth option if he has less than five seasons of pro experience. Draftees who immediately sign a major league contract will qualify unless they reach the majors quickly and stick there. Otherwise, they'll have their three options exhausted after their first three years in pro ball. Guthrie falls into this category.

A season is defined as any year in which the player spends 90 days on the active list. Short-season and Rookie leagues don't last 90 calendar days, so a player assigned to those leagues for an entire year won't accrue a season of pro experience. Also if a player has a long-term injury, he usually won't be credited for a season that year. (The exception is if he goes on the disabled list after spending 60 days on an active list, in which case the DL time counts as service time.)

Brown signed in 1999 and the Dodgers placed him on their 40-man roster in 2002, meaning they and the Indians have used up his options to send him to the minors the last three years. But Brown will get a fourth option because this counts as only his third season of pro ball for option purposes. He spent 1999 in Rookie ball, missed all of 2000 with Tommy John surgery, spent 2001 in the short-season New York-Penn League and pitched in just one game in 2003 because he had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

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