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Ask BA

By James Bailey

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.

January 30, 2001

In case you missed it, we have another early-signing controversy on our hands. Gus Dominguez, the agent for Venezuelan lefthander Felix Arellan, wants Major League Baseball to declare his client a free agent because the commissioner's office ruled he was signed before he was 16. The Dodgers have been fined $100,000, but Dominguez doesn't think that goes far enough.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because it's exactly the same plot as the Wilson Betemit case last year. I don't see how Dominguez can expect to win free agency for Arellan after Betemit's agent, Scott Shapiro, couldn't secure it for him. Scott Boras was unable to break loose Dodgers third baseman Adrian Beltre in a similar situation last year as well. So good luck, Gus.

Dominguez gets some credit for bringing humor to this potentially ugly situation. Every baseball person had to laugh when he compared Arellan to Sandy Koufax and claimed he'd get a $3 million bonus if he were cut loose by MLB. Of course, at least he's not taking Shapiro's lead and trying to tell us it's not about the money. That would be even harder to swallow.

Well, enough on that. Let's get on to today's questions.

    I'm extremely excited about the South Atlantic League team the Astros are starting in Lexington this season, the Legends. I'm starving for some info, though! They've already announced the manager and coaching staff, but I can't remember offhand which A-ball team Houston moved to Lexington. Who are some notable prospects we can expect to see in Lexington this year--anyone from the early rounds of the 2000 draft?

    Cory Huff
    Lexington, Ky.

The Astros actually lost their high Class A team, Kissimmee, after the 2000 season. Now they have two low Class A clubs, Lexington and Michigan, in the Midwest League. Theoretically, Minor League Baseball addressed that situation by shifting two teams from the Florida State League to the Sally League last fall, but the Astros wanted to go to Lexington and were already committed to Michigan, so that left them without a high Class A team. The A's, on the other hand, have two high Class A teams and no low Class A team. But that's how they want it, so everyone's happy.

What will the Astros do? I'd guess they'll do what the Reds did the past couple of seasons, when they had two teams in the Midwest League: split the talent evenly. There's no advantage to having one advanced team in a low Class A league. So having Michigan as a higher stop than Lexington, or vice versa, wouldn't make a lot of sense. You'd wind up with a situation where you'd promote a player by sending him to a league with the same level of competition he just left.

So I'd guess the Astros will just divide their players up evenly among both clubs, giving Michigan and Lexington each some more advanced Class A players as well some players getting their first taste of full-season ball. Some of the Astros' top prospects who will likely open the season at either Lexington or Michigan are righthander Robert Stiehl, lefthander Carlos Hernandez, and outfielder Gavin Wright. Hernandez and Wright both played for Michigan last year, and really should be at high Class A this year, but that's not an option, obviously. Righthander Ryan Jamison, who was pretty dominant at Michigan last year, could make the jump to Double-A Round Rock. If he doesn't, he'll factor in on one of these teams.

There's another player who's not quite as heralded that I'll tell you to look out for, and that's third baseman Jonathan Helquist, who also played at Michigan in 2000. He struggled somewhat there, hitting .238 with five homers in 320 at-bats. But he's got some tools. I was very impressed by him, especially defensively, at Rookie-level Martinsville in 1999. So keep an eye on him if he lands in Lexington.

    The most recent BA Minor League Transactions shows that Arizona signed outfielder J.J. Johnson. Is he the 19-year-old Cubs prospect? If so, is there a story on why the Cubs let him go so soon?

    Tom McCullough
    York, Pa.

The J.J. Johnson that the Diamondbacks signed last week is veteran minor leaguer Jermane Jay Johnson, who played for the Valley Vipers in the Western League in 2000. Now 27, this J.J. Johnson was originally a supplemental first-round pick of the Red Sox in 1991. He went to the Twins in 1995 as part of the deal that sent Frank Rodriguez to Minnesota for Rick Aguilera. In 1998, he became a minor league free agent, signing with the Astros for the 1999 season. He was released by the Astros at the end of spring training last year, then hooked on with the Western League.

The Cubs' J.J. Johnson is actually a third baseman. A sixth-round pick last June, he hit .316 with three homers and 43 RBIs in the Rookie-level Arizona League, where he was named the No. 5 prospect last fall. The Cubs, who are suddenly awash in minor league third basemen, are not likely to let him go any time soon.

    Could you tell me if the Royals are down on Carlos Febles. I know he has never blossomed, due mainly to injuries, however I see where he hit only .205 in winter ball, and now with the signing of Luis Alicea, does this spell the beginning of the end for Febles?

    Michael Stern
    Mohegan Lake, N.Y.

The Royals are not down on Febles so much as they are concerned about his durability. He had trouble staying in the lineup last year, and when he did play, his performance was affected by his health. So they signed Alicea as a backup.

Alicea is a more advanced offensive player than Febles at this point, but defensively he is no match. If Febles can get on base with any consistency, he should hold onto the starting job all season.

If Febles gets hurt or starts to struggle, however, the Royals feel like they've now got a fallback plan. That wasn't the case last season, when the Royals had to turn to Jeff Reboulet and Luis Ordaz at second base when Febles was unavailable. Aside from first baseman/outfielder David McCarty's contributions, the Royals didn't get a lot of production from their bench last year. Alicea can play third and the outfield as well as second, so he could be a valuable addition for them.

January 25, 2001

It's just about three weeks until pitchers and catchers report. The first workout for eight different teams is Feb. 15, when the Angels, Brewers, Cubs, Dodgers, Orioles, Pirates, Reds and Yankees kick things off. It's always about this time every year when the offseason starts getting a little too long for me. Maybe it's that all of the news revolves around arbitration and whatever signings there are only involve players re-upping with their same team, so there's not even the movement you had throughout December.

But I guess we can't fast forward through the next three weeks, so we'll have to find something else to talk about. Like Ozzie Smith.

    After reading your comments on Gookie Dawkins I was wondering if you looked back at Ozzie Smith's first few years and his minor league stats how he would have projected? I think people forget about how much he improved in the majors. I hope young players like Dawkins or a Donnie Sadler realize with hard work and a knowledge of plate discipline how much you can improve.

    Jacob Dell
    Boston

It's hard to compare Dawkins and Smith as far as minor league numbers, because Smith only played one season in the minor leagues and then jumped to the big leagues. In 1977, he hit .303 in 68 games at Walla Walla in the short-season Northwest League. The next year he was in San Diego, hitting .258 in 590 at-bats. He went to college at Cal Poly SLO, so he was older when he signed than Dawkins, who was right out of high school.

Smith also had good plate discipline from the start. He never had a season where he struck out more than he walked. As a rookie he drew 47 walks and struck out 43 times, posting a .311 on-base percentage and a .312 slugging percentage. He actually tailed off from that over the next three seasons. In 1981 he made his first all-star appearance, despite finishing the year with a .294 on-base percentage and .256 slugging percentage.

From that point on, Smith began hitting with a little more authority, though his career-high slugging percentage was .383, so he wasn't ever going to remind anyone of Dave Winfield. But Smith had the advantage of coming up in an era when it was still okay for a player to swing a light bat as long as he played great defense.

As good as he was, if Smith broke in as an American League shortstop about four years ago, he could have gone through his whole career without smelling an all-star game. Of course, if Smith were just coming into his prime now, it's likely his numbers would be inflated along with the rest of the league's in comparison to the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Dawkins could be a similar type of player in that his glove will likely always outshine his bat, but Smith found all kinds of ways to contribute to his team offensively despite his lack of power. In two of his first three seasons he led the NL in sacrifice hits, laying down 28 as a rookie in 1978 and 23 in 1980. He also stole 580 bases in his career. For Dawkins to truly compare, he'll have to do all the little things like Smith did.

    The Devil Rays have the third pick in the draft this year. Historically they have drafted high-ceiling high school players at the top of the draft. The Twins pick probably depends on signability and may not be the best player available. Do you think then the Cubs take Teixeira with the second pick? Who do you think the Rays pick at No. 3? I would like to see them break the pattern and take a top college pitcher like Mark Prior or Aaron Heilman. Any chance or do they stick with high schoolers?

    Rick Watson
    Palm Harbor, Fla.

I'll leave the draft speculating to Allan Simpson, especially at this point, because there is so much that is subject to change. It's easier to project the first few college players, but for high school, so much can change. For example, last year in our Early Draft Preview, Adrian Gonzalez was the No. 26 player listed. Four months later, he was the No. 1 pick in the draft. So I'm not going to try to solve the puzzle for you right here. I'll let these guys play their senior seasons first.

I can, however, take a look at the draft trends of the Devil Rays. Tampa Bay has participated in five June drafts. Each year they have spent one of their picks in the first five rounds on a college player. In 1996 it was outfielder Alex Sanchez, out of Miami-Dade CC Wolfson (fifth round). In 1997, lefthander Todd Belitz, from Washington State (fourth round). In 1998, third baseman Aubrey Huff, from Miami (fifth round). In 1999, righthander Alex Santos, from Miami (fourth round). And last year, shortstop Jace Brewer, from Baylor (fifth round).

You can see a distinct pattern here. They have never taken a college player in the first three rounds of the draft. Chuck LaMar is a product of the Braves system, and the Braves have leaned heavily on high school players in the draft for the past 10 years. If it can work for them, LaMar figures it can work for the Devil Rays.

And it is working. The first real wave of talent in the organization is close to reaching Tampa, and there's a lot more in the pipeline.

The Devil Rays have built up one of the stronger systems in the game by drafting high school players. I would be surprised if they went a different direction this year. So look for the Devil Rays to grab a high school kid--I can't tell you which one--with the third pick.

If you want Allan Simpson's take on it all, this year's Early Draft Preview will appear in the issue we're working on right now, which also includes the NL Central Top 10 Prospect lists. Lots of good stuff, so make sure you get your hands on that issue.

    I saw a recent publication listing the top newcomers for 2001 and I saw the name Carlos Chantres listed as a top pitcher for the Brewers. I also saw him listed on your 40 man roster for the Brewers. When and how did he leave the White Sox organization and become a Brewer and what can you tell the Brewer faithful about this guy with good minor league numbers?

    Curtis M. Salm
    Appleton, Wis.

Chantres signed with the Brewers as a minor league free agent on Nov. 20. A 12th-round pick in 1994 out of Miami's Columbus High, Chantres posted a 3.93 ERA and allowed just 801 hits in 871 innings in seven seasons in the White Sox organization. Last year he went 10-4 with a 3.53 ERA at Triple-A Charlotte, striking out 85 and walking 54 in 143 innings.

Chantres keeps hitters off balance with his curveball and changeup, mixing them in with a fastball that tops out around 90 mph. He also throws a split-finger fastball.

It's tempting to disregard him as a prospect because the White Sox let him go as a free agent, but the bottom line is they just have so many pitchers they couldn't fit him on their roster. Chantres is the No. 12 player on the Brewers Top Prospects list, and he has a legitimate chance to pitch in the big leagues, especially in an organization that has typically been thin on pitching. That's changing, with the likes of Ben Sheets and Nick Neugebauer in the system, but for the moment the Brewers are thin enough at the upper levels that a guy like Chantres just might get the break he needs.

    Just thought you might want to let die-hards know of something I just found out: The entire Caribbean Series will be televised live on Fox Sports World which is available on both DishNetwork and DirectTV. All 12 games, two per day.

    Rob Dale
    Lansing, Mich.

Thanks for the tip, Rob. The Caribbean Series begins on Friday, Feb. 2, by the way, for those of you fortunate enough to have access to the broadcasts. Rob also sent this link in case you want to find more information.

January 23, 2001

In the wake of the Toe Nash story, readers are on the lookout for other legends in the making. This week's buzz, at least among Mariners fans, has been young Emiliano Fruto, who will attend his first big league camp this spring though he's just 16 and has yet to participate in his first professional game.

Here at Ask BA, we saw a flood of questions about Fruto. Most of them sounded pretty much like this one.

    I'm looking at the 12 nonroster invitees to the Mariners spring training and the name that stands out isn't Ryan Anderson, it's Emiliano Fruto. All that is said of him in the press release is that he is a 16-year-old righthander. Can you shed light on this unknown, but suddenly interesting prospect and why the M's decided that they needed to bring him to the major league camp at the tender age of 16?

    Dan Shepherd
    Spokane, Wash.

Fruto was indeed a surprise on the list of invitees. The youngster hails from Bolivar, Colombia, and has yet to make his pro debut after signing last July.

He was impressive in instructional league, throwing a fastball that touches 90 on occasion and a slider. He's very projectable, and the Mariners foresee him growing into a fine pitcher over the next few years.

Why'd he get the invitation to big league camp? The Mariners want him to work with major league pitching coach Bryan Price, and since Price is going to be spending his time with the major league pitchers Fruto will have to join them to see Price. There's no expectation that he'll make some incredible jump to begin his pro career.

Fruto, who doesn't turn 17 until June 6, will likely start off in the Rookie-level Arizona League, though there's an outside chance he could wind up at short-season Everett. Either way, after kicking things off in big league camp, he's almost certain to stay in extended spring training until June.

Fruto's addition is exciting for the Mariners, because he's the first real prospect they've dug up in Colombia. There are other Colombians under contract, but none have advanced past the Venezuelan Summer League. Fruto is the first to reach the United States.

As detailed in our Emerging Markets package in the Jan. 22-Feb. 4 issue of Baseball America, Colombia is starting to grow as a place to find talent. There are still a lot of perceptions that the country is too dangerous to visit, and that cuts down on scouting trips, but if a few more prospects follow in the footsteps of Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera, teams might make more of an effort to see who else is available. Perhaps Fruto will become that type of prospect.

    Gookie Dawkins was projected by many as one of, if not the, best shortstop prospects in the minors last year. After a sub-par hitting year, expectations have soured somewhat and I have seen him projected as still a great fielder, but simply average hitter. Were his struggles last year more attitude and desire to remain at the major league level instead of being demoted to Double-A or were his offensive tools largely overrated last year?

    Andrew Ahern
    Lewisburg, Pa.

I haven't really seen any reports of attitude causing Dawkins' problems, so I don't think it's a case of sulking, etc. I think his case probably falls more into the overrated category, and he has slipped significantly on the Reds Top 10 Prospects list this year, falling from No. 1 to No. 8.

Make no mistake, Dawkins is an excellent defensive infielder. He draws a lot of comparisons to Reds second baseman Pokey Reese, who has won the Gold Glove in the National League the past two years. But he can't hit with Reese at the moment, and Reese isn't really in the big leagues for his bat.

I think people probably got a little overly optimistic on Dawkins based on his 129 at-bat showing at Double-A Chattanooga in 1999. He batted .364 there, which was quite out of line with his previous numbers. He also held his own in the Pan American Games, hitting .273 with one of Team USA's eight home runs.

But there's a danger in reading too much into a small sampling, and that may have caused some expectations to soar in Dawkins' case. In a full season at Chattanooga last year, he slipped to .231 with six homers and 31 RBIs in 368 at-bats. He went hitless in six at-bats in the Olympics as well.

Dawkins is still just 21 and he has time to make some adjustments, but it might be a lot to expect he'll develop into an above average--or even average--offensive middle infielder. Of course, with a glove like his, he only needs to hit like Reese and not Alex Rodriguez to make himself valuable in the big leagues.

    Where, oh where has Robbie Morrison gone? Everything I read about the former Miami closer was that he was a hop, skip and a jump away from Kansas City, possibly as a youthful closer. This was a recently as preseason 2000. Now he isn't even listed in your Top Prospects of the organization. What is up with this guy? Injury and scandal seem the only two logical choices.

    Matt Veasey
    Philadelphia, Pa.

Not sure about the scandal part, but there was an injury involved. Morrison had surgery last August after a partial tear was discovered in his rotator cuff. The Royals expect that he'll be back at full strength this spring and still consider him a prospect.

Morrison wasn't quite as sharp last year as he was in his first two pro seasons, but much of his slippage is probably rooted in the shoulder injury. When he's healthy, he throws a low-90s fastball and a sharp curve, occasionally mixing in an average changeup. He could work his way into the Royals bullpen sometime this year, though he first must prove his shoulder is again sound.

Morrison projects as more of a setup man than a closer at this point, though considering all of the trouble the Royals had with their relief corps last season, that could be just as valuable an addition.

January 18, 2001

Jose Canseco's signing with the Angels this week barely made a blip on the baseball radar screen, but I think it was significant for a couple of reasons. One, a day or so later, the news that Mo Vaughn would be lost for up to half the season came out. That takes a chunk out of the Angels lineup. But there's another, more significant aspect to his minor league deal. Canseco is one of the only players out there who’s willing to take an incentive-filled contract. He's done this in the past, and it all really revolves around his inability to stay in the lineup. No one wants to pay full-time money to a player who spends half the season on the DL.

But unlike many players out there, Canseco is willing to sign these deals and earn what he gets. He can earn anywhere from $200,000 to $5 million this year. That's a big range. If he maxes out his deal, it likely will mean he had a monster year.

Canseco has had his tribulations in the past and has outgrown much of the off-field distractions that hampered him. I think it's a further sign of maturity on his part that he recognizes the spot he's now in and is willing to take a deal where he has to produce in order to be paid.

    It seems to me that everyone is missing the biggest story of the voting. Not Kirby Puckett or Dave Winfield getting in, nor Gary Carter or the pitchers getting shut out. No, I'm talking about Jim Deshaies getting his one vote. Any idea who did this, or why? And what's Deshaies' reaction?

    Marc Weinstein
    Montclair, N.J.

At times, baseball can take itself much too seriously. It is, after all, just a game, and it's supposed to be fun. Some folks decided that Deshaies' presence on the ballot provided a perfect opportunity to have some fun with the Hall of Fame balloting process. There was a strong campaign waged to keep Deshaies from getting shutout in the election, and a Jim Deshaies Hall of Fame HQ Website was launched.

I don't think it was because of the efforts on behalf of the Deshaies fans, but Houston Chronicle writer John Lopez included Deshaies’ name on his ballot. His reasoning is explained on the Deshaies site. (You can also find Deshaies' reaction there--he seemed to enjoy the whole thing.) Basically, Lopez wanted to give some credit to Deshaies for always being such a great guy and a class act during his playing career.

That's all well and good, but I don't think it was an appropriate use of a Hall of Fame ballot. Baseball needs humor, but there's a time and a place for everything. And voting for major awards and honors is not really the place for humor.

Jayson Stark, who writes for BA and ESPN, had this to say in summary of why he didn't vote for Deshaies, as tempting as it was.

"There's a certain responsibility that comes with the privilege of voting--a responsibility that stops you from voting for even the best guys you ever covered. So hard as I tried, I couldn't do it."

As great a person as Deshaies might have been, he was just an average major league pitcher. He posted an 84-95 career record and made a grand total of zero all-star teams. Nothing personal against Deshaies, who was actually a mainstay on my Strat-o-matic team for a few years in the prime of his career, but those numbers aren’t Hall of Fame numbers. No one could make that argument. And I don't think anyone is trying to. Not even John Lopez, the guy who voted for him.

Lopez wasn't the only guy to vote for a player that didn't merit the honor. Steve Bedrosian, Tom Browning, Ron Darling, John Kruk and Jose Rijo all got a single vote. Only Howard Johnson and Andy Van Slyke were completely shut out.

The right to vote is something that should be respected, both by those who have it and those who would like to have it. And that comes with a responsibility to vote on the merits of the players involved. If everyone had a little fun with the voting, and included a personal favorite, it's just possible one of those guys might get elected.

    I was browsing through the 2001 Baseball Almanac tonight and got to the Amateur Baseball section. I was reading about the Junior World Championships and noticed that the tournament all-star second baseman was a kid named Daniel Floyd from Australia. I also know that the Mariners’ Rookie team at Peoria had a 17-year-old Australian named Daniel Floyd playing for them. Are they the same person? And if so, what is a professional doing playing in an amateur tournament?

    Joe Hamilton
    Shoreline, Wash.

Joe is really reading his Almanac closely. That Daniel Floyd is the same guy. He took a two-week hiatus from the Arizona League in early August to go play in the World Junior Championships in Edmonton. He played very well there, too, hitting .417 with a homer and eight RBIs in 36 at-bats, and was named to the all-tournament team as a second baseman. Floyd played just four games at second base for the Mariners, who had Pedro Liriano at the position. He spent most of his Arizona League time in the outfield.

How could he play in an "amateur" tournament? Well, the rules for the juniors are similar to what they are for those over 18, and we saw numerous professional players in the Olympics last year and in the Pan American Games in 1999. It's just not as common for professional players to play in junior tournaments because there aren’t as many pros under 18 and teams are often quite protective of the players they do have under contract who are that young.

    I was wondering about the status of former Colorado first-round draft pick Mark Mangum, who was on your recent list of top draft picks who signed for large bonuses only to be traded away shortly thereafter. In this case, he was the player to be named later in the Dave Veres trade, making his way to Montreal a year to the day after being signed by the Rockies.

    The Expos have never presented Mangum as a prospect. For example, they hardly mentioned his acquisition back in 1998, he's never been invited to the major league camp and he still has not made the 40-man roster. And you would seem to agree as he is absent from your top 15 list. Yet he had posted decent statistics, in fact closely tracking those of Expos No. 1 prospect Donnie Bridges, until last season, when I lost track of him amid the organization's apparent lack of enthusiasm.

    What's the deal with him? The Expos farm system appears to be pretty depleted at this time, with all the players who have been rushed to the majors, so if Mangum was any sort of prospect, one would expect him to make your list. Your insight on this player would be welcome.

    Philippe Cousineau
    Hull, Quebec

Mangum went 18th overall in the 1997 draft more for his signability than his ability. He quickly came to terms for $875,000. That seems like a lot to you and me, but the only player chosen ahead of him to get a bonus of less than $1 million was lefthander John Curtice (No. 17), who took $975,000 from the Red Sox. That turned out to be a great investment on their part. Meanwhile, the No. 19 pick in the draft, lefthander Ryan Anderson, got $2.175 million from the Mariners.

Anderson's bonus was more than Curtice and Mangum got combined, but you have to say at this point it was a much better investment. And you can obviously say the same for Cardinals second-rounder Rick Ankiel, who got a $2.5 million bonus.

But back to Mangum. He never has shown the dominant stuff you look for in a first-round pick. He has become slightly less effective with each step up the ladder, and last year struck out just 55 hitters in 114 innings at Class A Jupiter. His control is solid and he doesn't give up a lot of hits, but something is missing. I think the Rockies figured that out pretty quick, which is why they dealt him off for Dave Veres in 1998. Can you imagine the Mariners having traded Anderson for Veres then?

Mangum is still just 22 and you can't give up on the guy at this point in his career. It's possible things will click into place for him. But right now he'll have to emerge from the pack as a pleasant surprise, because the top prospect label has been shed.

    Since he was traded after the White Sox list was published, I'm curious as to how Julio Ramirez fits into the Chicago outfield mix. His numbers last year were disappointing for a potential five-tool guy, and I was wondering just how far his stock had fallen.

    Brad Daves
    Apex, N.C.

Ramirez probably needs another season at Triple-A before he's ready to help at the big league level. And there are some questions at this point whether he'll ever develop into the player he was projected to become.

The problem for Ramirez is that he hasn't been able to turn his tools into baseball skills. It's obviously not as simple as just taking the field and letting your athleticism take over. If it were, players like Ramirez might be all-stars.

But the ability to control the strike zone is one of the key things that separates the five-tool washouts from the superstars. Ramirez simply doesn't have that part of the game down yet. Last year he walked just 21 times in 94 games. He also struck out 86 times in 350 at-bats, which works out to a strikeout every 4.1 at-bats. That pace is a small step in the right direction, after he struck out once every 3.8 at-bats in each of his two previous seasons. But he's got a ways to go.

Ramirez has a lot of natural ability and he's still just 23. He could yet put everything together. But the barometer of how far his stock has declined is the trade that sent him from Florida to Chicago for outfielder Jeff Abbott. Two years ago he either would have fetched a far greater return, or the Marlins would have refused to deal him.

January 16, 2001

I can't keep track any longer of how many questions we've received here about Toe Nash. It seems like everyone on the BA editorial staff has received a dozen questions from readers wondering if Peter Gammons' story on the phenom from the swamps was true or if it was a joke.

Well, as you saw on the front page of our Website today, he really exists. Whether he's worth the hype that’s suddenly surrounding him is to be determined, of course. We won't find out until June at the earliest. He'll likely be assigned to Rookie-level Princeton in the Appalachian League then. It could be an interesting summer, especially if he's half as good as he has been billed.

Now let's start today's questions by squelching a rumor about Yankees prospect Todd Noel.

    I have heard that [a Yankees fan publication] recently reported that Yankees prospect Todd Noel has undergone shoulder surgery and will miss the entire 2001 season. However, I have not seen anything about this from any other source. If Noel has undergone this surgery, doesn't it have to pretty much kill his prospect status?

    Kristian Hollingshead
    Shawnee, Okla.

I'll hold back the name of the magazine this story is alleged to have run in, because the Yankees emphatically deny that there is anything wrong with Noel. According to the team, Noel, who was the No. 10 prospect on our Top 10 Prospects list, is ready to go after missing most of the 2000 season.

Noel made just four starts last year before having arthroscopic surgery on the labrum in his right shoulder. When healthy he owns a top-notch fastball, and the Yankees are looking forward to seeing it again, real soon. Noel is likely to open the season back at high Class A Tampa, where he spent all of 1999 and threw his 10 innings last year as well. So rest easy, Noel fans. He's ready to pitch again.

    Chad Mottola had an impressive season at Triple-A Syracuse in the Blue Jays system last year. Do you envision him making any kind of an impact at the major league level this season?

    Bob Holden
    San Jose

Mottola was dealt to the Marlins today for cash considerations. The Blue Jays had to remove him from the 40-man roster to make room for outfielder Brian Simmons, acquired in the David Wells-Mike Sirotka deal.

The Marlins starting outfield is set with Cliff Floyd in left, Preston Wilson in center and Mark Kotsay in right. Mottola probably will battle fellow newcomer Jeff Abbott for playing time in Florida. Both of them could land roster spots, but if the starters stay healthy, neither will get a lot of playing time.

Mottola might be a good backup, because he can play defense and run as well as hit. He was the No. 5 overall pick in the 1992 draft by the Reds, and regarded at the time as a mid-first-round talent who moved up because of his willingness to sign. He came to terms quickly for a $400,000 bonus. Still, most would have forecast a more successful career for the Central Florida product.

He hit .309 with 33 homers and 102 RBIs and stole 30 bases at Syracuse last season. After nine years in the minor leagues, he's about due for a big league opportunity, and this year he just might get it. Still, Mottola might always be best known as the guy drafted one pick before Derek Jeter.

    What is the status of pitcher Josh Towers? He pitched well all year for the Rochester Red Wings, yet he was never promoted to Baltimore. To my surprise, he was passed over in favor of John Parrish and Ryan Kohlmeier. At 25, he is about the same age as Sidney Ponson and I would think he still has plenty of upside. Towers was not included on BA's Top 10 Orioles Prospects lists in 2000 or 2001. Is he not a prospect? If not, then why not?

    Jack Ortizano
    Steubenville, Ohio

Towers is a prospect, and he has a shot at making the Orioles roster this season. He started the Triple-A all-star game for the International League last year and finished with an 8-6 record and 3.47 ERA at Rochester. The most impressive number, however, was his 21 walks in 148 innings. That's less than a walk per start.

His outstanding control will be his ticket, because he doesn't throw real hard. He has worked his fastball from the high 80s to the low 90s, but it never will be a plus pitch for him. He also changes speeds well, but he'll need to improve his breaking ball if he's to have much success in the big leagues, so hitters have to look for something other than the straight stuff.

Towers might have made his big league debut last fall if not for a couple of minor injuries. Late in the season he slipped on the stairs at his apartment complex and fell on his pitching shoulder. With a little better luck this year, he should make his first appearance in Baltimore.

    I'm wondering about the status of Jose Rosado. No less than two publications I have seen do not place him in the Kansas City rotation this year. Can that be possible? From what I understood, he was supposed to be back 100 percent for the start of spring training. Has something changed that I am missing?

    Harry Stamper
    Houston

Rosado is coming off surgery last year, but he's on schedule and the Royals expect him to be part of their Opening Day rotation. It's always possible there could be some complication in spring training, but that could happen for any pitcher. It doesn't look like there's any reason to worry about Rosado in particular.

    Cristian Guerrero had such a terrific year in the minors. Why isn't he playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic?

    Bob Fraser
    S. Jamesport, N.Y.

The Dominican League is a high level of competition, featuring numerous major league players. Guerrero had his success in Rookie ball last year, after first washing out of low Class A. He hit .164 in 15 games in Beloit before being reassigned to extended spring training, where the Brewers kept him until June. Then they sent him back to the Pioneer League, where he had played the year before, and he rebounded with a .341 average and 12 homers in 255 at-bats. That was enough to earn him the No. 2 spot on the Pioneer League Top 10 Prospects list.

Guerrero has a lot of tools, but it's a fair guess that he would have been overmatched in the Dominican League at this stage of his career.

January 11, 2001

I don't normally include trivia questions in Ask BA, but someone sent in an interesting one this week, so I thought maybe I'd start off with it today. It's not particularly timely or connected to anything that's in the news today, so don't look for that when you're thinking about the answer.

Question: Who is the only Cy Young Award winner to have a son play in the major leagues?

Answer later.

    I just looked over your top 15 list for the Marlins and did not see Jason Grilli's name on the list. I must say I was very surprised. For a former first-round pick and a player who won his first major league start against the Braves, he could not have fallen off the prospect radar that quickly. He is 24 years old and ready for a big league spot. I know he was hurt last year and had his elbowed scoped but from what I hear his rehab is going well and he should be at full force when spring rolls around. Why was he not in the top 15 for Marlins prospects?

    Al Nadim
    Scottsdale, Ariz.

Grilli has been in freefall mode for a while now. In 43 career Triple-A starts over three seasons, he has gone 9-17, 6.16. In 225 innings, he has allowed 287 hits, 103 walks and struck out just 121. Those numbers don't scream out to me that he's ready for the big leagues. As Mike Berardino writes in our upcoming Prospects Handbook: "his stock has plummeted to the point where you wonder if he shouldn't just go by Grilli.com." Incidentally, Mike rates him No. 20 on the Marlins list in that book.

A year ago, Grilli was the No. 8 prospect on the Marlins list and he went to spring training with a shot at a major league job. But he imploded in the spring, posting an 11.17 ERA in four outings. He figured everything out for a moment, throwing no-hit ball for six innings in his first start of the season at Calgary. But then it was back to what has become normal for him. He went 1-4, 7.19 eight starts, yielding 58 hits in 41 innings. He also walked 23 and struck out 21.

The No. 4 pick in the 1997 draft, Grilli still owns a low-90s, sinking fastball. But his curve has regressed and his changeup needs work. He's beginning to fade out of sight in an organization where young pitchers like Brad Penny, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett and Wes Anderson look to be the future of the rotation.

    I've been a Baseball America subscriber for many years. I have often wondered about this issue and would like your thoughts. It came to mind again after reading Bill Ballew's excellent article in your current issue.

    High school players, particularly pitchers, are harder to project, are more expensive and also harder to sign than collegians due to their younger age and college options. Why do teams like the Braves draft so many more high school pitchers in the early rounds instead of college players who entail more certainty—even though they may have less upside potential?

    Raymond Khermouch
    Little Neck, N.Y.

The Braves just like the projectability of high school pitchers. And they seem to know what they're doing with them. Their drafting style wouldn't work in an organization that didn't teach the fundamentals of pitching as well as they do.

Back in June, I discussed the Braves' drafting philosophy and did a little research on their preference for high school players. Since 1991, when the Braves took "can't-miss" Arizona State center fielder Mike Kelly with the No. 2 pick in the draft, Atlanta has picked a grand total of three college players in the first five rounds of the draft. That’s three players in nine years (lefthander Carl Schutz, Southeastern Louisiana, third round, 1993; righthander Joe Nelson, San Francisco, fourth round, 1996; righthander Matt McClendon, Florida, fifth round, 1999) and none in the first two rounds.

I think there are a few factors that lead certain teams, like the Braves, to prefer high school players. They have the ability to mold the player from the start, before he's set in his habits. There has also been steady criticism from some professional quarters about the way college coaches overuse pitchers. So some teams find it appealing to get young arms before the miles have been piled up.

And I disagree that signing high school players is necessarily more expensive than signing college players. Sure, there are plenty of high school players who walk away with seven-figure bonuses every summer. But generally when a top high school player turns down pro ball to go to college, he signs for more money three years later than he was offered out of high school. For example, project Adam Wainwright as a college draftee in 2003 (he had committed to Georgia Tech). If he had the kind of college career one might expect given what he did in his pro debut, he'd certainly get more than the $1.25 million the Braves gave him this June.

As a group, high school players could be viewed as more expensive, however, when you factor in the risk. There’s a greater likelihood they'll fall by the wayside before reaching the big leagues, so the bonus money will go unrewarded. Still, there's no guarantee on a college player either. See Jason Grilli and his $1.875 million bonus above.

    Looking at the Top 10 list for the Braves, two things jumped out at me. First of all, how come Jung Bong is not one of the Top 15? He had his best season to date, yet this is the first time he has been omitted. Secondly, can you give a scouting report on Matt Wright? After being a 21st-round pick, it seems surprising that he would make the 13th spot already.

    Tom Nicholson
    Sarasota, Fla.

Bong is a player who could shoot back into the Top 15 next season, if he can just show the Braves what they want to see: an effective curveball. His numbers at low Class A Macon in 2000 were almost identical to what he did there the year before. Last year he went 7-7, 4.23, allowing 119 hits and 45 walks in 113 innings while striking out 90. In 1999, he went 6-5, 3.98, permitting 111 hits and 50 walks in 109 innings while striking out 100. He did perform significantly better in a late trial at high Class A Myrtle Beach in 2000, going 3-1, 2.18, surrendering 33 hits and seven walks in 41 innings while striking out 37.

But numbers aside, Bong basically got by last year with a low-90s fastball and an improved changeup. His curveball is still inconsistent, and when he shows he can spin the ball for strikes, he'll be a Top 15 prospect again, and maybe more. But he doesn't throw hard enough to get away without the curve, so it's important that he master that pitch.

Wright's case ties back in to the previous question. The Braves found an unpolished high school prospect, made a few adjustments, and suddenly they had a kid with an average fastball and a hard, sharp-breaking curve on their hands. He allowed just eight hits in 21 Rookie-level Gulf Coast League innings last summer, working in relief. This season he should get his shot in the rotation at Macon. He's got a chance to turn into a real bargain for the Braves, and he'll be a testament to their ability to teach young pitchers what to do once they sign.

    After the Johnny Damon trade, I've heard lots of talk about how Terrence Long will get to move down to a spot in the order that's more suited for him. But I'm wondering just how big a factor on-base percentage is for a leadoff hitter. More than likely, he'll only leadoff an inning once or twice a game. It's even plausible that your No. 9 hitter or your cleanup hitter end up leading off in a game more often, such is the randomness of the game.

    Why then is it so imperative that your leadoff hitter have such a high OBP? It seems as long as he's a good hitter, there shouldn't be too much of a problem, being that at least then you know he stands a higher chance of getting more at bats. Also, as a guy who had him in fantasy ball and was impressed with what he got me, I'm curious as to where he could end up in the lineup.

    John Domen
    College Park, Md.

There have been some studies done that have shown, or attempted to show, that batting order makes little impact on a team's record over the course of a season. If you have good players, it won't matter where they hit in the order, you'll score runs.

I think batting order can be overemphasized, but I don't completely agree with any study that says it's irrelevant. I still want my top on-base guy hitting ahead of my RBI guys. I don't think it's as important that he'll be leading off innings. I do think it's important that when he gets on base, he's ahead of the guys who drive the ball. And the guys who drive the ball should be doing it with someone on base ahead of them. That's what makes Long a better fit for a spot in the middle of the order, likely No. 6 in Oakland's case.

In any given game it's possible that your cleanup hitter or No. 9 hitter will lead off more innings than your leadoff man. But there's one inning every game when you know who will lead off. The first. I think it can be a big psychological and tactical advantage to score first. Over the course of 162 plate appearances (leading off the first inning every day), a hitter with a .336 on-base percentage (Long's last year) will reach base 54 times. A hitter with a .382 on-base percentage (Damon's last year) will reach base 62 times. That's eight more games in which you'll start the game with a runner on base.

In the average A's game last year, their first three hitters came up five times apiece, with batters 4-9 hitting four times. The leadoff hitter on a team that scores as frequently as Oakland does will get well over 700 plate appearances over the course of a year, and approximately 90 more plate appearances than the No. 6 hitter. Those extra plate appearances add up, and I want guys who get on base doing it as often as possible, setting the table for the heart of my order.

    With the loss of Juan Gonzalez, do you think a spot will be freed up for Eric Munson this year?

    Scott Warthen
    Lansdowne Md.

Gonzalez' absence frees up some of the DH at-bats that he took last year, though he spent a majority of his time in right field. Theoretically, those at-bats could fall to Munson. But they shouldn't.

Munson should be doing his hitting in the minor leagues this season. In 365 Double-A at-bats last year he batted .252 with 15 homers and 68 RBIs. He drew 39 walks and struck out 96 times. He’s simply not ready for Detroit.

Trivia Answer: Vern Law, who won the Cy Young Award in 1960, after going 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA for the Pirates. His son Vance played in the big leagues from 1980-91.

January 9, 2001

After a month of rumors that Johnny Damon was moving to Los Angeles, the Royals finally dealt him off yesterday. They did send him West, but he landed in Oakland of all places. I hadn't seen any speculation on that, so the deal was kind of a surprise for me when I heard about it. I like the Athletics a lot and what the deal does for them, even though they’re likely to lose Damon after the season.

Our first question today is from a Devil Rays fan, who's excited about Grieve coming to Florida.

    As a Rays fan, I really like the trade for Ben Grieve. His career OPS at pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum is 756 and on the road 931! Also the increasingly lefthanded-hitting lineup that the Rays are assembling bodes well due to the lack of lefthanded starters in the division (I see only Andy Pettitte and David Wells, and Wells may be gone). I know Grieve is not a particularly good outfielder but overall I like this trade. What do you think?

    Rick Watson
    Palm Harbor, Fla.

In case you missed the deal, or can't remember everyone that was traded, here's a quick refresher of who was involved in that three-way deal:

To the A's: OF Johnny Damon, SS Mark Ellis, player to be named (from Royals); RHP Cory Lidle (from Devil Rays).

To the Devil Rays: OF Ben Grieve, player to be named or cash (from A's).

To the Royals: RHP Roberto Hernandez (from Devil Rays); C A.J. Hinch, SS Angel Berroa (from A's).

I like this deal for the Devil Rays and A's, but the Royals could have done better. The Royals had to move Damon. They knew it, everyone knew it. Still there was enough interest they didn't get one GM putting a gun to their head and setting the price, like Cincinnati did to Seattle in the Ken Griffey Jr. deal last year.

Unfortunately, Kansas City GM Allard Baird seems to have put the gun to his head himself. He put himself into the mindset that the had to upgrade at closer and get a shortstop prospect and some catching depth. And he did. But when you're talking about dealing one of the marquee players on the market, I think you look for the best package available, not the best fit for a few holes in your organization.

I also think that teams put too much emphasis on finding a closer instead of building a solid bullpen. Every year closers emerge out of the woodwork around the league. They don't come with a pedigree, but when need dictates, they pile up the saves. And teams can win with guys like that, assuming they have the middle relievers in place to get to them. The Royals still don't have the bullpen depth they need, and Hernandez alone doesn't put them over the top. Only the Orioles and Phillies had worse bullpen ERAs in 2000 than the Royals (5.57). Adding Hernandez is a cosmetic move that doesn't really address the root of the problem. Kansas City would have been better adding several solid middle relievers and letting one of them work his way into the closer's role. They did previously add Doug Henry, but they're still not close to where they need to be.

I don't think it's possible in a situation like that to get equal value, but the Royals could have done better than this. They do get points for not letting the situation stretch out longer than they did, but that's about it.

I think the key for Kansas City could turn out to be the young shortstop, just like it did for the Mariners in the Griffey deal. Hernandez gets the headlines now, but don't be surprised if a year from now everyone is pointing to Angel Berroa, who like Antonio Perez spent the 2000 season in the Class A California League, as the real return for Damon. The problem is, Berroa's trade value now doesn't warrant dealing a player the caliber of Damon.

The A's traded off the security of having Grieve under contract for three more seasons for the one-year upgrade of Damon. He seems as determined as Alex Rodriguez to play out the last year of his contract–Scott Boras is the agent for both players–so it's likely this really is a one-year arrangement for the A's. But they already were a contender, and Damon might put them over the top. Terrence Long has made steady improvement and was attempting to adjust to the leadoff role, but he's just not a typical leadoff hitter. His on-base percentage was just .336 last year—only nine points higher than Damon's batting average. Damon's presence will allow Oakland to push Long down in the order to a spot more suited to his abilities.

Damon is also a massive upgrade defensively in left field. Grieve, to put it kindly, is an indifferent outfielder. If you want to be blunt you can call him brutal. Either way, he's not really the guy you want out in left field in the late innings of a one-run game.

What the A's have done with this deal is steal any thunder back from the Rangers, who still don't have the pitching to seriously contend. Oakland is the most complete team in the American League West, and the A's should start the season as the favorite.

But the original question was about the deal from Tampa Bay's angle, so let's look at the Devil Rays. When you look at the deal as Ben Grieve and a player to be named for Hernandez and Cory Lidle, I like it for the Devil Rays and might even more depending on who the player to be named is. Grieve is a good hitter who would have a shot at a batting title in the near future if he could run just a little. He has nice power potential and I think he'll always put up solid numbers. I've always liked Grieve, but I think his game is a little too one-dimensional. He hits. That's it. He can't run, he can't field and he led the AL in grounding into double plays last year. Those little things add up.

Still, the Devil Rays were the worst team in the AL at crossing the plate last year, and Grieve will help them boost their run production at least a little. A rebound by Greg Vaughn and some production at third base, either from a Vinny Castilla comeback or rookie Aubrey Huff, will make a big difference as well.

This trade is really the first significant move the Devil Rays have made this offseason. They've got some nice talent in the pipeline and seem content to wait for it, after panicking previously and picking up a bunch of high-priced veterans. It could be another long year for Devil Rays fans in 2001, but if they stay the course they should turn the corner before long. And Grieve will be hitting long after Hernandez fades away.

    The Indians were set to give their first-round pick to the Giants for signing Ellis Burks. Will it now go to Tigers instead? If Juan Gonzalez leaves a year from now, they'll get two high picks as compensation. What a great signing for Cleveland.

    Andy Wiesner
    Sun Prairie, Wis.

Assuming the signing becomes official and Gonzalez becomes an Indian, the Tigers would receive Cleveland's second-round pick. The Giants are still in line for the Indians' first-rounder, because Burks grades out higher on the Elias compensation rankings (85.455 vs. 83.457).

It could prove to be a nice pickup for the Indians, if Gonzalez' back is healthy. He has the incentive of playing for a contract after realizing that teams weren't going to line up to sign him just because he has been productive in the past. Of course, playing for a contract didn't get him very far last year. If Gonzalez bounces back, he could replace Manny Ramirez nicely in the Indians lineup. But I'm a little suspicious that there's more to his back troubles than has been let on, and that could be part of the reason that he's the last major free agent to sign.

As for the bonus picks for the Indians next year if Gonzalez leaves, remember, they have to offer him arbitration first. The deal I've heard discussed includes a mutual option for 2002. If the labor stoppage happens as we all fear, Gonzalez would be stupid not to take the option season. If, however, the Indians don't pick it up and let him hit the market, they're not likely to then come back and offer him arbitration, because he'll likely get as much or more in arbitration than he would have if the team picked up his option. So if the Indians are hesitant to pick up the option because of financial reasons, then they probably wouldn't want to risk offering arbitration for the same reasons. And no arbitration offer means no draft picks if Gonzalez moves on as a free agent.

    How could Nebraska's Shane Komine not receive any preseason recognition from Baseball America? As a member of the Butler team that was defeated by Komine in the first round of the 2000 NCAA regional tournament, I saw an extremely talented pitcher with very healthy numbers (11-4, 2.24, 6 CG, 124.2 IP, 159 K). It seems to me that an outstanding college pitcher is being left off your college All-America teams because he does not project to be an outstanding professional player. Could you please give me some insight as to why Komine was left off all three preseason teams?

    Andrew Williams
    Indianapolis

I'll let John Manuel field this one, both because he's our college guy and he loves Shane Komine.

Andrew, Shane Komine is maybe my favorite college baseball player, and while we get hundreds of questions like this every year about our preseason All-America teams, I decided to answer this one on Ask BA because it's about Komine. Shane's a little righthander who has put up fantastic numbers for two straight years at Nebraska, and he has done as much as anyone other than coach Dave Van Horn, it seems, to turn the image of that program around. Imagine Hawaii's team last year if it had kept native sons Komine, Keoni DeRenne, Justin Wayne and Dane (and his brother Duke) Sardinha at home. Unbelievable.

Unfortunately, Shane is 5-foot-9 or so, 165 pounds. He has four pitches he throws for strikes and great velocity–last year three different opposing coaches told me three different pitches were Komine's best pitch. But he's not the prototypical scouts' choice for a pitcher's body type. Our preseason All-America team is voted on by scouting directors, who see (or have reports on) more players than we or any college coaches or SIDs ever could see. They’re unbiased talent evaluators, and that's what our preseason team is trying to gauge: the best, most talented players in the country.

Any media outlet, website or kook could put together a preseason All-America team based on who's back from the previous year and use the previous year's stats. We choose to be different and to fit our preseason All-America team into the Baseball America player-development rubric. Shane got more votes from scouting directors than we thought, but because of his size–and he knows this better than I do–he's going to have to keep proving himself to scouts at every turn.

Here's one voice saying he will. But I'm partial.

January 4, 2001

I know some of you are eager to get back to the Top 10 lists, so you'll be happy to know they resume tomorrow, with the Braves kicking things off for the National League. We had to take a few days off to play up our college coverage a little bit.

We've also got another Friday chat for you tomorrow. I'll be taking your questions, as I had planned to do the Friday before Christmas before we were derailed by technical troubles. We should be in for smooth sailing tomorrow. And next week, BA editor Allan Simpson will be chatting. So save up your draft questions for him, because he's the one who should be able to answer them.

We've got a variety of questions here today. Enjoy, and I'll see you tomorrow in the chat room.

    It looks like there could be a pretty good crop of pitchers in the Midwest League for 2001. How would you rank Joe Torres, Mike Stodolka and Matt Wheatland?

    Ralph Lee
    Peoria, Ill.

It will be tough for the Midwest League to match 2000's crop of pitchers, with Josh Beckett, Juan Cruz and Jacob Peavy as the headliners, not to mention guys like Gerik Baxter, Mike Nannini and Dennis Tankersley. But it might happen in 2001, with Torres, Stodolka and Wheatland leading the way. And I'd rank them in that order.

Torres, the top prospect in the Angels organization, likely will make his full-season debut at Cedar Rapids. He went 4-1 with a 2.54 ERA last year at short-season Boise, where he was facing lineups every bit as dangerous as the average MWL club will field.

Stodolka, a lefthander like Torres, will pitch for Burlington, a new Royals affiliate. The No. 7 prospect in Kansas City's system, he’s making the jump from the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He made one start at the end of last summer for Charleston, W.Va., the Royals' former low Class A affiliate.

Wheatland tore through the GCL and finished his first year at short-season Oneonta in the New York-Penn League, where he wasn't quite as dominant. He'll head the West Michigan rotation.

Several other pitchers are likely to appear in the MWL. Cardinals first-rounder Blake Williams had an outstanding debut at short-season New Jersey. He should be at Peoria, where lefthander Chris Narveson, a second-rounder in 2000, could join him. Righthander Robert Stiehl, the Astros' first-round pick last year, made one appearance for Michigan after five dominant outings in the NY-P. He should be the closer for Michigan if the Astros send him back there. Houston, however, now has two low Class A teams, so it's possible he'll be sent to Lexington in the South Atlantic League.

One other possible 2000 first-rounder is lefthander Mark Phillips, who could be at Fort Wayne. He displayed a mid-90s fastball in the Rookie-level Pioneer League after being selected with the ninth overall pick in the draft.

    While Todd Hundley seems to buy the Cubs a couple of years, they still need to develop a catcher from within the system. Among Yoon-Min Kweon, Jeff Goldbach and Ryan Jorgensen, which one seems to have the best chance of developing into a major league catcher?

    Dan Green
    Cardiff, Calif.

Give the slight edge at this point to Goldbach, but it's much too early to call. Jim Callis, who's writing the Cubs Top Prospects list, said that none of the three made his Top 10, but the Cubs like all of them.

Goldbach projects as the best hitter of the group, though he struggled with the bat at Class A Daytona last season. Jorgensen is the best defender, and Kweon provides the best combination of offense and defense. Callis ranks them in that order.

The problem for the Cubs is that they are all about the same age, and it will be tough to spread them out enough to get them all a starting job. All three were born in 1979 (Kweon, Jan. 22; Jorgensen, May 4; Goldbach, Dec. 20) so they're within 11 months of each other. Kweon and Jorgensen were both at short-season Eugene last year, and low Class A Lansing would be a logical stop for both, but obviously there can be only one starter there. That would push one of them to Daytona, but the way Goldbach hit last season, he might need to repeat there.

So the Cubs have a bit of a catching backlog in the lower levels of the system, which is a problem most teams would be glad to have. If Hundley can give them a couple of solid seasons, that will allow this trio time to develop, and perhaps one will step forward as the favorite at that point.

    I have a bet on whether the Dodgers or Giants have had larger attendance figures over the past 10 years? I'm sure it's the Dodgers, but I need some backup. Can you give me a list of their attendance figures or point me in the right direction?

    Ted Shirley
    Los Angeles

It's the Dodgers in a landslide. Last year was the first time the Giants had outdrawn the Dodgers since the teams both moved to California in 1958. Here are their home numbers over the last 10 years:

DodgersGiants
19913,348,1701,737,479
19922,473,2661,560,998
19933,170,3932,606,354
19942,279,3551,704,608
19952,766,2511,241,500
19963,188,4541,413,687
19973,319,5041,690,831
19983,089,2011,925,634
19993,095,3462,078,365
20003,011,5393,319,340

    In going over your AL organization Top 10 Prospects lists, I was very surprised by two player rankings. I was shocked that Shawn Sonnier didn't make the Royals Top 10. He throws in the mid-90s, is considered the closer of the future and has had great numbers. Why so low a ranking? Also, Kevin Mench was No. 4 with Texas. I consider him one of the two or three best prospects in all the minor leagues, so why was he No. 4?

    Michael Stern
    Mohegan Lake, N.Y.

Sonnier was No. 11 on the Royals list, so he was a near-miss there. The Royals have several other pitchers ahead of him on their list, like lefthanders Chris George, Jimmy Gobble and Stodolka, and righthanders Mike MacDougal, Jeff Austin and Kyle Snyder. All six were first-round picks. Their presence has more to do with Sonnier's placement at No. 11 than any knock on his game.

Though Sonnier was signed as a nondrafted free agent in 1998, he has shown he has early-round stuff. He gets hitters out with a mid-90s fastball, a tough slider and a split-finger fastball. He could help out in Kansas City as soon as this season.

Mench is an outstanding prospect. If I were compiling my own Rangers list, I'd be awful tempted to move him ahead of righthander Jovanny Cedeno (No. 2) and second baseman Jason Romano (No. 3). I'm not quite sold on him as one of the two or three best prospects in the game, though if he does to the Texas League what he did to the Florida State League, I'll be right there with you.

    I am a fan of Cody Ross, an outfielder in the Tigers organization. Cody bats right and throws left. I know this is pretty rare combination. Does this make any kind of difference to teams/scouts? Who are his role models at the major league level?

    Michael Walby
    New Baltimore, Mich.

I don't see any reason a team would avoid lefty throwers who bat righty. It is an unusual combination, though.

Whether one wants to recommend Rickey Henderson as a role model is a good question, but he's the first big leaguer who jumps to mind that fits the model. There were four other position players in the majors who did the same: White Sox outfielder Jeff Abbott (recently traded to the Marlins), Phillies first baseman Brian Hunter, Mariners first baseman Brian Lesher and Royals first baseman David McCarty.

January 2, 2001

Welcome back to Ask BA. I hope everyone had a nice holiday break. And I hope you were more fortunate than I was at avoiding the Christmas cold. I’m just getting over my second one in two weeks. Not a lot of fun.

There were a couple of questions on the competitive-balance draft and my impressions of it. I'm going to refer you to Jim Callis' column on the subject, because it's almost exactly what I would have said—it's not going to help anything in the long run.

Let's kick off the 2001 Ask BA season with a couple of questions about the Mariners Top 10 list, which ran last week on the site.

    I see that you did the Mariners Top 10 Prospects list this year. I recall that last year there was quite a lot of mail criticizing BA for not including outfielder Alex Fernandez on the list. I wonder what your thinking about him is, including any info you have on the controversy surrounding his age.

    I'm also wondering what your views are on the prospect status of two pitchers who had good minor league seasons in 2000: Greg Wooten and Ryan Franklin. I also see that Dennis Stark performed well in limited action at Double-A New Haven and that he's on the 40-man roster as well. Are any (or all) of these three pitchers good bets to help Seattle in the upcoming season?

    Dan Skidmore-Hess
    Derry, N.H.

I've heard rumors about Fernandez' age for a while. Age alone isn't the be-all, end-all of prospecting, but it seems like a lot of people keyed in to Fernandez in 1999 based almost completely on his age. His .282 average and 14 home runs aren't bad for an 18-year-old in high Class A. If he really was 18, that is. If there's any truth to the age rumors, and he was, say, 21 when he did that, it's certainly nothing special for the California League.

Jump ahead to 2000, and Fernandez appeared in over his head at Double-A New Haven. He batted just .254 with four homers in 350 at-bats, and drew just 11 walks. He has some tools, but those numbers raise a lot of doubts. I'd guess Fernandez will get a second shot at Double-A this season, and we'll get a lot better read on where he stands as a prospect after 2001.

Wooten and Franklin both ranked in the Top 30, which you can find in our Prospect Handbook when it comes out next month. Wooten had a tremendous 2000 season, but he'll be 27 when the season opens and he doesn't throw very hard. His biggest challenge, however, is the sheer number of other pitching prospects ahead of him. Joel Pineiro and Ryan Anderson are both still waiting for their chances, and others like Kevin Hodges, Rob Ramsay and Franklin all look good for a swing-man role.

Franklin has been in the organization since 1993, and his opportunity might finally be at hand. Of course, he's stacked up like everyone else there. He needs a big spring training to give him the inside track. If he picks up where he left off in the Olympics last fall, he shouldn't have any trouble. Franklin led all pitchers in Sydney with three wins and threw 8 1/3 innings without allowing a hit or a run.

Stark has had some misfortune on the injury front over the past few seasons, going down again early in the 2000 season after getting off to a strong start. He almost certainly will be blocked unless he really gets hot at Triple-A Tacoma.

    The Mariners picked up Jason Grabowski from the Rangers organization. Last year he was rated their No. 5 prospect, but this year he isn't listed on either the Mariners or the Rangers list. Can you tell me how he and Miguel Villilo compare? Does either have a future with the M's in the next few years?

    A.J. Platzer
    Tacoma

Grabowski is another near miss on the Mariners Top 15, and he didn’t make the Rangers Top 15 before Texas lost him on waivers. He has a chance to help in Seattle soon, though he might need some time at Triple-A first. He had a solid season at Double-A Tulsa last year, hitting .274 with 19 homers and 90 RBIs. He always has been willing to take a walk and worked 88 free passes in 2000.

Grabowski has kind of a funky throwing motion and he led Texas League third basemen with 40 errors last year. He doesn't hit quite enough to compensate for that, so he'll have to work out his defensive shortcomings. He has played both shortstop and catcher in the past, so he has some interesting possibilities as a utilityman if he's unable to settle in at third base.

I think the Mariners see Villilo as a higher-ceiling all-around player in comparison. He's got a strong arm and has a chance to become an above-average defensive third baseman. He's a switch-hitter who put up a .347 average in the Rookie-level Arizona League last year. But he's also a couple of years behind Grabowski.

Both have a chance to help the Mariners. I don't think Grabowski will hold off Villilo when the time comes that he's ready for the big leagues. But perhaps Villilo's big advantage at this point is that he hasn't had enough time to show his faults. As much as the Mariners like him, there's a lot that can happen over the next three years or so that it will take him to reach the big leagues. Grabowski, on the other hand, is already almost there.

    What has happened to Aramis Ramirez? Is he still considered a top prospect or has his bad luck in the majors dropped him a notch?

    William Ashley
    Memphis

I still have some hope for Ramirez. He's only 22 and I think we'd all view him a lot differently if the Pirates hadn't rushed him to the big leagues in 1998. He has the talent to hit, but he must focus to be successful.

In 1999, Ramirez spent most of the season at Triple-A Nashville, hitting .328 with 21 homers in 460 at-bats. He also walked 73 times and struck out 56. Last season, he split his time between Nashville and Pittsburgh, hitting .353 with four homers in 167 Triple-A at-bats and .256 with six homers in 254 big league at-bats. The odd thing, though, was that he drew 21 walks and struck out 62 times combined. That's a pretty big swing from one season to the next in a comparable number of at-bats.

If Ramirez can regain his grip on the strike zone and keep on top of that in the big leagues, I think he can become the player many envisioned before his initial struggles in '98. Because he has shown a willingness to walk in the past (entering last season he had nearly as many walks as strikeouts in his minor league career), I think it's reasonable to think he can do it.


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