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Minor League Notebook

By John Manuel
March 10, 2004

Baseball America didn't come up with the idea for ranking prospects. Clubs do their own in-house rankings, projecting when their farmhands will reach the major leagues.

Spring training is a time to begin judging whether the projections for players made in the offseason were accurate. In several cases around the minors, though, high-profile prospects who had been expected to shed the "potential" tag by now looked headed for the minor leagues when camp is over.

In conjunction with Alan Schwarz' feature on major leaguers in search of redemption, here's a look at minor league players in search of the same kind of breakthrough.

Left Side Not Left Out

When the Braves signed Vinny Castilla to a two-year contract prior to the 2002 season, Wilson Betemit was 20.

The Dominican was still playing shortstop and was just coming off his first stab at full-season ball, a rousing success. He hit .277-7-43 at Class A Myrtle Beach--a notorious pitcher's park--in 318 at-bats before tearing up the Double-A Southern League after a July promotion. He hit .355-5-19 in 183 at-bats at Greenville, and he finished the season by getting a cup of coffee in Atlanta.

The Braves' signing of Castilla gave Betemit two years to hone his game, make the move from shortstop to third base and get more experience before coming to Atlanta.

But now that Castilla has gone back to Colorado, Betemit remains unready for the big league job that could have been his. Former utilityman Mark DeRosa has played fewer than 100 career games at third base but enters spring training as Atlanta's starter at the position.

Betemit, meanwhile, is ticketed for a return to Triple-A Richmond for a third season, and the first two haven't stood out. In 821 at-bats, he has hit just .255-16-99. Worse yet, his second season showed little sign of progress; while he hit for a bit more power, his walk-strikeout rate worsened.

Yet the Braves insist they have not forgotten about Betemit, who missed out on playing winter ball when he strained ligaments in his thumb during instructional league.

"The number one thing to remember is youth is on his side," Braves farm director Dayton Moore said. "He will play the whole year at 22. If he were an American, he would have been a college junior last year and would have gone one-one (first round, first overall) in the draft."

Betemit moved to third base prior to the 2003 season, and defense hasn't been his problem. He has soft hands and plenty of arm for third. His poor plate discipline and lack of power, however, have held him back.

He showed up to spring training in good shape and with his thumb fully healed, Moore said. Now he has to match his potential with production.

"With every player and every position, it's important in today's game that a player can help you win games offensively," Moore said. "We consider Wilson an offensive player, and expect him to fit the profile for the position.

"We're committed to him. This is just going to be his fourth full season, and I really feel like he's going to have a good year. His body language is good; he's confident."

The Braves also have confidence in another talented hitter who plays on the left side of the infield, Kelly Johnson. Like Betemit, Johnson had a breakout season in 2001, hitting .289-23-66 at low Class A Macon, drawing 71 walks (with a .404 on-base percentage) and stealing 25 bases.

In two years since then, Johnson's career has stagnated, and he hit just .275-6-45 at Greenville in 2003. The organization hopes a move to third base or the outfield will help jump-start his bat. Like Betemit, Johnson is just 22, and like Betemit he's moving off shortstop.

"He played third base in the Arizona Fall League, and he's taking a lot of fly balls in the outfield this spring," Moore said. "Right now, his best position is in the batter's box. Because of the position change, he'll go back to Greenville this year.

"He's still learning to center the ball on the bat when it's in different areas of the strike zone. With added strength, his power will come when he learns to do that. Right now, he's more of a middle-of-the-field hitter."

Betemit and Johnson have plenty of competition for at-bats at third base in the organization, with Andy Marte emerging last summer as the Braves' top prospect.

"The thing abut both Kelly and Wilson is, they both are athletic enough to play other positions if they have to," Moore said. "It's no different from Chipper Jones when he was coming up; in 1994, we had him ready to play left field. If they're as good as we think they can be, we'll find a place for them."

Blocked By Themselves

Like Betemit, Joe Borchard has spent the last two seasons in Triple-A. The White Sox have the 25-year-old outfielder ticketed for Charlotte again barring unforeseen circumstances, such as an injury to big leaguer Aaron Rowand.

So far, Borchard is the one who has sustained the injury, with a mild right quadriceps strain that has him day-to-day in spring training. Even though he has spent the last two years in the International League, the White Sox still consider Borchard a player who needs at-bats against top-level pitching.

"He's been a baseball-only player for just three years of his entire life," assistant general manager Rick Hahn said of the former Stanford quarterback. "He has fewer than 1,500 career at-bats in the minor leagues, so I would not say this is a make-or-break year for him."

While Borchard projected to be Stanford's starting QB in 2000 and might have played his way into the first round of the NFL draft, he's not Drew Henson, who started at Michigan and performed at the position. No one expects Borchard to take his football mentality back to the gridiron, but the White Sox would like it if he throttled it back a bit on the diamond.

"Joe's an intelligent guy, and I think a key for him is to just relax, let his talent take over and have fun," Hahn said. "He gets himself into trouble when he's just over-analytical. His intensity gets in the way sometimes; he really tinkered with his swing and refined things too much instead of just trusting his raw ability."

Raw ability--specifically raw power and enough athletic ability to play a passable center field--is why the White Sox gave Borchard his then-record $5.3 million bonus. Borchard short-circuited his power last year, though, slumping to a .398 slugging percentage at Charlotte as he repeatedly changed batting stances. His swing often left him swinging off his front foot, negating his power.

Borchard wanted to play winter ball, but Hahn says a conversation with GM Kenny Williams--like Borchard a former two-sport player at Stanford--helped persuade him to stay home and effectively chill for the winter.

When the quad strain heals, Borchard will go back to trying to win a job in Chicago, but the White Sox expect him to join rising prospect Jeremy Reed in the outfield at Charlotte. Hahn said the two will split duties in center field and right field.

"There's no set rotation, but they will both see time in center," he said. "No one's saying one's a center fielder and one is not at this point."

Can Karp Compete?

Righthander Josh Karp was part of the historic 2001 draft, the one that started with Joe Mauer and Mark Prior and later included Mark Teixeira. Karp, out of UCLA, went one pick after Teixeira, sixth overall, to the Expos, back when Jeffrey Loria still owned the team.

Drafting a polished college pitcher is supposed to pay quick dividends, but Karp isn't even in big league camp this spring, his third in pro ball. Nevertheless, Expos minor league pitching coordinator Brent Strom sees big things for Karp this season. And that's hard for Strom, a Southern California alumnus, to admit.

"Josh has really never been a winning pitcher," Strom said. Karp is 15-16, 3.99 as a pro, though he won 23 of his 30 decisions at UCLA. "I really think he's just learning to compete. When he was in the Eastern League finals with us for Harrisburg two years ago, he said that was the first time he had ever really played for anything.

"That wouldn't have been the case if he had gone to USC."

College rivalry aside, Karp is under Strom's care now, and Strom believes not getting an invitation to major league camp has made Karp work harder. He said the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder came to camp in better shape than ever.

"I really think he's going to have a breakout year--his body has matured and he has matured," Strom said. "He's throwing as good as I've seen him. He's never shown us the 95-96 mph fastball he showed in college, but part of that is because he threw too many changeups. His changeup is a plus pitch, but he got to the point where he was throwing it 50 percent of the time, and it plays better if he throws his fastball more."

Karp will report to Triple-A Edmonton this season.

QUICK HITS

Moore said hard-throwing righthander Jose Capellan was showing serious stuff this spring, putting himself on the fast track to Atlanta. Rated the organization's No. 11 prospect, Capellan has come back from Tommy John surgery he had in 2001 and was throwing in the high 90s this spring. Capellan made impressive progress in instructional league after working with pitching guru Bill Fischer, helping to make his mechanics more consistent. His power arm sticks out in an uncertain Braves bullpen picture. "He's a special player, and special players with special tools can move fast," Moore said.

Reports out of Blue Jays camp had righthander Jason Arnold looking more like the pitcher the Jays thought they had acquired last winter. Arnold, the Yankees' 2001 second-round pick out of Central Florida, has lowered his arm angle to more of a three-quarters delivery, and was back delivering fastballs in the 92-93 range (and touching 94) rather than the 87-91 he showed more last season.

Strom also expressed enthusiasm for righthander Clint Everts, the Expos' first-round pick in 2002. Everts is filling out physically (though Strom could not confirm a report that the 19-year-old has added two inches to his 6-foot-2 frame in the offseason) and throwing harder in minor league camp. "He's got a short, quick, compact arm action, he can really whip it pretty good. He's showing three plus pitches in camp," Strom said. Everts should open at low Class A Savannah, where he finished 2003. Lefthander Mike Hinckley is ticketed for high Class A Brevard County, even though he dominated there in four starts last year (4-0, 0.72, 1 BB in 25 IP). "If he starts at Double-A, he might move to the big leagues too fast," Strom joked.

Mariners officials were mum on the departure of righthander Rett Johnson from camp, except to say Johnson followed proper procedure when he left two days ago to attend to a personal matter. Club officials gave no reason for Johnson's departure and no timetable for his return.

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