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Twelve Breakout Players

Prospect Pulse By John Manuel
September 15, 2004

Some players seem to come out of nowhere, but of course, Baseball America probably knew about them before.

Jeff Bajenaru and Ryan Garko were college All-Americans. Travis Bowyer was in the Twins' Top 30 two years ago, and Ian Bladergroen, Raul Tablado and Brandon Moss, among others, appeared in the depth charts in our Prospect Handbook.

But none of them, according to BA, ranked among their organizations' Top 30 prospects. They are among the 12 players left off Top 30s last offseason who, after breakout 2004 campaigns, have made sure they won't be left out in 2005.

Jeff Bajenaru, rhp, White Sox. Left off the 40-man roster after recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2002, Bajenaru has regained his heavy sinking fastball in the low 90s and good splitter. The former Oklahoma All-American struck out 67 in just 54 minor league innings and posted a 1.51 ERA to earn a call to Chicago. He gave up a game-winning hit to Ichiro Suzuki in his first big league game, though.

Ian Bladergroen, 1b, Mets. Don't forget about Bladergroen just because a wrist injury (ligament damage) ended his season in July. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound slugger was doing it all in a .342-13-74 season for low Class A Capital City. "He was aggressive and would chase a bit like a young slugger," said Charleston (W.Va.) manager Ken Joyce, "but he had a real nice swing and legitimate big-time power. His swing path put the bat in the (strike) zone for a long time."

Travis Bowyer, rhp, Twins. Two years ago, Bowyer went from throwing an average fastball to a blazer that reached 96. He needed time to harness the pitch, but he found the range in 2004, dominating the Florida State League before a promotion to Double-A New Britain, where he shackled Eastern League hitters. He touched 99 mph this season and maintains his velocity over two- and three-inning outings, helping him hold opponents to a .182 average during a 9-3, 1.29 season.

"He was more consistent with his fastball velocity," said Rob Antony, the Twins' director of baseball operations. "He needs to be more consistent with his command, but he has heavy sink to his fastball and a decent breaking ball. He really had a breakout year for us."

Rajai Davis, of, Pirates. All he does is hit . . . and run . . . and play good defense in center field. It's hard to understand why Davis, 23, hasn't moved more quickly, as he had .320/.396/.433 career numbers entering the season. He won the Carolina League batting title with a .314/.388/.424 season and led the league with 57 stolen bases in 71 attempts. Davis is a 65 runner (if not better on some clubs' scales) and has enough strength in his compact 5-foot-11, 180-pound body to drive balls to the gaps. With his ability to take walks (59) and make consistent, hard contact (just 60 strikeouts this season), he fits the profile of a speedy leadoff-hitting center fielder.

Jairo Garcia, rhp, Athletics. The A's have prized Garcia's arm and mid-90s fastball but needed to see him healthy to know what he could do with his good curveball and surprising changeup as well. Consider this season as evidence, and Garcia blistered his way from the low Class A Midwest League to the American League, striking out 102 along the way in 62 innings. One scout that saw Garcia during his brief stint with Oakland said his three-pitch mix and arm action evoked Eric Gagne, though his stuff is a grade or two below that of the amazing Dodgers closer.

Ryan Garko, c/1b, Indians. In his last three years at Stanford, Garko (a) consistently produced in the middle of a lineup that made three College World Series, and (b) consistently had his catching skills questioned. Nothing changed in 2004, as Garko hit in the middle of three lineups, bashing his way to Triple-A.

"He was a water buffalo as a junior in college," said an AL scout who saw Garko as an amateur and again this year in the Carolina League. "He deserves a lot of credit for making his body a lot better. He also has a track record as a hitter, especially in clutch situations."

Garko's makeup and grinding nature are well suited for pro ball, and his intelligence, leadership skills and savvy maximize his tools behind the plate, where he lacks smoothness and agility. He won't displace young star Victor Martinez in Cleveland, but he'll hit enough to earn time at catcher, first and DH soon.

Maicer Izturis, ss, Expos. The Indians had no room in their deep system for outfielder Ryan Church and Izturis, so they traded the pair to the Expos for lefthander Scott Stewart. The trade provided two starters for Montreal's September lineup, with Izturis being the most pleasant surprise. Like older brother Cesar, the Dodgers' shortstop, Maicer is gifted with the glove and made impressive progress with the bat in 2004. He'll never be confused with a power hitter, but Izturis makes consistent contact and has learned the value of a walk (57 in 99 Triple-A games).

Ian Kinsler, ss, Rangers. After hitting .402 in the Midwest League, Kinsler showed he's for real by hitting .300 in the second half with Double-A Frisco in the Texas League. Overall, he hit 50 doubles and had an on-base plus slugging (OPS) of 1.010 in 501 at-bats. Scouts say his swing-from-the-heels approach at the plate may not translate to similar power in the big leagues, but he's an average defensive shortstop with a solid bat, and he's not far from contributing in Texas. Not bad for a 17th-round pick in 2003.

Brandon Moss, of, Red Sox. An eighth-round pick in 2002, Moss had an ordinary pro debut last year, but his 2004 season was anything but ordinary. His tools don't wow scouts, but his bat will play. His .422 performance in 83 FSL at-bats capped a season with impressive overall numbers (.353-15-111).

Hayden Penn, rhp, Orioles. The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder started the year in the same rotation as Adam Loewen, Brian Finch and Chris Ray, all drafted in the first three rounds. A fifth-rounder in 2002, Penn, 19, rocketed past them to Double-A on the strength of a sinking, running fastball that reached 93 mph, a curveball he threw for strikes and the polish to know how to use them. "He broke a few bats here," Joyce said. "I was glad when he was gone."

Raul Tablado, 3b-ss, Blue Jays. A fourth-round pick in 2001, Tablado has taken longer than he or the organization would have liked to find his power stroke. He found it this year, leading the FSL with a .582 slugging percentage and ranking third in home runs (21) in an injury-interrupted season. He pounds mistakes and has enough athletic ability and power to either make the move to third or to go to second base, but scouts agree he shouldn't be a shortstop.

Sean Tracey, rhp, White Sox. With Brady Anderson retired, Tracey carries the banner for UC Irvine, and his end-of-season performance in the Carolina League bodes well for his chances of replacing Anderson as the Anteaters' big league alumnus. Though he has a funky arm action and a mechanical delivery, Tracey repeats them well enough to show average command of three major league pitches. His fastball has touched 96 mph and sits at 92-93 with good life, and his 84-86 mph slider and sinking changeup also earn above-average grades from scouts. He finished second in the CL in ERA and strikeouts.

STRONG BEATS

When the Giants moved third baseman Nate Schierholtz to the outfield with high Class A San Jose, it really wasn't a huge surprise. Schierholtz, 20, has one of the best bats in the organization, but he's less polished defensively at third base and could move quicker as an outfielder. Plus, Brian Buscher's elbow is healthy enough for him to return to third, and San Jose needed an extra outfielder for its playoffs run. The Giants' playoffs outfield has included the return of Fred Lewis, who finished the regular season in Triple-A, along with 2004 draftees Eddy Martinez-Esteve and Clay Timpner, with Schierholtz at DH.

Schierholtz' move could be permanent. Worth watching was the Brewers' experiment in the final game of the season for Double-A Huntsville, in which Prince Fielder played left field for the first time. Fielder profiles better physically at first base, and he hit a solid .272-23-78 for the Stars.

High Class A Wilmington charged into the finals of the Carolina League behind a strong infield, with third baseman Mitch Maier (a 2003 first-round pick) and second baseman Donald Murphy its most prominent members. Shortstop Mike Aviles (.300/.352/.443) also has earned notice, though more for his bat than for his defense. The sleeper might be Adam Keim, a former Coastal Carolina shortstop who has played first and second base as well as the outfield for the Blue Rocks. Keim, 23, showed excellent pop in an injury-interrupted season, hitting .289/.325/.478, with seven of his nine home runs coming in his last 31 games. "He had a real nice August," one American League scout said. "He was stinging the ball. He's got some athletic ability, some strength and some pop in his bat. He needs to show he can do it in the middle infield again."

Speaking of strong finishes, the Mets need all the prospects they can get, so the performance down the stretch of outfielder Jamar Hill was a pleasant development. The Alaska native helped low Class A Capital City reach the South Atlantic League championship series with 26 home runs during the regular season, and veteran manager Jack Lind, a former area scout, says Hill's raw power is in the same category with Sally League stars Ian Stewart and Delmon Young. "He's definitely in the top three in terms of raw power, and he's starting to bring it to games," Lind said of the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder, who hit .310-13-45 in his last 57 games. "He's still raw, but he's got great bat speed and the ability to hit a good fastball."

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