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Assessing talent at the Trade Deadline
By John Manuel
The biggest factor general managers consider in becoming buyers or sellers at the July non-waiver trade deadline is obviously the big league club.
But the second consideration is how much the organization has to sell. Hence, the Yankees had to wait until the offseason to pry Randy Johnson loose from the Diamondbacks—they didn’t have the talent in their farm system to convince Arizona to part with him last July.
In 2005, however, the Yankees farm system had produced dividends. No. 2 prospect Robinson Cano had played as advertised—ready for the majors offensively, perhaps not quite good enough defensively to be an average fielder at second base. No. 10 prospect Chien-Ming Wang showed a big fastball, a lack of a strikeout pitch (31 K’s in 83 innings) and a balky shoulder that landed him on the disabled list.
Overall, however, the system’s progress remains superficial. The best news below Cano was the rapid progress of righthander Philip Hughes, the organization’s 2004 first-round pick. He dominated the low Class A South Atlantic League to earn a promotion to high Class A Tampa at age 19, using a fastball that sits around 92 mph, a power curveball and an impressive changeup. His command and ability to use his three pitches in or out of the zone belie his age.
However, the Yanks hadn’t come up with an internal solution to their center field problem, as Melky Cabrera’s promotion proved premature. Top prospect Eric Duncan, a third baseman at Double-A Trenton, wasn’t handling Double-A pitching well (.235, 97 strikeouts in 366 at-bats), and low Class A Charleston’s Marcos Vechionacci, still just 18, hadn’t come up with the breakout year some predicted for him. He moved from shortstop to third base while hitting .255-1-42.
In other words, the Yankees have had a decent year in their farm system, but as far as the trade deadline is concerned, they still can’t deal from strength—they lack impact talent (beyond Hughes), and they lack overwhelming depth.
The other organizations don’t get off easy, either. Here’s the trade-deadline update of how your organization has fared through July, with a focus on its Top 10 prospects entering the season:
Still The Best
A scout whose coverage includes both Los Angeles franchises had high praise for Baseball America—and, well, the Angels and Dodgers. “I saw in the Prospect Handbook where those were rated as the top two organizations,” he said, “and they still are. They are both still very loaded.”
The Angels were finally getting first baseman Casey Kotchman on track, and catcher Jeff Mathis (.287-14-50 at Triple-A Salt Lake) had bounced back nicely from a nightmarish 2004 finish. Cuban defector Kendry Morales and 2004 first-round pick Jered Weaver have had highs and lows, but both brought impact talent into the system in their first professional seasons.
And no team is stronger up the middle. Alberto Callaspo and Erick Aybar have both found success at upper levels, with Callaspo earning a promotion to Triple-A. Meanwhile, hard-hitting Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood have surpassed them on the organizational depth chart. Kendrick took Callaspo’s spot at Double-A Arkansas after batting .384-12-47 at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga. All Wood, the shortstop and 2003 first-round pick, was doing at Rancho was leading the minors in home runs at .324-34-88.
"We don't pay too much attention to all the hype,” Kendrick said. “We've been together three years. We play around, joke and have our fun. But when the game starts, it comes down to taking care of business. This year, he's swinging the bat well and not missing his pitches. And fortunately enough, I've been swinging the bat well too. We've just been doing a good job together."
The Dodgers have their Double-A Jacksonville club, which at least three scouts said was the most talented unit they’ve seen in the minors. Righthanders Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Edwin Jackson and Justin Orenduff all have power stuff and strikeout pitches, with Broxton touching 100 after a move to the bullpen. Lefthander Hong-Chih Kuo has returned from repeated elbow problems to strike out 61 in 36 overall innings as a reliever. The star-studded infield includes Andy LaRoche at third (28 homers overall), shortstop Joel Guzman (.282-13-60) and Russ Martin (.301, .420 on-base), the minors’ top catching prospect.
“Broxton and Billinglsey might be the best arms I’ve seen all year, and they were on the same team,” an American League scout said. “Billingsley has the combination of feel and power, and he’s only 21. He’s got an outstanding slider now to go with his fastball and curve. The other guy, Broxton, is a young power arm who just blows it by guys with power and has a power curve. I didn’t see a changeup, but I saw a feel for starting if he can maintain his fitness.”
The Brewers, Braves and Twins remain in the group behind the game’s two elite farm systems despite numerous promotions to the major leagues. All three organizations still offered depth and elite, impact talents such as Prince Fielder (Brewers), Andy Marte (Braves) and Francisco Liriano (Twins) at high levels.
Two organizations have made significant leaps forward in 2005:
• Diamondbacks. Justin Upton wasn’t under contract yet, but when he signs, the Diamondbacks will add the No. 1 talent in the 2005 draft to a system already brimming with future stars. Scouts, managers and stat heads have a hard time picking between Carlos Quentin (.307-19-70) and Conor Jackson (.356-8-71) at Triple-A Tucson. Those who favor Quentin consider him the better all-around player because of his above-average right-field defense. Jackson’s backers rave about his bat speed and quiet, focused approach at the plate.
The Diamondbacks are buoyed in 2005 by the healthy return of righthander Dustin Nippert (5-2, 2.91 at Double-A Tennessee) from Tommy John surgery and the signing of 2004 first-rounder Stephen Drew (.366-8-29, .699 slugging), who made a strong debut at high Class A Lancaster and gives the organization an impact bat in the middle of the diamond. The 2005 draft brought the potential to add the final piece—pitching depth—as Arizona selected nine pitchers in the first 10 rounds.
• Red Sox. Giving general manager Theo Epstein plenty of options, the top players in the Red Sox system were all enjoying excellent years. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez remained the top pure talent, but Boston’s top pitchers--lefthander Jon Lester (7-3, 2.45, 119 K in 103 IP at Double-A Portland) and righthanders Jon Papelbon (96-24 K-BB ratio in 104 innings overall between Double-A and Triple-A) and Anibal Sanchez (117-30 K-BB in 93 IP combined, high A and Double-A)--gave Boston power arms either for its rotation down the stretch or to include in trades.
Other organizations having positive summers include:
• Astros: Speedy center fielder Willy Taveras could give the Astros their first rookie of the year since Jeff Bagwell in 1991. Righthander Jason Hirsh was emerging in Double-A, and lefthander Troy Patton and outfielder Hunter Pence were showing power tools in A-ball.
• Giants: Rookies such as Lance Niekro were contributing in San Francisco. Shortstop Marcus Sanders and outfielder Dan Ortmeier were thriving after past shoulder problems, and the high Class A San Jose roster was littered with more potential impact hitters such as Eddy Martinez-Esteve.
• Nationals: Kudos to scouting director Dana Brown for unearthing breakout players like high Class A Potomac third baseman Kory Casto and low Class A Savannah righthander Collin Balester.
In Need Of A Rebound
• Cubs: Years of mostly sound trades to help the big league club have eroded the talent base of an organization that already has dropped from first in 2002 to 10th entering 2005. Worse, sluggers such as No. 1 prospect Brian Dopirak and outfielder Ryan Harvey had yet to break out of season-long slumps. Only outfielder Felix Pie and lefthander Sean Marshall among Top 10 Prospects were having strong seasons.
• Phillies: In a thin system, the top players have to perform. Righthander Gavin Floyd, however, was having his worst season as a pro, and first-round picks Cole Hamels (2002) and Greg Golson (2004) can’t stay out of the trainer’s room.
• The Elijah Dukes enigma continues at Double-A Montgomery. While Biscuits manager Charlie Montoya said, “I haven’t had any problems,” Dukes continues to make as much news for his temperament and makeup as for his talent.
First, the Devil Rays’ toolsy outfielder declined his spot in the Southern League all-star game when he wasn’t selected as a starter. "I'm not a backup," Dukes told the Montgomery Advertiser. "If I'm not selected to begin with, I'm not going. If I didn't earn it, I don't see why I should go."
Then Dukes missed a weekend series against West Tenn to attend to personal business back in his hometown, Tampa. It was no surprise, then, that while Dukes oozes tools, no manager in the league gave him the nod in any category in BA’s Best Tools survey, though he got some support for Best Throwing Arm.
“Elijah has as much talent as anyone in this league,” went the refrain, and one manager elaborated. “He’s a little high-strung, though. If he learns to have a better temperament—just not being negative—he’s got a chance to be a star.”
The manager added that the Devil Rays’ decision to have Delmon Young room with Dukes on the road raised eyebrows around the league. “Delmon’s a real good kid, but that’s not the vibe you got when he was running with Elijah.” the manager said. “It rubbed off a little bit.”
• South Bend right fielder Carlos Gonzales had steadily improved over the course of the season in all facets. After batting just .218 in April, Gonzales improved to .321 in May and .400 in June. He wasn’t quite keeping up that pace in July but had found his power stroke. He entered the month with seven homers in 299 at-bats, then hit six in his first 80 at-bats in July while maintaining his improved walk-strikeout ratio. The ratio was 8-36 entering June, and 24-28 since then. Overall, Gonzales was hitting .314-13-69 with 21 doubles.
“He’s probably a 30 runner, but otherwise he’s above-average across the board,” said a scout with a National League organization. “He’s a pretty good outfielder and he has a good arm. His plate discipline is good, and he does it easy at the plate. He’s got a fast lefthanded swing; he’s very similar for me to (Marlins prospect Jeremy) Hermida.”
• Shortstop Joaquin Arias finally was showing the all-around potential that prompted the Rangers to make sure they got him from the Yankees in the Alfonso Soriano-Alex Rodriguez trade. Arias got off to a slow start at Double-A Frisco but hit .363 over a 50-game stretch in June and July, improving to .310-5-40.
“He’s got a loose swing and bat speed,” said a scout with an American League club who saw him in July. “He’s a free swinger (just 14 walks in 88 games) but he has a feel for making contact. Then you consider that he’s a 70 runner with a 70 arm--and that defensively, he’s a little spastic but he’s also capable of making the highlight play--and he’s pretty interesting.”
• The Padres haven’t had a great year on the player-development side and ended up trading two of their Top 10 prospects, righthanders Travis Chick and Justin Germano, to the Reds for two months of third baseman Joe Randa. Looking for a positive in the organization takes you straight to Paul McAnulty, who made a brief big league debut and impressed Southern League managers before his promotion to Triple-A Portland due to his steady, productive offensive game. He hit .279-10-42 for Mobile before getting off to a 7-for-16 start with a home run in Triple-A Portland.
“He’s a first baseman or left fielder only,” said a scout with an American League club, "and for me, he might be a fringe everyday player, a lot like Matt Stairs—a starter on non-championship teams. But I might be selling him short. He’s a lefthanded bat with pretty good power, and he hangs in against lefthanded hitters. Those guys aren’t easy to find.”