Ask BA

Two of the more prominent football players drafted in June will forsake the diamond for the gridiron. UCLA defensive back Jarrad Page, a seventh-round pick of both the Angels and the NFL’s Chiefs, signed a three-year deal with Kansas City. Page, who asked Los Angeles for a $1.7 million bonus, has garnered notice in training camp for his hard hitting.

Louisiana high school outfielder Jared Mitchell was one of the best athletes in the draft and drew some first-round consideration. Ultimately, his football prowess (he earned a scholarship from Louisiana State after winning state 5-A player of the year honors by passing and rushing for more than 1,500 yards each as a senior quarterback) and bonus demands (he wanted $1 million) dropped him to the Twins in the 10th round. Minnesota won’t lose the rights to Mitchell until he sets foot in a classroom, but he already has reported to LSU’s preseason camp and begun his conversion to wide receiver.

    The Devil Rays infield soon will be crowded with Wes Bankston, Reid Brignac, Jorge Cantu, Joel Guzman, Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist fighting for four positions. How will that play out, considering that none of them will move to the outfield because that’s set with Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young?

    Simon Boisvert

Back in April, I answered a similar question about Tampa Bay’s outfield of the future would shape up. The picture has become clearer as the Rays have traded Joey Gathright and grown increasingly tired of Elijah Dukes’ antics. And they can keep that projected trio Simon mentioned together for a while, as Tampa Bay controls Crawford through 2010, Baldelli through 2011 and Young through at least 2012.

Now their infield is crowded. Since the beginning of the season, the Rays have taken Longoria with the third overall pick in the draft and traded for Guzman and Zobrist. Cantu, Upton and Zobrist currently are in Tampa, Bankston and Guzman are close to ready at Triple-A Durham, and Brignac (at age 20) and Longoria (in his first pro summer) already have reached Double-A Montgomery.

Many of these guys have played multiple positions, so the possibilities seem endless. Let’s start by finding a place for Upton to play. He was ready to hit in the major leagues as a teenager in 2004, and he can’t handle shortstop. If he’s not going to the outfield, then his best spot is third base, where he can just let his reactions and athleticism get the job done.

If Upton is at third base, then Longoria will have to find a new position. I think he’s headed for second base, where he shows more promise offensively and defensively than Cantu. Cantu is just 24 and had 28 homers and 117 in his first full major league season in 2005, but he’s not approaching those numbers this year. I wonder if he’s going to become the second-base version of Aubrey Huff, unable to repeat his breakout season and destined for a trade.

Brignac has spent most of this season in high Class A, where he batted .326/.382/.557 with 21 homers, 83 RBIs and 12 steals in 100 games. He also has taken a step forward defensively, and scouts now believe he can remain at shortstop. Brignac is five years younger and has a lot more upside than Zobrist, Tampa Bay’s starter at shortstop who’s more cut out to be a utilityman.

That leaves first base, and until Bankston starts translating more of his raw power into production, it’s an easy call for Guzman. He’s athletic enough to play at third base or on an outfield corner, but those spots are taken. Though he has been hyped as a prospect for a while, Guzman is still just 21 and holding his own in Triple-A. He could develop into a 30-35 homer hitter or more, and that’s more than enough bat at first base.

    With Cleveland’s Jeremy Sowers on fire recently, including complete-game shutouts in consecutive starts, I have to ask. Which lefthander will have the better career, Sowers or Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels?

    Josh Gaab

That’s an interesting question. Hamels clearly has better stuff. His changeup is one of the best in the game and a lot better than Sowers’. Hamels also has 2-3 mph more velocity on his fastball and their breaking balls are comparable. ERAs aside, big league hitters have had a tougher time figuring out Hamels (.247 average, 11 homers, 87-32 K-BB ratio in 76 innings) than Sowers (.256, nine homers, 22-9 K-BB ratio in 53 innings).

However, there’s more to pitching than stuff. Sowers has uncanny command for a young lefthander, and it’s a grade or two better than Hamels’. Sowers has a spotless medical record, while Hamels has missed time with injuries in each of his four pro seasons. He had shoulder, triceps and back ailments in the minors, and he spent two weeks on the big league disabled list this year with a strained shoulder.

The safer pick would be Sowers. I don’t think he’ll be a star, but I do think he’ll be a reliable, durable No. 3 starter. The higher-risk, higher-reward pick would be Hamels, who has a chance to be a frontline starter if he stays healthy. I gave Hamels a slight edge before the season, and I’d still do the same now. Call me a sucker for upside.

    If you had to pick the No. 1 prospect in the Giants system right now, who would it be? It seems as though Tim Lincecum would have a shot at that coveted slot in what seems to be an otherwise barren system overall.

    J.P. Schwartz
    Springfield, Ill.

It’s Lincecum, by a landslide. We ranked him as the No. 2 prospect in the draft and the Giants were able to get him with the No. 10 pick because of concerns about his size and delivery. Despite those worries, Lincecum has been resilient and durable, and he never has had any arm problems. It’s impossible to argue with his stuff, which includes a mid-90s fastball and a knockout curveball, both plus-plus pitches.

After his heavy workload at Washington this spring, San Francisco is keeping Lincecum on tight pitch counts. Though he has worked just 6 2/3 innings in three starts, he has been his usual dominant self, fanning 15 of the 28 batters he has faced. Several scouts project Lincecum as a late-inning reliever, but I still think he’ll hold up as a starter. In any case, don’t be surprised if he’s pitching in the majors at some point in 2007.

There’s no real challenger to Lincecum for top-prospect honors in the thin Giants system. Righthander Matt Cain, last season’s No. 1, has graduated to San Francisco. Infielder Marcus Sanders (No. 2) continues to be hampered by shoulder problems that have contributed to a miserable season in high Class A. Outfielder Eddy Martinez-Esteve (No. 3), whose bat will have to carry him, is having just an ordinary year in Double-A. No pitcher is anywhere close to Lincecum.

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