Ask BA

It’s still very early in spring training, but the Astros’ top prospect already is making things interesting in camp.

Houston had hoped to give outfielder Hunter Pence a couple of months in Triple-A. That also would give Craig Biggio time to get to 3,000 hits, after which Chris Burke would start seeing more time at second base and less in the outfield, creating an opening for Pence.

But Pence has opened big league camp with 13 hits in 18 at-bats. Now spring stats are pretty meaningless, but Pence’s performance underscores the fact that his bat is ready for the majors and would belong in the middle of Houston’s lineup. He’s also probably a better center fielder than Burke, too.

    With Josh Hamilton coming back from oblivion and making a pretty neat story so far this spring, he has brought back memories of what a can’t-miss prospect he was labeled when he went No. 1 overall in the 1999 draft. That led me to wonder . . . Since you began covering prospects for Baseball America, who has surprised you the most by not developing into a star? Don’t count anyone affected by injury, drug addiction or going back to playing for the Chicago Bulls.

    Chris Buettner
    Madison, Wis.

Most of the can’t-miss prospects who fail do so because they fall prey to injury, though there have been a few who haven’t made it because of other circumstances.

One of the most hyped phenoms ever was Todd Van Poppel, who had the arm to be a big league ace. But when the Athletics made him the first high school player ever to receive a big league contract (worth a then-unfathomable $1.2 million in 1990), it also meant that he had to be in the majors to stay by 1994. He held his own in Double-A at age 19, though his control and command needed a lot of work, and he just wasn’t ready for Triple-A or the majors after that. Oakland rushed him out of necessity and to the detriment of his career.

Matt White created similar excitement when he came out of high school in 1996, and the Devil Rays paid him a stunning $10.2 million when a draft loophole made him a free agent. His baseball epitaph will mention three shoulder surgeries, but he never put it all together before he first went under the knife in May 2001. While he had a mid-90s fastball, he didn’t have consistent life or a breaking ball or command or mechanics.

It’s easy to go back now and point to Ruben Rivera’s strikeouts, but he did draw his fair share of walks and played well beyond his years. In Class A, he had 33 homers and 48 steals as a 20-year-old, and the next year he had 24 homers and 24 steals between Double-A and Triple-A. We wondered on the cover of our magazine if he’d be the next Mickey Mantle, and he was barely the next Mickey Brantley. Rivera had a mediocre Triple-A season at age 22 and was never a force again.

Sean Burroughs had the potential to become another George Brett at third base. He hit for average throughout the minors, looked like a future batting champion and scouts anticipated that he’d develop power as he grew older. It didn’t happen. He has 11 homers and a .358 slugging percentage in 440 big league games, and he has just about played his way out of baseball.

I still have tremendous faith in B.J. Upton’s hitting ability. He hit in the majors as a 19-year-old, and he’s still just 22. But he also has yet to find a defensive home and his last two years have been wasted. I still think he’ll be a star, but I’m also starting to wonder if he’ll end up as part of this discussion someday.

    I have a question similar to one I saw last year in Ask BA. Regarding the Top 100 Prospects list, we often see huge jumps from one year to the next. Devil Rays shortstop Reid Brignac went from off the list in 2006 to No. 18, while Reds outfielder Jay Bruce moved from No. 76 to No. 14. Whom do you see making similar jumps this year?

    Jeremy Chapman
    Columbus, Ohio

Thanks, Jeremy, for bringing up my two best calls when I was asked this question a year ago. I also hit on Angels righthander Nick Adenhart (No. 90 to No. 34) and was correct to a lesser extent on Dodgers lefty Scott Elbert (No. 55 to No. 31), Diamondbacks outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (No. 32 to No. 18) and Devil Rays righty Wade Davis (off the list to No. 97). I also mentioned Dodgers third baseman Blake DeWitt (No. 82), Cubs lefty Mark Pawelek (No. 85), Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold (No. 99) and Twins righty Anthony Swarzak (No. 100), but they all fell off this year’s Top 100.

Looking at this year’s Top 100, I see two guys in the upper half that I think can vault into the top 10-15 prospects next year, Cardinals outfielder Colby Rasmus (No. 29) and Devil Rays lefthander Jacob McGee (No. 37). From the bottom half of the list, these are my top candidates to make major moves: Blue Jays outfielder Travis Snider (No. 53), Pirates righthander Brad Lincoln (No. 69) if he’s healthy, Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia (No. 70), Marlins righty Brett Sinkbeil (No. 75), Rockies righty Ubaldo Jimenez (No. 84), Indians outfielder Brian Barton (No. 86), Davis again and Orioles righty Pedro Beato (No. 99).

My favorites who didn’t make the list include Reds righty Johnny Cueto, Angels catcher Hank Conger, Indians lefty Tony Sipp and Red Sox first baseman Lars Anderson. Two of my deeper sleepers are third-round picks from the 2006 draft, Athletics outfielder Matt Sulentic and Mariners lefthander Tony Butler.

    Can we get a scouting report on ex-Marine Cooper Brannan, who’s in minor league camp with the Padres?

    Andrew Del Rosso

Brannan served as a rifle infantryman in Iraq, where his left (nonpitching) hand was blown apart by a grenade in November 2005. He was recuperating at the San Diego Naval Medical Center when a chance encounter at a radio station with Padres CEO Sandy Alderson (a former Marine himself) led to a workout with area scout Brendan Hause.

Hause only threw in the mid-80s at the workout, but San Diego didn’t sign him just because he’s a human-interest story. He’s a 6-foot-4, 235-pound righthander, he’s only 22 and his makeup is obviously going to take him places. The Padres had him work with Poway (Calif.) High coach Dominick Johnson, the son of former big leaguer Deron Johnson. Before Brannan got to spring training, Johnson helped him clean up his mechanics and add a couple of miles an hour to his fastball.

Brannan since has gotten his fastball into the 90s on occasion. He still needs work on his delivery and his breaking ball, and how he performs in minor league camp will determine whether he starts the season in extended spring training or low Class A.

Regardless of how far he makes it, Brannan already is a terrific story. “If I were done scouting today,” Padres scouting director Bill Gayton said, “it’s the single signing I’m most proud to be involved with.”

For more on Brannan, see Alan Schwarz’ Going Deep interview.

" March 2 Ask BA