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National League Central Notebook

April 8, 2005

Chicago Cubs

What The System Has Produced Lately: As the Cubs have developed into a contender, they’ve done it by developing power arms such as Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, while trading for top bats. Corey Patterson is the only position player of note they have drafted and developed in the last decade, a trend Jason Dubois will try to end this season. The other rookies who have a shot of helping in Chicago this year—such as John Leicester, Will Ohman and Mike Wuertz—are also pitchers.

Best-Stocked Position: The Cubs have an embarrassment of riches at first base, starting with top prospect Brian Dopirak, one of the minors’ best sluggers. His probable jump to Double-A could cause a logjam with other first basemen, such as Brandon Sing, who led the high Class A Florida State League in hits, doubles, extra-base hits and home runs last year. Infielder Matt Craig had a solid Double-A season and is a switch-hitter with power; his poor defense at other positions makes first base his most likely home. Slugger Kevin Collins and doubles machine Ryan Norwood fall further down the depth chart.

Best Teenage Prospect: With outfielder Felix Pie finally graduating to the 20-year-old age group, this mantle falls to catcher Mark Reed (18). The 2004 third-round pick is the younger brother of Mariners outfielder Jeremy Reed and is similar as a line-drive hitter who lives in the batting cage. An athletic player for a catcher, Reed has work to do to stay behind the plate, but he has more power potential than his brother, and his bat could carry him a long way.

Prepare For Takeoff: Righthander Carlos Marmol is new to pitching, having spent three seasons in the organization as a catcher/outfielder. In his second full season as a pitcher, he became one of the top starters in the low Class A Midwest League, striking out 154 in 155 innings. He has good life on his 90-92 mph fastball and picked up a changeup quickly.

Time Is Running Out For: The Cubs finally have openings in their corner outfield spots for righthanded hitters, and Dubois seems poised to take advantage. David Kelton is not. Unable to handle third base defensively, Kelton moved to the outfield to give his bat a chance to flourish, but he has struggled to make consistent contact in two years of Triple-A, and didn’t improve his stock over the winter in the Mexican Pacific League. Kelton is out of options, so if he doesn’t stick, the Cubs will likely give up on their 1998 second-round pick.

Cincinnati Reds

What The System Has Produced Lately: Part of the reason the Reds were busy on the free-agent market this winter is the poor performance of their farm system since they came up with Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns in the 1998 draft. Righthander Ryan Wagner, who zoomed to the big leagues from the 2003 draft in 46 days, struggled in his encore season. Righty Scott Dunn, a 1999 10th-rounder dealt to the White Sox for D’Angelo Jimenez in 2003, reached the majors with the Angels last season. Righty Dustin Moseley, a supplemental first-round pick in 2000, also could make the Angels’ staff after the Reds traded him for big league righty Ramon Ortiz.

Best-Stocked Position: The Reds developed starting catcher Jason LaRue, and they are working toward developing his replacement. The organization is highest on Venezuelan Miguel Perez, though 2000 second-round pick Dane Sardinha is closer to the majors. Both are valued more for their catch-and-throw skills than for their bats. The same is true of 2004 third-round pick Craig Tatum. Veteran Brian Peterson broke through offensively in 2004, including a strong Arizona Fall League stint, but profiles as a backup.

Best Teenage Prospect: The Reds have missed big with highly drafted high school pitchers recently, but couldn’t resist the lure of Homer Bailey (18) with the seventh pick last year. His combination of big stuff, big-game experience and swagger proved irresistible, and his ceiling is higher than those of past flops Chris Gruler and Ty Howington. Now, unlike that duo, he must stay healthy.

Prepare For Takeoff: The Reds system is full of middle relievers, but righthander David Shafer could break out of that mold as a starter. He has a loose, live arm with a power sinker that reaches 94 mph. Further development of a changeup could help him join Bailey, Richie Gardner and Thomas Pauly to give the organization an intriguing future rotation.

Time Is Running Out For: Gruler and Howington were first-rounders who have had arm woes. Bobby Basham and Phil Dumatrait were top prospects as well, and all missed most if not all of the 2004 season in rehabilitation. Dumatrait, a Tommy John alumnus, and Gruler, who’s just 21 and threw well in instructional league, have the best chance to bounce back and regain their former status.

Houston Astros

What The System Has Produced Lately: Several complimentary pieces, such as fill-in shortstop Eric Bruntlett, outfielder Jason Lane and new second baseman Chris Burke, have come up through the Astros system to fill in around stars Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio. The latest star the Astros developed, though, was closer Brad Lidge, who went from fragile starter to dominant reliever the last two seasons. Righthander Chad Qualls and lefty Mike Gallo developed into useful setup men last year as well. They used John Buck to acquire Carlos Beltran last June, and Buck will likely be the Royals Opening Day catcher.

Best-Stocked Position: The Astros haven’t had a true center fielder in years, but they like their future options at the position. Willy Taveras, originally an Indians product, could get a chance to start this season due to injuries. His slap-hitting, speed-oriented approach evokes Juan Pierre, and he’s a superior defender to Pierre. Josh Anderson, a fourth-round pick in 2003, stalled in high Class A after tearing up the low Class A South Atlantic League and brings another top basestealer to the organization. Ervin Alcantara has kept producing even after gaining four years in Dominican Age-gate. Charlton Jimerson has more tools than all of them but doesn’t make consistent-enough contact to make his tools relevant.

Best Teenage Prospect: Lefthander Troy Patton is a local Texas product who was bought out from a University of Texas scholarship for a $550,000 bonus. His hammer curveball was one of the best breaking balls available in the 2004 draft, and he has shown fastball velocity up to 94 mph. He must maintain a consistent arm slot to stay on top of his curveball so he can use it as a putaway pitch.

Prepare For Takeoff: Righthander Jimmy Barthmaier was a legitimate quarterback option for several Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conference teams before choosing baseball. Barthmaier got a $750,000 bonus to sign and has a big, athletic frame with raw secondary stuff. He finally appears ready to graduate from the Rookie-level Appalachian League for the first time.

Time Is Running Out For: The Astros’ Venezuelan academy hasn’t been as productive of late. Catcher Hector Gimenez, a recent standard-bearer for the organization’s efforts in that South American country, has hit a snag. Gimenez (career .257/.320/.398 numbers) just hasn’t hit enough to be an everyday player.

Milwaukee Brewers

What The System Has Produced Lately: There’s more to come in the future than there has been the last two years. Bill Hall has failed to establish himself as anything more than a utilityman due to his free-swinging ways at the plate. Ben Hendrickson was hammered in his big league debut last year, though the Brewers expect his big curveball to help him rebound in 2005. Fellow righthander Mike Adams, signed as a nondrafted free agent in 2001 out of Texas A&M-Kingsville, will get a shot at the closer role in Milwaukee this season, while outfielders Corey Hart and Dave Krynzel are at the leading edge of a flood of prospects on the way to Miller Park soon.

Best-Stocked Position: Second base isn’t usually a prospect haven, but the Brewers have two impact bats playing the position. Rickie Weeks, the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft and the NCAA’s all-time batting champion, spent his first full season in Double-A. He’s adopted a bat waggle, a la Gary Sheffield, to give his ultra-quick bat a better trigger. Hernan Iribarren ripped through the Rookie-level Arizona League, winning the batting title by 88 points.

Best Teenage Prospect: Maine hasn’t produced a star pitcher since Billy Swift in the mid-’80s, and Mainers knew they had something special in righthander Mark Rogers, flocking to his games at Mount Ararat High. The Brewers liked what they saw, drafting him fifth overall. Rogers needs to tone down his delivery a bit and harness his electric stuff, but his ceiling outstrips that of any Brewers pitcher with the possible exception of former Braves righthander Jose Capellan.

Prepare For Takeoff: Attrition thinned the Brewers’ ranks of pitching prospects in 2004, making the development of pitchers like Dana Eveland important in the club’s rebuilding efforts. Eveland has a power lefthanded arm, pumping fastballs up to 94 mph, and his secondary stuff shows promise.

Time Is Running Out For: The son of future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, Anthony Gwynn is a premium defender in center field, and his speed and defense could earn him a job as a fourth outfielder down the line. The Brewers have pushed him aggressively with Prince Fielder and Weeks, and he hasn’t been able to keep up. He must get stronger and probably needs to slow down his development track so the Brewers can see if he can hit enough to be an everyday player.

Pittsburgh Pirates

What The System Has Produced Lately: The Pirates have had a string of pitchers getting hurt at the big league level, most notably 2000 first-round pick Sean Burnett and 2001 first-rounder John Van Benschoten. Both are expected to miss the 2005 season, Burnett after Tommy John surgery, Van Benschoten due to shoulder woes. Jose Castillo, signed out of Venezuela back in 1997, skipped Triple-A last season and gave the Pirates one of the big leagues’ best defenders at second base, though his offense was lacking.

Best-Stocked Position: While the Pirates’ farm system lacks stars, it has depth and variety among its talented lefthanders, a valuable commodity in trades. Zach Duke was picked 19 rounds after Van Benschoten but now appears to have a brighter future thanks to his above-average curveball, solid average velocity, athleticism and command. Tom Gorzelanny has the organization’s best slider, and his fastball is a power pitch as well, touching 94-95 mph at times. Paul Maholm, a 2003 first-round pick, has a feel for four solid pitches and should move quickly if healthy.

Best Teenage Prospect: The Pirates stayed local for the first time ever with their first-round pick in 2004, taking catcher Neil Walker out of nearby Gibsonia, Pa. The first position player the Pirates have taken in the first round since 1997 (J.J. Davis), Walker has premium athletic ability (he was a star wide receiver and defensive back as a prep football star) and the ability to hit for power from both sides of the plate. Walker, 19, may move out from behind the plate eventually.

Prepare For Takeoff: The Pirates wanted Wardell Starling enough to woo him away from San Diego State, first to junior college, where they signed him as a draft-and-follow in 2003. In his first full season, he learned to harness his 88-94 mph fastball and helped low Class A Hickory to the South Atlantic League championship. He could move quickly as he matures mentally and physically.

Time Is Running Out For: Bryan Bullington had success at Double-A and should contribute in the big leagues soon, but the Pirates expected more when they took Bullington first overall in the 2002 draft. It’s not Bullington’s fault that he was drafted one spot ahead of B.J. Upton, whose bat should make him a star sooner than later. But Bullington won’t be more than a back-of-the-rotation starter unless he regains the mid-90s velocity on his fastball and sharp break on his slider that he flashed during his Ball State career.

St. Louis Cardinals

What The System Has Produced Lately: Trade bait. The Cardinals have used the likes of Indians outfielder Coco Crisp and new Athletics righthander Dan Haren to build their big league team over the years. Yadier Molina slides in at catcher to replace departed free agent Mike Matheny, while Bo Hart continues to be a reserve option at second base. Hard-throwing lefthander Carmen Cali got his first cup of coffee last season and has a shot at earning a spot as a relief specialist in 2005.

Best-Stocked Position: The Cardinals’ top five prospects are righthanded starters. Anthony Reyes has the highest ceiling; if he stays healthy, he has a chance to join the pantheon of former Southern California aces who starred in the majors. Adam Wainwright held his own in Triple-A last season, while Blake Hawksworth has dominated when healthy, an all too infrequent occurrence. Six-foot-1 Chris Lambert, the 2004 first-round pick, and big 6-foot-7 Stuart Pomeranz have different approaches but significant upside.

Best Teenage Prospect: After leaning heavily on college players the last two seasons, the Cardinals have one teenager who played in the organization in 2004—Venezuelan infielder Steward Chacin, who hit .131 in 61 at-bats at Rookie-level Johnson City. Their top teens were Pomeranz, who turned 20 in December, and Daric Barton, who was traded to the A’s in the Mark Mulder deal in the offseason.

Prepare For Takeoff: An athletic hitter is rare in the Cardinals’ thin system, ranked 30th in the game, so left fielder Cody Haerther could move quickly if he continues his career track. A career .322 hitter, he was hitting .316 last season when a hairline fracture of his left tibia (in his lower leg) ended his season early. His line-drive swing and patient approach could make him one of the few Cardinals prospects who looks attractive in trade talks come June.

Time Is Running Out For: At 27, Jimmy Journell isn’t the same pitcher who was the Cards’ No. 1 prospect after the 2001 season. Subsequent campaigns have been interrupted by injuries, including a torn labrum that required surgery in 2004. He was throwing well early in spring training, and the Cardinals could use a righthander to fill the middle-relief role of Kiko Calero, also traded to the A’s. Journell has returned to his near-sidearm delivery and relief role he used at Illinois in college, but he must show he can stay healthy.

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