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By Jim Callis

March 29, 2002

We'll start today with a disclaimer. While I ranked the players for our American League and National League previews, I didn't predict the order of finish in each division. I'm getting a ton of email wondering why I possibly would pick the Padres to finish last in the NL West, and all I can say is that I don't think there's any chance they finish behind the Rockies, whom our correspondents chose to finish second. San Diego could finish anywhere from first to fourth in what may be the most tightly contested division.

As I promised last time, here are my predictions.

AL East: Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays. To win this division, the Red Sox would need a lot of things to go right while a lot of things went wrong for the Yankees, and I just don't see that happening. The Blue Jays have a lot of interesting new faces, but they're a year away.

AL Central: Twins, White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Royals. Eighty-seven wins might be enough here. I'm not sure if the Twins have enough hitting or the White Sox have enough pitching, but I'll lean toward Minnesota. If all of the Indians' young pitching comes together, they might make another run at it.

AL West: Athletics, Mariners, Rangers, Angels. The A's big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito will be the difference in a close race. The Mariners counter with Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and James Baldwin, and they just don't stack up. The Rangers will be more respectable but don't have enough arms.

AL wild card: Mariners over the Red Sox and White Sox.

AL Championship Series: Athletics over Yankees.

NL East: Braves, Mets, Marlins, Phillies, Expos. I'm not excited by the Braves signing Vinny Castilla to play third and having an open sore at first base. But the Mets still don't have a frightening offense, and the Phillies could be as disappointing this year as they were surprising in 2001.

NL Central: Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, Brewers, Pirates. Why is everyone conceding this division to the Cardinals? I don't remember seeing anyone picking the Astros, so I'll take the lead. They've got much more pitching than St. Louis and a comparable offense. The Cubs are going to have to wait another season.

NL West: Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Rockies. Four teams have a chance to win this, but all four have huge flaws. I'll stick with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. The Giants could just as easily finish first as fourth, but they've got four holes in the lineup with Benito Santiago, David Bell, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Reggie Sanders. That's too many.

NL wild card: Cardinals over the Mets and Dodgers.

NL Championship Series: Astros over Diamondbacks.

World Series: Astros over Athletics.

As you'll see from the Ask BA questions below, several readers needed the opportunity to vent as Opening Day approaches. Before we get to them, there's one other thing I wanted to mention. Did anyone else see the Forbes, which is perhaps a bit more impartial than the owners, reports that 20 of the 30 major league clubs made money in 2001, while the game as a whole earned $74.2 million? That's in stark contrast to Bud Selig's testimony before Congress that only five teams were profitable and that they lost a total of $519 million.

    What is your assessment of Wednesday's trade between the Cubs and Marlins? As a lifelong Cubs fan, it's extremely satisfying to see them finally developing talent for the first time in my life, but my reaction to this deal is extremely mixed. On the plus side, the Cubs are getting the bullpen help they desperately need (Antonio Alfonseca), Matt Clement may be as solid a fifth starter as there is in baseball, and they get Julian Tavarez and his bad attitude out of the clubhouse. On the downside, they're giving away a ton of young talent. Jose Cueto's career numbers are outstanding, Dontrelle Willis is a 20-year-old lefty who can touch the low to mid-90s, and Ryan Jorgensen looked to be their long-term answer at catcher. Plus, what do you do with Clement a month from now when Mark Prior is ready to come up? This deal may help this season, but three years from now I'm afraid it's going to look really bad.

    Tom Healy

    How does the recent trade between the Cubs and Marlins impact the Cubs' chances for contention in the National League Central? Does it change your opinion of a second-place finish behind the Cards in 2002? Also, do you believe the Cubs gave up too much in dealing Cueto, Jorgensen, and Willis to acquire Alfonseca and Clement? Granted the Cubs didn't trade any of their Top 15 Prospects according to BA, but I imagine Cueto and Willis would rank much higher in another organization not as deep as Chicago's.

    Ted Geist
    Wilmington, Del.

    Who do you think got the best end of the Cubs-Marlins trade for the long term? Was it a pure salary dump by Florida? I like it for the Cubs as it gives them a proven closer and pushes Kyle Farnsworth and Jeff Fassero back into more comfortable setup roles. Clement was ranked No. 1 among NL fifth starters by BA, compared to Tavarez being ranked 11th, so that's a definite upgrade as well. I hate seeing the Cubs lose three–I especially like Cueto–but since they all were in Class A or lower last year and ranked in the second half of your Cubs Top 30, it still seems like a no-brainer for Chicago.

    Matt MacArthur
    Frisco, Texas

    I want to know your opinion about the three minor league prospects the Cubs gave up to get Alfonseca and Clement. Also, with the trade of Jorgensen, who is the Cubs' catcher of the future: Yoon-Min Kweon or the fading Jeff Goldbach?

    Sammy Patel
    Carol Stream, Ill.

As stated above, I didn't pick the Cubs to finish second in the NL Central; that was our correspondents. This trade will help Chicago a little, but I don't think it will put them in the postseason. The best thing about Alfonseca is that he makes the setup corps stronger by allowing Farnsworth and Fassero to remain in that group, and he probably gives the Cubs a little more confidence at this point, for whatever it's worth. But Alfonseca has been more lucky than good while racking up 73 saves the last two seasons. He hasn't been used in many tough situations, he has averaged just 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings and opponents have hit .285 against him. That's called walking the tightrope. He also doesn't keep himself in great shape and he's coming off back surgery. Add it all up, and Alfonseca has a good chance of bringing back bad memories of Mel Rojas at Wrigley Field.

Where this deal really benefits the Cubs is at No. 5 starter, where Clement is an upgrade on Tavarez, who already was starting to whine and just wasn't worth the trouble. But while Clement once was regarded as one of the game's top pitching prospects and still has fine stuff (his fastball, slider and changeup can all be plus pitches), he lacks the command and mental toughness become a big league star. At 27, he has a 34-39, 4.89 career record. He now has been traded twice in a span of a year, including once by Padres GM Kevin Towers, who doesn't give away talent. As for Prior, when he's ready for the major leagues, Chicago will find room for him, Clement or no Clement. It's possible that one of the the Cubs' five starters could be injured, or that Jason Bere will revert to his pre-2001 form, or that perhaps Juan Cruz will struggle and need some Triple-A time

All in all, the Marlins accomplished two things with this trade. First, they dumped some salary. Florida will save $3.55 million this year on Alfonseca and $6.75 million over two years on Clement. Tavarez is guaranteed $2.35 million this year. That's about an $8 million gain. Secondly, they added some decent mid-level prospects. Cueto ranked 16th on the Cubs Top 30 I did for our Prospect Handbook, while Willis was 21st and Jorgensen was 22nd. Of course, Chicago's Top 30 is deeper than most and they would have ranked higher with most other organizations, but the Cubs could afford to trade them.

Cueto, whose age was just revised from 23 to 25, is a sinker-slider guy who's at his best when he works in his low 90s. He has a good arm, but so do a lot of pitchers in the minors, and he has spent just two games above Class A. Willis, 20, is a talented lefty, but he has an average fastball rather than working in the mid-90s. He's projectable, but he also has yet to reach full-season ball yet. Jorgensen, 22, is a very talented defensive catcher, but he never hit much in college and has a .246 average as a pro. That includes a .119 mark in 32 Double-A games last year, and doesn't include his .225 performance in Arizona Fall League. These guys could prove helpful or they could fade. Neither would be altogether surprising.

With Jorgensen gone, the Cubs don't really have a catcher of the future. Kweon rates ahead of Goldbach at this point, but he profiles more as a big league backup than as a starter. My guess is that Chicago will take a catcher with one of its 10 picks in the first four rounds of the June draft.

    I was wondering if you could help me try to figure out what exactly Ken Williams is doing to the White Sox farm system he helped build up. Since he became general manager, the Sox have traded pitchers such as Aaron Myette, Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, and now Matt Guerrier. They have let Sandy Alomar Jr. block the development of Mark Johnson and Josh Paul. They have let Jose Valentin play third base and Royce Clayton play shortstop, effectively blocking Joe Crede. After an offseason trade that saw Williams give up three pitchers all arguably better than the one he received (Todd Ritchie), he decides to trade Guerrier, arguably the most sure thing in his system, for a middle reliever and a second basemen to go sit behind Tim Hummel and Willie Harris. Did Jerry Reinsdorf hire Williams to be the White Sox' Jerry Krause, so he could kill a good situation before it could become great?

    David Johnson
    Lincoln, Neb.

    I've read conflicting things on Guerrier, the righty whom the Pirates just got from the White Sox for Damaso Marte and Edwin Yan. Baseball America rates Guerrier as the No. 4 prospect in the White Sox system, which I take to be a compliment because the Sox system is one of the best in the game. Yet elsewhere I've seen Guerrier dismissed as a finesse guy with no upside. And the Chicago papers treated the deal as very minor. Did Dave Littlefield do another number on Ken Williams, or is Guerrier truly just a Triple-A/organizational soldier type with little long-term value?

    Joel Charny
    Washington, D.C.

We apparently like Guerrier more than the White Sox do. A 10th-round pick out of Kent State in 1999, the 23-year-old Guerrier has a 26-8, 2.80 record and 38 saves in three seasons as a pro. He excelled out of the bullpen for two years, then went 18-4 in 2001 when he got his first taste of starting. His fastball has average velocity at best, but he can throw it as well as his curveball, slider and changeup wherever he wants. Sure, he might not have much margin for error, but he hasn't made many mistakes thus far. He entered spring training as a longshot to crack Chicago's rotation, which he didn't do, and his long-term role may be back in the bullpen.

But if I'm the White Sox, an my pitching staff appears in tatters right now, I would have waited to find out what Guerrier could have become. True, Chicago needs bullpen help, especially from the left side with Kelly Wunsch still not ready, but Damaso Marte? He was decent last year in 23 games with the Pirates, but Marte still has a career ERA of 5.60 in the majors (his minor league mark of 4.49 isn't thrilling, either). Yan, 20, is an athletic middle infielder with some speed, but he's also at least three years away from the big leagues.

David, I think you're being a little harsh on Ken Williams. I kind of like Ritchie and I think he'll be more effective than Wells, Fogg or Sean Lowe this season. The White Sox aren't in any danger of becoming baseball's version of the Bulls anytime soon. I don't understand why Joe Crede can't start for them, though.

    Many of the teams (such as the Braves, Expos, Padres and Pirates) who were formerly infatuated with drafting strictly high school talent and in many cases, football players, finally found out that they ended up with a system of athletes who can't hit Double-A pitching and a 1-in-10 ratio of major league-usable pitchers. Knowing that and knowing what you do about the draft, don't you find it amazing that the Royals have locked full-bore onto that philosophy? I mean, it hasn't worked, it doesn't today and probably never will. Who besides the Royals really believes that Roscoe Crosby will ever forego his NFL promise and play baseball full-time, let alone that a $1.75 million bonus makes any sense? After getting over the fact that the club spent the 10th overall pick on Colt Griffin, who I bet will never, ever throw strikes, I was surprised to see him at No. 3 when you did Kansas City's Top 30 Prospects list. Do you think any other organization wouldn't have taken Casey Kotchman or Gabe Gross or Chris Burke in the first round, and then if they were going to spend the money, using the second-round selection on Mike Gosling?

    Chuck Pattison
    Kansas City, Mo.

Royals GM Allard Baird places a lot of emphasis on raw tools, one reason he asked former scouting director Terry Wetzel to resign once he took over the club. Wetzel's replacement, Deric Ladnier, comes from the Braves, who also focused heavily on raw tools while he was with them. It's very tempting to gamble on high-risk, high-reward players, because the payoff can be huge. Kansas City isn't laden with talent, and I think the club decided to go for two guys with huge upside. If they come through, they could be cornerstones on which a struggling franchise could build its way back to contention. Griffin throws harder than any high schooler ever, while the club compares Crosby to Ken Griffey Jr.

However, teams sometimes can get lost looking at the high reward and not acknowledging the high risk. More than one scout has told me they wonder if Griffin ever will put it all together. He's not terribly mature as a pitcher or as a person. He seems to seek velocity at the expense of movement, and there are questions as to his aptitude for throwing a breaking ball. His changeup and command need a lot of work. He'll need a lot of instruction and polish, and high school pitchers are a very risky demographic. When I do a Top 30, I obviously use my opinions of players but I also rely on what team officials and scouts tell me. The Royals believe so strongly in Griffin and he has yet to prove them wrong (of course, he has pitched just two innings as a pro), so I gave them the benefit of the doubt in this case and put him at No. 3. It's extremely hard to rank a guy like this, with a ceiling so huge but little track record on which to guess his chances of realizing it.

There are two major problems with Crosby. Chuck mentions the first, which is the reason Crosby was available in the second round rather than going in the first 10 overall picks. He has a very good chance to blossom into an NFL prospect, possibly even a first-round pick, as a wide receiver. Even if the Royals can keep him away from the NFL, playing for Clemson is likely to cost him so much development time so as to harm his baseball career. Bo Jackson and Deion Sandrs are the only recent players I can think of who stuck with college football for three or more seasons and still had productive baseball careers. Both were world-class athletes, and they didn't exactly realize their full potential on the diamond.

I'm sure there are other organizations that would have played this the way the Royals did last year. But it's still a huge risk for a franchise with limited resources to take. I'm with Chuck on this one. For the same money, I would have rather had Kotchman and Gosling with those two picks.

    Where do you think San Diego State closer Royce Ring will go in this year's draft? He has amazing numbers so far this year (0.59 ERA, 15 innings, seven hits, three walks, 25 strikeouts). He can push it to 95 mph with control and is lefthanded. Will he drop because he's a closer? What is the difference in value for closers versus starters as far as the draft?

    Trevor Hewey
    San Diego

In the issue we just completed on Thursday, we ranked Ring as the 18th-best college prospect available in the draft. If the draft were held today, that would peg him as a second-round pick, with an outside chance of being a first-rounder. Scouts cite his fastball and his hard slider, plus the fact that he's lefthander. They do have some concerns about his makeup. Pro clubs covet future big league starters and closers, but there's some question as to why San Diego State wouldn't use a lefty with that kind of arm more than for just an inning or two at a time.

If you follow the Aztecs, also keep an eye on shortstop Taber Lee. He's really moving up the chart and could go as high as the second round in a bad year for college middle infielders. He's the younger brother of Phillies first baseman Travis Lee.

March 26, 2002

At the beginning of the spring, the White Sox were my pick to win the American League Central. But now I'm beginning to wonder. Their starting rotation is in a shambles, and I don't really like the way the Opening Day roster is shaping up. No. 3 starter Jon Garland has a lot of potential, but someone with his stuff should miss more bats. Ditto on both counts for No. 4 starter Danny Wright, who also needs to throw more strikes. No. 5 starter Jon Rauch was our Minor League Player of the Year in 2000, but missed most of last year when he needed his shoulder cleaned out. Gary Glover might have factored into the rotation, but the bullpen is such a mess that he was needed more as a setup man.

Chicago should score some runs, but the lineup isn't without holes. Catcher is a problem. If the White Sox expect Royce Clayton to hit like he did in the second half of 2001 (.323 with an .866 OPS), they're kidding themselves. I'm not convinced that Kenny Lofton has much left in his tank, and Carlos Lee has regressed rather than improved. The defense is also a problem. And I believe Chicago should have put Joe Crede at third base, where he's ready to contribute, and decided whether it wants a good bat (Jose Valentin) or a good glove (Clayton) at shortstop.

A team might be able to steal the Central with less than 90 wins this season, so the White Sox still could pull it off. But right now, the Twins are looking better and better. On Friday, I'll make my predictions for the upcoming season.

    Every season I try and visit two or three major league parks that I have never been to, starting with the ones that are closing that season. I'm planning on Cincinnati and Montreal (before the Expos leave town) for this season. Have I missed anyone and what should I be planning for next season?

    Carl Chesley
    Augusta, Ga.

You've targeted the right ballparks for 2002. Next year, you'll want to get to Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium and to San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, because both clubs are scheduled to open new parks in 2004. The Phillies will move into a 43,000-seat venue east of Veterans Stadium, while the Padres (barring more legal hurdles) will unveil a 46,000-seat stadium across from the city's Convention Center and a block from San Diego Bay.

The Cardinals hope to replace Busch Stadium with a 39,000-seat park in 2005. Further construction will expand the capacity to 49,000 for 2006.

Other teams that are pursuing new ballparks but don't have definitive plans in place include the Athletics, Marlins, Mets, Red Sox, Twins and Yankees.

    I just picked up your 2002 Prospect Handbook and think you guys did a great job again. But it appears to me that you have something of a blind spot for low Class A Dayton pitchers within the Reds system. Last year, you left Juan Acevedo–the top performer for the Dragons in 2000 and a nice breakthrough starter for the big club last summer–off the Reds Top 30 list entirely. Now it appears that you've done the same with Dayton's top full-season pitcher from 2001, Josh Hall. By comparison, you ranked Dragons teammate Ryan Snare as the Reds' No. 11. Snare's numbers are practically a mirror image of Hall's, especially in terms of H/IP and K/BB. Both have similar builds have fastballs in the 89-91 range. The only major differences appear to be that Snare is lefthanded and almost two full years older than Hall. What are the reasons for the discrepancy between Snare's and Hall's rankings?

    Vernon Humerick
    Miamisburg, Ohio

Vernon's comparison of Hall and Snare is accurate. To take it a step further, both guys' best pitch is a curveball, and they both own a decent changeup. Hall, who's 21 and was a seventh-round pick in 1998, led the Midwest League with a 2.65 ERA, continuing his comeback from reconstructive shoulder surgery two years earlier. He also outpitched 2000 first-rounder Dustin Moseley at Dayton last year. And Moseley ranked fifth on our Cincinnati Top 30.

When I did our Midwest League Top 20 and consulted with league managers and scouts, Hall ranked 19th while Moseley and Snare didn't make the list. (The best pitcher at Dayton last year was clearly lefthander Ty Howington, who didn't stay in the MWL long enough to qualify for consideration.) Yet when Chris Haft did our Reds rankings, he said there was a lot more support among the people he talked to for Moseley and Snare than there was for Hall. Hall's stuff isn't overwhelming, especially for a righthander, and Snare has more upside because he's lefthanded. Moseley, a former first-round pick, is younger and has more room for projection.

Team officials and scouts are generally more reliable than managers at judging minor league talent. That said, had I done the Reds list, I probably would have squeezed Hall on there somewhere.

    We all know about heralded Cubs prospects such as Mark Prior, Hee Seop Choi and Bobby Hill. I want to know about a few prospects that don't get much discussed much. If Luis Montanez falters this year, could Ronny Cedeno jump over him as the organization's top shortstop? What type of game does he have and whom would you compare him to? The Cubs just recently signed a third baseman, Alfredo Francisco, and reports are that he can absolutely rake and that his defense could propel him past David Kelton as organization's top third-base prospect. What do you think of him? Does he have a chance to be another gem from the Cubs' Latin American scouting department? One final question: A couple of years ago, Jeff Goldbach was anointed as Chicago's catcher of the future, but now you don't hear much about him. What kind of future does he have now?

    Robert Neil
    Montgomery, Ala.

Some observers who saw Montanez in the Midwest League last year questioned whether he had the quickness to play shortstop in the major leagues and thought he might be better suited for second or third base. So it wouldn't be a stretch at all for Cedeno to move past him as the Cubs' best shortstop prospect. He has better range and a comparable arm, and he's coming off winning the Rookie-level Arizona League batting title. He still has to prove himself in full-season ball, but at this point he looks like another Latin American find by Chicago.

As does Francisco, who signed out of the Dominican Republic on Feb. 1. The Cubs already are excited by his power, batting stroke, footwork, hands and arm. He's even less established than Cedeno, of course. But if Kelton continues to have throwing problems at third base and must move to the outfield, it's safe to say that Francisco will have the most upside of Chicago's third-base prospects. His main competitors at the hot corner would be Ryan Gripp and Corey Slavik, who will play a few levels higher than Francisco in 2002.

Like Pat Cline and Brad Ramsey before him, Goldbach faded quickly after surfacing as a Cubs catching prospect. A second-round pick in 1998, he hit .271 with 18 homers in low Class A as a 19-year-old in 1999. Since then, however, he has batted .200 and .198 with a total of 17 homers. Chicago now has more faith in Ryan Jorgensen and Yoon-Min Kweon, and Goldbach desperately needs to start hitting again in 2002 if he's going to have much of a future.

    What is the deal with former Pirates top prospect Chad Hermansen? He was given a couple of shots at taking centerfield but has failed miserably, he's out of minor league options and is having a pretty good spring. Is there any chance he can break camp with the Pirates as the starter in center over Adrian Brown? Or if they need Brown to lead off, maybe take right away from knucklehead Derek Bell? Also what are your thoughts on Brent Butler in Colorado? Will he have any chance to play some third base this year in the bigs or is he destined to be a utility guy?

    Mike Mayer
    Woodbridge, Va.

A few years ago, Hermansen looked like he might be a star. The 10th overall draft pick in 1995, he hit 28 homers in Triple-A at age 20 in 1998. Granted, he struck out a lot, but he wasn't adverse to drawing a walk. He spent most of 1999 in Triple-A as well, hitting 32 homers. What I don't understand is why the Pirates didn't give more of a chance to a player in whom he invested significant money, time and hype. He got 60 big league at-bats in 1999, 108 in 2000 and 55 in 2001. His biggest opportunity came in 2000, which was also when Pittsburgh had the misguided notion that he might make a good leadoff man.

Maybe Hermansen wouldn't have developed into a legitimate middle-of-the-order slugger, but shouldn't the Pirates at least have tried to find out? Wouldn't that have been preferable to giving Bell $9 million for two years? It's the same kind of logic (albeit with a new administration) that has Craig Wilson looking for at-bats while Kevin Young wastes outs and earns $6 million at first base.

Getting back to the question, I checked with our Pirates correspondent, John Perrotto. He says Hermansen, who's hitting .344 with three homers in 32 at-bats this spring, has no shot at starting for Pittsburgh, even with projected regulars Adrian Brown and Armando Rios struggling. (As an aside, I've never understood why people read too much into small sample sizes of statistics in the spring.) Hermansen has drawn little praise, and the Pirates are likely looking to trade him rather than trying to sneak him through waivers.

As for Butler, his production declined each year in the minors until the Cardinals traded him to the Rockies and he benefited from playing in the rarefied air at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Todd Zeile figured to be Colorado's third baseman after the club traded Jeff Cirillo to Seattle, but he's coming off a mediocre season with the Mets and hasn't looked good this spring. While it's possible the Rockies could pull the plug on Zeile and use Butler as a stopgap, his future is as a utilityman and not as a regular.

March 22, 2002

We goofed and left Andy MacPhail off of our overall grouping of general managers in our Major League Preview issue, an omission that several of you have emailed Ask BA about. He fits kind of in between "Consistent Winners With Cash" and "Getting The Job Done."

The Cubs will contend this decade. If they win the World Series (yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus) and MacPhail hasn't passed the reins to Jim Hendry by then, I believe that would make him just the second GM to guide multiple clubs to championships. John Schuerholz has done it with the Royals (1985) and Braves (1995), and his long track record of success eventually may lead to a spot in Cooperstown. Hall of Famer Branch Rickey won only with the Cardinals, though he built much of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pirates clubs that won World Series.

    Chin-Feng Chen has been moved to first base this spring. How does this affect his status as a prospect? Assuming he can handle the position defensively, where would he rate among the top first-base prospects in baseball?

    James Rajacich
    Victorville, Calif.

I don't think it affects his overall status as a prospect a bit. It would be natural to think that a left fielder is a little more valuable than a first baseman, but at both positions a player's worth ultimately comes down to how much he's going to hit. We're also teams putting hopeless defensive causes such as Jack Cust (and possibly Ken Harvey) in left rather than at first, because they'll be involved in fewer plays and less damage.

This move should help Chen's career, because his feet and arm were problems in left field and won't be as much of a liability at first. Also, with Los Angeles' outfield corners locked up by Shawn Green and Brian Jordan, Chen will get a quicker chance to play as a first baseman. Eric Karros nosedived in 2001 and his contract expires after this season, creating an obvious opening for Chen.

I do like Chen, and I wonder if shoulder problems contributed to his lackluster 2000 performance. He sandwiched that with the high Class A California League's first-ever 30-30 season in 1999 and a .313-17-50 surge in 66 Double-A games last year. That said, he'd still rank behind a bevy of sluggers on my personal first-base rankings list, such as Carlos Pena, Nick Johnson, Hee Seop Choi, Casey Kotchman, Justin Morneau, Adrian Gonzalez and Xavier Nady. I'd put Chen at the top of the next tier, with players such as Luis Garcia, Harvey, Eric Munson, Ben Broussard and Lyle Overbay.

    Shane Komine continues to dominate college baseball, yet he's never mentioned in the same breath as people like Bobby Brownlie. I realize he only throws around 90 mph, but Komine has tremendous control and good secondary pitches. Do you think he'll improve dramatically over his 19th-round selection last year?

    Rich Dorrian
    Fort Myers, Fla.

A second-team All-American in both 1999 and 2000, Komine has a 4-0, 1.22 record after five starts. Opponents are hitting just .131 against him, and he has 49 strikeouts in 37 innings. He'll go quicker than the 19th round in June, but that's more because he'll be a cheap senior sign and because he fell into draft limbo last year. When he didn't go in the first few rounds, teams knew he'd be tough to get under contract, and he slid even further.

Komine is talented. He has a fastball with solid average to slightly above-average velocity, his slider is a plus pitch and he can throw five pitches for strikes. But there also are some negatives. He's listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, and even though teams are less biased against short righthanders than they used to be, that's pushing in it. In fact, several scouting directors believe Komine is close to 5-foot-8. Of greater concern, he fractured his back as a kid and has back trouble throughout his college career. He also had arthroscopic shoulder surgery in September. From a scouting perspective, there's not much projectability with Komine. He's a proven big-time winner in college, but he's also as good as he's going to get and he's an injury risk. He'll probably go somewhere from the fifth to 10th round in June.

We're currently working on updating our list of college prospects, so look for a new Top 50 and an accompanying overview in our next issue. Subscribers should receive it in a couple of weeks.

    The Cubs dealt outfielder Keto Anderson to San Diego for righthander Winston Abreu on Wednesday. What can you tell us about Abreu? This guy has had some terrific H/IP and K/IP ratios in the minors, including a knockout stint with low Class A Macon in 1999. However he's not in either of your Prospect Handbooks, so I've got no idea about his stuff whatsoever. I know he was injured in 2000, but it seems like if he had plus stuff that he still would have made the Braves Top 30 in the first Handbook. Then again, if he was striking everybody out using junk, I doubt the Cubs would have dealt for him. So what's the deal with Abreu?

    Justin Riddick
    Jackson, Tenn.

Abreu, who was sent to the Padres on waivers last September to complete a trade for Rudy Seanez, has gone 25-30, 3.43 since signing in 1993. He has allowed just 375 hits while walking 226 and fanning 579 in 493 innings. If that doesn't seem like much of a workload, that's because he missed all of 1997 after elbow surgery and much of 2000 with shoulder problems.

Abreu is already 24 (and unlike many Dominicans, his age hasn't been adjusted upward this season). He's got decent stuff, usually pitching around 91-92 mph with his fastball. This wasn't a major transaction, just more of a case where the reliever-needy Cubs took a shot on a guy who might help him this season. Keto Anderson has a career .340 average in three years as a pro, but he's also 23 and has barely surfaced in full-season ball. When he did briefly last year at low Class A Lansing, he hit .161 in 18 games. The younger brother of Marlon Anderson, Keto might be something, but we won't know until he plays at a level befitting his age.

    I have a question about a Seattle pitcher named Josue Matos. Matos pitched well in 2000 in the low minors, then disappeared last season and nobody seemed to want to talk about what had happened to him, be it injury or something embarrassing for him or the organization. As far as I can tell, he didn't pitch anywhere last season in the minors or in fall/winter ball. Then, magically, he got the final out for the Mariners in a recent spring-training game. Do you have any idea what his story is?

    Jason Barker

There's no sexy story here. Matos, now 24, missed all of last season with a labrum injury, an affliction with which the Mariners are becoming all too familiar. A 27th-round draft-and-follow from Miami-Dade CC South who signed in 1997, he reached Double-A in the second half of 2000, a season in which he went 7-8, 3.13 overall with 153 strikeouts in 172 innings. His fastball is average at best, so he relied on his breaking stuff and command for success. He'll probably go back to Double-A this year.

March 19, 2002

Can there be a more clueless player than Derek Bell? Just because former Pirates GM Cam Bonifay inexplicably gave him a two-year, $9 million contract doesn't mean he can play. Bell batted .173 in 46 games last year and .148 in his first 12 games this spring, yet declared he shouldn't have to compete for Pittsburgh's right-field job. Memo to Derek: Armando Rios' lifetime on-base plus slugging percentage of .860 is not only is 103 points higher than yours, but it's also better than your career high. So before Bell goes into what he called "Operation Shutdown," maybe he should realize his bat is way ahead of him.

On an unrelated subject, my Tout Wars team is all drafted and ready for the regular season. I finished sixth last year, and the hope in 2002 is that I'll move up now that I'm not distracted by home renovations and the impending arrival of my fourth child (though I'm now distracted by my beautiful baby daughter). Hopefully, both I and the Josh Boyd/Will Kimmey tag-team in LABR will do Baseball America proud in these experts leagues. I'd disparage their middle infielders, but mine aren't very exciting either.

    I saw that Seattle optioned Ryan Anderson and Jeff Heaverlo to Triple-A, which raises the question: Because both are evidently out for the season and are on the Mariners' 40-man roster, why would the club exhaust an option for each? Wouldn't it be more sensible to park each on the major league disabled list (even the 60-day DL, so that they could use the spots on the 40-man roster for other players this season) so that the options aren't wasted? Are the M's really more worried about having to pay the major league salary to these guys rather than the minor league split? Seems like saving $100,000 or so on each pitcher would be far less important than guarding every possible option on them based on their ceiling and early arm troubles.

    Jamey Newberg

    With the second injury to Ryan Anderson in Seattle, where does that leave his prospect status? If the injury happened a month, would he even have made the BA Top 100 Prospects list?

    Mike Carpenter
    Lynchburg, Va.

Jamey, a Rangersaholic who runs the information-packed Newberg Report, raised another question when he asked his. I always thought a team couldn't send an injured player to the minors, but they are allowed to do so until March 15.

Both Anderson and Heaverlo are out for the year with torn labrums and the Mariners don't expect them to be able to pitch before instructional league. But because both were added to the 40-man roster for the first time this winter, Seattle opted to use the first of three options on each player rather than start their clock ticking toward arbitration and free agency with a full year of service time. That makes sense to me, as both can be optioned out again in 2003 and 2004 and won't have to stick in the majors until 2005. They were close to the majors before getting hurt, so they easily should be ready by then if they regain their health. If they're still not back to where they were by then, losing them on waivers won't be a big issue.

I don't know how many pitchers have torn their labrum twice in two years like Anderson has, so it's guesswork to determine whether he'll still be able to blow hitters away when he takes the mound again. The Mariners are keeping the faith he'll be able to do just that. I ranked Anderson eighth on my personal Top 100 list before he got hurt again. If I were doing the list now, I wouldn't want to rank him high but I wouldn't want to leave him off the Top 100 altogether because his ceiling is so high. I'd probably hedge my bets by putting him somewhere in the 60-70 range.

    I couldn't agree with you more on your assessment of Prior and the needs of the Cubs in your previous Ask BA column. There are two issues that confuse me. First, I know there's some advantage to having Prior (or any player) not start the year with the Cubs when it comes to service time. Could you explain it? Second, why would Prior be better served to head to Double-A West Tenn vs. Triple-A Iowa? The Cubs have both skipped Triple-A (Juan Cruz) and pushed guys there aggressively (Carlos Zambrano). Is the weather a factor and if so, why not send Prior to high Class A Daytona?

    Will Carroll

Under the current Basic Agreement, Prior needs six full years of major league service time before he becomes a free agent. If the Cubs delay his arrival until mid-April, they buy themselves another year of Prior without having to worry about free agency. They did the same thing with Kerry Wood, promoting him April 12, which means Wood will become a free agent after the 2004 season, rather than after 2003.

I don't think Chicago necessarily is trying to pull a fast one with Prior. GM Andy MacPhail and assistant GM Jim Hendry sincerely believe Prior would be better off with a few minor league starts. They just want him to experience a little success, no matter how brief, before he gets to Wrigley Field. The only advantage to Double-A versus Triple-A is that Prior will be a little more apt to do well. Weather won't be a factor.

    As a Pirates fan (yes, there are a few of us) I assume that they're looking hard at Bobby Brownlie from Rutgers with the No. 1 pick in the June draft. I was wondering how close to the majors he really is. He seems to have the mental makeup to be in the majors right now but is it a matter of building up his arm strength over a long season? God knows the Bucs need pitching and plate discipline. I would gladly take Brownlie if he's going to be a No. 1 or 2 starter after a year in the minors. One out of two would be good.

    Jim Shaffer
    Masontown, W.Va.

It's safe to assume the Pirates are scouting Bobby Brownlie rather heavily, and he hasn't done anything to disappoint. Fresh off a win at Miami, he's 3-1, 1.74 through four starts, with a 26-5 strikeout-walk ratio and a .193 opponent average in 31 innings. But we all need to realize that despite Prior's impressive spring, pitchers just don't zoom quickly to the major leagues and become frontline starters.

If Pittsburgh takes Brownlie, he'll be the most advanced pitcher they've selected since they popped Kris Benson first overall in 1996. At the time, Benson was considered nearly ready for the major leagues. But he required two full seasons in the minors before joining the Pirates, and then he was more effective than dominant for two years until blowing out his elbow. Be excited if Pittsburgh gets Brownlie, but also be realistic.

    Even with all the "birthdays" we've witnessed this offseason, the baseball world is no closer to solving the mystery of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez' real age. Clearly, nobody in baseball seems to believe his listed age of 32 is even particularly close to accurate. I've heard speculation that El Duque is anywhere between 35 and 40 years old (or even over 40, though that also strains credulity). This whole thing has really taken on a life of its own and each Hernandez age joke makes me even more curious about it. So, please tell me: What is the most reliable information we have available as to the accurate identification of this man's age?

    Ricky Cobb

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that Hernandez was born on Oct. 11, 1965, and not on that date four years later, as the Yankees report in their media guide. I have a Cuban media guide from 1990 that lists the 1965 birthdate for Hernandez, as well as several other rosters through the years that list the same date. There never was any suspicion that the Cuban national team was lying about the ages of its players, aging them to make them less attractive to U.S. teams that might encourage them to defect.

After Hernandez joined the Yankees and subsequently divorced his wife, documents in Cuban court cases affirmed that he was born in 1965. I could have sworn that Hernandez came clean about his age a couple of years ago, but I can't find any record of that. Nevertheless, I fully believe that he's 36 and not 32.

March 14, 2002

Sorry for being late with Ask BA. I was too busy stealing Will Lingo's issue-used legal pad so I could sell it to a memorabilia dealer. Actually, we had problems with our server and I was doing some last-minute research for a package on general managers that will be in the issue that goes to press today. I can now tell you that Brian Cashman has the best winning percentage among active GMs at .611, just ahead of Larry Beinfest at .600. Beinfest, of course, has been GM for just five games. Also, there is evidence that Billy Beane can make a bad trade (see Steve Karsay for Mike Fetters, December 1997), but I can't find a single Seattle transaction that Pat Gillick would want to leave off his résumé.

I'm thrilled that the Red Sox hired Grady Little as their manager. Grady managed the local then-Class A Bulls when I first arrived in Durham, N.C., home of Baseball America World Headquarters, in 1988. Grady was successful in Durham, as he was throughout his long minor league career. He commanded respect, he had an eye for talent, he was helpful and he had a playful sense of humor. I remember being in West Palm Beach, Fla., for Braves spring training in the early 1990s, working on a story about Ryan Klesko. I was walking with Klesko from one of the remote diamonds when some fan started heckling me for some unknown reason. I didn't want to encourage the guy by looking at him, but Klesko was in hysterics as the ranting got more personal. I finally couldn't help myself and turned around to find . . . Grady Little, with a big grin on his face. Grady was also our choice as the best minor league manager during the first 20 years of Baseball America, and we gave him an award at our celebration at the 2001 Winter Meetings. It's nice to see a guy who paid so many dues get rewarded, and I think he's a good fit for Boston.

I'm off to represent Baseball America in Tout Wars, so there won't be a regularly scheduled Ask BA tomorrow. But feel free to question my auction decisions, as they should be posted live, and you'll get your regular dose of two Ask BAs next week.

    Over the weekend, Mark Prior struck out seven White Sox in three innings. Don Baylor is said to be considering breaking camp with Prior in the rotation, but GM Andy MacPhail and assistant GM Jim Hendry seem to be set on Prior starting the season in Double-A West Tenn. Why are MacPhail and Hendry so determined for Prior to start in Double-A if Prior doesn't need to further develop his stuff and is already able to get major leaguers out?

    Mike Vallely
    St. Louis

There aren't many people who are bigger fans of Prior than I am. Yet even I think it's at least a little ridiculous that after two spring outings, Baylor was starting to clamor for keeping Prior with the big club. I know he blew away the White Sox with one hit and seven strikeouts over three innings, but what's the rush? Prior is making major strides with his changeup now that he's discovered a palmball-like grip, and it gives him a third pitch he almost never needed in college.

But I still think it's a lot easier to destroy a guy's confidence than it is to build it up. Not that I think Prior will fall apart if he gets hammered, because his makeup is just as impressive as his stuff, command and mechanics. However, the Cubs have five off days in April, which mitigates the immediate need for a fifth starter. Why not send him to Double-A, let him tear up the Southern League and master his changeup for three or four starts, and then determine what to do with him? That's a more cautious approach, and I think that's what the Cubs will do. Especially after he struggled against the Giants today. As good as Prior is and he's going to be, it's a lot to expect him to advance directly to the major leagues and perform well.

    After his impressive four-inning outing against the Yankees, it has become apparent that Brett Myers may win the Phillies' No. 5 starter job. Does Myers have enough polish to pull a Josh Beckett and skip Triple-A?

    Brandon Kochkodin
    Minersville, Pa.

While it would be a stretch for Prior to go straight to the majors, it would be a joke to send Myers there on Opening Day. Myers has plenty of bravado—some might say too much—and he has much more pro experience and is actually 21 days older than Prior. But while Myers did OK in Double-A after bypassing high Class A last year, he by no means dominated the Eastern League.

In 156 innings, Myers gave up 156 hits and had a 130-43 strikeout-walk ratio. For a guy with a low- to mid-90s fastball and a well above-average curveball, those numbers tell me he still needs to learn how to pitch. He gave up seven hits and three walks in his first six spring innings, so it doesn't seem like he's figured it all out yet. I'd give him most of a season in Triple-A and would like to see him dominate like his stuff says he should before I'd bring him to Philadelphia.

    I was wondering what the Devil Rays' thinking might be with the second overall pick in the 2002 draft. It looks like they might have a bit of a dilemma. They changed course last year and went hard after college pitching, and they were pretty up front about targeting guys on the fast track. But after Rutgers' Bobby Brownlie, it looks like all the top guys this year are from high school. Your top two, Brownlie and Scott Kazmir, are undersized pitchers, which the Rays seem to shy away from. Any insight?

    Alan Rittner
    St. Petersburg, Fla.

This early in the draft season, it's mostly guesswork. Four of the Devil Rays' five first-round picks have been high school players, but the lone exception came last year with Dewon Brazelton. After taking Brazelton third overall, Tampa Bay took college pitchers with their next three picks as well. At this point, though, I'd guess that the Rays will wind up popping a high schooler. Assuming Brownlie goes first overall, the next-best college prospects are British Columbia lefthander Jeff Francis and Clemson third baseman Jeff Baker. Francis' Canadian background means he won't have faced competition as tough as most college pitchers have. Baker will be represented by Scott Boras, who warned Tampa Bay to not draft Mark Teixeira last year. The cash-strapped Devil Rays aren't going to be able to afford a Boras client with the No. 2 pick. Brownlie also is advised by Boras, so it's unlikely they'd take him if he were available.

I'm not so sure that Kazmir's size would scare off Tampa Bay, because he has overwhelming stuff and a number of short righthanders are succeeding in the majors. If the Rays wanted a bigger guy, 6-foot-5 Canadian lefty Adam Loewen could be their man. They've also never had anything resembling a quality shortstop, so Virginia's B.J. Upton could be mighty tempting.

The next two issues we'll work on will update our top prospect lists for the 2002 draft, first for college and then for high school. Stay tuned.

    Hello from Rangerland! My questions center around Grady Fuson. Is this guy really a draft guru like he's supposed to be, or did he just get lucky with some pitchers (albeit a lot of them) in Oakland? Also, with regards to the upcoming draft, with his track record for drafting more savvy college pitchers over maybe higher-ceiling high school pitchers, who fits that bill for Texas with the 10th pick in the draft? Obviously Bobby Brownlie (barring any major injuries) will be gone by then, but other than that it seems pretty wide open. If the draft were today, which way would you see the Rangers and Fuson leaning?

    Hunter Thornton
    Denton, Texas

If Fuson has just gotten lucky, it sure seemed to happen an awful lot when he was with Oakland. I think it's safe to say that when someone's first-round picks include Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, and when his later-round finds include Tim Hudson, Adam Piatt and Mario Ramos, he knows what he's doing. If I owned a major league club, I don't think I'd want Fuson to be my scouting director; I'd want him to be my general manager.

I think it's safe to assume that Fuson will focus on college players who have proven they know how to play the game. An obvious fit would be Baker, because the Rangers obviously aren't frightened by a Boras price tag. And though Texas needs pitching, they did last June as well and popped Teixeira. If the Rangers are hellbent on mound help, Stanford's Jeremy Guthrie (another Boras client) or Ball State's Brian Bullington might be their target.

March 8, 2002

I really don't enjoy ripping Major League Baseball again and again. But MLB just makes it too easy, like putting a ball on a tee for Sammy Sosa with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field.

The New York Daily News has discovered that in 1989, MLB uncovered evidence that umpires Richie Garcia and Frank Pulli had violated baseball rules by associating and doing business with gamblers and bookmakers. As MLB hammered home to all of us when they nailed Pete Rose to a cross that same year, baseball and gambling can't mix. But though umpires can control the outcome of a baseball game perhaps more than anyone, the umpires got off with a mere two years of probation. Which, of course, wasn't made public and wouldn't have been if the Daily News hadn't related it in a story published today.

Commissioner Bud Selig, in a huge upset, declined to comment. He says the investigation didn't happen on his watch. He didn't note, however, that on his watch Pulli works for MLB as an umpire supervisor and Garcia is being considered for a similar position. If he ever tires of being commissioner, I'm sure Selig could find work as an ostrich.

Sandy Alderson, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, told the Daily News that Garcia and Pulli made a mistake but he didn't doubt their integrity. He didn't know of the investigation when he hired Pulli two years ago but said it wouldn't have affected his decision. Hello? Giving a draftee $100,000 more than what MLB determines his slot money should be is a crisis, but this doesn't matter?

Fay Vincent, the commissioner who signed off on the investigation, told the Daily News that the umpire case differed from Rose's because there was no evidence that the Garcia and Pulli bet on baseball. One, the evidence that Rose bet on baseball is sketchy and probably wouldn't hold up in court. Two, let's just say that Garcia and Pulli bet only on football, basketball and jai alai. If they fell deep into debt to gamblers, wouldn't that be a huge problem?

MLB. Insert your own joke here.

    Would any of the new birthday boys been eligible for the major league Rule 5 draft last year had their real age been known. If so, what trickle-down effect would have exposed the most interesting player? Similarly, will any of these more mature players be added to next winter's Rule 5 list that wouldn't have before their age revision?

    John M. Perkins
    Macon, Ga.

Great question. To refresh everyone's memory, any player who was 18 or younger on the June 5 preceding the signing of his first contract has to be protected on the 40-man roster or exposed to the major league Rule 5 draft after four pro seasons. Any player who was 19 or older on that date has to be placed on the 40-man roster after three seasons.

The answer to this is exactly one player: Red Sox first baseman outfielder Daniel Figueroa, whose signing age turned out to be 19 rather than 16. Boston wouldn't have protected him nor lost him in the Rule 5 draft, because he has hit .222 in three seasons and has yet to advance past the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

A related question would be which players reserved on 40-man rosters might have been exposed to the Rule 5 draft had their true ages been known at the time. I checked the eight teams which lost players in the major league phase, and only one had a player on our master list of age changes who it kept on its 40-man roster: Astros righthander Rodrigo Rosario. He has nice stuff, including a 91-94 mph fastball, and is coming off a breakout season in the low Class A South Atlantic League–though that feat is less impressive now that we know he was 23 rather than 21. Because of their abundance of infielders and questions about Felix Escalona's glove, I don't think Houston necessarily would have exposed Rosario and protected Escalona, who was lost to the Giants.

The players we know about are all old enough or have played in the minors long enough that their revised ages won't affect their status for the 2002 major league Rule 5 draft. However, I suspect that the 53 players on our chart represent maybe just one-third or one-fourth of the actual total. Almost all of these guys are Dominicans, and are we supposed to believe that this issue is just limited to specific teams? I think every club has multiple players who suddenly have aged, but we just don't know about them. And as Friend of BA Kevin Goldstein constantly tells me, isn't it a little curious that none of the Dominican major league stars have had their birthdates changed?

    If the Twins' Corey Koskie misses a significant amount of time because of his wrist injury, could Michael Cuddyer step in and handle the hot corner defensively? That also would seem to create a better opportunity for Brian Buchanan and/or Bobby Kielty in right field.

    Ben Hemmens
    Arlington, Va.

At this point, Koskie is supposed to miss two more weeks with a bone bruise in his right wrist and he's expected to be ready for Opening Day. If he's not, Cuddyer wouldn't be Gold Glove material at the hot corner. He consistently has made throwing errors in the minors, with 80 errors and a .913 fielding percentage in 347 games at third base.

But Cuddyer could be a passable third baseman if he continues to work and improve, and if I were Ron Gardenhire, it would be an easy decision to put him there instead of the alternative, which would be to play Denny Hocking on an everyday basis. Hocking is a versatile utilityman, but the Twins need offense more than anything. Getting Buchanan or Kielty's bat into the lineup instead of Hocking's would help in that regard.

    Am I missing something, or was George Brett not the top third basemen since Mike Schmidt and doesn't Burroughs compare favorably to Brett? This isn't like having Mark Grace at first base because the 15-20 homers projected for Burroughs aren't below average as they might be for a first-base prospect like Adrian Gonzalez. Are scouts making too big a deal out of Burroughs' power dearth?

    Tom Silverstein
    Springfield, Va.

Tom is referring to our Prospect Showdown, where we had scouts compare the top prospects at certain positions. Subscribers can check out how Burroughs stacked up against Hank Blalock. For those who can't access that link, I'll summarize by saying that the scouts all liked Burroughs but clearly preferred Blalock, mainly because they believe he has significantly more power. Said one scout: "Hank Blalock might be about the best hitter out there. With Burroughs, I'm not sure of the power and the ultimate run-producing ability. We look at him as more of a contact guy. He doesn't have the power Blalock has. Neither guy is great defensively. Burroughs is probably better. Blalock is going to hit 30 to 40 homers a year in the majors. Burroughs is going to hit 15 to 20. Blalock has got better ability to hit the ball over the fence. Burroughs' style is all about contact and hitting the ball up the middle." Others echoed that viewpoint.

But while the scouts would rather have Blalock than Burroughs, they'd all take Burroughs in a second. They just expected him to hit for more power than he has shown. Burroughs has 17 homers in 340 games as a pro, while Blalock hit 18 in 2001.

The Brett comparison is pretty solid, and I think Burroughs will be that type of hitter: a contender for batting championships who drives balls into the gaps rather than over the fence. Brett hit .282-2-47 as a 21-year-old rookie. Burroughs is a 21-year-old rookie this season and I'd expect him to produce similar numbers, except with an adjustment for the inflated offense these days&150;say something like .290-10-75. And I'd say Brett not only was the top third baseman since Schmidt, but he was the second only to Schmidt among third basemen in the history of the game.

    My question concerns the progress of Jason Stokes. A second-round pick by the Marlins in 2000, he was regarded as the best pure power hitter out of high school in that draft. I remember reading an article about how he was regarded as thick and overweight, yet he worked hard to make himself into a top prospect. It looks like he struggled in the short-season New York-Penn League in his pro debut last year. Has he progressed as the Marlins have hoped? What chance does Stokes have to make it to the big leagues and become a cornerstone in the Marlins lineup for years to come?

    Jason Philpott
    Herndon, Va.

The 2000 draft swung firmly toward signability rather than ability, which is why Stokes lasted until the first pick in the second round rather than going in the first 10 selections. He signed late that summer for $2.027 million, so the Marlins brought him along slowly, keeping him in extended spring training last year. When he got to the NY-P, he went 3-for-5 in his first pro game and then went on the disabled list with back problems. Once he returned, he quickly hurt his hamstring. As a result, he was rarely fully healthy while hitting .231-6-19 with 48 strikeouts in 35 games.

I wouldn't hold last year against Stokes, because he was injured so much and it was a small sample size. He'll have to tighten his strike zone, get better conditioned and improve his outfield play. I suspect we'll see him in Florida in three or four years, and he has just the kind of power the Marlins could use in the middle of their lineup.

March 5, 2002

The Roberto Alomar trade isn't going to work out for the Indians, at least not for 2002. Alex Escobar, the key player in the deal from Cleveland's perspective and the club's potential starting center fielder this year, tore the anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee after running into the center-field wall during a Monday exhibition game. He's out for the year.

Escobar's prospect stock had fallen after a disappointing 2001 season in which he failed to hit consistently in Triple-A or the majors. Not only does he have to come back from an injury, but he also loses 500 at-bats that would have been crucial to his development. The only way the Indians are going to break even in the Alomar trade is if Escobar and lefthander Billy Traber pan out, with one becoming a star and the other a solid contributor, and the chances of that happening just decreased. To be fair, new Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro was told to cut payroll and didn't make the deal strictly on a talent basis.

Ask BA reader Rich Shaffer was surprised I didn't list Pirates lefthander Sean Burnett as a potential top prospect on a Carolina League Opening Day roster in the last installment of Ask BA. That was just an oversight on my part, because I like Burnett, and I've added him to that list.

    No Jamal Strong on your Top 100 Prospects list? Am I overrating him or is it his age? I've read where he's the best leadoff prospect in baseball.

    Chris Collins
    Janesville, Wis.

I know I've written that Strong has the best package of leadoff skills in the minors, in both Ask BA and in the 2002 Prospect Handbook. He gets on base by keeping the ball on the ground and using his considerable speed and plate discipline, and he steals bushels of bases without getting caught very often. He did receive consideration for the Top 100.

But as you can see from the list, he came up a little bit short. He doesn't have much power, and that could be a liability, especially if he remains with the Mariners for the long term. In terms of ceiling he's only the sixth-best center fielder in the organization. That's amazing, but that's the truth with Ichiro (he could play center if needed), Mike Cameron, Chris Snelling, Shin-Soo Choo and Kenny Kelly also on hand. And while Strong is a safer bet than the less-advanced Choo and has a stronger track record than Kelly, he's probably going to be forced to play left field if he starts for Seattle. Some scouts think he's better suited for left rather than center because of his weak throwing arm. In any case, I don't see him beating out Snelling or Choo from an offensive standpoint. My guess is that he may get caught in limbo between Triple-A and the majors down the road, or he'll get traded.

That may seem like nitpicking, but it's hard to limit the list to 100 prospects. Strong is one of my favorite minor league players, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he does in Double-A this year. If I were running a team and needed a leadoff man, I'd be calling Pat Gillick about Strong.

    I was intrigued that last year's No. 1 prospect, Josh Hamilton, fell to 18th this year. With his nagging back, I'm actually surprised he didn't drop farther. My question concerns No. 2 (or No. 1A) from last year, Corey Patterson. If he had a few less games under his belt to still qualify for your list this year, how far would he have fallen?

    James McNeany
    Delphi, Ind.

We may get more questions about Patterson than anyone. My position, and I've said this often, is that I still think he'll be a star-caliber major leaguer. But because he has been rushed through the minors, I believe he'll need another season or two to catch his breath before becoming the player the Cubs envision. He still needs to learn how to hit lefthanders and enhance his on-base ability. That will be tougher to do in the majors than in Triple-A, but remember that he's still just 22 and has plenty of time to improve.

Looking at our Top 100, I think it could be argued that Patterson could fit anywhere from No. 4, ahead of Sean Burroughs, to No. 14, ahead of Ryan Anderson. I'd be inclined to put him at No. 8, just in front of Wilson Betemit, whose value won't be quite as high if he doesn't stay at shortstop.

As for Hamilton, there just isn't definitive word on his back at this time. If we knew that it was going to be a long-term problem, we'd slide him further down the list. But if he's healthy, he can be a dynamic hitter and a plus defender.

    What do you think of the Mets' lower-level hitting prospects? They've got the most barren high-level system I've ever seen, but with Jose Reyes, Enrique Cruz and David Wright to name a few, the future doesn't seem as dim.

    Mike Harris
    Madison, N.J.

I agree with Mike on both counts. The Mets have one of the game's more barren farm systems, in part because they've traded a slew of minor leaguers for veterans in the last few years, and it's very thin in Double-A and Triple-A. That's especially true with hitters. Their two best offensive prospects who have played much in Double-A or higher are slugger Rob Stratton, whose power was offset by his 201 strikeouts last year, and Jason Phillips, who might be more of a backup catcher than a starter in the majors.

I wouldn't exactly say that New York has amassed a lot of hitting depth in the lower minors, but I'm high on Reyes and Wright. Reyes had a nice breakthrough in low Class A last year, though he's going to have to get more disciplined at the plate as he moves up. Provided he does that, he'll be a capable hitter who can steal a few bases while providing outstanding shortstop defense. Wright is the best pure hitter in the system and could be the long-term third baseman the Mets always seem to be searching for, though he has yet to advance to full-season ball. I'm not as excited about Cruz, but he does offer some intriguing tools at third base.

    Perhaps you can clear this up. In the major league Rule 5 Draft, Pittsburgh drafted Luis Ugueto from Florida, then sold him to Seattle. Was this legal? Now what if the Mariners want to keep him in their system but not on their major league roster? Do they offer him back to the Marlins or must he clear waivers first? Or can Florida take him back, then put him on waivers, hoping he'll clear them so it can trade him to Seattle?

    John Delahanty

The Pirates' sale of Ugueto, a slick-fielding shortstop who still needs to develop offensively, to the Mariners was a perfectly legal move and happens all the time in the major league Rule 5 draft. Last December, two similar transactions took place. The Expos drafted righthander Joe Valentine from the White Sox and sold him to the Tigers, while the Angels plucked lefty Steve Kent from the Mariners and sent him to the Devil Rays for cash.

Pittsburgh's Rule 5 rights and responsibilities regarding Ugueto transferred to Seattle. The Mariners have to keep Ugueto on their active major league roster (or big league disabled list) all season. If they don't, they have to run him through waivers, at which point any team can claim him. If no club does, Seattle would have to offer him back to Florida for half of his $50,000 draft price. At any time, the Mariners can work out a deal with the Marlins for Ugueto, in which case they could reassign him to the minors and not have to worry about having him clear waivers. The Cubs did that in 2001 with righthander Scott Chiasson, sending him to the minors after dealing Eric Hinske to the Athletics.

March 1, 2002

Following up on a recent Ask BA topic: Korean righthander Jin Pil-Jung won't be coming to spring training with the Dodgers, or any other team for that matter. The 29-year-old reliever (who I mistakenly had as 27) was posted by the Korean Series champion Doosan Bears, but none of the 30 major league clubs made an offer for the rights to negotiate with Jung. The deadline expired on Tuesday.

I had been unable to locate any stats on Jin when I discussed him on February 12, but Friend of Ask BA and Asian baseball expert Gary Garland came to the rescue. Jin went 9-3, 3.22 with 23 saves and 88 strikeouts in 89 innings last year for Doosan. He set the Korean saves record with 42 in 2000 and has a career record of 64-47, 3.26 with 126 saves and 554 strikeouts in 776 innings. Perhaps we'll see Jin next year.

Adding to the anticipation surrounding Kazuhisa Ishii, Gary also reports that Ishii faced Ichiro Suzuki seven times in Japan, during the Japan Series, an exhibition game and an all-star series. Suzuki went 1-for-5 with a walk and was hit by a pitch. They'll meet again in a March 31 exhibition.

    My question concerns the recent rash of age discrepancies among foreign-born players. Specifically, what are the rights of teams with players who may have misrepresented their age? Could a team like Kansas City use such an age discrepancy to rid itself of Neifi Perez and his $4.1 million salary (something I gather they're looking to do anyway) to make room for a younger (we think!) and cheaper player such as Angel Berroa? I realize that this scenario seems somewhat unlikely as the Royals would then have effectively traded Jermaine Dye for nothing.

    Tom Dolan
    Stamford, Conn.

    Shouldn't teams be allowed to void contracts is cases where players lie about their ages? It seems like a straight case of fraud. I guess the player's age might not explicitly in the contract and the union would fight it to the death, but in the case of Rey Ordonez it seems like the Mets should be able to void his deal.

    Mike Harris
    Madison, N.J.

    The biggest story of the spring is the revelation of all the age discrepancies in Latin American ballplayers. My question has two parts: First, are there any prospects whose projections are radically altered by the change in ages? Does Mario Encarnacion, for example, suffer in estimation because he's actually 26, not 24? Does Rafael Furcal's future look any different at age 23 than it did at 21? And second, do the clubs that signed these players have any legal recourse? Because the players did sign a legally binding agreement while offering false information, you'd think it would be possible that these contracts could be voided. I think in some cases (such as the Mets with Rey Ordonez), the clubs would jump at the chance to void these deals.

    Kurt Berger
    Wyandotte, Mich.

In most of these cases, which BA webmaster Will Kimmey has documented on a master list, the team would want to retain the player. (Ordonez is an obvious exception.) Voiding the contract, if it were a possibility, would make the player a free agent. My guess is most clubs wouldn't bother trying to do that, which also could lead to hard feelings when trying to sign other foreign amateurs in the future.

I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. But I think there would be some obstacles a team might find difficult to overcome. One is that the player's age was a significant factor in the contract. Most of these guys were signed to very small bonuses that wouldn't have different even if their true ages had been known. When Ordonez signed a four-year, $19 million contract in January 2000, the Mets wouldn't have cared had they realized he was 29 rather than 27. He was coming off a season in which he had set a major league record for consecutive errorless games at shortstop and had his best offensive totals (though he was still far from productive). Said New York GM Steve Phillips at the time: "You build teams up the middle and certainly with Rey and Edgardo [Alfonzo], we have as strong a combination as arguably any in the game. They have been an important part of our success and one we feel is part of the formula for success. Therefore we wanted to secure that for as long as we could."

Second, teams know what's going on and have for decades. They may not know of every instance, but they have their suspicions. It's almost a given that when we talk to club officials about prospects, the ages of Hispanic prospects (particularly Dominicans) will be questioned. To use just one example, I don't believe many people in baseball were surprised when Juan Cruz aged two years overnight. I'm just astonished that the Yankees are trying to void Andy Morales' contract on the basis that he misrepresented in age when everyone I talked to knew how old he really was.

As for players whose future doesn't look as bright, the leading candidate for me is Ramon Ortiz, who will be 29 instead of 26 on Opening Day. Instead of continuing to develop, he may have reached his peak. If Padres second baseman Bernie Castro is 24 (as opposed to the current revision to 22), I'm not very excited about him. And while I like Astros righthander Rodrigo Rosario, I'm not as impressed that he had a big season in the low Class A South Atlantic League at age 23, rather than 21.

And just to quibble with Tom, I'd say that you could argue that the Royals effectively traded Dye for nothing, even if they keep Perez. They would have been better off nontendering Perez, playing Berroa (or a stopgap until Berroa is ready) and saving the money to try to re-sign Mike Sweeney.

    Here's a chance to use your psychic baseball abilities. What are your predictions for the 2002 minor league all-star teams? Also, what's your best estimate as to the prospects that each league might have to start the season? I'm especially interested in the Carolina and New York-Penn leagues.

    Peter Stevens
    Newark, Del.

I'll pull out the crystal ball and limit myself to players I think will spend all or most of 2002 in the minors, and will be in ballparks or situations that will help their cause. Here's my all-star team:

CJoe Mauer, Twins
1BJustin Morneau, Twins
2BJosh Barfield, Padres
3BMark Teixeira, Rangers
SSKelly Johnson, Braves
OFChris Snelling, Mariners
OFGabe Gross, Blue Jays
OFJohn-Ford Griffin, Yankees
LHPJimmy Gobble, Royals
RHPJake Peavy, Padres

I don't think any of those names are big surprises to anyone who reads BA or visits our website regularly. If I have to pick a sleeper, I'll nominate Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth.

I'm not going to break down the expected prospects for every league, but I'll take a crack at the two leagues Peter mentioned. In the Carolina League, possibilities include: second baseman Mike Fontenot and lefthander Rich Stahl (Frederick); third baseman Corey Smith (Kinston); lefthander Sean Burnett, McLouth and righthanders John VanBenschoten and Chris Young (Lynchburg); Johnson, lefthander Ben Kozlowski, second baseman Richard Lewis and righthander Adam Wainwright (Myrtle Beach); righthanders Dan Haren and Justin Pope (Potomac); righthander Runelvys Hernandez (Wilmington); and righthander Wyatt Allen and first baseman Casey Rogowski (Winston-Salem). I don't see anyone on Salem who really excites me.

As for the New York-Penn League, the candidates are less apparent because many of the better prospects will be early college draft picks from the 2002 draft. Some quick guesses: righthander Ezequiel Astacio and shortstop Carlos Rodriguez (Batavia); shortstop Anderson Hernandez and third baseman Juan Gonzalez (Oneonta); and righthander Joey DeLeon (Pittsfield).

    What are your thoughts on White Sox lefthander Arnaldo Munoz? He wasn't on Chicago's Top 15 list in your issue, but he posted quite good numbers at low Class A Kannapolis last season at age 19. He also has received a great deal of hype from the organization since spring training started.

    Jeremy Barr

When Phil Rogers talks or writes, I listen. Last year, he had then-unknown lefthander Corwin Malone as his sleeper pitcher on his White Sox Top 30 Prospects list for us. He also raved about how good Mark Buehrle looked in spring training. In the 2002 Prospect Handbook, Phil puts Munoz at No. 17 on Chicago's Top 30. Here's what Phil wrote:

Don't judge this book by its cover. The little Dominican may have been standing on a telephone book when he was measured at 5-foot-9, but he's a fighter with lots of heart. Munoz had enough talent for the White Sox to sign him at age 16, and he needed only one season at their Dominican academy to earn a coveted visa. Last year he held hitters to a .161 average and averaged 13.0 strikeouts per nine innings in the South Atlantic League, which he led with 60 appearances. Munoz has an eye-popping, Barry Zito-style curveball that makes him essentially unhittable for lefthanders. He complements it with another effective curveball that breaks down. His fastball is sneaky fast, reaching the low 90s at times. Opponents almost never try to run against Munoz, whose move to first base is a true weapon. He needs to work on getting ahead of hitters, as he has walked 5.2 per nine innings in his short career. He won't turn 20 until the middle of this season, which means his velocity could increase in coming years. He has all the makings of a feared situational lefty.

    After he ranked number No. 3 in the Padres system and No. 53 overall in BA's 2001 ratings, what happened to Wascar Serrano? He wasn't too impressive at Triple-A Portland or in San Diego last year, and after being traded to Seattle in December, he has but disappeared from prospect lists. What's his story?

    Daniel Dietz
    Middlebury, Vt.

Serrano always has shown a strong arm, but his career has stalled because he never has been able to make much progress with his slider and changeup. His velocity dipped last year from the low to mid-90s down to the high 80s, and the results were disastrous. The Padres included him in the trade that brought them Ramon Vazquez, as several pitchers had passed him by in their system. The Mariners will move him to the bullpen on a permanent basis and hope that resurrects his career. It certainly will lessen the need for Serrano to have three pitches, so he'll probably just focus on his fastball and slider. He ranks No. 24 on our Seattle Top 30 in the Prospect Handbook.

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