WTNYJuly 12, 2004
Baseball's Crystal Ball
By Bryan Smith

The future of baseball, as far as pitching goes, definitely is in good hands.
- Koyie Hill, Dodgers prospect, to Baseball America

Despite a deceiving final score, the 2004 Futures Game should forever be remembered as a pitchers duel, as sixteen of the seventeen pitchers escaped without allowing an earned run. Mostly, it was bad defense that helped plate a total of seven runs, as the two squads combined for three costly errors. After jumping out to an early 4-0 lead, the United States barely held on, surrendering three seventh inning runs.

The short left field porch of Minute Maid Park had little bearing on the game, as the teams combined for only eleven hits, and an even fewer three extra-base hits. Toronto shortstop prospect Aaron Hill hit one of the three, a two-run, go-ahead double that would later earn him the MVP award. But, there is no question the game belonged to the pitchers, who awed hitters and fans alike with their Major League readiness.

Joe Blanton, perhaps the pitcher closest to the Majors, started on the mound, allowing a walk and a hit in his scoreless inning. Blanton labored a bit, throwing nineteen pitches, what would be the third highest total of the day. Considered the best player from the Moneyball draft, Blanton was uninspiring, throwing mostly fastballs between 91-94 mph, using his mid-70s curve as a set-up pitch more than an out pitch. Justin Morneau was the only big name he faced, causing the equally-ready first basemen to ground into a fielders choice.

In the bottom half of the inning, my seventh ranked prospect Jeff Francis took the mound for the World team, facing the formidable trio of Chris Burke, B.J. Upton and Dallas McPherson. The Canadian southpaw was up for the challenge, striking out Upton and McPherson to end a 1-2-3 inning. Francis seemed to impress the announcing crew of Tony Gwynn and Peter Gammons more than any other pitcher, showing three Major League pitches in his inning of work. At 6-5, the 23-year-olds 89-91 mph fastball was deceiving on hitters, and he also showcased a high-70s change up and low-80s slider. I was worried that Francis might rely too much on the fastball after throwing it often early, but he retired McPherson on three straight off speed pitches.

Tim Stauffer, the Padres fourth overall selection last year, threw a 1-2-3 top half of the second inning, showing as much dominance as the man that preceded him. Stauffer seemed the most ready of any pitcher, throwing three pitches in the ten-pitch inning that included strikeouts of Tony Blanco and Jose Cortes. Stauffer was between 90-91 with the fastball, also showing a low-80s change and high-70s, impressive curve. It seemed the United States had the benefit of facing a worse group of hitters, seeing as though none of their starting lineup was a top 40 prospect (Morneau would be), compared to seven for the U.S.

There was nothing nearly as exciting as watching Felix Hernandez, my top ranked pitching prospect, as he pitched to hitters nearly six years older than him. The 18-year-old seemed to have a strut walking around the mound, showing extreme confidence despite having to face Prince Fielder and David Wright to lead off the inning. Felix led off the inning with a two mid-90s fastballs, though the Milwaukee first basemen took the second one the other way for a single. Hernandez than went to a 82-84 mph, jaw-dropping curveball on three of the next four pitches, eliminating David Wright in quick order. Koyie Hill led off his at-bat taking a Hernandez fastball to second, where Ruben Gotay and Joel Guzman turned an impressive 4-6-3 double play.

After two innings, the quality of play seemed to drop, as the third inning would host two of the least impressive pitching performances. I had high hopes for John Danks, a 19-year-old Rangers prospect, who would need 33 pitches to escape a bases loaded jam. Danks surely wasnt helped by three questionable plays by David Wright, who I had heard was a dependable fielder. After a rather unimpressive at-bat by Joel Guzman ended in a single, Wright made an error, and ten two plays later tagged out Guzman running to third rather than turning a 5-4-3 double play. Last years ninth overall selection, Danks pitched slower than some reports had him, throwing between 89-92, and showcasing a curveball he left up quite often. Its hard to blame the kid, hes only weeks away from the Midwest League, which hasnt exactly been a prospects paradise this year.

A Rule V pick last year, Wil Ledezma helped the U.S. break up a scoreless game, though Mariners outfield prospect Shin-Soo Choo is mostly to blame. Ledezma, who some scouts have compared to Johan Santana, showed little else other than a good fastball, giving up singles to Jason Kubel and Burke. With two outs, B.J. Upton popped up to right field, though Choo would lose track of the ball, allowing Kubel and Burke to score before throwing out a confused Upton.

Clint Everts needed only eight pitches to retire the side, striking out one on a very impressive curve. It seems the Expos top prospect has fallen in love with the pitch, as he threw it on five of his eight pitches. His fastball was only about 86-88, a little too close to his 80 mph curve to be really impressive as he moves up the chain. The same wasnt true by Jose Capellan, the Braves prospect that seemed to dominate his inning despite allowing a hit to Wright. Capellan threw his fastball from 95-98, using it on thirteen of his fifteen total pitches. His curve was rather unimpressive, and though this might depress Braves fans, Capellan reminded me of a younger Kyle Farnsworth.

Why Bill Murphy made the Futures Game roster I dont know, and despite a two-strikeout, scoreless inning, I still didnt know at innings end. Murphy walked Cubs prospect Felix Pie in his second at-bat, something hes done 53 times in the Southern League so far this season. Still, Murphy threw mostly fastballs, really only trying to use his breaking ball as an out pitch, which worked one of the three times. Also unimpressive was Arnie Munoz, the White Sox southpaw that has struggled since a terrible spot start, that is lucky to have the runs he allowed go as unearned.

After rising prospect Conor Jackson smoked a double to left field, Jason Kubel reached base for the second time thanks to an Andy Marte error. While not the most gracious call by the scorer, Marte should have made the play moving to his left. Munoz forced Oriole outfielder Val Majewski to hit into a fielders choice before Fernando Valenzuela brought in Yusmeiro Petit to try and close the inning. Petits first batter was Rickie Weeks, last years second pick, that hit an unsuccessful infield fly to third. And then came the Hill at-bat, where Petit hung a curve to see Hill smoke a two-run double to left. Petit wasnt two impressive, throwing only a 89-90 mph fastball, along with an 80-82 mph curveball that he left up a little too much. The numbers were jaw-dropping in the Sally League, sure, but dont be too quick to put him in your top ten, readers.

Joke. That is what I thought of Brian Bullington, the former first overall pick that pitched the top half of the sixth inning. But, Bullington impressed me, throwing a low-90s sinker and a very good curve that he can throw strikes with. Maybe he will end up in the bullpen, but Bullington did a nice job against Marte, Choo and Jesus Cota.

El Mago threw the bottom half, throwing one of the easiest mid-90s fastballs that I have ever seen. It didnt look like Valdez was laboring at all, and he also threw a change and curve in his eight pitch stint. After retiring Fielder and Wright, Valdez was taken out to let the fans see Jairo Garcia, the As reliever that just finished storming threw the Midwest League. For a reliever with an ERA under 1.00, I wasnt too blown away by Garcia, although the slider he struck Jeff Mathis on was disgusting. Garcia threw a 94-95 mph fastball, and a slider ten miles per hour slower, throwing one of his three well.

It seemed a sure bet that after six innings the U.S. would win 4-0, considering they were prepared to throw Matt Cain, Gavin Floyd and Kyle Sleeth at the World to end the game. But, the Americans decided to make things interesting, as Cain loaded the bases before registering an out, putting Gavin Floyd in quite the predicament. A Felix Pie single, Robinson Cano sac, and a wild pitch later, it was a one-run game. But, Floyd would strike out Justin Morneau, and Kyle Sleeth would retire Andy Marte to close out the game.

Watching a game like this, I grow appreciation for scouts, as it was very difficult to get a good read on the makeup of a hitter. I didnt have a great problem seeing which pitchers I liked and which I didnt, but adding anything to previous position player scouting reports would be difficult for me. But, I thought the pitching was fantastic in the game, and it definitely provides a good glimpse of the future.


My breakdown of the game will slow down my next prospect ranking (41-75), which should be on the site late Wednesday night. But, for your viewing pleasure, Ill give you a glimpse of the next installment, presenting prospects 41-50 without comment:

41. Ian Stewart- Colorado Rockies- 3B
42. Joel Guzman- Los Angeles Dodgers- SS
43. Jake Stevens- Atlanta Braves- SP
44. Rickie Weeks- Milwaukee Brewers- 2B
45. Guillermo Quiroz- Toronto Blue Jays- C
46. Chris Burke- Houston Astros- 2B
47. Kyle Davies- Atlanta Braves- SP
48. Dioner Navarro- New York Yankees- C
49. John Van Benschoten- Pittsburgh Pirates- SP
50. Ryan Howard- Philadelphia Phillies- 1B

Drop any Futures Game comments below, and check back on Thursday for a detailed report of my rankings.

Comments

Cano actually had an RBI groundout to first.

Jeff Francis is also 23, not 19.

I see Ian Stewart at 41, but no Eric Duncan, there performances have been very similar this year so I hope you don't split them too far in the rankings.

McPherson, who I think is Dean Palmer part 2 more than anything else, looked bad in the game.

Hernandez was throwing about 97 consistently, he impressed me moreso than anyone else. Fielder going to left on a 97 fastball was also good to see.

Everyone seems to be getting on David Wright's defense, but I think the only miscue he really had was the play where he got an error.

I am also curious as to why Chris Burke was picked ahead of Robinson Cano.

Fabian-
Thanks for the corrections, they have been made, probably the product of stupid late-night errors.

As for your comments,

- Stewart is said to have much better 'raw' power than Duncan, and though park factors might bring together the numbers, Stewart still is superior in AVE and XBH. And I believe that Stewart is a little younger as well, warranting why he's higher than your boy. But don't worry, he's top 75.

- Cano over Burke? No way! Sure, Cano is younger than Burke, but look at the Houston second basemen's AAA numbers?!? He was on pace to steal 40 bases and have 50 extra-base hits, better numbers than Cano has. He's much more polished, and I still doubt Cano's ability to maintain his numbers throughout a season.

I thought Wright's worst play was when he should have turned the double play, but instead went for the tag. Plays like that will come with experience, but he could have ended Danks' day early.

In my opinion, Hernandez was the most impressive pitcher, and Guzman the least impressive hitter.

Guzman did not look great, but I guess I have more of a bone to pick with McPherson, so to speak, because I think way too many people are overrating him. In one of his recent chats, Rob Neyer even called McPherson THE best 3B prospect in baseball.

I don't see how you can have Burke ahead of Cano. Burke is 24 and Cano is 21. Burke has been at AAA all year, and Cano was at AA for the first half before being promoted to AAA a few weeks ago. On the season Burke is hitting .325 with 30 extra base hits and a 33:36 BB:K ratio in 286 at bats. Cano is hitting .306 with 39 extra base hits and a 30:44 strikeout ratio in 337 at bats. Has Burke outperformed Cano? Sure. However, given the HUGE difference in age, I think Cano is easily ahead of Burke. Were it not for Rickie Weeks' track record, I would be tempted to call Cano the No. 1 2B prospect in baseball.

Stewart vs. Duncan

Ian Stewart was born April 5, 1985. Eric Duncan was born December 7, 1984. I agree that Stewart should be ahead of Duncan. Ian Stewart's numbers in the SAL league work out to a (hopefully you are familiar with this) MjEQA of .213. Eric Duncan's numbers in the MWL work out to a MjEQA of .202, so park and league factors do tighten the gap. I don't think Duncan is as good a prospect as Stewart, in addition to outperforming him every step of the way thus far in their pro careers, Stewart also has a better amateur track record, but I don't think he should be too far behind Stewart. The thing that worries me about Duncan is the strikeouts, but part of that "problem" could just be that he consistently works the count deep, which I know for a fact.

Just noticed your comments about Cano and Burke in terms of speed. That's one area of Cano's game that I can't get a good read on. On the one hand, you would think that a guy who has 8 triples on the year, and was leading the EL in that category before his promotion would have a ton of speed, but then he also has only 2 stolen bases and 5 caught stealing. The other thing is that I've heard scouts say he doesn't have much range in the field, only to also here that his range is tremendous. From what I have seen of him, he has very good range out there, then again I have only seen 5 or so of his games and being a NY I don't have much experience viewing excellent 2B work.

P.S.: Sorry for dominating the Comments section.

Why didn't you say anything about Capellan? In my opinion, the best 3 pitchers of the day were, in order, Capellan, Francis, and Hernandez, with Cappelan's fastball being by far the sweetest pitch I saw all day. Hernandez's stuff wasn't quite as beautiful as the other two, IMO, but still pretty f-in amazing, and plus he's only 18 years old!!!

JH--
I actually did say something about Capellan...

"The same wasnt true by Jose Capellan, the Braves prospect that seemed to dominate his inning despite allowing a hit to Wright. Capellan threw his fastball from 95-98, using it on thirteen of his fifteen total pitches. His curve was rather unimpressive, and though this might depress Braves fans, Capellan reminded me of a younger Kyle Farnsworth."

To be honest, I wasn't as awed by Capellan as most people, his breaking ball just wasn't that great. But of those three, stuff wise I would say Hernandez, Capellan and Francis. Who knows how to pitch the best? Francis, Hernandez, Capellan.

Bryan, no love for my posts? Also, is it just me or did the Wednesday at the end of the post suddenly become Thursday?

Hmmm, just realized it says to drop Futures Game comments here, so perhaps that's why.

Ha! I'm blind.

I thought the curve was pretty good, and the fastball is the sweetest pitch I've seen by a youngster in awhile. I wish Felix hadn't been so damn effective in getting that DP so I could have seen more than 8 pitches. As a lifelong Mariners fan, I'm thrilled that you liked what you saw even more than I did!

I thought Gavin Floyd was the most overrated pitcher at the game, stuff-wise. Joe Blanton was #2 in my book in that category.

Francis is NASTY!

A few questions on Indian prospects, what do you think of...
1) Fausto Carmona? Great WHIP and K/BB last year, has passed high A with high marks.
2) Ryan Garko? He's mashing, but quite old for the Carolina League and hasn't really mastered a position. Is he simply another 1B/DH or will he be able to stay behind the plate?
3) Jhonny Peralta? I know he's ineligible for this list, but is his 900 OPS for real? His previous high was 800, but he's always been a bit young for his level.

Fabian--
There's always love and appreciation for your posts. Burke has a better MjEqA at BPro, though I admit that's not the end-all, be-all here. In fact, I really came across that site AFTER finishing my rankings. Burke's numbers look to be great for a future leadoff man, but, if Cano can prove to me that numbers like his can sustain for a full season, maybe things will switch at year's end.

JH--
Capellan threw fifteen pitches in the Futures Game, and only four for balls, which was great. What scares me is that he threw 13 fastballs, which is too many for a starting pitcher. Both curves were 82 mph called strikes, both lacking some bite, IMO. Of the fastballs, I had three clocked at 98, five clocked at 97, and two at 96. Hernandez threw four fastballs, two at 97 and two at 96. Also, I read in Baseball America that Felix has a 91 mph slider he has yet to unveil to hitters...watch out. Hernandez also had one of the top two curves in the game. He's the real deal.

Jojo-
Well, neither will make my top 75, in fact, no more Indians will make the list. Adam Miller was just squeezed out, in large part because of his falloff since April. As for the players you mentioned:

Carmona: There's no question that AA is a big barrier for him, because he had the stats to fool some, but not the stuff. Carmona has been decent since joining Akron, and I think that's the type of prospect he is: decent. High H/9 and K/BB, but low K/9.

Garko: The points you made about Garko were right on the nose. His age is a problem, as is his defense. With Victor Martinez and Josh Bard in the system, there's no way they'll even worry about Garko's defense, excepting he's just another Jason Phillips or Matthew LeCroy. But with lefties like Travis Hafner, Michael Aubrey, and Ben Broussard, a right-handed slugger off the bench is good.

Peralta- Vizquel will be gone at year's end, and Jhonny should get a chance next year to prove if he's real. This good? No, but league average SS, probably.

Yeah, I noticed that about Cano/Burke too. Burke's numbers over at BPro are very impressive.