After Tuesday's article, in which I decided Hanley Ramirez is currently my top ranked shortstop prospect, I began to reconsider a few other decisions I made in January. Further thought, further information, the combination of 10 games and Spring Training all could explain why I have made these changes. After April we will explore what my rankings currently look like, but for now, I can tell you two players that are now over the other two.
One battles injuries and opportunity, the other has issues with weight and consistency. Both came from high school with polished resumes, and had influential fathers to help their progress. Their skillsets are totally different: one offers huge power and defensive issues while the other is defense and average first.
The two are baseball's best first base prospects. But in what order?
Casey Kotchman was a first-round pick in 2001, when the Angels brought him into the organization in which his father coached. Even then Casey was drawing the inevitable J.T. Snow/Mark Grace comparison that comes with defense and discipline. A year later, Prince Fielder was drafted eighth overall, as the Brewers picked immediately before the Tigers had planned to pick him.
Both players spent their age 19 season in the Midwest League, where Fielder won the league MVP in 2003. He outhomered Kotchman by 22, and even beat Casey in his own game, with an average thirty-two points better. Where Kotchman spent his next season between dominating the California League and on the disabled list, Fielder struggled in AA. Kotchman's best season was 2004, in which he tore through the Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues en route to the Majors.
This season, the pair are pitted against each other for the first time in the PCL. Kotchman's season began a nightmare for a prospect trying to prove he deserves a spot: nineteen at-bats without a hit. Currently Kotchman is hitting .137, and despite impressing with thirteen walks, still waiting on that first extra-base hit. Fielder has four of those, twice as many walks, and an underwhelming .233 average.
Despite Kotchman's advantages in contact and defense, I think that Fielder's ceiling blows his competitor away. Prince began Spring Training on a tear, giving a sign of things to come to Brewer fans. Fielder will compete for the National League Rookie of the Year next year at 22. Kotchman needs injuries to play at that age, and the same will likely be true next year. Ryan Howard luck, Brian Roberts (v. 2004) power and a Jeter (v. 2004) slump is not the right way to convince the Angels to give him a spot.
Felix Hernandez is baseball's best pitching prospect. Shocking, I know. His place atop the pitching heap is uncontested; no one else is particularly close. So the real question is not who is on top, but who follows him?
Months ago, the answer surely would have been Adam Miller or Scott Kazmir. But Miller has arm problems and will be back by June at the earliest. Kazmir has now graduated from prospect status like 2004 Player of the Year Jeff Francis. So, the battle comes down to Giants pitcher Matt Cain and Dodger right-hander Chad Billingsley.
Both the Dodgers and Giants are known in baseball for the occasional draft day surprise. Cain and Billingsley were both players that had rose to their first-round status weeks before the draft. Trying to decipher who has the stuff advantage is a fool's game; both players have very good stuff with a solid 1-2 combo. Mid-90s fastballs with a good breaking pitch is what had them noticed by scouts, and some great performances in the minors have them atop their organizational depth chart.
In the past, I have used Kerry Wood as a comparison to Billingsley. While comparing his pure stuff to Kid K's might be a bit extreme, there are undoubtedly issues with control. Billingsley is probably about a year behind Wood's pace, meaning he'll hit the Majors at the age of 22. Now I'm not projecting any 20 strikeout games, but I think for Dodger fans, something better than Edwin Jackson will be enough for them.
Despite being drafted a year before Billingsley, Cain is the same baseball age as his competitor. After showing good control in the Sally League in 2003 and to start the year last season, the W/9 was over 4.0 in the Eastern League last season. Cain scared me off before for being a little more hittable, a little more apt to allow the home run, and his fall-off in the EL last year. But, on second thought, hard to argue with fifteen good AA starts at 19.
This season, Cain has become the rage. Billingsley has pitched modestly through three starts -- five runs in 13.2 innings with 16 K -- but pales in comparison to Cain. The Giant right-hander was unexpectedly moved to AAA, a move I would have discouraged, but a move he has proven ready for. Cain is months away from the Majors, at a place similar to Hernandez at only a year behind.
Youth, control, stuff. Matt Cain. Baseball's second best pitching prospect.
Finally, a few news and notes from around the minors:
- J.D. Martin, who was noted by Baseball America to have added a cutter during the offseason, continues his run as the minors most impressive pitcher. While his scoreless streak was not quite Brad Thompson like -- ending after 19.1 innings yesterday -- Martin is probably the better prospect. A former first round pick that was available in the Rule 5 draft this winter, Martin struck out eleven while issuing just one walk in six innings yesterday. For those of you counting, that brings Martin's season K/BB to 28/4, while allowing just seven hits in 19 innings. Cleveland suffered a sizeable blow when Adam Miller went down during Spring Training, and Martin's continued breakout would be a solace for their huge loss.
- Some might say that Jeff Niemann, the Devil Rays first round pick last June, is in competition with Cain and Billingsley for the top spot. Yesterday, we found out that it is true that Niemann is a bit more raw than the average college pitcher. The Stockton Ports did more than most universities could do the last two seasons, scoring five runs on the 6-9 right-hander in three innings. Niemann allowed two home runs in the game, a weakness that cannot continue should he stay high among the pitching prospects.
- It's getting to the point where hitting .400 is impressive, and there are some good middle infield prospects still doing that feat. Howie Kendrick's 2/5 performance yesterday actually worsened his average to .418, as he also tacked on his ninth extra-base hit of the season. Meanwhile in the Midwest League, bonus babies Eric Patterson and Matt Tuiasasopo are both hitting fantastically. While Tui might not have the defense to stay at short, he's proving that he might just have enough in his bat for third.
Any other prospects have numbers to gawk at in this young season? Any first-hand accounts?