Disheartened by Derrek, lifted by Lind, fascinated by Francisco and more in this week's casual Friday notes column, covering everything from college to the Majors...
Sample size be damned, I am officially jumping onto the Alex Rios bandwagon. The fifth overall prospect in my first published prospect list, Rios has had me kicking myself for nearly a year and a half (13-18 on the list: Prince Fielder, Scott Kazmir, David Wright, Grady Sizemore, Delmon Young, Bobby Crosby) with his sub-.100 ISOs. However, I was in attendance last weekend when Rios slugged his fourth home run of the season on a Mark Buehrle fastball. It simply seems as though Rios has more strength than in each of the last two seasons, as the home run barely made it over the fence -- likely a fly out in 2004 or 2005.
Another difference in Rios' play this season is likely an issue of pitch selection. Before the 2004 season I stated that Rios had some of the best contact skills in the minor leagues. In 2149 career minor league at-bats, Rios struck out just 296 times, a fantastic 13.8%. Entering 2006, his Major League career had already produced 185 strikeouts, whiffing in 20.4% of his at-bats. Alex isn't the type of player that will draw 50+ walks at the Major League level, but instead will live and die by his ability to hit the ball, and to do so with power.
With increased strength and improved pitch selection, Rios is a dangerous player. As early as this season, he could begin to become one of the best power/speed threats in the American League.
Try as he might, Rios is not the hottest property of the Toronto Blue Jays. To find that, however, you have to look in the direction of New Hampshire, the organization's AA affiliate. Adam Lind, a player on my preseason breakout list, is in the middle of a fantastic streak. In the first eight games of the season, Lind struggled, collecting just six hits in his first 26 at-bats, including only one for extra bases (and an uncharacteristic seven strikeouts).
Since then, he has caught fire. On April 15, Lind had a hit in each of his four at-bats, two of which were home runs. This was the beginning of a six game streak in which Lind is 12/24, striking out just once while hitting five home runs. My faith in Lind's power breakout was founded upon a high doubles rate, a tough league and stadium, and a July streak that proved Lind's potential. I do believe he is starting to realize it.
Luckily, Lind brought my April batting average to my breakout list to .250. We have previously detailed Reid Brignac's hot start, which has his OPS well over .900. Besides these two players, things aren't looking great. Brad Harman has just one extra-base hit versus 12 strikeouts in his first 48 at-bats. Mark Trumbo's first nine games include just 5 hits and zero walks. Adam Bostick has issued 13 walks in 13.2 innings. Neither Garrett Mock or Homer Bailey have been particularly impressive. Let's just hope Christian Garcia returns to the mound soon, and returns to it well.
Someone asked me what I would do if put in Jim Hendry's chair, forced to find someone to replace Derrek Lee with. My response was to have Jacque Jones start fielding groundballs at first base, while putting Felix Pie in right field for the Iowa Cubs. While the long-term prospects of Jones at first base are laughable, Pie is the member of the Cubs organization best suited for replacing a bit bat in this lineup.
In the first 10% of his minor league season, Pie has done everything in the leadoff role for the I-Cubs: seven extra-base hits, six walks, three steals. Pie would bring electricity to a Cubs lineup that will enter their series against the Cardinals as very lifeless. But instead, Dusty Baker is left picking between John Mabry and Jerry Hairston/Neifi Perez. It isn't a good situation.
Over at Baseball America, Jim Callis posted an update on his top twenty draft prospects for the coming June. Max Scherzer's low ranking comes in as a bit of a surprise, but given his injury, the Missouri right-hander might now be a reach for the Colorado Rockies, drafting second. My current belief is that the organization should go with Brandon Morrow, the pitcher least dependent on a breaking pitch of those in consideration. Coors Field has never mixed well with breaking balls, but it's hard to imagine Morrow's power splitter being too affected by the thin air.
The most surprising inclusion on the list is probably Brett Sinkbeil, a player we talked about last summer from the Cape Cod League pitching well for Missouri State. Sinkbeil is a tall, lanky right-hander that projects well to add velocity as he fills out. As of right now, he has good control of a sinking, 90-94 mph pitch. His specific draft selection will depend upon the improvements of his secondary stuff this spring. In my preseason talks with Missouri State pitching coach Paul Evans, he said that as a sophomore, Brett had "difficulties finishing off hitters when he got to 2-strike counts." If Sinkbeil shows scouts he can throw his slider for strikes, and trusts his change-up enough, Callis' ranking indicates a first round selection isn't out of the picture.
Tim Lincecum is third on this list, and at this point in time, I'd guess he is drafted by the Seattle Mariners. Thanks to hometown ties -- as well as the M's being the least frugal team in the top five -- the pick makes sense. Also, one spot ahead, don't be shocked if the Pirates grab right-hander Kyle Drabek. Or, at least, you can bet he would be the marketing department's selection, given his familial ties with a certain former Bucs' ace.
Sadly, Francisco Liriano allowed his first earned run of the season Wednesday, as a walk, steal and single brought his ERA up to 0.96. Nonetheless, Liriano has been one of the most impressive young players in all of baseball thus far, boasting a 3.0 G/F ratio to go with his 14.5 K/9 rate. Apparently, hitters have trouble with sliders that can touch 92 mph.
Also on Wednesday, viewers were treated to the best Javier Vazquez outing in years, as the White Sox newest right-hander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. The end? A check-swing single by Doug Mientkiewicz that simply would not roll foul, as much as Joe Crede willed it to do so. Vazquez was in complete control in the outing, mixing pinpoint fastball control with a devastating curve and change. This came just a day after Jose Contreras' dominating outing; with Roger Clemens out of baseball, Contreras has the game's best splitter. He's my dark horse Cy Young pick.
But back to Mientkiewicz, who would be hitting .205 had his check swing been brought back an inch more. Meanwhile, Justin Huber is batting .372/.481/.814 in the Pacific Coast League. As much as some have attempted to justify the Royals winter veteran movement, the presence of third-tier thirtysomethings will not help in the win column. Instead, it will force good players like Huber into building a bit too much into their minor league credentials.
And Royals fans shouldn't be totally hopeless. Thanks to one of the best journalistic articles of the young baseball season, we learn that Zack Greinke is progressing back towards pitching in 2006. Greinke, Andrew Miller, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. It's a start.