Wood and Metal
By the end of this week, baseball in all forms will be back. Every Major League Baseball team has now played their first game, and the minor league season begins April 7. The wooden bats join the aluminum ranks that have been competing since February.
So for the first time in 2006, the week has provided me with a wealth of information and opinions to share. As will likely become a tradition this year, here is a notes column detailing everyone from young veterans to college teenagers. Enjoy...
We knew this was coming, didn't we Prince Fielder fantasy owners? As I mentioned during Fielder's slow Spring Training, the big guy has a history of slow Aprils. So while 7 strikeouts in eight at-bats would be scary to any sane baseball fan, don't lose confidence and start yearning for Lyle Overbay or ... worse ... Jeff Cirillo. Expect a gradual decrease in strikeouts as the year progresses, as well as an increase in home runs. Still a future star, as is Edwin Encarnacion, another highly touted young player with a bad debut. Patience is a virtue with phenoms.
Interestingly enough, it has been the less touted rookies that I have noticed thus far. Marlins rookies Mike Jacobs and Josh Willingham were both close to making my top 100 prospect list, but limited skillsets scared me from each. This looks stupid thus far, as Jacobs and Willingham were integral in up-ending the Astros in their second game.
Chris Denorfia was the opposite case to these two, missing out on the top 100 for having a skillset too rounded. So much of Denorfia screams "FOURTH OUTFIELDER!", though I have began to think Denorfia is the right third outfielder for that club (if only because Adam Dunn's Opening Day performance might be the worst OF defense in the history of baseball ... seriously). Chris' double to centerfield in his first at-bat was an impressive display of power. The Reds have more than a future bench player in Denorfia, who in some ways reminds me of Gary Matthews Jr.
Real power was on display in Joel Zumaya's first appearance as a reliever, in which the young right-hander struck out three batters in two innings of work. Zumaya should be a force with his mid-to-high 90s fastball and hard-breaking curve out of the pen, but I pray it doesn't infatuate Jim Leyland too much. Other former starters relieving that impressed early -- besides Brandon McCarthy and Jon Papelbon whom were mentioned yesterday -- were Adam Wainwright and Chuck James, both less skilled players than Zumaya.
Finally, no rookie watch is complete without a mention of Kenji Johjima, who hit his second home run of the season last night. Johjima has a natural feel for the game that is quickly becoming the most positive trait of Japanese position player veterans. If Kenji shows this type of power at home, in Safeco Field, his trips to Dallas should make for good fun.
MINING THE REST OF THE PRE-ARB CAMP
I made a mistake. In picking preseason breakout candidates -- and looking mighty deep for sleepers -- I chose Ben Johnson and Blaine Boyer. Johnson is currently being inexplicably blocked by the likes of Eric Young and Terrmel Sledge, while Boyer is further from the Atlanta closing job than ever. Apparently, I should have gone with option C -- which in all honesty, was Sergio Mitre.
After years of watching Mitre thrust into different roles in Chicago, I was pleased to see the Juan Pierre trade allow him to spread his wings. While his potential is extremely limited, Mitre has all the makings of becoming a rubber-armed, groundball invoking middle of the rotation starter. If Jake Westbrook has value in Cleveland, Mitre can have long-standing value in
San Antonio, err, Miami.
Bold predictions have become a staple of the Internet, and while the season is underway, it's not too late for one last guess: Brian McCann is going to hit at least 25 HR's this year. His first was almost nullified when the Los Angeles-Atlanta game was delayed yesterday, but the clubs finished and McCann's first homer went into the books. Brian's power potential is no secret, and I firmly believe it becomes unveiled this year.
Some quick thoughts to round it out: if you didn't think so three days ago, it's time to come around - David Wright and Rickie Weeks are future perennial NL All-Star starters ... Ambiorix Burgos has absolute lights-out stuff, and really should be a bright spot in KC, who can't be wedded to the 9th-inning-only closer idea ... Khalil Greene continued from impressing me in spring to doing so in his first game; while many predicted Bobby Crosby to win AL MVP, it's not a stretch to say former first-round mate Greene could be a better player in the end ... It isn't one start or one spring that is making me say this: if you own Dontrelle Willis in a keeper league, trade him once his value gets a bit higher. His future seems to be as clouded as ever.
UNDER THE SURFACE
No notes here, since games have not begun and I don't have a myriad of thoughts yet. But with the announcement that Justin Upton will begin the season two weeks late, in the Midwest League, playing centerfield, I won't leave you with nothing.
First of all, the Diamondbacks should be lauded for this decision. If anything, it was too late, as Upton should have been learning the tricks of the outfield trade since the beginning of Spring Training. A rough senior year in the field provided evidence that Upton's infield career was headed down the same path as his brother's. His arm was so erratic in high school, but at the very least, it never lacked power.
If Carlos Gonzales breaks out to the degree that Jim Callis and Kevin Goldstein have predicted -- and it's tough to get two better backers -- then we can say that Arizona now has four of the game's best outfield prospects: Upton, Gonzales, Chris Young and Carlos Quentin. In the end, only three can fit into the long-term plans, so, who doesn't fit.
Upton is obviously in the team's future plans, and my guess is that he will stay in centerfield for quite some time - no better D-Back prospect has better speed. Besides, while Young's range is fantastic, a move to left field could help minimize his one defensive weakness: a lack of arm strength. Young is in the team's future, too, they chose to trade for him just a few months ago. These players are locks.
So it's down to Quentin and Gonzales for the final spot, in right field. And simply put, I think the Diamondbacks have put a good majority of their chips behind the latter's corner. Quentin has not been shown a lot of confidence from the organization that drafted him, as the club barely pursued the idea of trading Shawn Green to make room for him. Instead, it was Quentin's name that was brought up in trade rumors, namely to the outfield starved St. Louis Cardinals.
When July rolls around, expect Arizona to really re-evaluate their outfield situation. If Gonzales hits the California League in a big way -- and that is no bold prediction -- then Quentin could be moving teams by August 1. Not often are top 20 prospects blocked in from above and behind, so some Major League organization must step up and take advantage. Any takers?
At this point in time, it seems as though sixteen college players have separated from the pack and identified themselves as first round picks. As Lance Broadway proved last year, these things are susceptible to change, but there are probably only a handful of players that could even do so (I will provide deeper lists as we inch closer to the draft). Before I divulge my current list, here's the hot/cold list as seen in the past couple weeks:
Hot: Brad Lincoln (Houston) - While the Cougars do not have the schedule of a big program, Lincoln has been the most consistently dominant performer this spring. Many of Lincoln's peripherals are par for the first round course (48 H, 83 K's, 1.62 ERA in 66.2 IP), but it's the rest of his package that has flown Lincoln up draft boards. His consistency, endurance, and control have all been excellent thus far, as Brad has been great in every start since mid-February. And to boot, Lincoln has been fantastic as a hitter, showing athleticism that few other pitchers can match. Remaining starts against Tulane and Rice will dictate where in the top 15 Lincoln takes his talented arsenal - he has top 5 overall potential.
Cold: Ian Kennedy - On February 17, against Kansas, Kennedy struck out 13 batters in 8.1 innings while allowing just one hit and an unearned run. He had preceded that outing with good starts against Florida International and Long Beach State, and was poised to become the third pitcher chosen in the draft. Since dominating the Jayhawks, however, Kennedy has not taken a game by storm and the Trojans have lost each of his starts. The strikeouts, endurance and bulldog mentality remain, but Kennedy is showing flaws he didn't expose as a sophomore. He's on the outside of the top 5 college pitchers list and looking in, but given his solid schedule, a good final two months could mean a re-entry into the top ten.
Hot: Josh Butler (San Diego) - No team took college baseball by storm out of the gate like the Toreros, sweeping then-#1 Texas to start the season. While San Diego has slowed a bit since then, they have been well-anchored by ace junior Josh Butler, who has joined the first round ranks. His fastball has been in the mid 90s this spring, and Butler's miniscule 1.13 ERA has had the scouts buzzing. A better strikeout rate and secondary arsenal would help Butler, but he has done enough to move into the first round.
Cold: Dallas Buck (Ore. St.) - There had been a time when Peter Gammons mentioned Buck as a #1 overall candidate, and many times when people (myself included) thought Buck was a lock to take his sinker into the Rockies organization. But the fact is that since conference play began more than a year ago, Dallas has been less than impressive. After a poor showing in the Cape, Buck's control has been off, his demeanor has worsened, and his velocity is down. The Kevin Brown potential remains, but any certainty in his future is gone. If any player from the top 16 is going to fall from grace, it will be this guy.
Onto my current top 16 list, with a few comments mixed in. By the way, if you are interested in any of the videos of the West Coast players here, head over to Calleaguers.com, as the collection of videos (and velocity reports) have been gathering for the past two months. College baseball's top 16 juniors...
1. Andrew Miller (UNC) - KC all but locked into this pick.
2. Max Scherzer (Mizzou)
3. Daniel Bard (UNC) - His groundball numbers might be reason for going #2 overall.
4. Evan Longoria (LBSU)
5. Brad Lincoln (Houston) - Forget the recent Houston failures, this isn't Rice.
6. Brandon Morrow (Cal) - Command issues remain ; I really see Joel Zumaya.
7. Drew Stubbs (Texas)
8. Joba Chamberlain (Neb) - Hanging on by a thread
9. Ian Kennedy (USC)
10. Wes Hodges (GTech) - Frustrating lack of power consistency
11. Matt LaPorta (Fla)
12. Mark Melancon (AZ) - .222 SLG Against in thin Arizona air.
13. Matt Antonelli (Wake)
14. Josh Butler (SD)
15. Dallas Buck (OSU)
16. Jared Hughes (LBSU) - Scouts trust control, size and sinker
Many will surely be writing in with complaints about the omission of Greg Reynolds, whom Kevin Goldstein recently mentioned as a first round lock. Kevin may be right, but if so, let me stress how poor the selection would be. A nice blend of size and stuff, to be sure, but Reynolds lacks any meaningful results to speak of. Tacking together two consecutive solid starts would be nice.