WTNYJuly 26, 2006
Short Stocks
By Bryan Smith

Short-season baseball. A hodgepodge of good college players, learning high school players, foreign players of every background. Age differences can run up to about 6 years - wood bat experience about the same.

For these reasons, judging short-season baseball has always been a torment to me. It's hard to get a good handle on players when you have very little context about what it means that they're doing. However, any dismissal of short-season baseball means you don't see Anibal Sanchez or Radhammes Liz coming, when everyone else did.

As of yet I have no great way to add context to short-season numbers, but I think it's best to pull players into categories they fit in, and evaluate them there. College players in short-season ball are evaluated separate from the high school players of the same caliber. Players who spent their springs in extended spring training get grouped into one as well.

Looking at the leaderboards and through the box scores of short-season leagues with this mindset, certain players start to jump out. Here's a list I have of players impressing in their non-impressive leagues this summer ...

Removed From Aluminum

We expect big things from the college crop at this level, as we would if they started next season in low-A. And most of the time, they deliver - short-season leaderboards are littered with college players, some just organizational guys drafted after the 20th round. Looking at the leaderboards, you then have to pick a player who has completely distinguished himself from those around him.

When Evan Longoria left the New York-Penn League, the home run race suddenly became a one man show. Yesterday, we talked about how Warren McFadden is benefitting in the Cape Cod League from no longer playing in Tulane's AAA stadium. The same is now happening for Mark Hamilton, who has twice as many home runs as the nearest slugger. Readers will know that I've long loved Hamilton, and that his stock really jumped for me when I found out he was hitting .245/.383/.592 on Friday nights in college. The Cards will probably jump Hamilton to high-A next season, but as long as the strikeouts don't bring him down, Hamilton should rise quickly. I still don't believe he slipped through the second round.

I'll go with an atypical selection for my pitcher in this category: Steve Uhlmansiek. Unlike Hamilton, Uhlmansiek wasn't playing in college baseball as of two months ago, nor even 14 months ago. But the Mariner southpaw was once Mike Pelfrey's ace-teammate at Wichita State, and Seattle drafted him knowing he had to be healed first. The road to recovery from arm surgery is a long one, so his performance thus far is just a stepping stone. But after spending two years forgotten about as a prospect, Uhlmansiek belongs in the discussion once again.

On Their Own For the First Time

The Oakland A's have appeared very focused on appearing less dogmatic in their drafting ways since Moneyball. That included drafting three high school pitchers in the high rounds in 2005, a group that has looked less than impressive in their first professional season. This season, they went the high school route early again, drafting high school slugger Matt Sulentic in the third round.

In addition to his high draft status, Sulentic also was aggressively promoted to the Northwest League, the higher of the A's two short-season affiliates. And unsurprisingly to Billy Beane and co., Sulentic has matched every challenge. Sulentic has a hit in each of his last six games, where he's collected five extra base hits and five walks. His .355 average is near the top of the NWL leaderboard - a remarkable feat for someone yet to turn 19.

Pitchers at this age are far more coddled by their organizations, making a selection here a little more difficult. Clayton Kershaw is a possibility, but the first high school pitcher should dominate the Gulf Coast League. I almost went with Sean O'Sullivan, who doesn't really fit the bill. But the year's top draft-and-follow is making another Angels investment look good.

Instead, we'll go with Jeremy Jeffress, who has proven that not every high school flame-thrower is raw. The Virginia right-hander touched the high 90s during the showcase circuit, making teams forget about his small 6-0 frame. Now, his performance on the mound is living up to those velocity readings. Jeffress hasn't allowed a run in his last three outings, and in those 11.2 innings, he's allowed 3 hits, 4 walks and struck out 12 batters. Suddenly, the Brewers pitching crop (Yovani Gallardo, Mark Rogers, Will Inman, Jeffress) is starting to look pretty impressive.

Making Up for Lost Time

Bonus babies need to be delicately taken care of, and as a result, many teams are now giving their high profile draftees a year wait to make their full-season debut. Instead, the player spends his spring in extended spring training, and his summer in short-season ball. The thinking is that a player learns how to be on his own in a controlled environment, while also setting up a player for better success in his first season.

One organization seeing a lot of positive feedback from this strategy is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Two of the Midwest League's best arms, Wade Davis and Jacob Magee, are both high school draftees who spent their 2005 seasons dominating the NYPL. Given their success, the team had little reservations about making Jeremy Hellickson wait to debut in full-season ball.

And again, the results are looking good, as Hellickson is leading the New York-Penn League in strikeouts with 38. Another small right-hander, Hellickson throws three good pitches - and offers plus pitchability. He'll have to sharpen his breaking pitch going forward to become an elite arm, but he's the most polished of the Davis-Magee-Hellickson bunch.

There was little competition for what hitter would win this award, because as dominating as Mark Hamilton has been on his home run race, Chris Carter has been better. Seemingly the sports world's most popular name, Carter is neither the old Vikings receiver of the Arizona Diamondbacks' AAA slugger. Instead, Carter was a higher round pick from Las Vegas by the White Sox last season that disappointed when they tried him in the South Atlantic League this season.

After his bad full-season trial, the team quickly pulled him, assigning him to extended spring training immediately. It's thought that he blossomed here, as Carter now has 10 home runs in the Pioneer League - the next closest number is five. While he's limited to first base and doesn't walk enough, players with Carter's type of power are few and far between. You can bet that now the Kannapolis Intimidators are desperately awaiting Carter's arrival.

Many other players would have fit this category, including a host of Angel prospects. Ryan Mount has been fantastic in Carter's shadow in the Pioneer League, and his presence up the middle makes him a better prospect. And the Angels drafted Trevor Bell before Mount, and Bell is near the league's top ERA mark.

Comments

Question: you mentioned international players of various backgrounds in your introduction, but didnt include them as a category. Whyd you leave them out of your writeup?

Jon, you're right, I should have. More than anything, I did so because there was not any pitcher that really jumped out at me. A few have been OK, but there is no Sanchez or Liz this season.

For hitters, my pick would be Greg Halman. He doesn't walk and his contact issues are lacking, but the guy has huge power and plus speed. Those two traits get you a long ways, and I think Halman will probably explode when he hits the Cal League. He's seriously flawed, and extremely raw, but he's certainly raised eyebrows.

Thanks Bryan.

Aneury Rodriguez is somewhat interesting to me, but you're right, his stuff is nowhere near that of Snchez or Liz.

Bryan, aren't you pretty impressed with Kershaws remarkable control? I mean only 1bb in 16IP compared to 23K? That walk came in his first inning as well. so the last 15 innings, he has walked none. I think thats pretty remarkable. Maybe he can be a left handed version of Phill Hughes.

It may be too early to tell, but do you think Halman will be better than Wladimir Balentin?

argh....reading about all of these A&M recruits makes me so sad thinking about what might have been.

Childress put together an incredible recruiting class.