A-OK in Advanced A-Ball
The recent Advanced A-Ball All-Star games signaled the half-way point of the minor league season. In A-Ball, the season is cut into two halves with teams being declared winners of the first and second halves. Those winners then face off in the year-end playoffs. If the same team wins both halves, a club with the next best record also makes the playoffs.
The funny thing about the minor leagues is that the teams with the best records do not always have the best prospects. The San Jose Giants are a good example of this, which comes as no surprise given the parent club's lack of emphasis on the draft process (save perhaps for this year) and preference for drafting college players.
Other teams, like the Frederick Keys, just get lucky. The club finished in first place in the Carolina League's Northern Division, despite a losing record of 32-37 (.464). The club also featured a trio of 27-year-olds in a league that typically features prospects aged 20-22.
So just how good are the clubs that finished the first half in first place? Let's take a look:
Florida State League
East Division | Brevard County Manatees | 41-28 (.594) | Milwaukee
Best Player: Before a recent promotion to Double-A Huntsville, infielder Alcides Escobar was the Manatees' best player and prospect. Now the distinction of best player and prospect goes to catcher Angel Salome. Salome, 21, has solid offensive numbers for a catcher at .314/.350/.491 but you have to wonder how well a player listed at 5'7'' will weather the rigors of catching every day.
Best Pitcher: Again, a promotion robbed Brevard County of its best pitcher - Will Inman. Left-hander Derek Miller is left to lead the pitching staff in Inman's wake. Miller, 25, is no spring chicken but the University of Vermont alum has a 3.50 career ERA and he struck out 210 batters in 211 innings coming into 2007, which is not bad at all for a 47th round draft pick.
Best Prospect: As mentioned above, Salome takes the award, but the club also has some other intriguing prospects, such as pitchers Michael McClendon and Mark Rogers (will he ever get healthy?), as well as hitters Mat Gamel, Chris Errecart and Lorenzo Cain.
West Division | Sarasota Reds | 43-27 (.614) | Cincinnati
Best Player: Again, a promotion has robbed an Advanced A-Ball club of its best prospect and player. This time it was outfielder Jay Bruce, who displayed the ability to hit for average (.327) and power (27 2B, 11 HR in 268 AB). The best remaining hitter would likely be a toss up between catcher Craig Tatum and third baseman Michael Griffin. I'll give it to Griffin though, because he is a better all-around player.
AVG OBA SLG R HR RBI BB-K SB
Griffin .310 .340 .436 53 6 36 16-33 11
Tatum .311 .341 .512 26 9 37 9-38 0
Best Pitcher: The Reds have some good pitching in Sarasota. The best of the bunch, Johnny Cueto has been promoted but he was replaced by Sean Watson, who had a 1.88 ERA at Dayton. Ramon Ramirez, a soon-to-be 25-years-old, is a lesser prospect because of his age but his numbers were similar to Cueto's and he was also promoted to Double-A recently. Travis Wood and Daryl Thompson both have been inconsistent but are extremely talented.
Best Prospect: Of the players actually in Sarasota at the writing of this column (June 25), it would probably be Watson if you are considering both upside and current performance. Outfielder B.J. Szymanski, 24, is an outstanding athlete but he was one of those raw, toolsy guys that never figured it out (17 BB, 80 K in 235 AB).Carolina League
Northern Division | Frederick Keys | 32-37 (.464) | Baltimore
Best Player: Frederick is painfully void of anything resembling a solid hitting prospect so third basemanRyan Finan wins by default. The 25-year-old leads the team with six homers and is second with a .284 average. On the positive side, Finan has shown some reasonable patience at the plate with 33 walks (along with 40 strikeouts) in 218 at-bats.
Best Pitcher: The best pitcher award is a toss up between David Hernandez and Jason Berken. Many of the statistics are similar, but Hernandez had a better strikeout ratio with 81 in 75.2 innings (compared to 62 in 72.1) and Berken had a better ERA at 4.11 (compared to 4.88). Both pitchers had losing records. Closer Bob McCrory saved 14 games in 22 appearance and posted a 1.23 ERA, but he was recently promoted to Double-A.
Best Prospect: At only 19 years of age, Brandon Erbe is by far the brightest star on the Frederick Keys' roster. Last season at A-Ball (and at the age of 18), Erbe threw 114.2 innings and allowed only 88 hits, while walking 47 and striking out 133. His numbers have not been as good this year but the teenager has allowed only 62 hits in 69 innings and struck out 58. The only real negative on the season is the base-on-balls column at 38, but it is of no major concern at this point.
Southern Division | Kinston Indians | 45-24 (.652) | Cleveland
Best Player: It comes as no surprise that the Indians have some solid A-Ball performers given their love of drafting advanced college players. This season, though, there have been some disappointments in the batter's box including Joshua Rodriguez and Stephen Head (again). The best performer in Kinston right now is a personal favorite: Wes Hodges. Hodges would likely have been drafted higher last year, if it hadn't been for an ill-timed injury. This season he has been healthy and has hit .326/.389/.505 though the first half. There is still work to be done, though, and Hodges could stand to show some more power are a third baseman and could improve his eye at the plate (17 walks in 184 at-bats).
Best Pitcher: Pick your poison: unproven, enigmatic Taiwanese starter Sung-Wei Tseng or low-ceiling, polished college hurler David Huff. Tseng, 22, was signed this past off-season and challenged with an assignment to Advanced A-Ball. Despite a 1-6 record, he has held his own and sports a 3.84 ERA and has allowed 74 hits in 77.1 innings of work. He has also walked 25 and struck out 59. Huff, 22, is in his first full season after being taken in the first round last year out of UCLA. The lefty has a nifty 2.27 ERA and he has allowed 57 hits in 59.2 innings. His 15 walks are offset by 46 strikeouts.
Best Prospect: Both Hodges and Huff are solid prospects, albeit with modest ceilings. I think Hodges will ultimately be the better player, but some kudos should also be given to Jared Goedert, who was recently promoted to Kinston after absolutely tearing up (.364 AVG, 16 HR in 165 AB) A-Ball. He, like Hodges, plays third base and was taken seven rounds after his position-mate in 2006. To make room for both players Goedert has been playing some second base. Don't read too much into the A-Ball numbers, but Goedert is definitely a sleeper, much like former Indians' third base prospect and current Padre Kevin Kouzmanoff.
North Division | San Jose | 39-31 (.557) | San Francisco
Best Player: Do prefer speed or power? Outfielder Antoan Richardson is a speed demon with 33 stolen bases in 70 games (and 41 attempts). He has also done an excellent job of getting on base this year with a .285 batting average and 50 walks. However, he has struck out too much for a top-of-the-order guy: 53 times. First baseman Tyler Von Schell has displayed the best power on the club with 10 homers in 141 at-bats. At the age of 27, though, you'd hope for more than 14 walks.
Best Pitcher: The San Jose pitching staff has been torn up by recent promotions. In the first half, the two best pitchers were Dave McKae (1.93 ERA, 49 hits in 65.1 innings) and Taylor Wilding (1.52 ERA, 11 saves in 41.1 innings), but both have been promoted to Connecticut. The best pitcher - and prospect - would be Henry Sosa but he has pitched only two game for San Jose since his promotion from Augusta and has a 9.00 ERA. The winner by default, then, is Joseph Martinez, who has been durable (89 innings), is tied for the team lead with six wins and has a respectable 1.15 WHIP.
Best Prospect: As mentioned above, it would be Sosa if not for his lack of appearances. In Augusta, the 21-year-old posted a 0.73 ERA in 10 starts (62 innings) and held hitters to a .144 average. Brian Bocock has a chance to be a big league utility player and has hit .280/.340/.372 combined for both San Jose and Augusta. He has also stolen 30 bases in 41 attempts. Frankly, there aren't many true prospects to choose from.
South Division | Inland Empire | 39-31 (.557) | Los Angeles (NL)
Best Player: Second baseman Travis Denker has had a solid season so far. He is currently hitting .337/.415/.470 and even more power in the past (he hit 23 homers in 2005). After two previous failed attempts to succeed at Advanced A-Ball, Denker has finally done it - with an exclamation mark with the fourth highest batting average in the league. Only 21, Denker could be an above-average offensive MLB second baseman after beginning his career at the hot corner.
Best Pitcher: Right-hander James McDonald has the size (6'5'' 195 lbs) to succeed in pro ball and his numbers are starting to get him noticed. The 22-year-old former 11th round pick out of junior college has been Inland Empire's best pitcher this year - as well as one of the Dodgers' best minor league pitchers. In 74 innings, he has allowed only 66 hits and 18 walks. McDonald's 97 strikeouts have helped him to post a 3.77 ERA. Javy Guerra is also starting to get noticed after moving slowly in his first three seasons in pro ball. The 21-year-old has struck out 71 batters in 67.1 innings and has an ERA of 4.28.
Best Prospect: The Dodgers are traditionally great developers of talent, but Advanced A-Ball is a little barren this season, especially for this organization. Only 21, third baseman Blake DeWitt is repeating Advanced A-Ball and offers less average than Denker but more power potential at the plate, although he hasn't really shown that this year with a line of .294/.334/.455. He was a first round draft pick in 2004 out of high school. With a little more polish, McDonald has a chance of overtaking DeWitt.
There are some solid prospects in Advanced A-Ball but many of the can't miss players have already been promoted to Double-A. The second half of the season will be an interesting time to see which sleepers will step up and make a late-season climb up their clubs' prospect lists.