Around the MinorsFebruary 25, 2008
Young Guns: NL East
By Marc Hulet

After breaking down the American League for the past three weeks, we now head into the National League to see what rookies may have significant impacts in the majors in 2008. Unfortunately, the NL East looks less than inspiring, although there are a few interesting names.

National League East

Washington Nationals

If you are a pitcher in the Nationals’ system, you pretty much know you have a shot at pitching in the majors… as long as you have a little experience above A-Ball and a pulse. Last year’s club saw journeymen like Joel Hanrahan, Mike Bacsik and Jason Simontacchi get significant playing time. Even the most diehard Nationals’ fan probably had not heard of John Lannan before his call-up but he should be more successful in his second taste of major league life. He could be joined by fellow rookies Tyler Clippard and Collin Balester, which is good news for Washington fans because all three have higher upsides than the trio mentioned earlier.

Collin Balester RHP
Born: 6/86
Drafted: 2004 4th round
2007 MLB: Played in Double-A, Triple-A

The surfer dude from California is primed to finally make a major league impact for the pitching-starved Nationals. Despite allowing fewer than nine hits per game in a half season of Triple-A in 2007, Balester still has some work to do. He needs to sharpen up his secondary pitches (curve and change) to go along with his fastball, which touches 95 mph, and he needs to cut down on walks. His control was excellent in Double-A (2.28 BB/9) but it jumped significantly in Triple-A (4.01 BB/9). Balester struggled a bit against lefties in Triple-A and Double-A, allowing batting averages of .291 and .282, compared to .239 and .244 against righties. To be successful at the major league level as a starter, he also needs to improve on his conditioning and stamina. At Triple-A in 2007, opponents hit just .038/.242/.077 against him in the first inning, followed by .258/.359/.387 in the second, and .281/.324/.344 in the third. The numbers then jump significantly to .342/.405/.553 in the fourth, .296/.345/.481 in the fifth and .353/.429/.529 in the sixth.

Tyler Clippard RHP
Born: 2/85
Drafted: 2003 9th round
2007 MLB: 27.0 IP | 6.33 ERA | 9.67 H/9 | 5.67 BB/9 | 6.00 K/9

A trade from the New York Yankees to the Washington Nationals was probably the best thing that could have happened for Clippard’s career. Not only did he escape from behind the logjam of talented starting prospects including Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Philip Hughes and Alan Horne, but he also heads to a league where his average fastball will be less of a detriment (God bless pitchers batting). Unfortunately, Triple-A hitters also gave Clippard troubles last season and he was demoted to Double-A. Looking at his minor league career as a whole, though, you have to be encouraged by his 3.52 ERA, fewer than nine hits per game (7.91 H/9) and more than nine strikeouts per game (9.46 K/9). A high BABIP (.352) may have negatively and unfairly affected Clippard’s Triple-A numbers to a degree but 82 hits in 67.2 innings is not good no matter how you slice it. Even so, Clippard could be as good or better than some of the pitchers who made starts for the Nationals in 2007.

John Lannan LHP
Born: 9/84
Drafted: 2005 11th round
2007 MLB: 34.2 IP | 4.15 ERA | 9.35 H/9 | 4.41 BB/9 | 2.60 K/9

Lannan was one of those few prospects who slipped by unnoticed by most prospect evaluators before the 2007 season. The 6-5 lefty from Siena College (where?), who was taken in the 11th round in 2005, rocketed through the minors in only his second full season and made six starts for Washington, holding his own although showing his command needs work. All in all, Nationals’ fans cannot complain, though, considering 2005 first round college pitcher picks Ricky Romero, Wade Townsend, Cesar Carrillo, Brian Bogusevic, and Jacob Marceaux have yet to make one major league appearance between them. At the major league level, Lannan managed to get batters to beat the ball into the ground more than 50 percent of the time. Unfortunately, during five stops over the past two years, Lannan’s K/9 ratio has dropped each time: 7.43 in A-Ball, 6.22 in High A-Ball, 5.00 in Double-A, 4.50 in Triple-A and only 2.60 in the majors. Lannan won’t win the Cy Young award in 2008, but he’s a big, tall lefty with average stuff and a respectable track record.

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Florida Marlins

An optimistic person would look at the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis trade and say, “Wow, we just turned two players we couldn’t afford to keep past free agency into six promising prospects.” A pessimist (or realist) would say, “Wow, we gave away one Superstar and another solid left-handed starter and received two good young players, who we can keep for three to four years before they become too expensive in arbitration.” Those two players are, of course, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, who is no longer rookie eligible. After debuting a number of young players the past two years, the Marlins will only give significant playing time to one rookie in 2008: Maybin.

Cameron Maybin OF
Born: 4/87
Drafted: 2005 1st round
2007 MLB: 49 AB | .143/.208/.265

Maybin has the potential to make the blockbuster off-season trade with the Tigers hurt a little less. But as the Tigers learned, he’s probably not quite ready for the majors. Regardless, management has to show that the trade was not a complete loss, so he will likely be rushed to the majors in 2008 and should experience a number of growing pains. With only six games above A-Ball, the Tigers brought Maybin up to the majors last year and he struggled with 21 strikeouts in 49 at-bats. Strikeouts were also a problem in the minors as Maybin’s percentages were 30.1% in A-Ball, 28.0 in High A-Ball and 30.0 in his brief time at Double-A. He also hit line drives only 3.6 percent of the time during his time with the big club. On the positive side, the Marlins – with Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Jeremy Hermida in the line-up - should be able to survive Maybin’s offensive shortcomings. You just have to hope the struggles won’t affect his game long-term.

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Atlanta Braves

With the Mets favored to run away with the NL East title in 2008, many expect the remaining clubs to take aim at the wildcard spot. The Braves, still getting used to no longer being the favorites in the east, have the potential to welcome some young players onto the 25-man roster in 2008, including Jair Jurrjens into the starting rotation. With the reliability of left fielder Matt Diaz and the health of center fielder Mark Kotsay up in the air, Brandon Jones could see significant playing time.

Jair Jurrjens RHP
Born: 1/86
Signed: 2003 non-drafted free agent
2007 MLB: 30.2 IP | 4.70 ERA | 7.04 H/9 | 3.23 BB/9 | 3.82 K/9

Acquired from Detroit in the Edgar Renteria deal, Jurrjens will battle the perennially injured Mike Hampton for a position in the starting rotation. Even if he doesn’t break camp with the club, Jurrjens should be the first pitcher recalled when Hampton does inevitably go down. During his last three stops dating back to 2006, Jurrjens posted consistent strikeout ratios of 7.21, 7.12 and 7.51 K/9. However, that number dropped to 3.82 during his major league trial last season. In the majors, Jurrjens was able to fool hitters and allowed only 24 hits in 30.2 innings, but he walked too many (11, or 3.23 BB/9) and struck out too far few (13, or 3.82). As a flyball pitcher (44.3 flyball percentage versus 38.1 groundball percentage), Jurrjens will need to get a few more swings and misses to make a solid impact.

Brandon Jones LF
Born: 12/83
Signed: 2003 24th round
2007 MLB: 19 AB | .158/.190/.211

Jones appears to be ready to play everyday in the majors, but Diaz’ solid 2007 probably means that Jones will start the year on the bench or playing regularly in Triple-A. The good news for Jones is that Diaz might be better off as a bench player, which means the youngster could be playing left field for Atlanta sooner rather than later. The real knock on Jones is that he does everything well, but nothing really well. He doesn’t really possess enough power for an elite corner outfielder, but his defence is not strong enough for center field. He hits for a respectable average, but he doesn’t walk enough and he strikes out too much for his modest power production. During his brief MLB trial in 2007, Jones’ flyball ratio was remarkably low at only 25 percent.

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Philadelphia Phillies

With the recent addition of starting pitcher Kris Benson to a minor league contract, the Phillies have about six starters to choose from, assuming everyone is healthy by the end of spring training – a big if with Benson. However, if top prospect Carlos Carrasco can show some consistency at Double-A in the first few months, he could see significant time in the rotation during the remainder of the season. Catcher Jason Jaramillo could also be in position to wrestle playing time away from both incumbent catchers Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz, both of whom are really complimentary players.

Carlos Carrasco RHP
Born: 3/87
Signed: 2003 non-drafted free agent
2007 MLB: Played in High-A, Double-A

As mentioned above, the need to hurry Carrasco has been lessened, but the likes of Benson and Adam Eaton won’t keep him down for long. Carrasco has been moved through the system aggressively and has responded well, although his numbers did dip noticeably in Double-A. The biggest warning sign was the increase in his walk ratio (5.89 BB/9). That obviously has to improve. Although Carrasco handles lefties almost as well as righties in terms of batting average allowed (.252 vs LH, .248 vs RH at Double-A), lefties are much more successful at getting on base and hitting the ball hard .855 OPS vs .690 OPS at Double-A), which is something the soon-to-be 21 year old will have to work on. If Carrasco can show improvements in the first half of 2008, don’t be surprise to see him recalled in July or August to add fuel to the Phillies’ playoff run.

Jason Jaramillo C
Born: 10/82
Drafted: 2004 2nd round
2007 MLB: Played in Triple-A

Since both Ruiz and Coste bat right-handed, Jaramillo’s switch-hitting ways could come in handy, especially considering the youngster hit .295/.361/.374 against southpaws at Triple-A in 2007. Ruiz, who should receive more playing time behind the dish than the more versatile Coste, hit only .189/.265/.311 versus lefties in 2007. Aside from a terrible May (.143/.233/.198 in 91 at-bats), Jaramillo showed consistency throughout the season.

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New York Mets

The Mets are beginning to look a lot like the Yankees… by clubbing the rest of the organizations in their division with their checkbook. Mind you, the Mets are arguably more talented on the field at this point with the Yankees aging and a number of young players unproven. As a result of recent acquisitions, such as that minor trade that netted one of the best pitchers in baseball, the Mets do not appear as though they will entrust significant playing time to any rookies in 2008, barring a run on catastrophic injuries.

Next Up: The National League Central