Young Guns: NL Central
We are on the home stretch now with the fifth installment of the six-part series, which looks at the prospects most likely to make an impact in the Major Leagues in 2008. This week’s article is a breakdown of the National League Central.
And before anyone asks, yes I did purposely omit Chicago’s Kosuke Fukudome because in my mind Japanese baseball players are not rookies and it is unfortunate that they are allowed to take the awards away from deserving first-year players. Rant over, and now back to your regularly scheduled program…
National League Central
Breaking in as a young pitcher in Chicago will not be easy this season. The Cubs have a starting rotation stacked with veterans, including Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Jon Lieber, and Ryan Dempster. Rich Hill is also guaranteed a spot. Should an injury occur to the previously mentioned players, Sean Marshall appears to be first-in-line among the younger players without a promised role. That leaves the promising Sean Gallagher waiting in the wings in Iowa but baseball is a funny game and he could be in Chicago before you know it. Geovany Soto faces a much less harrowing task when it comes to solidifying a role on the 2008 Cubs, as the catching options at the MLB level are slim.
Geovanny Soto C
After six nondescript years in the minors, Soto finally emerged as a top-flight catching prospect last season after shedding significant weight and taking the game more seriously. However, it was also his third shot at Triple-A, so some cautioned should be used before predicting multiple All-Star appearances. In his 2007 MLB trial, Soto hit well, including some solid line drives (22 percent of the time). He still doesn’t walk a lot (12.1 percent at Triple-A) but heck, who wants a catcher clogging up first base anyway? Given 400 major league at-bats in 2008, most projections (Bill James, CHONE) have Soto hitting 15-17 homers, which shouldn’t be too hard in cozy Wrigley… if Soto’s 2007 was for real. The Cubs had better hope it was for real, though, as Henry Blanco offers zip in the batter’s box and non-roster invitees J.D. Closser and Koyie Hill are not upgrades either. Jake Fox has an interesting bat, but has proven he cannot catch. Soto was impressively consistent in 2007, hitting above .300 in each month, other than May (.286). Concentration may be an issue with Soto, as he hit .268 with the bases empty and .420 with men on.
Sean Gallagher RHP
By the time April rolls around, Gallagher may be long gone from the Windy City, as his name has been linked to Brian Roberts trade rumors throughout the winter. Gallagher’s hope at landing a spot on the major league roster to begin the year is also no sure thing considering the depth of the Cubs’ starting rotation and bullpen. He’s posted some impressive minor league numbers but he probably won’t be hurt by spending some more time in Iowa. Gallagher could stand to pitch down in the zone a little more as he induced ground balls only 39.3 percent of the time. Left-handed batters performed a little bit better than righties against Gallagher at Double-A (.678 OPS versus .577). Gallagher also buckled down with runners on, holding batters to an average below .200.
The Reds are absolutely stacked with rookies who could make huge impacts during the 2008 season, with Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce all close to being major league ready. I actually like Cueto a bit more than Bailey, because I have never been a huge fan of players who only view baseball as a job and were never fans of the sport – which is something Bailey stated in an interview prior to the 2004 draft. I have no statistical proof to back up my opinion, but it seems to me there would be less drive and motivation to reach one’s ceiling. I also really don’t like the idea of Dusty Baker managing a team loaded with talented youngsters… that’s a train wreck waiting to happen.
Homer Bailey RHP
Bailey failed to live up to the hype in his brief major league stay in 2007, but he wasn’t completely healthy. Reds fans should get a good look at Bailey’s impressive abilities in 2008. The right-handed flamethrower was death on lefties at Triple-A in 2007, limiting them to a line of .149/.289/.208. Like many young pitchers, Bailey is more comfortable with the bases empty and held batters to a line of .179/.266/.265 compared to .244/.343/.378 with men on. He buckled down again, though, with runners in scoring position: .175/.274/.270. While batters have never hit Bailey well at any level, including the majors (.252 AVG), he’ll need to improve his control (5.56 BB/9 in the majors, 4.28 BB/9 in Triple-A).
Johnny Cueto RHP
Cueto is less heralded than teammate Bailey, but he may be just as talented when all is said and done. He currently displays better control than Bailey and Cueto’s walks actually dropped as he climbed the organizational ladder, posting ratios of 2.41 BB/9 at High-A ball (78.1 innings), 1.62 BB/9 at Double-A (61.0 innings) and 0.82 BB/9 at Triple-A (22.0 innings). In more than 160 innings pitched at three levels in 2007, Cueto managed to keep the ball in the park more often than not, allowing only 11 homers. He also kept his K/9 rate more than respectable at 8.27 K/9 in High-A ball, 11.36 in Double-A and 8.59 in Triple-A. After the season ended, Cueto continued his solid pitching in the Dominican Winter League, posting an ERA of 2.84 in 31.2 innings. He allowed 31 hits, seven walks and struck out 37. He also kept the ball on the ground and posted a 1.42 GO/AO (ground outs to air outs). Don’t be surprised, though, if Cueto has a slow start to the season in 2008 as collectively he threw 193 innings last season. It’s disappointing that Cincinnati did not do a better job of capping his innings. In the last three seasons, Cueto’s innings have climbed from 49 in 2005 to 137 to 193.
Joey Votto 1B
With the resigning of Scott Hatteberg, the Reds have signaled that the organization will not simply hand the starting first base job to the talented Canadian rookie. To make matters even more muddled, the Reds also have non-roster invitee Andy Phillips in camp, who can play first base. The truth of the matter is, though, that even if Votto struggles a bit in his first full season, he should be able to out-produce both players. He won’t walk as consistently as Hatteberg, but Votto has recorded more than 70 walks each of the last two seasons with between 490 and 510 at-bats. He’ll need to be a little less aggressive in the majors, where he walked only 5.6 percent of the time. Votto, a former catcher, may be limited to a platoon situation early on given his Triple-A numbers in 2007: .240 versus lefties and .309 versus righties.
Jay Bruce OF
An early favorite for Rookie of the Year, Bruce should be in the Reds’ opening day outfield despite his lack of experience. A monster 2007 saw the young outfielder rocket through the system, beginning the year in A-ball and ending in Triple-A. He hit more than .305 at each stop and clubbed 26 homers overall. Bruce likely won’t challenge Adam Dunn for the team lead in strikeouts, but he will collect his fair share after posting percentages of 25.0% in High-A ball, 30.3% in Double-A and 25.7% in Triple-A. His BABIP was over .400 in both his stops in High-A and Double-A. Bruce hit consistently well in Triple-A with both the bases empty (.292) and runners on base (.324). It took him a while to get warmed up in games at the Triple-A level, as he went only 5-for-56 in the first three innings.
Houston fans frustrated for years by the offensive void that is Brad Ausmus finally have hope: J.R. Towles. As well, the Astros desperately need some pitching help and there isn’t much hope in the barren minor league system… outside of flame-throwing Felipe Paulino.
JR Towles C
Towles is a solid offensive catcher who started the season in High-A ball and ended the year in the majors. He certainly did not look out of place with Houston, walking more than he struck out (only once), hitting for a high average and slugging .575 (and a line drive rate of 23.7 percent). His defence is solid, but he threw out just 28 percent of base runners on the year. Towles could stand to walk more (8.5 percent at Double-A) but he offsets that by not striking out either (16.2 percent). Towles hit left-handed pitching well at Double-A (.807 OPS) but killed right-handers (1.038 OPS).
Felipe Paulino RHP
For a guy who has reportedly hit 102 mph on the gun, Paulino does not strike out a ton (6.48 K/9 in High-A ball in 2006 and 8.84 K/9 in Double-A in 2007) and he also gives up a lot of homers (five in 19 big league innings), in part because he works up in the zone. Despite that, he induced ground balls on almost 50 percent of balls in play. Right-handed batters were all but hopeless against Paulino in Double, batting .189/.250/.254. That said, they had a .254 BABIP against him, compared to left-handers at .341, suggesting a certain amount of luck – or lack thereof.
St. Louis Cardinals
Thanks to the recently-released Scott Spiezio, the Cardinals’ collective demons continue to haunt them in 2008. However, rookie phenom and former first round pick Colby Rasmus could give Cardinals’ fans something to get excited about in 2008. But other than that, the farm system likely will not produce any impact players this season.
Colby Rasmus OF
Rasmus, like Bruce, was drafted in the first round out of high school in 2005. He also has a chance to seize a starting role in the majors out of spring training in 2008. Rasmus slugged 29 homers in Double-A in 2007 and improved his patience a bit (12.9 percent) compared to 2006 (8.7 percent in A ball, 12.3 percent in High-A ball). Unfortunately his strikeouts also rose (18.1 percent in 2006, 22.9 percent in 2007). Rasmus has an outside chance of becoming a 30-30 hitter in the future. As a left-handed batter, he needs to improve against southpaws (.246/.383/.465). Rasmus’ season numbers took a hit when he batted only .206 in June and July but he rebounded in August to hit .365/.455/.779 with 12 homers in 104 at-bats.
The one thing Milwaukee has going into 2008 is pitching depth. That depth could push major league ready Manny Parra and even Carlos Villanueva, who spent 2007 in the bullpen, to Triple-A. 2007 first round draft pick Matt LaPorta bat is almost major league ready, but he has no where to play – and left field remains a big stretch.
Manny Parra LHP
Parra has pretty much been a prospect forever but injuries have kept his promising arm in the minors until last season. He was dominating at times in 2007 and most clubs would have room for someone of with his talents, but depth issues could send Parra to Triple-A, although he will only be an injury away. In the last two seasons Parra has maintained solid K/9 rates from A-ball to Triple-A, averaging between 10.04 and 8.33 strikeouts per game. After an ugly 5.27 BB/9 in 14 A-ball starts in 2006 he has maintained reasonable walk rates between 2.30 and 2.90 in the minors. Parra’s BB/9 in the majors, though, was high at 4.10 but he balanced that out somewhat with a K/9 of 8.89. Of the balls put into play against Parra in the majors only 32.9 percent of them were on the ground so that is cause for mild concern.
Matt LaPorta LF/1B
LaPorta, whom I interviewed for Baseball Analysts prior to the 2007 draft, is one of the nicest, well-mannered people you could ever meet. He is also one heck of a ballplayer and should open his first full pro season in 2008 in Double-A. The only thing that will keep LaPorta from making his Major League debut this season – outside of an injury - will likely be his defence. There aren’t many scouts sold on LaPorta’s work in the outfield, even though he has embraced it and worked hard to become an average left fielder - a goal that at this point is still eluding him. There aren’t a lot of pro numbers to analyze for LaPorta – he has played only 30 games in the minors. But during those 30 games, he hit 12 homers in 115 at-bats, along with a line of .318/.368/.750 in A-ball. He was a little impatient , walking only 7.4 percent of the time and striking out 25.0 percent of the time. But he is a power hitter and strikeouts will happen.
Another year, another disappointment for the Pirates. Despite the club's mediocrity in recent years, the Pirates still haven’t graduated any significant homegrown hitting talents in recent years and 2008 may not be any different. The best hope is former first round pick Neil Walker but his prospect status took a hit when he had to move out from behind the dish. Steve Pearce, a former college senior draft pick, came out of nowhere last year and had a very encouraging season. The Pirates can only hope he doesn’t become the next Brad Eldred.
Neil Walker 3B
The jury is still out on whether or not Walker will display enough usable power to be an above-average third baseman in the majors. In his last four minor league stops his slugging percentage has been: .409, .355, .462 and .250 (in 64 Triple-A at-bats). His patience has been wildly inconsistent, running as low as 3.1 percent and as high as 11.0 percent. In Double-A where he spent the majority of his time in 2007, the switch hitter hit both lefties and righties equally well, which bodes well for his future: .281/.383/.453 versus southpaws and .288/.350/.460 versus right-handers. Against better pitching in Triple-A, albeit in limited at-bats (45), Walker struggled against righties: .170/.260/.222.
Steve Pearce 1B/LF
Pearce has been fairly consistent with his walk rates the past two seasons, hovering around 9.5 percent. Encouragingly, his strikeout rates have dropped in each of his last two seasons from 20.0 percent in A-ball to about 18.0 in High A-ball to 15.5 in Double-A to 9.8 in Triple-A. But it did jump back up to 17.6 during 68 major league at-bats in 2007. Pearce is also very consistent at the plate and maintains similar numbers regardless of the situation: bases empty, runners on and runners in scoring position. He also hits both lefties and righties equally well. These numbers all bode well for Pearce’s continued success in the majors.
Up Next: The National League West