Young Guns: NL West
Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. We made it safely to the end of the six-part look at the rookies most likely to have a profound impact at the major league level in 2008. If you missed any of the previous articles, you can check them out here: AL East | AL Central | AL West | NL East | NL Central.
National League West
Unlike recent years, the Diamondbacks do not appear to have any impact hitters coming up to the majors this season, after graduating players like Conor Jackson, Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds , Chris Young and Carlos Quentin, who is now with the White Sox. The D-Backs also did not do the minor league system a favor by purging a number of promising prospects for the talented Dan Haren. The club did, however, pick up a few interesting arms in the off-season trades of Jose Valverde and Alberto Callaspo. Juan Gutierrez and Billy Buckner are not All-Star arms, but they should be serviceable, middle-of-the-road arms.
Gutierrez has a nice arm and a solid sinking fastball. But his secondary pitches still need work, although his change-up is plus at times. The lack of a consistent breaking ball keeps him from getting the most out of his stuff, though, as he could stand to change batters’ eye levels more often. Gutierrez did not have a great 2007 in Triple-A. He struck out only 6.75 batters per game and his walks were high at 3.63 BB/9. Regardless, the pitching-starved Astros gave him a look and, in 21.1 innings, he was just OK and showed there is work to be done. He allowed line drives at 26.1 percent and induced grounders only 33.3 percent of the time despite the good sink on his fastball. One thing to consider is that Gutierrez pitched in 2007 at a park that favors hitters. At home in Round Rock, Gutierrez allowed a line of .286/.346/.439 compared to .237/.320/.358 on the road.
Buckner has always allowed a lot of hits – more than one per inning (9.57 H/9) in his minor league career. But his biggest problem, until 2007, was walks. He allowed more than four walks per game while pitching in High-A ball and Double-A. Admittedly, both of those parks were hitters’ parks (especially High Desert). However, does that suggest he shied away from being aggressive against strong hitting? If so, that does not bode well for facing the likes of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. In his major league debut, Buckner did a solid job of keeping the ball on the ground (40.4 percent) but allowed line drives at a rate of 26.6 percent. He needs to improve against left-handed batters as they raked him to the tune of .310/.347/.503 at Triple-A and .314/.402/.600 at the Major League level.
The Rockies have done as a good a job as any club at developing its own talent in recent years, including Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe, Troy Tulowitzki, Manny Corpas and Jeff Francis. 2008 should be no different as Franklin Morales could take a strangle hold on the role in the starting rotation and Jayson Nix could finally establish himself in the majors.
Franklin Morales LHP
The Rockies organization seemingly improved its pitching depth this past off-season, which means players like Morales and Juan Morillo will not be relied on quite so heavily. However, the likes of Josh Towers and Kip Wells will only see success for so long… meaning Morales is likely to secure a Major League position sooner rather than later. At Double-A in 2007, Morales was tough on both lefties (.670 OPS) and righties (.688 OPS). However, Morales had a .339 BABIP against lefties and a .247 BABIP versus against righties. The young left-hander induced groundballs in the majors almost 55 percent of the time, which is a great number… especially if you make your home in Colorado. His line drive rate was 16.6 percent. However, Morales struck out just over five batters per game in the majors after averaging between eight to 10 strikeouts per game in the minors the last two seasons. His control has always been a major issue and he posted 4.23 BB/9 at Double-A in 2007, 6.88 BB/9 at Triple-A and 3.20 BB/9 in the majors. With sharper control, Morales could be dominating.
A chance to play regularly in the majors has been a long time coming for Nix, a former supplemental first round pick way back in 2001. After an outstanding season in A-ball in 2003, which saw him slug more than 20 homers, Nix put too much pressure on himself and got away from his strengths. After averaging a strikeout rate of more than 20 percent earlier in his minor league career, Nix was down at 18 percent in 2007, which is acceptable… especially if playing in Colorado helps him hit 15-20 homers per year as an offensive-minded second baseman. Nix, a right-handed batter, hit both lefties and righties OK, but his OPS was slightly lower against right-handers (.812 versus .770). Average-wise, Nix is probably going to hit around .240-.250, at least early in his career, although he hit .288 in Triple-A last season. His average rebounded after he hit .230/.338/.279 in April and .242/.342/.348 in May. Nix stung the ball in both June and August and he hit 10 homers collectively in those two months suggesting he is prone to slumps and hot streaks.
Los Angeles has not been the most welcoming of places in recent years for rookies looking to establish themselves in the majors. And it’s not going to get any easier with Joe Torre, who favors veterans, now guiding the ship. That said, Los Angeles has some promising stars-in-the-making on the way in Andy LaRoche and Clayton Kershaw. Under Torre, though, it’s hard to know for sure just how good of a shot they’ll get. LaRoche faces stiff competition from veteran Nomar Garciaparra, but the odds of him staying healthy and on the field for even 120 games is pretty slim.
LaRoche has more offensive potential than brother Adam, who is a solid regular for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In a brief Major League trial in 2007, though, the younger LaRoche showed that he still has some work to do. He controls the strike zone well for a power hitter and even walked more than he struck out in Double-A in 2006 (15.1 percent versus 13.9 percent in 230 at-bats). At the major league level in 2007, his strikeouts rose suddenly to 25.8 percent in 93 at-bats. LaRoche also hit almost as many groundballs as flyballs at the MLB level (41.4 percent versus 40 percent). As a power hitter, he probably wants to increase the flyball rate if he hopes to make a bigger impact in 2008. LaRoche hits both lefties and righties well and at Triple-A in 2007 he had a 1.194 OPS versus southpaws and .918 versus right-handers. Unfortunately, LaRoche's season will start late as he will be out eight to 10 weeks after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb.
Clayton Kershaw LHP
Considered by many to be the best pitching prospect in the minors, Kershaw may not be there long. He is young – only 20 – but experts would not be surprised to see him in the majors in 2008, especially if an injury occurs to one or more of the Dodgers’ top five starters. At the A-ball level in 2007, Kershaw struck out 134 in 97.1 innings of work (12.39 K/9) and then skipped High-A and pitched more than 20 innings at Double-A. Kershaw’s control was a little iffy at Double-A but he otherwise dominated, allowing only 6.28 hits per game and struck out batters at a rate of 10.58 K/9. Batting averages against Kershaw have actually decreased with each promotion: from .212 at Rookie ball to .208 in A-ball to .196 in Double-A. With a little polish to his control, Kershaw should be good to go at the Major League level later this year.
The Padres are out to show they can do more than create outstanding bullpens; the organization has some exciting players ready to break through to the Major League level in 2008. The most notable rookies that could – and should – have an impact this year include Chase Headley and Matt Antonelli. Interestingly, both players entered pro ball as third basemen but both will be looking to play elsewhere at the Major League level – Headley in left field and Antonelli at second base.
Chase Headley LF
Scouts always knew Headley was talented but he took his game to an all new level in 2007 and could make the jump straight from Double-A to the majors in 2008. Headley’s OPS increased significantly when he jumped from High-A ball to Double-A – from .819 to 1.008. Unfortunately, his strikeouts also rose from 19.8 percent to 26.3 percent – but with an increase in power, it’s not such a big deal (and it doesn’t hurt that he hit .330). As a switch-hitter, Headley was effective from both sides in 2007 and hit .36/.453/.679 right-handed and .308/.424/.542 from the left side. One huge caution about Headley’s high average in 2007 is that his BABIP was an astronomical .400. The power increase is probably for real – the high average is not.
Matt Antonelli 2B
A lot of people had mixed reactions to Antonelli as a first round pick in 2006. Some thought he lacked the power to play third base… but that problem was quickly solved: the Padres moved him to second base. Antonelli is described as a grinder and he took to second base well, although he will probably never win a Gold Glove. The 2007 power output and high average both come with some warnings as Antonelli played in two home parks that favor hitters… so it will be interesting to see how he adapts to a much larger Major League park (although he did hit better on the road than at home in Double-A San Antonio). In his pro debut in 2006, Antonelli hit no home runs in more than 200 at-bats. In Double-A, he fared much better against right-handed pitchers (.900 versus .736 OPS in 184 AB) but it was the opposite in High-A ball (1.068 versus .859 OPS).
The Giants have officially entered into the post-Bonds era and it’s not pretty. Instead of embracing a rebuilding effort, the Giants are continuing on with a roster full of position players looking for their old-age pensions. There are a few younger players filtering in - Eugenio Velez and Nate Schierholtz to name a couple – but none of them have perennial All-Star potential.
Eugenio Velez INF
Velez was stolen from the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 minor league draft (where, unlike the Rule 5 Major League draft, you don’t have to return players). No, he probably won’t be a star or perhaps not even a regular starter, but Velez could be a valuable bench player with blazing speed. Velez languished in the low minors with the Jays for a number of seasons, never getting the opportunity to play regularly as his skill set did not fit the organizational philosophy. Once he was allowed to play everyday in the Giants’ organization, though, Velez flourished and hit 20 triples and 14 homers in his first year. He was good the next year, although his power output dropped as his slugging percentage went from .557 at A-ball to .399 at High-A ball. One of the difficulties with projecting Velez is that, since coming over to the Giants, he has always been old for the league he was playing in. Although Velez only had 11 major league at-bats, his line drive rate was 50 percent and he only hit 12.2 percent of his balls on the fly – which is a great strategy for a guy with wheels.
Nate Schierholtz OF
Schierholtz is probably the most intriguing and promising of all the young outfielders the Giants will sift through in 2008, but he still comes with some question marks. The first question is whether or not he’ll hit for enough power, after hitting only 14 and 16 homers the last two seasons in the minors. On the positive side, his slugging percentage did jump from .443 in Double-A in 2006 to .560 in Triple-A in 2007. The raw power is there, but it doesn’t show up consistently in games. The second question is whether or not Schierholtz will show enough patience in the majors after posting walk percentages of 5.4 in 2006 and 4.0 in 2007. That rate also dropped to 1.8 percent during his Major League trial. On the plus side, his strikeout totals have dropped each of the last three seasons and he is a career .305 minor league hitter. With the Giants, Schierholtz’ line drive rate was only 14.7 percent and he hit 44.2 percent of his balls on the ground.