Baseball's coming attractions
Several hot prospects could be called up soon and make an impact in 2009
Judging from the snapshot at the quarter pole, baseball's rookie of the year races could be as dull as GEICO's latest ad campaign. With the exception of an Elvis Andrus, Rick Porcello and Scott Richmond here and a Shairon Martis, Micah Hoffpauir and Andrew Bailey there, it's hard to find fresh faces who've had a consistent impact.
That can change, of course. Two years ago, a self-assured kid named Ryan Braun arrived in Milwaukee on May 25, tore it up and needed only 451 at-bats to win National League Rookie of the Year honors.
In mid-May, teams come to grips with what they have on the roster, what they need and what internal moves they can make to improve. Mat Gamel, Matt LaPorta, Derek Holland, Nolan Reimold, Chris Coghlan and Wilkin Ramirez are among the minor leaguers who've gotten the call already.
So who's the next hot name to graduate to a major league roster? This week's edition of Starting 9 updates the outlook for some Baseball America darlings -- eight rookies-to-be and a perennial Angels prospect -- who might appear at a big league park near you between now and September.
David Price, Rays
Price has shown premium stuff and erratic command for Triple-A Durham, and the Rays have monitored him closely to keep his workload under control. Price has thrown only 34 1/3 innings in eight starts, and he has a 1-4 record with a 3.93 ERA.
"I think the numbers are skewed a little bit," an American League personnel man said. "Let's face it -- this guy got the last out against the Red Sox to get his team to the World Series. Now, all of a sudden, he's in Triple-A, and he's supposed to forget and not have his head a little bit in Tampa?"
Price's day is coming. He's been working on his changeup, and he struck out nine batters in five no-hit innings against Rochester on Sunday. Andy Sonnanstine and Scott Kazmir have been ineffective, and Jeff Niemann has 21 strikeouts and 21 walks, so the Tampa Bay rotation isn't exactly impenetrable.
"David is progressing very well with the developmental things we laid out for him," Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said in an e-mail. "He struggled a bit for a few starts but has pitched extremely well in his last two outings. There is no question in my mind that he will help us win a lot of games in 2009."
That's front-office-speak for, "It might not be much longer, folks."
Matt Wieters, Orioles
Wieters, aka "Joe Mauer with power," is hitting .282 with a .479 slugging percentage in Triple-A Norfolk, compared with .203 and .323 for Baltimore's current catching tandem of Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller.
But the Orioles are in no rush. They're going nowhere in the standings, and if they wait until June, the Super 2 service requirement will pass, and Wieters will go to salary arbitration a year later. Wieters also is getting an opportunity to develop a rapport with top pitching prospect Chris Tillman in Norfolk.
"He hasn't had that many at-bats, so it doesn't hurt to wait," an American League scout said. "The more pressing issue is, will he be able to handle a pitching staff and call games at the major league level?"
The consensus is that Wieters will be in Baltimore sometime next month. He has received the biggest buildup of any Orioles prospect since outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds -- and before that, pitcher Ben McDonald -- so it will be interesting to see how management handles his arrival.
The Orioles can ease Wieters in slowly by calling him up during their West Coast trip in early June, or they can sell some extra tickets at Camden Yards and introduce him before the Seattle series opener June 9. That's something for the baseball people and the marketing folks to hash out.
"As far as I'm concerned, I would be happy to dehype this thing," Andy McPhail, the Orioles' president of baseball operations, told the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot in April. "But it's beyond our control."
Tommy Hanson, Braves
Hanson emerged as an elite prospect in 2008 when he posted an 11-5 record in stops with two minor league clubs, threw a no-hitter and held opponents to a .175 batting average. Then he won the pitching Triple Crown in the Arizona Fall League.
Hanson has continued to stoke the enthusiasm with a 64-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio for Triple-A Gwinnett this spring. When he isn't blowing away hitters with his fastball, he's dazzling them with a slider fresh from the John Smoltz catalog.
"The one thing he's really improved is pitching in games where he doesn't have his best stuff at the beginning and he has to figure out a way to get through the lineup the first time," Braves GM Frank Wren said. "He has the ability a lot of the good ones have -- to survive until it starts clicking."
Hanson's biggest challenge right now is navigating traffic. Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez aren't going anywhere, and Kenshin Kawakami has pitched well enough to maintain his spot in the rotation. Tom Glavine is still trying to come back, and Tim Hudson could return from Tommy John surgery in late August.
When the Braves moved Jo-Jo Reyes to the bullpen last week, they called up righty Kris Medlen, who was 5-0 with a 1.19 ERA for Gwinnett. When Hanson's turn arrives, be it in June, September or Opening Day 2010, it will be for an extended stay. As in a decade or more.
"When we feel like he's our best option to give us a chance to win, we'll make sure we go get him," Wren said.
Brett Wallace, Cardinals
Wallace, the Cardinals' first-round draft pick in 2008, just received a promotion to Triple-A Memphis after David Freese went down with a foot injury. With his thick bottom half, Wallace generates more "bad body" references than any player since "Moneyball" catcher Jeremy Brown. But the disparaging comments subside when he's standing in the batter's box.
"He can just flat hit," an AL scout said. "He's got a short stroke, a nice bat path and a ton of life in his hands."
Still, several dominoes will have to fall for Wallace to land in St. Louis. First, the Cardinals will have to pull the plug on the Barden-Thurston arrangement. Then Freese will get first crack at the job upon his return from the disabled list. It's also uncertain whether Glaus actually is done for the year after shoulder surgery.
Wallace has barely 400 professional plate appearances, so the Cardinals would just as soon wait a bit. The skeptics also outnumber the believers on the question of whether Wallace can play third base in the majors.
"He's more athletic than he looks getting off the bus," an AL executive said. "But at best, he's going to be average over there."
Given Wallace's offensive skill, some people in the Cardinals' hierarchy think two or three years of average might be enough.
"The initial reaction from scouts and development people is that he doesn't profile body-type-wise as a third baseman," Cardinals farm director Jeff Luhnow said. "The people who tend to believe Brett Wallace can play third base have either watched him an awful lot, like our scouts did in his last year in college, or worked with him as coaches or managers."
The Cardinals plan to use Wallace at third base, first and left field in Memphis once Freese returns. Last we checked, there weren't a lot of first base at-bats available in St. Louis.
Gordon Beckham, White Sox
In 29 games at shortstop for Double-A Birmingham, Beckham is hitting .279 with 14 doubles. But he recently missed 10 days with an abdominal strain, and he's trying to regain his timing at the plate.
White Sox GM Kenny Williams is running short of patience after the team's sorry performance in Toronto this past weekend, but he's still in assessment mode.
"Beckham just started playing again, and there is no timetable for him or anyone else in the minor leagues," Williams said in an e-mail. "But if my big league team keeps playing like this, there will be changes."
Changes where? Although second baseman Chris Getz, shortstop Alexei Ramirez and third baseman Josh Fields are all hitting worse than .235, it's a little soon for Williams to yank one of them for Beckham. The White Sox have scored only 53 runs in 17 games in May, so swapping one kid infielder for another won't solve their problems.
Neftali Feliz, Rangers
The Texas pitching staff doesn't need much help these days. The Rangers are 13-4 with a 3.12 ERA in May. The move of Michael Young to third base to accommodate Elvis Andrus at shortstop has been an unqualified success, and pitching coach Mike Maddux has been a big hit in Arlington.
Rookie Derek Holland has been strong in relief with the exception of one bad inning against the Angels. Feliz, meanwhile, has shown dominant stuff and sporadic control with Triple-A Oklahoma City. He struck out 28 batters and walked 17 in his first 24 2/3 innings and recently skipped a start because of shoulder fatigue.
Although one scout questioned Feliz's secondary stuff, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels loves Feliz's curve and thinks his changeup will improve with time and greater use. "When you're throwing 99 miles an hour at the lower levels of the minors, you don't have to work on your third pitch that much," Daniels said.
Depending on their needs, the Rangers could call on Feliz in a month or two and let him get acclimated in the bullpen. In the meantime, the Feliz watch has been eclipsed by the Ben Sheets sweepstakes.
Sheets, rehabbing from elbow surgery, caused a stir when he dropped by The Ballpark in Arlington this past weekend. He lives in Dallas, knows Maddux from their Milwaukee days and nearly signed with Texas in January, so the Rangers should be on his short list when he goes shopping for teams this summer.
"The two factors are Ben's health, and what he wants to do and what our needs are," Daniels said. "We had an agreement in place at one point, so there is a mutual interest. Right now, we're pretty focused on the guys we have. Down the line, if Ben is healthy, I'm sure we would talk at that point."
Fernando Martinez, Mets
Martinez, a native Dominican who signed for a $1.3 million bonus at age 16, has shown flashes of brilliance and a penchant for streakiness in the minors. He has endured a variety of injuries, and the Mets haven't done him any favors by pushing him through their system so aggressively.
There are also industry rumblings that he's older than 20. No surprise there.
Still, Martinez is having a nice season in Triple-A Buffalo. He has an .892 OPS and seven homers, including two off Clay Buchholz on Monday in Pawtucket, R.I. With Carlos Delgado out two months because of a hip injury and the corner-outfield production iffy, Mets management will watch Martinez closely during the next few weeks.
"There's a lot to like," an AL talent evaluator said. "But you've got to play him every day. He can go in and out of approaches, so he's not the type of hitter who can play two days, then take a day off, then pinch hit, then take another day off. You need patience with him, and I'm not sure that kind of guy fits in a stretch run."
Alcides Escobar, Brewers
The Brewers dipped into their farm system last week and called up third baseman Mat Gamel, who hit a home run against St. Louis in his first start. Then they summoned Hernan Iribarren to back up Craig Counsell, the designated replacement for the injured Rickie Weeks.
Could Escobar, 22, be next in line? The Brewers just decreed that he'll begin playing second base as well as short for Triple-A Nashville. Judging from Escobar's skill set, the transition shouldn't be much of a problem.
"He's acrobatic," said a scout who watched Escobar in the Cactus League. "He's got range, lateral quickness and arm strength. I'm not sure he's ready to hit right now, but he's a plus runner, and he's going to steal some bases. I think he's going to be a heck of a player."
Brandon Wood, Angels
The Angels rank 10th in the American League with a .417 slugging percentage. That's not bad when you consider they've gotten one homer in 290 at-bats from the shortstop and third-base spots.
Wood, who plays third base and short, has nine homers, 19 RBIs and a .782 slugging percentage in the Pacific Coast League. He recently hit his 62nd home run as a Salt Lake Bee to set the franchise record. That's not necessarily a good thing.
Baseball people say a prospect needs at least 1,500 minor league at-bats before he's ready to graduate to the majors. Wood, who's played parts of three seasons in Anaheim, recently passed the 2,600 mark. Although the Angels continue to insist that they like him and that he's in the long-range plan, he has spent enough time in Salt Lake to be a Utah tourism spokesman.
If Wood's long-awaited 300-at-bat audition in Anaheim doesn't come this season, maybe it will happen in 2010 if Chone Figgins leaves through free agency. Logic says the Angels have to either play Wood or trade him eventually.
"I've thought he was going to be a star for a lot of years," an AL scout said. "He's going to have to learn to lay off the breaking ball, but he can hit a fastball to all fields and he has power that's hard to find. He's a hard guy to give up on."
Other prospects on the horizon
• Jake Fox, Cubs: Fox, 26, has a ridiculous 1.467 OPS for Triple-A Iowa, but the Cubs can't find a spot for the first baseman. "I feel bad for him," general manager Jim Hendry told the Chicago Tribune. "He's swinging the bat as well as anybody in professional baseball. But if there's not a place for him, you can't do much about it."
• Austin Jackson, Yankees: He's hitting .344 in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but he just turned 22. As long as the Yankees keep winning, Jackson can continue to polish his game while Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner handle center field in New York.
• Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden, Red Sox: Buchholz has a 1.60 ERA for Triple-A Pawtucket, and Bowden checks in at 0.86. Those are tough numbers for the Red Sox to ignore when Tim Wakefield is carrying the rotation in Boston.
• Carlos Carrasco, Phillies: The Phillies need pitching help, but Carrasco has squandered his opportunity by going 0-5 with a 6.31 ERA for Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
• Andrew McCutchen, Pirates: He's hitting .292 with nine steals and more walks than strikeouts.