Do Astros have a can't-miss prospect in Lane?

ESPN.com's John Sickels answers user e-mail in his Down on the Farm mailbag.

Updated: April 5, 2003, 5:26 PM ET
By John Sickels | Special to ESPN.com

I'm glad I'm not LaTroy Hawkins right now, but the Twins need bats even more than they need a closer. They should have won three of four in Tampa Bay last weekend, and would have done so if they had been able to score more than a pittance of runs.

Let's get to the mailbag.

Steve A. asks: Two outfielders that were once very promising have stumbled in the majors. Can you comment on Ruben Mateo and Milton Bradley? What are their chances of returning to the majors soon (by mid-2002) and making an impact? Finally, what is wrong with Pat Burrell? Where are the 30+ homers from him?

Both Mateo and Bradley are alleged attitude cases. I use "alleged" because it's always hard to separate myth from reality in such situations. Although Bradley has the worse reputation, it seems to me that Mateo's problems may actually be more severe. Bradley's problem is that he can be sour and standoffish, but Mateo's work ethic, once an asset, has apparently deteriorated critically over the last year or so.

Of course, both players are still very young, just 23. There is plenty of time to correct these problems of personality, however grave they may actually be or not be.

Performance-wise, I think Bradley might come around before Mateo does. He's playing very well in Triple-A (.321 batting, .379 OBP, .547 SLG at Buffalo) since coming over to the Indians in a trade just before the deadline. Sometimes a trade and change of scenery shakes loose whatever is bothering the player mentally. Mateo, on the other hand, has been horrible at Triple-A Louisville since coming to the Reds, hitting .211 with no power or patience. He may still not be 100 percent physically, and if the rumors coming out of Texas are true, he isn't 100 percent in the intensity department either.

Ironically, I've always liked Mateo better than Bradley, and he has played better in his major-league exposure before this year. I still expect both players to have good careers, but the huge decline in Mateo's performance makes me think that he may have a longer road back than Bradley.

As for Burrell, he's still just 24. He won't hit 30 homers this year, but he could hit 20. His batting average, OBP, and SLG are all nearly identical to what he did last year. I know Phillies fans are expecting immediate stardom. It hasn't happened yet, but he strikes me as more of the steady growth type. His time will come.

Travis M. writes: With the possibility of the Astros trading Daryle Ward and with Richard Hidalgo's struggles this season, do you see the Houston giving Jason Lane, who is playing at Double-A Round Rock, a shot in the bigs? He is absolutely tearing up Double-A pitching and leads many of the offensive categories in the Texas League. When is the earliest you see him making it to the majors?

Lane is hitting .325 with 33 homers, 110 RBI, and 14 steals. He isn't a tools monster, but he has genuine bat speed, controls the strike zone well, has good instincts, and works his tail off. I like him a lot, and from what I understand the Astros do as well. But they are well-stocked in the outfield right now as you point out, so it may be another year before Lane gets a chance. He could be a September call-up next month.

I think Lane is going to be a good player, not a superstar but a solid regular outfielder. He was a sixth-round pick out of USC in 1999, and should end up being a much better player than dozens and dozens of guys drafted ahead of him.

Greg D. asks: I'm from Chicago and like to keep an eye on all of the minor-league teams in their organization. The White Sox have a lot of great talent down there, but I was wondering if you think Corwin Malone has a legitimate shot at making the major leagues. He has had an amazing season with Class A Kannapolis, and has recently been moved up to a higher Class A level at Winston-Salem.

Malone is a well-kept secret. He gets much less attention than other pitching prospects in the system, but he has a great arm and is making huge strides this year. He has a 1.72 ERA in five starts since being promoted to the Carolina League, with a 38/10 K/BB ratio.

Malone has a rare combination of stuff and command. A 6-3, 200 pound lefty, he throws 91-94 mph and also has a big-breaking slider. He is throwing strikes much more consistently this year, making quick progress for a '99 ninth-round high school pick. I like him a great deal, and regard him as one of the best southpaw prospects in the minor leagues.

So, yes, he has a great chance to make it to the major leagues, provided he doesn't get hurt at some point.

Justin G. writes: Do you think Josh Phelps could be the next big catcher in the majors? He has put up tremendous numbers for the Blue Jays' Double-A team, the Tennessee Smokies, in the Southern League this year.

I've been slow over the last year to give Phelps his due, but he deserves accolades as much as anyone. He is crushing Southern League pitching, hitting .296 with 26 homers thus far. He is drawing walks as well (63), but still tends to strike out a great deal. Phelps has light-tower power, but shaky strike zone judgment resulted in erratic performance in previous campaigns. He's been more consistent this year, likely related to the increase in his walk rate. He may not hit for a terrific average at higher levels, but he should maintain his power production.

There are mixed reports about his defense. He doesn't make many errors, but his throwing is inconsistent and he's spent about half of the season in the DH role. He looks like a 20+ homer guy to me, but whether he becomes a star or not will depend on how his defense holds up as well as his strike zone judgment. He may end up making a Mike Sweeney-like move to first base eventually.

Kate W. asks: What is your assessment on Victor Martinez? He is leading the Carolina League with a .327 batting average, holds the strike zone well, has developing power (mainly to the gaps now) and is doing well defensively. This season, he has thrown out 34 percent of baserunners attempting to steal on him and has improved since the season started by throwing out 15 of his last 31 baserunners. Using your system that you utilize well in your book, what grade would you give him? He looks like a solid "B" to me.

You present a good summary of Martinez's qualifications. To this I'll add that he was voted "Best Defensive Catcher" in the recent Baseball America poll of the Carolina League, and is a 22-year old switch-hitter. His OBP and SLG are solid at .393 and .499, respectively. He doesn't draw a ton of walks, but he doesn't strike out much either.

Given his combination of hitting and defense, he looks like a fine prospect to me, a real sleeper sneaking up on people. I agree with your "Grade B" assessment. I'll want to see a bit more home run power as well as some Double-A performance numbers before going higher than that. Twenty-two is neither too young nor too old for the Carolina League; I'd give him a B+ if he were a year or so younger. But I do like him, and he's one of the better catching prospects in Class A.

Hot prospect tip of the week: Buy some Kenny Baugh stock. Buy it now.

John Sickels is the author of the 2001 STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at hometown.aol.com/jasickels/page1.html.

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