Bright futures for Burroughs, Blalock

Have you ever tried to write a column with a 10-pound affectionate purring cat sitting on your shoulder? It ain't easy.

Let's dig right into the mailbag.

Andrew writes: Do the Red Sox have any serious prospects in the upper levels of the minors? I mean, Dan Duquette couldn't have screwed up the farm system that bad, could he? Are there any prospects that could help the big club soon? I know much of the farm system and it doesn't really look real good. All I see are top prospects floundering in the minors and having poor seasons (Darrell Stenson, Steve Lomasney, and the list goes on). I think the only prospects that could help the Sox sometime down the line are Tony Blanco and Seung Song, and they are several years away. Are they really as good as I had heard or are they just good compared to the rest of the system? I need some reassurance here ...

Sorry, but I can't offer much. The upper levels of the Red Sox system are pretty dry. Pawtucket was stocked by minor-league vets this year (Izzy Alcantara, Morgan Burkhart, Lou Merloni, Mike Neill, Jon Shave, Willie Banks, etc.) with a smattering of struggling former hot prospects like Stenson, Wilton Veras, and Sun-Woo Kim. I still think Stenson might turn into something, but probably not in Boston; he needs to move on.

Double-A Trenton was in better condition prospect-wise. First baseman Luis Garcia is an OK prospect, though he's blocked at first base. Lefties Casey Fossum and Greg Montalbano could contribute soon, especially Fossum. Things would look better if they'd held onto Justin Duchscherer.

The lower levels aren't much better. There are very few impact position players. Blanco has tremendous raw talent, but he doesn't know the strike zone yet. Former first-round pick Rick Asadoorian has been a big disappointment. There is hope for the pitchers; guys like Brad Baker, Rene Miniel, Mauricio Lara, and Seung Song all have live arms, but none of them will be ready for at least a year and probably two.

The Sox have devoted great resources to Asia and Latin America in recent years, but they've been neglecting the North American draft to some extent. It seems to be hurting, as the system lacks both depth and breadth.

John from Oakland asks: The A's very quietly got this Adam Morrissey guy from the Cubs for Mark Bellhorn. I've been salivating over Morrissey's A ball stats this season. When should Frankie Menechino start looking over his shoulder?

Bellhorn is a useful utility guy, but Adam Morrissey is a very intriguing prospect. A 20-year old Australian, Morrissey hit .309 with 14 homers, 11 triples, and 80 walks at Class A Lansing. He didn't get any attention as a prospect, but those are stellar numbers for a middle infielder, and given his age and experience level, they probably aren't flukes. To snag someone like this for a replaceable talent like Bellhorn is a classic Billy Beane move.

Menechino shouldn't worry for awhile about Morrissey, who'll need experience in fast A and Double-A before being ready for the majors. But Menechino was never considered a long-term solution anyhow, and is the kind of guy who could lose his job quickly in a slump. Esteban German and Mark Ellis are the biggest current threats to Menechino.

C.J. writes: I wanted to know who you think has a better shot at making the Mariners pitching staff next year from Tacoma: Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche, or Dennis Stark? Or would any of them help us?

The answer is: Brett Tomko.

Seriously, Stark is the best bet. Both Anderson and Meche have injury problems to come back from, and I'd expect neither to contribute much for the Mariners next year, at least in the first half.

The pitching staff at Triple-A Tacoma, by the way, was better than some major-league clubs can feature. The idea that the talent in the game was diluted by expansion in any more than a temporary way just doesn't stand to scrutiny. The weaker clubs should do a better job of identifying "free talent," guys who are sitting around in the minors waiting to show what they can do in the right situation. Oakland has done this, which is why they win despite a smaller revenue stream.

Dan T. asks: The San Diego Padres have Phil Nevin at third base, Sean Burroughs on the way, and Xavier Nady looking impressive, as well. What kind of careers will Burroughs and Nady have, and how should the Pads address the logjam?

I'm confident Burroughs will be a star. He didn't turn 21 until September, but he's already proven himself in Triple-A. Another year to develop his power and put the final touches on his defense could be useful, by which time the newly-extended Phil Nevin could, perhaps, move to first base. Nady is a first baseman/outfielder now, and had a fine year in the California League, hitting .302 with 26 homers and 100 RBI. But he is actually more than two years older than Burroughs, yet two years behind him in the farm system. Nady is a good prospect, but I doubt we'll see him at either infielder corner for the Padres. He may end up in a corner outfield slot, or perhaps another team.

I would expect Burroughs to have a terrific career, sort of a cross between George Brett and Wade Boggs perhaps. Nady should be a useful slugger, but I doubt he'll be a major star.

Chris B. asks: With the Rangers picking up Herbert Perry from the White Sox and already having Mike Lamb, among others, what does this mean for Hank Blalock's
timetable? Blalock has done all but demonstrate he is ready for a big-league job. Do the Rangers think so?

Blalock is probably ready, but the Rangers are cautious about promoting position players. A top Rangers official told me that they absolutely love Blalock, but want him to spend at least half of 2002 in Triple-A, just putting on the finishing touches.

I don't think the Perry acquisition hurts that timetable; it probably confirms it actually. A Perry/Lamb combination at third base next year would be a good stopgap. If the Rangers contend with that combo, then you slot Blalock in at third base in 2003, dumping Perry and the arbitration-eligible Lamb at the appropriate time. If the Rangers get off to a slow start next year and Blalock rips Triple-A, then you could foist Perry and/or Lamb off on other teams at the trading deadline, letting Blalock play the second half of '02 in Arlington. Either way, you keep pressure off the rookie, in addition to buying yourself extra insurance against injuries.

John Sickels is working on the 2002 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.