Is Utley ready to replace Rolen in Philly?

John Sickels answers questions on prospects with the Phillies, Mets and A's, among others in his mailbag.

Originally Published: September 13, 2002
By John Sickels | Special to ESPN.com

P.S. writes: I am a huge fan of Scott Rolen as well as a fan of the Phillies. It was hard to see him get traded away. Chase Utley, however, put up some nice numbers this season at Triple-A. Can he at some point replace Rolen both offensively and defensively, and if so will he possibly compete with Placido Polanco for the starting job in 2003?

I've received many questions about Philadelphia's third-base situation since the Rolen trade. I don't think Polanco or Tomas Perez are the long-term solutions at third base, since they lack power. Both are better suited for the infield utility role. Barring a trade or free-agent acquisition, I think you'll see a battle at third base next spring between Utley and Travis Chapman.

Let's look over their credentials. Utley hit .263/.352/.451 this year at Triple-A Scranton, not awesome numbers, but better than what he did in A-ball last year. He hasn't hit for as good of a batting average as anticipated, but his power is coming around, and he made strides with the strike zone this year. He's still adapting to third base defensively, having been a second baseman in previous seasons. His error rate is still high, but he's shown enough range and arm to remain there.

Chapman is a level behind Utley, playing Double-A this year. He had a stronger season, hitting .301/.388/.473, and is also more refined as a defensive player. He has a solid line-drive approach, plus good command of the zone. But he's six months older than Utley, and most scouts don't like Chapman as much. Chapman's numbers since entering pro ball as a 17th-round pick in 2000 are stronger than Utley's, but he remains behind Utley on most prospect lists.

It seems to me that a platoon could be set up. Utley has trouble hitting southpaws, but because of his status as a first-round pick, the Phils will probably give him the first chance. I don't see either of these guys as future stars, though both should hit enough to be valuable. If it were up to me, I'd platoon them, taking advantage of the fact that their skills are complementary. I'd let Utley start against right-handed pitchers, with Chapman starting against lefties and coming in as a defensive replacement at times.

It would be a cost-effective approach, but also a risky one. I'd take the risk, but that's me. I love rookies, and it's easier for me to point out ways to use them than it is for actual GMs and managers to do so, since their jobs are on the line if things go badly.

Curt G. writes: Earlier this year you said you were concerned about Pirates left-hander Sean Burnett's low strikeout rate despite his otherwise great pitching. I just wanted to point out that it looks like Burnett has picked up the strikeout pace. While he has been a little more human in the second half, it seems to me that since the summer hit he has been striking out almost one per inning. Have you noticed this at all? Any new thoughts on his chances to be an impact pitcher?

Burnett pitched brilliantly all year, but I was concerned earlier in the spring about his low strikeout rate. He doesn't throw that hard. Low strikeout rates often hint that a pitcher will struggle at higher levels, even if all his other numbers are excellent. Note that "not throwing hard" and "low strikeout rate" are not the same thing. Some guys who don't light up the radar guns strike out lots of people, and they usually do well as they advance.

Burnett finished with a 13-4 record in 26 starts for Class A Lynchburg, with a terrific 1.80 ERA. He allowed just 118 hits in 155 innings, with 33 walks. He fanned 96, so while his K/BB ratio itself was good, his K/IP mark was below average, and a bad sign for him at higher levels. On the other hand, you're quite right about his strikeout rate. It did increase as the season progressed, and was better in August, when he fanned 28 in 33 innings with just six walks. The sample is small, but it is interesting.

Burnett's statistical profile is unusual: his K/BB and H/IP are excellent, but his K/IP is poor. You don't see that combination very often: if the K/IP is weak, the H/IP often is as well. It could be a matter of luck, things breaking right for him. It could be strong defensive support keeping the number of hits down. Burnett is also a wily pitcher who knows how to change speeds, and a very strong competitor; obviously that had something to do with it.

I'm not trying to downplay what Burnett did this year: he had a marvelous season. But we need to see what Burnett is able to accomplish in Double-A next year. If his August numbers carry forward to Double-A, he'll be great. But the fact remains that his overall strikeout rate was very low this year, and few pitchers are able to remain consistently successful with low strikeout rates. That's not my opinion; it's historic fact.

Glenn H. asks: It appears as if the Mets' top two pitching prospects are their last two first-round draft picks: Aaron Heilman and Scott Kazmir. Heilman moved quickly to Triple-A since leaving Notre Dame, and Kazmir, this year's high school player of the year, started at Class A Brooklyn. Are both of these pitchers capable of becoming major-league aces, and which of the two do you think has greater potential?

Heilman should be in the rotation mix for the Mets next spring; he has little left to prove in the minor leagues after a solid Double-A/Triple-A season. I see him as a durable inning-eater type pitcher, someone who'll post above-average numbers in most seasons, throw a lot of innings, but who won't win any Cy Young awards. A good solid pitcher in other words.

Kazmir could be an ace, a star pitcher, although he's probably three years from being ready to help in the majors. Although he signed out of high school this year, he went directly to the college-dominated New York-Penn League, and devastated older competition. I talked about strikeout rates earlier in this article. In his first 18 pro innings, Kazmir struck out 34 and allowed only five hits and seven walks. That's awesome, and bodes very well for his future, especially since he did it against more experienced players. He throws very hard, and gets some serious wicked movement on his pitches.

So, to answer your question, Heilman will help sooner, but it's Kazmir who has the greater potential, granted he's younger and has a better chance to blow out his elbow or rip his shoulder or otherwise get hurt.

Chris asks: I've been watching White Sox farmhand Kris Honel pitch for a while now. I was wondering what you thought of him, and if you think he will be called up anytime soon?

Watch Honel; he's one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, and will start getting attention soon. He was drafted in the first round last year, out of an Illinois high school, and should make the home state crowd pretty excited. Honel throws in the low-to-mid 90s, has an evil curveball, and knows what to do with it. He's polished for a cold-weather high school pitcher, and did great work this year in the Sally League, posting a 2.82 ERA and fine 152/52 K/BB in 153 innings, allowing only 128 hits. His numbers back up his scouting reports.

The White Sox have a bad habit of over-hyping their pitching prospects, declaring anyone with a good fastball as the second coming of Tom Seaver or Gary Peters, when most of them have turned into Chris Knapp or Rich Wortham. But Honel looks like the real deal to me, and if he stays healthy, he should make quite an impact.

Kevin C. writes: I'm curious about a player Oakland has in Double-A, Graham Koonce. He had excellent walk numbers and a slugging percentage around .500 this season. Is he a legitimate prospect, or did he just benefit from an offensive-friendly league?

Koonce ended up hitting .274 with 24 home runs and 133 walks in 140 games for Double-A Midland in the Texas League. That made for a .440 OBP and a .488 SLG. A veteran minor leaguer, Koonce is now 27 years old, so he's too old to be a prospect, especially since he's still in Double-A. It's not really his fault. He played independent ball in '97 and '98, then got stuck in the California League for two seasons in '99 and '00, hitting well but not getting a chance to move up. He hit .266 with 89 walks and 13 homers for Double-A Mobile (Padres) in '01, then moved on to the Athletics as a minor league free agent.

He's got some power, and obviously he never swings at a bad pitch. We need to see what he does in Triple-A, and if he does well, he could slot in somewhere as a first baseman/DH/emergency outfielder/bat off the bench guy. He is an excellent example of how smart teams can find "free talent" essentially sitting around the minor leagues waiting for a chance. Koonce won't be a star, and may never get more than a handful of at-bats at the major-league level, but he's earned the chance for at least a cup of coffee.

John Sickels is the author of the 2002 STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. He is currently writing a biography of Bob Feller. 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 johnsickels.com.

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