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Nelson tops Braves' prospect list

James from York, Pennsylvania, writes: With the recent trade of Adam Wainwright, the Braves' No. 1 pitching prospect now is arguably Bubba Nelson. If nothing else, Nelson is at least the closest prospect to Atlanta.

Over the past couple of years, I have heard some scouting reports saying that he, not Wainwright, would end up as a long-term starting pitcher for the Braves, and that he was actually the better prospect. With the mass exodus of front-line starting pitching in Atlanta, what are Bubba's chances of landing a spot as the fifth starter in the rotation?

I think that's right; with Wainwright off to St. Louis, Nelson is Atlanta's best pitching prospect, at least in the short term. In the medium and long runs, I like lefties Dan Meyer and Macay McBride even more than Nelson, but they won't be ready in 2004.

Nelson, a right-hander, went 8-10 but with a 3.18 ERA at Double-A Greenville in 2003. There was some consideration of using him in the bullpen, as he made 11 late relief outings at Triple-A Richmond (posting a 1.88 ERA). Word is that Nelson will return to the rotation this spring, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if his first opportunity in the majors does come in relief.

How good is he? Statistically, his ERAs have always been good. But his K/IP and K/BB rates are somewhat mediocre: just 84/50 last year in 133 innings. The walk rate is pretty low, but his strikeout rate is unimpressive. He gets away with this because he keeps the ball down, working hitters with a 90-92 mph sinker. His slider is also very good, and at times his changeup is effective as well. Although the low strikeout rate is a red flag in terms of future projection, sinkerball pitchers are sometimes effective despite low rates in that category. Scouts don't seem to have any doubts about him.

What do I think? My guess is that Nelson will have a few adjustment problems when he first reaches the majors, but will eventually turn into an effective pitcher, not quite an ace, but solid. His best bet may indeed be in relief down the road.

A Reds fan asks: I'm a Reds fan who is sick and tired of pitching prospects. Dustin Moseley and Ty Howington, who the Reds said were the next big thing, have flopped. Are the newly-acquired Brandon Claussen and Joe Valentine for real?

Howington has certainly had his problems: 6.91 ERA in four starts in Double-A last year, with a drop in velocity related to elbow and shoulder problems. He hasn't been able to develop consistent command of his 90-mph fastball, slider, and changeup yet. But it is too early to give up on him; he's still just 23, and has had bouts of good pitching, including a 3.53 ERA in 19 starts in '03 at Class A Potomac. He hasn't been what the Reds expected when they drafted him (first round, 1999), but he hasn't been a complete flop, either.

As for Moseley, I don't see how you can say he is a flop at all. He's 22, and posted a 2.70 ERA in eight Triple-A starts last year, following up a decent performance in Double-A. He's not overpowering, but he is consistent with his 89-90 mph fastball, curveball, and changeup. He throws strikes, knows how to pitch, and has a decent chance to develop into a Brad Radke-type control artist. He needs some more time in the minors, but he is far from a flop.

Claussen has a chance to make the rotation this spring. Acquired from the Yankees in the Aaron Boone deal, he was still getting over the aftereffects of Tommy John surgery last summer. When fully healthy, he has a low 90s fastball, a fine slider, and a solid changeup to go with sharp command and control. He looks like a No. 3 starter to me. My main worry for him remains health. His velocity was down at the end of the year, and he may have come back from surgery too quickly. We'll just have to see about that.

Valentine has a great arm, but Oakland gave up on him due to command problems, shipping him to Cincinnati late in the year. That seemed to shake him up a bit, and he threw more effectively after the trade. He could be an excellent middle reliever if he refines his command.

You didn't mention the biggest prize of all: Ryan Wagner, who may be the best pitching prospect in the National League, and already proved he can get major league hitters out. You have every right to pin your hopes on him. He looks like a real winner, with blistering stuff and good command.

Phillip a Cardinals fan asks: I have several questions about the minor league pitching prospects for St. Louis. Will Dan Haren or Jimmy Journell contribute this year for the big-league club? What do you see them maturing into (a top-quality starter, a No. 3, 4 or 5 starter, or a bullpen guy)? Why has so much been said about Blake Hawksworth when his stats aren't that good? What type of pitches does he throw? What will he mature into (a starter or a reliever)?

Haren struggled at times in his 14 starts for the Cardinals last year, but I think he'll adjust in time, emerging as a No. 3 starter-type down the road. Journell is more of a reliever, and it looks like he'll be given a full shot in the bullpen this year. He doesn't have the durability to be a starter, but in relief he can come in and fire 93-94 mph sinkers, picking up the stereotypical mid-inning double-play grounder. He also has a good slider, and in relief he doesn't have to worry as much about his erratic changeup. He may get a shot as a closer eventually, but probably not in 2004.

Hawksworth's numbers look good to me. He started '03 at Class A Peoria in the Midwest League, where he went 5-1 with a 2.30 ERA and 57/12 K/BB in 55 innings. He earned a promotion to the Florida State League, where his ERA increased to 3.94 in 32 innings, but where he maintained a strong K/BB at 32/11. An ankle injury limited him to 16 starts, but better an ankle problem than a shoulder or elbow injury. He should be fine for '04.

Hawksworth can hit 95 mph, though 91-93 is more usual. Scouts say his curveball and changeup are above average, and he throws strikes. On the stat side, his K/BB and K/IP rates are both very solid, and I don't see anything in his numbers to make me think the scouting reports are inaccurate or exaggerated. He looks like a solid Grade B+ prospect to me, and if he comes out with quick success in 2004, that would go up to A- very rapidly. He could be a No. 1 or 2 starter eventually, and is a major overlooked prospect.

Gen from Salina, Kansas, writes: As a Royals fan, I am pretty much resigned to the fact that Carlos Beltran will be lost to a more lucrative contract offer after this season. From what I've heard, the heir apparent to Beltran in center field for Kansas City is David DeJesus. Could you tell me more about him? I remember him being a fourth-round pick a few years ago and the Royals really seem to be high on his defensive skills, but will he be a hitting and base-stealing threat like Beltran?

DeJesus is a fine prospect. The Royals like his defensive skills, yes, but his bat is respectable, too, and he's probably the leadoff hitter of the future. I will do a full profile on him this Friday. The short version: he has gap power, draws walks, steals bases, plays well defensively, and hustles his tail off. He won't have Beltran's power, but should still be a solid player.

Book update
The Baseball Prospect Book 2004 will be back from the printer on Friday, and we remain on course for mailing to customers next Monday and Tuesday.

John Sickels is the author of the 2004 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered only at his Web site, johnsickels.com. He is also the author of "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," which will be released just before Christmas by Brassey's. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.