Peralta in line to replace Vizquel

11/16/2004 - Cleveland Indians

G.S. from Cincinnati writes:
Now that Omar Vizquel is gone, how does the Cleveland middle infield shape up, especially concerning Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Phillips?

From the looks of things right now, Peralta will get the first shot at the shortstop job. Cleveland fans should not be discouraged by the fact that Peralta hit just .227 in 77 games for the club in 2003. He is still only 22 years old, and he had an excellent season for Triple-A Buffalo, hitting .326 with a .384 OBP and a .493 SLG, contributing 44 doubles and 15 home runs. He was named the MVP of the International League. Although he doesn't offer the same sort of defensive skills as Vizquel, if Peralta hits as the front office expects, the difference between Peralta and Vizquel isn't enough to justify giving a large contract to a 37-year-old shortstop, no matter how beloved he may be in the community.

Phillips is something of a forgotten man these days, but like Peralta he is still quite young at age 23, and still has time to forget the bitter taste of his 2003 disaster. Phillips hit .303/.363/.430 at Buffalo this year, not as good as Peralta but still pretty good. He has better range than Peralta, but still needs to improve his defensive reliability. The primary problem with Phillips seems to be less of a talent issue and more of a psychological one. He didn't deal well with failure last year, and it set him back. But he remains immensely talented and still quite young. If Peralta doesn't come through, having Phillips around as another option is certainly a positive for the Tribe.

John from Brooklyn writes:
The Yankees' farm system seems to be very thin. Thus, is outfielder Melky Cabrera a prospect or will he be a disappointment?

Cabrera was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2001. He didn't receive much notice until this year, when he hit .333 in the first half for Battle Creek in the Midwest League. This led to a promotion to Tampa in the Florida State League, where he hit .288 but added some power to his game, knocking eight homers. Overall, he combined for 36 doubles and 10 steals at the two levels, and a .304 batting average.

A switch-hitter, Melky is just 20 years old and has already proven he can handle advanced Class A pitching. He controls the strike zone reasonably well, and the general consensus is that he'll be able to hit for average at any level. He has no particular weakness at the plate. Although he's shown he can swipe some bases, his running speed is only average, and he probably won't steal a lot of bases at higher levels. The other question is power. He's not a big home run guy at this point, and while the large number of doubles he hit this year is a good sign, he probably won't be more than a 10-15 homer guy at maturity. That's OK for a center fielder, especially if he proves to be a .300+ hitter. But his arm and range are only average, and he may have to move to left field eventually. And if he turns out to be a .270 hitter, 10-15 homer production won't be enough for him at a corner.

So, to answer your question, yes Cabrera is a prospect. His best attribute so far is good batting average performance with a large number of doubles at a young age. But it's not clear yet exactly how his skills will play out. That said, he is still one of the best prospects in a thin Yankee farm system. I know at least one team asked about him in trade talks this past summer, and if he continues to play well you will hear his name more often.

Izzy from McAllen, Texas, asks:
Jesse Gutierrez, a first baseman/catcher, is in the Reds system, and played for Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts this past season. He batted .292 with 17 home runs and 82 RBI and was one the top hitters in Double-A. Gutierrez was ranked in the top five in homers, RBI, hits, doubles and extra-base hits in the Southern League. He was also named the Most Valuable Player of the Southern League All-Star Game. Is he for real? Will we see him move up or possibly be traded?

The Reds drafted Gutierrez in the 20th round in 2001, out of St. Mary's University in Texas. He has received little attention, but he's hit well throughout his career, and proved himself in Double-A this year as you point out. He is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, and is doing quite well, hitting .304 with a .371 OBP and .489 SLG through 25 games for the Scottsdale Scorpions. He has nothing to prove in Double-A, and will be playing Triple-A in 2005, looking for a shot in the Show.

Gutierrez doesn't have the physical tools that make scouts drool. He's a big, muscular guy at 6-2, 210. He has no speed at all, and his defensive skills are pretty limited. He used to be a catcher, but is primarily a first baseman now, although he can still be a backstop in an emergency.

Offensively, he crowds the plate and shows good power to all fields, but isn't likely to hit for a great batting average at higher levels. His walk rate is a notch below average, but he doesn't strike out much for a power guy, which is good. On the other hand, his lack of speed results in a lot of double-play grounders, and he will sometimes aggressively make contact on pitches he should let go by, getting himself out in the process. At age 26, he doesn't have a lot of upside left, and is probably as good now as he will ever be.

It is unlikely that Gutierrez will be a regular player in the major leagues. His best bet is to find a slot as a platoon first baseman/pinch-hitter/emergency catcher. He has enough offensive skills to be useful in that role. Unfortunately, there are lots of guys with similar skills hanging around in Triple-A looking for a chance. Figuring out which ones will get the chance, and which ones will take advantage of that chance, is an exercise in psychic prediction, but my feelers in the psychical realm are not working too well today.

John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.