Is Lane ready to step forward for 'Stros?

Frank K. from Houston writes:
Now that Carlos Beltran has signed with the Mets, what is your opinion of the outfielders in the Astros' organization, especially Jason Lane, Willy Taveras and Josh Anderson? All three players have put up good numbers in the minors. Anderson is probably 2-3 years away, but what do you think of Lane and Taveras' performance abilities in the majors?

Let's take a look.

Lane: He saw action in 107 games for the Astros last year. But he received just 136 at-bats, being used mostly as a pinch-hitter and platoon player. Despite his small amount of playing time, his numbers (.272 BA, .348 OBP, .463 SLG) are right on target with what his MLEs (Major League Equivalent averages) indicate. He has 232 career at-bats now, with a .280/.351/.526 line, and I don't think that's a fluke. If someone gave Lane 500 at-bats, he'd hit .275-.290, with a .340-.360 OBP and a SLG in the upper .400s at least, perhaps right at .500. He's a fine player, and while he is not Beltran, the Astros could do a lot worse than give Lane a full-time job.

Taveras: He hit .335 with 55 steals last year for Double-A Round Rock. He has much less power than Lane, contributing just 16 extra-base hits and a .386 slugging percentage. Numbers like that in Double-A do not translate well to the Show. But Taveras' speed leaves Lane and most other outfielders in the dust. He is also an excellent defensive outfielder, at least in terms of range. If Taveras has a future as a regular, it would be as a Juan Pierre type, but at this point I'm skeptical about his ability to put up numbers like that. I think Taveras projects as a .260-.270 hitter in the Show, with a mediocre on-base percentage. His speed and defense would make him useful on the bench, however.

Anderson: He was a fourth-round pick in 2003, from Eastern Kentucky University. Like Taveras, his best tool is speed. Anderson swiped 78 bases combined at two levels of A-ball last year, being caught just 13 times. But it is unclear if he'll hit enough at higher levels. He hit .324 in 73 games in the Sally League, but just .268 with a .317 OBP after promotion to the Carolina League. He has more power than Taveras, but still has to show he can handle the bat at higher levels. Like Taveras, I think he's destined to be a reserve outfielder.

Overall, I think Lane has the best balance of skills and is the most likely to help the Astros in '05, if they don't sign a veteran. Taveras and Anderson offer impressive speed, but may not do enough other things to play regularly.

Matthew writes:
Assuming that the Nationals start Jose Guillen in center field and Brad Wilkerson at one of the two corner outfield spots, Washington has three players (Terrmel Sledge, Val Pascucci, and Ryan Church) who have proven themselves at Triple-A and deserve a spot in someone's starting lineup. I was wondering if you could offer your thoughts on each of the players and what you think they could do at the major league level?

Sledge: He hit .269 with a .336 OBP and .462 SLG in 133 games for the Expos last year. I think he can do better than that; indeed, he is on my list of players to watch very closely in '05. Sledge hit .286/.357/.515 on the road last year, but only .250/.314/.406 at home. Getting out of the Olympic Stadium dungeon should do him a lot of good. We don't know exactly how RFK Stadium will play, of course, but a major improvement in Sledge's numbers is certainly possible.

Pascucci: He just signed a contract with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, so we won't be seeing much of him in the U.S. in 2005. If/when he returns to North America, Pascucci looks like a .250 hitter, albeit with a lot of walks and enough power to be useful for some clubs, particularly in a platoon role. The new Nationals braintrust prefers guys with better speed and range than Pascucci offers, but he does have a strong throwing arm.

Church: He hit just .175 in a 30-game trial with the Expos last year, but like Sledge, I think he can do better than that. His MLEs say he can hit .270-.280 at the major league level, with double-digit homers and a decent OBP, say .350 OBP and .480 SLG. I don't think he's going to be a star, but as a complementary regular he should be quite effective. With the Nationals adding veterans to the roster, it may be difficult for Church to win an outright starting job. He would fit well as a pinch-hitter and fourth outfielder, especially given his good defensive skills at either corner.

Scott T. from Seattle asks:
Do you have an opinion on Rangers outfield prospect Ben Harrison? I saw him play for Spokane and he looks like he has a lot of power from the right side of the plate.

Harrison was a seventh round pick last June, from the University of Florida. The Rangers sent him to Spokane in the short-season Northwest League, and indeed, he showed good pop, knocking 11 homers in 55 games. Overall his numbers were .271/.358/.477, pretty good although not dominant.

Scouting-wise, Harrison is a big guy (6-4, 205) with a lot of physical strength. Some scouts worry that he is, in fact, too muscular, which hurts his quickness in the field. Stat-wise, his early pro numbers are mixed. His OBP and SLG came out decently, but he fanned 64 times in 55 games, with just 22 strikeouts, leading to serious questions about his ability to make contact at higher levels. I gave Harrison a Grade C in my upcoming 2005 book. I'm intrigued with his home run potential, but I want to see what he does against better pitching.

John Sickels is the author of The 2005 Baseball Prospect Book. The book ships on Feb. 1, and can be ordered only at Johnsickels.com. He is also the author of Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, which can be ordered online or at your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas and two happy cats.