Fernando-mania for Padres?

Zach N. from Corvallis, Ore., writes:
Hello, what is your opinion of Padres prospect Fernando Valenzuela Jr.? I saw him his first year with the Eugene Emeralds ... he had a great glove at 1st base with good range. He also hit line drives but did swing at some bad pitches. At Fort Wayne in 2004 he improved in all offensive categories. Does he have a chance? Heckuva nice young fellow too.

Fernando Valenzuela Jr. is, as you would expect, the son of former major league pitcher Fernando Valenzuela. Dad, for those of you who may not remember the 1980s, was actually a pretty good hitter in addition to being a fine pitcher in his prime. His son has inherited this hitting ability. The Padres drafted him in the 10th round in 2003, out of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. A first baseman, he is a short-but-big guy at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, but is mobile for his size.

In 135 games for Class A Fort Wayne last year, he hit .295 with a .373 OBP and .414 SLG. His best attributes are command of the strike zone and the ability to make contact: he drew 56 walks with only 63 strikeouts in 502 at-bats. He should be able to maintain a good batting average and OBP at higher levels. But his swing is more of a line-drive stroke at this point, and his home run power hasn't been good enough for a first baseman. He knocked just 11 homers last year, and with a career slugging percentage of only .391 so far, it remains to be seen how he'll fit in at higher levels. He doesn't run well enough to play the outfield, and he'll have to boost his power production to remain a prospect as a first baseman.

I gave him a Grade C in my 2005 book.

Richard L. from Toronto asks:
Jason Stokes seems to have fallen off the charts a bit after being such a highly touted prospect in the Marlins' organization.  I recall not too long ago fantasy book prognosticators projected him with 50 + homer potential.  It looks to me like his all-or-nothing swing is hurting his average and that he could whiff an awful lot at the big league level.  What do you make of him?

Stokes was a hot prospect after he hit .341 with 27 homers in just 97 games for Class A Kane County in 2002, showing good plate discipline in addition to his enormous raw power. But the last two seasons have not gone as well. He hit just .258 with 17 homers for Class A Jupiter in 2003. He improved a bit in 2004, hitting .272 with 23 homers in 106 games for Double-A Carolina. But the drops in his batting average and OBP are quite strong from what he did in '02. Basically, I agree with your assessment of his problems.

It seems that Stokes has become overly power-conscious and tries too hard to pull the ball. Scouts felt he had a good chance to become a complete hitter following his '02 season, able to contribute a high batting average and OBP in addition to his home run power. But his overall hitting skills have regressed. The power is still there, but he's a lot more "pitchable," in the sense that he's opened up too many holes in his swing, leading to excessive strikeouts. He's still dangerous, but containable with good pitching. Stokes has also been bothered by nagging wrist injuries, forcing him to rely more on a brute strength approach rather than bat quickness.

At age 23, he still has development time ahead of him and can improve. But he reminds me more and more of Ron Wright, a big power prospect for the Braves and Pirates back in the mid-to-late 1990s. Wright, like Stokes, looked like a potential complete hitter at one point, but injuries and problems with contact sapped his "overall" hitting skills, and he ended up as a Triple-A slugger. Scouts say that Stokes has more pure talent than Wright had, and I agree. But Jason needs to tighten up the strike zone again to reach his full potential.

Rob from Corpus Christi writes:
What do you think about Mike Nickeas, a catcher drafted in the fifth round by the Rangers in 2004?

The Rangers drafted Mike Nickeas in the fifth round last June, from Georgia Tech. In college, he was regarded as a very sound defensive catcher. He has a good arm, shows leadership skills, moves well behind the plate, etc. His defense alone makes him a prospect, but there were some questions in college about his bat, which was erratic. However, he did very well in his first pro exposure, hitting .288 with a .384 OBP and .494 SLG in 62 games for short-season Spokane, contributing 10 homers and 18 doubles. His overall OPS was 20 percent better than Northwest League average, a sound number.

Many scouts believe that Nickeas will have problems making contact against good pitching, and that his batting average and OBP will drop substantially once he faces pitchers with more refined breaking stuff. That may happen; it may not, we need to see. His good defense means that the Rangers will be patient with his bat. If he keeps hitting, Nickeas could end up being a regular down the road. He MIGHT end up as one of the best catching prospects in the game a year from now, if he maintains the hitting. Although I am personally optimistic about his chances, caution is warranted. While he hit well in the Northwest League, he wasn't devastating, and we do need to see how things pan out before going overboard with praise.

I'm not trying to cop-out here; I'm being honest. I like Nickeas and I like what he has done so far, but he still has some things to prove.

Personal note: Feb. 1 will be my last article for ESPN.com. By then, I hope to have enough information to let you know where you can find my work in the future. I'll also make an announcement at the relevant time on my Web site, johnsickels.com. We'll be on a regular schedule next week, with a prospect report and a mailbag here at ESPN.com, then we'll do a special final sendoff on Feb. 1. Thanks for your support.

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.