February 2006

A day in Tucson

My time in Tucson was brief. Truth be told, that’s fine by me. I have to say it’s not my favorite locale. If you do go, though, check out the Ajo Cafe just  down the street from Tucson Electric Park. It looks like a little hole in the wall, but it’s really good eats. If you’re lucky, you’ll see MLB.com’s D-Backs reporter Steve Gilbert chowing down…

But I digress. My real reason to be in Tucson was to talk to the White Sox and Diamondbacks. Walking into Arizona’s clubhouse and looking around, I felt like I was at a Minor League All-Star Game. And this was just big league camp…but with Justin Upton, Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, Dustin Nippert — Carlos Gonzales wasn’t even there — I can’t think of another big league spring camp with that much prospect power. If new GM Josh Byrnes does things the right way, this is a team that should compete in the NL West for the next decade (Listen for an interview with Montero on Friday’s Around the Minors show). After talking briefly with him, I get the sense that Quentin is a little tired of discussing his opportunity — or apparent lack thereof — this spring. Then again, I may not be thrilled if  I had to put on a good face over and over and over again as reporters ask for reaction to the fact that even though I hit over .300 and had a .942 OPS in Triple-A last year, I’d have to spend another season with the Sidewinders. Well, at least he can go to the Ajo Cafe a lot…

Over in White Sox camp, the prospect list isn’t quite as voluminous, especially after Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood were dealt for Jim Thome and Chris Young was sent to Arizona (at least he knew how to get to the Spring Training facility) this offseason. But there’s still plenty of talent  with good story lines. When will Josh Fields be ready? Will Ryan Sweeney start growing into the power expected of him (or does it matter)? How quickly will Lance Broadway race through the system? Is  lefty Ray Liotta good enough to cover the losses of the soutpaws listed above? At the very least, it’ll be interesting to see how the championship (and I don’t mean the White Sox affiliate in Kannapolis’ victory in the South Atlantic League last year) trickles down to all levels of the system.

That’s it for me today — tune in tomorrow with an update from … Surprise! No, really, I’ll be in Surprise to talk to the Royals and Rangers.

Arizona is lovely this time of year

So I’ve been up since 5 a.m. ET, spent 5 hours in the middle seat of a plane (did get to see "Walk the Line") , had nothing but a muffin as sustenance for hours, but it was all worth it once I stepped out into the Arizona sunshine and made my way to Maryvale to check out the young Brew Crew.

There’s a reason why the Brewers are everyone’s favorite dark horse contender. It’s not just that there’s talent — it’s young talent with tremendous upside. We all know about the hitting talent with Weeks and now Fielder. All they need is some pitching and they could be at the top of the NL Central sooner rather than later.

With that in mind, I headed to the back fields to check out the pitching. Granted, the pitchers were working on bunting and hitting, but there’s some talent getting close. Zach Jackson (who’s a pretty good hitter, it turns out) was the key to the Lyle Overbay during the offseason precisely to help re-stock the upper levels. The former college lefty has spent just one full year in the Minors, but he made it all the way to Triple-A in the Jays system last year. But the Jays decided they needed their 45th corner infielder and the Brewers were smart enough to insist Jackson be a part of the deal. Voila — a top-level, knocking on the door starter.

You want more? Tune into Around the Minors Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET. You can hear my entire interview with Jackson (and a bonus interview with Tony Gwynn Jr.), as well as San Jose Giants manager Lenn Sakata. I’ll have more tomorrow. … from Tucson.

Minor League rotations, part I

As I’ve been working on the 2006 Top 50 list and some early work on organizational previews (we’ll be doing a top-to-bottom look at all 30 farm systems over the course of the month of March), I’ve been thinking about some of the best rotations that will start off the 2006 Minor League season. From time to time, I’ll post a nominee for best rotation in the Minors on this blog and open the "floor" for comments/criticisms/suggestions. Rotations can come from any level, and I don’t necessarily need all 5 starters, but if an affiliate somewhere has three top-level starters, that staff at least warrants being mentioned here.

For starters, we’ll go to the Twins’ system and head to the Florida State Leauge. Our first Top Rotation Nominee: the Ft. Myers Miracle:

Anthony Swarzak, RHP (2nd round, 2004 draft; 3.58 career ERA; strikeout per inning and 4:1 K:BB ratio in his career)
Jay Rainville, RHP (1st round, 2004; 3.06 ERA; 150 K, 36 BB in career)
Kyle Waldrop, RHP (1st round, 2004; 4.15 ERA; 163 K, 30 BB)
Kevin Slowey, RHP (2nd round, 2005; 2.13 ERA; 84 K, 8 BB in 72 IP)

Slowey could conceivably make the leap to Double-A to start the season, but no worries there. Talented, but oft injured lefty Justin Jones should start the year back in Ft. Myers. And just a rung below, Eduardo Morlan and Matt Garza should see the FSL at some point in 2006. The depth of arms in this system is astounding…so much for saving the best for last. I’m not sure I’ll be able to top this collection, but I encourage people to try.

Fan Top Prospects

Sorry for the delay in posting…been working too hard in figuring out my waiver wire picks for the league mentioned below.

Got to prep for the big show today, so I’ll be brief for now. As we’re now getting into Spring Training, I’m going to try my darndest to post more frequently and I’ll be back soon to talk about some of the prospects causing an early buzz.

For now, though, I’ll call attention to something cool we’re doing on MiLB.com. It’s a Fan prospect rating. In addition to my Top 50 rankings, due out in late March, you get the chance to weigh in. Just send an email to topprospects2006@yahoo.com with your Top 10 prospects list. The list should include players from both leagues who are still prospects — guys like Felix Hernandez who lost rookie status are no longer eligible. I’m dumping everyone’s top 10 into a big spreasheet to come up with an aggregate fan list that you’ll be able to compare and contrast with what I get from those in the scouting industry. We’ve gotten a ton of responses so far, but the more the merrier…so get your list in now.

Sim league extravaganza

2006draftI know one of the worst things to do is talk about your own fantasy team, but this isn’t exactly like that.

On Saturday, I participated in one of the nuttiest drafts of any kind of league I’ve ever been a part of. It’s a Sim League known as the Mid-West Baseball League. I’m new in this league and inherited a big mess of a team, so I’m rebuilding big-time. There are 24 teams in this thing, so you can only imagine how deep it is.

But that’s what enticed me to join. I’ve never been a part of a league — not even LABR — that required such a firm grasp of prospects. It’s not just those who are rebuilding. Every owner drafts a ton of prospects and it even goes as deep as likely high picks in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. You have to love a league where Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the first overall pick, no? Here’s how the first round went (my picks are in bold — I made trades so I had three first-rounders):

1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C, Braves
2. Felix Pie, OF, Cubs
3. Gio Gonzalez, LHP, Phillies
4. Bill Hall, INF, Brewers
5. Chris Young, OF, Diamondbacks
6. Andrew Miller, LHP, Univ. of North Carolina
7. Bobby Jenks, RHP, White Sox
8. Aaron Fultz, LHP, Phillies
9. Hector Carrasco, RHP, Angels
10. Chien-Ming Wang, RHP, Yankees
11. Matt Murton, OF, Cubs
12. Jason Vargas, LHP, Marlins
13. Paul Maholm, LHP, Pirates
14. Adam Everett, SS, Astros
15. Greg Golson, OF, Phillies
16. Chuck James, LHP, Braves
17. Craig Hansen, RHP, Red Sox
18. Ronny Cedeno, SS, Cubs
19. Mike Jacobs, 1B, Marlins
20. Carlos Gonzales, OF, Diamondbacks
21. Chris Ray, RHP, Orioles
22. Edison Volquez, RHP, Rangers
23. Cesar Carrillo, RHP, Padres
24. Anibal Sanchez, RHP, Marlins

See what I mean? Hard-core! My other picks were: Russ Martin, Chris Volstad, Joey Devine, Jeff Fiorentino, Fernando Nieve, Eric Reed and Stephen Head. Not sure how I did, and this year is not going to be pretty, but look for me to be competitive by 2007 and win by ’08…

The main reason I wanted to share this with you is that for all of you Minor League nuts out there, the true prospect hounds, have faith. There are leagues for you out there. Just be patient and you can put all your scouting information to good use at some point.

Umm, the D-Backs are good

File this under the random wanderings of my mind…

You may question the title of this post, since Arizona finished under .500 last year(though that was good for 2nd in the paltry NL West) and lost 111 games in 2004, but I’m talking more about their farm system. It is absolutely, positively chock full o’ talent.

Back in 2002, Baseball America ranked the D-Backs organization as No. 23 in terms of talent. It inched up to No. 21 in 2003. Then there was a leap to No. 13 in 2004. Last year? Arizona held steady at No. 13. This year, they’re all the way up to No. 4…and that ranking was determined before No. 1 pick Justin Upton signed. (Programming note: Be sure to tune in to Around the Minors on MLB Radio today at 2 p.m. ET, when Jim Callis from BA and Baseball HQ’s Deric McKamey hop on to talk about the top prospects in the game)

What made me think of this now? Well, I’m knee deep in research for my Top 50 prospects rankings (stay tuned to MiLB.com for a new, exciting fan participation element to the rankings) and there are future Diamondbacks all over the rankings. Without divulging anything, it’s looking like there could be 6 D-Back prospects in the Top 50 this year. That’s just astounding…and a testament to the work of scouting director Mike Rizzo and his staff. Most of the talent has come in via the draft, though there’s certainly been some international signings and trades that have helped as well.

The D-Backs have gone through many incarnations in their brief existence, from a high payroll, veteran-laden team to one relying on Baby Backs. The flow of talent now getting ready to come to Arizona from its own system means it should be able to sustain success for the long-term. (Programming note No. 2: Also on Around the Minors today, South Bend — the Diamondbacks’ Midwest League affiliate and likely home for Justin Upton in 2006 — manager Mark Haley will join us to talk about trying to defend the Silver Hawks’ Midwest League title and what it’s like managing in a system that seems to really be on the right path in terms of scouting and player development)

Super Bowl optimism spreads

As the city I live in floats on an XL-sized high the next few days, I can feel the seeds of optimism spreading to other sports in this town. Since the Pens are awful — and frankly, I really don’t care — we’ll let this fantasy play out on the team that hasn’t played a game yet in 2006…that’s right, the Pirates.

Now, to be realistic, expectations are much different. When we’re thinking crazy thoughts about the Buccos and the ’06 season, we can let ourselves go wild with hope and say: "They’re going to finish .500!"

I know, it’s crazy talk. I let all the hysteria of the Steelers get to my head. But it could happen. And it’s the kids (see the tie-in to the Minors?) that’ll make it happen. Sure, right now, we can dream about Sean Casey hitting over. 300 in a homecoming, Jeromy Burnitz rediscovering his power stroke with that nice porch in right…but in all seriousness any hope for the future of the Pirates stems from the youth coming up right now. You heard it here first: Chris Duffy, NL Rookie of the Year. He’ll get help from fellow Bucco farmhands Nate McLouth and a full year from Ryan Doumit should help considerably. My midseason, Jose Bautista will be able to move Joe Randa aside much like Edwin Encarnacion did in Cincy last year.

But the real key to success will be the pitching. Joining less-than-old starters Kip Wells and Oliver Perez will be Zach Duke, who’ll continue to pitch exceptionally well and perhaps two other lefties in Paul Maholm (almost definite) and Tom Gorzelanny (maybe not imeediately). Or maybe Ian Snell finally gets his deserved chance in the rotation. However it falls, it’s one of the most intriguing young staffs in baseball. That rotation is what will make the Pirates aspire to winning 81 games in 2006.

OK, so maybe I’m delusional. Maybe I had too much Iron City last night. But a guy can dream, no?

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