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Archive for November 2009

Know Your Prospects: Zack Wheeler, RHP, San Francisco Giants

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Sometime tomorrow, Baseball America will roll out its prospect rankings for the San Francisco Giant’s organization. The best left-handed pitching prospect in Minor League Baseball, Madison Bumgarner, or the best catching prospect in the game, Buster Posey, will nab the team’s No. 1 spot.

I know this because, well, it really doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out and because my Dad and Step Mom are awesome and surprised me with a little pre-Christmas love. Now I can read all the B.A. analysts gushing about prospects in real-time:

Thank you!

But anyway, back to the San Francisco Giants. In recent years, the team has exponentially fortified its minor league system by uncharacteristically handing out large bonuses. As a result, General Manager Brian Sabean has had tremendous success securing above-average pitching prospects and impact bats at premier positions. Prior to the 2009 season, the organization was ranked fifth in Baseball America‘s talent rankings, the club’s highest mark in the publication’s history.

The organization won’t rank as highly this year, but its still got all the trappings of an impact system.

Behind Bumgarner and Posey, the team’s No. 3 prospect will be Zack Wheeler.

Wheeler, a 6’4″, 170 pound, right-handed power pitcher out of Georgia’s East Paulding High School was considered one of the few elite pitchers in the 2009 draft class. Scouts lauded Wheeler’s prototypical pitcher’s body, potential plus stuff, and poise.

And all the marks were earned: during his senior year at East Paulding High, Wheeler went 9-0 with an ERA of 0.54. During the first round of the Georgia state playoffs, he added a no-hitter and a two-hit complete game to his already impressive resume. He was named the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Georgia.

A consensus first round pick, analysts believed Wheeler would go somewhere between fourth and sixth in the draft; Baltimore, San Francisco, and Atlanta seemed to be the most logical suitors for pitching talent once the few impact bats were taken off the boards.

Would Baltimore pass on premier left-hander Tyler Matzek because of his lofty asking price and pursue Wheeler instead? Or would Wheeler fall to San Francisco? Or his home club in Atlanta?

Well, the Orioles (and a slew of other teams) passed on the pricey Matzek and instead opted for up-’til-then unheralded high school product Matthew Hobgood.

In the Giant’s tradition of going after right-handers in the first round (Cain, 2002; Aardsma, 2003; Lincecum, 2006; Alderson, 2007), Wheeler became the team’s natural pick. He was chosen by the San Francisco Giants sixth overall in the 2009 draft.

And this is where things get interesting.

Zack Wheeler has yet to thrown a professional pitch, yet his stock is still incredibly high.

On August 17, 2009, the Giants signed Wheeler just minutes before the deadline for a record-breaking $3.3 million, the sixth highest bonus ever handed out to a high school draftee. The contract stipulated that he would be under control starting in 2010, a move that ensured another year of his service, but also meant he wouldn’t pitch in 2009.

Still, professional scouts aren’t letting the right-hander’s inexperience get in the way of their judgments.

Throwing from a low three-quarters arm slot, Wheeler’s fastball is easily his best pitch. It routinely sits 90-93 miles-per-hour, but he can rear back and touch 95. In a Giant’s audition in early 2009, it was reported that he actually reached 97, though that seems slightly high. It has tremendous sinking movement and bores in on the hands of righties, making it especially lethal.

Wheeler also possesses an above-average, 78-80 mile-per-hour curveball. It’s too hard to deem it a plus pitch right now because he so much trouble controlling it, but it should play well in the higher levels. Working on his other offspeed offering, a sub-par changeup, will be the main focus of his initial rookie campaign.

Coaches will also work with Wheeler on his inconsistent control, which is more a product of his delivery than of his stuff. Wheeler’s motion is far from unconventional, but he is still prone to bringing his hands too far back and as a result his elbow flies open, wreaking havoc on his offspeed pitches. When his hands remain stable, he’s at his best.

But Wheeler should be coachable enough for those problems to iron themselves out; scouts praise him for his terrific makeup and concentration and he’s also been called a “baseball rat.” Wheeler is listed a just 170 pounds, but once his thin, wiry frame fills out, its highly likely that he will add a few more miles-per-hour to his fastball.

It’s risky to label a 19-year-old who hasn’t even pitched a professional game a future ace, but Wheeler certainly appears to have that upside.

For Giant’s fans, a fully developed Wheeler is part of a tantalizing vision. To go along with a dynamic offense, a starting five of Lincecum, Cain, Barry Zito, Bumgarner, and Wheeler could add up to the team’s first postseason appearance since 2003.

Zack Wheeler: the enigma that hasn’t pitched professionally, but could be the Giant’s third best prospect.

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Jay’s McDonald is nice defensively, but still can’t catch starting gig.

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Poor John McDonald.

Just when it looked like the 35-year-old may have finally locked down the Toronto Blue Jays’ starting shortstop gig, the club announced the signing of Alex Gonzalez to a one-year, $2.75 million contract.

Sayonara, starts.

McDonald has been a fan favorite in Toronto since his incredible defensive campaign in 2007. Fans have clamored for the light-hitting veteran to receive an extended audition, but McDonald has been used strictly as a defensive reserve on the Canadian ball club. In five seasons with the team, he’s yet to receive more than 350 at-bats.

And with age 36 approaching fast, McDonald is just a few years away from the proverbial pasture. A starting gig, at this point, is tremendously unlikely.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the Blue Jay’s logic; McDonald just does not have a playable bat at the Major League level.

In parts of 11 seasons, McDonald has stroked just 13 homeruns to go along with a .238 career batting average. That kind of production is acceptable if you’re a terror on the basepaths or an on-base machine, but that’s not the case with McDonald.

McDonald’s offense is so behind his dazzling glove work, that he’s consistently mentioned among the worst hitting position players in the American League, a dubious distinction to say the least. According to Fangraphs, McDonald isn’t helping the Jays win any more: his Ultimate Zone Rating of plus-9.1 at shortstop is just enough to offset what he’s costing the team with his bat.

McDonald owns a career on-base percentage of .276 and his slugging percentage is a paltry .317, 55 points lower than the notoriously meek hitting Juan Pierre (who has the same number of career homeruns over one less season). Caesar Izturis, a similar shortstop, has an on-base plus slugging percentage of .623, a mere 30 points lower than McDonald’s, but has earned almost double the plate appearances as McDonald.

That’s telling.

Last year, McDonald posted a career high with a .384 slugging percentage. That marked improvement clearly did very little to ease the mind of the Jay’s front office.

Jay’s General Manager Alex Anthopoulos signed McDonald to a 2-year, $3 million deal just one day before effectively replacing him with Gonzalez. For a player who profiles as nothing more than a late-inning defensive replacement and who will be 38-years-old by the time the contract expires, that’s quite a payday.

Only time will tell if it’s money well spent.

Written by dylansharek

November 26, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Chicago White Sox ink Andruw Jones for $500,000.

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As soon as the Chicago White Sox decided to buy out the $950,000 remaining on slugger Jermaine Dye’s contract, the front office began scrambling to replace his offensive production.

They brought in Mark Teahen, a versatile infielder/outfielder with slight pop, from the Kansas City Royals. They re-signed pinch hitter extraordinaire and corner outfielder Mark Kotsay to a one-year deal.

Not surprisingly, those signings did little to inspire confidence in Chicago.

But now they’ve brought in 10-time Gold Glover and five-time All Star, 32-year-old Andruw Jones.

For $500,000.

My how the mighty have fallen.

Jones is a shadow of the player that routinely garnered Most Valuable Player votes as little as three years ago. In limited play with the Texas Rangers in 2009, he hit .214 with 17 homeruns in 281 at-bats. The campaign was actually an improvement over his horrible 2008, when he hit a measly .182 with just three homeruns as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In recent years, Jones has reverted to one of his old and worn tendencies: swinging at and missing breaking balls. There’s a good article about his rapid decline here.

Jones is just the most recent piece of the White Sox’s expanding bench. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll amount to anything more than a platoon corner outfielder, but Jones is still valuable to Chicago.

It’s entirely possible that he hasn’t forgotten everything that once made him one of the game’s most feared hitters.

Jones averaged a homerun every 16.5 at-bats in 2009. Had he played a full season and amassed more plate appearances, that mark would have been good for eighth in the American League. He also led Texas batters in walk rate in 2009, earning a free pass every 7.4 at-bats.

Jones’ contract with the White Sox includes $1 million in performance based incentives, an advantage he’ll want to make the most of if he hopes to even earn a contract in 2011.

While the signing isn’t likely to quell Chicago fans’ uneasy thoughts about the team’s outfield in 2010, it is a step towards replacing Dye’s offensive production. Jones will most likely split time at the corner outfield positions and as the team’s designated hitter.

For $500,000, the Chicago White Sox could have certainly done worse.

Dallas McPherson to provide “insurance” for A’s in 2010.

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And they’re definitely going to need it.

With third baseman Eric Chavez not expected to return to the field because of lingering effects from a second microdiscetomy surgery, the Athletics signed the 29-year-old McPherson to a minor league contract, complete with an invitation to Spring Training.

Ironically McPherson, once a heralded prospect in the Anaheim Angels’ organization, missed both the 2007 and 2009 seasons because of lower back injuries.

McPherson burst onto the prospect landscape in 2000 after a dominating college campaign at South Carolina’s Citadel. Anaheim drafted him in the second round of the 2001 draft (57th overall) and immediately sent him to the short season Pioneer League. McPherson obliterated the competition, hitting .395 with a .605 slugging percentage in just 31 games.

McPherson took off from there, excelling at each step of the organizational ladder. By 2004, he was one of the game’s best third base prospects and the logical successor to Anaheim’s Troy Glaus.

In 2005, McPherson was given the chance to win the third base job when Glaus opted for free agency and signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. McPherson stumbled and was never able to replicate his prodigious minor league power. His season was truncated because of a hip injury, the first notice of a disturbing trend that has earmarked McPherson’s career thus far.

With the dynamic Chone Figgins forcing his way into the lineup at third base, McPherson found himself out of the Angel’s plans in 2006. He spent most of the season toiling in Triple A and played in just 40 games with Angels, where he once again struggled to make consistent contact.

Because of a bulging disc in his lower back, McPherson underwent vertebrae fusion surgery at the end of the season.

He missed all of 2007. He was released by the club eight days before Christmas.

In 2008, a 27-year-old McPherson signed a minor league deal with the Florida Marlins worth $500,000. The power that had tantalized big league scouts returned, and a shot at the team’s major league roster seemed imminent. In 127 games with the Albuquerque Isotopes, McPherson led the Pacific Coast League with 42 homeruns and batted .275, drove in 98 runs, and scored 94 more.

It seemed like McPherson had gone from big-time prospect, to nothing, to big-time (albeit, highly suspicious) prospect once again.

But just like that, McPherson was nonchalantly released.

And after another year lost to injuries, we, the baseball consuming public, find ourselves talking about Dallas McPherson once again.

There’s no denying that McPherson is a special player when he’s healthy: twice in his prolonged minor league career he’s clubbed 40 homeruns in a season; four times he’s posted slugging percentages over .600.

But the truth is, McPherson’s rarely healthy. To honestly promote him as an insurance policy for Eric Chavez…well, it’s like saying, “In 2010, the Oakland Athletics will be replacing egg shells with balsa wood.”

It’s hard to figure out exactly what the Oakland Athletics are hoping to get from this signing. Whatever it is, it’s almost certain to be an even mixture of promise and disappointment with a splash of unreliable.

The Athletics need an insurance policy for their insurance policy.

Joe Mauer is the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

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And you probably don’t care what I’ve got to say about it! Well, fine then!

You can read about it here.

Or here.

And here.

Why not here?

And here (Or the place where they spelled “league” incorrectly! Chuckle!).

Or there?

Know Your Prospects: Jason Heyward, RF, Atlanta Braves

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Jason Heyward was chosen by the Atlanta Braves as the 14th pick in the first round of the 2007 Major League Baseball draft.

Now, according to Baseball America and USA Today, he’s the No. 1 prospect in all of Minor League Baseball. And with the Stephen Strasburg hype machine chugging along at full steam, Heyward has, in a way, become the forgotten uberprospect of 2009.

But hey, he’s used to it.

Nearly half of Major League Baseball couldn’t see Heyward’s incredible promise; the then 17-year-old high school product from Georgia’s McDonough High was passed on by 12 other teams in 2007’s stacked draft class. Outside of Baltimore’s Matt Wieters and Tampa Bay’s David Price, he’s thoroughly surpassed all of his contemporaries and will become 2010’s premier impact prospect.

It’s a funny story how Heyward fell to the Atlanta Braves. In the high school circuit, the lefthanded Heyward was a feared hitter renowned for his plate discipline. He was pitched around frequently and refused to chase anything out of the zone. As a result, regional MLB scouts rarely saw a full at-bat. When the draft came around, no one was truly sure of the skills Heyward possessed because they simply hadn’t seen them.

But for Atlanta Brave’s scouting director Roy Clark, proximity to the prospect was both a luxury and an advantage.

Heyward was sent to the club’s rookie level teams in the Gulf and Appalachian leagues after the draft. The short stints did little to clarify exactly what Atlanta had signed in Heyward, but the 17-year-old held his own.

Heyward finished third in the low Class A South Atlantic League in batting average (.323) and fourth in on-base percentage (.388) in 2008. A brief call up to the high Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans at the end of the season wasn’t a success, but the rookie campaign was enough to solidify the rightfielder as Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect behind righthander Tommy Hanson.

Any debate surrounding Heyward’s potential disappeared as he rocketed through three levels of professional baseball in 2009. With the same high Class A Myrtle Beach club where he hit a paltry .182 to finish 2008, Heyward started his dominating season by hitting 10 homeruns, driving in 31 runs and scoring 34 runs in just 49 games.

The performance garnered a promotion to the Double A Southern League, where Heyward slammed 7 homeruns, 30 RBI, and 31 runs in 47 games. The plate discipline that had frustrated high school pitchers and intrigued pro scouts returned: in 195 plate appearances, Heyward walked 28 times compared to just 19 strikeouts. His batting average soared to .352.

The tremendous performance earned him a three-game showcase with the International League’s Gwinnett Braves. He hit .364 in limited action.

Heyward’s progression has many comparing him to former-Brave’s wonderkid Jeff Francoeur. Others seem more satisfied comparing him to a young Frank Thomas, a franchise player that was once the epitome of patience, power, and discipline.

A hybrid of the two seems the most appropriate evaluation.

Heyward’s offensive accomplishments often overshadow his defensive prowess. For a 6’4″, 220 pounder, Heyward is surprisingly lithe patrolling the outfield. He profiles as an above-average corner outfielder with an extremely strong arm a notch below Francoeur’s cannon. Some speculate that Heyward could possibly play centerfield, but his barely above-average speed makes the notion merely a pipe dream.

Offensive comparisons to Francoeur seem uninspired. Francoeur was a strikeout machine at the minor league level, notching 262 punchouts to just 88 base-on-balls. This hacking approach at the plate belied future struggles to come; Francoeur’s inability to adapt to major league breaking balls earned him a return trip to the minors in 2008.

Heyward, on the other hand, has struck out just 138 times and earned 108 walks. His plate discipline has markedly improved at every level and his approach has been described as “cerebral” and “commanding.”

It’s incredibly optimistic to call him the “next Frank Thomas,” but Heyward’s plate presence is extremely polished for a 20-year-old.

Heyward and Francoeur’s power numbers, however, are undoubtedly similar. In his first two full professional seasons, Heyward hit 11 and 17 homeruns, respectively; Francoeur notched 14 and 18 through the same time period. No matter which level he begins the oncoming season in, Heyward will most likely test his power stroke at the expense of a few batting average points.

He doesn’t have incredible speed, but he is just as smart on the basepaths as he is in his outfield routes: he’s been successful 26 times out of 31 tries, an 84 percent success rate.

According to the Brave’s brass and Heyward himself, there is no definitive timeline for Heyward’s ascension to Major League Baseball. If he plays well enough in Spring Training, he’ll make the team and if the team decides he’s not ready, he won’t.

But Atlanta has patience. And for a 14th round pick that has the potential to be a game-changer, they’ll make all the time in the world.

Know Your Prospects: Jordan Brown, 1B/OF, Cleveland Indians

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And he’s sad, sad Jordan Brown,

He’s the saddest slugger in the whole damn town.

He’s better than a minor league star,

But with the Indians he won’t go far.

-From Jim Croce’s unreleased Sad, Sad Jordan Brown

The Cleveland Indian’s hard-hitting, lefthanded first baseman/outfielder Jordan Brown is major league ready.

But from the Cleveland Indian’s treatment of him, one would think otherwise.

Through four full professional seasons, Brown has excelled at every level: in 2006 he captured the high Class A Carolina League’s Most Valuable Player award; in 2007, the Double A Eastern League’s Most Valuable Player award; and in 2009, the Triple A International League’s batting championship.

Still, Brown has yet to receive even a September call up to the big league club.

Yesterday, Brown’s contract was purchased by the Indians, effectively protecting him from the Rule 5 draft and thus ensuring he will be in the Cleveland system in 2010. And since Brown is blocked at all of his natural positions by prospects and established stars higher in Cleveland’s depth chart, it would appear that he’s destined for another year of toiling in Triple A.

While it’s always nice to have a job, the cliched “change of scenery” was Brown’s best chance at cracking a major league roster.

A University of Arizona product, Brown was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the fourth round of the 2005 amateur draft. Scouts liked his aggressive approach at the plate and fluid, compact swing from the lefthand side. He wore out the gaps, possessed good pop, and showed average speed on the basepaths. His defense was suspect, so the Indians drafted him at first base instead of his natural position in left field.

After a run in the New York-Penn League, the Indians sent the 22-year-old Brown to the Carolina League’s Kinston Indians in 2006.

Brown’s first professional campaign was a tremendous success. He led the Carolina League with 87 RBI and notched 15 homeruns and 71 runs in 125 games. His .290 average wasn’t eye-opening, but Brown showed patience and a natural ability to work the strikezone, earning 51 base-on-balls in 473 official at-bats, enough for a .362 on-base percentage.

He earned the league’s Most Valuable Player award and was promoted to Double A Akron to start 2007.

Brown’s statistics improved across the board at Akron. His average jumped 43 points to .333, a mark that secured the league’s batting title. His on-base percentage went from .362 to .421. His walks went up, his strikeouts down. His slugging percentage boosted nearly 20 ticks.

Once again, Brown earned the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The consecutive MVP seasons put him in the elite company of just one other player: the Indian’s 3-time All Star catcher Victor Martinez accomplished the feat in 2001-02.

Brown’s stock took a major hit in 2008. Making the jump to Triple A with the International League’s Buffalo Bisons, Brown saw his production drop significantly against tougher competition. For the fist time in his professional career, Brown didn’t reach double digits in homeruns, didn’t knock in more than 75 RBI or score more than 70 runs. The great patience he showed at the plate disappeared and scouts openly wondered if he was pressing to hit homeruns to impress the front office.

Around this time, Brown’s defense also became a major cause of contention. One half of those following Brown’s career saw him as a sluggish first baseman/left fielder with a poor arm and bad instincts; the other saw a hard-worker that had become a good first baseman, able to move deftly around the bag and make adjustments.

As a result of his 2008 stumble, Brown returned to Triple A in 2009 with the newly affiliated Columbus Clippers. He stopped pressing and compiled his most impressive campaign to date, finishing atop the league in batting average with a .336 clip. His natural power returned and he hit 15 homeruns to go along with 35 doubles.

A September call up seemed imminent on a floundering Cleveland team. It seemed a given.

On September 8, 2009, the Cleveland Indians made their last call up of the season. It wasn’t International League batting champion Jordan Brown though, but utility infielder Niuman Romero.

To many, the snub signified the end of Brown’s tenure in Cleveland.

Brown is blocked for the foreseeable future by an abundance of prospects higher in Cleveland’s depth chart. Top 10 prospects Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, and the promising Nick Weglarz almost guarantee that Brown does not have a future at his natural positions of first base or the corner outfield spots. Designated hitter Travis Hafner has the role locked up until 2011 after signing a four-year contract extension in 2007.

With the front office wary of Brown’s defense, he figures to be the odd man out in a deep Cleveland system, an assumption clarified by former-manager Eric Wedge:

[Brown] had a great year this year. It’s tough to find a position for him right now defensively. With Hafner being our DH this year and moving forward, that’s where the pick gets tough for us.

Brown has not posted a fielding percentage below .989 at any position he has played at significantly (more than 40 games), meaning that some of the speculation regarding his defense could be based on his horrendous play during a short stint in rightfield during 2009 and an error-laden campaign at first base in 2008. If Ultimate Zone Ratings were available for Brown, they would almost certainly reveal an average to below-average fielder with little range, justifying the criticism. Still, Matt LaPorta is far from a Gold Glove caliber first baseman, making Brown’s future with the team even more murky and curious.

It’s entirely fair to say that the Indians may not know what their plans are with Brown. They could be holding onto him simply because he’s too good to give away without a return or to lose in the Rule 5 draft.

Brown has voiced his disappointed about not being called up in 2009, stating he didn’t expect for the Indians to purchase his contract in 2009.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Sad, sad, Jordan Brown.