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Know Your Prospects: Slade Heathcott, CF, New York Yankees

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If you’ve played sports, whether recreationally or professionally, chances are you’ve come across a player like Slade Heathcott. You know, the kind of player who has all the talent in the world, but just comes off as a total, well, there’s no easy way to say it, unlikable dick. You worry if their immaturity is going to derail them (Milton Bradley), or if they’re going to harness it and figure it out (Josh Hamilton).

And one of the major knocks ever since the New York Yankees drafted Heathcott with the twenty-ninth pick in the 2009 amateur draft has always been that immaturity. In high school, he was arrested for driving under the influence, was booted from his Texarkana, Texas, high school baseball team for academic reasons, and even pulled a gun on his father (who, I’ve heard, is not a saint either).

Still, Heathcott really turned things around after the Yankees sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous as a nineteen-year-old.

His first full professional season sent him out of AA and to the low-A South Atlantic League’s Charleston RiverDogs where he posted fairly pedestrian offensive numbers (.258 average, 2 homeruns, and 30 RBI in 76 games) but showed plus speed, range, and arm strength: inklings of the player he could be. Watching him last year left me divided; one day I saw flashes of first-round talent, and then the next, someone who looked to be pressing at the plate, trying to live up to his billing. But when the season finally winded down, I was more on the skeptical side. This guy’s right behind only Montero, Romine, and Vizcaino in Baseball America‘s Yankees’ list and we get a .250 average, 2 dingers, and 15 stolen bases, along with 10 caught stealings?!

But this year, I’ve been more impressed with Heathcott across the board. He’s become more patient at the plate. He’s taking walks in places where he should take walks, instead of trying to be the hero. As a result, he’s amongst South Atlantic League leaders in on-base percentage (.394), average (.314), and total bases (68). With the patience, has come power, or at least signs of it: through 34 games, he already has more homeruns (3) than he did through 76 games last year.

His stance and swing are unique. For a power/speed guy, he’s more upright and open than one would expect, and it’s allowed him to put more of an upswing on the ball than last year. He’s not quite Craig Counsell, but he stands tall in the box and consistently puts the ball in play hard. His swing is still somewhat erratic; he has games where drives or flies the ball every time and games where he only chops, grounds, and slashes it. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working: he’s four off the pace in doubles (11) and two off the pace in triples (2), some of which will turn into homeruns as he develops.

His play in center has never been questioned. He’s got great range and is athletic enough to make difficult plays look routine. His arm, considered among the best in the entire Yankees’ system, is outstanding even after 2010 off-season shoulder surgery. Just tonight, he nabbed the Augusta Green Jackets’ Raynor Campbell, a guy with six stolen bases already on the young season, on a play at home…in the top of the 11th inning with his team already down by two. And god, do I wish I had video of it!

He’s become a force at the top of the RiverDogs’ lineup and in the outfield, and I know that my time to watch Heathcott develop and flourish is dwindling.

But for all the positive developments in Heathcott’s game, there is a huge elephant, which is somehow standing under a black cloud, in the middle of the room, and it might just keep him from a mid-season promotion: that damn immaturity.

Back on Friday, May 13, Heathcott positively imploded, exploded, went postal—whatever you want to call it—starting a bench clearing brawl, after just the first pitch of the game, which pitted his Charleston RiverDogs and the Greenville Drive against each other. He was subsequently suspended for five games.

And I could see it coming.

On May 9, I saw a glimpse of Heathcott’s renewed hotheadedness before the now-infamous brawl. In a bases loaded situation with his team down against the West Virginia Power, he was picked off by right-handed pitcher Elias Diaz for the third out. He threw his helmet down, walked over to the dugout, and waited until someone brought out his glove and hat. During his between innings throw-arounds, he was angrily whipping the ball to the leftfielder, routinely overthrowing him, and making him run all the way to the Power’s bullpen to get it. And then after making a routine putaway on a flyball, Heathcott did the same thing in a game situation and overthrew the shortstop cutoff. It was childish.

And then tonight, that same night where he went 2-for-5 with a walk and threw out a Green Jackets’ runner at home, it popped up again. On the first pitch of an at bat late in the game, Heathcott was brushed back by the Augusta Green Jackets’ Tom Vessella. Nothing big. But then with a two-ball count, he was brushed back again, and this time the pitch was a little closer. Heathcott avoided the pitch, but threw up his hands and exchanged words with catcher Jeff Arnold. Nothing came of it, but for someone who knows his history, and knows what it could have become, it was something.

Of course I stopped recording preemptively.

Did I mention it was just his third game back from suspension?

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Prospects In Action: Zack Wheeler, RHP, Augusta GreenJackets – May 12, 2010

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If you’re a first round pick or a budding superstar, chances are you don’t want me in the stands when it’s your turn to take the bump.

A few weeks ago, I coaxed a bad start out of the Rome Brave’s Arodys Vizcaino.

And last Wednesday, I hexed the Augusta GreenJacket’s flamethrowing righty Zack Wheeler. In just 2.2 miserable innings, Wheeler gave up six hits, six earned runs, three bases on balls, two wild pitches, and a hit by pitch.

How’s that for a line?

I wanted Wheeler to do well last night. I mean, I really did. About six months ago, I wrote this post about Wheeler. It basically put me behind the wheel (no pun intended) of the Wheeler bandwagon, before there even really was one. There’s just something about a 6’4″ righthander that touches 95 miles per hour that intrigues me like nothing else but maybe a pizza with a donut topping.

But as is the course of the last couple weeks, another big prospect left town a beaten man, leaving me wondering how much longer I can continue this bad luck streak of awful starts by good pitchers.

When the night started, it looked like Wheeler was ready to deal. His bullpen session left the family next to me confounded; they hadn’t seen anyone with the velocity of Wheeler and they weren’t afraid to repeatedly admit it, noticing my notebook and hoping I was someone who could quote them in something worthwhile.

And even the catcher, Tommy Joseph, was feeling good about their chances: “Ah, it’s just an 88 mile per hour changeup. No big deal!”

And, like clockwork, Wheeler’s first inning went well.

His fastball sat at 95-96 according to the stadium gun, a pretty big bump from the 93 he had been previously reported at. One pitch caused a buzz amidst the Charleston fans when it registered at 99 miles per hour on the big board. It was an obvious glitch in electronics, an outlier of the purest sense, but a cool glitch, nonetheless.

The first thing I noticed about Wheeler was his delivery. It features an odd hesitation with his lead foot; instead of using the weight of his right leg to propel his arm and body weight forward, he basically takes it out of the mix, dangling it over the forward part of the mound until his snake-like right arm reaches its pinnacle and begins its downward movement. Only then does he finally drop the foot. The hesitation, once spotted, seems very out of place for a power pitcher. In person, it’s much more pronounced than in any of the video I’d previously seen.

You can clearly see that he is not consistently repeating the movement in this video. On the first pitch, the hesitation is apparent, but by the third pitch, there’s almost no delay.

That being said, Wheeler generates tremendously easy velocity from his tall, broad, and lanky frame.

His changeup had good running movement, coming in at 87-89 miles per hour. He didn’t throw many curveballs, which was a major disappointment since I’ve heard it’s a good looking pitch. When he did throw it, it spun in almost exclusively at 78 miles per hour. It has a tight rotation and looks like it could be a true power curve. My only notes are: “78, 78, 78, small break.”

In the first, Wheeler gave up just a run on a bloop single to left field.

But that’s just about all the positives I have to report. Check out this recap of Wheeler’s second inning:

  • Deangelo Mack grounds out, second baseman Ryan Cavan to first baseman Luke Anders.
  • Garrison Lassiter strikes out swinging.
  • Kelvin Castro singles on a fly ball to right fielder Ryan Lollis.
  • With Raymond Kruml batting, passed ball by Thomas Joseph, Kelvin Castro to 2nd.
  • Raymond Kruml singles on a ground ball to center fielder Evan Crawford. Kelvin Castro scores.
  • Jimmy Paredes doubles (5) on a fly ball to center fielder Evan Crawford. Raymond Kruml scores.
  • Justin Milo singles on a ground ball to left fielder Dan Cook. Jimmy Paredes scores.
  • Luke Murton walks. Justin Milo to 2nd.
  • With Robert Lyerly batting, wild pitch by Zack Wheeler, Justin Milo scores. Luke Murton to 3rd.
  • With Robert Lyerly batting, wild pitch by Zack Wheeler, Luke Murton scores.
  • Robert Lyerly grounds out, second baseman Ryan Cavan to first baseman Luke Anders.

It was ugly. When Joseph allowed the passed ball, it looked like there was a breakdown in communication between the battery mates. However, that wasn’t my biggest concern.

In the second inning, Wheeler’s velocity dropped almost four miles per hour. Instead of the 94-96 he was tossing in the first, his first five pitches in the second were 90, 91, 90, 92, and 90. And it remained there for much of the inning. He got back up to 94 during the Luke Murton at-bat, but the results were just not there.

Was he pitching with adrenaline in the first? Did he over-exert himself? Or had he just lost control?

I don’t know. But I do know that to the semi-trained eye, each time an abbreviated velocity reading popped on the board during the second, I put a mini red flag up. And when he lost all control during the second half of the second inning, I was reminded of something I saw during the bullpen session.

While working in the bullpen, Wheeler would start his windup, then look down to see where that lagging lead foot was, and then continue on.

I do not know if the pause I saw was present when he pitched in high school. But to me, it certainly looked more pronounced and intentional. It did not look like he was quite comfortable with it yet and it looked like something he was thinking about. And when you pitch, you don’t want to think.

Strangely enough, Augusta’s manager sent him back out there for the third. His velocity returned, but after a hit-by-pitch and a nasty walk, Wheeler’s night was over.

So, there it is. I wish I could send San Francisco fans revelatory information about the ace potential of Zack Wheeler, but I simply can’t. I’m still confused by what I saw.

For one inning, Zack Wheeler looked every bit the $3.3 million San Francisco thinks he is worth. But for the next 1.2 innings, he looked every bit Jason Grilli, the last pitcher the Giants picked up in the first round.

We’ll just have to wait.

Note: That obnoxious high-pitched voice isn’t me. That little rat ruined made my night a living hell.

Know Your Prospects: Asher Wojciechowski, RHP, Citadel Bulldogs

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It’s more difficult to spell than the longest name in baseball, Saltalamacchia. And its pronunciation is even more mind boggling than Duchscherer.

For baseball writers everywhere, there’s a new brain aneurysm causing name on the scene.

Wojciechowski. First name Asher.

Prounounced Woah-jeh-how-ski, I have the name copied so I can simply press Apple+V whenever it comes up. When I started this blog, I didn’t know I’d have to become proficient in the study of Polish linguistics.

But, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to avoid the name for any duration. Currently ranked 23rd in Baseball America‘s April Draft Preview, Wojciechowski has established himself as a first-round talent while pitching for the hometown Citadel Bulldogs.

I’ve had the opportunity to see Wojciechowski pitch on numerous occasions. Early in the season, it was easy to temper expectations for him. He was raw, his aggression unbridled, and maybe he was trying a little too hard to replicate his success from 2009. His fastball command was inconsistent, so hitters sat on his curveball and routinely laced it for hits. During more than one early season outing, Wojciechowski yelled “FUCK!” into his glove as hitters fed on his secondary pitches.

Wojciechowski has progressed steadily since then and has, by a large margin, become the Southern Conference’s best pitcher. As of April 30, Wojciechowski lead the league in earned run average (2.47), strikeouts (98 through 73 innings), batters struck out looking (68) and wins (8).

A 6’4″, 230 pound, righthander out of Beaufort, South Carolina, Wojciechowski is one of the more advanced pitchers I’ve seen at the college level, both physically and stuff-wise.

His tall, but stout body is perfect for his leg-driven motion. His frame is surprisingly compact and moves quickly when he drives off the rubber with his large quads, meaning he gets all of his weight behind every pitch.

As a result, Wojciechowski is a power pitcher in the purest sense. His fastball resides in the low-to-mid nineties. During the Citadel’s game against Appalachian State on March 26, he sat at 91-93 with the pitch. As the season has progressed, however, he’s actually sustained that velocity and his fastball now sits closer to 93-94, even late into games.

Wojciechowski also possesses a good slider. The action on the pitch looks more like a power curveball, but I’m assuming he’s told scouts that it’s a slider because on nearly every outside scouting report, they call it a slider. Still, I’m sticking with my guns and calling it a power curve. Whatever it really is, the pitch sits at 89-91 miles per hour and has also shown positive development as the year has worn on.

Even though it’s not his best pitch, Wojciechowski shows absolutely no hesitation throwing his breaking ball, no matter the count. In several outings, I’ve actually felt he was throwing it to a fault, like he refused to accept that it’s not an out-pitch. Now, however, the pitch isn’t a pitch you can really sit on. It’s got good, sharp lateral movement and when he can command it, he uses it to expand the plate well.

His changeup, like so many young pitchers, is almost non-existent. He’s only thrown it a handful of times in the three games I’ve seen. It needs work.

Wojciechowski has a lot working for him, though. His success in the Southern Conference has made him an imposing figure. When he toes the rubber, opposing batters feel like they can’t win, like they can’t hit, like they can’t do anything.

Wojciechowski begins his motion upright and holds his glove over his face so the batter can only see his glaring eyes. Looking in my notes, on more than one occasion, I’ve recorded something along the lines of: “Looks like he’ll rip your face off when he’s on the mound.” When he goes from the stretch, he begins by expanding his whole body, just showing the opposing team how physically dominant he is.

And when he’s at his best, he doesn’t let up and pounds the strikezone, over and over, with his boring fastball. With that coming at you at 95 miles per hour and a sharp breaking pitch, he’s been nearly unstoppable in the Southern Conference.

Some scouts say he’s a bonafide number two or number three starter at the major league level. Others say he’s a flamethrowing reliever.

Like that offspeed pitch, there’s some thrash over what Wojciechowski is, what he will be, or where he’ll end up.

Either way, his dominant 2010 has been a fun ride. And no matter what the future holds, I’ll be watching.

Know Your Prospects: Jose Ramirez, RHP, New York Yankees

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Jose Ramirez.

During my two-plus years of religious attendance at Charleston RiverDogs’ games, I don’t think I’ve seen a better product come through this system.

I wasn’t planning on going to tonight’s game against the Hickory Crawdads, the Ranger’s low-A affiliate, but when I saw Ramirez was the starter, I packed up the camera, the notebook, and my program and headed out to Joe P. Riley, Jr. Park. I was so intrigued by the sneaky-fast fastball and the it’ll-make-you-look-foolish changeup he displayed on April 26 that I had to find out if they were mere figments of my imagination or if this guy could possibly be the real deal.

And once again, Ramirez blew me away.

In six very, very strong innings, the 6’1″ righthander gave up just two hits. One of those hits, a first inning double by Hickory’s Cody Podraza, was all the Crawdad’s needed to secure the 1-0 victory.  Still, we all know wins and losses don’t mean everything.

Sitting at 80-83 miles per hour, Ramirez’s changeup is as advanced as any pitcher’s I’ve ever seen, at any minor league level. With his motion, you can’t tell the difference between his fastball, which ranges from from 89-93 and routinely touches 94, and his changeup. At this level, the batters are completely overpowered, overmatched, and overwhelmed.

He shows the ability to adeptly work both halves of the plate, popping fastballs in on hitter’s hands and stretching them out with changes on the lower half of the zone.

Ramirez’s curveball, which ranges from 79-84 and is an 1-to-7 offering, leaves a lot to be desired, but it has shown flashes of development. He threw it much more tonight than during Monday’s game against the Rome Braves, but he routinely left it up in the zone or down in the dirt. Still, it’s clear that it’s the pitch he’s working on. He never seemed to get a good feel for it tonight, but if he ever does, well…

What makes Ramirez so intriguing isn’t his great natural stuff, but the projection left in that stuff. He’s so tall (6’1″) and so thin (just 155 pounds), that it’s not improbable to believe he can add another 2-3 miles per hour to his heater as he ages.

Did I mention he’s not even 21 yet?

Ramirez’s free and easy motion makes me like him even more. There aren’t too many moving parts and it appears as though he’s made an unnatural movement as natural as possible. I’m no expert on pitching mechanics (that’s a direct shout out to you, Adam Foster, of Project Prospect), but if I had to wager a bet, I’d say his mechanics are as close to clean as you can get.

All of this means his stuff should play well at higher levels. And if I had to guess, I’d say he has two starts max, if they decide to promote him aggressively, at this level before he moves on to high-A Tampa. If he deals anywhere near as well as he has here in Charleston, he’ll be on the fast track to the upper levels of the minor leagues.

In 2009, Ramirez added the MLB.com Short-Season Pitcher of the Year award to his resume after going 6-0 with a 1.48 ERA and a paltry .159 batting average against. If they keep him with the RiverDogs for just a little bit more of the season, it’s easy to imagine him bolstering that resume.

This year, I’ve seen the Braves’ RHP Arodys Vizcaino in game action. Sure, it wasn’t the best game Vizcaino has ever pitched, but I didn’t see anything from him that would make me take him or rate him higher than Ramirez. When each pitcher develops and grows into their physique, I don’t think it’s at all preposterous to propose that Ramirez will have a better fastball, a better changeup, but a worse curve.

I really don’t think that Ramirez is having a good run or that he’s facing inferior competition; he’s just the latest of the Yankees’ international signees to breakout.

And that’s the true story of the game.

Know Your Prospects: Daniel Mahoney, RHP, Florida Marlins

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When Daniel Mahoney took the mound for the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Newport Gulls during the summer of 2008, the serious fans got out of the line for hotdogs and popcorn and cemented themselves as close to the field’s barrier fence as possible.

In a league full of jocular boys (the NECBL is often many young players’ first exposure to wooden bats), Mahoney exuded a captivating maturity and electricity withheld only for those with serious aspirations.

With his gloved hand tucked tightly against his chest, Mahoney would straightforward charge from the left field bullpen. He’d reach the mound, mutter a few words to himself, and tuck in his necklace. And then he’d warmup. But his warmups weren’t warmups; they were serious battles. Steely eyed and focused, he’d never take his eye off the catcher’s mitt, not even for a second.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

Buck O’Neil may have said it about hitters, but it’s true. You really can hear a difference.

It was the first time I saw this unfold when I thought to myself: This guy’s something special. He hadn’t even pitched to a single batter, but I felt some kind of instinctual revelation. And I was confused and puzzled and baffled. It shouldn’t be this easy to pick out a needle out of a haystack. But sometimes your gut is right.

Mahoney, a 6’4″ righthanded flamethrower, was named the NECBL’s top professional prospect at the end of the season. Originally groomed as a starter during his freshman year at the University of Connecticut in 2008, Mahoney was moved to the team’s bullpen in 2009, a direct product of the success he had in the NECBL. In 28 innings that year, he struck out 26, walked 10, and posted a modest ERA of 4.16.

During the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft, Mahoney was selected by the Florida Marlins in the fourth round, 128th overall.

Mahoney’s first season was, admittedly, not a success. He was converted back into a starter and during his first professional stint with the Jamestown Jammers of the short-season New York-Penn League, he posted a 1-6 record with an ERA a tick over 8.00. In early August, Mahoney hit the team’s 60-day disabled list to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Over the past six months, Blogging About Baseball has received a lot of hits from people looking for information on Mahoney. For a fourth round pick, there’s really not much known about him. Luckily, I had the opportunity to interview Mahoney earlier this week as he begins the long road to recovery…

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Know Your Prospects: Melky Mesa, OF, New York Yankees

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If I had to describe New York Yankee’s prospect Melky Mesa in one word, it would be “polarizing.”

Those that scout him have routinely been blown away by his explosive raw power and simultaneously baffled by his superiorly under-developed and sophomoric plate discipline. To add to Mesa’s mystique, he looks like a ballplayer: at 6’1″, 165 pounds, his sinewy and lanky frame is fluid in the outfield and promising in the box.

Baseball America named him the No. 20 prospect in the South Atlantic League for 2009 and also included him in an August 2009 Helium Watch. On Pending Pinstripes, a Yankee’s minor league blog, however, Mesa didn’t even break the organization’s top 30 prospects.

But perhaps Mike Newman of Scouting the Sally said it best: Mesa is a “lottery ticket” with enough “red flags to fight back my adoration of his raw tools.”

Born Melquisedec Mesa, “Melky” was just 16-years-old when the Yankees signed him as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2003. He spent two years in the Dominican Summer League before joining the Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2006.

Initially, the Yankees suspected that they had a legitimate five tool player in Mesa: he could hit for average, he had great speed, a good power stroke, a cannon of an arm, and good defensive instincts. But how would these skills translate to a real game on American soil? Would the promising tools develop?

Mesa’s first professional season clearly and succinctly presented the answers to some of those questions: in just 40 games, Mesa struck out 45 times, batted just .201, and posted a subpar on-base percentage of .261. Despite his “world class speed,” Mesa stole just three bases and was caught three times.

He did, however, play great defense.

His 2007 stat line is peculiarly similar. Every positive improvement was hindered by an equally powerful negative. Improvements in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and batting average overshadowed a drastic upturn in strikeouts and a decreased walk rate.

With the New York-Penn League’s Staten Island Yankees in 2008, Mesa showed marked improvement in power. He finally flashed the pop that many thought he would develop, crushing seven homeruns in just 122 at-bats. His OPS jumped a notch over .700 for the first time in his career.

Mesa had found his calling card.

In his first full professional season with the Charleston RiverDogs in 2009, Mesa worked on harboring his game-changing, light tower power at the expense of plate discipline of any kind. He led the team with 20 homeruns, 74 RBI, and 24 doubles. He also, however, led the South Atlantic League with 168 strikeouts in 497 at-bats. He batted just .225.

Because of Mesa’s molasses-like offensive development, he has earned comparisons to Alfonso Soriano, another Dominican Yankee farmhand that didn’t wow anyone until he broke out at an advanced 25-years-old.

Having seen Mesa play a lot in 2009, I firmly believe the comparisons are premature.

At no point in his career has Mesa shown an ability to hit for average, posting measly batting averages of .201, .235, .221, and .225 from 2006-09.

Soriano, by comparison, never hit below .250 at any level he played more than 60 games at. One has to consider Soriano’s putrid playing in Japan a result of the conditions; he was so miserable overseas that he “retired” in order to get out of his contract with the Hiroshima Carp. Sure, it’s not an entirely fair conclusion to make, but clubs don’t usually offer $3.1 million to someone who really stunk it up in the Japanese Central League.

For a 22-year-old still toiling in the low A South Atlantic League, one would think Mesa would attempt to refine his hacking approach at the plate. Still, just once in his four-year professional career has he posted an on-base percentage over .300 (.309 in ’09). For someone who was pitched to “like [he’s ] Barry Bonds” this season, as RiverDogs’ manager Torre Tyson said, you’d think that number would be significantly, if not substantially, higher.

In 2009, the Yankees never promoted Mesa when it seemed most appropriate, when his numbers separated him so far from the rest of the league that it seemed imminent.

That’s a telling judgment of where the club thinks his development is. And it’s justified.

Mesa is Jekyll and Hyde act in the purest sense.

On May 9, 2009, Mesa crushed a game-trying homerun against the Asheville Tourists in the bottom of the ninth inning with two out. I remember the at-bat vividly. He patiently sat on a middle-in fastball and crushed it well beyond the wall in left field.

I also, however, remember a game against the Savannah Sand Gnats late in the same month where he struck out two times on consecutive breaking pitches. He reached into the left-hander’s batter’s box for both, something I’d seen him do multiple times before. He repeated the performance the next night.

Two different nights, two different players: one a five tool star, the other a lost cause.

One thing about Mesa is certain, however.

He is a premier defensive outfielder. His speed plays better in the outfield than on the basepaths and he has a natural knack for route running. His arm is well above-average and could be the best in the Yankee’s farm system (it was definitely the best on Charleston). His 19 outfield assists led the South Atlantic League in 2009.

Mesa is slated to begin 2010 with the Tampa Yankees of the high A Florida State League.

And the promotion should serve as a good barometer for Mesa’s future. Will he thrive in the pitcher friendly F.S.L.? Or will he regress?

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.