Monday, April 7, 2008

Down on the Farm: Minor League Preview

Last week the big league clubs weren't the only teams to start their season up as the four levels of full season minor league ball had their opening day as well. We are going to focus this week of "Down on the Farm" on some of the top Triple-A teams and the talented players that make up their rosters. We are going to look at three AAA teams; these are not necessarily the teams I think will win their respective leagues but rather the teams with the most talented major league prospects.

Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay Rays), International League:

Thankfully for Rays fans the Bulls have more than "Crash" Davis and "Nuke" LaLoosh on their ball club this year, as the Bulls team has a great balance of pitching and hitting prospects.

On the mound: The Bulls feature a nice rotation with three legitimate starters led by former first round pick Jeff Niemann. Niemann who we've talked about before at SportsJudge is a potential frontline starter if he can stay healthy. Last season for the Bulls he went 12-6 with a 3.68 ERA, and if he continues to pitch like that for the team he should be in line for a mid-season call-up. Joining Niemann in the rotation are a pair of solid righties in Chris Mason and Mitch Talbot. Mason has the higher upside of the two, while Talbot is closer to the big leagues. Mason should be a pitcher to watch this year as he is making the jump from Double-A, where he went 15-4 with a 2.57 ERA and was named his leagues pitcher of the year.

In the line-up: Even before the Rays made the surprising decision to keep top prospect Evan Longoria in the minors, the Bulls had a very talented line-up. Now I wouldn't expect Longoria to stay in the minors for much more than a month he will be hitting in the middle of a great batting order. With Longoria in the heart of the order is shortstop Reid Brignac, who is among the top hitting shortstops in all of the minors. Despite hitting just .260 last season in Double-A Brignac led the league in extra base hits with 52 and drove in 81 runs. With Jason Bartlett as the major league starting shortstop, Brignac will get a full year at AAA to fine tune his game, which should be to the benefit of the Durham team. At the top of the order the Bulls will have center-fielder Fernando Perez. Perez is pure speed and one of the fastest players in the minors swiping 32 bases last year in AA. Perez had 42 extra base hits to go along with a .308 average and a .423 OBP. Perez has 50+ steal potential and if he continues to improve his on base percentage and defense he could be forcing his way onto the Rays in '09. The Bulls round out their impressive line-up with MLB talented prospects outfielder Justin Ruggiano and infielder Joel Guzman, while neither will likely be an all-star both should have solid careers as platoon type of players.

Indianapolis Indians (Pittsburgh Pirates), International League:

The Indians really represent the Pirates future as they boast the Pirates three best prospects in both talent and major league readiness. While the Indians don't have the up and down talent of say the Bulls, they have something most minor league teams lack and that is three players who will be in the heart of the Pirates opening day line-up come 2009.

On the Mound: The Indians don't have much in their rotation even though they have three former first round picks in their group in Sean Burnett, Bryan Bullington, John Van Benschoten. All three have battled injuries and disappointments in their careers and due to their age's aren't thought of as prospects anymore. Burnett has moved to the bullpen and had a terrific spring. If he proves his arm can hold up to pitching on consecutive days he should be up in the Pirates pen before long. Outside of that Bullington and Van Benschoten are look more like spot starters than rotation mainstays.

In the line-up: The true strength of the Indians lies in their line-up that has the Pirates three top prospects. They are led by 2005 first round pick centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, who is the definition of a five-tool player. He can do it all and may not even play the whole year in AAA if he keeps performing. McCutchen struggles with to many strikeouts but if he raises his on-base percentage he should be the Pirates lead-off hitter for years to come. He has 15-20 HR power and has the speed to steal 40 or more bases when he becomes an everyday player in the big leagues. McCutchen is not alone in the outfield when it comes to talented players as he is joined this year by Steven Pearce the first baseman turned outfielder. Pearce who've we've mentioned before has big time power potential and once he learns the outfield will force the Pirates to make a trade to give him an everyday spot. Pearce is a masher hitting 31 homeruns last season and should stay in that range when he gets to the majors. He should be a middle of the order hitter who should consistently hit for .300 and drive in 90-100 runs. The final member of the Pirates trio is 2004 first round pick, third baseman Neil Walker. Walker is entering only his second season at the hot corner after spending his first three years in the organization as a catcher. Walker struggled some early on in learning the new position but if he shows improvement this year in his defense he will be playing in PNC park soon enough. Walker is not the next David Wright or Ryan Zimmerman but should be in that second tier of third baseman and be there for a number of years.

Salt Lake Bees (Los Angeles Angels), Pacific Coast League:

The Bees roster is a perfect example of a good system with a top major league team forcing the organization to keep their best prospects stuck in the minors rather than them playing for a big league team. The Bees have a solid mix of pitching and hitting including the Angels top prospect for each category.

On the mound: The Bees have Nick Green in the rotation and Jose Arredondo in the bullpen two guys who should both have an impact in the big leagues. The true gem of the Bees pitching staff is 21 year old Nick Adenhart who is among the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Last season in Double-A Adenhart went 10-8 with a 3.65 ERA, while those numbers might not jump off the page for you he was in a very advanced and hitter friendly level for his age. Adenhart will be a great big league pitcher and should get his first taste of pro ball this season most likely as an injury replacement. Look for him to have a permanent spot in the rotation come 2009.

In the line-up: On more than a few teams in the league Bobby Wilson would be the back up catcher, and Terry Evans would be a fourth outfielder while Sean Rodriguez and Kendry Morales would be getting 450+ at bats at second and first respectively. In the Angels system though all of these players are all stuck another year in AAA. Morales has the most talent of the bunch and could be a .280-25 homerun type of first baseman. Rodriguez also has a bright future; he can play either middle infield spot, has decent 15-20 home run power and will steal around the same number of bags. If Rodriguez shows he can raise his average some and take a few walks he will be a good hitter in the two hole and a solid everyday second baseman. The pride of the Angels system is SS/3B Brandon Wood. The 23 year old has great power, solid speed and will be a fixture on the left side of the infield for some team for the foreseeable future. What does remain to be seen is if that future is with the Angels. Despite not having great options at either short or third the Angels kept Wood in the minors rather than let him learn at the major league level. Wood will never win a batting crown but he does have big time power that deserves a chance on the Angels. The Angels though are competing for a division title and don't have the luxury to give Wood and everyday job in the majors.

Hope everyone enjoyed this insight in to some of the better teams in the minors. Join us next week as we look at some of the top Double-A talent. Also feel free to ask any questions on minor league players or teams. Have a great week!

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