Thursday, September 3, 2009

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not Around the Minor Leagues: Buc’s Alvarez Hits the Reset Button

After a slow start, Alvarez has a 1.066 OPS since the end of June

After a well-publicized contract dispute, following the 2008 draft, Pedro Alvarez showed up at the Pirates Spring Training facility in Bradenton, FL --out of condition and overweight, leading to much speculation that the Pirates may have made another in a long line of ‘boneheaded’ first round selections when they tabbed him with the 2nd overall pick. Assigned to Lynchburg of the Carolina (CAR) League, Alvarez continued to look out of step, hitting .247 while striking out in 26% of his PAs. He did demonstrate some power skills (14 HRs in 243 ABs), to show Pirate management enough that they moved him up to AA Altoona in the Eastern (ESL) League, where he promptly struck out 40% of the time and was hitting .120 after his first full-week. But suddenly, things began to change. He had a new found patience at the plate, and once again looked like the hitter that entered the 2008 college season as the Nation’s best. Since the beginning of July, Alvarez has arguably been the best hitting prospect in all of the Minor Leagues, posting a .360/.452/.614. Most impressive in this, is that in August, his best month of his young professional career, Alvarez has not only posted a 1.136 OPS, but the 22yo, has cut his strikeout rate to a far more liveable 20%, and over the past two weeks, he has even walked more than he has struck out. For this performance, Alvarez tops this week’s list.

Hot Hitters –
1) Pedro Alvarez, 3B, PIT – Alvarez’s eventual upside/value is nearly completely dependent on his defense. His bat will play at any position, but the question is whether he becomes a perennial all-star at 3B, or merely an above average Major League firstbasemen. While the scouts are extremely skeptical of his body-shape, his speed, and his footwork; we believe that there is at least an adequate 3Bmen in there and thus far his range/defensive stats grade him out at average in the Eastern League. The difference for Alvarez is that as a 3Bmen, he is likely one of the top 5 prospects in the Minors, whereas, if he is projected at first he falls to around #20. In either case, over the last two weeks he has posted a .314/.435/.608 and now has a .914 OPS on the year.

2) Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF, NYM – It’s kind of like being the ‘tallest midget’, but Nieuwenhuis has quickly established himself as the best OF prospect in the Mets’ system after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft. After posting a 1.053 OPS at St. Lucie in August, the 22yo earned a promotion to Binghamton, where he has three hits and a walk in his first two games. Over the last two weeks, Nieuwenhuis has posted a .444/.500/.889, and has quickly established himself as one the brighter Met’s position prospects in a rather dark season.

3) Carlos Peguero, OF, SEA – Seven home runs and a .370/.442/.957 over the last two weeks, has rejuvenated his prospect status that had taken a bit of a hit this year. Peguero now has 28 home runs and an .883 OPS in the hitter-friendly environs of High Desert.

4) Andrew McCucthen, CF, PIT – When the Pirates dealt Nate McLouth earlier in the year, we wrote that it may be a case of ‘addition by subtraction’ as the move clearly stamped McCutchen as the Pirates everyday CF. The 22yo has responded brilliantly, with an .853 OPS through 200 MLB ABs, including a .308/.419/.615 and now looks like a future star.

5) Chih-Hsien Chiang, 2B, BOS – Limited defensively, and with a bat that has significant question marks, Chiang has been a ‘fringy’ prospect since the Red Sox signed him as a 17yo, after the 2005 season. Most of this season, the results have been much of the same—but not the last two weeks. The 21yo has posted a .407/.500/.778 and has his OPS once again hovering above the .700 mark. Chiang still has time to develop, but there is significant doubt that he will ever it enough to justify his defensive liabilities.

6) Eduardo Nunez, SS, NYY – After posting a .792 OPS as an 18yo in the NYP in 2005, the slick-fielding SS looked like the organization’s best bet to one-day replace Derek Jeter. But three straight sub-.700 OPS years has made that seem like a distant memory. Now 22yo and playing in the ESL, Nunez has suddenly rediscovered his bat, as he is hitting .323/.352/.436 on the year. Over the last two weeks he has really heated up, going ..468/.537/.702. If he could add some ‘beef’ to his 6’0” 155lb frame, he would be a ‘breakout’ candidate for 2010.

7) Kyeong Kang, OF, TBR – It is relatively easy to get lost in the depth that is the Rays’ Minor League system, but Kang was the best position player on his Hudson Valley team in 2008, after posting a .801 OPS. The 21yo has dialed the offense up a notch this season, and, after going .425/.521/.825 over the last two weeks, Kang has a .875 in the pitching friendly Midwest (MWL) League. We aren’t forecasting stardom for Kang, but continued progression could make him a solid 4th OF type at the Big League level.

8) Thomas Neal, OF, SFG – After returning from injuries and serving as Villalona’s ‘caddy’ in 2008, the 22yo Neal has had a breakout 2009. In 450 California (CAL) League ABs, Neal has posted a 1.003 OPS with 22 Home Runs. Over the last two weeks, Neal has gone .326/.453/.651 and is battling Roger Kieschnick for the title of Giants’ best OF prospect.

9) Eury Perez, OF, WSN – Signed as a 16yo prior to the start of the 2007 season, Perez spent two seasons in the Dominican Summer (DSL) League before making his stateside debut in the Gulf Coast (GCL) League this year. His 2008 performance rated as one of the top 5 in the DSL in 2008, and he has wasted little time in making a name for himself this year. A /435/.447/.717 over the last two weeks, leaves him with a .946 OPS on the year, and unlike many young Latin hitters. Perez has demonstrated significant ability to make contact.

10) Wil Myers, OF, KCR – We had Myers as a Top 25 talent, prior to this year’s draft, but he fell to the Royals in the third round—despite them giving serious consideration to taking him at #12. As we wrote back in June “…this is a good kid, that eats, drinks and sleeps baseball and has a stick that can flat out rake.” His .277/.352/.617 professional debut has done nothing to temper our enthusiasm, as he has a great makeup and a special bat. The only questions surrounding him are where he will end up defensively.

Hot Pitchers –
1) Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, TBR – With David Price in the Majors, there is quite a battle in the Rays system for the title of best pitching prospect. We have been high on Hellickson since his 2006 performance in the New York-Penn (NYP) League, but for the last two months, Hellickson has been in another world and is putting separation between himself and the other contenders: Matt Moore, Wade Davis, Nick Barnese and Kyle Lobstein. Over his last three starts, Hellickson has posted a 1.80 ERA, a 0.600 WHIP, with a 32:5 K:BB ratio, giving the 22yo a 2.61 ERA on the year.

2) Michael Montgomery, LHP, KCR – While Hellickson is moving to the front of the pitching line in Tampa Bay, it’s Mike Montgomery that is taking charge in Kansas City. It’s no knock on guys like Duffy, Mellville, Gutierrez and Sample, but a lefty with the ‘stuff’ of Montgomery is tough to beat. Over his last three starts, the 20yo has gone 1.93 ERA, 0.750 WHIP with a 16:1 K:BB ratio, and now has a 2.25 ERA on the season.

3) Kyle Lobstein, LHP, TBR – More polished than most high school pitchers, the Rays tabbed the left-hander with their second round pick in the 2008 draft. He signed late (for $1.5 million), so he didn’t make his professional debut until the New York-Penn (NYP) League opened this summer. Through 13 starts he is everything that had been advertised, posting a 2.81 ERA. Over his last three starts, he has a 2.50 ERA, a 0.667 WHIP and a 27:3 K:BB ratio.

4) Adrian Salcedo, RHP, MIN – This week’s ‘Who’s He’ Award winner, Salcedo was signed by the Twins as a 16yo, following the 2007 season. He made his debut in the DSL in 2008, where he turned in the 3rd best age-adjusted pitching performance in the league. His trademark is an almost other-worldly control, as in 2 seasons he has walked but 11 batters in 123 IP, including a remarkable 58:3 K:BB ration in the GCL this year. Over the last two weeks he has posted a 0.71 ERA, 0.632 WHIP, with a 12:0 K:BB ratio, dropping his ERA to 1.46 on the season. At 6’4”, 175lbs, there is plenty of projection left in the 18yo.

5) Aaron, Miller, LHP, LAD – Despite flashing a fastball that could touch the mid-90s in high school, Miller had made just 6 mound appearances at Baylor in his first two seasons, as his passion was for hitting. He started 6 more games this season and posted only a 5.12 ERA in 53 innings, but showed enough for the Dodgers to not only draft him in the supplemental first round, but to sign him to a $900,000 bonus and convince him to put away the bat and concentrate on pitching. As is usually the case with the Dodgers and pitching prospects, it looks like the right decision, as Miller has a 2.45 ERA through 9 professional starts, including a 0.00 ERA, 0.441 WHIP with a 10:4 K:BB ratio over the last two weeks.

6) Tyson Ross, RHP, OAK – Ross is a big (6’5, 215lb) right-hander, that was drafted by the Athletics in the second round in 2008. He features a three-pitch repertoire that is headlined by a hard-breaking slider. Over the last two weeks, Ross has gone 0.00 ERA, 0.538 WHIP, with a 9:3 K:BB ratio and now has a 4.20 ERA through two of the toughest pitchers leagues (CAL and TXL). The 22yo has the upside of a back of the rotation innings eater.

7) Richard Castillo, RHP, STL – Lacking a dominant out-pitch and with little projection in his 5’11 frame, Castillo tends to not get the credit that has been warranted by his performance the last two seasons. In 2008, as an 18yo in the MWL, Castillo posted a 2.37 ERA while fanning more than 8 batters per 9IP. This year, as one of the Florida State League’s youngest hurlers, he has posted a 3.97 ERA. Over the last three starts, he has taken his game up another notch, posting a 0.90 ERA, a 0.750 WHIP, and a 16:3 K:BB ratio.

8) Simon Castro, RHP, SDP – Somewhat the antithesis of Castillo, the 21yo Castro throws a mid-90s fastball from a significant down-hill plane, generated from his 6’5, 200lb frame. He has dominated MWL hitters on the season (148 Ks in 138 IP) while posting a 3.48 ERA, drawing raves from MWL managers in the process. Over his last three starts, Castro has a 0.51 ERA, a 0.623 WHIP, with a 15:4 K:BB ratio.

9) Tyler Sample, RHP, KCR – At 6’7”, 245lbs, Sample is a huge 20yo that possesses a mid-90s fastball. The problem is that he is still a work in process when it comes to controlling both it and a newly learned knuckle-curve. Still, Sample has 3.13 ERA on the year and a 0.47 ERA, a 0.737 WHIP, and a 11:6 K:BB ratio over his last three starts.

10) Mike Minor, LHP, ATL - It was somewhat of a surprise when the Braves tabbed Minor with the 7th overall pick in June’s draft. Not that Minor wasn’t a first round talent, but it was a surprise that he became the first college pitcher, not named Strasburg, selected. Minor pitches off of his secondary stuff, lacking a dominant fastball, and appears to be far more polished than talented. Nonetheless, in his first three starts, Minor has a 1.00 ERA, a 0.556 WHIP, and a 8:0 K:BB ratio.

The Nots –
1) Joel Guzman, 3B, WSN – We write often about the inherent risks involved in signing 16yo Latin American talents to huge bonuses, and Guzman is the poster boy for this. Signed for a then record $2,250,000 in 2001, Guzman ascended up the prospect charts, peaking as a Top 10 talent after the 2005 season. But it has been downhill since then, and now with his third organization, the end of the line looks to be approaching for Guzman. Over the last two weeks, Guzman has gone .161/.212/.161 and has a .625 OPS in August.

2) Chris Volstad, RHP, FLA – Coming off a remarkable rookie season in 2008, Volstad was expected to head the Marlin rotation this season. But it has been a roller-coaster ride for the 22yo, former first round pick, which took another downward turn as he was sent to AAA following his last start. Over his the last two weeks, Volstad has a 15.88 ERA, a 2.824 WHIP and a 2:4 K:BB ratio.

3) Greg Burns, OF, FLA – After a solid 2007 season, Burns took a step backward in 2008, and is about to fall off the charts in 2009. A 3rd round pick in the 2004 draft, the 22yo has posted a .087/.143/.109 over the last two weeks and now has .681 OPS, an almost identical number to 2008, in a FSL repeat performance.

4) Cesar Valdez, RHP, ARZ – After a breakout 2008 season, big things were expected from the 24yo Valdez this year. But it hasn’t quite gone as planned, as Valdez has a 4.95 ERA on the year, and is showing no signs of being able to strike anyone out. Over his last three starts, Valdez has a 9.00 ERA, a 2.333 WHIP and a 2:4 K:BB ratio.

5) Michael Saunders, OF, SEA – Once Greg Halman struggled badly and Carlos Triunfel was lost for most of the season due to injury, Saunders became the de facto Mariners’ Top Prospect—a title that will certainly be passed on to Dustin Ackley now. After the 22yo, put together a great Pacific Coast (PCL) League campaign in the season’s first half, the Mariners promoted him to Seattle—where the wheels have fallen off. Saunders is clearly over matched (.505) and looks likely to return to AAA when the 2010 season rolls around. Over the last two weeks, Saunders has posted a .147/.194/.147.

6) Denny Almonte, OF, SEA – Almonte posted a .863 OPS in April, a .822 OPS in May, an .807 OPS in June, a .521 OPS in July, and a .264 OPS in August. This is not exactly the kind of improvement that one would hope for. Look for the 20yo to give the MWL one more try to start 2010.

7) Bud Norris, RHP, HOU – It is always a challenge to expect consistent performance from young Major League pitchers. After posting a 2.63 ERA in 19 PCL starts, the Astros, rightfully, gave Norris a shot at the big league rotation. 7 appearances later, Norris has a 6.61 ERA. Over his last three starts, Norris posted a 13.11 ERA, a 2.400 WHIP and a 8:8 K:BB ratio. Patience everyone.

8) Juan Duran, OF, CIN – Okay we have beaten this one to death…Signing 16yos out of Latin America is an extremely risky business. As a matter of fact, of the thirteen players that have ever been signed for $1 million or more, prior to 2007, only Miguel Cabrera and Wily Aybar have seen regular playing time at the Big League level (Angel Villalona and Fernando Martinez could still join that list). Duran signed for $2,000,000 in 2007, posted a .659 OPS in the Dominican Summer (DSL) League in 2008, and is struggling mightily in 2009. After posting a .185/.185/.222 over the last two weeks, Duran now has an abysmal .487 OPS in the Gulf Coast (GCL) League. Duran just turned 18yo, so there is still plenty of time, but there is also plenty of holes in his swing that need fixing.

9) Adys Portillo, RHP, SDP – With Michel Ynoa yet to make his professional debut, Portillo becomes the most expensive 16yo Latin American pitcher signed in 2008. Portillo will still be a 17yo when he finishes the season, so there isn’t a whole lot to read into his performance, and he has whiffed 44 batters in 52 Arizona (AZL) League batters, but with a 1-9 record and a 5.13 ERA, things haven’t been impressive. Over the last two weeks, Portillo has posted a 9.00 ERA, a 3.200 WHIP and a 2:8 K:BB ratio.

10) Greg Golson, OF, TEX – Another in a long line of highly athletic, toolsy, players drafted by the Phillies will little performance history, Golson is on the precipice of irrelevance. After going .175/.214/.200 over the last two weeks, Golson’s OPS on the season is .653.

Note: This is the last regular season ‘Hots & Nots’ list of the year. Next week we will post our end of the year ‘Hots & Nots’ where we will detail the biggest movers (both upward and downward) during the 2009 season.

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