Thursday, September 10, 2009

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not Around the Minor Leagues: Mariner’s Liddi Climbs the Farthest

Liddi posted a 1.005 OPS on his way to the California (CAL) League MVP

When the Mariners signed Liddi, for $55,000, as a 17yo, in the fall of 2005, he was one of four players signed from the inaugural Major League Baseball European academy in Tirrenia, Italy. Of that group, only he and the Cubs’ Alessandro Maestri remain. The odds for a player like Liddi have always been long. After posting back-to-back sub .700 OPS seasons in the Midwest (MWL) League, Liddi entered 2009 barely on the prospect radar screen. But the Mariners started Liddi out in the California (CAL) League, where he was one of the ten youngest regular position players in the League. Liddi responded better than anyone could have possibly dreamed of, hitting 23 home runs and posting a .345/.411/.594. Only 5 other players in the last 25 years have been named CAL MVP in their 20yo season: Reid Brignac, Brandon Wood, Josh Barfield, Rocco Baldelli and Roberto Alomar, so Liddi is in some pretty rare company. At 6’4”, 175 lbs, there is plenty of room for projection, and his glove is solid enough to play at the hot corner for the long-term. All that makes Liddi, currently, one of the Top 50 prospects in the game, and in a year that probably is more notable for the decliners, Liddi easily is this year’s fastest riser, topping our end of the year list. One key note about the list, to be considered, a player has to be expected to still have ‘prospect’ status at the beginning of the 2010 season.

Hot Hitters –

1) Alex Liddi, 3B, SEA – Much has been made about the difference between Liddi’s Home and Away splits (1.158 OPS vs. .849 OPS) this season, and the aid that he has received by playing half of his games in one of the most hitter friendly environs (High Desert) in the Minor Leagues. Just to put things in their proper perspective, if you ignored Liddi’s phenomenal Home stats (.382/.467/.691) and just judged him on the basis of his road numbers, Liddi would still have one of the top five age-adjusted performances in the CAL. Liddi not only led the League in Home Runs, Total Bases and AVG, but he finished second in SLG and third in OBP –playing as a 20yo for most of the season. We had Liddi at #398 entering the season, and I can promise you that was higher than anyone else (Baseball America didn’t even have Liddi as a Top 30 prospect in a relatively weak Mariner system). Now, if all goes according to plan, he should open 2010 as one of the youngest position players in the Southern (SOL) League, and make his Major League debut before turning 23yo. There is enough projection in his 6’4” frame to envision an eventual 30HR hitter, and if he can improve his patience at the plate, and cut down on his strikeout rate, he has the upside of an all-star thirdbaseman.

2) Tony Sanchez, C, PIT – Sanchez entered the 2009 college season, not even among the Top 100 prospects for the June draft. After a great season at Boston College that left him as the top draft-eligible catching prospect, the Pirates surprised everyone when they grabbed Sanchez with the #4 overall pick. Perhaps even more surprising were the numbers, .316/.415/.561, that he posted in the South Atlantic (SAL) League after signing. The Pirates clearly identified a need and made Sanchez the pick because of it. He has solid catch and throw skills and an advanced hitting ability, so he will certainly be fast tracked. Don’t be surprised to see Sanchez assume the full-time backstop duties in Pittsburgh before the 2010 season is out.

3) Lonnie Chisenhall, IF, CLE – If you flash back to the fall of 2006, Chisenhall had just spurned offers from the Pirates, who had drafted him in the 11th round, and entered a South Carolina program where he was being heralded as the best bat in a program that already included Justin Smoak, Reese Havens and James Darnell. Chisenhall made some poor non-baseball decisions and events didn’t turn out quite as planned and Chisenhall was forced to try to pick up the pieces at tiny Pitt C.C. The Indians surprised many in the baseball community when in June of 2008, they selected him with the 29th overall pick and signed him for $1,100,000. He debuted in the New York-Penn (NYP) League, where he produced solid, but not spectacular numbers. When the 2009 season began, Chisenhall had character questions, a relatively unknown offensive upside, and defensive questions—as it was assumed SS would not be his final position. He fell outside of most Top 100 prospect lists (we had him at #130), and he was somewhat obscured by a draft class that was extremely heavy in College bats. Assigned to the Carolina League, Chisenhall quickly made a name for himself, out producing some of the circuit’s bigger attractions like Pedro Alvarez and Mike Mosutakas. While a 99 AB Eastern (ESL) League stint didn’t go as well, as a 20yo, 2009 can only be viewed as a smashing success. We still don’t feel that Chisenhall’s bat will produce enough for him to stay at 3B, but there is plenty of reason to believe he can become one of the better offensive talents in the Major’s at 2B.

4) Chris Carter, 1B, OAK – Coming off of a 2008 season where Carter posted a .930 OPS in the CAL as a 21yo, Carter was considered by most to be a Top 100 prospect, so his 2009 performance isn’t a total surprise. Nonetheless, his Texas (TXL) League Performance (.337/.435/.576) was better than anyone would have expected. While his numbers in the Pacific Coast (PCL) League, since his promotion, haven’t been quite as impressive, his home park is one of the circuit’s toughest. Carter has a Top 50 bat, but is limited defensively to 1B. This means that he is going to have to demonstrate even more power to be successful. With the Athletics continuing to look at Brett Wallace as a 3Bmen, it appears as though Carter should have a great shot to be the everyday 1Bman in Oakland next season.

5) Derek Norris, C, WSN – Norris is a player that we had ranked higher (#96) than most coming into 2009, so it is difficult to rank his ‘rise’ any higher than this. That said, Norris has emerged as one of the top 3 catching prospects after posting a .286/.413/.513 in his first taste of full season ball. His offense remains ahead of his defense, but the gap has closed significantly—especially in his game calling ability. The Nationals are sending him to the Arizona Fall (AZFL) League to get additional work and are trying to balance his need for continued defensive improvement with an already advanced bat. They envision him as a potential 25HR backstop at some point in the future.

6) Desmond Jennings, OF, TBR – Jennings entered the season as a Top 100 prospect, primarily on the strength of his speed/glove. He finished the season as a Top 25 prospect, making the greatest leap with his bat as he posted a .318/.401/.487 between stops in the Southern (SOL) and International (INT) Leagues and is closing the season in spectacular fashion as he has posted a 1.103 OPS since the middle of August. While Ben Zobrist has played well this year, look for Jennings, in 2010, to team with BJ Upton and Carl Crawford to provide the Rays with one of the speediest OFs the game has seen in some time.

7) Jesus Montero, 1B, NYY – If one starts from the perspective that Montero is not a Catcher, and is more likely to end up at first base, and then proceeds from there, they can gain a true appreciation for how special his bat is. Montero entered the season as a Top 50 prospect, so it is difficult to gain that much, but after Montero finished the year with a .337/.389/.562 between stops in the Florida State (FSL) and Eastern (ESL) Leagues—all as a 19yo, we are witnessing a truly special offensive talent. Yes, Montero will get ‘dinged’ because he will eventually end up at 1B or DH, but he still has established himself as a Top 10 talent this season.

8) Alex Avila, C, DET – You have to remember that Avila was a 5th round pick in June of 2008, that many saw as somewhat of a ‘patronage’ pick by the Tigers. Yet after a little more than 500 Minor League At Bats, the Tigers promoted him to Detroit where he has posted a 1.039 OPS as a backup catcher. Despite his hot start, Avila still needs defensive work in the Minors and you should expect to see him start 2010 in AAA. But he will be back as at least a Big League role player at some point during the season, and that is relatively remarkable considering he was only the 163rd player selected, a little more than a year ago.

9) Dominic Brown, OF, PHI – It’s difficult for us to put Brown here, because he was a Top 50 prospect entering the year, and we still question how much Brown will actually hit in the Major Leagues. Nonetheless, the consensus is that, after posting a .299/.377/.504 between stops in the FSL and ESL, Brown is one of the top 20 prospect talents in the game, and his value certainly is on the upswing. We still feel that Brown is one of those ‘toolsy’, athletic, types that the Phillies draft and that scouts drool over, and while he should have a solid Major League career, he will have difficulty matching the ‘hype’.

10) Jaff Decker, OF, SDP – After posting fantastic numbers, after signing, in the Arizona (AZL) League last summer, and being named League MVP, the scouting community began to overlook his ‘bad’ body and lack of projection somewhat--this despite entering the 2008 draft as arguably the most polished prep hitter available. After Decker torched Midwest (MWL) League pitchers to the tune of .299/.442/.514 this season, the scouts are talking a lot less about his height and weight and focusing more on that sweet swing. Decker is going to have his detractors as he hits every step on the ladder, but few are denying that he is a Top 100 prospect any longer.

Hot Pitchers –

1) Casey Kelly, RHP, BOS – You have to remember that Kelly started the year wanting to remain a SS, with an agreement in place with the Red Sox that was going to allow him to pitch half of the year and play SS half of the year. Also remember that, after signing last summer, in 2008, Kelly posted a .586 OPS in 130 ABs. Fast forward to July, and 19yo Kelly had just finished up 95 innings between the SAL and FSL were he posted a 2.08 ERA, a 0.853 WHIP, with a 74:16 K:BB ratio. Suddenly a star is born. Hopefully Kelly’s .642 OPS will convince him that his future is on the mound, because the rest of us are already convinced. He’s a Top 50 prospect as a pitcher and not even on the radar screen with the bat.

2) Kyle Drabek, RHP, PHI – Drabek showed enough in 2008 to demonstrate that he was recovered from Tommy John surgery and that 2009 could be his breakout year. Still he entered the season just in or just out of the Top 100. By the time July rolled around and the Phillies went looking for a #1 starter, Drabek had become untouchable—even in a deal for Roy Halladay. What transpired in between there was a 3.19 ERA, a 1.209 WHIP, with a 150:50 K:BB ratio, as a 21yo, between stints in the FSL and ESL. While we still have questions as to whether he will be a front of the rotation or merely a mid-rotation guy, Drabek has clearly established himself as an elite pitching prospect.

3) Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, TBR – When David Price hit the Majors, there was quite a battle in the Rays system for the title of best pitching prospect. We had been high on Hellickson since his 2006 performance in the New York-Penn (NYP) League, ranking him #34 in the preseason this year, but the consensus was that Hellickson entered 2009 outside the Top 100. There is no longer any question as to whether or not Hellickson is in the Top 100, nor is there any question as to who is the Rays top pitching prospect, after the 22yo posted a 2.45 ERA, a 0.886 WHIP, with a 132:29 K:BB ratio through stops in the SOL and INT. He is closing the season throwing his best ball of the year, and gave the Rays plenty of comfort, allowing them to deal Scott Kazmir. Look for him to compete for a rotation spot this spring in Tampa.

4) Dan Hudson, RHP, CHA - Hudson has to be the most remarkable story of the year, as he was drafted in the 5th round in 2008, following a disappointing junior season at Old Dominion. He started 2009 at Kannapolis in the SAL. After 4 starts there he was promoted to Winston-Salem in the Carolina (CAR) League, where he made 8 starts before being promoted to Birmingham in the SOL. In Birmingham he threw perhaps his best ball of the year, going 1.60 ERA, 0.834 WHIP, with a 63:10 K:BB ratio in 9 starts. The White Sox moved him to the INT at the beginning of August, before calling him up to the Big League club last week. All told, the 22yo has appeared in 28 games, between 5 different levels this year. We had him ranked #640 going into the year and Baseball America had him even worse, as the White Sox #24 prospect. The only reason that he isn’t even higher, is that, like most White Sox pitching prospects, his upside just isn’t that high. Nonetheless, he should compete for a rotation spot in Chicago in 2010.

5) Mike Montgomery, LHP, KCR – While Montgomery entered 2009 outside of most Top 100 lists, his breakout performance this year hasn’t been totally unexpected, as he was a supplemental 1st round pick in 2008, and did have arguably the best performance by a pitcher in the AZL in his debut. Coming off of a 2009 where he has posted a 2.21 ERA, a 1.055 WHIP, with a 98:36 K:BB ratio, between stops in the MWL and CAR—as a 19yo, he has clearly established himself as a Top 50 prospect. He’s extremely polished, complete with plus secondary offerings, and has the potential to pitch near the front of the Royal rotation for a long time.

6) Martin Perez, LHP, TEX – There is no name on this list with more upside than Perez, and the only reason that he ranks so far down on this list, is that he started the season as a consensus Top 100 prospect. To truly appreciate the performance of Perez in 2009, you first have to understand that he turned 18yo the first week of the season. That didn’t stop the Rangers from opening the year with him in the SAL, where he posted a 2.31 ERA, a 1.220 WHIP, with 105 strikeouts in 95 IP. Then things got interesting in August, when the Rangers decided to skip him over Hi-A, avoiding the CAL, and sent him to Frisco in the TXL—as an 18yo, two full years younger than the next youngest pitcher in the league. To put this in historical perspective, the last time a pitcher younger than 20yo collected more than 20IP in the Texas league was in 2004, when 18yo Felix Hernandez did it. While Perez’s TXL numbers suffered (5.51 ERA) he did close out the season by posting a 2.51 ERA, and a 1.186 WHIP over his last three starts. Perez will likely go into 2010 as one of the Top 3 pitching prospects in the Minors.

7) Casey Crosby, LHP, DET – Crosby entered 2009 clearly outside the Top 100 after throwing a total of 5IP since the Tigers selected him in the 5th round of the 2007 draft, due to elbow reconstruction surgery. That didn’t stop him from putting together arguably the best pitching performance in the MWL, where he posted a 2.41 ERA, a 1.127 WHIP, and fanned 117 batters in 104 IP. Still only 20yo, Crosby looks to team with Jacob Turner next season to give the Tigers one of the best pitching duos in the Minors.

8) Chris Withrow, RHP, LAD – Never underestimate the Dodgers ability to find and develop pitching talent. After the Dodgers selected Withrow in the first round of the 2007 draft, he was limited to just 13 innings since signing, as the Dodgers were very cautious with a nagging elbow problem. He did throw well in the instructional league, last off-season, flashing a fastball that moved into the upper 90s; so it isn’t a tremendous shock to see his breakout 2009 season. Between stints in the hitting friendly CAL and the SOL, the 20yo Withrow posted a 4.51 ERA, and fanned 131 in 113 IP. While he still struggles with his command at times, Withrow has some of the best pure ‘stuff’ in the Minors. Expect him to return to the SOL in 2010 and compete for a Dodger rotation spot in 2011.

9) Travis Wood, LHP, CIN – Wood has to be the comeback story of the year, as the 22yo, former second round pick, was pretty much written off after finishing 2008 with a 7.08 ERA in 80 SOL IP. Wood has never had a dominant out pitch, and now he was having control issues, walking nearly as many batters as he fanned. Wood worked hard during the off season, adding a cut fastball and a two-seamer, giving him five pitches that he felt he could throw for strikes. He cut his walks from 5.0 per 9IP in 2008, to 2.8 per 9IP this year. This all resulted in Wood posting a 1.77 ERA, 1.038 ERA, with a 135:53 K:BB ratio, between stints in the SOL and INT. While it may not be enough to earn Wood a spot in the Top 100 (it will be close), it certainly is enough to once again make him look like a back of the rotation Major League starter.

10) Matt Moore, LHP, TBR – The Rays drafted Moore in the 8th round in 2007, and it is likely this reason, moreso than any other, why he doesn’t likely get the credit he deserves. Clearly outside of the Top 100 entering the year, despite leading the Minor League starters in K/9IP in 2008, Moore showed that he was for real in his 2009 full-season debut, posting a 3.15 ERA, a 1.268 WHIP, and fanning 176 in 123IP. While Moore is far from a finished product (walking nearly 5 batters per 9IP), his raw ‘stuff’ ranks with almost anyone in the Minors. Look for him to easily be a Top 100 prospect this time around.

The Nots –

1) Kyle Skipworth, C, FLA – To gain full appreciation for how bad Skipworth’s prospect status is, one has to remember that when the Marlins made him the 6th overall pick in 2008, he was regarded as an offensive catcher with questions surrounding his defense. Now, in 423 professional ABs, Skipworth has posted a .608 OPS—and offense is his strength? At 19yo, you can’t completely write him off, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be the person that was responsible for signing him to that $2,400,000 bonus.

2) Greg Halman, OF, SEA - Halman entered 2009 as the Mariner’s best prospect and a tail-end Top 100 prospect, with an Andre Dawson like build and the reputation for swinging at anything not nailed down. In 2008 he homered once every 18 PAs and fanned every 3.7. In 2009, repeating the SOL, where he posted an .813 OPS the season before, his numbers dropped to a home run every 20 PAs, and his strikeout rate sky rocketed to once every 2.6—that’s a 38% strikeout rate! Never has there been a successful Major Leaguer that whiffed with such propensity and took as few walks as Halman does that experienced success. Even the poster boy for that, Wily Mo Pena, only whiffed 30% of the time—so don’t expect Halman to become the first. A future that, a year ago, looked to contain possibilities, looks like an extreme longshot now.

3) Andrew Brackman, RHP, NYY – The story of Andrew Brackman is likely to make you either laugh or to cry—depending on your affinity for the Yankee organization. The Yankees felt they got a steal when, after a velocity drop off late in the 2007 college season and signability concerns, allowed Brackman to fall to them at the end of the first round in the 2007 draft. They signed him to a guaranteed $4.55 million contract and, almost immediately, he underwent Tommy John surgery, not making his professional debut until the AZFL in 2008. The Yankees assigned the now 23yo to the SAL to open up the year, and, despite being older than most of his competitors, he has fallen flat on his face. In 29 SAL appearances, Brackman is 2-12, with a 5.99 ERA, a 1.716 WHIP and a 103:76 K:BB ratio. The good news for Yankee fans is that he has closed the season with a 10 inning scoreless streak, so there is hope that better things lie ahead, but at 24yo to begin the 2010 season, his star is fading fast.

4) Jeremy Jeffress, RHP, MIL - Regular readers will note my enthusiasm for Jeffress bashing, as he and his 100mph fastball have certainly gotten more than their share of 15 minutes of fame. The Minor League’s version of the fictional Nuke LaLoosh, was coming off his best season as a professional, in 2008, when he entered the year as a consensus Top 100 prospect. But the more things change, the more they remain the same, and thru 27 SOL innings, the 21yo had walked 33 batters. So the Brewers tried to take some of the pressure off, returning him to the FSL, where he had experienced previous success. This seemed to help, as in 33 FSL innings, he walked ‘only’ 22. But then Jeffress tested positive for substance abuse—his second offense, and is now in the midst of serving a 100 game suspension. The real lesson with jeffress has always been that just because you can throw, doesn’t mean you can pitch, but at only 22yo to start next season, there is still ample time to turn things around for Jeffress…we just remain skeptical.

5) Lars Anderson, 1B, BOS – We had Anderson at #30 entering the season, considerably lower than most, and there were many that predicted that Anderson would emerge as the top overall prospect following the 2009 season. Repeating the ESL, where he had posted a .962 OPS in 132 ABs in 2008, Anderson never found his stride, eventually posting a .233/.328/.345 on the year. While those numbers spell bad on their own, his 9 HRs in 447 ABs is the extremely troubling number, as Anderson is limited to 1B, and now only has 27 HRs in nearly 900 ABs over the last two seasons. Anderson will begin 2010 as a 22yo, and still is likely to be a Top 100 prospect, with plenty of time to turn things around, but he can no longer be considered ‘can’t miss’, and there are now significant questions regarding his upside.

6) Mike Moustakas, ?, KCR – A 20yo posting a .712 OPS in the CAR, as Moustakas did this year, isn’t tremendously troubling, but his 16 HRs in nearly 500 ABs certainly is. We have never been as high on Moustakas as most, given his lack of a true defensive position, but he was drafted (#2 overall in 2007) with the belief that his bat would overwhelm any defensive limitations. Now, with two full professional seasons under his belt, the defensive picture isn’t any more clear, and questions are beginning to be raised about his ability to hit enough if he ends up on a corner. At only 20yo, it’s not time to hit the panic button, but don’t expect to find him anywhere near the Top 20, where he started this season at.

7) J.P. Arencibia, C, TOR – Fortunately for Arencibia, he plays catcher adequately on the defensive side to provide him plenty of opportunity. While he entered the year with the label of Toronto’s ‘Catcher of the Future’, visions of being a middle-of-the-order, power hitting, backstop, and a Top 50 ranking by some sources (we had him at #186), the 23yo has struggled mightily at the plate, going .236/.284/.444 in one of the Minor League’s most hitter friendly parks. When you compare those numbers to a player like Pittsburgh’s former first round, former catcher, pick, Neil Walker(.264/.311/.480), who--oh by the way, is also 23yo,and is rarely mentioned as a prospect any more, and…well, you get the picture. We believe Arencibia’s defense should be enough to rate a Big League opportunity, but unless he makes significant changes to his plate approach—laying off the first pitch and reducing his strike out rate, we remain skeptical of his long-term chances.

8) Angel Villalona, 1B, SFG – Villalona was an 18yo for most of the season, playing at Hi-A, so one needs to be careful before judging him too harshly, but he entered the season neck and neck with 18yo, Jesus Montero, and the two have experienced completely different fates. Villalona has gone .267/.306/.397 in the CAL, but the most troublesome number is his 9 HRs in 292 ABs. Angel is a big-bodied boy, whose only defensive opportunity lies at 1B. In order to succeed at higher levels, he is going to have to develop more power than he has shown thus far. While there is plenty of opportunity before he turns into Joel Guzman, don’t expect to see the Top 50 tag attached to him next season.

9) Chris Valaika, SS, CIN – Valaika is a difficult inclusion on this list, because he was clearly not a Top 100 prospect entering the season (we had him at #366), but most expected the 2006, third round pick, to have settled in as the Reds starting SS by this point. Instead, in 366 AAA ABs, the 24yo posted a .235/.271/.344. Valakia has an excellent work ethic, and it is quite possible that he will make the necessary adjustments during the off-season and put 2009 behind him, but lacking any raw ‘skills’, he won’t get many chances and can’t afford another season like this past one.

10) Juan Duran, OF, CIN – It is extremely difficult to put an 18yo, making their US-debut on this list, but when you are 6’6, 190lbs, and sign for $2 million, the expectations are that you are going to post a tad more than the .487 posted by Duran this year. We continually caution about the inherent risks involved in signing 16yo Latin American players, and their poor track record, and we also understand that Duran could play two more years in short season ball before making his full season debut and all will be forgotten, but this isn’t what the Reds were hoping for when they signed him.

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Fashion said...

it was assumed SS would not be his final position. He fell outside of most Top 100 prospect lists (we had him at #130), and he was somewhat obscured by a draft class that was extremely heavy in College bats. Assigned to the Carolina League, Chisenhall quickly made a name for himself, out producing some of the circuit’s bigger attractions like Pedro Alvarez and Mike Mosutakas. While a 99 AB Eastern (ESL) League stint didn’t go as well, as a 20yo, 2009 can only be viewed as a smashing success. We still don’t feel that Chisenhall’s bat will produce enough for him to stay at 3B, but there is plenty of reason to believe he can become one of the better offensive talents in the Major’s at 2B.