Around the South Atlantic League

May 16, 2004

Last year's Sally League had a couple stud shortstops in BJ Upton and Hanley Ramirez, but this summer the overall talent at the position seems to be much deeper. It's still early in May and I've already had a chance to see 3 good looking shortstops. I earlier commented that I expect Robert Valido to be considered among the top 10 shortstops in the Minors by year's end. The most recent pair to impress me was Javier Guzman (Hickory) and Chin-Lung Hu (Columbus).

Guzman has been highly though of, but until 2004, he's never really hit much. Now that I see him play, I'm wondering why not. He's currently hitting in the .330 range and with the way he seems to always get good wood on the ball, I'd say he could be a good average hitter in the future. It's not fair to make the following comparison and I'm not predicting comparable future numbers… but Guzman really reminds me of Kenny Lofton at the plate… in demeanor, stance and swing.

Hu signed with the Dodgers last February from Taiwan, making him the third player in the Dodgers' system from that country. Hu is not a big guy by any means. He's listed at 5'9" and that has to be absolute max. He has a slight build too and the 150 lbs listing there has to max also. That's not to say he isn't strong. Last week he hit a homer (his second of the series) just left of center that easily traveled 400 feet. Even at that, he's not going to be a homerun hitter by any means. What he does have is a hard line drive swing that could make him a good candidate for lots of doubles and triples. His hits seem to get into the outfield in hurry, which is surprising for his size. He has pretty good speed, but he's not a top end burner. He is extremely quick and that's especially noticeable on defense. He makes plays you'd never expect him to make, in large part due to that extreme quickness. As for his arm... it's more than sufficient to gun down runners from the hole. They say back in Taiwan when he was pitching he could hit 94 mph.

Speaking of great arms, Jose Diaz (the Columbus closer) definitely has one of those. First off, don't be fooled by his 6'4" 230 lb listing. He's got to be more like 260 if anything… he's a big guy. Heck, they don't call him Jumbo for nothin'. Last Wednesday night he registered at 100 mph! All his other fastballs were between 95 and 98. He can really bring it. He'll occasionally mix in a slider, but it's mainly "heat". Diaz reminds one quite a bit of Armando Benitez. You can really tell he loves the game. Before the game he can be seen on the side with the infielders taking part in their pepper-type games. He was even warming up another reliever out in the bullpen, catching him with no protective gear… until of course one of the Columbus coaches noticed and nixed that plan in a hurry.

Well, while I'm at it, why not just switch gears completely from shortstop talk to more about guys on the Columbus team that caught my eye. In addition to Hu and Diaz, there are a few good looking prospects and a couple of others that are intriguing. Third baseman, Andy LaRoche is one of the good looking prospects to be sure. Even though he was 1 for 17 in the games I saw him play, he looks like a hitter. I can imagine him being a middle of the order type hitter in the Majors… maybe a #5 hitter. He already has good power, but needs to (like most young players) tighten up his strike zone. I've heard talk of him possibly playing all sorts of positions in the future… catcher, second base, shortstop. I think he's a natural for the hot corner. He's got a great arm, instincts and a body that fits the position perfectly.

In center field is toolsy Jereme Milons. Milons can fly! Some of his teammates say he has the best speed in the Dodgers' system. He also has developing power and he's a good athlete. Right now he's the leadoff hitter on the Columbus team. I guess that's because of his speed. It's sure not because of his ability to get on base. Three walks on the year don't bode well for a leadoff guy. That's just one area I consider him to be raw in. He's raw in most areas I'd call baseball skills. I'm talking about things like hitting cutoff men, running the bases, reading fly balls and of course there's his already mentioned poor plate discipline. Sometimes, especially after watching him terribly misread a ball hit straight over his head, I was left wondering "What's he doin' out there?".

Flanking Milons in the outfield are Xavier Paul and Matt Kemp. I've heard good things about Paul's arm and I thought he would be over in right field. I didn't get to see enough of Paul's defense to figure out why he's in left, but I was impressed by Kemp's arm, so maybe that's the reason. Paul does look like he has a chance to be a decent hitter. He's too aggressive at the moment, but he could become a guy with some pop. I haven't seen any numbers to back this up, but my initial impressions are that the left-handed hitting Paul doesn't have a clue against southpaws, so that may be another big area for improvement.

I wish I could have gotten to see some of big first baseman Luis Jimenez, but he was out of the lineup nursing a bad hamstring. On to more on the Catfish pitchers… Julio Pimentel is a guy to keep an eye on. I guess he's a converted outfielder who hasn't been pitching long. He must have a lot of arm strength, because he was hitting the low 90's and I think his delivery could use a little tinkering, so he can use his body more. He also throws a hard biting curve and a change… the latter looks like it's something he's just learning. Right now he seems like more of a thrower, but with more experience, he could be someone that could surprise.

Lefty reliever Jamaal Hamilton had started the year with a 15 scoreless innings streak, but that ended last week. He's an off-speed pitcher that tries to mix in his mid-80's fastball in with his upper-60's, low 70's curve and change-up. What makes him tough is in his delivery. The ball seems to come right out the back of his ear and he really looks like he's tough to pick up, despite not having more that mediocre stuff.

I also got to see Weeden, Hammes and Sobkow, but none of them left me with any lasting impressions. They all are big guys that are struggling with their mechanics and/or command. All have a shot since they have good arms, but they also have some work to do first.

April 19, 2004

My first "WOW" of the season came care of Indians' prospect Adam Miller. The young right-hander was very impressive last week, holding Lexington to just one baserunner in his 6 innings of work... striking out 9, though he didn't get a decision in the game. What really impressed me about Miller was his velocity in such cold weather. He was hitting 94 mph in 40 degree temperatures! Not just hitting 94... he was between 92 and 94 more than not. You know, when I read about Pitcher X having a 94 mph fastball, I've come to expect that to mean he's normally around 89-90 and he hit 94 at some point. With Miller, I'd expect him to sit at 94 once the season really gets going (and the weather warms). When comparing Miller to Fausto Carmona, who was another Tribe prospect that was here in Lake County last year... their velocity is very similar, but Miller seems to have more life on his heater. I'm hoping to get to see him again, but if he keeps pitching the way he's been, I can't see him being in the Sally League for long.

Another member of the Lake County team that may not be in the Sally League for long is right fielder Ryan Goleski. Goleski is a strong hitter that makes consistent hard contact. He lasted until the 24th round in last year's draft partly because of a broken hand during the spring... making him seem like a steal for the Indians. He kind of reminds me of a right-handed hitting Jason Cooper, who was with Lake County last spring, before he moved on up to the Carolina League mid-season. Cooper is now in Akron. That same ascent for Goleski would not surprise me.

I'm expecting White Sox prospect Robert Valido to emerge out of relative obscurity this summer. I'm betting he'll be ranked among the top 10 shortstops in the Minors by the end of the season. He really looks like a player. He's so fluid on defense and never seems to get rattled. Valido is always alert and ready to take advantage of even the smallest lapse in an opponent's concentration, especially on the basepaths. He runs well and looks like there's a lot of potential in his bat... he just has Major Leaguer written all over him.

Chris Young, Valido's teammate, looks like he too has a lot of potential, but he's also looking to be a bigger risk. Young's power, considering his somewhat slender build, is undeniable. I saw him hit a very long homer last week when he got his arms extended and really turned on the ball. He also obviously has great speed. The problem I see is in his overall hitting ability. There's a whole lot of room for improvement in that area. Good pitchers (especially right-handed pitchers) will eat him up if he doesn't really improve at the plate. He sure misses a lot of pitches.

I realize Seth Morris isn't considered a top flight prospect... he's only hitting .200 at the moment, he's always (even back in his college days) had trouble making consistent contact and he hits near (and even at) the bottom of the Kannapolis order. None of these things stopped him from coming through in big situations for Kannapolis these past few days. On Friday night Morris robbed Ryan Goleski of a 2-out, 3-run homer by crashing into the wall as he reached up over it to snare the would be homer. Then in the 7th inning, Morris gunned out Goleski at the plate with a quick, strong and accurate arm to keep his team in the game. In the 9th inning, Morris hit a 2-run homer that proved to be the game winner. He followed that up on Sunday by again gunning out Goleski at the plate in the 7th inning... and again his bat came through in the 9th. He doubled home the tying run and came around to score the winning run on Andy Gonzalez' single. It was quite a series of clutch plays for Morris, who would have otherwise gone unnoticed by those checking the box scores.

April 12, 2004

It shouldn't be a great surprise to see Toronto's Sally League team so blessed with very good pitching. Last year their short-season team in Auburn just dominated on the mound. A couple of the guys I got to see this past weekend certainly were among the core of that group. Shawn Marcum worked on Saturday. He's a former infielder who did a little relief pitching in college. During his pro debut last year the relief pitching continued, very successfully I might add. This year he's being given a chance to start and I liked what I saw in him in start #1. It looked like he throws 2 different fastballs, though neither is good enough to get by hitters when they find the meat of the plate, so he needs to spot them. His predominant fastball really has a lot of movement running away from lefties. That's the one I liked best... the other seemed pretty straight. His slider is a dynamite pitch and he also flashed an occasional change. For a kid with not a lot of pitching experience, I think he's one to watch.

Tom Mastny worked for the Cats on Sunday. His stuff was less impressive than Marcum's, but he has a much better (and more projectable) body. Mastny had some command issues and with the early season pitch counts, he only lasted 4 innings. He was in the 88 range most of the time with his 4-seam fastball. He also threw what he (after the game) called a sinker. I thought during the game that it was a change-up and I guess it did act like one as it was in the 81 mph range. Mastny also threw a curve here and there. In all honesty, I was expecting more from his stuff, but with his command being noticeably off, it was hard to get a good reading on his secondary offerings.

There were 2 position players on the Charleston team that caught my eye. First is catcher Robinson Diaz. I know he's not off to a good start, but I like him as an overall athlete and think his bat will come around. The next time I see Charleston, I'd expect him to be more in the groove with the bat. He also runs very well for a catcher. The other is left fielder, Christian Snavely. He has intriguing power potential... he really has a strong swing. He's starting the year batting down in the order, but I think that'll be changing soon. He might even take over cleanup duties from Clint Johnston... yeah, that Clint Johnston. I don't want to get sidetracked from Snavely, but what's Johnston doing playing first for a Sally League team? At 26 years old, I can't see him being at this level for long. If he tears it up, you'd think he'd be moved up quickly... and if he doesn't, why would you even want him? Back to Snavely... for a kid that doesn't have a lot of footspeed, he looks more than capable in left field. He played a bunch of positions at Ohio State and I guess it was funny to his teammates just how many different gloves he had in his locker, not knowing where he'd be playing next. Once he gets a little bigger and stronger (and slower), I have to wonder if he'll be limited to left field or first base.

This past weekend was my first visit to old Watt Powell Stadium. I'm overjoyed for the people of Charleston (and the players who have to play there) that a new stadium is on the way. Maybe I've been spoiled by the new ballparks in Ohio, specifically those in Akron and Lake County which are just beautiful facilities (heck, even Jerry Uht Stadium in Erie shines when compared to Watt Powell) and I realize this is just Low-A ball… but, if there is any team around that truly needs a new park, it is the Alley Cats!

It's very obvious they're limping this place along on a minimal budget and with a new park on the horizon, I don't blame them. That would account for the infield grass being in poor shape… and what can you do about the railroad tracks that run just beyond right-center field. The noise from the passing rail cars full of coal reminds me of the overhead planes at Shea Stadium. Some other things that really stood out in my mind are the stone warning tracks that run all the way around the field. Yes, in the outfield and all the way down the foul lines right around the backstop area. The stone covered surface actually goes right up to the green indoor/outdoor carpet octagon they call their on deck circle. I'm not sure if I've seen a more unlevel outfield grade. The center fielder runs uphill as he goes toward right field. I bet the ground at the foul pole has to be 6 feet higher that the ground in center field, it was that noticeable.

On to the Alley Cats' weekend opponent... Delmarva. Baltimore's system has been weak for a while now and it's starting to improve, especially in the pitching department. Adam Loewen is on the Delmarva team, though I missed seeing him by a day. He's really struggling with his control in '04, both in spring training and in his first regular season start. Chris Ray, on the other hand, is not. Ray got off to a nice start yesterday (going against Mastny). Ray is definitely a power pitcher. He featured a low 90's fastball that got up to 94 a few times... not bad for this early in the year. I'd expect him to be there (or higher) consistently once the weather warms a bit. He also threw a slider, though it was a little less impressive. His build and pitching style remind me of a right-handed Randy Myers and I could see him in the closer role, as Myers was. There is a little unnecessary movement in his delivery, as well as more effort than you'd like to see. That's another reason why I see him as a future back end reliever.

Nick Markakis is also on the Delmarva team, but I'm wanting to see a bit more of him before forming any opinions either way. That won't happen for another 6 weeks. I have already formed an opinion about highly thought of outfielder Lorenzo Scott. He's the former 2 sport player at Ball State (he played linebacker on the football team). I think he's your typical tools player that has so far to go with the bat, it's hard for me to project any ultimate success for him in that area. He even looks very raw in the outfield as he misplayed a couple of balls right from the start, getting turned around on one of them. It's way too early to predict him as a bust, but he has all the signs of it happening.

Stories from the 2003 season.