The Washington Times - June 20, 2008, 08:56AM

By JAY LeBLANC
June 20, 2008

It’s been a fantastic season so far in minor league baseball. Young, high-upside recent draft picks like 2007 No. 2 overall selection Mike Moustakas are going through growing pains while making the necessary adjustments to adapt to the pro game after dominating as amateurs. David Price, Matt LaPorta and Matt Wieters, dominating the minors after honing their skills at big-time college programs, are proving that sometimes, you can believe the hype. Prospects like Mat Gamel and Max Ramirez are showing how players that work hard will see results as they make their way through the minors. Phenom Jay Bruce likely saw his last-ever minor league pitch on May 25, but he sure did put on a show before packing his bags for Cincinnati. And there’s more to come, as many of this year’s top draft picks will populate rosters in the short-season Class A leagues that started play this week.

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Anyway, we’ve reached the midpoint of the minor league season, giving us a chance to take a look back at some of the top performances of the first half. We’ll honor the Outstanding Hitter and Outstanding Pitcher from every minor league - a tough task considering the high level of talent in each. Some players, like Braves prospect Tommy Hanson, dominated a particluar circuit - in his case, the Carolina League - but didn’t stick around long enough to earn top honors (I have a feeling Hanson is OK with his promotion to double-A, even if it cost him recognition from National Pastime). Others, like the aforementioned Bruce, stuck around long enough to take top honors. Without further ado, let’s work our way down the organizational ladder, honoring the best in triple-A and double-A today and finishing up with advanced Class A and single-A tomorrow;


AAA INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE

Outstanding Hitter:Jay Bruce, Louisville Bats (Reds)

Bruce has been tearing up the majors since late May, but was sufficiently outstanding during his AAA stint that he can’t be denied this honor. Bruce was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the game entering the season and has managed to exceed expectations nonetheless. Prior to his call-up, the 21-year-old phenom terrorized International League pitching to the tune of a .364 average, 10 home runs and 37 RBI while also swiping 10 bases. After his hot big league start, it’s fairly certain that this is the last minor league honor he’ll ever get. Bruce gets the nod over outfielders Brent Clevlen of Toledo (Tigers) and Pawtucket (Red Sox) teammates Jeff Bailey and Chris Carter.

Outstanding Pitcher:John Parrish, Syracuse Chiefs (Blue Jays)

The fact that Parrish has 161 big league appearances under his belt diminishes this honor somewhat, but you can’t ignore what the 30-year-old lefty has accomplished so far this season. Parrish leads the league with 10 wins and has yet to drop a decision this season. He’s sporting a nifty 2.83 ERA and has struck out 86 batters in 76 1/3 innings while limiting opposing hitters to a .229 batting average. The only downside for Parrish is his 34 walks, as control problems have plagued him throughout his big league career, particularly last season when he issued 37 free passes to go along with 41 strikeouts in 52 innings with Baltimore and Toronto. He edges Charlie Zink of Pawtucket (Red Sox) for top hurler honors.


AAA PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE

Outstanding Hitter:Jeff Clement, Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)

Clement - who was just called up for the second time this season - struggled during his first stint with the Mariners, hitting just .167 and striking out 20 times in 48 at bats, but has been nothing short of dominant in the Pacific Coast League. The 24-year-old backstop, ranked by Baseball America as Seattle’s top prospect, leads the circuit with an obscene 1.137 OPS and is hitting .337 with 14 home runs and 43 RBI in 172 at bats. Clement has plenty of competition for top hitting honors in the PCL and just barely gets the nod over third basemen Matthew Brown of Salt Lake (Angels), Jamie D’Antona of Tucson (Diamondbacks) and Terry Tiffee of Las Vegas (Dodgers).

Outstanding Pitcher:Kyle Davies, Omaha Royals (Royals)

The competition for top PCL hurler honors isn’t nearly as interesting, as the circuit’s best starters so far this season are pretty much all big league retreads. Before his late-May call-up, Davies was the best of the bunch, going 6-2 with a 2.06 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 10 starts. His success has carried over to the majors so far as he’s currently 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA in four starts with Kansas City. Davies is the choice over ex-big leaguer Tony Armas, who has sparkling 2.47 ERA and 1.00 WHIP but is just 5-6 with New Orleans (Mets); Victor Santos, who is 4-1 with a 3.32 ERA for Fresno (Giants), and the recently promoted Mitchell Boggs, who was 5-1 with a 3.28 ERA for Memphis (Cardinals)


AA EASTERN LEAGUE

Outstanding Hitter:Luke Hughes, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)

It’s a tough call, but Hughes gets the nod. The third baseman is hitting .335 with 13 home runs, 34 RBI and an impressive 1.025 OPS so far for the Twins affiliate. Hughes, a 23-year-old from Australia, is repeating the Eastern League this season after a posting a solid .283-9-43 line with the Rock Cats last season. He isn’t viewed as much of a prospect, not even making Baseball America’s Twins top 30, but if he keeps hitting, the club will surely take notice. Hughes narrowly edges several other players having outstanding campaigns in catchers Chris Gimenez of Akron (Indians), Lou Marson of Reading (Phillies) and Luke Montz of Harrisburg (Nationals), DH Mike Carp of Binghamton (Mets) and Wes Hodges of Akron (Indians).

Outstanding Pitcher:David Huff, Akron Aeors (Indians)

The prospect-laden Eastern League features plenty of up-and-comers having great seasons, but Huff, a 2006 supplemental first-round pick out of UCLA, managed to separate himself from the pack before earning a promotion to triple-A Buffalo earlier this month. The Indians No. 7 prospect according to Baseball America went 5-1 with a 1.92 ERA and 62-to-14 K-to-walk ratio. The Indians have a good number of solid pitching prospects, but the left-handed Huff could force his way into their plans later this summer if he keeps it up at Buffalo. Huff gets the nod over Jason Jones of Trenton (Yankees), who is 8-3 with a 2.49 ERA, and 20-year-old prospect Chris Tillman, who’s 7-2 with a 2.67 ERA and 73 strikeouts for Bowie (Orioles).


AA SOUTHERN LEAGUE

Outstanding Hitter:Mat Gamel, Huntsville Stars (Brewers)

Teammate Matt LaPorta, the Brewers’ 2007 first-round pick and top prospect, gets most of the attention, but it’s Gamel who has been the best hitter in the Southern League so far this season. The 2005 fourth-rounder and No. 5 Brewers prospect as ranked by Baseball America is hitting a robust .370 for the season to go along with 14 home runs, 62 RBI and a 1.064 OPS. A 22-year-old third baseman, he has nearly matched his previous season-high for home runs, having hit 17 with West Virginia of the South Atlantic League in 2006. LaPorta, who is hitting .295 with 19 home runs and 58 RBI, is the runner-up.

Outstanding Pitcher:Ryan Tucker, Carolina Mudcats (Marlins)

The Southern League boasts several outstanding young pitchers, most notably top prospects Wade Davis and Jake McGee of Montgomery (Rays) and Chris Volstad and Brett Sinkbeil of Carolina, but Tucker, a 2005 supplemental first-round pick, has outpitched them all in 2008. The 6’ 2” righty has always been highly regarded - he’s ranked by Baseball America as Florida’s No. 4 prospect - but has taken his game to a new level this season, earning a promotion to the Marlins after going 4-2 with a sparkling 1.41 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 70 innings of work. He beat the Reds in his major league debut on June 8 and is 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA through three starts.


AA TEXAS LEAGUE

Outstanding Hitter:Max Ramirez, Frisco RoughRiders (Rangers)

The 23-year-old catcher, acquired from Cleveland for Kenny Lofton last summer, has been the Texas League’s best hitter in 2008 and one of the best in all of minor league baseball. Ranked by Baseball America as the Rangers’ No. 23 prospect entering this season, Ramirez has exploded to the tune of a .352 average, 16 home runs, 46 RBI and a league-best 1.090 OPS. He gets the nod over teammate Chris Davis, a first baseman who posted a .333 average, 13 home runs and 42 RBI before a promotion to triple-A, and third baseman Jesus Guzman, who has posted a .356-12-68 line for Midland (A’s).

Outstanding Pitcher:Vincent Mazzaro, Midland RockHounds (A’s)

Mazzaro, a 2005 third-round pick, had struggled somewhat as a pro prior to this season, posting ERAs over 5.00 in single-A in both 2006 and 2007. However, the A’s No. 18 prospect has put it all together so far in 2008, leading the Texas League with a 2.29 ERA to go along with a 7-3 record, 1.15 WHIP and 60 strikeouts in 86 1/3 innings. The 21-year-old right-hander is the choice over highly touted prospect Will Inman, who’s having an outstanding season himself with a 7-3 record, 3.00 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 78 innings for Mobile (Padres). Chances are you’ll see both of these pitchers in the bigs sooner rather than later.

Check back in with us tomorrow as we honor the first half’s best from the advanced Class A California League, Carolina League and Florida State League and the Class A Midwest League and South Atlantic League.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.