By JAY LeBLANC
July 5, 2008
The All-Star break is just around the corner and most big league teams have a pretty good idea about which direction they’re headed this season. Every front office will use the break to decide whether they’ll be buyers, sellers or nonparticipants as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. Teams that think the solutions to their problems can be found within their own organizations - as well as teams that are out of contention and want to fast-forward their youth movements - will start to think seriously about promoting their top prospects, giving fans a sneak preview at the future of baseball. Here are my super seven prized prospects likely to debut to great fanfare sometime in the second half (players who’ve already had a cup of coffee in the bigs won’t be included in this column - sorry, Cameron Maybin):
Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles
I’ve seen Wieters play on several occasions so far this season, and I can assure you that if he wasn’t big league ready the moment he signed with the Orioles last summer, he certainly is now. The switch-hitting catcher, chosen fifth overall in the 2007 MLB draft, finally got his long-overdue promotion to the double-A Bowie Baysox last week after terrorizing Carolina League pitching to the tune of a .345 average, 15 home runs and 40 RBI with the Frederick Keys. Wieters has adjusted well to double-A so far, hitting .292 with three doubles and a home run in his first 24 at bats. For the year, he’s struck out 50 times but has offset that figure with 49 walks - impressive plate discipline for a player in his first professional season. Wieters is no slouch behind the dish either, using the rocket arm that allowed him to double as Georgia Tech’s closer at times during his collegiate career to gun down a good percentage of would-be base stealers. The Orioles have to know they’re not going to catch the Rays or the Red Sox in the A.L. East, and with backstop Ramon Hernandez having a second straight subpar year, they may choose to have Wieters get his feet wet in the second half.
David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are proving they’re for real, holding a three-game lead over the defending World Champion Red Sox, and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft is doing the same down on the farm. Price, a 6’ 6” left-hander out of Vanderbilt, is the most hyped pitching prospect to come out of the college game in several years, and he’s only added fuel to the fire so far in 2008. Shoulder issues delayed his season debut until mid-May, but Price has been lights out ever since. He went 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA in six starts with the Class A Vero Beach Devil Rays and hasn’t skipped a beat since his promotion to the double-A Montgomery Biscuits, winning each of his first two starts while allowing just two earned runs in 12 innings. Price has also fanned 49 batters and walked only 13 in his 46 2/3 innings whlie holding opponents to a .218 average. There’s little doubt Price is big-league ready now, and if the Rays are serious about making a run this year - and after a decade of futility, you’d have to believe they are - they’ll have to think long and hard about plugging him into their rotation for the stretch run.
Matt LaPorta, Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are very much in the thick of things in the N.L. Central and in the Wild Card race, and have not one but two young hitters who appear ready to supply added punch to an already stacked lineup. We’ll start with LaPorta, Milwaukee’s first-round pick and the seventh overall in last year’s draft out of the University of Florida. LaPorta adjusted quickly to the pro game last summer, hitting .304 with 12 home runs and 31 RBI during stints with the Rookie Level Helena Brewers and the Class A West Virginia Power and prompting the Brewers to have him skip advanced Class A and begin the 2008 season with the double-A Huntsville Stars. The 23-year-old has been up to the challenge, to say the very least. Through 82 games, he’s hitting .291 with a Southern League-leading 20 home runs, and is second in the circuit with 66 RBI. He’s also drawn 44 walks to offset his 62 strikeouts, which isn’t a particularly high number for a power hitter anyway. LaPorta - who shifted to the outfield as a pro after playing first base in college - will never be a great defender, but his bat should punch his ticket to the big leagues later this season.
Mat Gamel, Milwaukee Brewers
It almost doesn’t seem fair that the Brewers, who have two of the best young hitters in the majors in Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, also have two of the best in the minors in LaPorta and Gamel, but that’s what good scouting and player development will do for you. Gamel, a fourth-round pick in the 2005 draft, has always been well-regarded - Baseball America ranked him as the Brewers’ No. 5 prospect entering this season - but he’s brought his game to a whole new level in 2008. Playing alongside LaPorta on the Huntsville Stars, the soon-to-be 23-year-old third baseman currently leads the Southern League with a .381 average, 31 doubles and 75 RBI and ranks third in the circuit with 15 home runs after hitting just nine last season. Gamel is a below-average defender, but with Bill Hall barely hitting his weight and Russell Branyan fanning in a third of his at bats, it’s possible Milwaukee could see Gamel as the solution to their woes at the hot corner in the near future.
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
McCutchen, a toolsy outfielder with the potential to hit for both average and power and steal bases in the big leagues, has been Pittsburgh’s best prospect since the moment they drafted him 11th overall in 2005. He’s breezed through the Pirates’ minor league system and reached triple-A as a 20-year-old last season. Assigned to the Indianapolis Indians once again this season, McCutchen is knocking on the door of the big leagues by hitting .280 with 19 doubles, eight home runs and 33 RBI to this point. He’s fifth in the International League with 23 stolen bases, though he has been caught 13 times. Most encouraging about McCutchen’s 2008 campaign is his improved plate discipline. After posting K-to-walk ratios of 110-to-50 and 94-to-48 in his first two full pro seasons, he’s fanned 58 times and drawn 39 walks in 328 at bats so far this year. The Pirates are pretty solid in the outfield with Jason Bay, Nate McLouth and Xavier Nady, but they’ve given McCutchen a late-season promotion in each of his pro seasons and he’s given them every reason to do so again in 2008.
David Huff, Cleveland Indians
Huff, a 2006 supplemental first-round pick out of UCLA, has always been highly regarded by the Indians but has also been overshadowed by the many left-handed pitching prospects the team has had higher up the organizational ladder - guys like Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey and Chuck Lofgren, to name a few. Huff has taken matters into his own hands in 2008, putting up numbers that are simply too good to be ignored. In 10 starts with the double-A Akron Aeros, Huff went 5-1 with a 1.92 ERA and a 62-to-14 K-to-walk ratio in 65 2/3 innings, earning a promotion to the triple-A Buffalo Bisons. Huff has responded well to the change in scenery, going 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA and an impressive 38-to-3 K-to-walk ratio in his first six starts. It’s possible that the only thing holding Huff back at this point is the big league club’s mediocrity; with the Indians in last place in the A.L. Central, there’s no reason to the 23-year-old to the majors. They still may choose to give him an audition for their 2009 rotation, however, and you’ll want him on your fantasy team if they do.
Carlos Carrasco, Philadelphia Phillies
Carraso has made good progress through the Phillies’ minor league system since signing with the team as a free agent as a 16-year-old in 2003. He won 12 games with the Class A Lakewood BlueClaws in 2006 and followed that up with another 12 win campaign last season while splitting time between advanced the advanced Class A Clearwater Threshers and the double-A Reading Phillies. Carrasco entered 2008 ranked by Baseball America as Philadelphia’s top prospect and is having a solid but unspectacular season with Reading with a 5-7 record, 4.18 ERA and 89 strikeouts and just 38 walks in 97 innings. He’s still just 21 years old and could probably use some more seasoning, but the Phillies are in the middle of a heated-three way pennant race with the Mets and Marlins and nearly promoted him this past week before opting instead to go with J.A. Happ. All Carrasco will need to do to force his way into the Phillies rotation is string together a couple good outings, and he’s certainly capable of doing so.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of the Frederick Keys