OpinionOctober 4, 2006

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Team Top 3 Prospects: NL Central

By Adam Foster

This article is the third installment of a six part series on the top three prospects in every Major League Baseball organization. This week we’ll take a look at the farm systems in the heartland, namely, the NL Central.

Chicago Cubs

1. Felix Pie, OF: A “sky’s the limit” type of player, Pie, 21, was signed out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 16. Five years and 1,945 minor league at bats later, he is still a little too raw for the big show, but the lefty is well on his way to making a major league contribution. Pie – not a mathematical constant or dessert (it’s pronounced PEE-ay) – put up a .792 OPS with 15 home runs, 33 doubles, and .283/.341/.451 line in his first stint in Triple-A Iowa. While he has exceptional speed, Pie needs to work on his base running skills in order to get his 60.7% (17-of-28) SB percentage into the 70% range that many teams feel most comfortable giving the green light to. We still see him as a potential All-Star during his prime, but it’s highly doubtful that Pie will be an above-average major leaguer before 2008, as he could use another half season in AAA. Pie will also likely have trouble adjusting to major league pitching – he owned a 77.26% contact ratio and 2.74 K/BB ratio this year in the minors.
2. Donald Veal, LHP: Repeating his 2005 success, Veal, 22, has solidified himself as one of the top 25 pitching prospects in baseball by our count. In 2006, the 2nd round draft pick out of Pima Community College gave up just seven home runs in 154.1 combined innings (between A and A+), while striking out a 10.15 batters per nine. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound lefty throws his fastball in the mid-90s with a deceptive motion. He also features a good curveball and decent changeup. Veal has a tremendous ceiling – a potential No. 1 or No. 2 starter – but he still probably isn’t going to make a contribution until midseason 2008. The Cubs have decided to take it slow with Veal, promoting him slowly in his first two professional seasons. Keep a close eye on how he starts in Double-A West Tennessee; Veal could become one of the top 10 pitching prospects in the game in the blink of an eye.

3. Sean Gallagher, RHP: The Cubs 2005 Minor League Pitcher of the year kept on impressing for a 12th round draft pick (2004). Known more for his control than stuff, Gallagher, 20, didn’t really profile as much more than a potential No. 3 or No. 4 starter prior to 2006, but he has managed to improve his mechanics and has added some velocity – now throwing in the mid 90s with a great curveball, decent changeup, and an in-the-works cut fastball. He now projects to something closer to a No. 2 starter. He also isn’t too far behind Veal in terms of prospect stock. His 9.49 K/9 ratio shows that his stuff really has taken a big leap forward when compared with his 8.70 rate in 2005, and he has already completed half a season in Double-A West Tennessee. While pitching for the Diamond Jaxx, Gallagher had a bit of a wild streak, walking 55 batters in 86.1 innings and accumulating a 1.49 WHIP. He will probably start the 2007 season with West Tennessee again, but once he improves his control, look for him to move up to Triple-A Iowa and possibly log some Major League innings before the end of the season.

Cincinnati Reds

1. Homer Bailey, RHP: A 2004 first round draft pick, Bailey, 20, started the season in High-A Sarasota and aced that test with a 10.06 K/9 ratio and a paltry 1.00 WHIP. Promoted to Double-A Chattanooga in mid-June, Bailey continued to improve, this time putting up a 10.19 K/9 ratio and a 1.15 WHIP to go along with just one home run in 68.0 innings after giving up six in 70.2 A+ innings. Bailey has the build, stuff, and competitive spirit to be a frontline starter as soon as 2007. His fastball touches 97 mph and he offers a plus-plus curveball to go with his changeup and slider. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound righty has continued to grow physically, adding an inch and 15 pounds last year. With his frame and velocity, Bailey reminds us of Josh Beckett – though he hasn’t had quite as amazing K/9 rates as Beckett did in the minors, he has given up fewer home runs. After pitching 103.2 regular season innings in 2005 and 138.2 in 2006, Bailey still may not be ready to pitch a full season in the majors, but that won’t keep the Reds from giving him a shot at opening 2007 in their rotation.

2. Joey Votto, 1B: Don’t get us wrong, we really like Jay Bruce, but Votto, 22, just kept giving us reasons to rank him No. 2. For example, Votto was one of only five 20/20 men in the entire minor leagues in 2006. His 22 home runs and 24 stolen bases came as he maintained a .955 OPS at Double-A Chattanooga. Votto was successful in 77.42% of his stolen base attempts, so the 6-foot-3, 220-pound lefty could keep getting the green light when he is promoted to the big leagues. How many recent 20/20 major league first basemen can you think of? (Derrek Lee went 30/20 in 2003 and Jeff Bagwell went 30/30 in 1997 and 1999) The 2nd round draft pick from 2002 put up .319/.408/.547 vitals in 508 at bats in 2006, rebounding like a slinky from his .256/.330/.425 A+ 2005 season. Votto had 46 doubles and 22 home runs – both easily career highs – and sports good plate descipline (1.40 K/BB ratio). Likely ticketed for Triple-A Louisville, if Votto keeps up his 2006 pace, he could be ready to contribute for the Reds by mid-2007.
3. Jay Bruce, OF: Performance-wise, Bruce, 19, has been one of the best high school hitters out of a 2005 draft that also included Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, and Justin Upton. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound lefty hit .291/.355/.516 with 42 doubles, 16 home runs, and 19 stolen bases in 28 attempts (67.86%) at Single-A Dayton in 444 at-bats. Bruce has amazing potential but needs to work on his plate discipline (2.41 K/BB ratio) along with his base running. High school hitters taken in the top 15 picks of the 2002-2004 drafts include: Matt Bush, Chris Nelson, Billy Butler, Neil Walker, Delmon Young, Chris Lubanski, Ryan Harvey, Nick Markakis, Lastings Milledge, B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder, Scott Moore, Jeremy Hermida, Khalil Greene, and Russ Adams. So, you’re looking at a very high percentage of major leaguers here and a decent amount of players with star potential. Bruce will likely start 2007 in High-A Sarasota, and may remain there all season. It’s unlikely that he’ll get any time at the big league level in the next year due to his age and development, The Reds hope he can be Ken Griffey Jr.’s successor in center field and by the time he breaks into the majors, Bruce could be one of the top five prospects in the game.

Houston Astros

1. Jason Hirsh, RHP: One thing we’re really interested in studying is pitchers who have the ability to pitch to contact. Some major leaguers, such as Roy Halladay, don’t miss a ton of bats, but they still are highly successful – Harry Leroy Halladay III (no joke, that’s his real name) had a minor league K/9 rate of 5.88; 6.53 major league. For now, we figure these types of pitchers must be keeping hitters off balance, causing them to hit the ball softly, and generating a lot of outs for the pitcher. Thus, while uncommon, pitchers who don’t strike out many batters can find a lot of major league success. Hirsh, 24, is prime example of someone who we believe is pitching well to contact. Despite being able to max out at 97 mph, he struck out just 7.73 batters per nine in Triple-A Round Rock, slightly higher than his 7.85 career average in the minors. A sample of more than 80 top pitching prospects who we looked at in 2006 averaged 8.77 K/9, leaving Hirsh more than a half deviation from the mean. But his 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame looks pretty enticing next two his 2006 1.06 WHIP, 2.10 ERA, and 0.33 HR/9 rate. Big strikeout guys usually get favorable considerations as top prospects, but consider Hirsh an exception to the rule. More signs point to the righty being a productive No. 2 starter than a flop. The 2nd round draft pick from 2003 will likely enter 2007 in the Astros rotation and make a decent rookie contribution; his size and potential may allow him to make a major impact.
2. Hunter Pence, OF: A 2nd round draft pick from 2004, Pence, 23, built upon a season in which he split time between Single-A Lexington and High-A Salem by maintaining the same kind of success in Double-A Corpus Christi. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound righty has taken a slow route to the majors after joining the Astros out of college. But he has had an OPS above .860 at each one of his stops and he put up .283/.357/.533 vitals to go with 31 doubles, eight triples, and 28 home runs – 10 in May – during 2006. Pence also added the ability to steal bases effectively into his game at Corpus Christi, swiping 17 in 21 attempts (80.95%) in 136 games. Previously, he had only stolen 12 bases at a 54.54% success rate in 172 minor league games. His 2006 stolen base total may be an aberration but it shows some hope for a 20/20 season sometime in the middle of Pence’s career. At worst, he’ll be a below-average defender with a bat meant for the middle/lower part of a major league lineup. Pence’s 2007 stint in Triple-A Round Rock will be a huge indicator of his true ceiling. If he continues to build on his talent and potential, we could see Pence in Minute Maid Park by the second half of 2007.

3. Troy Patton, LHP: Quick estimate, left-handed pitchers are 78% more likely to listen to Matisyahu than right-handed pitchers. Besides piquing our musicial interests, Patton, 21, has engaged us through his quick ascension in the minor league ranks after being selected in the 9th round – a signability selection. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound lefty features a good curveball and a fastball that reaches the mid-90s. Despite repeating High-A Salem to start 2006 (9 starts there in 2005; 19 in 2006), Patton wasn’t much more dominant than he had been there in the previous season, as his 9.06 K/9 and 0.36 HR/9 rates were improvements, but his 37 walks in 101.1 innings caused his WHIP to shoot up 0.25 points. The Texas native went on to pitch effectively, but not dominantly, in eight starts at Double-A Corpus Christi, he’s likely destined for starting in 2007.

Milwaukee Brewers

1. Yovani Gallardo, RHP: All you really need to know about Gallardo is that as a 20-year-old kid pitching in High-A Brevard County and Double-A Huntsville, he led the minors in strikeouts with 188 and put together a combined 1.00 WHIP. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder continued to grow into his frame last year, allowing him to touch 96 mph with his fastball. A 2nd round draft pick out of Fort Worth (Texas), Gallardo also boasts solid secondary stuff: a curveball, slider, and changeup. At Baseball America, he was up for consideration for their Minor League Player of the Year award, as his stellar season has begun to help him earn comparisons to Mike Mussina and John Smoltz from the BA staff. Born in Mexico, Gallardo is definitely one of the top five pitching prospects in the game and has the potential to elevate his talent to that of a frontline major league starter.
2. Ryan Braun, 3B: Often overshadowed by fellow 2005 first round draft pick Alex Gordon, Braun, 22, has been pretty spectacular himself, with a .289/.357/.514 line between High-A Brevard County and Double-A Huntsville. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound righty also slugged a combined 31 doubles and 22 home runs while stealing 26 bases in 30 attempts (86.67%). An All-American for Miami (FL), Braun caught fire as he moved up the system, evidenced by his .589 slugging percentage for the Stars – he played 59 games in Brevard County and 59 in Huntsville. Braun doesn’t figure to be held up in Triple-A Nashville for very long, so the Brewers could boast an infield of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and Braun as early as next year.
3. Will Inman, RHP: I know a particular Baseball America senior staff member who likely won’t agree with us ranking two pitching prospects ahead of Mark Rogers – who, by the way, was born in the same city as Project Prospect’s founder. While we see Rogers regaining his form, we’ve accepted that 2006 wasn’t a good year for pitchers named Mark (see Prior, Mulder, and Pawelek, too). Meanwhile, a young man named Inman, saw his stock skyrocket. A 3rd round draft pick from of a small town in Virginia, Inman, 19, threw 97.0 innings of homerless ball before allowing three in his final 13.2 innings. The 6-foot-0, 215-pound righty told us that he doesn’t think he has a single pitch that rates over 65 on the 20-80 scout scale, admitting that he isn’t sure how he was able to strikeout 10.90 batters per nine inning in Single-A West Virginia – though this is probably due to modesty more than lack of stuff. Inman also put up a WHIP of 0.89, a figure that gives more credibility to his prospect status. With his low to mid-90s fastball, slurve and changeup, he could turn into a No. 2 caliber starter.

Pittsburgh Pirates

1. Andrew McCutchen, OF: Also taken in the first round of the 2005 draft, McCutchen, 19, has been what Justin Upton was supposed to be this season: a five-tool threat as exciting to watch as anyone in the minors. The Pirates centerfielder of the future hit .298/.377/.445 with 24 doubles, 17 home runs, and stole bases 23 in 31 attempts (74.19%) between Single-A Hickory and Double-A Altoona, skipping High-A Lynchburg all together. McCutchen figures to have a little trouble maintaining this kind of success in the upper levels of the minors, as Double-A and Triple-A pitchers will likely start exploiting his lack of plate discipline (72.97% contact ratio; 2.50 K/BB rate). Still, the speedy McCutchen is progressing quite well and is in our mix for a position as one of the top 15 prospects in baseball.
2. Neil Walker, C: One of the only catchers to receive much consideration for our Top 3s, Walker, 21, was just too hard to overlook, largely due to his 84.47% contact ratio. The 2004 first round draft pick had his numbers deflated a bit by a viral infection that he tried to play through in an end-of-the-season ten game promotion to Double-A Altoona, but still managed .271/.329/.403 vitals between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A. A native of the Pittsburgh area, Walker has rich baseball bloodlines that have put him in position to make as big of a mark on the game as any member of his family – perhaps as an All-Star someday. He can hit from both sides of the plate, run well for a catcher, and throw out base runners regularly. A little concerning however, Walker only hit five home runs in 2006, but he had just 295 at-bats. He’ll lace his cleats in the Arizona Fall League this offseason.

3. Brad Lincoln, RHP: A two-way player in college, Lincoln, 21, not only mashed but also touched 98 on the radar gun. He’s going to pitch in the big leagues and could start making an impact with the Pirates before long. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound righty only threw 23.2 minor league innings before going on the 7-day disabled list with a left oblique strain. He struck out 10.71 batters per nine with the University of Houston last season, posting a 0.96 WHIP and an ERA of 1.69. Look for Lincoln to start 2007 in either Single-A Hickory or High-A Lynchburg. Wherever he is, the potential front-line starter should move quickly and begin to solidify his status as the top pitching prospect in the system and possibly the game.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. Colby Rasmus, OF: A gem in a system that is lacking in elite talent, Rasmus, 20, had an .876 OPS in his first full season of professional baseball, hitting 26 doubles, eight triples, and 16 home runs in 496 at bats, giving him .288/.364/.470 vitals between Single-A Quad Cities and High-A Palm Beach. The lefty also showed plus speed by stealing 28 bases in 36 attempts (77.78%). Rasmus makes loud contact and has the ability to draw walks (1.61 BB/K, 90 K to 56 BB ). He could use a little more polish in Palm Beach, but Rasmus may see Double-A Springfield before the year is done. Although Rasmus wasn’t taken as early as players like Upton and Bruce in the first round of the 2005 draft, he is starting to look like a solid bet to become one of the elite centerfield prospects in the game.
2. Adam Ottavino, RHP: The Cardinals 2006 first round draft pick, Ottavino, 20, put up pretty solid numbers in Single-A Quad Cities (8.82 K/9, 1.27 WHIP, and 0.55 HR/9). He can touch 95 with his fastball and features a solid slider and slurve. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound righty really made a mark for himself when he pitched a no-hitter in April for Northeastern University. Ottavino could be in line for a leap to Double-A Springfield, where he will try to continue proving that he is a front-of-the-rotation starter.

3. Jamie Garcia, LHP: A 6-foot-1, 200-pound lefty, Garcia, 20, gave up just four home runs in 155.0 innings between Single-A Quad Cities and High-A Palm Beach. He only struck out 7.61 batters per nine, but finished the season with a combined 1.19 WHIP. Garcia, a 22nd round draft pick from 2005, will attempt to build upon his 2006 breakout campaign and establish himself as more than a middle of the rotation starter.
Check back on soon for intallment four of this six part series, where I will unveil our top three prospects for each team in the AL Central.

Adam Foster is a college sports writer who has teamed up with his friend Patrick Hennessey and cafe regular Denny Foster to launch a site called Project Prospect. You can view more of their and the Project Prospect team's work at http://www.projectprospect.com.
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