StrategyFebruary 1, 2009

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The Next Generation

By Philip Maguran

Welcome to the inaugural publication of The Next Generation, a new regular feature at the Café that will spotlight two players in each edition. One will be a young big-leaguer or advanced minor league prospect who finds himself in a position to be a contributor on a major league ballclub in the near future, either through his own performance or through other circumstances (i.e., injuries, trades, etc.) The second will be a minor-leaguer who is further from the show, but is nevertheless a player who dynasty and keeper league managers will want to keep an eye on over the course of the season.

I will try to take a look at a player’s minor league pedigree, comment on various performance indicators that may impact the prospects ability to help a fantasy baseball team, highlight the player’s potential path to the majors (and ETA), and give an overall opinion on the prospect’s rosterability for various league formats.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at a couple of names you will want to be familiar with in the coming years!

On The Cusp

Brandon Wood (SS/3B, LAA)

Wood has been a familiar name to followers of minor league baseball since way back in 2005, when he tore it up for Single A Rancho Cucamonga to the tune of 43 home runs, 115 RBI and a slugging percentage of .672 (OPS of 1.054) as a precocious 20-year old. Just for good measure, Mr. Wood went on to hit an additional 14 homers in that season’s Arizona Fall League (a league record), ending the season with a combined 57 home runs and 147 RBI in the approximate number of at bats an everyday major leaguer would see over the duration of a full season. Oh, and I forgot to mention he played shortstop. Needless to say, Wood was now on everyone’s radar, and he took his spot as one of the hottest prospects in all of baseball.

While anyone would be hard pressed to follow up that campaign, Wood continued to show prodigious power at both the Double A and Triple A levels over the next two seasons, belting a combined 48 homers and slugging near or above .500 each season as he worked his way up the organizational ladder (even getting a brief 33 at-bat cup of coffee with the Angels at the end of the 2007 season.)

Going into last season, many thought that 2008 would be the year where Brandon got his chance to show what he could do with a full-time major league gig. The Angels had traded starting SS Orlando Cabrera, and the competition for the job was between Wood and the uninspiring (at least offensively) pair of Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar. Addionally, the always offensively-challenged Angels had a need for a big power bat in the lineup to help protect aging slugger Vladimir Guerrero.

Unfortunately, things did not work out early last year for Wood, as he was unable to nail down the starting job and was sent to the minors to learn to play third base. He was called up to the big league club in late April, but failed to impress, hitting less than .200 before being shipped back down a couple of months later. In Triple A, however, he continued to be a dominant force, slugging 31 homers in less than 400 at-bats. He returned to the major leagues late in the season, and played better, eventually ending the season with an aggregate batting average of .200 over 150 at-bats, to go along with five home runs.

Heading into the 2009 season, things look eerily similar to 2008 for Brandon Wood. The competition remains the same, as he will battle with Aybar, Izturis and Chone Figgins for playing time at both SS and 3B (scouts feel that defensively he can handle either position adequately, although he will never be a gold-glove-caliber defender). After losing Mark Teixeira to free agency, the Angels need for offense is as acute as ever. Common sense indicates that the Angels will try to find a way to get Wood consistent at-bats and see what they have in the still just 24-year-old youngster, however he is by no means guaranteed a starting spot at this time. The 2009 season may be put up or shut up time for him as far as the Angels organization goes, and I would not be surprised to see him sent to another team for a fresh start if 2009 is as rough for him as 2008.

Skill Set
Power is the name of Wood’s game, and his is extremely impressive. Anyone who hits a combined 57 home runs in a season of professional baseball has accomplished something special. There is no doubt that he has the bat speed and control to hit 30 home runs in the major leagues. He can turn around a fastball and has power to all fields. The 800-pound gorilla with Wood has always been his strike zone judgment, or rather his lack thereof. Throughout his minor league career, he has struck out in approximately 27% of his at-bats, while walking a measly 10% of the time. In his brief experience in the major leagues, the problem has been even more acute. Last season at the major league level, Brandon struck out 43 times versus only 4 walks. Unless he can learn to control the strike zone better, he is likely to be an all-or-nothing hitter in the mold of Russel Branyan, albeit with a stronger defensive profile. His batting average will suffer, and he won’t be on base enough to help out much in the counting categories. If he does find himself on the base paths, Brandon is a competent base stealer, offering 10 to 15 stolen base potential with an exceptional track record of success in the limited number of times he does take off.

My Opinion
I want to like Wood. I took him in the first round of the minors portion of my dynasty league draft back in 2006, and have been waiting patiently for signs of development. Unfortunately, he is a player who has a glaring weakness that I can not overlook, despite what he offers in terms of position flexibility and power potential. Poor strike zone judgment is a career killer, especially with a team like the Angels, who seem reluctant to play Wood in favor the veterans. Major league pitchers are a different animal than minor league pitchers, and until he proves he can lay off a slider down and away, he will see very few fastballs anywhere near the strike zone.

Wood offers substantial upside, but also very little hope of achieving that upside, at least in the short-term. Major league pitchers will have a field day with himand his free-swinging ways, and he will rack up strikeouts at a tremendous rate if he gets a full-time opportunity this year.

I think the ceiling of what can be expected from Wood in the 2009 season (if he is given a full-time job) is somewhere close to that of Mark Reynolds. Think 25-30 homers, a .225-.250 batting average, and a lot of Ks. His poor on base percentage will limit his opportunity for runs. The floor is what happened last year…limited at bats and production.

Long-term, Wood is still an intriguing player. A 24-year old with the ability to play SS and the potential to hit 30 (or more) homers deserves attention. So, what should you do at draft / auction time with regards to him? I think it is safe to ignore him in single-season small to medium sized mixed leagues with standard position categories. This goes doubly for head-to-head leagues, where his strikeouts will be a killer (assuming they count for negative points). In AL-only leagues, he is worthy of a flier in late rounds. Based on his long-term potential, he is rosterable in larger dynasty and keeper leagues, especially if he still qualifies for a minor-league spot.

My best advice to you regarding Brandon Wood is to proceed with caution and don’t rely on him early in the year. Keep an eye on him for signs of improvement. If he is getting regular at bats and is showing signs of improving his strike zone judgment, don’t be afraid to grab him off the waiver wire and hope for a breakout. It is always a better to be early to the party in grabbing a guy with this amount of talent than late!

Know This Name

Neftali Feliz (RHP, TEX)

Remember when the Braves traded for Mark Texeira at the deadline in 2007? I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but after failing to make the playoffs that year and struggling mightily throughout the first half of last year, the Braves shipped Big Tex off to the Angels and were left to wonder what might have been had they hung on to a couple of the pieces they shipped to Texas. At the time, the biggest name in the deal was catching uber-prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with SS Elvis Andrus and SP Matt Harrison also being known commodities. However, in the end it may just be the hard-throwing right–handed starter Neftali Feliz who really makes the Braves regret making that deal.

How hard does he throw you ask? Well, how about 102 MPH on some radar guns, with the ability to sit comfortably at 95-97 MPH throughout the course of a game (think Joel Zumaya top-end, with Joba Chamberlain endurance). In addition to the heat, Feliz also features an improving change-up and a slider that has the potential to devastate right-handed hitters. As would be expected of a 19-year old, Feliz struggled a bit with his command in his first full season last year, walking 51 batters over his combined 127+ innings in Single A and Double A. But, he also struck out 153 hitters and held them to an aggregate batting average against of .201. Those are the kind of nasty numbers that shout future ace.

That future will not come this year though, as Feliz is expected to return to Double A for another full season of refinement in the minors. However, should he get a late season cup of coffee, as he has the raw stuff to be dominant. His most likely arrival time is mid to late next season, and he should be blowing his heat by major league hitters on a full-time basis by 2011 at the latest. The pitching-poor Rangers are always in need of some decent arms, and Feliz should be one of the best. This is the next David Price / Clayton Kershaw / Max Scherzer, and a name you should know if you play in leagues with a time horizon greater than one year.

Philip Maguran is an avid Tigers fan originally from (outside) Detroit. He went to school at the University of Michigan, and is currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan working at a large public accounting firm. He has been playing all sorts of fantasy sports since the mid-1990s and baseball is far and away his favorite! His advice...if you haven't joined a dynasty league yet, you haven't truly experienced the best of fantasy baseball. You can catch up with Phillip in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of Big Cat Court. 
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