Checking in on the California and Carolina Leagues

The California and Carolina Leagues are home to many organizations’ top young prospects. Most prospects in the Single-A advanced leagues are a couple years away from the big leagues, but a handful of fast-trackers jump to Double-A and beyond each year. These leagues are often the first full-season stop for top prospects coming out of a four-year college program. The California League is consistently the most hitter-friendly of all the Single-A leagues due to high elevations, park dimensions, and warm weather. The league RA (runs allowed per 9 innings) is at 5.2 this year. That’s a significant drop from last year’s offensive levels, but the California League’s 2005 season was an outlier in the first place. The Carolina League, at 4.5 RA, is a more moderate context. See last week’s review of the Florida State League if you are interested in the more pitching-dominant of the three Single-A Advanced leagues.

Some of the best young prospects in the game will participate in the California/Carolina All-Star Game on Tuesday night. While most of the lower minor leagues put together two All-Star teams representing different divisions in the same league, this game features more exclusive talent because each of the leagues sends one team to the showcase. This design is similar to the MLB and Triple-A All-Star games, except that the Single-A Advanced leagues are smaller in size.

The league-leading San Jose Giants team will send four pitchers to the California League All-Star team. The Carolina League All-Star team will feature six players from the Kinston Indians. Last year’s All-Star Game ended in an 8-0 win for the Carolina League, with an MVP award for Nick Markakis.

The All-Star break is a convenient mid-season point in time to stop and assess the players in each league, so let’s get to it.

California League

The following lists represents the top 10 pitching performances (ranked by fielding independent ERA) among pitchers with at least 60 innings in the California League this year.

ORG AGE  PLAYER             IP   W  L   H  BB   K HR   ERA FIP-ERA
SF   23 Nick Pereira      78.2   7  1  65  16  76  1  2.06    2.40  Struggling after promotion to PCL
LAA  22 Jose Arredondo    82     4  6  54  34 108  3  2.20    2.82  Leads league in strikeouts
SD   22 Michael Ekstrom   82.1   7  4  76  21  68  2  2.30    3.23
COL  22 Samuel Deduno     76     3  3  63  36  86  1  3.20    3.31
ARI  22 Gregory Smith     88.1   9  0  57  31  71  3  1.63    3.57  Promoted to Southern League
SF   23 Anthony Moreno    72     5  3  78  29  73  4  4.63    3.74  5.52 ERA on the road
SEA  21 Shawn Nottingham  84.1   3  6  88  29  76  5  3.52    3.76
SD   23 Brent Carter      71.2   5  2  80  11  44  5  4.02    3.82  1 ER over last 20 IP
SD   23 Evan Meek         70.2   3  3  71  41  66  1  3.82    3.91

Now, let’s take a look at the most productive hitters in the California League. Gross Production Average (GPA) is a simple rate statistic that properly weights OBP and SLG and scales it in a way that resembles a batting average. The following GPA figures are not park-adjusted, but I will complement the cumulative numbers with information about possible park effects where appropriate.

ORG AGE  PLAYER             POS   AB   H  BB  SO  HR   GPA
ARI  22  Mark Reynolds       SS  238  80  35  62  20  .355  13 of 20 HR at Lancaster
SEA  23  Michael Wilson      OF  200  63  22  59   9  .314
TB   20  Reid Brignac        SS  293  98  23  53  14  .312  Hitting .393 in June
KC   24  Mike Stodolka       1B  214  61  48  51   8  .309 .269 hitter away from High Desert
TEX  24  Ben Harrison        OF  264  77  35  66  15  .308
OAK  25  Luke Appert      2B/RF  173  50  43  20   5  .307
ARI  20  Carlos Gonzalez     OF  272  85  19  68  10  .298  7 of 10 HR at Lancaster
TB   23	 Chris Nowak         3B  258  82  30  47   4  .295
TEX  23  Tim Hulett Jr.      IF  246  72  51  53   2  .295  Leads league with 51 walks
SEA  22  Yung Chi Chen       2B  278  95  22  40   5  .294
All Star Most Likely to Succeed

Tampa Bay Devil Rays prospect Reid Brignac has made many of the improvements he needed to make this year. He is hitting for more power, while significantly cutting down on his strikeouts. Brignac also stands out relative to other California League prospects, such as Carlos Gonzalez, because his home/road splits don’t cast any doubts about how he will perform in more neutral contexts. He has also improved other facets of his game. For example, he is 15-for-19 in stolen base attempts this season. There are still some questions regarding whether or not he really fits in to the Devil Rays’ future plans as a shortstop, but Brignac has developed into a well-rounded player and is only 20-years-old.

All Star Most Likely to Struggle

Royals pitching prospect Billy Buckner (no relation to the former big league first baseman) has a 7-1 record and is going pitch in tomorrow’s All-Star game. Buckner is also walking 4.7 batters per 9 innings this year. At some point, all those free passes are going to be obstacles on his path to the big leagues.

Pleasant Surprise of the First Half

Jose Arredondo was a struggling infielder in the Angels system until he underwent a conversion to a pitcher less than two years ago. He is still unpolished and walks more batters than he should, but 108 strikeouts in 82 innings is an exceptional result for a guy still learning to pitch. Many project the hard thrower as a reliever at the higher levels of competition, but Arredondo has had success in a number of long outings as a starter this year.

Disappointment of the First Half

Marcus Sanders had a .407 OBP and 57 stolen bases in the South Atlantic League last year, but 2006 was supposed to be the year that he fully recovered from an old shoulder injury and started to show some power at the plate. Instead, Sanders has struggled to hit above .200 and is still waiting for his first home run of the year. He remains patient at the plate and is very useful when he does get on base, but he hasn’t erased any of the serious concerns about his ability to succeed at the highest levels of competition.

Carolina League

Here are some of the league’s top pitchers during the first half of the season:

ORG AGE  PLAYER             IP   W  L   H  BB   K HR   ERA FIP-ERA
CLE  22  Scott Lewis      62.1   1  1  43  10  73  0  1.30    1.28
CLE  20  Chuck Lofgren    76     9  3  57  28  70  0  1.78    2.53  Leads league in wins
CHW  23  Jack Egbert      86.1   5  5  84  31  73  2  3.34    2.91  3.02 ERA on the road
HOU  24  Chad Reineke     87.2   6  5  73  25  76  4  2.98    3.00
HOU  20  Troy Patton      71.1   2  7  71  32  77  3  3.66    3.01
ATL  20  Kelvin Villa     63.2   5  2  67  26  50  1  2.69    3.06
BOS  24  Thomas Hottovy   87.2   7  5  76  24  58  3  2.98    3.16  Leads league in IP
BOS  22  Luis Mendoza     63     5  4  67  14  46  4  3.14    3.32
ATl  20  Matt Harrison    81.1   8  4  77  16  60  6  3.10    3.37
PIT  23  Wardell Starling 73.2   4  4  53  17  45  3  3.18    3.40

The top hitters are once again ranked according to Gross Production Average (GPA):

ORG AGE  PLAYER             POS   AB   H  BB  SO  HR   GPA
CLE  22 Trevor Crowe         OF  219  72  48  46   4  .320  29 SB
BAL  22 Nolan Reimold        OF  220  59  44  69  10  .299  7 of 10 HR at Frederick
PIT  24 Michael Carlin       1B  183  50  33  37   7  .297
CLE  24 Brian Barton         OF  228  66  30  70   9  .296  .390 BABIP
PIT  23 Brian Bixler         SS  264  80  35  57   5  .290  23 extra base hits
BOS  22 Jacoby Ellsbury      OF  192  61  19  23   4  .284  17 SB
BAL  23	Dustin Yount         1B  225  61  43  41   7  .282
ATL  23 Matt Young           OF  243  69  46  34   1  .280
BOS  23 Ian Bladergroen      1B  200  50  24  56   7  .274
HOU  23 Drew Sutton          2B  238  61  42  48   9  .273
All Star Most Likely to Succeed

Trevor Crowe, the 14th overall pick from last year’s draft, is hitting his stride after a poor showing in his first year of professional baseball. It doesn’t look like he will hit for much power, but the center fielder should be a productive big leaguer because of his exceptional on-base skills. Crowe is also 29-for-35 in stolen base attempts this year. Injuries appear to be the only thing stopping Crowe from a rapid ascent through the minor leagues. He has experienced a number of nagging injuries during the past year and is currently on the disabled list with an oblique muscle injury.

All Star Most Likely to Struggle

Frederick Keys pitcher Radhames Liz earned some well-deserved attention after playing a major role in a no-hitter two months ago, but his stock will probably never be as high as it is now. After his trip to the California League/Carolina League All-Star Game, Liz will participate in the Futures Game in July. Meanwhile, his walk rate is increasing as the season progresses, and he has surrendered five home runs his last 27 innings. Expect mediocre results from Liz in the second half of the season.

Pleasant Surprise of the First Half

Most Indians fans probably don’t know who Scott Lewis is, because he rarely pitched during his first two years in the organization due to a series of arm injuries. Lewis was one of the top college pitching prospects in the country until he injured his elbow during his junior year. The Indians took a chance on him in the third round of the 2004 draft and the he finally appears healthy enough to succeed. He is striking out six batters for every one he walks and has not allowed a home run all year.

Disappointment of the First Half

The Braves’ struggles at the major league level have been well-documented this year, but the farm system also has its share of disappointments. Jake Stevens was one of the Braves’ top pitching prospects a year ago, but he struggled at Myrtle Beach last year and has been even worse this year. He recorded as many walks as strikeouts and struggled with inconsistency throughout the season. Stevens was demoted to the South Atlantic two weeks ago, and the good news is that he has only allowed one run over two starts since then.

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