Fact or fiction

Way back in January, we identified several young players in the NL West who might make significant contributions in 2007. With the All-Star break slowly receding in the rear-view mirror, now is as good a time as any to revisit our list. Who is playing well? Who could be doing better? Is there anyone we need to add to our list?

To the players…

Chad Billingsley, RHP, 23, Dodgers

Billingsley began the season in the bullpen, not a bad strategy for a hard thrower trying to hone his command. It worked, too, as his walks dropped, his strikeouts rose, and he held opposing batters to a .221/.290/.298 line out of the ‘pen. Forced into the rotation when Jason Schmidt was lost for the season, Billingsley hasn’t been as dominant, but overall the Dodgers have to be pleased with the progress he’s made.

Jonathan Broxton, RHP, 23, Dodgers

In the earlier article, I compared Broxton to White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, another big-boned flame thrower. Broxton works more innings in his setup role, has a higher strikeout rate, and is three years younger. Broxton already ranks among the best relievers in the National League, and he’s only going to get better. Look for him to be closing games in Los Angeles as soon as the opportunity arises.

Taylor Buchholz, RHP, 25, Rockies

Buchholz has split time between the rotation and the bullpen in ’07. I was a bit concerned about his high home run total in Houston last season, but that hasn’t been an issue so far in Colorado. Most of his best work this year has come in relief, although he made a few strong starts back in May. The jury is still out on Buccholz, but there are reasons (namely a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) for optimism.

Matt Cain, RHP, 22, Giants

Cain still reminds me of fellow Alabama native Jake Peavy. As I said in January, “If Cain can improve his control a bit, he could be scary good.” He hasn’t done that yet, but he’s still been quite effective. The fact that he’s succeeding despite a lack of refinement suggests that we haven’t seen anything close to his best.

Stephen Drew, SS, 24, Diamondbacks

The preseason Marcel projections had Drew hitting like Lyle Overbay. If Overbay’s OBP hovered around .300 and his SLG was well below .400, he’d be out of a job yesterday. Drew, however, is a shortstop, so the fact that he’s hitting more like Jack Wilson is less problematic. That said, it is disappointing. Drew has hit everywhere he’s been, so chances are he’s just going through a period of adjustment. If you play fantasy ball, he’s probably a good “buy low” candidate right now.

Andre Ethier, OF, 25, Dodgers

I’m less enthusiastic about Ethier than almost anyone I know. I like his skills well enough, but talk of stardom doesn’t make much sense to me. He looked a lot like Garret Anderson at a similar stage coming into the season. Ethier has really tightened up his strike zone this year, which is a good sign. Still, he doesn’t hit for quite the power you’d like to see out of a corner outfielder. If the improved plate discipline is legitimate, then maybe there’s an outside chance he turns into Luis Gonzalez, but it’s too early to make that call.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, 25, Padres

Gonzalez got off to a terrific start before fouling a Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch off his foot in mid-June. Since then, his batting average has plummeted about 40 points, and the power that he displayed last season has disappeared. Gonzalez shows no appreciable platoon split and, once his stroke returns (which could be sooner rather than later if the swings he’s been taking since the All-Star break are any indication), he’ll be fine.

Jason Hirsh, RHP, 25, Rockies

Hirsh came over from Houston (along with Buchholz) in the Jason Jennings deal. Before the season, I said that “Hirsh may not be a frontline starter, but if he can keep the ball in the park—always a daunting task at Coors Field—he just might turn into another Jennings.” Hirsh is serving up too many homers, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is uninspiring, but he’s mostly getting the job done. His one shining moment in the first half came on June 10, when he tossed a complete game five-hitter at Baltimore.

Conor Jackson, 1B, 25, Diamondbacks

I compared Jackson to everyone from Tim Salmon, to Matt Holliday, to Eric Karros—hey, if you throw enough names out there, one of them is bound to fit. In this case, though, he’s not really following any of those paths. Jackson’s plate discipline remains outstanding; actually it’s improved to the point where he’s racking up more walks than strikeouts. He’s also hitting doubles at an even better rate this year than last. Jackson knows the strike zone and hits the ball hard; usually that is a recipe for success, so I’m inclined to believe that eventually his production will catch up to his approach.

Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, 23, Rockies

Getting shelled at Triple-A Colorado Springs.

Matt Kemp, OF, 22, Dodgers

Based on his streaky 2006 campaign and atrocious strike zone judgment, I thought that Kemp might benefit from more time at Triple-A. He hasn’t played a great deal at the big-league level this year, so the usual sample size caveats apply, but so far it looks like he’s made some adjustments in his second season. On a more general note, I’ve been impressed with the way the Dodgers have handled their youngsters—Billingsley, Broxton, Kemp, and the next guy on this list—breaking them in slowly and getting them acclimated to the highest level of competition. I’m not sure that this is the best approach for all players and all organizations, but it’s hard to argue with the results the Dodgers are getting.

James Loney, 1B, 23, Dodgers

My thoughts on Loney are similar to those on Kemp. Despite not getting a lot of regular playing time right away, Loney has hit whenever he’s been given the chance. He’s similar to Gonzalez and the Angels’ Casey Kotchman, but with less of a learning curve on reaching the big leagues.

Russell Martin, C, 24, Dodgers

With guys like Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, and Martin, this is becoming a golden age for catchers. Well, maybe not just yet, but we’re getting there. Martin has no identifiable weaknesses. He hits, hits for power, runs well (and not just for a catcher), and plays solid defense. He abuses left-handed pitching. My only concern is the natural attrition rate that goes with catchers, but that’s not Martin’s fault. The guy is a stud.

Cla Meredith, RHP, 24, Padres

Meredith started the season strong, spinning 14 scoreless frames in April before getting hit hard in May. He runs into problems when he leaves the ball up in the zone. Thanks to that sinker of his (better than 5.5-to-1 ground ball to fly ball ratio), he also gives up some of the craziest hits you’ll ever see. Obviously the 1.07 ERA Meredith posted as a rookie wasn’t sustainable; that said, with his control and freakish ability to induce ground balls, he’s probably capable of a little better than what he’s doing right now.

Miguel Montero, C, 24, Diamondbacks

Montero has been a disaster. His minor-league numbers suggested another Johnny Estrada. So far, his big-league numbers suggest another J.D. Closser. That’s not good.

Carlos Quentin, OF, 24 Diamondbacks

One of the amazing aspects of the Diamondbacks’ first-half success is that they’ve done it without getting anywhere near the production anticipated from several of their young players. Quentin has regressed badly this season, to the point where he was shipped back to Triple-A. His minor-league track record is impeccable though, and I expect it’s just a matter of time before he gets his game together at the big-league level.

Jonathan Sanchez, LHP, 24, Giants

Like the Dodgers’ Billingsley, Sanchez has pitched out of the bullpen this season. Despite some command issues, he’s been fairly effective and occasionally shown the ability to completely dominate big-league hitters. Sanchez currently is on the disabled list with a strained rib cage.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, 22, Rockies

From the January article: “Marcel projects Tulowitzki to hit like last year’s version of Brian Roberts, but that might be a tad conservative. This guy looks like a stud to me.” So far, Tulowitzki is hitting a little better than Roberts did in 2006. He’s also just 22 years old. Naturally his numbers at home are inflated some, but his splits are hardly Bichettesque.

Brian Wilson, RHP, 25, Giants

Nice ERA at Triple-A Fresno despite unacceptably high walk totals.

Chris Young, OF, 23, Diamondbacks

Again, looking back: “Marcel projects his coming season to look a lot like what Shawn Green did last year.” Er, not quite. The power/speed combination in center field still calls to mind Mike Cameron. Like Cameron has throughout his career, Young isn’t showing much in the way of batting average. Young’s OBP is much too low to compensate, but given his age, solid secondary skills, and defensive ability, there’s still a lot to like here.

Anyone Else?

A few other young players have made an impact in the NL West:

Tony Abreu, 2B/3B, 22, Dodgers

Abreu was one of many who auditioned for the Dodgers’ troublesome third-base job before Nomar Garciaparra moved across the diamond to accommodate Loney. Despite his youth and inexperience, Abreu held his own in limited duty.

Manuel Corpas, RHP, 24, Rockies

Corpas pitched in 35 games for the Rockies in 2006 and did quite well. I probably should have included him on the original list. He has been Colorado’s best reliever this year, keeping his ERA in the low- to mid-2.00 range both at home and on the road. Anyone who can shut down big-league hitters at Coors Field is worth our attention.

Justin Germano, RHP, 24, Padres

Originally drafted by the Padres in 2000, Germano spent time with the Reds and Phillies before returning to San Diego late in spring training as a waiver claim from Philadelphia. With the unexpected demise of Clay Hensley, Germano has stepped in and done a solid job at the back of the Padres’ rotation this year. His complete lack of dominance (both stuffwise and in his results) is cause for concern, and there’s a very real possibility that big-league hitters will figure him out before long.

Tim Lincecum, RHP, 23, Giants

What to say about Lincecum? The Giants drafted him in the first round last year, and now here he is taking his turn every fifth day for the big club. His ERA is a little high, but that’s deceptive. Opponents hit .220/.299/.356 against Lincecum before the All-Star break. and his strikeouts per nine innings sat a few ticks below 10. He and Cain should give the Giants a tremendous one-two punch for years to come.

Micah Owings, RHP, 24, Diamondbacks

Baseball America ranked Owings as the Diamondbacks’ No. 6 prospect coming into the season. He isn’t overpowering, but he’s managed to hold his own. Owings’ biggest problems so far have been that lefties tee off on him and he isn’t pitching very well on the road. I haven’t seen him pitch, but the former suggests that maybe he needs to do a better job changing speeds, while the latter seems like a fluke given that Chase Field is more of a hitters’ park. If Owings already is pitching well there, presumably he’ll be able to adjust in more forgiving environments.

Mark Reynolds, 3B, 23, Diamondbacks

Overshadowed by more high-profile prospects in the system, Reynolds got most of the playing time at third base for Arizona in the first half. He also was one of the few guys in the lineup hitting (.272/.337/.517) before the All-Star break. Reynolds put up some eye-popping numbers (.337/.422/.670) at Lancaster in the California League last year, but that is one of the most hitter-friendly environments in professional baseball, and it’s hard to properly evaluate batters who play half their games there. The fact that he continued to produce on being promoted to Double-A was a definite point in his favor. Yes, he struggled in June (.162/.222/.297) after a ridiculous May (.426/.484/.815), but Reynolds has bounced back somewhat since then and looks ready to contribute now and into the future.

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