Eight Prospects to Watch in 2007

This season, I’m not going to make the same mistake. I’m not going to call them “breakout” prospects. Every year I write this article, and every year, I get dozens of semantics-based hate e-mails.

After a 4.43 ERA in his first professional season, I predicted Homer Bailey to break out last winter. “The Reds will likely give Bailey a little more room to grow in 2006, and as a result, he should start to blossom.” Bailey was high profile, I understand, but his presence on my list indicated my belief he would go from projectable to a real prospect. So, I won’t use “breakout” or “sleeper” this season, but to it’s the same article: the 10 players below are currently undervalued in comparison to my projection for them.

Mining for undervalued prospects is a difficult job, so as a precursor, it’s important to emphasize the volatility of a list like this. Two years ago, I was lucky and good, predicting big futures from a few of the following “success” stories: Nick Markakis, Melky Cabrera, Francisco Liriano, Andy LaRoche, Chris Young and a few other hits. Last season, I combined three breakouts (Bailey, Adam Lind, Reid Brignac) with mostly misses on the other five. For this type of piece, batting .375 is good enough for me, but also don’t be surprised if my unsustainable BABIP brings the average down this season.

Scouring the minor leagues, I have found eight prospects meeting one of three criteria: drastically underrated, prime 2007 breakout players, and diamonds in the rough. I have ranked the prospects within each category (in the order they appear), and they are accompanied with their 2006 stats, 2007 baseball age and projected level.

Underrated

Eric Campbell – 3B/2B – Atlanta Braves – 21 (A+)

Level(s)   AB     AVG     OBP     SLG    SB-ATT    BB      K
   A-     449    0.296   0.335   0.517   18-22     23      68

In the modern five-tool world, no matter what Rey Ordonez or Juan Pierre say, the presence of two tools can render the other three unimportant: contact and power. If a prospect is exceptional offensively, his organization will slide him down the defensive spectrum until something fits. Campbell is rare for two reasons—he has plus contact and plus power, and the Braves are sliding him left (third to second) on Bill James’ spectrum.

Since 2000, only 10 Low Single-A players have combined an Isolated Power above .200 with a Campbell-like low strikeout rate, including: Prince Fielder, Justin Morneau and Austin Kearns. While Campbell’s power is a tick below these players, his ability to put the ball into play with emphasis leaves him as one of the Major Leagues’ better second basemen. Problem is, despite Campbell’s quickness, he does not move well laterally, and the Braves are working harder than anticipated to find him a position. Given his offensive approach, you can bet he’ll have a home soon.

Campbell’s numbers could also be even better than they already are. A midseason back injury sidelined Campbell, but it also had a prior effect on his numbers. In Campbell’s 12 games before he was placed on the disabled list, the third baseman went just 7-for-41, hitting just two extra-base hits. Take those numbers away, and Campbell hits .309 with a .539 slugging, and is likely better perceived in the evaluation community.

Oswaldo Sosa – SP – Minnesota Twins – 21 (AA)

Level(s)   IP     ERA      H       BB      HR      K
 A-/A+   152.1    2.60    125      54      2      122

Despite Campbell’s consistent prospect list snubs, my vote for the minor league’s most underrated talent is Sosa. While Sosa made the back-end of Baseball America’s top 20 prospects, he fell short of making the Twins top 10. In my own view, this is selling Sosa far too short, as his long-term projections should not be far from Anthony Swarzak.

A sinker/slider pitcher, the most impressive stat on Sosa’s resume was his home run rate in 2006: just two longballs allowed in 152.1 innings. I’ve parsed through the minor league records of some prominent sinker/slider pitchers, and only the following were near home run rate: Derek Lowe, Nate Robertson, Dave Weathers, Matt Clement and Julian Tavarez. These names reflect the wide array of Sosa’s possibilities, from solid #3 starter to very good set-up man, thanks to an innate ability to keep his low 90s fastball down in the zone.

Remove Sosa’s first two starts and the righthander’s numbers are sparkling: 2.31 ERA, 2.34 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and about 10 baserunners per nine. Sosa’s home run rate was the product of a 1.53 groundball/flyball ratio, and he has continued such groundball tendencies with a good showing in the Venezuelan Winter League. Sosa will likely spend most of his season at Double-A New Britain, and with enough injuries, could quietly find his place on the Twins pitching staff by year’s end.

2007 Breakouts

Ryan Tucker – SP – Florida Marlins – 20 (A+)

Level(s)   IP     ERA      H       BB      HR      K
   A-    131.1    5.00    123      67      14     133

On the minor leagues’ most interesting pitching staff, it appeared for much of the 2006 season that Ryan Tucker was the odd man out. The last of the four prep prospects drafted, Tucker also was the least successful in Greensboro. Tucker was among the players on this list I saw personally in 2006, and of the three, he grades out the best. Probably not a smudge above six-feet, Tucker has a big build and uses his thick legs to generate plus velocity on his fastball, a la Bartolo Colon.

While his fastball was usually enough in high school, the Marlins worked hard with Tucker all season on developing his slider, cutter and change. Early reports were Tucker’s development was slow, leading to his 6.61 ERA in the first three months. However, around the time of July, Tucker began to improve the control of his fastball while tightening up his slider. On July 6, when I was in attendance, Tucker was showing a tight, low-80s slider with enough depth. At the very least, the combination of his fastball and improving slider could leave him as a good reliever, perhaps profiling as the Marlins closer of the future.

But, it’s certainly not time to close the door on Tucker’s career in the rotation. In his last 11 starts, Tucker blossomed with a 2.96 ERA, a much reduced walk rate, and just one wild pitch (compared to 10 the first three months). Tucker’s control, like his secondary stuff, has been a work in progress since the day he signed with the Marlins. However, Tucker’s second half—as well as the progress he made with his slider—leaves me to believe he could be the best of Florida’s four prep pitchers in just one year.

Brian Bogusevic – LH SP – Houston Astros – 23 (A+)

Level(s)   IP     ERA      H       BB      HR      K
 SS/A-    81.1    4.65     86      29      7       66

Astros faithful, have trust in your scouting department. Bogusevic, Houston’s top pick in 2005, is not the pitcher he has shown thus far in his career. He is not the pitcher that posted a 7.59 ERA after signing in 2005, and he is surely not the pitcher who allowed seven earned runs (on three homers) without registering an out on May 4. With time, the southpaw will prove to be far more like the star he was at Tulane from 2003-2005, and he will validate the scouting department’s first round selection.

Oftentimes, when a pitcher is praised for his athleticism, a solid feel for repeating a sound delivery comes hand in hand. Bogusevic is not one of those players. A star slugger with the Green Wave, Bogusevic was among his draft class’ most athletic pitchers, but he has had little success with his delivery in professional baseball. His problems bottomed out after the May 4 start, and the Astros decided to bring him back to extended spring training. With added rest and instruction, Bogusevic came back revived for the second half of the South Atlantic League season. In his final 12 appearances, Bogusevic posted a 3.43 ERA in 57.2 innings, allowing just 51 hits, 19 walks and three home runs over that span.

The lefthander has good command, and uses three pitches effectively, including a very good slider. In addition to his delivery, the Astros will be hard at work in keeping Bogusevic’s workload such that he does not lose velocity, as he has in the past. With consistency in the velocity and delivery departments, the southpaw should be in line for a first-round season in 2007.

Danny Christensen – LH SP – Kansas City Royals – 23 (AA)

Level(s)   IP     ERA      H       BB      HR      K
   A+     162     4.89    175      58      23     153

Using Baseball Reference, within seconds we can neutralize the 1999 statistics of Pedro Astacio, who led the Rockies that season with a 5.04 ERA. Had he played in a normal environment, B-Ref claims Astacio’s ERA would have been 3.48, which combined with his wins (16) and strikeouts (224) would have made him a Cy Young finalist. In regards to pitching, context is everything.

As extreme as the above example is, Coors Field is hardly professional baseball’s most difficult ballpark for pitchers. That horrible award belongs to the California League’s High Desert affiliate, a hitter’s haven most organizations loathe to send pitching prospects to. Christensen, before 2006, wasn’t awarded such a title. A former top New York prep prospect, Christensen struggled as a teenager in the Midwest League before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2004. In 2005, Christensen returned to Burlington to post good numbers (3.54 ERA, 9.05 K/9), but went unnoticed because of his age.

Now, with his arm strength back, Christensen has all the makings of a real pitching prospect. He has three pitches that rate as average-or-better, which matched with plus pitchability led to 153 strikeouts in 2006. The southpaw has also retained solid command of his high-80s fastball and plus change, maintaining low walk rates while keeping the ball down in the zone. The only thing holding Christensen back has been his environment; his home ERA was 5.48 in 2006, compared to just 4.17 on the road. Look for Christensen to blossom in 2007, possibly finishing the season in a different kind of hard environment: Kauffman Stadium.

Brandon Hynick – SP – Colorado Rockies – 22 (A-)

Level(s)   IP     ERA      H       BB      HR      K
  R/SS     71     2.41     60      9       3       79

In 2000, the Arizona Diamondbacks landed the steal of the draft by grabbing a live college arm in the eighth round. The SEC pitcher had struggled as a junior, posting a 4.58 ERA, but had the stuff to compete at the next level. With improvements, better luck and a move to wood bats, Brandon Webb started his ascent in 2001 to become one of the National League’s best pitchers. This happens in every draft—a solid college arm from a solid college program drops due to a bad spring before his stuff is harnessed in the minor leagues.

Hynick, while not a Webb-type player, could very well be the 2006 draft’s Webb-type story. Scouts entered the year enthused about Hynick’s arm, but they began to nitpick as his year endured troubles and injury. Suddenly, his delivery, consistency and secondary stuff were all lacking in evaluator’s eyes. Once brought into the Rockies organization, the club worked with Hynick on his secondary stuff, and the right-hander took quickly to a splitter. Armed with the league’s best fastball control and the splitter he excels at keeping down in the zone, Hynick left the Pioneer League with Pitcher of the Year honors.

I don’t see problems forthcoming for Hynick, who combines stuff, moxie, command and control. If the righthander used the winter to tinker further with his curveball, and the pitch becomes average, Hynick will have all the makings of a Major League starter. Look for Hynick’s success to continue in the Sally League, and for Birmingham-Southern’s last good product to finish his season in High-A.

Diamonds in the Rough

Vince Mazzaro – SP – Oakland Athletics – 20 (A+)

Level(s)   IP     ERA      H       BB      HR      K
   A-    119.1    5.05    146      42      7       81

When the A’s bucked their own trend by drafting three high school pitchers in the 2005 draft’s first three rounds, it was assumed around baseball that Oakland had found unique value in their prep arms. A year and a half removed, we’re still scratching our heads. Craig Italiano spent the vast majority of the season out following arm surgery, Jared Lansford struck out less than five batters per nine innings, and Mazzaro combined a 5.05 ERA with an 11 hits per game. Evaluating the arms now, it appears Mazzaro could be the lone righthander on the brink of becoming a real prospect.

Despite some horrendous statistics, we know Mazzaro has legit “stuff.” The Jersey righthander’s bread and butter is a two-seam fastball with plus life, leading to a 1.96 groundball/flyball ratio and low home run rate. His trust in the players behind him is a problematic pitching philosophy in the low minors. Mazzaro’s .320 BABIP is a bit above where it should be, but his downfall comes from a 62.4 LOB%. A stat tracked at the Hardball Times, LOB% computes how well a pitcher does with runners on base. Much of this stat can be out of a pitcher’s control, so it’s hard to believe stuff like Mazzaro’s is responsible for a figure well below the league rate.

Oakland also believes his strikeout numbers will rise as he improves upon his knuckle-curve, which naturally, draws comparisons to Mike Mussina. With some winter tinkering, added endurance and improved luck in 2007, the A’s could finally get a high school pitcher on the prospect map.

Kyle Blanks – 1B – San Diego Padres – 20 (A+)

Level(s)   AB     AVG     OBP     SLG    SB-ATT    BB      K
   A-     308    0.292   0.382   0.455     2-2     36      79

It isn’t everyday 270-pound baseball players are lauded for their defensive prowess, but the agile Blanks excels at first—he was named JuCo Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. The Padres then signed their 42nd round draft-and-follow, and Blanks impressed by showing fantastic wood bat power in the Arizona summer League.

The Padres paired Blanks with fellow first base prospect Daryl Jones at Low Single-A, jockeying their DFE between first base and designated hitter. Nonetheless, Blanks delivered on high hopes early in the season, hitting two home runs in his first game en route to a .326 batting average the first two months. Despite the pitcher-friendly Midwest League conditions, Blanks was showing patience and power at a position that demands such. However, Blanks played modestly from then until late July, when a leg infection ended his season. From June 1 onwards, Blanks hit .263, slugged .395 and struck out in 27.5% of his at-bats. Blanks did end the season with a 10-game hit streak, but it came powerless, probably due to the infection.

Surrounding the positives on Blanks resume are two big negatives: body type and contact skills. At 270 pounds, Blanks would be among the largest players in the major leagues, and extreme bodies have long-worried the scouting community. The larger problem, however, is Blanks’ strikeout-heavy, all-or-nothing offensive approach. Blanks walk rate was healthy for a teenager in 2006, but he isn’t the type of patient hitter to offset the low batting averages his style often produces. If the big slugger can learn to lay off low breaking balls and high fastballs, a healthy season in California could leave Blanks as one of the better first base prospects in the minors.

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