The Changing Face of the NL West

Barry Bonds. Luis Gonzalez. Randy Johnson. Greg Maddux. David Wells. These are all great players in the NL West who aren’t going to be around forever. Who will take their places? Well, you can’t really replace a Bonds, a Johnson or a Maddux, but several fine young players are emerging in the division. Some may even turn into stars.

To help guide the way, here is a little road map of the up-and-comers in the NL West. These are guys 25 or younger who have reached the big leagues but played less than two full seasons there. We’ll look quickly at where each of these kids has been, how he fits into his current team’s plans and what we might expect from each in the near future.

To the players…

Chad Billingsley, RHP, 23, LA

Billingsley was the 24th pick overall in the 2003 draft, out of an Ohio high school. He has been promoted very aggressively, as you might expect from the man named by Baseball America as the best prospect in a loaded Dodgers farm system entering the 2006 season. Billingsley spent most of 2006 at Triple-A Las Vegas, where he posted solid numbers. He wasn’t quite ready, though. Despite a respectable 3.80 ERA, Billingsley’s hit prevention wasn’t great, and he walked nearly six batters per game over 90 innings, while striking out the same number. Billingsley still projects as a front-end starter, possibly a legitimate No. 1 guy, but he’s not there yet.

Jonathan Broxton, RHP, 23, LA

Broxton is huge and throws really freakin’ hard. Think Bobby Jenks. The Dodgers took Broxton out of a Georgia high school with their second-round pick in the 2002 draft. After working as a starter for a couple of seasons in the low minors, Broxton moved to the bullpen while at Double-A in mid-2005. Last year, in his first full season with the big club, he was dominant (11.44 K/9) at times in his role as setup man. If closer Takashi Saito should falter, Broxton would be next in line to work the ninth.

Taylor Buchholz, RHP, 25, Col

One of the pitchers acquired from Houston in this winter’s Jason Jennings trade, Buchholz was a sixth-round pick of the Phillies in 2000. After three seasons and change, he was traded to Houston in November 2003 as part of the Billy Wagner deal. Buchholz hasn’t posted an ERA below 4.00 since 2003 in Double-A, and his career minor-league K/9 is a few ticks below 7, which isn’t quite what you want to see from someone touted as a top prospect. November 2004 shoulder surgery may have stalled his development. Buchholz split 2006 between Triple-A Round Rock and Houston. He coughed up 21 homers over 113 innings during his stint with the Astros—not encouraging for a pitcher headed to Coors Field.

Matt Cain, RHP, 22, SF

Cain is the Next Big Thing. Taken 25th overall in the 2002 draft out of a Tennessee high school, Cain has made a rapid ascent to the major leagues. His hit prevention and strikeout totals are solid, and he keeps the ball in the park. If Cain can improve his control a bit, he could be scary good. Take a look back at the jump Padres right-hander Jake Peavy made in 2004 for an idea of what Cain might become. Will he win an ERA title this year? That’s a bit much to predict for anyone not named Santana, but nobody should be shocked if Cain finishes in the top 10 this year. As Baseball America noted before the 2006 season, “He’s the player most likely to be the face of the franchise after Barry Bonds’ retirement.”

Stephen Drew, SS, 24, Ari

All that’s keeping Drew from being a serious contender for the 2007 Rookie of the Year award is that his 226 plate appearances with the big club last season make him ineligible for it. Drew, the younger brother of outfielder J.D. Drew, was Arizona’s first-round pick (15th overall) in 2004 out of Florida State. Like his brother, he has hit everywhere he’s been. Drew isn’t a brilliant defender at shortstop, but with that bat, he doesn’t need to be. His Marcel projection (explanation of Marcel system) for 2007 has Drew hitting a bit like Adrian Gonzalez and Jose Reyes (without the steals) did last year, or like Lyle Overbay has hit throughout his career.

Andre Ethier, OF, 25, LA

Ethier was Oakland’s second-round pick in 2003 out of Arizona State. Acquired in the Milton Bradley deal, he spent most of 2006 in left field for the Dodgers after just 29 games above Double-A. Ethier has hit for average everywhere he’s been. His power and on-base skills are just so-so. Ethier is sort of a cross between Garret Anderson and Terrence Long when they were at similar stages of development. Ethier’s rookie season actually looks a lot like Anderson’s. The latter hovered around league-average offensive levels over the next six years before busting out for two monster seasons and then reverting to mediocrity. It wouldn’t shock me to see Ethier follow a similar progression.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, 25, SD

The Marlins took Gonzalez out of a San Diego high school with the first pick overall in the 2000 draft. In July 2003, he was traded to the Rangers as part of a deal for reliever Ugueth Urbina. In January 2006, stuck behind Mark Teixeira, Gonzalez was shipped to his hometown team in a deal that brought reliever Akinori Otsuka to Texas. Long hailed as terrific batting average hitter, Gonzalez finally showed some power in 2005 at Triple-A Oklahoma and began to justify comparisons to Rafael Palmeiro. When Ryan Klesko‘s balky shoulder kept him out for almost all of 2006, Gonzalez stepped in and took hold of the Padres first base job. His combination of high batting average, decent power and excellent defense probably make ex-Padre Wally Joyner a better comparison.

Jason Hirsh, RHP, 25, Col

Hirsh, like Buchholz, was acquired from the Astros as part of payment for Jason Jennings. Hirsh was Houston’s second-round pick in 2003 out of Cal Lutheran. Ranked as the Astros’ No. 1 prospect by Baseball America headed into 2006, Hirsh split time between Triple-A Round Rock and Houston. He surrendered 11 home runs in 44.2 innings for the big club, although that hasn’t been a problem in the minors. 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.

Conor Jackson, 1B, 25, Ari

Built a bit like Tim Salmon, Jackson is a guy who hits line drives everywhere. The 19th pick overall in 2003 out of Cal more than held his own in his first full big-league season. Jackson possesses good knowledge of the strike zone and is a strong kid who could develop more home run power as he matures, a la Colorado’s Matt Holliday. Jackson could be a better Eric Karros, and if you look up the numbers on Karros, that’s not as backhanded as it might sound.

Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, 23, Col

Jimenez was signed in 2001 as an undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic. Jimenez posted solid numbers at Double-A Tulsa in 2006, but slipped considerably after his promotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs. He keeps the ball in the park, which is a good thing for a Colorado pitching prospect. Jimenez battles control sometimes— he walked 86 batters last year in 159.1 innings at three stops. The Rockies’ acquisition of Buchholz and Hirsh may have bought Jimenez a little more time at Triple-A to refine his command and learn how to take better advantage of his power arm.

Matt Kemp, OF, 22, LA

Kemp was the Dodgers’ sixth-round pick in the 2003 draft. He’s a big kid out of an Oklahoma high school, and he features an enticing power/speed combination but poor plate discipline. Marcel has Kemp hitting about like Geoff Jenkins did in 2006, with fewer walks and more power. That’s not a bad projection for a kid Kemp’s age, although he probably would benefit from more time at Triple-A to tighten up his strike zone. One of the few good things (there are others?) about the Juan Pierre signing is that now Kemp may well get that time.

James Loney, 1B, 23, LA

The Dodgers selected Loney out of a Texas high school with the 19th pick overall in the 2002 draft. He controls the strike zone fairly well and hits a lot of doubles—often a combination that foretells greater power. Injuries to Loney’s wrist and finger may have helped delay the home run power projected for him (see Chris Constancio’s December 2006 article for more information). Loney was very productive in limited at-bats for the Dodgers last year while filling in for Nomar Garciaparra, whose presence probably forces the youngster back to Triple-A for a second straight season. Marcel has Loney hitting like 2006 Johnny Damon if given the chance.

Russell Martin, C, 24, LA

Martin was the Dodgers’ 17th-round pick in 2002 out of the same Montreal high school that produced former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne. Martin has displayed excellent on-base skills throughout his minor- and major-league career, and shows signs of developing power. He enjoyed a strong rookie campaign for Los Angeles in 2006 despite just 23 games above Double-A before his recall. Martin had been identified by Baseball America as the Dodgers’ fifth best prospect headed into 2006, drawing comparisons to Paul LoDuca. Marcel expects him to hit a little like last year’s version of Luis Gonzalez.

Cla Meredith, RHP, 24, SD

Boston drafted Meredith out of Virginia Commonwealth University with its sixth-round pick in 2004. He was traded to San Diego in May 2006 as part of a deal that sent Doug Mirabelli back to the Red Sox. After starting the season at Triple-A and making 24 appearances at that level, Meredith posted a 1.07 ERA over 50.2 innings for the Padres. He generates tremendous sinking action with a sidearm delivery that produced a Brandon Webb-like groundball/flyball ratio as a rookie. Meredith will continue his role as one of San Diego’s top setup men in 2007.

Miguel Montero, C, 24, Ari

Montero is a left-handed batter who put up monstrous numbers in 2005 as a 23-year-old at Lancaster in the California League, one of the best hitting environments in professional baseball. He followed up that performance with a solid season split between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Tucson, where he displayed a nice mix of mid-range power and plate discipline. Montero is getting a little later start than most of the guys on this list, but Marcel has him nearly duplicating the numbers of Johnny Estrada, the man he replaces behind the plate for the Diamondbacks this year.

Carlos Quentin, OF, 24 Ari

Quentin is a more fully developed version of Conor Jackson. The 29th pick overall in 2003 out of Stanford features home-run power, good plate discipline, and a knack for getting hit by pitches (111 in three pro seasons). The results weren’t spectacular when he came up during the second half of 2006 but he more than held his own. With the departure of Luis Gonzalez, Quentin figures to see plenty of action this season. Marcel projects him to post numbers comparable to what Mike Cameron and Prince Fielder did last year.

Jonathan Sanchez, LHP, 24, SF

The Giants selected Sanchez out of Ohio Dominican College with their 27th-round pick in 2004. He has advanced quickly and posted huge strikeout numbers (11.83 K/9 over 229 innings) at every stop. Baseball America ranked Sanchez the No. 6 prospect in the Giants organization coming into 2006. That same publication expected Sanchez to return last season to A-ball, but instead he dominated Double-A, made a brief stop in Triple-A and showed promise with the big club despite being moved to the bullpen for the first time in his pro career. His stuff has been compared to that of Mets left-hander Oliver Perez.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, 22, Col

Tulowitzki was the seventh pick overall in the 2005 draft out of Long Beach State. He is a big-bodied shortstop with power potential. Tulowitzki displayed decent strike-zone judgment and hit a ton of doubles at Double-A Tulsa in his first full season as a pro. He didn’t do much in a September audition with big club (except for one monstrous home run to dead center off the Padres’ Woody Williams at Petco Park). 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.

Brian Wilson, RHP, 25, SF

Wilson, a 24th-round pick out of Louisiana State in 2003, had “Tommy John” surgery that same year and has spent the past two seasons getting his innings in and his command back. He pitched fairly well at Triple-A Fresno in 2006, but struggled on his arrival in San Francisco. Wilson needs to cut down on his walks—he averaged 5.40 per nine innings in his first taste of the big leagues.

Chris Young, OF, 23, Ari

Young was taken by the White Sox out of a Texas high school in the 16th round of the 2001 draft. Acquired by Arizona in a December 2005 trade that sent right-hander Javier Vazquez to Chicago, Young is a center fielder with a broad base of skills. He has legitimate home-run power and good speed, and he draws walks. Young also strikes out a lot. The natural comparison is to another former White Sox center fielder, Mike Cameron. Although Young didn’t do much in his brief September trial, he is expected to be the Diamondbacks’ starter in center in 2007. He has terrific upside, but it might not happen right away: Marcel projects his coming season to look a lot like what Shawn Green did last year.

References & Resources
Resources: The Baseball Cube, Baseball Reference, Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2006.

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