The much-anticipated debut of Jameson Taillon ended in a short, damp mess. Taillon debuted on Wednesday evening to much fanfare, a portion of which was aided by the luck of the calendar that matched the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft up against Bryce Harper, the only player taken before Taillon, and his Hagerstown Suns.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t care much for what the prospect gods had in mind and rained on the Pirates’ parade. Taillon got two innings of work in before the rains came battling himself and his excitement. Taillon needed 45 pitches to get through his two rain-soaked innings, giving up a run in the first after loading the bases, but getting out of the jam with a double play ball. Taillon will remain in the starting rotation for the West Virginia Power for the foreseeable future as he gets acclimated to pitching every fifth day.
The third pick in last year’s draft, shortstop Manny Machado, made his debut last season and has been active since Opening Day of this year, but it wasn’t until this week that he really got hot. Machado, now clearly the top prospect in what has become a depleted Orioles farm system, homered in three consecutive games entering Thursday, and through 18 South Atlantic League games has posted an impressive slash line of .314/.410/.571, and even more impressively, has walked 11 times to just nine strikeouts. The Orioles would love not to rush their talented young shortstop, but given their gaping hole throughout the farm system at the position, continued production along these lines from Machado could send him up the road to Frederick by the end of the summer.
Domination comes in many forms, and while most organizations would prefer their top prospects to dominate the way Machado is, the Reds have to be pretty pleased with the way infield prospect Billy Hamilton is dominating the Midwest League thus far this season. Don’t scoff at the use of “dominating” just because of his .230 batting average. Hamilton is dominating with his legs.
The Reds’ top remaining prospect (accounting for the impending rookie eligibility expiration of Aroldis Chapman) is one of the few players who actually fits the over-used description of “affecting the game” with his speed. His 16 stolen bases in 19 games tell only part of the story, and the fact that he’s done it in just 20 attempts tells just a little more.* Given a 70 grade on the 20-80 scale before being drafted in 2009, he may be even faster now. If nothing else, a two years of professional baseball have taught him how to use his speed more effectively.
Upon being drafted, Hamilton took up switch-hitting, learning to use his speed from the left side as well as his natural right side, which explains his low batting average. Hamilton has had almost twice as many at-bats from his unnatural side, and is hitting just .170 in those at-bats. But the most encouraging part of Hamilton’s game from the Reds’ perspective may be Hamilton’s attitude toward his game. Despite being against taking up switch-hitting initially, Hamilton has now embraced the change. More importantly, he fully accepts his limitation in stature and power, and makes no mistake about his role on any team. While many players with little plate discipline justify their free-swinging ways with uneducated cliches about hitting their way on base, Hamilton acknowledges his role as a catalyst and is working hard on improving the nuances in his game. Not resting on just his natural speed, Hamilton has shown a desire to learn more about the art of stealing bases.
*Those who have studied the overrated valuation that many believe stolen bases have toward increasing win percentage will tell you that the only thing valuable about stealing bases is being able to do it successfully.
Ultimately, the difference between Hamilton turning into Tom Goodwin or Delino DeShields or Tim Raines will depend on his ability to hit. The switch-hitting project won’t be going away anytime soon, but if he fails to adapt to the left side of the plate, the Reds will have to ensure he can hit righties. There are also defensive questions surrounding Hamilton, who despite playing shortstop for the time being, projects better at second base and may ultimately end up in center field. Regardless, he’s off and running in 2011 and no one has been able to stop him.
Under-the-radar prospects to watch
Every year, players appear who may have been mentioned in prospect lists and guides before, but not to the extent their recent performance deserves. Last year, Brandon Belt was the poster child for this category, establishing himself as a first ballot Out of Nowhere Prospect Hall of Famer. While no one could predict the next Brandon Belt any more than anyone could have predicted Belt himself last season, a few prospects are establishing themselves as perhaps worth a more in-depth look than they have received thus far.
Eric Surkamp, San Francisco Giants
Sticking with the Giants theme, Surkamp at least made prospect lists last year and this year, but scouting reports on the righthander out of N.C. State remain remain cautious because he was drafted in the sixth round and struggles to get his fastball up to 90 mph. After dominating the Sally League in 2009 (which comes with the caveat of being a college-trained pitcher in a league full of raw talent), Surkamp established himself as a player to watch by backing up the performance last season in the hitters’ paradise that is the California League. Now in Double-A, where it’s not enough to simply be able to change speeds and get hitters to chase, Surkamp has struck out 31 hitters in just 20.1 innings pitched. In short, he’s managing to miss bats without blowing it by hitters. Given that the jump to Double-A is usually the big litmus test for borderline prospects, Surkamp’s performance this season could be indicative of his role in the Giants’ future plans.
Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies
Lots of tools, a pedigree as a second-round draft pick, and solid minor league numbers haven’t been enough for Blackmon to establish himself among the game’s top outfield prospects in the eyes of most prospect rankers, but perhaps this year’s showing will change that. Taken with a grain of Pacific Coast League salt, Blackmon’s .354/.436/.683 slash line is nonetheless impressive. An injury last season cost him half of the season, but his combo of size (6-foot-3, 200), speed (62 stolen bases in 287 minor league games) and ability to stay in center field at least for the time being make him an enticing part of the Rockies’ potential future. He won’t be displacing Dexter Fowler in the field any time soon, but could ultimately be more productive at the plate.
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