Tuesday, March 30, 2010

It's Too Soon To GIve Up On.....

I am taking a brief timeout from my 2010 preview and Yankees/Mets writing to once again delve into prospect land. While writing my preview and listing "breakout players" I ran across many guys that I still had hopes for, but was not really confident in their ability to deliver big this season. I put them in the back of my mind for a bit and chose to write a bit about them here. There are a selection of "failed" prospects for one reason or another. In each of them I still see the potential for a long Major League career and think teams would be foolish to bury them on minor league depth charts. So here are a few players that, while not stars, may surprise some this season.

10. Andy Laroche - 3B - Pirates

LaRoche was a highly regarded prospect with the Dodgers when he posted three-straight 900+ OPS years from 2005 through 2007, a stretch that started off in high-A and ended in AAA. He capped off that stretch with a ho-hum cup of coffee in the majors and by all accounts was expected to be a solid Major-Leaguer with occasional All-Star appearances. I personally always liked his plate discipline, which was somewhere between great and spectacular, and thought he would have at least average power in the majors.

It all started to come undone for LaRoche in 2008 when he was supposed to get the bulk of playing time at third base for the Dodgers. He split the first two-thirds of the year between Los Angeles and their AAA affiliate, Las Vegas, and sort of turned into a statue. Over 182 at-bats, combined between the two levels, he managed more walks (47) than hits (41) or strikeouts (21). While this would normally be a good thing, it appeared to scouts that LaRoche was being far too passive at the plate, and that was reflected in his power numbers. Over that stretch he hit only seven home runs and four doubles.

The Dodgers became frustrated with LaRoche who also had his work ethic questioned on occasion, and shipped him out to Pittsburgh, replacing him through another trade for Casey Blake; trade that cost them Carlos Santana by the way. LaRoche responded to the trade by falling apart, hitting .152/.227/.232 with the Pirates to close out the year. Even after his struggles, LaRoche was Pittsburgh's starting third baseman for 2009, where he hit a modest .258/.330/.401. His plate discipline was still very good but LaRoche's power was still mostly M.I.A.

So why is it too soon to give up on LaRoche? To put it simply, I think that he only has one flaw at this point, a lack of power, and that is fixable. LaRoche's plate discipline remained strong last year, he only struck out 84 times, and his 50 walks was perfectly fine for a 25-year-old no one cared to try and pitch around. According to UZR, he was even an above average defender last season. His batting average was low, but that was probably due to a low .282 BABIP, and if he did manage to hit a few more home runs, that would also help his average as well. It looks to me that LaRoche just needs to increase his power and that will make him at least an average Major League third baseman.

9. Tony Sipp - LHP - Indians

Not many relief pitchers garner much fanfare while in the minor leagues, but Tony Sipp was an exception. After moving to the pen full time in the 2006 season, striking out 80 over 60.1 IP in the process, Sipp entered 2007 ranked by Baseball America as Cleveland's fourth best prospect. A lefty with a lively fastball that could touch the mid-90s, a wipe-out slider and a respectable changeup, Sipp was thought of by many as a potential closer.

After receiving that lofty ranking, Sipp missed all of the 2007 season because of Tommy John surgery. He spent most of 2008 building his strength up but was able to post some impressive numbers after a return to AA in the second half of the season. 2009 was actually a successful season for Sipp, who spent most of it in the majors, but had to return to AAA Columbus at one point when his control fell apart. Given how far he has bounced back it is surprising that Tony Sipp is a largely forgotten man in Cleveland's bullpen.

With Kerry Wood again struggling with injuries, the talk is all about Chris Perez filling in briefly as the closer. Or possibly Jensen Lewis who had the job before. Or maybe it could be Joe Smith who was decent last season. Well, what about Tony Sipp? He outperformed all of those players last year and before the injury he was thought of as a future closer. How many left-handed relievers are there with legitimate three-pitch mixes that struck out 10.8 batters per 9 innings in the majors? Tony Sipp is going to be an important piece of the Cleveland bullpen for many years to come.

8. Matt Joyce - OF - Rays

Unlike most of the players on this list, Matt Joyce was never regarded as a top prospect. Drafted in 2005's 12th round, Joyce hit the ground running, blistering the New York Penn League after signing quickly. He then spent 2006 and 2007 sort of treading water in high-A and AA respectively. Although Baseball America rated him as Detroit's seventh best prospect after 2007, 2008 would be his coming out party. He notched 28 extra-base-hits in 200 at-bats for AAA Toledo and then hit another 31 over 242 at-bats for Detroit.

Joyce was expected to be a big part of the Tigers 2009 plan, but was traded during the off-season for Edwin Jackson. At the time, most thought it was a steal for the Rays, acquiring a young outfielder with pop for a pitcher who was coming off two very forgettable seasons as a starter. What a difference a year makes, as Joyce has become a forgotten man while spinning his wheels in AAA and Jackson had by far his best season.

The Rays never really gave Joyce a chance for some reason, instead choosing to go with a Gabe Gross/Gabe Kapler platoon that was not very effective. Joyce meanwhile hit a respectable .273/.373/482 in AAA, while playing plus defense. Unfortunately while Joyce was playing his solid, steady game, fellow Tampa Bay Ray Desmond Jennings was flying by him and changing the organization's long-term plans. Right now Tampa Bay may start 2010 with Joyce as part of a platoon in right field, but only until Jennings is ready.

I do not want to blow things out of proportion here, Joyce is not a potential star. However, he is probably an average Major Leaguer and at worst a dangerous half of a platoon. I do not understand why Tampa Bay, an organization normally very smart about how they use their young players, seems to just write him off. I believe Joyce can be an everyday player in the majors, but it is unclear whether he will every get the opportunity to prove it.

7. Jeff Clement - 1B/C - Pirates

Clement was selected third overall in the 2005 draft, but was not considered by most to be among the five most talented in his class. He was an offense-first catcher who was expect to hit his way into the majors while playing acceptable defense, and that is exactly what he did in the minors early on. It took Clement only a year to mash his way to AAA, topping out there in 2006. He spent 2007 posting an excellent .275/.370/.497 line at Tacoma with 61 walks versus 88 strikeouts. It appeared to be an impressive step on the way to an excellent career.

In 2008, Clement was sent back to Tacoma, supposedly to work on his defense, and absolutely tore the cover off the ball. He posted a 1.131 OPS while walking more than he struck out, earning a mid-season call-up to a Seattle team on its way to 101 losses. The transition did not go well as Clement saw his power and plate discipline come apart a bit and that had a damaging effect on his defense as well. It was a poor, but not disastrous effort from a 24-year-old catcher.

Seattle ushered in a new regime in 2009, a group that prioritized defense above everything else, and that did not mesh with Clement's skill set. Rather than play him in the majors to continue his development, he was sent to AAA while offensive liabilities Rob Johnson and Kenji Johjima received the bulk of playing time. Seattle also started to turn him into a first baseman before finally shipping him out of town, to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh appears to view him as a first baseman long term and he may in fact break camp with them this year.

Clement is a 26-year-old with a career .282/.370/.495 career line in the minors, most of which was attained at AAA, while catching. I think that it is not only possible, but probable that he would be a better hitter at a less taxing defensive position, like first base. However, the bar for acceptable production is much higher there and it is unlikely that Clement will ever hit enough to be an all-star. Still, I do believe this forgotten man can be a league average hitter, and it surprises me how quickly a high draft pick with an excellent minor league track record has been forgotten.

6. Wladimir Balentien - OF - Reds

Balentien first caught my eye in 2004 when he hit 15 home runs in a half season of low-A Midwest League play as a 19-year-old. Although he was obviously incredibly raw, Balentien had incredible raw power and I thought he could be an interesting player if he ever figured it out. He spent the next three years steadily improving and turning himself into a legitimate prospect. In 2005 at high-A he hit 25 home runs while walking 33 times and striking out 160 times. In 2006 at AA he hit 22 home runs while walking 70 times and striking out 140 times. In 2007 he hit 24 home runs while walking 54 times and striking out 105 times.

Balentien was a mirror image of Clement in the 2008 season. As a 23-year-old he charged out of the gate, slugging .584 at AAA while having the best BB:K ratio of his minor league career. At mid-season he made it to Seattle and was absolutely terrible. Balentien had come a long way as a prospect but was still too raw for the majors and hit .202/.250/.342. Unlike Clement, Balentien did get a shot with the Mariners to open 2009 but did not perform much better and was sent to Cincinnati where he showed signs of life for the first time all year.

Balentien hit .264/.352/.427 after the trade and looks like he might get a chance to stick with the Reds. Balentien is still only 25 and has come so far as a player since his days as a teenager that I believe he can make it in the Major Leagues. He has absolutely insane raw power and according to hittracker.com had the longest home run hit in baseball last year. Balentien is also a plus defender with a strong arm making him a potential two-way asset. He is always going to strikeout a lot, but will find a way to use his power more consistently in games at some point.

5. Daric Barton - 1B - Athletics

Originally drafted by St. Louis in the first round of 2003 as a catcher, Barton's career has taken several interesting turns over the years. Considering he already has over 2,500 professional at-bats and has been a part of the prospect scene so long it is hard to believe he is still only 24-years-old. Although he was only 19 at the time, many considered Daric Barton, not Dan Haren, to be the centerpiece of the trade that sent Mark Mulder to St. Louis. He rose threw the minors quickly, riding an incredibly disciplined approach to AAA by the age of 20.

Oakland made Barton a first baseman to speed up his development and it initially worked as Barton was too good a hitter for AA, even as a 19-year-old. However, once he hit AAA a few warts started to emerge in his game. Oakland believed he would hit for more power as he got older and added more strength but that never materialized. He spent nearly all of 2007 at AAA where he hit only nine home runs, but there was still plenty of reasons for optimism because he walked more than he struck out and did hit 38 doubles.

Oakland handed Barton the big league job in 2008 and he was a disaster. Even though he drew plenty of walks, he hit with so little pop that no amount of free passes could help his production. Oakland shipped him back to AAA in 2009 where he performed solidly, as expected. They gave him a chance to return to Oakland late in the year and he hit the ball much better than in 2008. It was still a far cry from the results they originally expected when he was acquired, but it showed there was still some life in Barton's career.

Oakland's first base situation is cloudy for 2010 with Barton, Eric Chavez and Jake Fox all expected to get time there. Logically it seems like Chavez will probably take himself out of the equation with an injury while Barton and Fox split at-bats. Because Barton is a left-handed hitting first baseman with a great eye it is easy to compare him to Nick Johnson. It was in his age 24 season that Johnson established himself as a legitimate offensive weapon and Barton deserves another chance to see if he can do the same.

4. Ian Kennedy - RHP - Diamondbacks

When the Yankees selected Kennedy in the first round of 2006, I thought that it was a reach. Although he was once a dominant pitcher at USC his stuff had drastically fallen off in recent outings and he was struggling to hit the low-90s with his fastball. After dominating the minor leagues to a ridiculous degree in 2007 I started to change my mind a bit, but was still skeptical about how high of a ceiling the soft-throwing Kennedy had.

In 2008 Kennedy was given a shot to pitch in the Yankees rotation and did not do anything well over his 39.2 inning trial. There were apparently some injuries involved and Kennedy once again pitched well in AAA once he recovered. Injuries and a poor attitude were the headlines of Kennedy's 2009 season when a few comments he made early in the year rubbed Yankees fans and front office the wrong way. He pitched only 23.1 innings the whole year and New York seemed interested in trading him for whatever they could get.

That came to fruition during the off-season when he was sent to Arizona in the trade that landed New York Curtis Granderson. It was the best thing that could possibly happen to Kennedy. He now finds himself with a fresh start in the easier league for a team with several holes in their rotation. Arizona has already promised him a rotation slot and I fully expect Kennedy to have at least a Dave Bush like career in the majors. A once ignored player in New York, he has an excellent chance to revive his career this year.

3. Felix Pie - OF - Orioles

Pie was one of the top prospects in the Cubs system after signing out of the Dominican Republic as a teenager. Chicago pushed him very aggressively without giving him a chance to develop his pitch recognition skills (something that was, and remains, all too common in this organization) but he kept his head above water, playing well in AAA as a 21-year-old in 2006. Chicago wisely returned him there to start 2007 but could not resist prematurely promoting him when he got off to a fast start.

As expected, Pie was not able to handle the Majors as a raw 22-year-old and struggled over 177 at-bats. A couple nagging injuries cut into his 2008 playing time a bit but while healthy he was decent over 335 AAA at-bats in the minors, and again awful over 83 at-bats in the majors. Chicago was frustrated over their 23-year-old's inability to hit in the majors and sent him to Baltimore for forgettable pitching prospect Garrett Olson. The Orioles realized Pie's potential and even though they also played him in the majors, they handled him much more carefully, doing their best to put him in position to succeed.

Although he did not light the world on fire in 2009, Pie showed he could be a player in the big leagues. He still flashes all five tools, and is already an asset in the outfield with the glove. Considering his total package, Pie may develop into a better all around player than incumbent left-fielder Nolan Reimold and Baltimore has already said they intend on giving him plenty of playing time to improve. Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters rightfully get a lot of the talk in Baltimore about being the team's future, but don't count Pie out of that picture just yet.

2. Anibal Sanchez - RHP - Marlins

Sanchez burst onto the scene in 2004 when he struck out 101 in 76.1 innings in the New York Penn League as a raw 20-year-old. He followed that up by dominating two levels in 2005, ending the year in AA. He had raised his profile so much that Florida insisted he be included along with Hanley Ramirez in the trade that sent Josh Beckett over to Boston. In 2006, when Sanchez had 3.15 ERA in AA over 85.2 innings they figured he deserved a shot in the majors. He ended up posting a 2.83 ERA for the Marlins and even threw a no-hitter. Although his peripherals were not as impressive, it seemed like Sanchez was on his way to an excellent career.

He opened 2007 as part of the rotation but struggled out of the gate and then was diagnosed with an injury that required major surgery. He didn't retake the field until the second half of 2008 when he struggled in his return to Florida. He missed more time in 2009 but finally was his old self in the second half, posting a 2.68 ERA over 50 innings. He was also throwing all four of his pitches, each of which has been plus at some point in his career.

Everybody talks about the young pitching in Florida but it is always about Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco. While Sanchez does not have as much upside as them, he seems like a safe bet to settle in as at least a mid rotation pitcher. Last year when Chris Volstad and Sean West were pitching innings in Florida they got more buzz that Sanchez, even though they were both significantly worse. Sanchez is penciled in as the number three starter this year, and at 26-years-old has plenty of time to regain his past status.

1. Chris Iannetta - C - Rockies

Perhaps I am just being stubborn because I had ranked Iannetta in the top 75 prospects in baseball back before the 2006 season when few had ever heard of him. I always liked his combination of plate discipline and power. In 2005 at high-A he posted a .276/.381/.490 line with an excellent BB:K ratio that caught my attention. After digging up some scouting reports I read that Iannetta was a solid defender but there were questions about how much he would hit in the higher levels. I took a chance and rated him highly, soon others would be doing the same.

Although it was 2005 that got my attention, it was 2006 that confirmed he was for real. After brief, but dominating, stops in AA and AAA Iannetta was in the majors only two years after being drafted. It was only a cup of coffee but he looked capable of handling stiffer competition. 2007 was a less successful year as a combination of nagging injuries and a lack of playing time stunted his growth a bit. His average in the majors plummeted to .218 but he still collected his fair share of walks and flashed some power.

He started 2008 as a backup but quickly seized the starting job and just crushed the ball over 333 at-bats, posting a .264/.390/.505 slash line. It seemed, to me at least, that Iannetta was about to be considered one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. When Colorado brought back perennially average Yorvit Torrealba in 2009 I was concerned but figured he would be a backup. Sure enough, when Iannetta struggled out of the gate, Torrealba started stealing playing time and even though Iannetta rebounded in May and June, Colorado appeared set on a platoon. By the end of August Iannetta had lost all rhythm from being yanked in and out of the lineup and lost the job completely to the inferior Torrealba.

Iannetta enters 2010 as the supposed starter for Colorado but once again a veteran is lurking behind him to steal at-bats, this time in the form of Miguel Olivo. Olivo may have hit 23 home runs last year but his career on base percentage in the majors (over nearly 2,500 at bats no less) is .278! Last year, even in essentially half a season, Iannetta hit 16 home runs and had a .344 OBP in what was considered a disappointment. If Olivo takes any time away from Iannetta it would be idiotic. I am hopeful that Iannetta will start out strong and finally establish himself once and for all as Colorado's long-term catcher. Unlike most of the players on this list, Iannetta does have legitimate all-star potential, and I think he will reach it as long as Colorado gives him a chance.

Bonus: Lastings Milledge - OF - Pirates

I was not going to include Milledge originally because I do not really have high hopes for him anymore at this point. He has worn out his welcome with multiple franchises and has not shown a plus bat since 2007, but he does still have a chance. After fellow Fonzie Forever writer Brian Mangan insisted he be included on this list I decided to cave a bit and put him on it as a supplement. Milledge will not be 25-years-old until opening day and has the pedigree of being a top prospect and high draft pick. Questions about his work ethic and maturity have dogged him for much of his career, but midway through 2007 when he was a member of the Mets outfield at age 21, they did not seem to be a concern.

A few injuries and trades have derailed him a bit since then. He was very ordinary for Washington in 2008 and during that time proved that he should be playing a corner outfield spot and not center, although he may not be more than adequate there either. In 2009 he played for seven(!) teams between two organizations. I can appreciate how difficult it would be to gain traction under those circumstances but he was never anything special at any stop and only decent in Pittsburgh.

I would like to see Millege either hit the ball with more authority or take a few more walks before I believe he can resurrect his career. However, I will admit that given his age and ability to at least make consistent contact in the majors there is hope. Pittsburgh will likely be a proving ground for young players trying to establish themselves this year and Milledge will be right in the thick of it.

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