Friday, November 09, 2007

Once Was Blind, But Now I See

Baseball America released their top-10 prospects for the Nats last week. NFA, as you'd expect, has the list.

The best part about the list is simply that all 10 are legitimate prospects, even if only 1 or 2 have the projectable potential of being a star. Every guy on the list has at least a glimmer of a journeyman's career, which is something you couldn't really say about the last few lists. That's certainly a testament to the team's focus on player development, but it's also -- and I don't mean this to be snide -- an indication that they couldn't go anywhere but up. So, yes, it's a good thing that the list is comprised mostly of newly drafted players, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. They had a great draft (BBA said the best), but it takes more than 1 great draft to make a farm system. The composition of the list is not a sign that The PLAN! has worked. It's a sign that it's STARTING to work. That's a huge difference.

At least we seem to have the right men in the right positions, focusing on what they do best.

1) Chris Marrero
Marrero is the easy choice as the team's best prospect, the only bat who's more likely than not to be a major league regular. And you don't have to squint toooo hard to imagine him as a major league all-star-type. Immediately after the draft, the comparison everyone made of him was to Pat Burrell, and that same comparison hasn't changed.

Marrero has shown to be a strong power bat, hitting .275/ .338/ .484 split between A and High-A. If those numbers seem somewhat disappointing, consider that he was promoted aggressively and that at just 19 years old, he was facing Carolina League pitching, which averaged 23 years old; he held his own against more advanced pitching with several years of experience, a good sign. Most impressive was his 23 homers, a total that's surprisingly high for a kid so young. Most power prospects hit lots of doubles (he had 25 of those), not homers -- another good sign!

By all accounts a slug in the outfield, there's no chance he ever goes back to 3B -- as some fanboys seem to cry out for -- and it's likely that he's going to be Nick Johnson's replacement at first base.

2. Ross Detwiler
Detwiler's at the top for pedigree, not necessarily performance. Everything I've read raves about his fastball/curveball combo and it was enough to give him 28 Ks in 32 minor-league innings.

He's definitely on the fast track, and the Nats aren't afraid to promote pitchers quickly. If he succeeds, there's no reason he won't be in the majors by the end of the year, if only in a capacity like this past season. More likely, he'll be competing for a starter job (ala Chico) in 2009.

3. Collin Balester
Ballester (who's name I'm going to spell 1,000 different ways, no doubt) is another pitcher on the fast track to Washington. He was talked about last season as a potential call-up, but a so-so performance at Columbus held him back in the end.

Balester has been an effective pitcher at every level, but he hasn't been a dominant one. He doesn't strike out as many batters as you'd like to see a top starter punch out, and he probably walks a few too many batters (over 3 per game in the minors).

Despite that, you don't need to be dominant to effective. It just means he won't be an ace unless he takes a step forward, and that's fine. There's plenty of value in developing #3 starters -- they're the kind of pitchers who'll command $10 million per this offseason.

4. Michael Burgess
He's definitely the most intriguing hitter on the list, with a power performance that rivals that of Marrero. All-in-all, he hit a dominant .318 .421 .561, showing good plate patience, even if a few too many Ks. His 11 homers was especially impressive for an 18-year old out of high school and he still managed to slug .457 after a late-season promotion to Vermont.

Burgess fell in the draft because of a disappointing senior season in High School. Before that, he was an all-but-certain top High School bat, and his performance definitely lived up to the potential.

I haven't seen him compared to anyone, but his High School's pedigree makes one immediately think of Gary Sheffield -- would that it were! That's definitely setting the bar WAY too high, but it's not completely unimaginable, as long as he continues to progress over the next season.

5. Jack McGeary
McGeary's another player who's here on scouting reputation, not on performance. You'll recall that he's the projected first-round player who slipped because of signability concerns. The Nats picked him up late, then danced a dance til the 11th hour, signing him to a bizarre contract that allows him to go to school full-time at Stanford while being a part-time pitcher.

BBA compared him to Andy Pettite, which seems wildly optimistic. I've read enough concerns about him to have lowered the bar a bit, although many of those concerns were based on a somewhat disappointing senior year, during which he battled a separated shoulder in his non-throwing arm (ala Shawn Hill), which seemed to hamper the command of his pitches. There's definitely a lot of upside there, but this next year -- his first full -- is going to go a long way towards us seeing what kind of pitcher he really is.

6. Josh Smoker
The Nats stole Josh Smoker from out of the Braves' graps, nabbing him with one of the compensation picks they got for the loss of Alfonso Soriano. He's a left-handed pitcher who throws a solid curve and supposedly solid command of all his pitches. One report at BBA compared him to Mark Langston -- certainly a solid upside!

High school pitchers are definitely riskier, and they usually take some time to develop, so it's going to take some time to properly evaluate him. But if the Braves wanted him, you've gotta be optimistic, right?

7. Jordan Zimmermann
Zimmermannnnn was the other compensation pick for the loss of Soriano. Projected, by some, as a reliever, he signed quickly, went to Vermont and dominated as a starting pitcher. In 53 IP, he struck out 71 batters and walked just 18, giving up just 2 homers and clearly mastering the level.

He has an excellent curve to go with a pretty decent (94ish) fastball, which is a lethal combo at these lower levels. It'll be interesting to see how he does as he progresses. If you've got two plus pitches, especially if one's a breaking ball, you can often succeed just on pure stuff at the lower levels of the minors. But if you don't have a pitching plan or command of the corners, the upper-level bats let you know. It's simply too early to say which is the case with him.

He's got upside as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and 2008, where I suspect he'd start in Potomac, will go a long way towards seeing if he can fulfill that promise.

8. Glenn Gibson
Gibson has succeded not because of the quality of his stuff, but because of his smarts. He doesn't have an over-powering fastball, but he's got a decent curve, and apparently has decent command, and knowledge of how to attack the strike zone to keep hitters off balance.

In 58 innings at Vermont, he struck out 58 batters and impressively walked just 15, showing that his command and his plan worked really well. But there's also probably a limit to how far that can get you, and he's going to need to refine those secondary pitches to continue to succeed at higher levels and to keep those K rates up. You don't need a plus fastball to succeed, but you certainly need strong secondary pitches. How well those develop will show how far he'll go. But the mental aspect of pitching can't be knocked -- and he's certainly demonstrated that.

9. Justin Maxwell
Many, I'm sure, are surprised to see him this low. He's definitely a solid prospect, but consider the knocks: He's 24 and never made it to AA-ball (which is why his late-season promotion was surprising); he can't stay healthy; He hit just .263 at tougher competition in Potomac; he struck out 122 times in 114 games.

He's got world-class power, and the lithe athletic build that makes Bowden tingle. But there are red flags everywhere. He just doesn't make contact and his hideous BB/K numbers indicate he doesn't control the strike zone at all. For a guy with his power (27 homers), you'd like to see more walks (50), if only because pitchers would fear him and pitch around him a bit more.

That's not to say that he's not going to have a career. The athleticism and the power are clearly strengths, but he's gotta work on those weaknesses, learn to command the strike zone and make better contact before you can pencil him in as the Nats' cleanup hitter.

10. Colton Willems
I don't want to say that last year's first-round pick is a bust, but you'd certainly have expected him to be a bit higher on the prospect list, huh? And it certainly seems funny when you see his 1.84 ERA at Vermont.

But he's a case where you need to look deeper. In 58.2 Innings, he struck out just 31, while walking 26. And he allowed more unearned runs than he did earned runs. (Now, certainly, by definition, those aren't entirely his responsibility, but that ratio is out of whack compared to other players in the Vermont team, indicating he might've had problems bearing down when someone screwed up behind him). He just wasn't especially dominant, especially when compared against the people he was pitching with.

Now in fairness, he's just 18 and the Nats have tweaked his delivery a bit, trying to help him develop a consistent release point and delivery, accounting for some of the struggles. There's a world of potential in that arm, still. But this is going to be a big year for him; he needs to take a big step forward to maintain that top prospect sheen.


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