Double A, Ready to Go   (04/28/01)

It wasn't long ago that the true measure of a prospect before he got to the majors was determined in AAA.  But as more teams focused on stocking their AAA clubs with injury replacements for their major league clubs, AA gained importance as the proving ground for prospects.

Talent evaluators value what a prospect does in AA as much as AAA, in part because his competition in AA matches his ability.  For the most part, AA teams are largely comprised of young players who simply need to refine their skills.  Teams use their AAA clubs as a place to roster veteran players who have skills good enough to play in the majors, but not the talent the stay there, so the prospect population there is much smaller.  For proof, just look at the average ages.  The average age of a player in AAA ten years ago was 25.9.  This year, it's 27.1.  However, the average age for AA prospects has remained fairly constant between 23 and 24.

It's not uncommon for prospects to completely skip AAA and make a successful jump to the majors from AA.  The following players have shown great promise to start the season and could be making their major league debuts later this summer or early next spring.

Stephens, John    BAL   2-1  1.55  4  4   0  0  29.0  12  92  101   5   5  1  1  1  0   7  0  28  0  0
Chiavacci, Ron    MON   1-1  1.44  4  4   0  0  25.0  16  86  101   6   4  0  2  1  0  12  1  42  1  1
Johnson, Adam     MIN   0-2  3.60  4  4   0  0  25.0  22  91  103  11  10  3  2  1  3   6  1  29  0  0
Myers, Brett      PHI   3-0  1.04  4  4   0  0  26.0  18  94  105   4   3  2  1  1  2   7  0  28  0  0
Kennedy, Joe       TB   3-0  0.35  4  4   0  0  26.0  15  91   93   1   1  0  0  0  0   2  0  26  2  0
Cruz, Juan        CHC   2-0  2.37  4  4   0  0  19.0  13  69   79   5   5  1  1  0  0   9  0  30  0  0
Lidge, Brad       HOU   2-0  2.14  4  4   0  0  21.0  18  78   87   5   5  1  1  1  2   5  0  36  1  0
Middlebrook, Jason SD   1-0  1.19  4  4   0  0  22.2  15  80   86   5   3  0  0  1  1   4  0  19  0  0

Rivera, Mike     DET  .371  17  62  12  23  51  4  0  8  26  0  0  1   4  0  10  0  0  4  .823  .418  0
Dunn, Adam       CIN  .333  20  69  13  23  43  5  0  5  16  1  0  2  13  2  21  2  0  0  .623  .452  0

No will ever accuse Australian John Stephens of blowing hitters away.  His fastball tops out at about 85 mph with the wind blowing in.  But he has amazing control and a good instincts for pitching.  If the O's can build an offense that will give him some run support, the 21-year old will be a right-handed version of Kirk Rueter.

Ron Chiavacci is one of those guys that people like to root for - a 44th round pick out of Kutztown U.  A real underdog.  His stuff is pretty average, but his control is good.  He's on the older side of AA players (he's 23), but still young enough to have a major league future, probably in long relief or as a 5th starter.

Adam Johnson was the second pick overall in last year's amateur draft.  He has decent stuff - his fastball runs in the low 90s - and very good control.  He's got some stiff competition to make the Twins rotation so he might be used in trade to bring them a quality bat this summer.  Whether it's for the Twins or some other team, he'll probably be ready for regular duty by next year.

Brett Myers is the Phillies version of Wade Miller.  He throws in the low to mid-90s and has a pretty good curve and change.  He also brings some workload concerns as he pitched a lot of innings for a 19-year old last year (175+).  Still, if he can stay healthy, he'll be their best right hander since Chris Short.

Like Chiavacci and Stephens, Joe Kennedy is not overpowering.  But he has a good feel for pitching and has terrific control.  Last year, in 136+ innings he struck out 142 batters while walking just 29.  This year looks like more of the same.  With Matt White and Bobby Seay struggling to earn their bonuses, the Devil Rays will at least have something to show for their last couple of drafts when Kennedy makes their rotation, probably next year.

Gas.  Juan Cruz.  In a word: gas.  He's 20-years old and throws 97 mph.  He's also developed a pretty nasty slider and curve.  In three years, health-willing, he and Kerry Wood will make the most intimidating young tandem in the majors.  Double-A hitters already wish he would move on.  He will soon enough.  Until then, the big question is: can he strike out 200 more batters than he walks in a season?

The Houston Astros have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big, hard-throwing starters.  Brad Lidge is the next to follow Scott Elarton, Wade Miller, Wilfredo Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt (Freddie Garcia, an Astros farmhand before being traded to Seattle, also fits the mold).  He has been plagued by injury the last two years, but when he's healthy, features a mid-90s fastball, a big curve and good enough control to spot both.

Jason Middlebrook had one of the most coveted arms in the draft in 1996.  Well, at least for it's potential.  Not for it's health.  Elbow surgery cost him his sophomore and junior years after a brilliant freshman campaign at Stanford.  He's battled injury ever since, only occasionally showing flashes of brilliance.  This year, his control and his fastball seem to have returned to his freshman form.  Health is the only obstacle standing in the way of a Matt Morris-type presence in the Padre rotation sometime in the next 2 years.

Brandon Inge gets a lot of publicity for his defense, but Mike Rivera might get the call behind the plate if Inge's hitting goes south.  Rivera is hitting the synthetic stuffing out of the ball in AA and is playing passable defense.  This is his second season in AA and from the looks of things, he won't stay there for long.  Next year, the Tigers will have an interesting decision to make: do they go with Mitch Meluskey behind the plate, who is a great hitter, but who's defense can best be described as indifferent; or Brandon Inge, who's defense is very good but who's hitting is reminiscent of Chris Gomez; or do they compromise on both fronts and give the job to Rivera who's decent in both facets.

Adam Dunn gave up a career in football - he was slated to compete for the quarterback position at U of Texas - in order to pursue a baseball career.  Looks like a smart decision so far.  He's a big guy with potentially awesome power.  He runs well and plays superb defense.  Even more impressive is his discerning eye at the plate for someone so young - he's 21.  He will not be deterred by Alex Ochoa, Dmitri Young or Michael Tucker from playing everyday in the Reds outfield sometime in the next two years.