August 14, 2006

Probably the biggest attraction in keeper leagues is prospecting for major league talent in the minors.  In leagues where there are few restrictions and large reserve lists, I've seen guys draft kids from the little league World Series.  No lie.  In my first keeper league, one of the guys picked up then 12-year old Sean Burroughs after his phenomenal debut performance that included a couple no-hitters in the Williamsport Classic.  He dropped him a few years later after Burroughs switched from pitcher to third base in college, but that's beside the point.  And with guys coming from Korea and Japan with some regularity now, prospecting has become a very efficient way to replenish a roster quickly and cheaply under most league rules.

So I thought I'd talk about a few keepers I like for the somewhat near future. 

There has been some disappointment with Justin Upton's numbers to this point in the season.  Expectations were set pretty high after his brother BJ performed so well in his first exposure to professional baseball.  And when Justin hit .500 and slugged .857 this spring, well, expectations were set that much higher.  So his .267/.347/.422 line in the low-A Midwest League, while pretty solid production for a guy who just turned 19, has led many to question whether Upton is the real deal or not.  I still believe he is.  Maybe he's not obsessed with being a great player right now.  That might still come.  But knowing how I was when I was 19, I'm guessing that after a spring where he excelled against major league competition, that spending 5 months in East BF, Indiana isn't exactly his idea of thrilling or particularly motivating.  Imagine smoking pitch after pitch off guys like Mark Beurhle and Greg Maddux, household names, and then being told, "kid, you're not ready... we want you to go up against a bunch of future grocery clerks to prove you belong."   Few 18-year olds would view that as a golden opportunity to prove their worth.  For a guy as talented as Upton, that's almost as prison sentence.  I expect next year will be our first long glimpse at what he can really do.

I watched Edinson Volquez first two starts and I liked what I saw.  While his Triple-A numbers weren't as impressive as Matt Garza's, he a) had a number of starts that were statistically as impressive as any Garza put up and b) Garza was pitching in a more pitcher friendly environment.  Volquez' last start in Oklahoma was a 6-inning, 4 hit, 11 K outing allowing just one unearned run.  That was the 7th start in his final 13 minor league outings in which he struck out at least 8 batters.  By comparison, Garza struck out 8 or more in 6 of his final 13 with 8 of them coming against Double-A competition.  I'm not trying to say that Volquez is a better pitching prospect; Garza has better control and has pitched better overall than Volquez.  However, I am saying their talent is comparable and that if Garza has been taken in your league, that Volquez makes a nice option #1a that could turn out just as well.

From his first start against Oakland, I liked the fact that he had confidence in his fastball even when he struggled to locate it.  It had a lot of lateral movement; not quite as much as vintage Darren Dreifort back in 1996-1998, but pretty close.  Hopefully without the arm problems.  In the first inning, he fell behind Jason Kendall in the count and gave up a hard smash double down the line and it rattled him a little.  He was tentative with his next two pitches.  But after a quick chat with Rod Barajas, he was again pounding the strikezone with his fastball and over the next six batters he netted four groundouts and two strikeouts.  He made a mistake in the third to Mark Ellis who put it in the seats, but again, came back aggressively with two strikeouts to close out the inning.  The Rangers have a couple of good guys behind the plate when it comes to keeping their starters in games so if Volquez trusts his guys and stuff, he'll be fine.  Against the Mariners in his next start he retired the side in order four times in seven innings and in another allowed just a cheap single.  He's the goods, folks.

I didn't get to see Garza's start against the Blue Jays, but I wouldn't be dissuaded by it.  First of all, the Blue Jays are a better hitting team than much of what he'll be facing the rest of the way.  Second, he was clearly nervous and overthrowing.  He gave up two walks and two home runs in a little more than two innings after surrendering just 6 homers all year and just 32 walks in 23 starts all year.  Thirdly, Rick Anderson is a brilliant pitching coach when it comes to handling young pitchers.  He also is the goods.

I still don't get what the Angels are doing with their extra outfielders.  They have a rotation of Curtis Pride, Reggie Willits and Tommy Murphy and they don't keep any of them up long enough for the guy to get settled.  Each one will be up for about 5 days, get about 10 at bats and then be sent down.  Are they really expecting production from these guys with the way they're being handled?  Howie Kendrick is one of the most talented minor league hitters in the last decade and even he hit .115 for the Angels while they were jerking him back and forth.  Once they decided to give him an honest chance to play semi-regularly he showed what he could do and hasn't been out of the line-up since.  Not that any of Murphy, Pride or Willits are going to be difference maker players, but for crying out loud, pick one and stick with him for at least a couple weeks before dumping him again. 

Did you know that D-backs first baseman of the present and future, Conor Jackson, and Dodger first baseman of the future and occasionally the present, James Loney, share the same birthday?  Just like Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas sharing the same birthday, so too do Jackson and Loney: May 7.  Jackson is two years older, which is one of the reasons I like Loney's upside a little more.  Jackson's minor league numbers remind me a lot of Nick Johnson's, albeit with far fewer hit by pitches.  Another big difference is that Johnson was seeing his first extended major league action at age 23, while Jackson's getting his first real exposure a year later.  Combined with his superior defense, I'm pretty confident that Johnson's career will be the better one and I don't imagine Jackson will make the argument close with his bat.  There are some aspects of Jackson's year that are better that Johnson's rookie season but something tells me he's just a slightly better version of Lyle Overbay.  A nice player, but not someone to build a franchise around, real or fantasy.

I'm not sold on the imminent stardom of James Loney either, but I think he has a better chance of becoming an impact player.  Bothered by wrist injuries the previous two years, he's made some noise this year in Triple-A and at least held his own in the majors while Nomar has been out.  I look at his numbers in Triple-A and I can't help but be reminded of a 22-year old at Double-A New Britain back in 1990... some kid named Bagwell.  Actually, there are a couple of other guys who put up high average, .500+ slugging as 22-year olds with similar playing time in Triple-A.  They were even first baseman and they did it in the hitter friendly PCL.  The first was Tino Martinez back in 1990 at Calgary.  The other was Todd Helton in 1996 and 1997 in Colorado Springs.  Either way, there's some precedent in Loney's favor.   Just know that it will take a few years, probably not before he turns 26 or 27, that those power numbers will start to show.  Until then, he should at least hit for high average.