1. How will Brandon Wood follow up a 58-homer season?
Asking Brandon Wood to build upon and improve what he did in 2005 is, at a minimum, patently unrealistic. All Wood did was break the Angels' minor league home run record with 43, break the Arizona Fall League home run record with 14, and hit his final homer in the Olympic regional qualifier. It was a season for the ages, and the fact that it came from a shortstop makes it that much more amazing. It is thought that Wood is talented enough to make the jump to the majors to begin 2006, despite having just 19 at-bats above Single-A.
However, Wood is blocked by Orlando Cabrera at shortstop, and while he could move to third base down the line he would need time to learn the position. For now, Wood is likely going to spend at least the first half of the year at Double-A while staying at shortstop. If he picks up where he left off in 2005 though, the team will be forced to make room on the big-league club for his bat. Wood played in the hitter-friendly California League, but his home park is relatively neutral and, according to observers, Wood’s long balls were, for the most part, legitimate home runs. Still, I’ll be very interested to see what this kid does for an encore.
2. Is Joel Zumaya a starter or a reliever?
Joel Zumaya’s stock continued to rise in 2005, as he finished second in all the minors (behind Francisco Liriano) with 199 strikeouts in 151.1 innings for a strikeout rate of 11.8 per nine innings. It has been suggested by some that his somewhat violent delivery could eventually lead to a future as flame-throwing reliever, but I find it hard to believe that the organization won’t give him every chance to continue as a starter.
He could eventually front a rotation with his upper-90s fastball. Zumaya is expected to compete with Tigers’ #1 overall prospect Justin Verlander for the fifth starter job this spring. Verlander probably has the edge, so I’m anxious to see how Zumaya fares at Triple-A this year. Jeremy Bonderman, Verlander, and Zumaya could form a celebrated trio at the front of the Detroit rotation sometime in the next year.
3. What will the Dodgers do with Chad Billingsley and how will Joel Guzman fare at his new position?
The signing of Brett Tomko and trade for Jae Seo seem to block Chad Billingsley—arguably baseball’s top pitching prospect yet to taste the big leagues—from grabbing a rotation spot this spring, despite glowing comments from manager Grady Little. Take a step back to 2004 though, where then-manager Jim Tracy anointed Edwin Jackson as the Dodgers’ fifth starter during spring training after seeing Jackson jump from Double-A to beat Randy Johnson on his 20th birthday. Jackson went on to struggle, and he got demoted to Triple-A (and eventually Double-A) before being traded to Tampa Bay in the Danys Baez deal.
Much of Jackson’s struggles were blamed on the less-than-favorable pitching environment at Triple-A Las Vegas, so what to do with Billingsley this year? Would sending him to Triple-A ruin him as some suggest it did to Jackson? Why send him to Double-A when he’s conquered that level? Perhaps an injury to one of the Dodgers' starters will make this a moot point, but I’m curious to see how Billingsley is handled this year.
Joel Guzman is opening eyes in camp with his batting practice moon shots. It’s already been determined that he’ll be moving off of shortstop, and at 6’6” he profiles better defensively at a corner infield or outfield position. Recently it was decided that he'd move to left field, a position that would give him the best chance to make the big-league club this year should his bat prove ready. Guzman has enormous power potential, and most encouraging is the increase in his walk rate from 4.2% of his plate appearances to 8.5% over the past two years. What position will Guzman wind up playing long term? Will the position change impede further progress at the plate? When can Guzman break into the veteran Dodgers lineup?
4. How will Arizona's position prospects shake out?
In terms of premium offensive talent at the minor league level, no organization in baseball can compare to the Diamondbacks. With shortstops Justin Upton and Stephen Drew, outfielders Carlos Quentin, Chris Young, and Carlos Gonzalez, and first baseman Conor Jackson, the team has six premium bats that they will have to slot somewhere over the next couple years. Right now, I foresee an outfield of Gonzalez, Young, and Quentin (with Gonzalez the furthest from being ready, around 2008). Jackson should be the first baseman this year, and the team has a potential middle of the diamond in Drew (2B) and Upton (SS). This isn’t even counting 2005 breakout catcher, Miguel Montero.
These types of logjams have a way of working themselves out through trades, injuries, and the simple fact that some top prospects fail to live up to their potential. Nice “problem” for Arizona to have. It will be interesting to see how the team mixes in its prospects with veterans like Tony Clark, Shawn Green, and Luis Gonzalez over the next couple years. The signing of the 33-year-old Clark to a two-year extension through 2007 was even more baffling than the team locking up Green through 2007. I know Clark had an excellent year (.304/.366/.636 in 349 at-bats), but he previously hadn’t batted above .232 since 2001, and at $1 million or so a year, he’s expensive insurance for Jackson. Additionally, I’ll be especially interested to see if Upton can live up to the hype as the 2005 #1 overall pick.
5. Is the Yankees' farm system close to again cranking out talent for the big club?
No matter how much money George Steinbrenner throws at free agents, he continues to lose sight of the fact that the great Yankees teams of the 90s were led by players such as Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Alfonso Soriano, and Mariano Rivera—for the most part, 100% home-grown Yankees. There are encouraging signs recently however, as general manager Brian Cashman has refused to part with young players Robinson Cano, Eric Duncan, Philip Hughes, and Chien-Ming Wang in trades. Of course if George wanted to deal Cano and Hughes for a quick fix to the starting rotation, he’d have takers to be sure, but it appears he's wising up and listening to his baseball people more these days.
There are signs that the Yankees' farm system is headed in the right direction, and Duncan and Hughes are premium talents that should be ready to contribute by 2008. Athletic high school shortstop C.J. Henry wasn’t the typical Yankees pick when he was drafted in the first round last year. In addition, the team has a number of talented teenage international signings in the lower rungs of the system. Perhaps a few of those will turn out to be helpful in a few years. I think this is a system on the rise.
6. Which prospects will take the biggest leaps forward in 2006?
Last season saw the dramatic rise of players like Matt Kemp, Miguel Montero, and of course Brandon Wood. In The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006 David Cameron identified his breakout choices for 2006. Here are the guys I'll be keeping an eye out for in 2006:
Ryan Sweeney (White Sox, Outfield): Sweeney is a strapping 6’5”, 210 pounds who has all the tools. So far though, he’s hit just 10 home runs in over 1,000 minor league at-bats. I expect that to change this year as he is fully recovered from a wrist injury that sapped his power last year. A 20-home run season is within his grasp and he could do it in either Double-A or Triple-A while still at the tender age of 21. Power is often the last tool to develop, and when it does for Sweeney, he’ll rise quickly on prospect lists.
Wade Davis (Devil Rays, Starter): Davis is a hard thrower who posted a solid 10.2 K/9 in the NY-Penn league last year. At age 20, he’s ready for full-season ball and could rocket up the charts with a solid year in the low Single-A Midwest League.
Adam Loewen (Orioles, Starter): Loewen has been a disappointment since being drafted #4 overall back in 2002, but there are signs pointing to a breakout in 2006. Since 2002 he’s shown flashes of brilliance, but Ankiel-like command has resulted in a BB/9 of 5.6. Down the stretch in 2005 he did show much improvement, and a trip to the Arizona Fall League resulted in a league-best 1.67 ERA in 27 innings (though he did walk 14). Loewen should start at Double-A this year, where I’ll be looking for a breakout
Others to watch: Blake DeWitt (Dodgers, Second Base), Chase Headley (Padres, Third Base), Beau Jones (Braves, Starter), Welinson Baez (Phillies, Shortstop), Sean Marshall (Cubs, Starter), Kevin Slowey (Twins, Starter), and Nick Adenhart (Angels, Starter).
7. Are Kansas City's young hitters on the way soon?
A solid trade and good drafting have the Royals on the cusp of adding some big-time firepower to their everyday lineup. The Royals are starting to remind me of the Devil Rays with all their young offensive prospects and relative lack of pitching. The team has no real impact pitchers in the organization, but I’ll enjoy watching the progress of their hitters, especially:
Alex Gordon (3B, 22): Gordon put up a line of .260/.403/.460 in the Arizona Fall League, and that is apparently enough for the organization to start him at Double-A. He has 35-homer potential, and should incumbent third baseman Mark Teahen not develop some power quickly (just seven home runs in 447 at-bats in 2005), Gordon could be up by July.
Billy Butler (OF, 19): What Butler did at age 19 last year (.340/.404/.611 between Single-A and Double-A) is simply incredible. His bat is likely major league ready now, but defensive limitations could keep him in the minors until September. His defense likely will never catch up to his bat, but as soon as it slightly narrows the gap, he could get the call to Kansas City.
Justin Huber (1B, 23): Hit just .218 in 78 at-bats in a 2005 call-up, but Huber is the team’s first baseman of the future. He could potentially alternate with Mike Sweeney between first base and designated hitter this year. Huber is a pure hitter with excellent plate discipline and 25-home run power, and he hit .326/.417/.560 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2005.
Jeff Bianchi (SS, 19): Bianchi impressed in his 98 at-bats in rookie ball by hitting .404/.484/.705, but he is still at least two or three years from the big leagues. Nevertheless, he could soon be one of baseball’s top shortstop prospects (if he’s not already). An intriguing mix of power and great speed.
Chris Lubanski (OF, 21): After hitting just nine home runs the previous campaign, Lubanski took advantage of the desert air of the California League to more than triple that total to 28 in 2005. He was the #5 overall pick in the 2003 draft, and his progress this year was impressive (.301/.349/.554). He should start at Double-A and looks to be the team’s right fielder of the future.
8. Will Tampa Bay's young arms develop quickly enough for them to be competitive?
You can’t argue with the young offensive talent that the Rays are stockpiling. B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford, and Johnny Gomes represent one of the more impressive groups of young talent, and they are all 25 and under. The now-infamous Scott Kazmir-for-Victor Zambrano deal brought a potential #1 starter, but the rest of the rotation is made up of lesser talents like Doug Waechter, Casey Fossum, and Mark Hendrickson.
If a few of a group that includes Jeff Niemann, Edwin Jackson, Chuck Tiffany, Jason Hammel, and the aforementioned Wade Davis live up to their potential, then perhaps we can start talking about this team being competitive in the AL East. Incidentally, the Rays own the #3 overall pick in this summer’s amateur draft and could choose to draft a college power arm like North Carolina's Andrew Miller or Missouri’s Max Scherzer.
9. Can Howie Kendrick keep it up?
Howie Kendrick has had at least 190 at-bats at four different minor league levels, up to Double-A last year. His batting averages at those four levels: .368, .367, .384, .342. He’s simply a hitting machine. What he doesn’t do is draw many free passes, posting a mediocre BB/PA rate of 4.9% over 1,300 minor league plate appearances. When you’re hitting .360 every year, that’s not an issue, but I’m curious to see how he does at Triple-A and ultimately the majors. Normally I wouldn’t place much value on a prospect with that type of walk rate, but Kendrick is a special talent. He even improved his power this year, hitting 19 home runs in 109 games after entering the year with just 13 in 183 games.
10. Can Homer Bailey stay healthy and avoid the fate of past Reds pitching prospects?
Ty Howington, Bobby Basham, Chris Gruler—the Reds’ system is a wasteland of former top pitching prospects whose careers have been derailed (temporary or otherwise) by serious arm injuries. Right-hander Homer Bailey is a Josh Beckett clone. Both were drafted in the first round (Beckett #1 overall, Bailey #7). Both are strapping 6’4” Texans and both throw hard. The Reds have understandably been cautious with Bailey’s workload so far, as he’s thrown just 116 innings in his two years as a pro. The plan is to take the reins off a bit this year, and I’ll be watching his progress. He has the ability to dominate and represents the Reds' best bet for a #1 home-grown starter since the days of Mario Soto