For four years Jarred Ball moved up, improved, and consistently exceeded expectations. Those years were 2001 through 2004. His batting average increased each year. His home runs, RBI, runs scored and walks increased each year. He was, in some circles, viewed as the organization's top center field prospect. In 2005 he got his first taste of Double-A pitching, and the numbers took a dip, but what keeps him off the list was a knee injury he suffered early in May that sent him under the knife and off the field for the rest of the season.
What hurts even more though is that between his last truly fantastic season (2004) and now the Diamondbacks signed Justin Upton and made him a center fielder, and traded for Chris Young, who has already been named the D'Backs starter next season. That moves Ball from the top center field prospect in the organization to at least third, and possible fourth after the strong season from Chris Rahl.
Still, even losing a step (and there is no reason to believe he will) Ball would be right there with Emilio Bonifacio as the fastest player in the D'Backs system, and he can play all three outfield positions at an above average level. There are more than a few who would compare Ball with current D'Backs left fielder Eric Byrnes. His versatility, consistent (if not spectacular) power and 'gamer' attitude have been noticed throughout the system. Ball expects to be at 100% by the spring, and '07 will be a crucial year for the youngster.
All Brian Barden has done since being taken by the D'Backs in the sixth round of the 2002 draft out of Oregon State is everything the D'Backs have asked of him. He's been the best defensive third baseman the organization has seen since Matt Williams. He's never had a batting average below .283 at any level. When the D'Backs told him he wasn't showing enough power to stay at third base he started learning second, and produced back to back 16 home run seasons, attacking the deficiency from two sides.
He'll turn 26 years old on the second day of the 2007 season though, and the D'Backs have always had someone in front of him. In 2004 it was Chad Tracy, in '05 it was Troy Glaus, and in '06 Tracy was moved back to the hot corner, where it appears he will remain. Thus far Barden hasn't shown Tracy's power, and in a lineup dominated by righties, Barden's right handed bat isn't as appealing as Tracy's southpaw swing. The area at which Barden clearly blows Tracy out of the water, defense, hasn't been enough for him to get the call, and Barden is on the verge of becoming getting the dreaded 4A tag.
Still, Barden's one of the smartest players in the system, a favorite of coaches, including his manager for the last two seasons at Tucson, Chip Hale. Now that Hale is moving up to the big league club, his opinion may give Barden another shot, and any injury to Tracy would open the door immediately. Barden is continuing to work, playing winter ball in the Mexican league currently, and will, as always, report to camp in incredible shape. The D'Backs do not have a lot of super talented third basemen in the system, which keeps hope alive for Barden.
A second round pick out of LSU in 2004, the Diamondbacks saw Jon Zeringue as a fast track player. A guy with a cannon arm, above average speed, power and the background of playing at one of the top baseball colleges in America. This was a player who would challenge Carlos Quentin. In his first taste of pro ball he hit .335 with 10 homers and 40+ RBI in just 56 games at Hi-A Lancaster. Things were going to plan.
He would start 2005 with the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, and the wheels came off. He played through a variety of injuries, but never could get his swing on track, and limped to a .241 average with just six homers in half as many games as he had played in the year before. He returned to Double-A the next season, but lost his job as an everyday starter, and when the Diamondbacks sent him back down to Hi-A at the end of June, he was sporting a .217 average and hadn't hit a home run in more than a month.
Still, the tools are there. Zeringue will need to bounce back, and right away, in 2007. The D'Backs are chock full of outfield prospects, and it will be difficult for him to reestablish himself as one of the best. He will likely start in Lancaster, but could move up quickly if his production looks like it did back in 2004. Then the key will be handling the breaking ball in Double-A, and not looking back.
Mark Romanczuk was taken in the fifth round of the 2002 draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but elected to go to Stanford University instead. In 2005 the D'Backs made him their fourth round pick and he reported to Rookie level Missoula. After a long season at Stanford during which his velocity had dropped from low 90s to mid 80s, Romanczuk was unspectacular, carrying a 4.55 ERA in 13 trips to the bump. He missed all of the 2006 season recovering from Ulnar Nerve Transposition, a procedure in which doctors take a pinched nerve and move it.
What the D'Backs are looking to find out is whether Romanczuk can regain the velocity, and pinpoint precision, that he showcased at Stanford. If he does, many believe that he could be a middle of the rotation starter, from the left side, and that his ascension in the organization will be rapid. Expect Romanczuk to be watched closely, and shut down at the slightest sign of irritation in '07, but if he can make it through (most) of the season healthy, 2008 could see this lefty moving up in a hurry.
As is becoming customary of Diamondbacks first round picks, Max Scherzer, the D'Backs first rounder this past June, is a holdout. While the Collective Bargaining Agreement means this is unlikely to happen in the future, for the third straight year (after Stephen Drew in '04 and Justin Upton in '05) the D'Backs top pick didn't sign before the end of the season. Scherzer was taken 11th overall, after nearly a full season when many projected him as the top pick. He slipped for a variety of reasons including a couple of injuries that may, or may not, have been the cause of his velocity dropping a few notches, and his choice of agent, Scott Boras.
While some believe Scherzer is better suited to the closers role, the D'Backs have every reason to believe he's a front line starter in the making, assuming they can sign him. When he's right he pitches in the mid 90s, with the ability to dial it up to 98mph and though he will need to work on his secondary pitches (including a curve, slider, and changeup) none of them are hopeless, and just one might be enough to get him to the bigs.