Down on the Farm - 2/12

Take an in-depth look at your favorite farm system or all the farm systems in theInsiders "Down on the Farm." SFDugout Club Members will be able to keep tabs on all the baseball prospects each week.

American League

Baltimore Orioles: What's better than having Pedro Martinez on your team? Perhaps the next Pedro in your farm system? Well the Orioles think they just might have the next Pedro in their farm system, and ironically, it's Pedro's cousin. Acquired in the Jeff Conine deal with the Marlins, Denny Bautista is 21-year old flame-thrower already at the AA level. Bautista consistently brings it 94-96 MPH with his fastball and has the stuff to be an ace pitcher. For his minor league career thus far, he's holding opposing batters to a .226 average. And he's only going to get better with age. Bautista is one to watch.

Boston Red Sox: Following rotator-cuff surgery last off season, catcher Kelly Shoppach came back successfully in 2003 to hit .282 with 12 homers and 60 RBIs for Double-A Portland. He was rated the league's best defensive catcher, an honor he also received in the Florida State League while with Sarasota. Selected as the 48th overall pick in the 2001 amateur draft, Shoppach does need to cut down on strikeouts and become more patient after whiffing 83 times in just 340 at bats last season. Scouts blamed exhaustion for his poor defensive showing behind the plate at the Arizona Fall League. If the organization opts not resign Jason Varitek following the upcoming season, keep your eye own Kelly as a prime candidate to take over the job at Fenway. He is targeted to begin 2004 with Pawtucket.

Detroit Tigers: In the 2002 draft the Tigers took a flyer on a wild RHP out of high school in the 11th round named Joel Zumaya. Two years later, Zumaya is arguably the Tigers top pitching prospect, after demonstrating potentially dominating stuff in his first full season at low-A West Michigan. Zumaya is much like Jeremy Bonderman, except without the polish, relying on a mid to low 90's fastball. He has a curveball and a change-up that will need time to develop, but if Zumaya can keep his control, he has the potential to take over the top of the Tigers' rotation.

Kansas City Royals: The future of the Royals looks very bright. Mike Aviles is one of the shining stars in the system. The Royals have been impressed with Aviles, who hit .286 in the Puerto Rican League this winter and was one of the Royals Players of the Year in the minor league system, earning him a visit to Kansas City last season for a tour of Kauffman Stadium and a chance to meet and greet the major league players. The young shortstop was the MVP of the rookie level Arizona League and still has a long trip toward the majors, but it looks like he might travel quickly. If the name Aviles is familiar, it's because of Mike's uncle Ramon, who played with the Phillies and Red Sox.

Minnesota Twins: Kevin Tolar had an impressive season (5-1, 2.27) at AAA Pawtucket, but was a minor league free agent and signed with Minnesota. This winter, Tolar pitched for the Aragua Tigres and went 0-1, 2.86 in 29 relief appearances. Tolar has an invite to spring training and a better than average shot at making the revamped Twins bullpen. Minnesota also invited pitcher Aaron Fultz and first baseman Juan Diaz to major league camp.

New York Yankees: The 2004 season could go a long way in shaping the immediate future of the Yankees' farm system. For one, the Yankees have two corner infielders that could very well be teammates at Yankee Stadium someday...Eric Duncan and Jayson Drobiak. The problem is they are both 3B that are better suited playing first base. Someone is going to have to move if the Yankees have plans on getting both of their potent bats in the lineup. It will be interesting to see how the Yankees play these two young boppers. Both Duncan and Drobiak could split time at both positions. But if not, it appears Duncan could be the one to be moved to first base.

Oakland Athletics: The A's usage of their farm system to replace departed superstars will continue when Bobby Crosby takes over for Miguel Tejada, who signed in Baltimore this winter. Crosby is a second level five-tool player with solid all-around skills. The 23-year-old should play an adequate defensive role in the Oakland infield and provide solid offensive production in 2004. Fellow minor leaguer Joe Blanton, probably the club's top prospect, is a year away from the "major-league-ready" tag placed on players that could step in and contribute. The A's farm system isn't quite as good as it was a few years ago, though it still rates in the top 10 range overall.

Seattle Mariners: The M's bench might receive a boost from the youth of the system this season with Jamal Strong and Chris Snelling ready to make a contribution if called upon. Both being outfielders prevents the possibility of both making the club out of spring, possibly opening the door for fellow prospects such as 3B Justin Leone and Greg Dobbs, as well as OF Greg Jacobs. The M's Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma is expected to house as many as seven of the club's top ten prospects this upcoming season including pitchers Clint Nageotte and Travis Blackley and 20-year-old SS Jose Lopez.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Outfielder Joey Gathright was given an invitation to spring training by the D'Rays. Most experts believe that Gathright will be a major leaguer in September, if not before, and will get a good look this spring. Gathright hit .376 in 22 games at AA Orlando in 2003 and a combined .334 in stops at Orlando and high-A Bakersfield. Gathright has blazing speed and swiped 69 bases last season and some think he can do at least that many every season and possibly more. The D'Rays drafted Gathright in the 32nd round of the 2001 Draft and he's just 21 years old.

Texas Rangers: Rangers 2003 first round draft pick John Danks is heading towards Single-A ball for 2004 and could light the league on fire. After a strong start in the rookie leagues the soon-to-be 19-year-old left-hander struggled at Short-season-A ball in his 12 innings pitched. Armed with a fastball clocked in the high 80's to low 90's the left-hander creates success with solid control and a good mix of his best two pitches. Danks could be the Rangers top pitching prospect in a year. Prospect Adrian Gonzalez could be trade bait during the season to land pitching help due to Mark Teixeira's sure stranglehold on the 1B position.

Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays Canadian friends in Montreal may have let one get away. The Jays signed outfielder Noah Hall, who played with the Expos AA team in Harrisburg last season and hit .307 with 10 homeruns. Hall signed a minor league deal with Toronto and was also given an invitation to spring training. It's not likely that Hall will stick with Toronto, but he could be a nice addition down the road for the Blue Jays. Toronto also issued spring invites to pitchers Juan Campos, Josue Matos and David Maurer.



National League

Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks announced that Travis Vanzile was reinstated from the Restricted List. He was just put on this list on February 2, 2004. Vanzile slated a .106 average in 36 games with five doubles, four RBI, twelve strikeouts, and one stolen base. The Lancaster JetHawks will have a new skipper for the 2004 season, 14-year major league veteran, Wally Backman. He comes to Lancaster after managing three seasons in the Chicago White Sox Organization. His clubs posted a 152-135 record and made the Southern League playoffs each season.

Atlanta Braves: First baseman Adam LaRoche stands a very good chance of sticking with the Braves out of spring training. There's not much more left for LaRoche to prove in the minors, although he doesn't have a lot of time in at the AAA level. Actually, LaRoche just hit AAA last season and hit .295 with 8 homeruns in 72 games for Richmond. Early on in his minor league career, there were concerns about LaRoche's offense, but he found his way and has been impressive the past few seasons. His defense is well above average and he's known for his work ethic and hard-nosed play.

Chicago Cubs: Francis Beltran of the Chicago Cubs was sent to winter ball in the Dominican Republic to get a few more innings and a little more seasoning. The winter ball season just wound up, and Beltran's Licey Tigers were the winning team in the Caribbean series, and Beltran was named series MVP with 3 saves in the six team round robin tourney. He was also named the top reliever for the all-star team, and could soon be sitting down the base paths at Wrigley Field. One of the big reasons he was at winter ball was because of an injury that ended his AAA season in July. Beltran proved that the injury did not sidetrack him too far, as he posted a 2.53 ERA during the winter league season, and worked his pitches very well. Beltran will be competing for the last spot in the Cubs bullpen this spring, and if he can do what he did with Licey, then he may be with the Cubs this season. Either way, Beltran should be in the majors soon, and he looks good as a back of the bullpen guy.

Cincinnati Reds: Corey Thurman's minor league contract was voided by the Reds for unspecified reasons. Thurman pitched at AAA Syracuse in 2003 and went 6-4, 4.27 for the Sky Chiefs. The Reds initially thought that Thurman, who had an invite to major league camp this spring, had a decent shot at making their major league roster. While they're unconfirmed, initial reports are that Thurman failed a team physical. The Reds will have veteran Aaron Myette in camp. Myette had decent numbers for AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre last season in his attempt to comeback from arm problems.

Colorado Rockies: Second baseman Jeff Baker, a fourth round pick in '02, had surgery before the '03 season and never fully recovered. He eventually had a second surgery in September after shutting his season down in August. This offseason everything appears to be healed, but no one will know for sure until gametime. The real question is where will he play? He has spent time at second, third and the outfield. He likely won't play third with the crowd of prospects there and could move to the outfield permanently. Baker, despite his wrist woes, hit .289 with 11 homers and 44 RBI's in 70 games.

Florida Marlins: The Marlins believe that they got good value when they dealt pitcher Mark Redman to the Oakland A's. In addition to Mike Neu, the Marlins also got minor leaguer Bill Murphy. The A's saw Murphy make it as high as AA Midland in 2003, where he went 3-3, 4.09 in 11 starts. In two stops at different levels last season, Murphy was 10-7, 2.94 for Oakland. It never hurts to get a good, young pitcher for down the road and it's especially nice when that pitcher is a left-hander like Murphy.

Houston Astros: Hector Gimenez has dreams of one day replacing Brad Ausmus as the Astros starting catcher, and he took those dreams to sunny Venezuela this winter. He played his seasonal ball at high A Salem, where he had a disappointing year at the plate, but proved he has great defensive skills behind the plate. He only hit .247 with 54 RBI's in 2003, and the Astros hoped that he could improve his stroke in the winter leagues. Luckily for Gimenez, he hit very well in winter ball this year. Gimenez played in 47 games this winter, and hit a respectable .281 with 20 RBI's. His defense was again very good, and his offense was better than it had been. The Astros may start him back in Salem in 2004 however, hoping that he can hit high A pitching at a better clip before moving him up to AA Round Rock. The Astros still are very high on Gimenez, and protected him on their 40 man roster. They have shown in the past that they are not afraid to go with a defensive catcher, and Gimenez is just that. However, in order to play in the big leagues, he will still have to improve his hitting to a more respectable average. He's still a fairly young player though, and with a diminished system, the Astros are willing to wait.

Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers have invited ten of their minor league players to Spring Training. Pitchers Greg Miller, Agustin Montero, and Rodney Myers, infielders Ricky Bell and James Loney, outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Shane Victorino, and catchers Edwin Bellorin, Ryan Kellner, and Russell Martin were invited. Miller was the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2003, holding a 12-5 record with a 2.21 ERA in 25 starts for Vero Beach and Jacksonville. Loney batted .276 at Vero Beach with 31 doubles, 7 homeruns, and 46 RBI in 125 games. Gutierrez became the Dodgers' Minor League Player of the Year with an average of .282, 28 doubles, 20 homeruns, 68 RBI, and 17 stolen bases in 110 games at Vero Beach. At Jacksonville, Gutierrez batted .313 with three doubles, four homeruns, 12 RBI, and three stolen bases in 18 games.

Milwaukee Brewers: This offseason the Brewers moved one of their few bright spots, shipping out All Star 1B Richie Sexson. Why would the Brewers make such a move with so little talent at the other positions on the big league roster? Well besides looming free agency, the trade has quite a bit to do with the son of former slugger Cecil Fielder, Prince. Prince Fielder, just like his dad, is a power-hitting First Baseman with a massive body. Conditioning issues aside, Fielder could very well be the top hitter in all of minor league baseball. He completed his first full season last year in 2003, but another big season from Fielder and he could be pushing newly-acquired Lyle Overbay for the starting job in Miller Park as early as 2005.

Montreal Expos: Expos GM Omar Minaya spent time at the Caribbean Series, scouting for help. Minaya had found reliever Luis Ayala there last season, but apparently came away empty handed this time around. Minaya was impressed with Henry Rodriguez and Jose Offerman, two veteran major leaguers, but will pass on both since the Expos don't need any more left handed bats. The Expos will take long looks at Terrmel Sledge, Matt Cepicky and Val Pascucci in spring training to fill spots on the major league roster.

New York Mets: "The early bird gets the worm"....that should be the phrase of the week as Spring Training draws closer. With pitchers and catchers reporting next week, many of the Mets' prospects have already found their way to the Florida sun to begin sharpening their game skills. David Wright, Justin Huber, Michael Jacobs, Bob Keppel, Aaron Heilman, and a host of others have decided to begin their season a little early to get that extra work in. With a shot at the #5 starter this season, RHP Aaron Heilman will certainly need to get his game in gear right away so the extra work can only help.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies will have two of their top prospects in camp this season, but don't look for either Gavin Floyd or Cole Hamels to stick with the team. Both need more time in the minors and the Phillies aren't in a position where they will need to rush pitchers, especially starting pitchers. The major league rotation appears set, so the battle will be for two remaining relief jobs and prospects Geoff Geary, Dan Giese, Josh Hancock, Eric Junge and Greg Kubes will be among the young pitchers in that battle. Veterans Wilson Alvarez and Amaury Telemaco along with rehabbing Bud Smith and Dave Coggin will join the competition.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Two years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates shocked much of the baseball community, not because of the selection – John VanBenschoten – but because of their plans to use VanBenschoten as a starting pitcher, despite the fact that many scouts considered him the best power hitting prospect in the draft. Despite the skeptics, VanBenschoten is proving the Pirates made a good decision and after a half season of AA in 2003, could possibly make a jump to the majors at some point in 2004 assuming he fine tunes his slider to go along with his 94-MPH fastball and curveball.

San Diego Padres: Greg Sain enters this year as a three position player. To become proficient at all, he is coming to spring training slightly lighter than in the past. He plans on entering spring at 215 and is hoping that will help him defensively. Sain says it will not compromise his strength – and that is a good thing. Last year, Sain hit 19 homers, smacked in 100 and had 35 doubles while hitting .274. This year he is looking to improve his plate discipline, "If I can cut down on my strike outs by a third – that would be huge. If you put the ball in play, good things happen."

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals catcher, Tadier Molina, brother of MLB catcher Bengy, was sent to winter ball with hope for improvement for the young man. He had a good season at AA Tennessee, but he was not as impressive as they had hoped. However, in winter ball this year, he showed that he at least deserves a promotion to AAA. He hit .317 in 39 games, driving in 18 runs. He had a 3 to 1 K to BB ratio, and showed that he can hit the good pitching in the winter leagues. The Cardinals have high hopes for Molina in a farm system that is clearly down, and expect him to be MLB ready in a year. He could be called up this year if there are injuries in the Cardinal system, but he is not ready yet. He will have to prove that he can consistently hit AAA pitching before being seriously considered for the majors. His defense has been there the whole time, but the Cardinals may be moving the 21 year old along a little too quickly. He could struggle in 2003, and should probably spend another year at AA, but the Cardinals system is too thin, and Molina will have to attempt to adjust and play beyond his years to succeed in 2004.

San Francisco Giants: Fred Stanley was announced to return as the field manager for the Fresno Grizzlies for the 2004 season. Stanley spent last season with the Grizzlies and led them to a 55-88 record. Before the Grizzlies, Stanley spent three seasons as the skipper of Class-A Salem Kaizer and posted a 128-100 record with the Volcanoes, including back-to-back National League Manager of the Year honors and the 2001 NWL Championship. Stanley was originally drafted by the Houston Astros and spent 14 seasons in the Major Leagues with a batting average of .216, while being a defensive specialist.


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