Portland Beavers Pitching Review

The Portland Beavers are the highest of San Diego's six farm teams, playing in the AAA level Pacific Coast League. The Beavers had a disappointing finish, ending up 12th out of 16 teams, with an overall record of 69-75. Some bright spots, however, did emerge for the Beavers in 2003. Ben Howard and Dennis Tankersley developed as players who could help the Padres in the future.

Too many players on the 2003 Beavers were rebounding from failed expectations (Dennis Tankersley, Ben Howard and Mike Bynum) In fact, out of the top thirty Padres' prospects ranked by Baseball America only four Beavers were in the top thirty (Greene #2, Bozied #10, Howard #6 and Castro #25). This gives you an idea of some of the talent that Rick Sweet had to work with this past year.

If anyone read the last reviews, I will repeat the section on what determines a "prospect". If you are already familiar with the process, skip down to the section that begins to analyze the position players.

When doing these types of analysis, as rudimentary as they are, if you are only looking at statistics as opposed to actually scouting the players in person, one is looking for a separation, something that indicates the player will have the capacity to develop into a major league player. The three main criteria that form the basis of this analysis usually look for the following indicators:

(1) Tools - This can loosely be defined for position players as the ability to run, field, throw, hit and hit with power. Typically for position players, someone needs to be a plus player in at least one category to make it in the major leagues. For pitchers it can be a variety of components, velocity, control, ERA, strikeouts; something that indicates the pitcher is able to dominate the competition. Control is important but velocity tends to get greater weight. If a pitcher can harness outstanding velocity, he may have a chance at a major league career. Very few pitchers can advance without a decent fastball.
(2) Performance - The easiest one to evaluate. How well the player actually performed in their league. Someone can have all the "tools" in the world, but as the player advances higher in the minor league system his actual performance becomes more important than his actual potential. Performance is the main criteria at AA or AAA level, as compared to the lower minors.
3) Age - Age is an indicator of how well the player does against the competition that he is facing. A 19 year old hitting .310 in the rookie leagues carries far more weight than a 23 year old, with four full seasons of college ball experience, doing the same thing. The younger and more successful a player is, the bigger upside they could possess.

Pitching Prospects

The Padres pitching staff for most of the year was mishmash of former major league pitchers trying to regain their forms, prospect flame outs and minor league castoffs. A few good pitchers did emerge. The top three prospects are Ben Howard, Dennis Tankersley and Mike Bynum. Ben Howard (RHP) Howard appeared to have a good shot at having won the fifth starter slot for 2004; but then the Padres signed Sterling Hitchcock and Ismael Valdes which kind of deflated his chances.

In six 2003 MLB starts Howard went 1-3, but his ERA was 3.63 and he looked very good in his last start. His K/BB total was not impressive, but what was impressive was his "stuff" big especially the ability to consistently throw in the 90's with a big league fastball, combined with a new found control. He still can be victimized by the long ball, but at other times he could be dominating as he was against the Dodgers in his last start of the season.

Going into the 2003 season Ben Howard, 25 6'2" 190 lbs, was the Padres number six overall prospect, and second behind only Mark Phillips in terms of raw talent. This year he ended up as the Padres number five prospect. Howard has three pitches, fastball, slider and changeup, and his fastball has been clocked in the mid-90's. A big concern with Howard is that in order to improve his control he seems to have taken something off of his velocity, which makes him susceptible to home runs.

"Ben had a bit of rough delivery and that in smoothing out Ben's delivery; he lost the over-powering effects of his pitches," said Tye Waller. "For Ben to have success, he needed to be effectively wild."

In 2003 he allowed the most home runs in Portland, but also kept hitters off base and allowed the one of the lower batting averages of all the Portland pitchers. Just before we went to press Howard was traded to the Florida Marlins for Blaine Neal, a right handed middle relief specialist. The Padres believed that Howard had fallen behind not only Hitchcock and Valdes, but also Dennis Tankersley.

Dennis Tankersley - (RHP) Tankersley, 25 6'2" 185 lbs, was the star of the Padres minor league system going into 2002, but some rough starts on the big league level during that year, a bad spring training in 2003 and a horrible start against San Francisco, where he failed to get even one out, dimmed his star. Tank's problem is that when his "stuff", fastball, sinker, curve, is not working or he gets behind in the count, he is forced to pitch in the middle of the plate; where he gets killed, whether it is the major leagues or in the PCL.

A cursory look at Tank's statistics this year in Portland will show that although he led the Pacific Coast League in strikeouts (148), he also was third in the league in walks (67). He gave up more home runs than anyone else on the team, but was second in innings pitched. Rick Sweet, the former manager of the Portland Beavers, stated in an interview he thinks Tank needs another year in Portland, mainly to focus on the mental aspects of pitching. The tools are there, its just becoming more consistent with his mechanics and his approach. Kevin Towers, in an interview with Baseball Prospectus, implied that this year's spring training, where he will get to work with Darren Balsley, the Padres current pitching coach and Tank's coach in the minors, will be huge for him.

So far, Balsley's predictions were on target.

"He looks like the Tankersley I knew," said Balsley.

Tank pitched as well as any Padres' pitcher in spring training. A key for him will be the first few months in Portland, if he can put together the types of starts he is capable off, he could be San Diego's fifth starter by the all star break if Hitchcock falters.

Mike Bynum (LHP)- Bynum along with Howard was given a chance at the starting rotation in a September call up with the Padres, in which he did not perform well. Bynum, 26 6'4" 200 lbs, went 1-4, with an 8.75 ERA. An interesting comparison can be made to Bynum's performance with Howard's.

Bynum struck out more batters than Howard, had a better K/BB ratio than Howard, but the big difference between the two is the number of hits Bynum gave up compared to Howard. To me the greatest difference between the two is in the pitches they throw. For Bynum to be effective not only must his sinker be working perfectly, but he must be able to spot his fastball. While announcers frequently state that Bynum can touch 91, his fastball is routinely in the mid-80's, which means if its up and anywhere near the plate he gets pounded.

Howard, because of his fastball, is able to get away with a lot more mistakes. Mike was 7-12 for the Portland Beavers this year, and did pitch well. His stats are very similar to Howard's and Tank's. The difference that I see between them, is that Bynum doesn't have the "stuff" to be a successful MLB starter. He doesn't have a big fastball or change speeds well enough to be an effective MLB pitcher.

Portland Pitching Summary - Tankersley is the one pitcher on the staff that could make the jump this year to the Padres as the fifth starter if Hitchcock or Vales falters. However, before he can get to that point he is going to have to put together a few good months in Portland proving that he can be consistent. Tankersley has the raw ability equal to that of Peavy and Eaton, its just a question if he can be consistent and conquer the mental aspects that he has found so difficult in the past.

Bynum I think is a much bigger long shot, but will be given many more opportunities because he is left handed. For his to be successful he has to either increase his velocity or become more consistent with his slider, which I am not sure he is able to do. Tank and Bynum will be back in Portland for 2004, but time is starting to run out for both of them. If Tank can continue to build on what he did this year in spring training, he could be the one that will emerge.

Potential MLB players this past year at Portland – The departure of Howard has opened the door for Tankersley, but beyond that any other pitcher may have to go outside the organization to get seen.

For all of you who read all five summaries, I hope this helped to enhance your knowledge of just how many players are striving for a shot at the big leagues, and how brutal it is to make it.

Next week we will start our season previews for 2004 for Fort Wayne, Lake Elsinore, Mobile and Portland.

John can be reached at Conniff@sandiegosports.net

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