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Arizona Diamondbacks: Arizona is hatching a lot of hot prospects with the Yakima Bears. Others have been highlighted in weeks past: this week's feature player is Adam Bass. A 10th round draft pick for the princely bonus of $32,000, the University of Alabama-Huntsville RHP, had a great first season as a professional. Relieving 27 games for the Bears, Bass had an 0.82 ERA with 3 saves in 33.0 IP with 26 hits, 2 homers, 14 walks, and 34 strikeouts.
Atlanta Braves: Is the Johnny Estrada era here? The Braves got the highly touted catching prospect from Philadelphia in the Kevin Millwood deal and with the exit of Javy Lopez, Estrada could be the starting catcher in Atlanta. Estrada was blocked in Philly by the presence of Mike Lieberthal and spent most of last season at AAA because of Estrada. The Braves will give Estrada a chance to win the starting job this spring.
Chicago Cubs: A couple of players to watch that could make the Cubs roster in 2004 would be Todd Wellemeyer and David Kelton. Wellemeyer met his MLB debut last year with a baptism by fire when he got a save in the 17th inning of a Cubs vs. Brewers game. He will get a chance to be the last man in the bullpen in 2004 for the Cubs. Juan Cruz was slated as the 5th starter until the Cubs acquired Maddux, and now Cruz will either be back in AAA as a starter or given a shot at the bullpen. Wellemeyer will compete this year with a slurve that he has developed, and should look good as a long reliever for the Cubs in 2004. David Kelton has proved that he can hit anywhere he goes, but his problem is that he has never been able to find a position. The Cubs finally moved him away from third base, where he had continually struggled defensively in his career. They switched him to the outfield where he seems more comfortable, but he still needs more time to adjust to playing an outfield position before he is ready to do so in the major leagues. With Tom Goodwin and Todd Hollandsworth looking to round out the outfield for the Cubs, Kelton is a longshot, but could be valuable to the Cubs if Corey Patterson proves he cannot go full strength, or if Moises Alou's injuries reoccur in 2004. Kelton should be a regular with the Cubs by 2005, after a good year of seasoning in 2004.
Cincinnati Reds: While the Reds have major questions on their major league pitching staff, at least one of their minor league pitchers is a major question mark as well. Right-hander Chris Gruler started three games last season at Dayton and was rocked in all three - 17 earned runs in 5 2/3 innings - before he admitted he had pain in his shoulder and missed the rest of the season after having surgery. Gruler is on a slower schedule than the rest of the Reds prospects and likely won't be able to pitch competitively until at least May, when the Reds hope to send him to low class A ball.
Colorado Rockies: RHP Scott Dohmann had been solid, not spectacular, as a starter in the Rox system. But now, at 26, Dohmann has been converted to a reliever, specifically as a closer. Last season for the Tulsa Drillers, Dohmann finished 17 games, saving four. With a lighter workload, Dohmann has gained increased velocity and upped his strikeouts from seven per nine innings worked to 10 per nine innings worked.
Florida Marlins: Jeremy Hermida came into the 2002 Draft as the fourth best high school position prospect available. Somehow, he fell in the first round and the Marlins grabbed him with the 11th overall pick. He didn't disappoint. The Marlins were impressed with Hermida's play last season at High-A Greensboro and just for fun, sent him to AAA for one game. Hermida was out of his element and struck out in all three of his at bats, but it was just an experiment. Hermida will likely make a jump to AA in the early to mid part of the season and another AAA experiment isn't out of the question.
Houston Astros: Two young fresh fellows that may see some playing time for the Astros in 2004 are Jason Lane and Eric Bruntlett. Lane will have a shot to become the fourth outfielder for the Stros, while Bruntlett will get an opportunity to become a backup infielder for a full year for the club in Houston. Bruntlett hit .259 last year, and received a late callup for the Astros, mainly for his defensive purposes. That will again be what he tries to do in 2004, as he hopes to make the team out of Spring Training. Lane has been the best position prospect of the Astros for the last several years, and he will look to stick with the club out of spring training in 2004 as a reserve outfielder. He has always hit around .300 while showing some power from the plate. Lane has seen time at all outfield positions, but will look to be a right fielder in his permanent future. This guy will be hard to keep out of the lineup for the Astros, and they may find Richard Hidalgo to be expendable by the end of the year if Lane really comes on. Lane will try to impress out of spring training, and at 27, he doesn't want to ride the minor league bus anymore.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The big news out of camp is that top prospects LHP Greg Miller and RHP Joel Hanrahan are still hurting and not allowed to throw off the mound and that RHP Edwin Jackson has already been named the fifth starter by manager Jim Tracey. Jackson, only 20 years old, is considered by his manager to be mature enough to handle the pressures of major league life. This was a surprising move as the Dodgers had re-signed Wilson Alvarez presumably to start, given his great starts in 2003, but now he will start out the season in the bullpen.
Milwaukee Brewers: Before their offseason trade that sent out 1B Richie Sexson and brought in IF Craig Counsell (among others), the Brewers were considering promoting SS JJ Hardy from AA and giving him the starting Shortstop position. Counsell will hold the job for now, but don't expect the Brewers to hold Hardy back too much longer. He had an excellent season in 2003, especially as a 20 year old playing AA. He's solid defensively, and his offense improved dramatically as he hit .279 with 12 HR's and 62 RBI (keep in mind, this is as a 20-year old). Now 21, expect Hardy to start the season at AAA Pawtucket, but a midseason call-up is not out of the question, especially if his offensive production continues.
Montreal Expos: You don't really think of the Netherlands as a baseball hotbed, but that's where Rogearvin Bernadina hails from. The 19 year old outfielder had a lot to adjust to last season at Low-A Savannah and struggled, hitting just .237 for the Sand Gnats. Actually, Bernadina doesn't have a long history of playing baseball, but he certainly has strong skills. Once he adapts, the Expos believe that he'll hit with above average power and will be able to take advantage of his speed on the bases. Bernadina will probably start at High Class A ball, which is a bit advanced for his age.
New York Mets: A couple of OF prospects known more for their speed than their girth showed up this week at Spring Training in St. Lucie a bit beefier. Wayne Lydon and Jeff Duncan, both speedy centerfield prospects, worked hard this offseason to get stronger and the results are easily recognizable. It's way early in camp but 3B David Wright has been practicing mostly with the starting infield. What's becoming clear is that he is far and away the best defensive third baseman in the organization, and may well be only a couple hundred minor league ABs from being the best hitting one, too.
Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies are going slowly with two of their young pitchers. Eric Junge, who has seen a couple limited stays in the majors, had off-season shoulder surgery. Reliever Jeremy Wedel had elbow surgery over the winter, too. Both are doing well and are likely to be ready to go for opening day. Junge could be hurt a little because the Phillies won't allow him to return too quickly, meaning it might be tough for him to win one of the two available bullpen jobs that are open.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Every organization always seems to have one, and for the Pirates, it's RHP Bobby Bradley. What is this you may ask? Well, it's that top pitching prospect that blows away opponents whenever he's on the mound, but for whatever reason, can't consistently stay on the mound. Last year, Bradley impressed once again for high-A Lynchburg going 3-2 with a 3.40 ERA, however, he only made it about a third of the way through the season before going down with arm troubles again. When healthy, Bradley has the ability to potentially become a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter at the big league level, but he needs to show that he can make it through a full season before anyone expects big things from him.
San Diego Padres: The Padres signed a few players this week from their invitational tryout camp this past weekend, infielder Skip Adams, first baseman Cole Hilt and right-handed pitcher Shane Roelle. Adams, 24, hit .311 with six home runs and 27 RBIs in 50 games between Kansas City of the Independent Northern League and Niagara of the Canadian Baseball League. Hilt, 22, played in 21 games for Lewis-Clark State College hitting .306 with three home runs, six doubles and 23 RBIs. Roelle, 24, last played organized baseball for Hastings College (Neb.) in 2002, where he went 0-2 with a 14.90 ERA in eight games, making seven starts.
San Francisco Giants: Merkin Valdez, the highest rated prospect in the Giants farm system, was the only minor leaguer (besides the since traded Boof Bonser) named by Brian Sabean as a potential significant contributor to the major league club in 2004. Thus far in spring training, reports from the newspaper media have been extremely positive on his poise and delivery plus his fastball has been impressing the Giants management. However, the 22 year old right-hander only pitched low-A ball last year and most probably will start the year in the minors, either with Norwich, the Giants AA affiliate, or Fresno, their AAA affiliate.
St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Wainwright and John Gall will be two big youngsters to watching during Spring Training for the Cardinals. Wainwright was acquired from the Atlanta Braves for JD Drew this winter, and Wainwright has instantly become the best Cardinal prospect. He will be competing for a spot in the St. Louis rotation in Spring Training, but he really needs a year at AAA before he jumps to the big leagues. He played for AA Greenville in the Braves organization last year, and despite progressing very well, he needs to prove himself at the AAA level before being trusted in the major leagues. If he continues with success, Wainwright could be used as an injury callup; however it is unlikely with all the fringe starters that the Cardinals have signed. Gall has never been considered a big prospect, but he just keeps hitting the ball really well at every level he has played at. He continued to do so in 2003, and could look to take the backup first baseman role in 2004 for the Cardinals. Hid defense has been a problem, but if he shows that he can hit major league pitching and scoop a few more out of the dirt, then he may make the team in 2004.
Baltimore Orioles: Brian Finch, the 2003 second round pick out of Texas A& M, had a tremendous professional debut with the Aberdeen Ironbirds last season. Despite going 1-3, Finch posted a tiny 1.93 ERA and held opposing batters to a .183 average in his first 28 professional innings. Finch is a big right-hander that throws a sinking fastball in the 91-93 MPH range with top outs as high as 96 MPH. He also throws a big, plus curveball and a changeup.
Boston Red Sox: When it comes to bringing the heat, no pitcher in the organization may do it better than the left-handed Juan Cedeno. Reaching 93 mph consistently, at times he tends to overthrow his fastball and become wild. His secondary pitch is his curveball, but he will have to improve the changeup if he intends to have a future in a starting rotation. The twenty-year-old went 7-9 with a 3.02 ERA in 101.1 innings for Augusta (Lo A) in 2003. He allowed 44 walks to 87 strikeouts and opponents hit just .235 off him. In all likelihood, based upon his overwhelming fastball and above average curve, Cedeno is expected to see a move to the bullpen.
Detroit Tigers: Last year the Tigers had a large portion of their pitching talent stationed at low-A West Michigan, and the leader of the group was LHP Jon Connolly. Connolly had an amazing season, going 16-3 with a 1.41 ERA. Unlike teammate RHP Joel Zumaya, Connolly isn't a power pitcher with an amazing arm, but rather he just has incredible control and already has three major league ready pitches at his disposal. Similar to former Tiger prospect Andy Van Hekken, he's a soft-tosser and so his upside is extremely limited. However, it is very difficult to argue with his impressive results. The key will be for him to continue to show that he can win with control as he moves up the levels.
Kansas City Royals: There's a fine line between moving a player to the majors to see some action and letting him get more playing time at AAA. That's the dilemma that the Royals face with outfielder David DeJesus. DeJesus, who could use more work on his plate discipline, has an outside shot at winning a spot on the 25 man roster, but it's likely that the Royals will only keep him in the majors if they see a way to get him at least 300 at bats. Otherwise, it's back to AAA and he'll have to wait until next spring when the Royals may be looking to replace potential free agent Carlos Beltran.
Minnesota Twins: He may have an unfortunate name for a pitcher, but Grant Balfour may very well get a chance to throw strikes in the majors this season. The Twins are looking for pitching help and will give Balfour a shot at winning a job in the starting rotation. Balfour struck out 87 in 71 innings at AAA last season and another 30 in 26 innings at the major league level, so there is definitely some potential. The 26 year old right-hander hails from Australia. The one concern is that Balfour's 97 innings of work last season were the most he's ever thrown in the professional ranks, leading to doubts about how he might stand up to a long major league season.
New York Yankees: A prospect to keep an eye on this summer is RHP Matt DeSalvo. Signed in 2003 before the draft as a fifth-year senior, he holds the all-time NCAA records for career wins and strikeouts, and he has an 87-94 mph fastball and nifty curveball as well. DeSalvo is a strikeout pitcher with a world of talent. At 23 years old, the Yankees will most likely challenge him in '04 by starting him in A-Tampa with a quick call-up to AA Trenton early in the year.
Oakland Athletics: RHP Rich Harden received a ton of hype last season but has still only pitched 88 2/3 innings at Triple-A and 74.2 innings in the majors. With a mid-90s fastball, he could dominate. If he struggles, sending him to Triple-A Sacramento is a possibility. Justin Duchscherer could take his place. He went 14-2 with a 3.25 ERA at Sacramento and was 1-1 with a 3.31 ERA in four games (three starts) for the A's.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The problems continue for Devil Rays prospect Josh Hamilton. The whispers of drug abuse became louder when Hamilton was suspended by major league baseball for 30 days and fined an undisclosed sum for failing multiple drug tests. The penalty shows that Hamilton has tested positive for banned substances on more than one occasion. If Hamilton tests positive again, he would again be suspended for 50-75 days and the penalties get longer with each positive drug test.
Toronto Blue Jays: Right-hander Brandon League has occasionally hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun and routinely hits in the high 90s. What really makes him tough is the movement that he gets on his pitches. What is making him even tougher is the fact that his change-up is improving. If he really gets that working, he will rocket through the Jays system. For now though, League will get more time in the minors to work on his pitches while Toronto tries to figure out if he's better qualified to be in their starting rotation of the future or if he could be their closer of the future.