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Monday, June 01, 2009

The Next Generation (Part Two)

In my last post I made some glowing comments about Justin Upton, all of which I stand by. But one of the things which sets Upton apart from his peers had nothing to do with his talent. He is, by my measure, perhaps the last premier prospect to be called up for good before his was ready. At the beginning of August in 2007, when he was still just 19, Upton was promoted by the Diamondbacks directly from AA after only about a year and a half of minor league service. Upton showed flashes of brilliance from the start, going 7 for his first 17 with five extra-base hits. But he also struck out a lot and was prone to extended slumps. As recently as this April, many speculated that he'd been promoted too soon (see the post "Down on the Upton" from 4/8/09). Arizona jumped the gun because they were in the thick of a pennant race with the Rockies and Dodgers, Carlos Quentin had been something of a bust (647 OPS in 81 games), and they didn't feel comfortable with a platoon of Scott Hairston and Jeff DaVanon down the stretch (understandably).

Few teams have been willing to resort to such measures in recent years. Last season the Rays refused to bring up David Price until the rosters expanded in September, despite the fact they were in the thick of a three-team race with the Red Sox and Yankees. The Brewers, chasing their first postseason appearance in two decades, resisted the temptation to bring up Mat Gamel, even though their third basemen had combined for the worst average in the National League. The Cardinals, still in the thick of the race, refused to turn to Colby Rasmus whe Rick Ankiel got hurt.

In situations like these we have become accustomed to the phrase "reluctant to start the clock," a reference to the fact that as soon as a team puts a premier prospect on their MLB roster, they begin the countdown to arbitration and free agency. The case of Evan Longoria is now infamous. He signed a six-year deal last May, while still in the minor leagues, was promoted the next day and promptly won the Rookie of the Year and carried the Rays to the World Series. He'll earn about as much over the next five seasons as Ryan Howard makes this year, despite being arguably a more valuable commodity, because the Rays were fastidious in protecting themselves from future arbitration hearings.

Many expect similar contracts to be handed out to this year's round of "clock-starters," Matt Wieters and David Price being the most notable among them, both being recalled, predictably, around a third of the way into the season. They will be joined (or already have been) by Mat Gamel, Matt LaPorta, Andrew McCutchen, and Tommy Hanson, all of whom probably deserved to begin the year in a big-league clubhouse. Here are some potential call-ups to watch:

Andrew McCutchen - CF - Pittsburgh Pirates

The bad news is that if your team is the Pirates there is very little motivation for them to bring up a McCutchen, a Steven Pearce, or a Pedro Alvarez, other than provide a little shred of hope for long-suffering fans and, as such, they will probably hold off as long as reasonably possible. McCutchen is making it hard on them at least. He's hitting .395 in his last ten AAA games for Indianapolis, and is showing speed (10 SB) and power (.500 SLG) so far this season. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's left-fielders have combined for a 685 OPS (13th in the NL) and the right-fielders aren't much better (732, 11th).

Kila Ka'aihue - 1B - Kansan City Royals

Another situation to watch is in Kansas City. Mike Jacobs and Billy Butler have been mediocre at 1B and DH. Meanwhile, Kila Ka'aihue appears to be preparing to follow up on his monster 2008 season (.314, 37 HR, 1085 OPS). After a slow start he's built his numbers up quickly (.275, 8 HR, 956 OPS). He's a better defensive option than Jacobs or Butler, as well. The Royals desperately need offense if they are going to stay in the hunt for the AL Central. They are 12th in the AL in scoring.

Tommy Hanson - SP - Atlanta Braves

Tommy Hanson has a 1.49 ERA, a 0.86 WHIP, and 90 K in 66 IP at AAA. That's sufficiently dominant, I would say. The Braves starters have been very solid (3.93 ERA), but Kensin Kawakami and Kris Medlen have to feel the fire on the back of their neck with each start.

Vin Mazarro - SP - Oakland Athletics

The A's can't hit (last in AL in runs) and they haven't pitched very well either (8th in ERA), so they don't have a lot to gain from loading their rotation with young talent. But that seems to be what Billy Beane is doing, anyway. He's already riding 21-year-olds Brett Anderson (2-5, 5.70) and Trevor Cahill (2-5, 4.33). Today he announced that they'll be adding the 22-year-old Mazzaro to the mix. Mazzaro has earned it. He's got a 2.38 ERA in nine starts at AAA. Expect that this is the makings of Oakland's next "Big Three," but it may not happen in 2009.

Other Prospects to Watch: Bud Norris, SP (Astros), Neftali Feliz, SP (Rangers), Fernando Martinez, OF (Mets), Justin Smoak, 1B (Rangers), Sean Rodriguez, 2B (Angels), Adrian Cardenas, 2B (Athletics)

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