More Hardware, Minor League Style
Posted by Jason A. Churchill on September 6, 2006
Well, okay, I don’t have any hardware to actually give out to these players, and some of them have no idea what Prospect Insider even is, but I’m an egotistical jerk, so I’ll do this anyways. Someone must care what I think.
Breakthrough Prospects of the Year – Francisco Cruceta, RHP and Bryan LaHair, 1B
We’ve discussed Cruceta here quite a bit and it’s easy to see why he’s the breakthrough pitcher of the year after he led the PCL in strikeouts with an impressive 185.
The right-hander is 25 years old and after being sent out of dodge by Cleveland a year ago, he’s turned himself into a legit prospect. With his low-90s four-seamer and plus split-finger, Cruceta profiles well as a relief arm, but with improved command, he could be a tough matchup as a big-league starter as well.
Late in the year Cruceta grew more and more comfortable with his breaking ball, though he didn’t use it a whole lot more than he did earlier in the season. A quality third pitch could solidify Cruceta’s candidacy for the fifth spot in the rotation for 2007, but he’ll come to camp with other in-house competition, such as Cha Seung Baek.
Cruceta, barring an injury, trade or a total flop showing in spring games, should find himself on the 25-man roster to start next season.
LaHair was not going to win this up until his torrid streak in August where the 24-year-old first baseman smacked seven home runs in his final eight games with Triple-A Tacoma, including two 2-homer efforts in three days versus Portland. LaHair hit .357 with eight home runs in August after just two in his first 146 ABs with the Rainiers and six in 222 ABs with Double-A San Antonio.
LaHair combined to slug .474 between the two stops this season, but further than the numbers, he’s starting to recognize pitch types much better than he was earlier in the year and he’s getting out in front of fastballs – which means his natural power is taking over.
One scout called LaHair “the kind of guy that shows up and all of a sudden you have yourself a kid who can hit, and hit for some power in the big leagues. These guys come a long every once in awhile.”
The scout also added that Lahair has two shortcomings — left-handed pitching, which he did improve on with Tacoma, mildly, and sustained power production. He’ll start 2007 as Tacoma’s everyday first baseman with a chance to turn himself into a legit major-league option… but he’s not there yet.
Comeback Prospect of the Year – Travis Blackley, LHP
Need I even explain this one? Blackley had labrum surgery in February of 2005, missed the ensuing season – all of it – and came back to post a solid, if unspectacular, 4.05 ERA in 155 innings of work. Blackley wasn’t pitching with smoke and mirrors, or versus inferior competition, either.
While he did have the advantage of pitching in one of the top three pitcher’s parks in the minors, Blackley was facing some legit bats with very recognizable names.
Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Chris Lubanski, Troy Tulowitzki, Chris Ianetta, Joseph Koshansky, Ian Stewart, Mitch Maier, Nate Gold, Hunter Pence and Brandon Wood… any of those names ring a bell?
Gordon is a blue-chip bat, true blue chip and will be an all-star in the bigs in no time. Butler isn’t far behind, either, at least offensively. There’s not much doubt Butler will hit and hit with some power in the show. Lubanski is probably a medium bat, but he slugged .475 in the Texas League. Tulowitzki posted 49extra-base hits in 104 games and is now in the majors with the Rockies – and hitting.
Koshansky hit 31 home runs and slugged .526, Stewart is a healthy season from becoming the left-handed hitting version of David Wright and Nate Gold led the league in homers with 34. There are about a dozen other names that will play in the bigs int he next year or so, and Blackley did well to stay in games past the fifth inning.
Blackley put up impressive K/BB rates, considering he started the year at about 75% of where he was pre-injury in 2004. His change was off and on, his curve ball was inconsistent and he was topping off at about 84 mph with his fastball. But he battled. Big surprise, eh?
As the season rolled on, Blackley’s stuff began to come back. His change started to bow a little bit more, at least at times, his curve ball started to bite a little bit more and his cutter, maybe his favorite pitch, developed into more of a slider.
He’s now a legit five-pitch pitcher. Four-seamer, cutter, slider, change-up, and a two-seamer with sinking action, a pitch yours truly wishes Travis threw a lot more, due to his fly ball rates.
But his G/F ratio is deceiving… he pitches to the ballpark. If he’s home at the Wolff, he’s looking for the flyball out, due to the size of the ballpark and the favorable pitching conditions. if he’s on the road in a fair park or hitter’s paradise, he’s more apt to use the two-seamer to get a ground ball and end an inning with a twin-killing.
The difference in approaches would help explain the large differential in home-road splits for Blackley, where the ballpark itself can’t possibly get full credit.
Blackley had a hell of a year, considering the circumstances. And now, the soon-to-be 24-year-old southpaw, can resume his baseball career. No more restrictions, no more excuses. Not that’d he ever offer up one of those.
I’m not even sure he knows what an excuse is.
Defensive Prospect of the Year – Oswaldo Navarro, SS
Navarro is a very solid defensive player, and he CAN play shortstop, even at the big-league level. He has that kind of defensive ability. But the 21-year-old wins this award because of two things.
1. Asdrubal Cabrera was traded to the Indians
2. Rob Johnson was so distracted by the fact that he was overmatched offensively, off-field issues and injury, that his true natural skills never really showed up consistently.
But Navarro is a worthy recipient with great hands, superb footwork and a capable throwing arm with better arm speed than Cabrera.
Offensively, skipper Dave Brundage actually likes Oswaldo’s bat a little better than Cabrera’s, citing discipline and pure bat speed as his advantages.
The Venezuelan’s future is likely as a reserve infielder, where Navarro could very well develop into a key role player. His bat has some catching up to do, however, and he’ll probably need another year and a half in Triple-A in order to get to where he needs to be.
Disappointing Prospect of the Year – Matt Tuiasosopo, 3B
This one was tough, for several reasons. For one, Tui didn’t ask to be graded so highly as a prospect. He’s out there giving everything he has ,every single day. He’s as intelligent and coachable as any prospect in the system and he’s blessed with physical tools that dozens of major league stars would die to have.
It’s also a bit unfair. He’s all of 20 years old and in his second full season in pro ball, after a prep career playing sports for whatever the season happened to be.
Overall, Tui is NOT A DISAPPOINTMENT, he simply had a very disappointing season based on what all of the unfounded expectations pointed to for his 2006 campaign – power, power and more power. Even I was expecting more pop.
Furthermore, the poor kid was prematurely promoted to Double-A San Antonio, where their ballpark is nicknamed “where hitters go to get humbled,” and was asked to change defensive positions on the fly. It’s almost as if he was set up to fail.
My guess is that Tui will rebound from hitting .185 with five extra-base hits in 64 games with the Missions and become a useful big-leaguer. But to be honest, I’m basing that on his physical tools and the word of the M’s coaching staff.
Not much else to go on right now. But remember, Tuiasosopo is still just 20. Lots of time to get things right, such as a switch to right field where he belongs.