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March 26, 2001

Touring the Minors

International League Preview

by Keith Scherer

Davenport Translations:         ERA     BA    OBP    SLG
International League           4.38   .266   .335   .416

According to Clay Davenport's Translations, the International League has the highest degree of difficulty of all the minor leagues. The Pacific Coast League is well known for high-scoring games and skewed statistics, but the IL is neutral, favoring neither batters nor pitchers. Its runs-per-game average of 9.5 was just about average for the minor leagues.

As they do in most seasons, this year's prospect lists--Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, John Sickels's--feature players who, by and large, are expected to begin the season below Triple-A. The most intense bird-dogging might be done at Double-A, but Triple-A is still the level that separates the men from the boys. Most successful prospects serve an apprenticeship there. Last season, Pat Burrell, Russell Branyan, Aubrey Huff, and Jon Garland passed through the IL on their journey from the prospect lists to the big leagues. This season, few IL names have generated much interest, though Josh Hamilton, Baseball America's top prospect, could take a quick spin through the league.

Even though the best prospects are likely to be elsewhere in 2001, there are some things to watch for this year in the IL:

East Division

Buffalo Bisons (Cleveland Indians, Park Factor 982)

Joel Skinner won Baseball America's Minor League Manager of the Year Award, in part because he had to cope with a roster that completely turned over: not one player lasted from Opening Day through the playoffs. 69 players wore the Bisons' colors, and Skinner endured 191 roster moves. This was a reflection of the massive amount of roster shuffling at the major-league level, which put downward pressure on the entire organization.

So if it seems like the Indians are flailing, they are. The team's top pitching prospects have live arms, injury histories, and poor ratios. C.C. Sabathia might make the parent club out of spring training, but lesser prospects like Danys Baez, Zach Day, Tim Drew, and Jake Westbrook need development time. With the Tribe's inability to keep its pitchers healthy, and with the pressures of what should be a tight pennant race, they aren't likely to get a full year at Triple-A. How long they do get might be a good indication of how long the Indians' window of opportunity will remain open.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Phillies (Philadelphia Phillies, Park Factor 965)

I'm reading Kevin Kerran's Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting. It was published in 1984, back when the Phillies' minor-league system was universally respected. It went sour right about the time the book hit the racks, and things got steadily worse for the Phillies until even the Cubs passed them. In recent years, the system has rebounded somewhat, and the team is making news by aggressively signing Asian players.

This year's Scranton team isn't going to produce much for the Phillies, though it does have a handful of pitchers--Evan Thomas, Nelson Figueroa, Dave Coggin--who soon could be decent end-of-rotation starters in the majors. The Phillies might have the luxury of giving them enough development time. Brandon Duckworth will pass through on his way to a September call-up. Fans will watch the development of Reggie Taylor and Eric Valent, but neither is a star in the making. Scranton did well last year, finishing near the top in the major categories, but the most interesting things happening in the organization are at the lower levels. Check back in two years.

Pawtucket Red Sox (Boston Red Sox, Park Factor 1006)

Once again, the big name is Dernell Stenson, who some think is getting the Job treatment. Baseball America ranks him as the organization's best prospect, but given his low batting average, mediocre OPS and poor defense, he's not exactly getting shafted. Job wasn't given anything he couldn't handle, and maybe the same ethic is at work here.

The staff will have no aces, but there's plenty of talent that will play in Pawtucket on its way to Boston, assuming it doesn't make it the big club right out of spring training: Paxton Crawford, Sang-Hoon Lee, Sun Woo Kim, and Tomokazu Ohka. Brad Baker's tools are developing into skills, and he might even get some time here, but if he does he's being rushed. He's only 20.

Syracuse SkyChiefs (Toronto Blue Jays, Park Factor 1049)

Vernon Wells should still be here. Am I the only one who thinks this might be the end of his line? He could grow up to be Chad Mottola. Cesar Izturis will back for another year, trying to learn how to hit. Some are rationalizing away his weaknesses by citing his youth, but he's 21. Isn't he old enough to hit better than he does? Especially in this park. Anyway, that's the story here. Can he or can't he?

As for pitchers, all eyes will be on Pascual Coco, and some eyes will be on reliever Bob File. They'll both be in Toronto before long.

Rochester Red Wings (Baltimore Orioles, Park Factor 955)

I had planned on writing about Matt Riley and Luis Rivera, but due to injuries neither will pitch this year. Like many teams, the Orioles have some interesting things going on in the low minors, but there's really no help on the way this year.

Ottawa Lynx (Montreal Expos, Park Factor 1020)

Here's some concrete things to watch for: see if Donnie Bridges raises his strikeout rate, and how Brad Wilkerson's recovery progresses. When Wilkerson becomes healthy, he'll play in the bigs and he'll play well. I think he'll be better than Vernon Wells. Both Bridges and Wilkerson should be in Montreal by season's end.

West Division

Indianapolis Indians (Milwaukee Brewers, Park Factor 994)

These Indians won the Triple-A World Series last year, which is a lot like winning a Tallest Midget contest. They won it with a group of washout former prospects. Yes, Ben Sheets was here, but not for long, and he wasn't really that great when he was here. This year, Nick Neugebauer's arrival (and departure?) will be the best story. He might even be worth the interminable trip down I-65.

Columbus Clippers (New York Yankees, Park Factor 1000)

The same prospects as last year: Alfonso Soriano, D'Angelo Jimenez, and Nick Johnson. Maybe they'll all be in Triple-A to start the season, but it's likely that they'll all get called up during it.

As for pitchers, the Clippers will prepare a nice crop of guys who can cheaply fill out the back of the Yanks' rotation for the next couple of years. Randy Keisler and Adrian Hernandez are trying out for the major-league rotation, but at least one of them will join Ted Lilly in Ohio. Todd Noel is still in the Yankees' system and could be a sleeper if he gets off to a good start and quickly gets jumped to Columbus. He was a big deal a couple of years ago. If Noel never becomes good, Ed Lynch won't be quite as assailable for trading him and Jon Garland for Matt Karchner and Felix Heredia. We in Chicago need Lynch to be as culpable as possible, since we've given him so much grief about those trades, so maybe we should all be rooting for Noel to break through.

Louisville RiverBats (Cincinnati Reds, Park Factor 1037)

Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn will start the year in Double-A, but could make it to Louisville by mid-summer. The cute story will be if they make it here together. Until then, there won't be much of interest.

Ed Yarnall was highly regarded as recently as last year. He cost a lot, so any sign of improvement, especially in his walk rate, might be used to justify bringing him to the majors. Chris Reitsma is something of a prospect, but only for the back of the rotation or the bullpen. He doesn't get enough strikeouts, but he had a great Arizona Fall League, so if he starts out hot, he's a likely early-season call-up.

Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit Tigers, Park Factor 994)

Look at the Tigers' grades in the back of the STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook, by John Sickels. Grades like that impelled me to drop out of college and join the military. Gerry Fraley reports in the latest Baseball America that the Tigers are dedicated to an organizational program of fiscal restraint, cutting costs on superfluities such as baseballs. Back before I dropped out, my priorities were just like that. When my finances got low, rather than get a job I just downgraded to $1.98 cases of beer. And when I completely ran out of money, I sold my plasma. Twice, I even sold myself to Hazelton for medical experiments.

Suddenly, I don't like the Tigers anymore.

South Division

Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Park Factor 987)

Josh Hamilton might make a whistle stop in Durham on his way to Tampa Bay. It seems as if everyone except the D-Rays and Rany Jazayerli thinks Hamilton, like Corey Patterson, needs time in Triple-A. I'll be watching to see how overmatched he is when he plays for the Bulls.

The D-Rays are big on tools guys like Hamilton. Next year it'll be Kenny Kelly. This goes for their pitchers too, though their tools pitchers are ahead of their tools hitters. Matt White, Bobby Seay, Jesus Colome, and Jason Standridge should all see time here in 2001. They all have great arms, and they all need development time, Standridge more than the others. That's the catch with tools guys. They need a lot of time for their tools to become skills. They shouldn't be rushed, not when serviceable gap-fillers like Brian Tollberg, Cory Lidle, and Albie Lopez grow on trees.

Charlotte Knights (Chicago White Sox, Park Factor 1075)

The White Sox have the luxury of letting their young pitchers get adequate development time. It's not so much that their major-league rotation is all that special--it's no better than the Indians'--but more that they already have too many prospects on the staff as it is.

With Ryan Anderson out for the year, Jon Rauch is the big guy about whom everyone is talking. His numbers in the minors and for Team USA were amazing, and if he gets a lot of time at Charlotte this year he should do much better out of the gate in the majors than Jon Garland and Kip Wells did last year. Matt Ginter, Danny Wright, and Josh Fogg will be left alone to develop here. There will be some adjustment time as they go from the pitchers' haven at Birmingham to the batting cage at Charlotte, but these guys could be competing for rotation spots by next year. If Rauch, Ginter, Wright, and Fogg are 4/5 of the Charlotte rotation, this could be the most interesting team to watch in the IL.

Another story to watch is Joe Borchard's development, which might bring him here on his way to a late-season call-up. He should like the dimensions here. That goes for Joe Crede, too, if he's not in Chicago.

Norfolk Tides (New York Mets, Park Factor 998)

What else to do but watch Alex Escobar? He could be the next superstar, and the Mets don't have much else. Grant Roberts's control will be an issue. If it's good, he'll see time in the majors. Watch to see if Tyler Walker makes it back this year from his labrum tear.

I'll be watching Dicky Gonzalez to see if he becomes the next Rick Reed. His profiles read like those written about Tollberg and Brian Lawrence, who, like Gonzalez, are skills pitchers. These guys bore the scouts and are never regarded as prospects. But they're fairly predictable and reliable, and with so many tools flameouts, who can't use a few of these guys?

Richmond Braves (Atlanta Braves, Park Factor 1035)

The real action in the Braves' organization is at A ball, which I'll get to in a forthcoming column. The staff at Myrtle Beach is not likely to make it all the way to Richmond this season, so the most interesting pitcher to watch is Matt McClendon, who gives good human interest copy but still needs to boost his strikeout rate quite a bit. He'd better do it this year, because that Myrtle Beach squad is soon going to pass him.

Keith Scherer can be reached at KJSbaseball@aol.com.

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