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National League Prospects Update, Part I

August 14, 2009 | By Matt Wilson | comment on this post
Conor Jackson has missed most of the season for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Conor Jackson’s Valley Fever has allowed D-Back prospects to strut their stuff in Zona.

We’re back with the second half of our Prospects Update. Here’s the American League.

Arizona Diamondbacks

When your team is 17 games back in the division and half your roster is on the disabled list, it is a great opportunity to see if any of your farm system is ready to play in the show. You know things are going bad when you have players on the disabled list with Valley Fever. Conor Jackson has managed to catch a disease that only infects one in 5,000 people a year. The hits keep coming in the farm system, where top prospect Jarrod Parker (No. 22 on our pre-season Top 40 Prospects List) has been sidelined with a serious elbow injury. A date with Dr. James Andrews is imminent and that is just about as ominous as it gets.

Arizona traded reliever Tony Pena to get power prospect Brandon Allen from the Chicago White Sox. Allen had disappointed in Triple-A for Chicago, but he’s torn the cover off the ball since joining the Arizona farm system. In 111 at bats, Allen’s hit .315 with 11 home runs and four stolen bases for the Reno Aces. With Jackson out with obscure diseases and Josh Whitesell hitting .191 in the majors, Allen could be up for September. In the long run, Allen might be a DH but he reminds me a lot of Carlos Lee when he was coming up. He could be a great source of power if he does get the call in September.

Trent Oeltjen has already gotten the call from the Diamondbacks. After spending the better part of seven years in the Minnesota farm system, Oeltjen seems to be coming into his own for the Diamondbacks. In 2008, he hit .315 with 28 doubles, 10 triples, six home runs, and 15 stolen bases. This year, his numbers remain consistent with a .300 average, 27 doubles, 14 triples, 10 home runs, and 19 stolen bases. Since he’s been called up, he’s hit .400 with three dingers and two swipes in just four games. Obviously, he’s not as good as that, but he is a guy that gives 110 per cent all the time. Oeltjen will always get the most out of his tools and that type of high effort guy has a place in every clubhouse. With Justin Upton on the DL and Chris “Outfielder” Young in the minors, Oeltjen could be very productive for the last month and a half.

Reliever Daniel Schlereth has tremendous stuff, and he’s been pushed through the system very rapidly, getting the call to Arizona for the second time this season on Wednesday. Health has been a concern for this kid, and he needs to limit the free passes, but in an Arizona bullpen that’s ripe with opportunity, he’s someone you must track.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves are not out of the playoff race, but it is evident that they are engaging in a bit of a youth movement. Tommy Hanson (No. 13 on our list) has ascended to the Major Leagues and has looked outstanding since receiving the call. He has not been quite as overpowering against Major Leaguers but the 3.22 ERA is very impressive for a 22-year-old. As Hanson matures, his control should improve a bit to match his statistics in the minors. Jordan Schafer started the year as the Braves centrefielder and hit a home run in the opener. It has been all downhill since then for him as he was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett and promptly injured his wrist. He probably will not be back for September.

Brandon Jones is not really a prospect anymore, but he was one of the top Braves hopes over the past few seasons. In 2007, he hit .300 with 19 home runs and 17 stolen bases, but he has been unable to match that production since. The average is still there – Jones is hitting .293 in Triple-A – but the power and speed combination have disappeared. He might be a fourth outfielder at best, but he could see time in Atlanta soon. Barbaro Canizares received his cup of coffee earlier this season and was only able to manage a .190 average. At 29 years old, he does not qualify as a prospect yet the people who organize the All Star Futures Game felt he deserved a spot on the World team. The Cuban defector has hit well in Triple-A and only Adam LaRoche stands in his way for playing time in Atlanta, so he could be a cheap source of power in NL-only leagues in September.

The real big guns in the farm system are Jason Heyward (No. #3) and Freddie Freeman. This pair of 20-year-olds has been teaming up to destroy pitching at every stop in the Atlanta farm system. In Heyward’s case, he just seems to be getting better. He hit .296 with 10 home runs in 189 at-bats at High-A, but his numbers are even more impressive at Double-A. In 111 at-bats, he’s hitting .405 with six long balls. At 6’4” and 220 pounds, Hewyard is an imposing presence when he steps up to bat. His partner in crime, Freeman, has not enjoyed the same type of immediate success in Double-A, but that’s hardly an insult to a kid his age. Freeman put together a great Spring Training and he is the first baseman of the future in Atlanta. If either of these two get a September call-up, they are must-adds for a team looking to build for the future.

On the mound, Cole Rohrbough was one of the team’s top pitching prospects heading into the season, but he’s been a massive disappointment in 2009. He continues to walk too many, but is no longer striking out enough to compensate. He’s also been far too hittable and has really taken a major step backward. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Rohrbough forced to repeat High-A.

Chicago Cubs

Chicago has a decent farm system, but it is not necessarily loaded with talent that is ready to contribute this season. Josh Vitters (No. 31 on our pre-season list) is the prized possession of the system and he absolutely destroyed Class-A pitching this year. Unfortunately, the .230 average since his promotion to High-A indicates that he is nowhere near ready to contribute in the Windy City. The other big name in the Cub system is Jeff Samardzija. In my opinion, the hype surrounding him is not proportional to his actual talent. The recognition that he received as an All-American wide receiver for Notre Dame helped propel his career. This year he’s posted a 6.29 ERA in the majors and I doubt he will do much to become roster worthy in the near future.

Jake Fox crushed the ball in 2008 with 39 doubles and 31 home runs between stops at Double-A and Triple-A. The problem was that he only hit .222 in Triple-A. Considering he was already 25, some people felt it was too late for him to develop. After hitting over .400 for the first month in Triple-A, Fox has been with the Cubs for most of the 2009 season and in limited action, he’s hit .301 with eight home runs. With Aramis Ramirez already on the roster, Fox may not be a long-term third base solution, but the incumbent’s injury-filled season has given the kid a window of opportunity. Fox is eligible at third base and in the outfield in most formats which allows flexibility for fitting him on your NL-only roster.

Starter Andrew Cashner, the team’s first round pick last year, has soared through the system, making him a prospect worth tracking. He handled the promotion to High-A with ease, forcing the Cubs to move him up to Double-A, where he’s been even harder to hit through five starts. Cashner occasionally suffers from a bit of wildness and inconsistency, but this soon-to-be 23-year-old righty has to be on the radar of keeper league owners.

Cincinnati Reds

Sometimes, when I look at the Cincy, I forget whether I am looking at Major League stats or Triple-A stats. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips are obviously bright spots, but just about every other position seems to be a bit of a wild card. At the trade deadline, the Reds were able to pick up Wladimir Balentien from the Seattle Mariners. He has never been a truly elite prospect, but he has always been very intriguing because of the power upside. Balentien fell flat on his face with his opportunity in Seattle, but he’s hit well since arriving in Cincinnati. Right now, the five outfielders listed on the Red roster are Balentien, Jonny Gomes, Laynce Nix, Willy Taveras, and Chris Dickerson. It baffles me why Taveras is still playing at all. The Reds are 15 games under .500 and Taveras is hitting .237 with a .272 on-base percentage. I know Cincy dished out a fair amount of coin to sign this dude to a multi-year (!) contract last winter, but hell, just bench the guy! Gomes and Nix are both older than Taveras, while Dickerson is 27 years old. These guys have not been able to hold down starting jobs for a reason, so Balentien may have his best opportunity to play in Cincinnati right now. This lack of outfield talent should also provide Chris Heisey a chance to play in September. He’s 25 years old already, but you can’t ignore his combined .325 BA with 17 home runs and 16 stolen bases between stops at Double-A and Triple-A. Heisey might be a fun guy to take a chance on when he does get called up.

Yonder Alonso (No. 30 on our pre-season list) is the top prospect in the system. There were rumours that he was involved in the Scott Rolen trade at the deadline. When I first saw these reports, my jaw literally dropped. Fortunately, the Reds were smart enough to hang on to Alonso. He hit well in High-A but has been a bit overmatched with a promotion to Double-A. The best thing that Alonso has going for him right now is that he is a power hitter that does not strike out every other at bat. As long as he keeps making contact, the hits will eventually start to fall. The biggest problem the Reds have with Alonso is that Votto is entrenched at first base. Too much talent is always a good problem to have, though.

Neftali Soto, a tender-aged power-hitting third base prospect, has mostly struggled to adjust to High-A. But he has a great pedigree, and is getting hot in the last couple of weeks, so he may be ready for Double-A next season, which means he’ll soon need to be on your radar.

Colorado Rockies

Coors Field is still hell for pitchers, humidor or not. Just ask a guy like Jason Hammel whether he would rather pitch in Coors or on the road (home ERA 7.02 vs. road ERA of 2.81). However, that should not scare you away from star pitching prospects like Jhoulys Chacin and Christian Friedrich. In Chacin’s case, he has already made it to the big leagues. As a reliever, he is doing exactly what the Rockies expect him to do – strike people out. As a starter, he displayed control issues. He’s since been sent back down, but it is hard for Coors Field to hurt a pitcher when the batters cannot make contact. Friedrich has been arguably the best pitcher in the minor leagues this year. Between Class-A and High-A, Friedrich has posted a 1.71 ERA with a 1.02 WHIP. In 100 innings, he has struck out 136 batters, which works out to an eye-popping 12.24 strikeouts per nine innings.

Dexter Fowler (No. 11 on our pre-season list) did not necessarily have a spot in the Colorado outfield coming out of the spring. Now he’s the proud owner of 345 big league at bats, a .264 average, and 26 stolen bases. The stolen bases are good enough for third in the National League and he still is splitting time with a plethora of other flyhawks. If you’re looking for upside over the last month and a half, look no further than Carlos Gonzalez. After being traded from Arizona to Oakland, then from Oakland to Colorado, Gonzalez seems to have found a home in the Colorado outfield. He was hitting .330 in Triple-A before getting called up. Gonzalez has 25-homer, 20-steal potential and just needs regular at bats. He has eight stolen bases in just 127 at bats and could be a cheap source of steals in the speed-starved National League. He’s also been red hot as of late (.424 BA in August).

Catcher Wilin Rosario, one of the organization’s top prospects after a huge 2008 season in the Rookie-level Pioneer League, was aggressively promoted to High-A, and has predictably struggled with the adjustment. He’s now hurt and has been shut down for the season, but we were very impressed with his progress in June and July, so he’s a name worth tucking away.

In Part II of our NL Prospects Update, we’ll cover off more of the Senior Circuit minor leaguers.

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