Farm Report Part 3(a): A-Ball Hitters

Wednesday, February 12 2003 @ 05:59 AM EST

Contributed by: Jordan

So, here it is Ė Part One of my magnum opus (or as Baldrick would say, my magnificent octopus) on the Blue Jaysí most interesting A-Ball prospects. For reasons of length (the whole thingís about 7,000 words), Iíve split the project into two sections, batters and pitchers. This shorter article is about the former, and I hope to have the latter ready to go when I get back in the office later next week.

Youíll find that of the total number of 23 A-Ball prospects in these reviews, fewer than one-third of them are hitters. Thatís partly because a number of these teams play in pitcher-friendly leagues, but itís also because the Jays have really stocked up on pitching the last couple of years, and their lower minors are brimming with hurlers whose potential ranges from promising to outstanding.

For those tuning in late who havenít read Part One or Part Two, I want to emphasize that these observations are drawn from the playersí statistical records and insights drawn from research, but involve no actual eyewitness accounts or anything resembling an expert opinion: Dick Scott, I ainít. A-Ball prospects in particular are very hard to judge, and the guy who posts lights-out numbers in Charleston today could be pumping gas in Topeka two years from now. In other words, don't apply for that job with Baseball America based on these columns.

Feedback and suggestions are welcomed warmly, while corrections and criticisms are welcomed more standoffishly, given the uncomfortable chair to sit in, offered some lukewarm tea and maybe some leftover biscuits, chatted with briefly about acquaintances and the weather, and hurried out the door not long afterwards. But welcomed they are nonetheless.

Russ Adams, SS/2B, 6í1Ē, 180, 22 years old
Dunedin 2002
147 AB, 23 R, .231/.321/.306, 1 HR, 18 BB, 17 K, 5 SB, 2 CS
Auburn 2002
113 AB, 25 R, .354/.464/.469, 0 HR, 24 BB, 11 K, 13 SB, 1 CS

Nothing like starting with the cream of the crop, is there? If someone very powerful and very evil (Tom Brokaw, say) came up to JP and said he was taking away every Class-A ballplayer from the Blue Jays organization but one, and told him to choose which one it would be, Iím pretty sure that Ricciardi would pick Russ Adams, manning shortstop for Low-A Auburn and High-A Dunedin in 2002 and putting up eye-popping numbers in the process. Not many prospects post half again as many walks as strikeouts, and if they throw a .345 average with a 90+% stolen-base success rate into the bargain, well, thatís just peachy. No power to speak of yet, but if he adds some muscle to that 6í1Ē frame, 15+ HRs a year could be foreseeable. Adams struggled somewhat in his promotion to Dunedin, but a couple of nasty slumps accounted for much of that, and he maintained an almost even K/BB rate throughout, which is enough to tell me heíll be fine.

A shortstop and (interestingly) third baseman at UNC, Adams is generally expected to shift to second base, though Iíve found no official reason why. I imagine that either his arm strength or his range wonít cut it in the 6-hole, because itís not like Toronto is organizationally thin at second. Most reports give Adams a 10 for character and work ethic, as well as for those ubiquitous ďinstinctsĒ that seem to separate the good players from the leading-edge ones; all of this bodes very well for the future. JP famously compared Adams to Walt Weiss when he made Adams his very first first-round selection, but this profile has Chuck Knoblauch, the Minneapolis-St. Paul version, written all over it (though MLB scouts, intriguingly, attached a different name to young Mr. Adams on draft day: Nomar Garciaparra).

Timetable? Adams will be 22 when he starts the year, probably with your lame-duck New Haven Ravens. The Jays have no reason to rush him, with a respectable and possibly impact 2B already in the majors and making close to the minimum. I expect Russ to at least hold his own at AA this year, and if he does well enough, maybe a late-season cocoa in Syracuse. 2004 should see him at AAA at least part of the year, and by spring 2005 at the very latest he should be the favourite for the second-base slot. The rate at which he progresses will probably determine when Orlando Hudson finally does get dealt.

Josephang Bernhardt, SS, 6í1Ē, 185 lbs, 22 years old
Dunedin 2002
357 AB, 38 R, .235/.293/.389, 11 HR, 27 BB, 88 K

What were you doing when you were 16? Me, I was in Grade 11, striking out at high school dances, listening to my brotherís Boston album (this was cutting-edge stuff for me), and wondering whether to trade Doug DeCinces for Cecil Cooper in my Strat-O-Matic league. If you were Josephang Bernhardt, though, you were hitting a mighty .176 for the now-defunct Medicine Hat Blue Jays, and probably wondering whether a $750,000 free-agent signing bonus was worth a summer in blackfly-infested southeastern Alberta. Or maybe not.

Whatever he was thinking back in 1997, Iím pretty sure that Joe Bernhardt didnít expect that five years later heíd still be in A-Ball, posting a sub-.700 OPS and a 27/88 BB/K ratio, about as far from a major-league job as you can be while still getting paid for wearing a baseball uniform. Iím also pretty sure Gord Ash didnít expect it either. Granted that $750,000 isnít huge green these days, it was a substantial amount at the time that never came to anything. Should we dismiss all teenage free-agent Latin signings? Well, no, not unless you want to return a fellow named Delgado to the Dominican Republic too. But there are a lot more Bernhardts than Delgados in the Jaysí recent history, which is why JP remains highly skeptical of scouting and signing pell-mell throughout the Caribbean; the Epy Guerrero days, when the team had virtually free rein in the Dominican, are over. Iíll be quite surprised if Josephang Bernhardt is still in the Toronto organization this time next year.

Scott Dragicevich, SS/3B, 6í3Ē, 205, 22 years old
Medicine Hat 2002
211 AB, 30 R, .303/.376/.469, 13 2B, 6 HR, 23 BB, 35 K, 7 SB, 4 CS

Dragicevich, a 36th-round draft pick out of Stanford this past June, had a fine debut season at Medicine Hat before receiving a brief, three-game cup of Chutney Squishy at Auburn (you get cocoa at Syracuse, coffee in Toronto). Pioneer League stats usually arenít worth overplaying in a prospect list unless theyíre outstanding (see Perry, Jason, below), but Dragicevich showed he could multi-task a lot of things nicely: hit for average, crank some power, steal a few bases and judge the strike zone. More importantly, his infield defence in college was supposed to be outstanding. He's a shortstop by trade, though he played all 53 of his games at third in Medicine Hat, and since there arenít too many third-base prospects in the Toronto system (not that theyíre in dire need of help at the hot corner right now) and they're not especially deep at short either, Dragicevich warrants a mention. And hey, he won the ďMost Inspirational AwardĒ after his senior year at Stanford, where he led his squad to the College World Series four times at shortstop and third base. Cue that schmaltzy mid-Ď80s Chicago tune. Scott will probably spend 2002 in Class-A, maybe as high as Dunedin by yearís end; if all goes well, he might have a future as a utility infielder.

Tyrell Godwin, OF, 6í0", 200, 23 years old
Charleston 2002
185 AB, 31 R, .281/.364/.378, 0 HR, 20 BB, 23 K, 10 SB, 2 CS
Auburn 2001
117 AB, 26 R, .368/.456/.521, 2 HR, 19 BB, 27 K, 9 SB, 5 CS

By most accounts, the Blue Jays had themselves a pretty fine 2001 draft. After snagging Gabe Gross with the first pick and high-upside starter Brandon League with the second, they came right back and snatched former double first-rounder Tyrell Godwin in the third.

This was in fact Godwinís third time in the draft: as a high schooler, he was taken in the first round in 1997 by the Yankees, but chose to go to the University of North Carolina for football, where he played tailback and cornerback for two years. He switched to baseball in 1999, perhaps triggered by a nasty leg injury he suffered in a 1998 game against Pitt. The Rangers selected him as a supplemental first-rounder in 2000, but he chose to stay at UNC one more year. By the time the 2001 draft rolled around, concerns about his injury and signability history had dropped him to the third round, where the Jays took a chance on him. Not too many guys are fortunate enough to be high draft picks three times, but Godwinís potential makes him that attractive.

Godwin is extremely athletic, with afterburner speed, but unlike a lot of tools-heavy two-sport guys, he demonstrates strike-zone smarts. He posted a 977 OPS with Low-A Auburn in 2001, showing off his speed (19 steals) and a fine 19/27 BB/K rate in 117 ABs. He actually improved his BB/K upon promotion to Mid-A Charleston the next season and continued to run well, but his power (8 doubles and 5 triples in 185 ABs) is still of the line-drive variety. His defence has not received great reviews, as he appears to still use his speed more than his judgment to cover the outfield. The injury bug also bit him again in 2002, leg injuries that slowed him down at the plate and in the field; between college and the pros, heís earned a reputation as a fragile player.

Tyrellís evidently a bright guy Ė he went to UNC on the collegeís top academic scholarship and wound up on the Honour Roll and Deanís List. Heís only been concentrating on baseball full-time for a few years now, and he has as much star potential as anyone in the system. But at 23, he needs to answer questions about his power and durability, not to mention his ability to compete at higher levels. I expect weíll see him start the year at Dunedin, or maybe at New Haven if he has a good spring and/or the organization wants to challenge him. I could see him developing along the lines of Shannon Stewart, if all goes well. After Russ Adams, heís probably the organizationís likeliest leadoff prospect.

Fun fact: in the 1997 draft, when Godwin was taken 24th overall by the Yankees, he came two positions after the Oriolesí number-one pick, Jayson Werth. And drafted fifth overall that year by the Blue Jays was Vernon Wells. Itís not out of the question that those three could patrol the Skydome outfield together in 2005.

Justin Owens, OF, 6í3Ē 195 lbs, 23 years old
Auburn 2002
242 AB, 35 R, .293/.372/.417, 11 2B, 5 HR, 30 BB, 45 K, 13 SB, 3 CS

My sister teaches Linguistics at the University of Prince Edward Island, a campus Iíve never seen but that Iím thinking is pretty cozy. But it probably canít be much smaller than heretofore-unheard-of Coastal Carolina University, out of which the Blue Jays drafted Justin Owens in the 34th round in 2002. But it worked out pretty well, because Owens turned out to be Auburnís Player of the Year. His stats are pretty nice for a pro debut, but are much more impressive considering he played through a major shoulder injury. The former Big South Conference Baseball Player of the Year has a smooth left-handed swing thatís expected to produce a lot of sweet line drives in the near future. Heís easy to overlook Ė I did the first time I went through the stats Ė but heís worth tracking. Oh, and whatever else you can say about the University of Prince Edward Island, at least they didnít name their athletic teams the Chanticleers. Oy gevalt.

Jason Perry, 1B/OF, 6í1Ē, 205, 22 years old
Dunedin 2002
45 AB, 7 R, .289/.389/.422, 3 2B, 1 HR, 5 BB, 11 K
Medicine Hat 2002
106 AB, 25 R, .425/.508/.805, 6 2B, 10 HR, 12 BB, 19 K

Jason Perry is the most intriguing Jays prospect you might never have heard of. Taken in the sixth round of the 2002 draft out of Georgia Tech, Perry headed northwest and proceeded to make a rambling wreck out of the Pioneer League, posting a ridiculous 1.313 OPS in 106 at-bats. I donít care how old you are or what league youíre in, thatís insane. Intrigued, the Jays gave him a late-season three-level promotion to High-A Dunedin, where in very limited playing time, he acquitted himself well with a .389 OBP, though his power hadnít yet caught up before the season ended. But what power: his final autumn at Georgia Tech, the left-handed hitting Perry smacked 11 HRs in just 52 at-bats, and he batted cleanup for the Wreck throughout his successful tenure there. When the estimable Peter Gammons rated the collegiate prospects from the ACC before last Juneís draft, Russ Adams was #2 and Jason Perry was #5.

All the warnings that should be issued at this point are right here: senior college graduates ought to be ripping up the Rookie League (though no one else approached Perryís numbers at Medicine Hat). One hundred and fifty-one professional at-bats arenít enough to proclaim someone the next Luis Lopez, let alone the next Carlos Delgado (but it is a decent sample size to start with). His overall 17/30 BB/K ratio in those 151 ABs isnít eye-popping (though itís hard to find fault with a guy for not walking enough when heís tearing the cover off the ball). He was used primarily as a DH in the low minors (although he was reportedly a fine defensive first baseman in college). As you can see, many of the traditional caveats about Perry come with exceptions of their own.

Thereís reason to be excited about Jason Perry, but not to be over the moon. I imagine heíll start off with Dunedin this spring, and if he holds up well at that advanced level, he might even make his way to New Haven; if he struggles, heíll probably get dropped down to Charleston. Either way, Perry is easily the best power-hitting prospect in the Jaysí system right now, and only Gross, Adams and perhaps Jason DuBois (if he sticks around) deserve closer scrutiny as future impact hitters.

Alexis Rios, OF, 6í5Ē, 200, 22 years old
Dunedin 2002
456 AB, 60 R, .305/.344/.408, 22 2B, 3 HR, 27 BB, 55 K, 14 SB, 8 CS
Charleston 2001
480 AB, 40 R, .263/.296/.354, 20 2B, 2 HR, 25 BB, 59 K, 22 SB, 14 CS

There are a number of very smart people who think Alexis Rios has taken a real step forward in fulfilling his first-round draft choice potential. Rios, you might recall, was one of the Belgian brewmeistersí bargain first-rounders (in 1999, followed by Miguel Negron in 2000; Negron isn't one of the 23 prospects on this list, which should tell the whole story), out of a high school in Puerto Rico. For much of his professional career, Alexis has looked like a real bad idea. That started to change in 2002, though, when he posted his first useful season, above.

There are indeed signs that Rios has finally turned the corner. Heís still quite young, only turning 22 this year; he suffered a hand injury this past season that sapped much of his power; he doesnít strike out a whole lot; and he has tremendous tools that are just waiting to emerge. In many ways, heís learning how to hit and still growing into his frame. Iím still not entirely convinced, however. His strike-zone judgment is brutal, 27 walks in over 450 ABs; significantly, his BB/K ratio in 2002 (27/55) was almost identical to his 2001 Charleston season (24/59), when he posted a robust 689 OPS. Heís a long tall drink of water who still chases the first pitch that looks reachable, and unless he proves he can avoid that, pitchers have acres of strike zone to exploit. He gets caught stealing far too often to justify sending him, and heís shown only marginal improvement in this area over his pro career. The optimist sees Dave Winfield; the pessimist sees DeWayne Wise.

The Jays certainly think thereís something there, though, because theyíve placed him on the 40-man roster, presumably to see if he can build on the steps he took this past season. Itís worth remembering that power is normally the last tool to develop, and that Rios, like all other Jays prospects, will be getting strike-zone judgment drilled into him all year. I may be a Rios doubter, but if the power and plate discipline do arrive together, look out.

Nom Siriveaw, OF/3B, 6í3Ē, 200 lbs, 22 years old
Auburn 2002
180 AB, 26 R, .294/.385/.456, 8 2B, 3 HR, 24 BB, 53 K, 8 SB, 3 CS

Because youíve got to have a Canadian in these lists at some point, and because he has the best name of any Blue Jays farmhand since Garrick Haltiwanger, hereís Nom Siriveaw. The switch-hitter from Vancouver was drafted in the 9th round in 2000 out of far-flung Eastern Oklahoma State University, and progressed slowly through the system until having a fine 2002 at the plate. He has developing power and some speed for a corner infielder, and he apparently has a cannon for an arm, though thereís not much more to his said about his defence than that; he played a lot in the outfield this year. His 24 walks in 180 at-bats is pretty good, but striking out in nearly a third of your at-bats at the Low-A level with just three homers is not promising. Keep an eye on him, but heíll need to show a steady third-base glove and more power before the organization takes him seriously as a prospect.