Heading South

Pardon me for reminiscing, but the Dodgers-Cubs series this week took me back to the moment that changed my life. See, unlike the rest of the guys here at The Hardball Times, I haven’t been a baseball die-hard for a long time. Before 2001, baseball was just one of the many sports I knew a little about, never focusing on one in particular.

But, that all changed during the summer of 2001, when a trip to visit family in Florida changed the way I thought about baseball forever. I was driving about 2,500 miles that trip, so I decided on breaking it up with some baseball. The Braves happened to be in town when I planned to pass through Georgia, so I decided to stop and watch the likes of Greg Maddux and Andruw Jones. Little did I know, it would be driving through western Tennessee that would make the largest impact of all.

While driving along Interstate 57 heading South, I passed the town of Jackson, Tennessee. Along the highway I saw signs for a minor league baseball team called the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, and decided to see if they were in town. Sure enough, the Diamond Jaxx were home that night, so I headed to Pringles Park to watch some baseball, specifically the Jaxx against the Jacksonville Suns.

Little did I know, the Diamond Jaxx were affiliated with the Cubs, my favorite team, while the Suns were with the Los Angeles Dodgers. While I had been to a few minor league games in my youth, this was my first real taste of minor league baseball. I can’t tell you a single player that played in this game, or a significant event of the night, but something sparked interest. Minor league baseball captured me, I thought I might be seeing the next Kerry Wood, Ken Griffey Jr. or Brooks Robinson.

I’m not huge into football or basketball, but I’m always intrigued by collegiate athletics and their corresponding drafts. Why? I want to spot the next great player, and three years ago I found that the minor leagues offered that for baseball. Since then I’ve been a big prospect nut, specifically following the state of the Southern League, which houses the Diamond Jaxx. It’s the first place I check in the Baseball America Prospect Report, and I try to keep tabs on it constantly. I’m not a sabermatrician to any degree, just a huge baseball fan enthralled by young players rather than numbers.

Maybe the minor leagues have never caught your fancy, or maybe you’ve never realized how much they can offer. Today I’m going to take you through the stories of the Southern League, my league, and who knows, maybe we’ll come across the next big superstar.

First of all, let me introduce you to the Southern League. There are ten teams that make up the league, but the ten teams are split into two divisions, the East and the West. Here are the names of these teams, their affiliates, and their corresponding records:

East Division
Carolina Mudcats (Marlins): 20-14
Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers): 20-14
Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds): 18-16
Tennessee Smokies (Cardinals): 17-17
Greenville Braves (Braves): 10-24

West Division
West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx (Cubs): 19-14
Birmingham Barons (White Sox): 18-15
Huntsville Stars (Brewers): 18-16
Mobile Bay Bears (Padres): 17-17
Montgomery Biscuits (Devil Rays): 12-22

In case you were wondering, the Biscuits are new this year, replacing the Orlando Rays from years past. Out of the ten teams, eight currently have winning records, so optimism exists across the league. The Mudcats and Diamond Jaxx are both riding seven game winning streaks in first place, and even the Detroit Tigers-like Greenville Braves are on a three-game winning streak.

For some reason or another, scoring is down this year. Half of the teams have at least four starters with ERAs under 3.50, but I’ve found that averages are generally high. The league has really decreased slugging across the board, although the players I will mention today haven’t been hurt so much. OK, let’s go through the teams in the ranking I listed earlier, giving you some of the names you should pay attention to.

Carolina Mudcats

More than any other team, the Mudcats really lack weaknesses. They have four starters under 3.50, and all but three of their regulars have an OPS over .800. These hitters are led by Jason Stokes, the big name first basemen that topped Marlins prospect lists before the 2003 season, a season that would be derailed due to wrist problems. Stokes is back in a big way, currently leading the Southern League with 11 home runs. Complementing Stokes has been a 28-year-old third basemen named Joe Dillon, but his name isn’t exactly one to remember.

Also contributing is leadoff hitter and centerfielder Eric Reed, currently with the number two batting average (.344) in the League, as well as sixteen stolen bases. Josh Willingham is nearing the Mendoza line, but a .361 on-base percentage and a .476 slugging percentage for a recently-converted catcher ain’t bad. Willingham is likely to be the next Tyler Houston, playing catcher, first and third in the Majors. The pitching staff has two prospects, Nic Ungs and Trevor Hutchinson, leading the pack. Both have allowed more hits than innings pitched, but Hutchinson has struck out 38 in 40 innings while Ungs has an ERA of 3.16.

Noteworthy Players: Jason Stokes, Eric Reed, Josh Willingham, Nic Ungs, Trevor Hutchinson

Jacksonville Suns

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Last season, Jacksonville was blessed to have some huge pitching prospects, watching Edwin Jackson and Greg Miller tear up Southern League hitters. The team wasn’t expecting that again this year, but they have seen huge contributions from a pair of acquired pitchers. Much to the chagrin of Mariner fans, Seattle GM Bill Bavasi traded Aaron Looper and a southpaw named Ryan Ketchner for Jolbert Cabrera during Spring Training. Looper wasn’t considered much, but it was Ketchner that was considered the catch. I speculated that Ketchner might do what fellow soft-throwing southpaw Travis Blackley did last year in AA, and so far that’s been correct. Ketchner is fourth in the league in ERA (1.64), and also has three wins to his name.

Right-hander Andrew Brown has the highest ERA of any of the Suns starters, but he’s probably considered the best prospect on the team. Brown, acquired in the Brian Jordan/Gary Sheffield trade from Atlanta, is finally beginning to blossom this year. Brown has a respectable ERA of 3.06, but also leads the league in strikeouts with fifty-six in just 35.1 innings. Players like this are often speculated as good relief candidates down the road, but expect the Dodgers to ride this as long as it keeps coming.

Noteworthy Players: Ryan Ketchner, Andrew Brown

Chattanooga Lookouts

Cincinnati couldn’t have expected much from their AA team prior to the season, but the Lookouts are exceeding everyone’s expectations. I wish I could say this is due to unheralded prospects, but mostly, Chattanooga is stacked with minor league veterans. Dionys Cesar, Kenny Kelly, and Andrew Beattie all have averages higher than .333, and the former two have an OPS over .900. The only real position prospect is Edwin Encarnacion, a former Ranger that is still only 21 years old. Encarnacion is hitting .273 this year with an .810OPS, and has finally settled at third rather than shortstop.

Seth Etherton, who’s name you might recognize from numerous stints with the Reds bullpen, but now he’s third in the Southern League in both ERA (1.29) and strikeouts (42). Etherton is joined by seasoned prospects Brian Rose and Charlie Manning in the rotation, and only 22-year-old Dustin Mosely has a bright future. Mosely has been great this year, as his ERA is 2.35 and his WHIP is well under 1.00. The Reds are looking for pitching anywhere they can find it, and Mosely should get a chance at about the time Josh Hall did last year.

Noteworthy Players: Edwin Encarnacion, Dustin Mosely

Tennessee Smokies

There’s no way you can talk about this team and not start with Brad Thompson. Now I’ll admit Rich Harden’s perfect start to the AA season last year was amazing, but Thompson is close to topping that. In five starts and six appearances this year, Thompson is yet to allow a run, spanning 37.1 innings. The 22-year-old has a ridiculous WHIP of 0.59, and has struck out 30 so far. St. Louis had not been expecting this, instead forecasting southpaw Chris Narveson to succeed, but he’s made up for Thompson and himself, with an ERA of 4.60.

If not for B.J. Upton, Smokie shortstop John Nelson would be making a run at the All-Star Game. Nelson is a bit old for a prospect (25), but I would say he has a future as an infielder off the bench, very respectable in it’s own right. How the Smokies are winning when only three regulars are hitting higher than .260 is beyond me, but Brad Thompson teaches us that anything is possible.

Noteworthy Players: Brad Thompson

Greenville Braves

If you had asked me before the season, I would have predicted a lot more from Greenville than Jacksonville, Chattanooga or Tennessee. But the Braves have been struggling big time, and were just 6-24 in their first thirty games. Andy Marte (.248/.324/.396) has been awful, not living up to the Miguel Cabrera comparisons I gave before the year. Marte is one of the youngest in the league at 20, but the Braves were hoping he’d help by midseason, not become another Wilson Betemit. Former shortstop Kelly Johnson has excelled since moving to the outfield, and a Denny Hocking-like career is entirely possible.

On the pitching side, much was expected from the Braves as southpaws Dan Meyer and Macay McBride headed up the staff. Meyer has been great, but has only thrown 18.2 innings. McBride has thrown 34 innings, but has a ridiculously high ERA of 6.62. His forty strikeouts are encouraging, but McBride’s stock is falling fast.

Noteworthy Players: Andy Marte, Kelly Johnson, Dan Meyer

West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx

Like the Major League team, the general thinking was the Diamond Jaxx would be all pitching and no hitting this season. Ricky Nolasco, Bobby Brownlie and Chadd Blasko headlined a big-name staff, while the best position player was Richard Lewis, the second basemen acquired from Atlanta in the Juan Cruz trade. Lewis has been the team MVP thus far, hitting .333 with 17 extra-base hits up the middle. This, combined with his excellent Arizona Fall League performance is a very good sign for Lewis.

As for the pitchers, things have gone OK so far. Nolasco has been the best with a 2.45 ERA, striking out 29 in 33 innings. Bobby Brownlie’s 2.61 ERA looks great on the outside, but his 5 home runs allowed in just over 40 innings is a little nerve-wracking. Also, what has been touted as one of the best five curveballs in the minors has only produced 33 strikeouts. The 6-7 Chadd Blasko kept his ERA under 2.00 last year in the Florida State League, but is not experiencing the same success this year, with an ERA of 4.32. His peripheral numbers are pretty good, so I would expect that number to come below 4.00 before season’s end.

Noteworthy Players: Richard Lewis, Ricky Nolasco, Bobby Brownlie, Chadd Blasko

Birmingham Barons

Few decisions of Ken Williams have gone as well as the one to turn Arnie Munoz into a starter. The hard-throwing southpaw had a terrible 2003 after a great winter ball season, and the Sox decided to put him in the rotation. Munoz has blossomed in the role, and sits behind only the untouchable Thompson in ERA at 1.23. His H/9 is under 4.50, and he’s struck out 35 in 36.2 innings. Kris Honel and Ryan Wing were supposed to lead the team’s rotation, but Honel has hurt his arm and Wing quit for football. The team has done well, replacing them with Dennis Ulacia, Tetsu Yofu and Heath Phillips.

Moving to the hitting department, all the talk seems to be centered around Mike Morse, who has the best shortstop numbers in the league. Morse has hit seven home runs, and kept his slugging around .600 all season. He’s sure to regress a bit, but I’m sure White Sox fans are at ease knowing their long-term depth chart doesn’t necessarily have Juan Uribe on it.

Noteworthy Players: Arnie Munoz, Mike Morse

Huntsville Stars

Well, the nickname is fitting I guess. Milwaukee topped a lot of organizational rankings this offseason, thanks to the exorbitant amount of big-name prospects the team had. A lot of the team’s talent is in AAA, but the two biggest names, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks, are playing in Huntsville. The former, Fielder, has dominated to the tune of .320/.401/.590, and is second in the league with nine home runs. Weeks has not been as good, hitting .267/.408/.416, not showing the power he did at Southern University last year. The plate discipline might be that of Joe Morgan, the man he’s often compared to, but Weeks better pick up his game a lot more to keep that comp going.

Also in Huntsville is former top prospect, Brad Nelson, who has hit six home runs en route to a .506 slugging percentage. Tony Gwynn’s son has struggled horrendously, and is not even in smelling distance of a .600 OPS. Last year’s Rule V picks, Matt Ford and Enrique Cruz, are on the team as well. Cruz is hitting below .200, but Ford has done well, as his ERA is only 3.06 through his first 17.2 innings. The Stars will also be getting help as top pitching prospect Mike Jones has just returned from injury.

Noteworthy Players: Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Brad Nelson, Matt Ford

Mobile Bay Bears

Prior to the season, I would have told you the Southern League offered the best group of infield prospects money could buy:

1B: Prince Fielder
2B: Rickie Weeks
SS: B.J. Upton
3B: Andy Marte

All four of these were included in some top five prospect list, and it’s more amazing when you realize the list doesn’t include Josh Barfield, the 2003 California League MVP and top Padre prospect. Jesse’s son is showing he might not belong after all, thanks to a .239 average . Barfield must break the .300 OBP and .400 SLG to get any respect, or else the Padres are going to start re-evaluating the position real fast.

In place of Josh has been the emergence of leadoff hitter Freddy Guzman and third basemen Jake Gautreau. The latter was moved to third this year because of Barfield, but his thirteen extra-base hits have been enough for a corner position. Guzman has been fantastic with a .309 average, but we’ll never see any power, as his slugging is currently about twenty points shy of the on-base percentage. The reason this team isn’t winning much? Only one pitcher with an ERA under 4.00. But, in late breaking news, last year’s number four selection Tim Stauffer has been promoted from the California League, giving the staff a genuine ace.

Noteworthy Players: Josh Barfield, Freddy Guzman, Jake Gautreau

Montgomery Biscuits

Barry Bonds: San Francisco Giants:: B.J. Upton: Montgomery Biscuits
I’ve never been the best at analogies, but this one is pretty easy to understand. Plain and simple, the Biscuits have no one else worthy of value, and lean on Upton for their entire offense. And like Bonds, Upton has produced with a line of .327/.407/.471, but has already reached the double-digit error total. What surprises me is that Upton has only been sent to steal only three times, although he’s been successful each time. With Joe Mauer graduated to the minor leagues, Upton gets my vote as the best prospect in baseball.

Unfortunately for Mongomery, it was announced yesterday that Upton has received a promotion to AAA. In his place the team will get Chris Seddon, a southpaw coming off seven dominating starts in the California League. How dominating? Try 5-0, with a 0.65 ERA, a WHIP under 1.00, and 41 strikeouts in 41.1 innings. While losing Upton will likely move the Biscuits below the Braves for worst in the league, the Devil Rays haven’t completely forgotten about Montgomery fans.

Noteworthy Players: B.J. Upton, Chris Seddon

Maybe some day we’ll be able to look back on this and see how many of these 27 good prospects had an impact, but until then, it’s the speculation that keeps us interested.

References & Resources
This wouldn’t have been possible without Baseball America and it’s amazing daily e-mail sent out by Kevin Goldstein. Also, the stats at the Baseball Cube and the Southern League website were instrumental in this article.

Statistics were games through May 11, standings through May 12

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