All signs point to Hill becoming a solid big leaguer

I've updated my website for the winter. You can find it at http://hometown.aol.com/jasickels/page1.html. At some point I will have a "JohnSickels.com" type-thing like Rob Neyer has RobNeyer.com, and when that happens I'll let you know.

I was in Arizona this past weekend, and will give you a report about what I saw and heard there later this week. For now, let's dip into the mailbag.

Bob from Virginia writes: I have heard talk about contraction of the Expos and Marlins. What does that mean to their minor-league affiliates? Teams like Kane County won't just shut down because they draw more than the Expos do. Will some teams go dark, or become co-op's? What do you think would happen to the minor-league clubs?

The current contraction talk has the Twins doomed, rather than the Marlins. I still think this could all be a giant bluff as part of the labor negotiations, but I did talk with a highly-placed front office source last week, who assured me that they are serious about it. That doesn't mean that it will happen, but I do think it is possible.

Killing the Twins, rather than the pathetic Devil Rays, seems like a really stupid move to me, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a Twins fan. Supposedly, the move to kill the Twins rather than a Florida team is because Bud Selig doesn't want to irritate Jeb Bush, Florida governor and brother of the person who lives in the White House. If true, this puts the whole Florida voting fiasco of last year in a new light: Minnesota is a Democratic state, so getting rid of their baseball team would be less politically dangerous than getting rid of a team in a state controlled by the GOP. Sickening, if true. And also short-sighted.

The Twins have a really lousy stadium deal, but Minnesota has proven itself to be a strong baseball market in the past, the team is on the rise, plus the franchise has 100 years of history going back to the Senators days. The problem in the Twin Cities has more to do with lousy ownership than anything else, but those problems can be solved. Killing the Twins just strikes me as a really, really rotten thing to do. If it happens, baseball will become "just a job" to me, rather than a love.

The minor-league affiliate question is one of the biggest complications of this whole mess. You can bet that there will be lawsuits from cities that lose their teams, especially those that put out large amounts of money into new stadiums recently. I'm told that the agreement between the major leagues and the minor leagues stipulates the number of minor-league teams that must be supported through the life of the current agreement. I imagine that we'll see co-ops in the cities that lose their contracts, at least for a few years. I also imagine that Congress won't be too happy about the whole situation, either. Killing baseball teams in the midst of a recession and a war would certainly not be good for national morale, the economy, or baseball's image. Unfortunately, it's been proven time and time again that, if there is a mistake to be made, the powers that be in baseball will make it.

Contraction is chic among many baseball writers right now, but I think it is an awful idea, and will do nothing but generate additional bad publicity for major-league baseball. I hope it is just a gigantic bluff, like the whole replacement player fiasco of 1995, but the pessimist in me suspects that they are serious about it.

Michael C. asks: I recently saw a report that said some Double-A managers questioned whether Cubs prospect Bobby Hill really had the stuff to be a major-league second basemen. I wonder if that meant offensively, defensively, or both? Most of the reports I had seen on Hill had implied that he would be a pretty good big-league player probably by the end of 2002. What's up with him?

I haven't heard anything negative about Hill. His numbers were fine this year, and observers I've talked with were sanguine about his chances to succeed in the majors. Hill hit .301 in 57 games for Double-A West Tennessee. He posted a .396 on-base percentage, with 20 steals. These are young Chuck Knoblauch-type numbers. He missed half the season with a groin injury, but there are no holes in his numbers to indicate it was a fluke.

His defense at second base is decent, though not spectacular. He'll need some Triple-A time to shake the rust off next year, but I'm confident he'll be the Cubs second-sacker in 2003.

Jeff D. writes: I liked your AFL prospects report. One guy I thought might make the Grand Canyon list was Gookie Dawkins. Not only is his batting average a gaudy .322, but his stolen-base numbers are respectable with eight versus three caught. More importantly, his control of the strike zone has rebounded, with more walks (13) than strikeouts (11). Does the AFL performance re-establish Dawkins as a top prospect with a knee back up to full strength, or do you think we're seeing a fluky couple of weeks following a subpar 2001 campaign?

Well, the sample size is very small, and I'm told that the quality of pitching in the AFL is down this year. I hope to see Dawkins in person later this week, and if I do I'll make sure to write about him next week. As you point out, the improvement in his strike zone judgment is promising, and he has hit well at times in the past. Dawkins is still just 22, so he has lots of time left on his development clock. I think Pokey Reese is a good comparison for Gookie: good defense, speed, with occasional bursts of good hitting, but not someone you can rely on to hit well every year.

John F. asks: I was at Peoria Sports Complex a few nights ago for a game between the Javelinas and the Rafters. The most impressive player on the field was Freddy Sanchez, a third baseman for the Red Sox. He showed good fielding skills and a great bat. Any comments on him?

I've received several questions lately about Freddy Sanchez, who is apparently This Winter's Red Sox Prospect du Gammons. He hit .339 in 69 games for Sarasota in the Florida State League this year, earning a promotion to Double-A, where he hit .326 in 44 games for Trenton. He combined for 39 doubles at the two levels, though he hit just three home runs and drew only 31 walks. He has a short, sharp line-drive stroke and should hit for average as he moves up, but I don't think he'll show much home run power. Sanchez can play any of the infield positions, but will probably end up at second base in the long run. I think he'll be a useful player, but unless he shows more power, I can't project him as a star. He will be 24 next year, so he's not super young either.

Nick P. writes: I was wondering if you thought this year was an aberration in the development of Phillies prospect Chase Utley, or if you believe he still might have bright long-term prospects?

The left-handed hitting Utley was a fine player in college, and after signing as a first-round pick out of UCLA in 2000, he was expected to move quickly. But he had trouble in the Florida State League this year, hitting just .257 with a .324 on-base percentage. He did hit 16 home runs, but he had a lot of trouble hitting southpaws, and showed weakness against breaking pitches. He'll crush fastballs, but was more anxious and overaggressive than he was in college.

I think he'll come around, though I want to see better plate discipline from him. He's made progress with his defensive skills at second base, so if he does well in Double-A, he'll get back on the fast track shortly. If he doesn't turn things around next year, then I'll become more pessimistic.

John Sickels is the author of the 2001 STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at hometown.aol.com/jasickels/page1.html.