Is Berroa ready to contribute in majors for Royals?

I want to wish everyone a safe, happy, and prosperous Thanksgiving holiday. Drive safely, and love your friends and families.

Let's hit the mailbag.

Rob H. asks: One year ago, Angel Berroa was thought of as one of the best shortstop prospects in baseball. You gave him an A- in your 2002 prospects book. Now that he's two years older than everyone thought, and coming off a terrible (if injury plagued) year in Triple-A, how much has his stock fallen? Is he just a slick fielding, Neifi Perez type, or what do you see as his ceiling?

The Royals have handed Berroa the shortstop job for next year. Predicting what he'll do is quite difficult. He was absolutely horrid at Omaha, and as you mention, the two additional years added to his birth certificate must temper our expectations. On the other hand, as bad as he was in '02, he was really good in '01, and he did have a knee injury that probably messed up both the offensive and defensive portions of his game. The knee should be fine by spring, so there won't be that excuse in '03.

I think Berroa will be fine defensively, perhaps making a sloppy error on occasion, but also flashing excellent range and a strong arm. His bat ... I don't know. I can see him hitting .270+ with some power, as implied by his 2001 numbers. I can see him hitting .200 with no secondary contributions at all, as implied by his '02 performance. I'll say this: even if Berroa is as bad as Perez was last year, he doesn't cost nearly as much, and is thus an automatic upgrade. My expectation for his bat, based on a combination of watching him play a lot, looking at his numbers, and psychic manipulation of the quantum subspace ether, is that he'll hit .258 with nine homers and 16 steals, but he won't draw many walks or post a good OBP.

J.N. asks: I was wondering what your thoughts are on rising prospect Jeff Francouer (Atlanta). In rookie ball, he put up convincing numbers (.327, eight home runs, 31 RBI, eight stolen bases) in just 147 at-bats, and plans to play Double-A next spring. He was also named the No. 1 prospect in the Appalachian League. How fast will he rise?

The Braves love tools players, and they love players from the Deep South, Georgia especially. They scored on all counts with Francouer, drafting him in the first round this year out of high school in Lilburn, Georgia. He's a terrific athlete. They had to buy him away from a Clemson scholarship, but they managed to do so, and his initial performance in the Appy League was very good, as you point out. Francouer was alleged to be somewhat raw by many experts, but he adjusted to pro ball very quickly, and the Braves think he'll move up fast. They compare him to a young Dale Murphy, due to his power/speed combination.

The biggest hole in Francouer's stat line at Danville were his walk and strikeout rates. He drew 15 free passes in 162 plate appearances, while fanning 34 times. Those are not awful numbers by any means, but they aren't great, either, and a sign that he may need some adjustment time at higher levels. Normally I wouldn't worry about it too much, but Atlanta does not have a good track record over the last few years in helping similar prospects develop their hitting skills. I think Francouer is an excellent prospect, but I want to see what he does in full-season ball before projecting quick advancement. He is worth an investment in a deep fantasy league with a big farm system structure, but don't expect a quick payoff.

Kendall writes: What do you see happening with Cardinals prospect Scotty Layfield? He had a good year in Double-A, but I've read that minor-league closers usually aren't good prospects.

That's true, minor-league closers are usually not good prospects. But there are some exceptions, and Layfield may be one.

His numbers at Double-A New Haven are fine: 24 saves, 2.35 ERA, 65 innings, 54 hits allowed, 63 strikeouts, 24 walks, just five home runs given up. But what makes Layfield stand out from the bulk of minor-league closers is his stuff. He has a quality major-league slider, which he mixes well with a nasty 92-mph sinking fastball. The biggest problem for Layfield is that he's 26 years old, and has just one Double-A season under his belt. But as long as he remains healthy, he has a good chance to emerge as a ground ball-inducing middle man at some point in the next year or two.

Bart A. asks: Do you think Tigers pitcher Nate Cornejo will ever live up to his potential?

Cornejo certainly has a good arm, but he has the opposite problem of Scotty Layfield: he was pushed too quickly rather than too slowly. He came to the majors before he was ready, and as a result has regressed in most aspects of pitching craft. His numbers at Triple-A Toledo are nothing to get excited about: 4.42 ERA in 20 starts and 132 innings. He walked just 31 batters, but his strikeout rate is rather low (86), and he gave up a ton of hits, 163. A career 6.12 major league ERA doesn't exactly get the optimism juices flowing, either.

Now, we are talking about a 23-year-old with a really good arm. Anything can happen to him. But the Tigers made a big mistake in giving him 10 starts in the majors in '01, with just four Double-A appearances under his belt. He wasn't ready, and he's still paying the price.

John Sickels is the author of the 2002 Minor League Scouting Notebook, and is now working on the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book. His biography of Bob Feller will be published next spring. 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 JohnSickels.com.