Jim asks: If my memory serves me correctly, last year you interviewed Jason Arnold while he was in the Oakland A's system. I believe he was on the same team with fellow pitcher Rich Harden, but has since been traded to the Blue Jays.
Could you give us an update on Arnold? It's kind of neat that they were both on the same team and are now doing great.
I hope to interview Jason again later this year, so when that happens I'll let you know.
Although Arnold has been traded twice in the last year, this should not be taken as anything negative about his chances, especially since the teams that traded for him (Oakland and Toronto) are two of the more astute organizations. So far this year, Arnold is 2-1 with a 0.77 ERA in four starts for Double-A New Haven, with a 20/8 K/BB ratio and just 11 hits allowed in 23.1 innings. He already has considerable Double-A time under his belt, so a move up to Triple-A should come shortly.
Although he doesn't have the blazing stuff of Harden, Arnold's command is excellent, his stuff is plenty good enough, and he knows how to pitch. I will do a full profile on him later this spring.
David C. writes: I am certain you have covered Rocco Baldelli before, but what are you current thoughts about him?
Does his immediate success at the major-league level mark him as a young superstar? Or does his failure to draw walks doom him once the pitchers have a chance to study his hitting approach? (Note, he hasn't been at any level long enough for pitchers to get multiple chances to see him.) Is this guy another Alfonso Soriano? Garret Anderson? Kirby Puckett?
Some have compared him to Joe DiMaggio (though I don't see it at all, other than his Italian heritage and athleticism).
I wrote about Baldelli in my preseason rookie preview, which you can read by clicking here. As you suspect, my main concern entering the season was that his poor strike zone judgment would keep him from hitting well over any large length of time, that the pitchers would expose his weakness soon enough.
Well, April is over and Baldelli is doing just fine. He set a record for a rookie by getting 40 hits in April. He's hitting .353 with a .500 slugging percentage and 20 RBI. Obviously, he is doing much better than I expected. I thought .153 with a .250 slugging percentage to be more likely. Can this continue? Well, you know me; I look for plate discipline. And even with his hot hitting, Baldelli doesn't have it. He has three walks and 30 strikeouts in 27 games. That's not bad, that's awful.
Given that dreadful BB/K mark, I would be very surprised indeed if Baldelli continued hitting at this pace. He's getting by on sheer physical talent and intense hustle right now, but at some point he will need refinement as well. It is true that there are some hitters who can succeed despite mediocre strike zone judgment. Puckett was one of those, as is Anderson, though neither of them struck out as often as Baldelli does, even early in their careers.
Soriano is a weird case. His performance last year, as I discussed in an article last fall, was an historical outlier. His 2002 season was the best season ever by a player with horrific strike zone judgment. He created over 100 runs with a K/BB ratio worse than 7-1. No one had ever come close to that before.
Baldelli has a 10/1 K/BB right now, so what he's doing is even more impressive than what Soriano did last year. Of course, it's just 27 games. There is plenty of time for him to fall back to earth, and I still think that's what will happen, unless he starts laying off pitches outside the zone. At some point he'll have to make that adjustment.
As for Soriano, he's already walked 11 times this year and has just 21 strikeouts in 27 games, much better strike zone judgment than he showed in '02. And, amazingly enough, he's hitting even better than he did last year.
Eric C. asks: In your 2003 Prospect book, I noticed that the Pirates seem to have a bevy of good hitters clustered around high Class A and Double-A (Chris Shelton, Jose Bautista, Jose Castillo, to name three). Now that the (GM) Dave Littlefield administration is making changes to Pittsburgh's player development program, can the Pirates organization turn these young players into bonafide major-league regulars?
Do you think the Pirates will overcome the busts and disappointments of former GM Cam Bonifay's regime when several players (Chad Hermansen, Abraham Nunez, J.J. Davis, J.R. House, et al ) never lived up to their advanced billing?
Well, the Pirates farm system is in the best shape it's been in in several years. It's definitely true that Littlefield and his staffers have made significant changes. They are emphasizing plate discipline more, for example, which was one of the biggest flaws in the system previously. But Bonifay's tenure wasn't a complete failure. Many of the prospects who are doing better right now were signed by his regime under ex-farm director Mickey White. They deserve some credit as well.
The two biggest problems for Pittsburgh in recent years have been the failure to develop prospects once they reach the highest level, and giving big contracts to too many mediocre veterans. That latter was a huge problem under Bonifay and is still handicapping the organization to some extent. But that will fade with time, leaving successful player development as the keystone for success. It will be another year or two before the tide rises, but Pirates fans have some young talent to look forward to. Of note besides the players you mention are pitchers Sean Burnett, John VanBenschoten, Bobby Bradley and Bryan Bullington, catcher Ryan Doumit, and outfielder Jorge Cortes.
Will in Houston writes: How is Chris Burke doing? A few years ago, he was touted as the second-coming of Craig Biggio.
Burke was drafted in the first round in 2001, out of the University of Tennessee. The Biggio comparison was common: Burke is a second baseman with speed, power, and the potential to hit for average, very Biggio-like. He hit .300 in 56 games after signing, and I thought he was one of the best prospects in baseball going into 2002. But he had a weak season for Double-A Round Rock last year, hitting .264 but showing little power, mediocre plate discipline, little confidence on the bases, and disappointing defense.
Whatever went wrong for him in '02 seems to have been corrected for '03. Returning to Round Rock, Burke is hitting .383/.431/.467 so far, showing better strike zone judgment, as well as sharper defense. I haven't seen him myself yet, but I'm told he is playing more like his old self. Sometimes it takes even an advanced college player a year to adjust to the wooden bat, and that could be what happened to Burke last year. The Astros are not loaded with middle infielders who can hit, so a strong season from Burke could get him in the major-league mix as soon as 2004. We shall see.
John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered from his website, JohnSickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this fall by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.