Can Zink be another Wakefield for Boston?

Today I want to cover four pitching prospects who haven't received much attention just yet, but who could make a name for themselves, one way or another, in 2004.

Matt B. from Sacramento writes: The Red Sox have a knuckle-balling prospect by the name of Charlie Zink. I've read varying things about his future, some, such as Rob Neyer, suggest he could be a big-time major league contributor, while others see him as a possible fifth starter/swingman. What are your thoughts, and is he a prospect?

The Sox signed Zink as an undrafted free agent in 2002. He is 24 years old, has 238 professional innings to his credit, with a 3.26 ERA and 177/101 K/BB ratio. Most of that has been at the A-ball level. But he did put in 39 innings in Double-A last year, posting a 3.43 ERA, though with a mediocre 18/14 K/BB ratio. His walk rate isn't bad at all, but his strikeouts are pretty low.

Rob Neyer is a very good friend of mine. He admits himself that he has something of a knuckleball fetish, and he knows more about the pitch and those who rely on it than I do. He could be right about Zink. Statistically, his numbers aren't super-impressive, but the knuckleball is a hard thing to predict. Zink could turn into Tim Wakefield. But he could just as easily be Steve Sparks. We need to see more to be sure.

Wakefield's minor league track record was erratic, and given the nature of the knuckleball, normal predictive methods don't necessarily apply to guys like this. Zink is certainly a prospect, and bears close watching. But I don't think we have a firm read on how good he will or won't be at this point.

Mike K. from Shawnee, Oklahoma, asks: I was wondering if you could give an update on right-hander Kole Strayhorn. His numbers after the trade from the Dodgers to the Mets seemed pretty good. Do you think he will be able to hold his own at higher levels and more importantly will his arm hold up? I've seen him pitch and there seems to be a lot of stress in his delivery. Just wondering how you think his future looks?

Strayhorn was drafted by the Dodgers in the fourth round in '01, from high school in Oklahoma. A 6-0, 185 pound right-hander, he's been clocked as high as 95 mph, and his slider can be overpowering. He was used as a starter early in his career, but command problems (and worries about his durability) moved him to the bullpen last year. He posted a 2.93 ERA in 30 games at Class A Vero Beach, then a 1.17 ERA with 10 saves for Class A St. Lucie after being included in the Jeromy Burnitz trade.

In 210 career innings, Strayhorn has a 3.34 ERA, and a 158/78 K/BB ratio. His command has been better since moving to the bullpen. The high-stress delivery you mention is real; he generates a lot of torque with his maximum-effort throw-as-hard-as-possible method. It enables him to get a lot of velocity out of a smallish frame, but it does give rise to injury.

I think his future looks pretty good, in that the move to relief should help him stay healthy. It doesn't guarantee it, of course, but it helps. If he avoids the doctors, and continues to sharpen his command, he could be an impressive reliever by 2006.

Walt M. from Toronto writes: If I remember my draft picks correctly, the Blue Jays drafted right-handed pitcher Jamie Vermilyea out of college this year, and he proceeded to put up some solid numbers between Class A Auburn and Dunedin last year, with what appeared to be an eye-popping K/BB ratio. I haven't heard him mentioned in the same breath as other Jays pitching prospects such as Dave Bush and Dustin McGowan or even fellow 2003 draftee Josh Banks, but his numbers sure look good so far. Is this guy for real?

I think Vermilyea is one of the biggest sleepers around.

From the University of New Mexico, he was drafted in the ninth round in '03. That's a difficult place to pitch, and his college stats didn't always reflect his true level of ability. He's thrived as a pro, posting a 2.42 ERA and a stunning 78/7 K/BB in his first 52 pro innings, with 43 hits allowed. That was compiled at short-season Auburn and full-season Dunedin; his Dunedin numbers were quite impressive, with a 25/2 K/BB in 22 innings.

Vermilyea's fastball is average, but his splitter and slider are sharp, and his command is exquisite. The lack of a plus fastball keeps him out of the Bush/McGowan/Banks class, but I think Vermilyea is just a notch below that. His ratios are exceptional. We need to see what he can do in Double-A, but I am very optimistic about his chances.

Derek from the Bay Area asks: I have one quick question about a player taken in last month's Rule 5 draft. It seems like Chris Mabeus really turned a corner this past season, and he managed to improve his K/BB ratio (40/9) after being promoted to Double-A. Is there any particular reason he was left unprotected, or was it just a matter of the Athletics not being able to protect everyone they would have liked to?

Mabeus went to Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, and was drafted by Oakland in the 13th round in 2001. The Rangers picked him in the Rule 5 draft. He was considered a prospect, but Oakland had guys they liked better, and you can't protect everyone.

As you point out, Mabeus pitched quite well this year after being promoted to Double-A. He had 13 saves with a 3.52 ERA and a 40/9 K/BB in 38 innings. I saw him pitch for Midland and again in the Arizona Fall League. His fastball is average in terms of velocity, but has good sink, and his slider is a useful secondary pitch. He improved his control this year. He doesn't have the overpowering velocity needed to get away with mediocre command, but if he continues to throw strikes, he can survive.

I don't see Mabeus as someone who will be a major league closer, but he can probably handle a middle relief job, coming in to get a ground ball. He has a decent chance to stick in Texas.

Book update
The Baseball Prospect Book 2004 is at the printer, and we remain on schedule for shipping the first Monday in February. The book has a more professional look this year, and covers even more players ... 985 in all.

John Sickels is the author of the 2004 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered only at his Web site, johnsickels.com. He is also the author of "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," which will be released just before Christmas by Brassey's. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.