Lester could develop into a hit for Sox

Brandon S. writes: As a Red Sox fan I was disappointed the team didn't complete the trade for Alex Rodriguez. But during all the rumors, I saw a name I never noticed before, Jonathan Lester. I saw his stats at Class A Augusta, where he was 6-9 with a 3.65 ERA. What can you tell me about him?

Lester, a left-hander, would have gone to Texas in the abortive A-Rod trade, but for now he's still with Boston, and likely to remain there. He was drafted in the second round in '02, out of high school in Washington state. Although the current Boston braintrust shies away from signing high school players, Lester was considered something of a draft bargain in the second round. He was projected as a first round pick, but dropped a bit due to concerns about his bonus demands. He signed anyway.

He posted a 3.65 ERA in 21 starts at Augusta last year, with a 71/44 K/BB in 106 innings. Although the ERA looks decent and his control is OK, his strikeout rate was lower than ideal. Still, I think there is potential here. Lester hits 90 mph with his fastball, and could pick up some additional velocity as he matures. His changeup is already very good, and he's made strides with his curve. Scouts say he is emotionally and intellectually mature considering his experience level.

Objectively, the numbers aren't special, but subjectively, I think this is a guy who could develop into a very interesting pitcher. He's not on the fast track, and the Sox are likely to treat him conservatively, but that's good.

H.G. asks: What do you think of Yankees prospect, Eric Duncan? You've said his defense at third base needs some work, but I'm more interested in his bat, which curiously looked better after being promoted to Class A.

The Yankees drafted Duncan in the first round in '03, out of high school in New Jersey, so he's a local kid. As you point out, the biggest question about him is defense: he may not have the range to play third base in the long run, and could get shifted over to first at some point.

With the stick, he draws comparisons to Brad Fullmer. Although his numbers on the surface look better after his promotion to Staten Island, look closer. Here are his numbers from last year:

Note the deterioration in his walk rate after moving up to Staten Island. Of course, anyone who can hit .373 in the New York-Penn League two months out of high school, even for just 14 games, has something very positive going for him. I'm not that worried about the low walk rate, given the small sample size. But it bears watching.

Overall I really do like his bat, and if he can hone the strike zone just a bit more, he's going to be a very impressive hitter. I think the Fullmer comparisons are apt. Duncan should hit for both power and average. He's probably three years away though.

Larry K. writes: Nowadays with the tremendous amount of free agents on the market, with attendance often directly attributable to success (and as such, financial success), doesn't it make sense to try to win (make the playoffs) every year? My favorite team, the Indians, have prospects galore, and this last year they probably won as much as was reasonably expected. The players, should they develop, will someday become "arbitration eligible" and either be paid market value, or move on.

Why should a franchise lower expectations of performance now, so that some day they may be good again? It seems too many teams are perennial rebuilders and an astute GM would be able to sift through the bounty of available established players (no, not Terry Mulholland) and put forth a competitive product.

Well, this sort of question does not lend itself to a yes/no answer.

Ideally, every team wants to compete every year. Even the Tigers and Devil Rays would love to shoot for the pennant; it is human nature. But teams have to do a cost/benefit analysis, and if you simply don't have the talent available on the roster, then you have to rebuild. It is true that teams sometimes get stuck in "perpetual rebuilding," but much of the time that's due to a combination of insufficient planning, poor scouting, or bad luck.

It is not just a matter of money. Teams like Oakland and Minnesota have shown in recent years that you can compete successfully without busting the budget. At the same time, clubs like the Mets, Dodgers, and Orioles have shown that spending the gross national product of Bolivia on your roster does not guarantee victory. You are right to point out that there are a lot of free agents available. But history shows that signing up a bunch of free agents doesn't guarantee success. Although the market has deflated somewhat, the fact is that many of the available free agents won't produce enough on the field to justify what they would cost to sign.

One team that should be watched in '04 is the Royals, who have plugged some holes with affordable free agents, without destroying their farm system or overstressing the budget. If you're in the right situation, with a window of opportunity as currently exists in the AL Central, picking up some free agents can help.

But you have to pick and choose carefully, and context matters. The Royals are positioned in such a way that some key players can help them win right now; the Tigers aren't.

As for Cleveland, you have a loaded farm system, and you should have a "competitive product" very soon.

Doug from Glen Ellen, California, asks: Franklin Gutierrez is regarded as the best outfield prospect in the Dodgers system, yet he seemed to hit an unimpressive .282 at Class A last year. And his batting average in winter league ball the last I checked was around .240. Is Gutierrez just the best of a bad bunch or is he really a legitimate major league prospect?

I will do a longer profile on Gutierrez this Friday. The short answer is yes, he is a prospect. He has excellent physical tools, and has shown signs of being able to put everything together into a good skills package. He does have problems with his strike zone judgment, and that's the biggest question in his profile at this point.

Book update
The Baseball Prospect Book is at the printer, and we remain on course for mailing to customers the first Monday in February. If you order now, you get the 50/50 list via email. Please remember that the 50/50 is copywritten material that I give to book readers early as a courtesy. Please treat it as such.

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.