Brewers may have a sleeper in Saenz

Allan from Norfolk, Va., writes: Who is this Chris Saenz guy the Brewers promoted last week? I'd never heard of him, then all of a sudden he comes up and pitches a good game.

Saenz was drafted in the 28th round in 2001, out of Pima Community College in Arizona. A 6-3, 200-pound right-hander, he pitched in relief in 2002, logging a 3.51 ERA, eight saves, and a 99/32 K/BB ratio in 74 innings for Beloit in the Midwest League. In 2003, he converted to the starting rotation for High Desert in the California League. On the surface, his numbers weren't impressive: 9-9 record, 5.20 ERA in 26 starts. But he posted a solid 136/56 K/BB ratio in 128 innings, while allowing only 121 hits. His numbers were much better than his ERA indicated; his K/BB, K/IP, and H/IP marks were all well above league average, impressive considering the tough nature of the pitching environment at High Desert. He has very good stuff, and his command has been better than expected.

Saenz pitched six innings against St. Louis on April 24, allowing just two hits, three walks and no runs while fanning seven. It was just a spot start, and he was sent back to the minors the next day, but you can bet the Brewers have moved him to the top of the promotion list for later in the year. Saenz is a perfect example of how teams have to look at the component ratios when studying pitching prospects, not just the ERA, and how they have to make adjustments for league context. I mentioned him in my 2004 book as a prospect sleeper because his ratios were strong.

Tom from Erie, Penn., asks: Corey Smith seems bent on proving that last year's second half wasn't a fluke. Do the Indians finally have a long-term answer at third base, or is it too soon to tell?

Smith was Cleveland's first-round pick in 2000, out of high school in New Jersey. He is a physical specimen compared to a young Gary Sheffield, though his pro career hasn't been especially impressive so far. He entered 2004 with career marks of .261/.332/.407, not what scouts expected. He's also struggled defensively at third base. Scouts love his bat speed, strength and great physical tools, but his production has been mediocre.

Until this year. Through 19 games at Double-A Akron, Smith is hitting .306/.390/.611, knocking five homers with 16 RBI in 19 games.

Has the light gone on for Smith? Perhaps. He's still young, having turned 22 last week. His plate discipline has been good this year, though his strikeout rate remains a tad high. Scouts have always felt he would hit if he could refine his swing and improve his mental approach at the plate, and he's certainly young enough for the improvement to be real. On the other hand, he is repeating the league, and the 19-game sample is too small for us to assume that he's truly broken through.

So to answer your question, it is really too soon to tell. The Indians certainly hope the improvement is for real. Even if his bat stays hot, he still needs to prove he can play third base in the long run. He has the range and arm for the position, but needs to improve his reliability.

Steve writes: I know the sample size is small, but is Andy Dominique's hot start for Triple-A Pawtucket this season (.405 AVG, .730 SLG, 15 BB in 21 games) a "classic" case of the offensive game developing later for a catcher than for other players? And given Jason Varitek's impending free agency, is there a chance he might sneak ahead of Kelly Shoppach in the Red Sox's plans, or is he shaping up to be more of a Craig Wilson kind of player?

Dominique was originally in the Phillies system, drafted in the 26th round in 1997 from the University of Nevada. He quickly showed a power stroke for Philadelphia, knocking 24 homers in 1998 and 14 in 1999. His bat stalled out a bit when he reached Double-A, and he also had trouble finding a position, being used on-and-off as a catcher, first baseman, and designated hitter. The Red Sox picked him up in a trade early in 2002, and he's spent the last two years in the Red Sox system. He hit especially well in 2003, knocking 16 homers and hitting a combined .319 between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket.

Dominique has real power, but has seldom been mentioned as a prospect since scouts are not sold on his defense behind the plate. Shoppach's defensive skills are much stronger. Also mitigating Dominique's status is his birthday. He's 28, too old to be a real prospect. I don't think he would hit .300 at the major league level, and possibly not even .280. But he has home run power and will take a walk occasionally. Even though he's not a Gold Glove, his ability to catch adequately, play first base, and hit some home runs would be an asset on the bench. Craig Wilson is a good comparison.

Dan from Chicago asks: What do you think of Cubs pitching prospect Sean Marshall? I know he's only in low Class A ball and it's early, but his control has been outstanding, to the tune of a 1.33 ERA and a 27/1 K/BB ratio for Class A Lansing. Do you think Sean will stand out and break into the group of other great pitching prospects the Cubs have?

The Cubs have so many pitching prospects that some get lost in the shuffle. I think Marshall might be able to avoid that fate.

Marshall was drafted in the sixth round in 2003 out of Virginia Commonwealth University. His twin brother, Brian, also went to VCU, and was drafted by the Red Sox in the fifth round. Sean went to Boise in the Northwest League and pitched well, with a 2.57 ERA and an 88/23 K/BB ratio in 74 innings.

As you point out, he has been wonderful so far in '04, posting an amazing K/BB and basically overmatching the Midwest League. He'll get promoted quickly if he keeps this up.

Marshall is a thin 6-5, 185-pound southpaw. His fastball ranges from 87 to 93 mph, with movement. His velocity could pick up a bit more if he adds strength to his lanky frame. His out-pitch right now is a very good curveball, and he also has a solid changeup. Marshall is the classic college-trained lefty, able to mix his pitches well and hit spots in the strike zone. He has better velocity than many pitchers in that class, and his command is obviously excellent.

I don't think Marshall will have any problems with A-ball, so his first real test will be Double-A, which he could possibly see late this year. I gave him a C+ in my book this year, which could turn out to be too low a grade.

Brother Brian is also pitching well, being used in the bullpen for the Class-A Sarasota Red Sox. He's fanned nine in his first six innings, with no runs or walks allowed.

John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.