Brazell could provide big boost for Mets

Steve C. from East Setauket, N.Y., asks: I was looking at the statistics for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, when I came across a first baseman named Craig Brazell. He is tearing it up for the Tides, and I've never even heard of him. Does this guy have a future or is he just a career minor leaguer with a hot bat?

Brazell is hitting .288/.317 OBP/.619 SLG through May 12. In 31 games, he has 11 homers, good enough to lead the International League. What kind of prospect is he?

The Mets drafted Brazell in the fifth round in 1998, out of high school in Montgomery, Ala. He is a left-handed hitting first baseman. Physically, he looks like a slugger: 6-3, 210 pounds, and obviously strong. He entered 2004 with a career .290 batting average and .475 SLG, including .292 with 17 homers last year for Double-A Binghamton. His home run production has been better this season, and at age 24 he is still young enough to be a good prospect.

You have to respect Brazell's power, but he does have flaws as a hitter. He takes a big cut, and when he makes contact on a fastball, he'll crush it for distance. But he has trouble with breaking stuff, and his strike zone judgment/plate discipline is not impressive. It's downright poor at times. He doesn't draw many walks, often works behind in the count, and posts mediocre on-base percentages. Brazell is the sort of hitter who could hit .290, but still have a sub-.320 OBP. His power is useful, but he doesn't do enough other things to be a truly above-average hitter.

Brazell needs to show he can survive against high-level breaking pitches and changeups. If everything works out, he could be similar to Randall Simon, showing enough bat speed to survive in the majors despite weak strike zone judgment.

Amar A. writes: I was wondering what you thought about Cardinals Double-A pitcher Brad Thomson, who is working on a 30-plus scoreless innings streak right now. Will he join Adam Wainwright and Dan Haren in the future rotation for the Cardinals?

Thompson's numbers for Double-A Tennessee are off the charts right now: 37.1 innings, 19 hits allowed, three walks, 30 strikeouts, and zero runs allowed, earned or otherwise. He's 5-0 in five starts, with a 0.00 ERA. Obviously it can't get better than that.

The Cardinals drafted Thompson in the 16th round in 2002, out of Dixie Junior College in Utah. He spent 2003 in the bullpen at Class A Peoria, posting a 2.91 ERA and a 43/10 K/BB ratio in 65 innings, allowing 70 hits. His control was very impressive, but his K/IP and H/IP rates were below average. I gave him a Grade C in my book this year, a standard grade for an effective Class A pitcher who doesn't burn radar guns.

Thompson pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, earning his way to Double-A for 2004. Used as a starter this season, he's shown he can pound the lower half of the strike zone with his 88-92 mph sinking fastball. He also has an excellent slider, and has added an effective changeup now that he's a starter.

You have to be impressed by what he's done this year. At some point he'll give up some runs, of course, but 37 scoreless innings do wonders padding the ERA. While Thompson doesn't have as much pure stuff as Wainwright or Haren, if he stays healthy and maintains this sort of command, he could be a very fine middle rotation starter, at least in a Brad Radke sort of way, and possibly better than that.

Jonathan M. asks: I was wondering if you could breakdown Jeremy West, who plays for the Red Sox's Class A team in Sarasota. He's 22, which is not old for the Florida State League, and is having a great year so far, but I can't find anything but stats for him. I was wondering if you could shed some light on him for me. Is he a big-time prospect or the next Morgan Burkhart?

Playing for Class A Sarasota in the Florida State League, West is hitting .364/.392/.664 through 31 games, with 10 doubles, seven homers, and 20 RBI. He's a legitimate prospect, though we need to see what he does when he reaches Double-A, which could be later this year.

The Theo Epstein Administration inherited a dry farm system, so in the 2003 draft they selected a bunch of polished college players to try and give a quick infusion of talent to the organization. West was one of this group, drafted in the seventh round out of Arizona State. He hit .280 in short-season ball, but didn't show a lot of power. He's adjusted to the wooden bat now, and looks to be on track to produce both power and batting average. His plate discipline is decent, though not spectacular. Still, he has a lot of bat speed, and shows the ability to adjust well to breaking balls and changeups.

West was a catcher/DH in college, but plays first base now. He's reasonably reliable, but lacks the range and athleticism to be a top-notch defensive player. If he continues to hit like this at higher levels, they'll find a spot for him. I liked him a lot in college, and I'm optimistic about his future.

N.A. writes: What's your take on Mariners third-base prospect Justin Leone? Last year he played well at Double-A and for Team USA, but seemed overmatched this spring with major-league pitchers. However, he's off to another great start this year at Triple-A. The only thing that seems to concern me with him is his high strikeout rate.

Leone is hitting .255 for Triple-A Tacoma, though he's knocked eight homers and has a sharp .578 slugging percentage. His power production has been very convincing so far, but he has some serious issues with contact. He's fanned 37 times in 102 at-bats, 28 games, while drawing eight walks. Although I'm normally not overly paranoid about strikeouts, that's an excessive rate, and implies that he'll have trouble making contact in the major leagues.

Leone was drafted in 1999, a 13th-round pick out of St. Martin's College in Washington. He's made slow but steady progress through the farm system, showing excellent power and the ability to take a walk, but striking out too much and not hitting for a great batting average. His numbers so far in Triple-A are very similar to what he's done at other levels. He was MVP of the Double-A Texas League last year, on the strength of 21 homers, 38 doubles, 92 walks, and a career-best .288 batting average. Leone has a very good glove at third base, so he's not just an offensive player. He can also play second base and shortstop if needed, so he could end up as a utility guy.

Triple-A looks like more of a challenge for Leone than Double-A was, but he's maintaining his power production. His all-or-nothing approach could make him similar to Rob Deer in the major leagues. If you can imagine Deer as a very good defensive third baseman, you'd have a good image of what Leone's future could look like.

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.