Blanton could be big contributor for A's

Ryan F. asks: In terms of major league ceiling, how do you compare Oakland's Joe Blanton and Baltimore's John Maine?

I think Blanton has the higher ceiling. He generates better velocity on his fastball, as high as 95 mph and consistently in the 91-93 range, while Maine tops out at 93 and usually works at 89-91. There's more to pitching than pure velocity, of course, but both of them have good command of their heaters, and I think Blanton's is a bit better. Blanton's slider is probably slightly better than Maine's curveball, but Maine has a better changeup at this point.

Both show a good feel for pitching. At 6-4, 190, Maine has a more athletic body than Blanton's 6-3, 225 pound frame, and Maine's mechanics are considered cleaner, so his injury risk may be less down the road. On the other hand, Maine has struggled since being promoted to the Triple-A International League a few weeks ago, while Blanton has held his own in the difficult Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

Overall, I think Blanton has a higher ceiling, in the sense that he has a better chance to be a dominant pitcher. But both are solid talents, although their styles of pitching are somewhat different.

Jason from Bloomington, Indiana, writes: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about an obscure infielder for the Class A Kane County Cougars (an Oakland affiliate) named Vasili Spanos. He peaks my interest for two reasons: 1) I watched him play at Indiana University last year and liked what I saw, 2) He is my girlfriend's cousin. We are both interested to know what the chances are of seeing him play in the majors.

Spanos isn't really that obscure. He led the Big Ten in hitting last year with a .412 mark (the only league regular over .400), while contributing 11 homers, 47 RBI, and 33 walks. A senior, he went in the 11th round to Oakland, who drafted him at least in part because they loved his plate discipline. His playing time was limited after he signed by a broken hamate bone, but he is healthy again and off to a good start for Kane County, hitting .287/.366/.478 so far this season.

A lot of scouts think Spanos will continue to hit as he moves up. He has plus bat speed, excellent command of the strike zone, and above-average power. The main question revolves around his defensive ability. He can play third base and first base, but isn't a particularly skilled gloveman. If he continues to hit, they should be able to find a place for him. The other issue is age-relative-to-league. He was a college senior, so he isn't young for the Midwest League and will have to show he can continue hitting well when he reaches higher levels of competition.

Brad G. writes: Do you have any new information on Giants prospect Merkin Valdez? I can't seem to find any news or updates on him or his injury.

Valdez came down with a sore shoulder in spring training, after a lot of noise over the winter that he might make the Giants roster even though he had no experience above A-ball. He rehabbed the sore shoulder in extended spring, and seems to be fine now. Valdez went on the active list this week for San Jose in the Class A California League, and pitched brilliantly in his first start: 5.1 innings, two hits, one run, six strikeouts, no walks.

Valdez has tremendous stuff and better command than most 22-year-old pitchers, so it was tempting for the Giants to push him quickly this spring. They opted for caution when the shoulder problem cropped up, a very wise move. I imagine that they'll go slowly with him at first, but he should hit Double-A later this year. A major league appearance late in the season is still possible if he remains healthy and maintains his command.

Jon from Park Hills, Missouri, asks: Cardinals prospect Daric Barton has been tearing up the Class A Midwest League since his arrival in May. What are his chances of changing positions and/or moving up again so early in his professional career?

Barton was drafted by the Cardinals in the first round last June, out of high school in Huntington Beach, California. He was considered one of the best high school hitters available last year, but most teams thought he would go in the second round, due to questions about his defense. Some people felt the Cardinals overdrafted him with the 28th overall pick, but the Redbirds really loved his bat.

Barton hit .294/.420/.424 in rookie ball, and is annihilating the Midwest League in 2004. He started the season in extended spring training, but joined the Peoria club three weeks ago. In his first 16 games for Peoria, Barton is hitting .389/.515/.685. I know it's just 16 games, but a .515 OBP? Wow. He's drawn 14 walks with just 10 strikeouts in 70 plate appearances. Although he'll cool off at some point, scouts say these numbers are not flukes; he is a genuinely skilled hitter. He has excellent bat speed from the left side of the plate. Combine that with a great eye, and you have a special bat.

The question for Barton still revolves around his glove. He has enough athleticism to be a decent catcher, but he is inexperienced behind the plate, and still needs work with his throwing mechanics, blocking pitches, calling games, etc. He's splitting time between catcher and DH right now. If he can't catch in the long-term, he has enough juice in his bat to play first base, though of course he would have more value down the road if he can catch.

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.