What do Sox have in Bladergroen?

Mike in Boston writes:
I'm a die-hard Red Sox fan and am wondering about first baseman Ian Bladergroen, who the Sox acquired in the Doug Mientkiewicz trade. It appears that he had a good year last year in the Class A South Atlantic League, but how would you rate him now.

Yes, Bladergroen had an excellent year in the South Atlantic League. He hit .342 with a .397 OBP and .595 SLG. His OPS was plus-34 percent compared to Sally League average. Not bad for a guy who was basically unknown before last year. There are two catches to Bladergroen's season -- he was limited to just 72 games by a torn wrist ligament, and he was 21 years old, not ancient but not exactly young as Sally League players go.

The Mets drafted him in the 44th round in 2002, from Lamar Community College in Colorado. He made his pro debut in '03, hitting .285 but with just a .416 SLG for Brooklyn in the New York-Penn League. Bladergroen is a big guy, 6-5, 210 lbs. He has a lot of pop from the left side, but the injury raises questions, as wrist problems often sap power. Other weaknesses -- he's slow, and his plate discipline is only average. He doesn't strike out that much for a power hitter (55 in 269 at-bats last year), but he doesn't draw that many walks.

Scouts respect his power, but it is unclear how he will stand up against better pitching at higher levels.

I gave him a Grade B-minus in my book this year. In retrospect, that might be a bit of an aggressive grade. He is certainly intriguing and deserves a full shot at higher levels, but there are a few caution flags. We'll see how he does for the Red Sox. At this point he is probably two years from being ready to contribute, although a quick start in '05 could move that timetable up by six months.

Steve from Poughkeepsie asks:
How do you feel about Mets prospect Gaby Hernandez? I saw his video on the MLB draft site and was very impressed. He looks like he could have a higher ceiling than Phil Humber, the Mets' first-round pick last year. Humber looks to have more polish right now, though. Hernandez posted good numbers in rookie ball, and his one appearance at Class A Brooklyn was impressive. Do you think he projects as a potential front-of-the-rotation starter?

I like Hernandez a lot, as rookie-ball pitchers go.

He was picked in the third round last year, out of high school in Miami. In some draft classes, he could have been a supplemental first-round pick, but there was a lot of pitching available last June. Hernandez went to the Gulf Coast rookie league and was lights-out, posting a 1.09 ERA in 50 innings, allowing only 25 hits and 12 walks, with 58 strikeouts. K/BB, K/IP, H/IP, all were excellent. He saw action in one game for Brooklyn in the NY-P, fanning six in three innings and allowing no runs or walks.

Hernandez has a 90-93 mph fastball, with sinking and running action. In high school, he had a few problems with his curveball. He would choke it off in the dirt or have it sail high and away; this probably hurt his draft status to some extent. But in pro ball, his curveball was much more reliable. Add the better curve to his fastball, changeup and sharp command, and you have a fine young pitcher.

I agree with you that Hernandez has a higher physical ceiling than Humber, who is older and physically mature. Hernandez could still gain some height and weight, possibly leading to increased velocity. But you are right that Humber will move more quickly. If Hernandez can manage to stay healthy, he could definitely be a front-row starter, yes. He could make a lot of noise in 2005.

K.C. writes:
What do you think of Devil Rays pitcher Dewon Brazelton? He has been an enigma for a while, showing flashes at times but looking inexperienced and awful at other times. At 24, do you still think he could become the top quality starter he was touted as coming out of college?

Brazelton has not lived up to expectations since coming out of Middle Tennessee State in the first round in 2001. Stuff-wise, he still has his 90-94 mph fastball and a very good changeup. But he still has problems with his slider. Sometimes it is effective, but even when the pitch is working well, he doesn't use it enough, lacking the confidence to throw it in tight situations. Given his age, pedigree and arm strength, no one will give up on him quickly.

What do the numbers tell us? Brazelton was more effective in 2004 than he was in 2003, setting a career-best 4.77 ERA. But "career-best 4.77 ERA" is not exactly a strong endorsement, and his component numbers remain unimpressive. His K/BB was quite weak at 64/53 in 121 innings. The walk rate isn't completely awful, but the strikeout rate is unacceptably low and is a huge red flag for his future.

Brazelton still has time to figure things out. But the weak K/IP rate warns that he isn't able to dominate hitters very often, no matter how hard he throws. Pitchers with low strikeout rates must have exceptional control to survive for any length of time in the Show, and Brazelton does not have command like that. For him to live up to his full potential, he'll need to develop a new pitch or improve his command substantially, or probably both.

My guess is that Brazelton may eventually find his niche in relief. In any event, the first sign of real improvement will be a rise in his strikeout rate.

Personal note: This will be the last Down on the Farm mailbag I will write for ESPN.com. I hope to know next week more about what I will do in the future. I will have a nice goodbye for you when my last column runs on Feb. 1.

John Sickels is the author of The 2005 Baseball Prospect Book. The book ships on Feb. 1, and can be ordered only at Johnsickels.com. He is also the author of Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, which can be ordered online or at your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas and two happy cats.