Estrada makes an amazing step up

N.C.G. writes: I came across your "analysis" of Johnny Estrada and his capabilities. You wrote before the beginning of the season:

"... while the Braves have talked a good game about Estrada being the catcher of the future, I don't think he has enough offensive potential to be a starter for a good team. In the majors, he looks like a .250-.260 hitter, with a little power, but with a low OBP due to his small walk rates."

I hope you enjoy that healthy dose of crow you're eating.

It's not so bad with ketchup, though the crow meat has a lot of gristle.

Self-deprecation aside, I always try to be accountable for what I write. In this business, both your successes and your mistakes are public. Performance analysis and player projection will never be an exact science, but I keep track of my successes and my failures, trying to learn from my mistakes, and my projection for Estrada looks like a big failure at this point.

In Estrada's case, he hit for average in the low minors, but showed poor strike zone judgment and not much power. He struggled at times in the upper levels, and was awful for the Phillies in 2002. But then he showed major improvement when he was 26 years old in Triple-A. Few hitters show real, genuine, sustained improvement in their numbers at that age. But it does happen sometimes, and in Estrada's case it looks like the optimists (the Braves and their fans) were right, and the pessimists (people like me who worried about his low walk rate and weird Triple-A performance spike) were wrong.

Looking at his '04 major league number, Estrada is hitting .331 through 69 games, which you can't argue with. His walk rate is still below average, but it's actually improved compared to what he'd done in some minor league seasons. Also impressive are 26 doubles, which is just three short of his career high, and we're only in July. Combine this offensive production with solid defense, and you have an excellent catcher.

So my hat is off to Johnny Estrada.

Chris S. comments: It looks like you could be right about this being the year that Val Majewski really breaks onto the prospect scene. Nice to see this very hard working, physically gifted young man named to the 2004 Futures Team roster.

Here's one it looks like I was right about, at least to this point. In my 2004 Baseball Prospect Book, I wrote "I think he (Majewski) is going to break through in '04." A third-round pick in 2002 out of Rutgers, Orioles prospect Majewski split 2003 between four different clubs, due to an injury and the resultant rehab assignment. This kept him from getting noticed by most people. But in 513 career at-bats entering 2004, he'd hit .294/.358/.517, with 19 steals, solid across-the-board numbers and indicative of a strong tools/skills set.

In 2004, Majewski is hitting .293/.348/.486, with 12 homers in 76 games for Double-A Bowie. I actually think he can do better than that in time. A left-handed hitter, he has solid plate discipline, doesn't strike out much, shows pop to all fields, runs well, and has a right field arm. His power hasn't fully developed yet, and he may not produce the big home run numbers expected from a corner outfielder. Scouts love his attitude and work ethic. I'm not exactly sure where he fits into Baltimore's long-term roster plans, but at the least he should be a solid fourth outfielder. If his power continues to improve, he will move beyond that.

Mike F. from Natick, Massachusetts, asks: I was hoping you could tell me a little more about Diamondbacks prospect, Conor Jackson. He flew through Class A and is now raking in the Double-A Texas League. Since he has proven that he has power and plate discipline, is there any chance the D-Backs will call him up in September?

Before being promoted to Double-A, Jackson hit .345/.438/.562 in 67 games for Lancaster in the California League. In 13 games since being promoted to El Paso, Jackson is at .340/.446/.426. His power production has dropped off a bit since moving up, but his plate discipline and batting average remain exceptional, and the homers will come if he keeps that up.

So far, Jackson has lived up to every expectation the D-Backs had for him when they picked him in the first round last June. The former University of California slugger now plays outfield rather than third base, but his bat is extremely potent, and he's adjusted to wood without trouble. His plate discipline and power potential are top-notch.

I don't think we'll see him this year. As a 2003 draftee, he doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft until the end of 2005. I think he'll be up well before then, possibly holding down a starting job in the Arizona outfield as soon as next spring. But barring injuries or a massive roster purge, the D-Backs will probably let him percolate in the minors the rest of this year, to keep a 40-man roster slot clear for a prospect who does need to be protected.

Jackson's teammate at El Paso, Carlos Quentin, is also off to a fast start at .375/.464/.563 since moving up along with Jackson two weeks ago. Quentin is another power-hitting outfielder with good plate discipline, and he could also get a shot next spring. I'm high on both of these guys.

Frank P. from Springfield, Illinois, asks: I noticed that Chris Young, a White Sox outfield prospect, has hit 14 homers with 20 steals at Class A Kannapolis. What kind of prospect is he? Is he a Five-Tool player?

Young is hitting .270 in 76 games in the Sally League, but with a .375 OBP, a .526 SLG, 21 doubles, 14 homers, 20 steals, and 38 walks in 270 at-bats. The big negative here is his strikeout rate: he's fanned 81 times already, more than once per game, and a dangerously high ratio.

The White Sox drafted Young in the 16th round in 2001, out of high school in Houston. He was very raw when drafted, and hit just .217 in rookie ball in '02. But he improved in '03, hitting .290 in 64 games for Bristol in the Appy League, and he's adjusted well to full-season ball this year.

Young is very athletic, a classic tools guy. His speed is excellent, and he's already developed into an effective defensive outfielder, with plus range and an accurate, though mediocre, arm. Scouts knew he could steal bases, but his power development has been unexpected. His walk rate has been creeping upward, a good sign. But the strikeouts are worrisome.

Young still needs to work on his swing, which can be awkward at times. His approach on breaking balls needs help, and that will be a problem at higher levels if it is not corrected. The good news is that he's just 20 years old, and has already made a lot of progress.

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.