Archive for February, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Homer Bailey?

Remember “Homer Bailey, top pitching prospect”? It wasn’t that long ago that scouts were drooling over the lanky Texan, whose mid-90’s heat and hammer curve impressed Cincinnati brass enough to use the 7th overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft on him. Dubbing him the “undisputed class among the nation’s high school crop”, Baseball America extolled his virtues: Bailey possessed “the best fastball (92-96 mph), the best righthanded breaking ball (a hard downer curveball), the best command and the most polish among high schoolers in the draft.”

While that was certainly a heaping helping of praise, the La Grange native lived up to his flame-throwing billing in the earlier stages of his career. Bailey made his full-season debut in 2005, with Dayton of the Low-A Midwest League. Bailey spit fire in 103.2 frames for the Dragons, punching out 10.9 batters per nine innings. He was just as likely to burn himself as opponents, however, with 5.38 BB/9. Despite the strike-zone hiccups, BA named Bailey the 38th-best prospect in the minors (1st in the Cincy system) prior to the 2006 season.

Bailey began his ’06 campaign with Sarasota of the High-A Florida State League, tossing 70.2 innings for the club. The 6-4, 205 pounder continued to maul batters at the lower levels (10.06 K/9), but he also nearly halved his walk rate, issuing 2.8 free passes per nine innings. The sharper command led to a shiny 3.21 FIP. Pumping gas and showing better polish, Bailey was bumped up to the Southern League, where he pitched 68 innings for the Lookouts. Homer got lucky with homers (0.13 HR/9) and he walked more batters (3.71 BB/9), but his 10.19 K/9 served notice that the Texan could miss bats at the upper levels. BA really showed Bailey some love that offseason, as he was named the 5th-best prospect in the game.

With such lofty accolades, Bailey entered 2007 with Sistine Chapel-high expectations. He was sent to AAA Louisville, where some cracks began to appear in said chapel. His K rate was good, not great (7.89 K/9 in 67.1 IP), but he walked 4.28 per nine, suggesting that he needed some additional time to hone his craft in the minors. However, Bailey was summoned to Cincinnati in early June, where he struggled to keep his head above water. Bailey’s K/BB was an ugly 1-to-1, as he both whiffed and walked 5.56 hitters per nine innings in 45.1 frames of work. Utilizing a 92.4 MPH fastball (thrown 71.3% of the time) and that patented mid-70’s curve (14.7%), Bailey posted a 4.92 FIP. Despite the rocky introduction, few seemed worried about Homer’s long-term potential: he checked in as the 9th-best talent in the minors, per BA.

Returned to Louisville to kick off 2008, Bailey improved somewhat, though his performance fell under the level that one might expect from a top-of-the-line farm product. The 22 year-old posted rates of 7.76 K/9 and 3.72 BB/9, with a 3.96 FIP in 111.1 IP. He got his second shot with the Reds during the summer, but things continued to go awry in the show. In 36.1 innings, he didn’t fool many batters (4.46 K/9), nor was he stingy with the walks (4.21 B/9). His FIP was a Boeing-level 6.41, as Homer lived up to his name with 1.98 big flys per nine innings. His once-vaunted velocity was mundane (91.5 MPH) and mechanically-minded analysts were none too pleased with that they saw.

Bailey has barely managed 5 K’s per nine in his short major league career. Drawing conclusions off of 80-some innings is a terrible idea, but he has had issues putting hitters away in pitcher’s counts. Courtesy of the insanely useful Baseball-Reference, we find that Bailey has surrendered a .287/.359/.440 line with two strikes between 2007 and 2008. For comparison, the NL average in two-strike counts in ’08 was .185/.256/.284. While the average NL pitcher turned batters into Tony Pena Jr. with two strikes, Bailey allows them to imitate Mark DeRosa.

Heading into 2009, Bailey has very little shot of cracking the Reds’ starting rotation. That might be for the best, considering his tenuous mechanics and pitch sequencing suggest that he could use some extra seasoning. It would be silly to write off Bailey, but some of the shine is definitely off of his star.

The Nolasco Kid

Back in November, Peter Bendix expressed his admiration for Florida Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco. As Peter put it:

“How many people realize just how good he was this year? Or, more importantly, how good he’s likely to be next year? Chances are, most of the people in your fantasy league are either unaware of Nolasco, or don’t fully appreciate how good he is.”

With most fantasy players squarely in draft mode right about now, this seems like a great time to hammer home the talent level and productivity of Florida’s covert ace.

Originally drafted by the Cubs in the 4th round of the 2001 draft, Nolasco often posted impressive numbers in the minors. By the age of 21, he had turned in a knockout campaign in AA (107 IP, 9.7 K/9, 3.11 BB/9). Still, the California native was sent back to the Southern League in 2005, where he once again struck out over a batter per inning (9.6 K/9) with better control (2.56 BB/9). Despite the impressive peripherals, Nolasco often flew under the radar in Chicago’s system, ranking 19th on Baseball America’s top 30 Cubs prospect list in 2005.

In December of ’05, the North Siders shipped Nolasco, Sergio Mitre and Renyel Pinto to the Marlins in an ill-fated deal for Juan Pierre. While Pierre would spend just one season in Chicago, Nolasco stepped into Florida’s rotation in 2006 and turned in a respectable rookie showing. In 140 frames, he punched out 6.36 batters per nine and walked 2.64 per nine. The flyball pitcher had some issues with the gopher ball (1.29 HR/9), but ended up with an adequate 4.68 FIP.

Unfortunately, Nolasco did not have the opportunity to build upon that work in 2007. Ricky’s entire season was essentially washed away by arm maladies, as he was placed on the DL with elbow inflammation in April and an elbow strain in May. He tossed only 21 innings for the Fish, posting a 5.44 FIP.

In 2008, Nolasco returned with a vengeance. After a ho-hum start, the 6-2, 220 pounder went on a tear during the summer months:

April: 26.1 IP, 13/9 K/BB
May: 34 IP, 25/13 K/BB
June: 35.1 IP, 29/7 K/BB
July: 39 IP, 37/5 K/BB
August: 43 IP, 51/4 K/BB (!)
September: 34.2 IP, 31/4 K/BB

In 212.1 innings, Nolasco posted a 3.77 FIP. He still gave up some taters (1.19 HR/9), but his peripherals were just sparkling: 7.88 K/9 and 1.78 BB/9. His 4.43 K/BB ratio ranked 7th among all starters, one spot ahead of stretch-run deity CC Sabathia. Ricky had always possessed a well-placed low-90’s fastball and a sharp mid-70’s hook, but he added another dimension to his repertoire in 2008 with a mid-80’s slider:

2006: FB 61.4% (91.5 MPH), SL 0.1% (82 MPH), CB 34.1% (74.9 MPH)
2008: FB 51.6% (91.2 MPH), SL 15.8% (83.9 MPH), CB 26.8% (75 MPH)

Supplementing those three offerings with an occasional changeup, Nolasco was more difficult to put the bat on the ball against. Opposing hitters swung at 28.6% of pitches Nolasco threw outside of the strike zone (22.1% in ’06), made less contact on those outside swings (64 O-Contact% in ’06, 60.7% in ’08) and made less contact overall (83 Contact% in ’06, 79.3% in ’08).

Ricky Nolasco does come with some risk. He has an elbow injury in his not-too-distant past, and he is coming off of a season where he threw considerably more than ever before: his prior highest inning total was 161.2, back in the Southern League in 2005. Despite those concerns, fantasy owners should take a long look at Florida’s underappreciated ace, with the hope that he avoids the trainer’s table. If he remains healthy, Nolasco could be a top-20 starter in 2009.

Pondering Purcey’s Potential

Those who are big, left-handed and throw very hard have a way of getting a preponderance of opportunity in professional baseball. Toronto’s David Purcey fit this axiom rather well during the first few years of his career. The 16th overall selection in the 2004 amateur draft, Purcey occasionally made scouts all tingly with his low-to-mid-90’s gas, but he also had them reaching for the antacids on a regular basis due to his scattershot control.

The former Oklahoma Sooner made his full-season debut in 2005, with Dunedin of the High-A Florida State League. Purcey displayed the high-octane stuff that garnered him high accolades, with an eye-popping 11.06 K/9 in 94.1 innings. However, in a sign of things to come, he also allowed 5.34 BB/9. Despite Purcey’s issues in keeping the ball around the dish, the Jays bumped him up AA New Hampshire, where he continued to both impress (9.42 K/9) and infuriate (5.23 BB/9) in 43 frames of work. Calling him a “physical pitcher with power stuff”, Baseball America ranked Purcey as the third-best prospect in Toronto’s system on the basis of a heater with plus velocity, a 12-to-6 curve and a developing changeup.

Returned to the Eastern league to begin the 2006 season, Purcey’s prospect status stagnated. The 6-4, 245 pounder posted rates of 8.25 K/9 and 4.48 BB/9 in 88.1 IP. His ERA (5.60) overstated the extent of his struggles (his BABIP was .354; the quality of defense in the minors is lower, but that’s still pretty lofty), but the walks and a 4.59 FIP were still underwhelming. Like the previous year, Purcey received a promotion despite his lack of precision. In 51.2 innings for AAA Syracuse, the $1.6M man struck out 7.84 batters per nine innings but lost all semblance of control, with 6.62 BB/9. Not surprisingly, Purcey’s FIP was a grisly 5.54.

Following that campaign, Purcey fell to 9th on BA’s list of Jays farm hands. BA continued to point out his virtues, noting that “few left-handers can match the raw stuff Purcey possesses” and praising his fastball and biting curveball as “plus pitches.” However, his “large build and inconsistent release point” also led to speculation about a conversion to the bullpen.

After several years of frustrating the scouting community, Purcey appeared to make some legitimate strides to begin the 2007 campaign. The Jays dropped the big southpaw back down to AA, and he responded. His ERA (5.37) in 62 innings didn’t tell the real story: he continued to miss bats (7.98 K/9), but his LaLoosh-like control was much improved. He pared his walk rate down to 2.32 batters per nine innings, posting a 3.23 FIP.

Unfortunately, just as Purcey appeared to be making good on his draft status, injury struck. Purcey had to go under the knife in June to have cysts removed from his forearm and triceps. BA dubbed him the 9th-best prospect in Toronto’s system again, reporting that Purcey sacrificed a little velocity on his fastball for increased command: “Purcey is capable of dialing his fastball up to 93-95 MPH, but the Blue Jays have toned him down to the low 90’s to improve his location.”

Healthy and aware that well-placed low-90’s heat tops random mid-90’s flinging, Purcey turned in a very nice season back at AAA Syracuse in 2008. In 117 frames, he improved his K rate (9.31) while also displaying sharp control for the first extended period of his career (2.62 BB/9).

With a 3.56 K/BB ratio and a 2.99 FIP, Purcey earned a call-up to the majors for good in late July (he had brief cameos in April and May). The 26 year-old’s first taste of the bigs was a mixed bag: relying heavily on a 91 MPH fastball (thrown about 70% of the time), Purcey compiled a 4.67 FIP. He used the fastball, a hard mid-80’s slider, mid-70’s curve and an occasional low-80’s change to punch out 8.03 batters per nine innings, though he was a bit generous with the free passes (4.02 BB/9).

Entering the 2009 season, Purcey appears to have a great chance of making the Jays out of camp. Toronto was a wonderful run-prevention club in ’08, but with Burnett in the Bronx, Marcum recovering from TJ surgery and McGowan still working his way back from shoulder surgery, the Jays’ rotation is a land of opportunity at the moment.

Purcey’s progression from inconsistent flame-thrower to savvy low-90’s strike-thrower is a great example of radar gun readings being just one of many components that combine to make a pitcher successful. You could do much worse than deciding to take a flyer on Purcey in the later rounds. He’s got talent, opportunity and a better understanding of what it takes to be successful at his craft.

Tofu Power and Prince Fielder

In 2007, Prince Fielder hit 50 HR and was considered one of the top sluggers in the game. Heading into the 2008 season, Fielder had an ADP of 11. However, those who took Fielder that high suffered through a rough beginning of the season. Through May 29th, he had just six home runs and 25 RBIs in 194 at-bats. For the rest of the season he had 28 HR and 77 RBIs in 394 at-bats.

For the season, Fielder had a $17.23 dollar value according to the RotoTimes Player Rater and finished outside of the top-40 fantasy hitters. This year, fantasy owners are splitting the difference between 2007 and 2008, giving Fielder an ADP of 26 according to the latest update over at Mock Draft Central.

Much was made last year about Fielder becoming a vegetarian. Many people blamed the slow start on his dietary decision. But slumps happen. Fielder’s poor stretch simply happened at the beginning of the season and was more noticeable.

But much like Carlos Delgado, Fielder had two poor months and four good months last year. And the four good months were the final four of the season. Now, we don’t get to pick the months that we want to count from a player’s stat line. The season is six months long and each month counts the same.

However, when projecting players into the future, one should take into account as much information as possible. We know that Fielder hit 50 HR in 2007. We know that his final four months of the season he was on a pace for 42 HR. In the past two years, there is much more evidence that Fielder is a 40+ HR player than there is that he is a <35 HR player.

One could easily counter that if we are going to look at all of the information, we should include 2006, when Fielder hit 28 HR in 569 at-bats as a 22-year old. And I won’t quibble with that one bit. It is my belief that we should put more weight on the more-recent performance, especially given his age.

If you are comfortable projecting Fielder as a 40-HR guy, that makes him a top-20 hitter, assuming he can keep his average in the .275-.280 range. Three of the four projection systems show Fielder clearing the .280 mark this season.

Fielder may be slightly undervalued by the mock drafting crowd. The mockers prefer Justin Morneau, who on average is going six slots ahead of Fielder. Morneau provided much more value in 2008, but I would prefer Fielder’s power over Morneau’s RBI bat this season.

2009 Impact Rookie: Gio Gonzalez

Gio Gonzalez has no doubt seen his fair share of U-Haul trucks. The former supplemental-first-round selection out of a Miami high school during the 2004 draft has played for the White Sox, Phillies, White Sox again, and the Athletics organizations. He has been traded for Major Leaguers, including designated hitter Jim Thome, starting pitcher Freddy Garcia, and outfielder Nick Swisher.

The constant moving for Gonzalez has not been due to a lack of talent; he’s been a popular commodity because he’s young, left-handed and has put up some solid minor league career numbers, including 476 hits allowed in 582.2 career minor league innings.

Gonzalez has missed his fair share of bats in the past three seasons (two years at Double-A, one at Triple-A), and has struck out more than nine batters per nine innings. At Triple-A in 2008, Gonzalez allowed 106 hits in 123 innings and posted rates of 4.46 BB/9 and 9.37 K/9. He obviously needs to shave down the walk rate, especially after his MLB debut late last year that saw him walk 25 batters in 34 innings (6.62 BB/9). After allowing just 12 home runs in Triple-A, Gonzalez was lit up for nine (2.38 HR/9) in the Majors.

Yes, the southpaw had a rough introduction to the Majors, but his minor league numbers suggest he should be just about ready to secure a No. 4 or 5 spot in a Major League rotation in 2009. His command/control are the biggest question marks at this point, as the 23-year-old hurler learned the hard way. Major League hitters swung at just 18.2% of his pitches outside the strike zone, a tiny percentage even in a small sample size.

Gonzalez’ fastball averaged around 89 mph in the Majors, and he also showcased a curveball and a change-up. His biggest competitions for pitching time in 2009 include fellow top prospects Brett Anderson, Vince Mazzaro, and Trevor Cahill, whom I wrote about recently.

Position Battles: Rangers’ OF, Pt. 2: Jones and Murphy

Earlier today, we reflected upon the impressive performances turned in by Marlon Byrd and Nelson Cruz in 2008. While both could provide some value in 2009, it probably wouldn’t be wise to expect repeat performances. Now, let’s turn our attention to a guy who has nowhere to go but up (Andruw Jones) and a sophomore fighting to stay in the lineup (David Murphy).

It’s difficult to avert one’s eyes away from Jones’ abrupt, dramatic fall from grace; his 2008 season was the baseball equivalent of a car wreck. Andruw seemed well-positioned to rebound from a down 2007 season:

2006: .375 wOBA, 12.7 BB%, 22.5 K%, .269 ISO, .270 BABIP
2007: .314 wOBA, 10.9 BB%, 24.1 K%, .191 ISO, .248 BABIP

After a monster 2006 campaign, Jones saw his wOBA fall over 60 points. However, there were some reasons to remain sanguine about the long-time Brave. While his power was down in 2007, a .190+ ISO is still nothing to sneeze at, and his control of the strike zone remained largely unchanged. With an uptick in his BABIP, Jones figured to rebound from his .222/.311/.413 showing.

Suffice it to say, that didn’t occur. Signed to a two-year, $36.2 million by the Dodgers, Jones showed up to spring training looking a good 20 to 30 pounds overweight. Perhaps not coincidentally, he battled knee problems and posted a line that made Chin-Lung Hu feel better about himself: in 238 PA, Jones “hit” .158/.256/.249, striking out 36.4% of the time. Despite that minimal playing time, Jones manged to compile -17.9 batting runs.

Jones’ career cliff dive is flabbergasting. 32 in April, the Netherlands Antilles native appeared to possess the sort of broad skill set that would age well: he had patience and power at the plate, but he supplemented that with athleticism that allowed him to cover large swaths of territory in center field- check out his UZR/150 totals on his player page. Projecting where Jones goes from here is a fool’s errand, but it would be prudent not to completely write him off just yet.

As unbelievably macabre as his ’08 work was (the Dodgers gave him a unique severance package to go far, far away, and Jones is in Rangers camp on a $500K minor league deal), Jones is not that far removed from being a valuable commodity. His defense in center was still above-average even with all the extra girth, and Josh Hamilton (-16.4 UZR/150 in CF) is best off in an outfield corner. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities than Andruw works his way onto the 25-man roster.

While Jones is looking to pick up the charred remains of his career, Murphy is still in the early stages of his big league stint. The 27 year-old lefty was acquired from the Red Sox (along with toolsy outfield prospect Engel Beltre and low-upside southpaw Kason Gabbard) for Eric Gagne (speaking of charred careers..) in a July 2007 swap. Blocked in Boston, Murphy saw a good deal of work for the Rangers last season, batting .275/.321/.465 in 454 PA.

The former first-rounder from Baylor was often disappointing in the power department in the Sox farm system (the 6-4, 205 pounder slugged just .407 during his minor league career), so the .190 ISO with Texas was surprising. Still, there does not appear to be a whole lot of upside here: Murphy is in that age range where what you see is generally what you get. The overall package of mild plate discipline (career 7.2 BB%), solid contact (17.3 K%) and average power make Murphy appear as more of a good fourth outfielder than a guy you want patrolling an outfield corner on a day-in, day-out basis.

Brandon Boggs and Frank Catalanotto bear passing mention, though neither projects to soak up many AB’s in 2009. Boggs, a switch-hitting 26 year-old, has a history of working the count and striking out in excess of 30% of his trips to the plate in the minors. Both of those trends continued with the Rangers last season (13.5 BB%, 32.9 K%, .324 wOBA in 334 PA). A good athlete who can draw a walk, Boggs could be a decent extra outfielder, but the contact issues preclude hopes for more than that. Catalanotto will make $4 million in 2009, though his role and utility to the club are not readily apparent. The soon-to-be 35 year-old is the 5th outfielder and backup first baseman. If Jones makes the club, Catalanotto might get the boot.

Position Battles: Rangers’ OF, Pt. 1: Byrd and Cruz

The Texas Rangers received some unexpected performances in the outfield this past season. Sure, newly-imported Josh Hamilton was supposed to provide thump in the middle of the lineup and did just that, but the folks in Arlington also got the benefit of a career year from thirty-something Marlon Byrd, some late-season feats of strength from minor league bopper Nelson Cruz and a decent rookie debut from David Murphy. Heading into 2009, Hamilton (duh) and Cruz appear to have starting spots locked up. Murphy, Byrd, Brandon Boggs, minor league free agent Andruw Jones and Frank Catalanotto will battle for the remaining at-bats. For now, let’s focus on Byrd and Cruz.

Byrd did his finest big league work in 2008, batting .298/.380/.462 with a .370 wOBA. He walked a career- high 10.2% of the time, while also cutting his K rate to 15.4% (21.3% in ’07). The former Philadelphia farm hand was scrounging for a job as recently as 2006, having posted a feeble .294 wOBA with the Nationals in 228 PA. The 31 year-old has found Texas to be to his liking: he batted .356/.406/.510 at Rangers Ballpark in 2007 (.259/.304/.410 on the road) and continued to enjoy the home cooking in ’08, hitting .299/.398/.512 at home and a mild-but-still-useful .297/.362/.411 in the away grays.

The 6-0, 245 pounder has done an admirable job in picking up the pieces of his shattered Philly prospect days, and has at bare minimum turned himself into a very useful fourth outfielder. CHONE projects Byrd to post a .281/.352/.434 line in 2009, while PECOTA calls for a .271/.335/.426 showing. It’s probably best to view Byrd’s ’08 work as his high-water mark, but you could do worse if you’re in need of a short-term fix in the outfield.

Cruz, meanwhile, has previously been discussed at length on this site. The 28 year-old has long creamed minor league pitching (he’s a career .298/.367/.539 hitter), and he took the Triple-A terrorizing to new levels in 2008. Cruz pummeled to PCL to the tune of .342/.429/.695 in 448 PA. While the batting average was the product of a .363 BABIP, Cruz did show a better eye at the plate (12.8 BB%) and carried that over to the big leagues in a late-season trial (12.9 BB%). In 133 PA for the Rangers, the erstwhile Oakland and Milwaukee prospect batted .330/.421/.609 with 7 HR.

Back in November, I cautioned against getting too excited at the prospect of Cruz receiving everyday playing time:

“Cruz’s AAA line was legitimately impressive, but we’re talking about a 28 year-old whose skill set remains the same as it was entering the year: impressive power, but just decent plate patience and lofty strikeout rates. His small-sample mashing might engender lofty expectations, but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. Cruz had a .388 average on balls in play, a very high number that will regress. Also, the chances of a guy striking out so often hitting .330 are essentially zero. “

That assessment might sound overly pessimistic, but I think it is important to keep in mind that Cruz is a AAA veteran in his late 20’s, not some youthful hot-shot who precociously dominated the upper levels of the minor leagues. The 6-3, 230 pounder could be useful to the Rangers-he has plenty of raw power-but his control of the zone has generally been just fair and he has whiffed nearly a quarter of the time in AAA. He’s interesting, surely, but his small-sample work with the Rangers might lead to unreasonably high expectations. PECOTA calls for a .260/.335/.484 line, which seems reasonable for a righty power hitter in Arlington.

2009 Impact Rookie: Cameron Maybin

Florida loves its rookies. Cameron Maybin has been a top prospect since high school and he was taken by the Detroit Tigers with the 10th overall pick of the 2005 draft. Maybin was also the key trading chip (along with pitcher Andrew Miller) that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit prior to the 2008 season.

After spending the majority of the 2008 season in Double-A, Maybin is poised to enter 2009 as the Marlins’ starting center-fielder. The athletic, right-handed hitter batted .500 (16-for-32) in a brief MLB trial in late 2008 with the Marlins. He stolen four bases in eight games, but also whiffed eight times. Maybin could be one of those players, not unlike Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez, that rises to the occasion, basks in the spotlight, and posts better numbers in the Majors than he did in the minors.

Last season in Double-A, Maybin hit .277/.375/.456 with 13 homes and 21 stolen bases in 390 at-bats. He also posted a respectable walk rate of 13.3 BB%, but a high strikeout rate of 31.8 K%, which could very well hurt his batting average early in his career if it does not improve.

Maybin can impact a game in a number of different ways. He has raw power and should be good for 15-20 homers in his prime. Maybin also has the speed to steal 30-40 bases in a season. Defensively, he has game-changing range and instincts, while also possessing a strong arm. Once he learns to hit breaking balls better, he could improve upon his .297 career minor league batting average. Maybin struggled with runners on base in 2008 and hit just .232 in those situations.

Maybin’s biggest competition for a starting role in 2009 is himself. He has to keep things simple and trust his natural ability; only a terrible spring will keep him off the opening-day roster. Other outfielders on the 40-man roster that can play center include Cody Ross (ticketed for left field), Alfredo Amezaga (a solid utility player), and Brett Carroll (fringe MLB starter). For fantasy purposes, Maybin could be a solid sleeper but don’t spend a high pick on him. He should hit about .270/.345/.390 with 10 homers and 20 stolen bases in his first season in Florida.

Position Battles: Mets’ 5th Starter, Pt.4: Niese and Parnell

Earlier this week, we discussed the case for and against veteran starters Freddy Garcia, Tim Redding and Livan Hernandez attaining the Mets’ fifth starter gig. Now, let’s take a quick look at the two prospects vying for the spot. Though Jonathon Niese and Robert Parnell face long odds of cracking the rotation out of the gate, each could play a role in Queens at some point this season.

The 22 year-old Niese was featured on this site in November. Back then, I offered the following take on the southpaw’s game:

“Jonathon Niese will likely never be a front-of-the-rotation stalwart, but his combination of solid K rates and groundball tendencies makes him an interesting young arm. There’s always concern with a pitcher like Niese who generates those K’s with a big breaking ball and a tame fastball (89.4 MPH with the Mets): conventional wisdom says that while minor leaguers may not be able to lay off of that 74 MPH curve in the dirt, major league hitters will show more restraint and be less apt to chase. With the high-80’s heat, the big-breaking curveball and so-so control, Niese seems to have a Barry Zito starter kit at his disposal, with better ability to induce groundballs.”

The Defiance, Ohio native does not come equipped with electric stuff, so I think there is some concern that the impressive whiff rates in the minors (8.27 K/9) might not translate quite as well to the big leagues. Long term, Niese’s big hook and groundball tendencies should make him a solid back-of the-rotation starter. It seems likely that the 6-4, 215 pounder will head back to AAA to begin the year. CHONE Projects a 4.85 FIP for Niese, with 6.93 K/9 and 4.21 BB/9.

Parnell continues to rank well within an admittedly top-heavy Mets farm system, placing 5th on the club’s Baseball America prospect list. The Charleston Southern product fits the archetypal “power pitcher” mold: he’s 6-4, 200 pounds and can occasionally ramp his fastball up to the mid-90’s with a hard mid-80’s slider. However, Parnell has lacked consistency since being snatched up in the 9th round of the 2005 amateur draft.

The 24 year-old was extremely raw in college (according to BA, he posted ERA’s of 6.82 and 8.86 during his last two college seasons) and continues to both tantalize and frustrate: in 471 minor league frames, Parnell has punched out about 7.9 batters per nine innings while posting an above-average groundball rate, but he has also walked 3.9 hitters per nine and is coming off of a mildly disappointing 2008 campaign. In 127.1 innings at AA Binghamton, Parnell struck out 6.42/9 while issuing an abundance of free passes (4.02 BB/9). Promoted to AAA New Orleans, he whiffed 10.18 per nine in 20.1 innings, but continued to struggle with his control (3.98 BB/9).

A starter throughout his minor league career, Parnell made six relief appearances for the Mets last September. In that short stint, he showcased a 94 MPH heater with sink as well as an 86 MPH slider. Given Parnell’s occasional wildness and his problems maintaining velocity throughout his starts (BA had his fastball anywhere from 89-97), this power arm seems like a good bet to end up in the ‘pen.

Lightning Rod Lefty Cole Hamels

Cole Hamels will be a lightning rod figure between two camps this year. Sure, there is the whole Mets-Phillies thing, with Hamels implying the Mets were chokers, but I was thinking of a rivalry of a different sort. In the scouts versus stats conflict, Hamels should be a test case for the validity of each side.

From the traditional point of view, Hamels put up his second straight outstanding season. He finished 2008 with 14 wins and set career highs in ERA (3.09), strikeouts (196) and WHIP (1.082). Last year Hamels was the seventh-best fantasy starter. He earned an $18.89 dollar value according to the RotoTimes Player Rater. And if that wasn’t enough, Hamels thrived in the post-season, going 4-0 with a 1.60 ERA for the World Champions.

But things do not look so rosy for Hamels in another context. His K/9 dropped for a second straight season and checked in at 7.76 last year. Hamels’ FIP was 63 points higher than his ERA, the 16th-highest mark in the category. He also had a .270 BABIP despite allowing a career-high 21.8 percent LD%. Hamels placed 13th in Baseball Prospectus’ Pitcher Abuse Points list, with only two hurlers ahead of him, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, younger than the Phillies’ lefthander.

And the 25-year-old Hamels also is one of the pitchers susceptible to the “Verducci Effect” in that he increased his workload by 44 innings from the year before.

So far, mock drafters have sided with the traditionalists, as Hamels has an ADP of 41 and is the fourth SP off the board.

Hamels will have to improve on last year’s outstanding season to be worth a fourth-round pick. And there are enough warning signs around him to make passing on him in that slot an easy choice. Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb and Roy Halladay are all being picked behind Hamels in the fourth, with Dan Haren available a round later.