Is hype a curse? The following players were all noticed by prospect watchers, but they didn't receive nearly as much attention as some of the players I've looked at so far this week. Ironically enough, they are without question the most successful products of the Angels' mid-decade bumper crop of top prospects. You know their names well: Kendry Morales, Ervin Santana, and Jered Weaver.
Kendry Morales (1B)
Where He Was
I'm still not entirely sure how Kendry Morales fell into the Angels' hands instead of to some eastern mega-market franchise. He was a sensation as an 19 year-old rookie for the Havana Industriales ("The Industrials"? read Lenin much?), Cuba's equivalent of the New York Yankees. Can you imagine how ballistic ESPN would go if some teenage rookie set the record for home runs and RBIs by a first-year player for the &$#*'n New York Yankees?! He attracted all sorts of international attention when he mashed the Cuban national team to a world title in 2003. The Cuban KGB became worried that he might defect, so they banished him from professional baseball shortly thereafter. Well, hate to break it to you beisbol Stalinistas, but banning a young star from playing in his own country is probably the best encouragement you could possibly give him to flee your little banana republic.
After about twelve months, several prison sentences, between four and twelve attempts at escape (depending on whom you ask), and one perilous raft voyage across the Gulf of Mexico, Morales cashed a $3 million signing bonus on a six-year deal with the Angels in 2004. Kendry's stateside pro debut was delayed by immigration issues, but he made up for lost time by graduating from Rancho Cucamonga in just 22 games. He spent the rest of the season mocking AA with a .306 average, 12 doubles, and 17 home runs. Scouts considered his bat to be as developed as any elite college player, although they generally agreed that he was a menace with the leather. Still, they projected him to be major-league ready some time in 2006.
What They Said
Outstanding bat speed and raw power. #3 organizational prospect, Grade: B+ -- John Sickels
"He's a guy who can swing the bat pretty darn good. If the guy comes to camp and shows us he's right to be in the major leagues, we'll find a way for him to be in the major leagues." #78 prospect overall -- Baseball America (quoting Bill Stoneman)
Morales has experience playing left field and third base, but his defense is regarded as sub par at both spots and with Casey Kotchman now entrenched at first base his likely destination with the Angels is designated hitter. Morales should have more than enough bat to make him an impact player there, so it's only a matter of when the Angels deem him ready. #34 prospect overall -- Baseball Think Factory
Where Is He Now?
Ha. That's a funny story, remind me to tell you about it some time. Yes, we all hope our new favorite slugger is safely hitting off the tee in some nuclear-proofed underground bunker with rounded corners, rubberized furnishing, and plastic utensils. We haven't seen as much of Kendry as we might have, since he was perhaps too long in securing a starting job. He spent three full seasons, 2006-2008, riding Delta in and out of SLC International Airport. His first call-up in 2006 was unproductive, but he did hit .294 / .333 / .479 in 43 games in 2007. He was probably ready to go at that point, as the .341 batting average he posted in two consecutive seasons with the Bees suggested that he was bored with AAA. But first base didn't open for Havana's Most Wanted until after 2008, when Casey Kotchman was traded to Atlanta and Leigh Teixeira decided to move to New York.
We all remember the rest. Kendry's 2009 was the best offensive performance by any Angel under Arte Moreno not named Vladimir Guerrero. The glove everyone thought wouldn't last also led all MLB first basemen in UZR, nearly doubling the runner-up in defensive range. If you had asked more from Morales in 2009, I'd really hate to be one of your children, because there's no way they'll ever live up to your absurd expectations. That doesn't mean his game is perfect, however, and, while I grant that he only played one-third of 2010, I was growing concerned by his stagnating plate discipline. Morales simply strikes out too much to expect a .300+ batting average every season. It's totally cool to trade strikeouts for power, I wish more Angels could do that. But as a guy who hits big looping fly balls, we should hope to see him make up more of his OBP with walks instead of batting average. Kendry struggled to push his walk rate up to league average territory last year before relapsing in 2010. A huge spike in his groundball rate indicates that pitchers were finding ways to goad him into weak contact. Until we get more data from him, it's hard to say whether his offensive production will rival Tim Salmon or merely Garret Anderson. Certainly we should be pleased with either outcome, but it's something to think about before penciling him in as the big bat in the lineup for the next three seasons.
Ervin Santana (RHP)
Where He Was
The Angels' international scouting department plucked Johan Called Ervin out of the Dominican Republic as a 17 year-old in 2000. He changed his name in 2003 to avoid embarrassing the other Johan Santana. It seems like if you can hit 97 on the gun and throw a breaking pitch for a strike, you can find at least one pitching expert willing to go to war for you (bonus points for being left-handed). But if you gain a reputation for being a loafer or a quitter, you've committed blasphemy in the eyes of the baseball gods. And so it was with Ervin, his nonchalance on the mound becoming the black eye that followed him around as he gradually moved up in the Angels' system. Three quality performances at Cedar Rapids, Rancho Cucamonga, and Arkansas during 2002 and 2003 earned him top prospect honors before 2004, but a pair of injuries soon landed him in the doghouse.
The concern over his elbow was legitimate, as nothing signals peril for a young pitcher's career like recurring elbow problems. But the slacker perception coaxed particular brutality from some scouts, crashing Ervin's stock in the 2004 pre-season. He began the season pitching well for the Bees, and the phone rang in May when Kelvim Escobar took his familiar place on the disabled list. The first four batters Ervin faced in his major-league career famously hit for the cycle against him, but his second start was a five-hit complete-game shutout against the Chicago White Sox. While struggling in 23 regular-season starts for the Angels in 2005, Santana nevertheless pulled off one of the gutsiest feats in Angel post-season history when he relieved an injured Bartolo Colon in Game 5 of the 2005 ALDS against the New York Yankees, ultimately earning the victory.
What They Said
- Q: How could you guys leave Ervin Santana off the Top 100 list when all he had was a injury filled year that shouldn't affect his long term potential.
- A: Because he was hurt twice, shoulder and elbow, and didn't show a whole lot of desire to come back this year, causing the Angels to question his makeup and desire to be great? He just missed the cut, and we like his upside, but the chances of him reaching his upside went down this year, considerably so. #29 prospect overall pre-2004, but not in the Top 100 for 2005 -- Baseball America (Q&A session with John Manual)
There is little to complain about with his on-field performance or numbers, so the only real issue is Santana's health..In other words, if I knew he could stay healthy and avoid a major arm surgery, Santana would be at least a dozen spots higher on this list. #49 prospect overall (pre-2005) -- Baseball Think Factory
Where Is He Now?
It's a little surprising to see that Ervin Santana's career ERA+ is only 99, almost the definition of league average. Ervin is either pitching very well or very poorly, it seems, in almost equal amounts. His 2006 season was commendable for a 23 year-old sophomore pitcher, but Santana suffered from a peculiar home/road split. He generally pitched very well at home and horribly on the road. Whether cruel fluke or psychic affliction, the phenomenon worsened in 2007 when a disastrous 6.22 mid-season ERA banished him to AAA purgatory. He performed better after his return a month later, and the vicious home/road split has since disappeared.
Ervin shocked everyone with a season for the ages in 2008, finishing third in the AL in pitching WAR. He played in the All-Star game and even earned a few votes in the Cy Young balloting. The performance was no BABIP anomaly either, as 214 K's to 47 BB's and 23 homers allowed in 219 innings supported his 3.49 ERA. Despite fading down the stretch and turning in a lousy start in the ALDS, the Angels signed Santana to a four-year, $30 million extension that seemed a bargain at the time. But the balky elbow blew up before the ink was dry, and Ervin became a Tommy John surgery waiting to happen. The Angels chose to try rehabilitating without surgery instead. His first attempt at pitching off the DL in 2009 was a disaster, but he pitched competently after returning from his second rehab assignment in July. This year, Ervin still seems to be learning how to pitch again, the 3-4 mph drop in velocity apparently permanent. While still effective, his fastball-slider combination is nowhere near its 2008 level of awesomeness, and hitters are exploiting his flyball propensity. So it's hard to know what to expect from Ervin going forward. I can be happy with a merely above-average starter, but his torn UCL is an extreme injury risk. Still, we can always hope that he'll surprise us all over again. He'll be making too much money for us to hope otherwise.
Jered Weaver (RHP)
Where He Was
We have to thank the 2003 defending World Series champions for tanking with a 77-85 record, because the Angels were able to sign two Type A free-agents in the off-season while still retaining the #12 pick in the 2004 amateur draft. The 2004 draft was notable for a glut of college pitching, with LBSU Dirtbags ace Jered Weaver possibly the top arm available. He figured to go in the top 5 after 213 strikeouts to 21 walks in 144 innings as a junior. Unfortunately, Weaver had signed a blood oath with Darth Boras. The slave children toiling in the Dark Lord's sinister hype factory received extra beatings while building the unholy hype machine upon which the young Weaver would ride into the June draft. Crushed baby skulls, inverted crucifixes, and the pagan name of Mark Prior (which roughly translates into English as "$10+ million signing bonus") scared off many potential suitors.
Weaver fell out of the top 10, but Bill Stoneman and Arte Moreno proved they were metal enough to take on the Prince of Baseball Darkness when they finally triumphed in an epic thrash-guitar battle with Boras which lasted until the final minutes of the year-long amateur signing period. The Northridge native took his $4 million signing bonus and finally reported to Rancho Cucamonga in June 2005. He breezed through 7 starts with the Quakes, but his command slipped somewhat in 8 starts with AA Arkansas. By spring 2006, Jered's stock had fallen significantly since his final year at Long Beach State. With less than half a season of professional data to work with, most talent evaluators were cautious of Jered's mediocre velocity and extreme flyball tendencies.
What They Said
He has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues and is ready for a rotation spot. #4 organizational prospect, Grade: B+ -- John Sickels
"He's a polished pitcher with an innate feel for putting hitters away." #57 prospect overall -- Baseball America (quoting a scout)
An extreme fly-ball pitcher without an overpowering fastball, there are many who feel that Weaver projects more as a middle-of-the-rotation starter than an ace...While comparisons to his brother and mid-rotation starter, Jeff Weaver, are inevitable and fitting, he has the potential to be better. The key will be if Weaver can keep the home runs allowed somewhat in check in the majors. #37 prospect overall -- Baseball Think Factory
Where Is He Now?
While Justin Verlander, drafted #2 overall in 2004, hasn't disappointed, the six pitchers drafted between Verlander and Weaver -- Jeff Niemann, Mark Rogers, Jeremy Sowers, Homer Bailey, Wade Townsend, and Thomas Diamond -- have accumulated 2.0 WAR in MLB combined (mostly thanks to Niemann). Weaver's 14.5 major-league WAR, however, make him thus far the most productive player signed from his draft. Of course, Weaver was something of a phenom after his first major-league call-up in 2006. Jered was looting the PCL while his older brother Jeff was setting fire to the Anaheim scoreboard every fifth day, so the young Weaver's assumption of the elder's rotation spot and subsequent 11-win, 3-loss rookie tear was the awkward sibling drama event of the season. After the dust cleared, Weaver the Younger settled into a comfortably above-average groove from 2007-2009, posting a respectable 3.99 ERA in nearly 550 innings during that time. Flyballs, and by extension, home runs continued to be Weaver's anathema, but a quality 2.67 K/BB ratio ensured his overall effectiveness.
2010 has been something else entirely. Jered's strikeout rate has jumped nearly 40% without any discernible change in velocity or pitch selection. Total mastery of the strike zone is the best explanation I can offer. Jered is throwing fewer strikes overall, but throwing them at critical points in the count has allowed him to taunt hitters with untouchable pitches out of the zone. The former Weaver, who was merely good, was a pleasant fulfillment of expectations. The new Weaver is one of the best pitchers in baseball, well on course to recording one of the finest pitching performances in franchise history. Can he repeat this year after year? I don't know. But I am entirely certain that when Tony Reagins descends into the bowels of Darth Boras's fortress of evil to negotiate Jered's arbitration raise for 2011, the only sound to greet him from Boras's armor-plated high-backed chair will be deep, maniacal laughter. The Angels had better get their money's worth out of Jered during his final two seasons under team control, because rest assured, there is no forthcoming extension to assure his place in Anaheim beyond 2012.
To be continued: You need not have noticed that I'm moving alphabetically to guess who's coming up tomorrow. Prepare to abandon all hope!