Wainwright has No. 1 potential for Braves

First, a note about my look at Tigers right-hander Nate Cornejo last week:

Rick Thompson, Detroit Tigers Media Relations Assistant, writes: "John, I read your comments on Nate Cornejo in the most recent mailbag and wanted to pass along a little correction. Nate Cornejo made 16 Double-A starts in 2000 and then 19 Double-A starts in 2001. He was then promoted to Triple-A Toledo where he made four starts before being recalled by the Tigers to make 10 starts at the end of the 2001 season. Thanks."

In discussing Cornejo last week, I wrote that "the Tigers made a big mistake in giving him 10 starts in the majors in '01, with just four Double-A appearances under his belt." What I meant to write was "four Triple-A appearances under his belt." I regret the error, but still think it was a mistake to recall him so quickly. Of course, it is easy for me to say that, and harder for a team to resist calling up a talented young pitcher. If I were running a team, I would try to make it a firm policy not to call up any young pitcher with less than 14 Triple-A starts (half a season) to his credit, unless you're talking about someone like Mark Prior. Cornejo has a lot of talent, but he isn't Mark Prior. Anyway, thanks to Rick for pointing out my mistake.

To the rest of the mailbag:

T.B. writes: I know he's not a prospect because of his major league experience, but what do you think of Kirk Saarloos? His major league numbers were pretty bad, but he's young and his minor league numbers this year were incredible. Now that we know he's not an alien from Star Trek, what kind of career to you see him having?

I wrote in the Minor League Scouting Notebook that Saarloos looked to be a successful middle man in the Houston bullpen. Instead, they used him as a starter, and he zipped through the minor leagues without any problem, advancing very quickly and reaching the majors just a year after being a third-round pick out of Cal State Fullerton. He posted a 101/23 K/BB ratio in 102 innings combined between Double-A and Triple-A, an excellent sign for his future. In 85 major league innings, his strikeout rate was lower, with 54 whiffs, but he maintained his good control, walking 27. But he gave up 100 hits, and posted a 6.01 ERA in 17 starts. I'm still convinced he'll be a good major league pitcher, despite his lack of velocity, but he may need to go back to the bullpen. I think he's comparable to Keith Foulke, and expect him to have a similar career ... yes, that means Saarloos could be a fine closer.

As for the Trek reference, for those of you who didn't get the book, that was a wordplay joke I stuck into his comment. I wrote that "Saarloos" sounds like an alien race, as in "the ambassadors from Vulcan, Andor, Tellar, and Saarloos were arguing over the dilithium crystals from Coridan." And if you call tell me, without looking in a book, which episode that line is a reference to, you win the "I'm As Big A Geek As John Sickels Award."

Jon K. asks: Has Jackson Melian revived his status as a decent prospect? After
his trade from Milwaukee to the Cubs, simply switching Southern
League teams, he added 85 points to his average and 68 points to his
slugging percentage, with significantly more doubles, though less
walks and home runs. And he's currently hitting over .300 in Venezuela.

I don't quite know what to make of Melian. He's always had this great set of tools, but his performance has been generally disappointing. He started 2002 at Double-A Huntsville in the Brewers system, and did not do well, hitting .223 in 56 games. After the trade (for Robert Machado), he hit .308 in 71 games for West Tennessee, though his walk rate dropped sharply after the trade, which kept his OBP increase to just 13 points despite the big spike in batting average. Combined, he hit .270/.369/.402, with 23 doubles, 10 homers, 52 walks, and 20 steals in the Southern League. That's about .250/.335/.380 in Wrigley Field, which isn't that hot.

Melian is still young; he turns 23 in January. He still has time to turn his tools into skills, and he's flashed just enough improvement in the last two years to make us think it might happen. But on the other hand, his stock in the eyes of baseball people has dropped to the point where he was traded straight-up for Robert Machado, which is not something you generally see happen to top prospects. My projection is that Melian will eventually get a job somewhere as a fourth outfielder, due to his speed, defensive ability, and occasional pops of power, but he'll never be the star player, or even a regular, that the Yankees envisioned when they signed him.

Michael writes: Out of Atlanta prospects Trey Hodges, Adam Wainwright, Bret Evert and Matt Belisle, who do you think has the brightest future? Seems all that Hodges does is just win. Looks like a fifth starter or middle reliever if you just look at his stuff. He has the heart of an ace though. Do you think Hodges could survive as the fifth starter on the Braves for the 2003 season?

Trey Hodges must have some sort of big fan club out there. I get a question about him, or a comment praising his skills and taking me to task for not praising him to the hilt, at least once a week. I know he's got "heart" and guts, but I still don't see him as the best pitching prospect the Braves have. For 2003, he can contribute, but don't expect huge numbers. He'll survive, in other words, and he'll probably have a decent career, but I don't see him as any sort of adequate Glavine replacement or rotation anchor.

Of the other guys Michael listed, I think Wainwright is definitely the class of the group. Belisle posted a nice 123/39 K/BB ratio in Double-A, but was more hittable than expected, and seems to have suffered a bit from missing 2001 with a back injury. Evert also has a fine arm, but will need at least another year in the high minors before being ready for a full audition. Wainwright can, in my opinion, be a No. 1 starter in the majors, although he also needs a full dose of Double-A/Triple-A. Also don't overlook guys like Macay McBride, Zach Miner, Kenny Nelson, and Matt Wright. The Braves have a bunch of young pitching on the way up, as usual.

Now if they could just develop some hitters ...

Josh S. asks: What do you think of Oakland's Adam Morrissey and his performance in the AFL? He was arguably the second-most productive hitter in the entire league as a 21-year-
old at 2B/3B, and by most accounts showed improved defensive play and a very
quick bat. Don't you think he's a bit overlooked as a prospect?

In 31 Arizona Fall League games, Morrissey hit .371/.496/.552, with four steals. He played second base, third base, and shortstop, making just three errors. I saw him play, and he looked quite good, much better than when I saw him play this past spring for Midland in the Texas League. I gave Morrissey a strong grade in my 2002 book, giving him a Grade B and praising his hitting skills. But he had a hard time adjusting to Double-A this year, and when I saw him he looked both overmatched and underconfident. He hit just .235 in 90 games for Midland, and looked uncomfortable both at the plate and at the field.

But in Arizona, he looked much more like the guy who hit .309 with 80 walks in the Midwest League in '01, showing a sharper swing and the excellent plate discipline. At age 21, I think he has a very bright future ahead of him, so yes, I think he is overlooked by most. I think he's turned the corner, and will rebound in Double-A in '03.

John Sickels is the author of the 2002 Minor League Scouting Notebook, and is now working on the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book. His biography of Bob Feller will be published next spring. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at JohnSickels.com.