Let's dip into the mailbag and see what we find.
George A. writes: I need clarification on something you wrote about Jesse Foppert. You said he has clean mechanics. What are "clean" mechanics? I understand smooth (he doesn't look like Kevin Appier or Hideo Nomo) and consistent (he looks the same on every pitch from the press box or your seats from behind the plate), but I don't know what "clean" means in terms of pitching mechanics.
And what does "clean and smooth" have to do with getting results? It doesn't get batters out and it doesn't provide any indications of long term health, so I'm just wondering what value it provides. It's like when Travis Lee was coming up through the minor leagues and everyone was raving about his "smooth, beautiful" left-handed stroke. Or when scouts write "good face" on their scouting reports. It has nothing to do with the ability to hit major-league pitching, but he sure does look good.
"Clean" mechanics are basically another way to state "smooth," a euphemism. As for whether it makes a difference in how a pitcher does, I'm hardly an expert on mechanics, but coaches and scouts I've talked with believe it does. Consistent mechanics help a pitcher with his control, and most experts believe it helps them stay healthy as well. Smooth or clean mechanics are those that don't put obviously excessive stress on a particular muscle or joint. Kerry Wood's mechanics, for example, tend to stress his elbow, while Greg Maddux is the epitome of a pitcher with a clean/smooth delivery. Having smooth/clean mechanics is not a guarantee that a pitcher will stay healthy, but it helps. At least most coaches and scouts I've talked with think it does.
The hitting issue is separate. There are many hitters with pretty swings who don't produce big numbers. Lee is a good example as you point out. There are also hitters with unorthodox swings or strokes who do produce big numbers, even though they often fight skeptical scouts and coaches early in their career. The best historical example of that may be Hall of Famer Al "Foot in the Bucket" Simmons.
Brendan W. asks: I'm wondering what your thoughts are of Yankees shortstop Erick Almonte?
In 18 games since getting promoted to replace the injured Derek Jeter, Almonte has hit .266 with a .329 OBP and a .375 SLG. He has four doubles, one homer, five walks, and 15 strikeouts in 64 at-bats. His .704 OPS is the weakest of the Yankees regulars, although no one is complaining considering how well the team has played. He's certainly doing well enough to hold the job until Jeter comes back.
In the long run, what kind of player will Almonte be?
The Yankees signed Almonte out of the Dominican Republic in 1996. He did well in rookie ball, but struggled when promoted to full-season Class A Greensboro in 1998, hitting just .209 with poor strike zone judgment. He improved a bit in '99, then hit .271 with 15 homers at Double-A Norwich in '00, though with 129 strikeouts and just 35 walks in 454 at-bats. He hit .287 in Triple-A in '01, with improved strike zone judgment, but slipped back last year in '02, spending time in both Double-A and Triple-A and hitting .238. His strikeout rates are high, while his walk rates are all over the place, low at times but not so bad at other times. He is 25 years old, so he doesn't have a lot of development time left and is close to being as good now as he'll ever be.
Looking at the minor-league numbers, Almonte projects to hit between .230 and .260 in the major leagues, with touches of power and an erratic on-base percentage. What he's doing now is about what he should be expected to do, maybe a little better. He has no star potential that I can see, but certainly does enough to be useful as a middle infield reserve.
Ted D. writes: Do the Cubs have any top shortstop prospects? How about Nate Frese at Triple-A Iowa? Does he have a future?
Frese has a very good glove, but hasn't hit since reaching Double-A. He's just 3-for-33 so far in Triple-A this season (.091), and I don't think he'll ever be more than a utility player.
At Double-A West Tennessee, Nick Ortiz and Tony Schraeger are sharing the shortstop job. Neither are considered more than organization players and future utility men at this point. More promising is Class A Daytona shortstop Luis Montanez, who is off to a slow start hitting .195 thus far. He's the best shortstop prospect in the system according to scouts, as befitting a former first-round pick, but his defense is way ahead of his offense at this point, and even his defense needs improvement. He's athletic, but hasn't consistently hit well since reaching full-season ball due to erratic strike zone judgment. It is far too early to give up on him of course.
Buck Coats mans shortstop at Class A Lansing and is hitting well so far, batting .296 with a .356 OBP. An 18th-round pick from a Georgia high school in 2000, he is repeating the league and will have to show something at higher levels to be regarded as a top prospect. Potential shortstops Matt Craig, Jemel Spearman, and Ronny Cedeno are active at other positions this year, Craig is playing third base, with Spearman and Cedeno being groomed as utility guys.
All in all, Montanez remains the best long-term shortstop prospect the Cubs have, but he has a lot to prove. The Cubs have a strong farm system, but this position isn't one of their strengths.
Andrew H. asks: In my deep fantasy league, I recently acquired Angels catching prospect Jeff Mathis. He has been called another Joe Mauer, the great Twins catching prospect, so I was wondering if you think the comparison is fitting?
Mauer is almost universally regarded as the best catching prospect in baseball, but Mathis isn't far behind. He has a well-respected glove, and a bat that deserves more notice than it has received thus far. At Class A Cedar Rapids last year, Mathis hit .287 with 41 doubles (a sign of more power to come) and 10 homers. He's hit .271/.343/.390 so far in 16 games in the Class A California League this year, a decent start. Mathis is athletic, has power, does a decent job controlling the strike zone, and has a great work ethic. I think you made a good investment.
Young catchers have a tendency to stagnate offensively, likely a result of the nagging injuries and various bumps and bruises that are part and parcel of their difficult profession. Will that happen to Mathis, or Mauer for that matter? We don't know at this point. But as young catchers go, they are definitely in the elite category.
John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered from his website, JohnSickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this fall by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.