Young, Brazelton highlight AFL

I returned home Monday night from four days in Arizona, where I attended the Baseball HQ First Pitch Arizona Symposium. It was a lot of fun. The highlight of the meeting was the talk given by Montreal Expos minor league pitching coordinator Brent Strom, who entertained the crowd with tales both humorous and informative.

Due to the devastating and tragic murder of Reds outfield prospect Dernell Stenson, as well as previously scheduled league cutbacks, there were only two Fall League games on the docket. The loss of Stenson gave an emotional undertone to the events of the weekend, reminding us of the things that truly matter in the world. I extend my deepest sympathy to Stenson's friends, family, and teammates. I hope justice is done.

Here is some information about eight players in the fall league. This is not a top prospect list, but rather a look at some guys who have questions going into next season, and whose performance tells us (perhaps) something about how they'll do in 2004. The level of talent seems down this year. There are several very intriguing hitters, but pitching talent is very thin. Most clubs avoid sending their top pitching prospects to the league to avoid overwork, but Arizona still remains the coda of the prospect season.

Delmon Young, OF, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
The first pick in the 2003 draft, Young has hit .395 in 13 games, which is extremely impressive given this is his first professional exposure out of high school. I was impressed with his raw power and ability to make contact. He will take pitches to the opposite field, and is not strictly a pull power hitter. He does need to work counts more effectively; he was impatient and will need better plate discipline, but his bat speed and hand-eye coordination are excellent. He's probably the type of player who can succeed without great strike zone judgment, but it will still help him to develop it.

Dewon Brazelton, RHP, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
In the AFL to work on his breaking pitches, Brazelton has a 4-0 record, 3.27 ERA, and 36/9 K/BB ratio in 33 innings. He was popping the low 90s easily on Saturday, and his slider looked pretty good. His main problem is that his fastball, while rapid, is straight and easy for advanced hitters to catch up with. He needs to continue working on his breaking ball and changeup in order to keep hitters off balance. He's pitched well in Arizona, and is considered to be the AFL pitcher most likely to make an impact in 2004.

Rickie Weeks, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers
The second pick in the draft after Young, Weeks is hitting very well, batting .324 with a .442 OBP through 19 games for the Peoria Saguaros. He's also stolen nine bases. I think he's almost ready to hit major league pitching, but he still has a lot of work to do on defense. He's made eight errors, and continues to have problems keeping his footwork in gear in the middle infield. I'm very confident in his bat.

David Wright, 3B, New York Mets
A well-kept secret, Wright had a solid season in the Florida State League, and has followed that up by hitting .341 with a .433 OBP and a .488 SLG in Arizona. Of particular note are 13 walks and just eight strikeouts in 82 at-bats. He has power and a good measure of refinement at the plate. Wright is also a very good defensive third baseman, more reliable than most players his age, and featuring a strong arm and decent range. I think he is an excellent prospect, and he could see Shea Stadium sometime late in 2004.

Dan Johnson, 1B, Oakland Athletics
A classic slugger in the preferred Oakland power/patience mold, Johnson is hitting .383 with a .492 OBP and a .617 SLG in 29 games, drawing 23 walks with 19 strikeouts. I saw him play for Double-A Midland this year, and it looks like he's made some improvements since June, shortening up his swing a bit, while maintaining plate discipline and power production. He is slow and not a great defensive player, and I don't think he's a .300 hitter. But if he can hit .260, he'll produce enough power and walks to deserve a clear shot at a job.

Charlie Zink, RHP, Boston Red Sox
Zink was the talk of the AFL, due to his knuckleball. His numbers aren't really that impressive, with a 4.91 ERA and a 16/13 K/BB in 26 innings for the Mesa Desert Dogs. But he did a fine job keeping people off-balance Saturday, and he bears some resemblance to Tim Wakefield. Knuckleballers are hard to predict, and Zink (who just started throwing the pitch full time this year) has done enough to make me think he can succeed. Whether he's Wakefield or Steve Sparks remains to be seen, but there's potential here for a nice story in '04.

David DeJesus, OF, Kansas City Royals
One of the few bright spots on a dismal 9-22 Peoria Javelinas team, DeJesus is hitting .309/.374/.630, while stealing six bases without being caught. His patience, speed, and defense will play at any level, and he has enough pop in his bat to hit doubles, triples, and perhaps 10-12 homers a year. I think he's ready for a major league job in 2004, probably in left field, though he has enough range for center should the Royals trade Carlos Beltran. His biggest problem has been staying healthy. He plays all-out, and has a habit of hurting himself by pushing his body too hard.

Neal Cotts, LHP, Chicago White Sox
Cotts was brilliant in Double-A this year, but struggled after being promoted to Chicago for the stretch run. His results in Arizona have been mixed: 4.64 ERA, 19/8 K/BB ratio in 21 innings, 24 hits allowed. Command was a huge problem during his major league stint, and his goal in Arizona is to get it back. He needs to throw inside more often. His fastball, curve, and changeup are all good enough to get batters out, if he learns to trust his stuff.

John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered from his Web site, JohnSickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this fall by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, son and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.