Ketchner, Brown could be key for L.A.

Ryan W. asks: I'm a big Dodgers fan and all I've been hearing about pitching prospects mostly deals with Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller, and Chad Billingsley. Looking at minor league stats though, Ryan Ketchner has blazed out of the gate with a 0.81 ERA and nearly a 4/1 K/BB ratio, while Andrew Brown has had 36 strikeouts in about 19 innings. What kind of stuff do they offer?

The Dodgers have a strong collection of pitching prospects right now: Jackson, Miller, Joel Hanrahan, Jonathan Broxton, Ketchner and Brown, plus several other live arms who could emerge soon. Ketchner and Brown haven't received the same sort of hype as others, so let's take a look.

Ketchner was in the Mariners system and came to the Dodgers this spring in a trade for infielder Jolbert Cabrera. Seattle acquired him in the 10th round of the 2000 draft out of high school in Florida. He's always pitched well, with particularly strong K/BB ratios, but he doesn't throw hard, and a lot of scouts have been skeptical about his chances. This year, Ketchner is at Double-A Jacksonville, and he is pitching brilliantly: 1.32 ERA in five starts with a 26/9 K/BB ratio in 27 innings. His fastball is mediocre at 87 mph, but he has a good slider and an effective changeup, and he mixes his pitches well. He doesn't have the ceiling of guys like Miller or Jackson, but he projects as a back-of-the-rotation finesse starter.

Ketchner's teammate Andrew Brown has been overpowering at Jacksonville with a 51/9 K/BB in his first 29 innings. That's right, 51 strikeouts in 29 innings. Like Ketchner, Brown began with another organization. He was drafted by the Braves in the sixth round in '99 out of high school in Florida. He came to L.A. in the 2002 Brian Jordan-Odalis Perez deal. He missed almost all of 2003 due to bone chips in his elbow, but is now healthy. Brown has a much better fastball than Ketchner, clocking in at 93-95 mph. He also has a big-breaking curveball, a tight slider and a decent changeup. If his arm holds up and he maintains decent control, he could turn into a solid No. 2 starter, or perhaps an overwhelming relief pitcher.

David from New York writes: What do you think of Oakland A's prospect Dan Johnson? With Scott Hatteberg losing steam in Oakland and Johnson hitting so well, is there a chance Johnson can be called up before September to handle the first base duties?

I've been keeping track of Dan Johnson since he played college ball at the University of Nebraska. He was a seventh-round pick in 2001 by Oakland and has moved steadily up the system. He slammed 27 homers and hit .290 last year at Double-A Midland, and is off to a similar start this season, hitting .291/.377/.592 at Triple-A Sacramento.

It is true that he's playing in the Pacific Coast League, which is good for hitters. And I'm not sure he's going to be a big for-average hitter in the majors. But his power should carry forward, and he has excellent strike zone judgment, as shown by 16 walks with just eight strikeouts so far in 27 games this season. The strikeout total is remarkably low for a power hitter, and Johnson has shown the ability to make solid contact against all styles of pitching. Johnson is the sort of hitter who can be very useful and productive even if he hits .260, due to the power and walks he brings to the table.

Oakland has another left-handed power bat in Graham Koonce, also playing at Sacramento. Koonce is an organizational favorite and might get the first shot if the Athletics need another hitter. Johnson is four years younger, however, which makes him a better long-term prospect.

Josh from Evansville, Ind., asks: Can you tell me anything about Ryan Miller. He's a Double-A pitcher in the Brewers' system. He has impressive K/nine innings and K/BB this year. He's a bit old (26), but does he have any shot at reaching the majors?

I think Miller has a shot in the Show, yes, probably in middle relief. First the background.

The Brewers drafted Miller in 2000 in the ninth round from the University of Evansville. He tied for the Missouri Valley Conference lead with 10 wins that year, while leading the circuit outright with 126 strikeouts in 110 innings. His pro record is rather mixed, though he's maintained a good strikeout rate. This year, Miller has a 2.19 ERA through 12 innings at Double-A Huntsville, with an excellent 20/4 K/BB ratio. His fastball is in the 88-91 mph range, not wonderful for a right-hander. But he has a very good breaking ball, and has sharpened his command this year.

You're right about his age being a handicap for his status as a prospect. He'll need to show us he can survive in Triple-A before getting a shot at the Show either later this year or sometime in 2005. His strikeout rate is impressive, even though his fastball isn't that fast, which means he's doing something right. Basically, he's a middle relief sleeper. There are a dozen similar guys floating around Double-A and Triple-A in any given year. Time will tell whether Miller is one of the lucky ones who earns a pension.

Steve from Roseville, Mich., writes: Last year Kyle Sleeth was drafted as the pitcher closest to being major league "ready." How close is he to being ready to join the Tigers? Do you project him to be better than Jeremy Bonderman? If so, that would give the Tigers a pretty promising 1-2 punch.

Sleeth was the third-overall pick last year out of Wake Forest. The Tigers have handled him cautiously so far, starting his '04 season in the Florida State League. He's pitching well so far for Lakeland: 3.19 ERA in five starts, with a 26/6 K/BB ratio in 31 innings. This is more of a tune-up than anything else, getting him used to the pro game, since he signed late last year. If he continues to pitch well in the FSL, which he should, he'll move up to Double-A soon. His performance there will determine whether he gets to the Show or not in '04. At the worst, he should be up sometime before the '05 All-Star break.

Sleeth is 6-5, 205, with a solid pitcher's frame, not too skinny and not too bulky. He gets his fastball into the mid-90s on a good day, and the pitch has excellent sinking action. He also uses a slider and changeup, both of which have moments of inconsistency and weakness, but when they're working well he is overpowering. Scouts also like his personality and work ethic. His biggest flaw is erratic mechanics, which sometimes screws up his command.

Comparing Sleeth to Bonderman is difficult because we don't know how good Bonderman is or is not going to be in the long run. Both Bonderman and Sleeth have the raw ability to be rotation anchors if everything works out. That's a big if.

John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.