Sox's Papelbon adjusting to new role

Geoffrey from Dartmouth, Mass., writes: I was wondering about Red Sox prospect Jon Papelbon. He has the second most strikeouts in the Florida State League. Is he a legitimate prospect, and if so is his future as a starter or reliever?

Papelbon currently stands 3-3 with a 3.66 ERA in eight starts for the Sarasota Red Sox, with a 53/14 K/BB ratio in 39.1 innings. He's allowed 29 hits and just two homers thus far. A Mississippi State product, he was drafted by the Red Sox in the fourth round last year. He pitched poorly in the New York-Penn League last summer, posting a 6.34 ERA, so his strong performance in 2004 represents significant improvement.

Papelbon was a reliever in college, but the Red Sox are trying him out as a starter, and so far it seems to be working OK. His fastball has been clocked as high as 95 mph, though when he is used as a starter it is more commonly in the 90-92 range, which is still good enough. He has a slider and a changeup, both of which are inconsistent right now, though better than last year at this time. His command is pretty decent, but he sometimes gets in ruts and won't trust his stuff, nibbling too much. That should get better with experience.

We need to see what Papelbon does at higher levels. So far, the conversion to starting seems to be going pretty well, but he could end up back in the bullpen at some point if his slider and changeup remain erratic.

Cameron H. asks: I was wondering what you thought Shin-Soo Choo might project to be. He has some pretty good numbers for Double-A San Antonio through 38 games. He is batting .270 with 5 homers, 8 doubles, two triples and 23 RBI. He also has a .341 on-base percentage and a .453 slugging percentage. What worries me are his strikeouts, he has 31 in 148 at-bats. That seems a little high to me.

Choo is 21, signed out of South Korea in 2000. I saw him play for San Antonio a couple of weeks ago. He's an interesting guy whose "player type" has mutated a bit over the last couple of years.

When the Mariners signed him, Choo was considered a potential leadoff guy, featuring good speed, a high walk rate, and the ability to hit near or better than .300. He did this in 2001 (.302 with 12 steals, .420 OBP in rookie ball) and 2002 (.302 with 34 steals, .417 OBP in the Midwest League). Last year, he didn't steal as often (18 swipes), walked less, and adopted a more power-oriented approach in the California League. Choo's numbers so far in the Texas League this season are similar.

He still has above-average speed, but hasn't been as aggressive on the bases lately, and has swiped just two bags so far this season. In the game I saw a couple of weeks ago, he did a decent job working the count and staying ahead of the pitcher. But his walk rate has been mediocre, with 16 free passes giving him a .341 OBP. On the other hand, he already has five homers and is on course to set a career-best in that department.

I like Choo and I think he's a good player, but I have some concerns. The strikeouts don't worry me that much, but he runs the risk of becoming a "tweener," someone without enough pure home run power to hit in the middle of the order, but who also lacks the basestealing and OBP ability needed at the top. I thought Choo was a potential star a couple of years ago, but now I think he's going to end up more in the "solid and useful" category. He is still very young, of course, and has plenty of time to improve.

John G. writes: I guess it's only fair to ask after you wrote the prospect report on Jeff Francis how he compares to Orioles prospect Adam Loewen, or vice-versa.

You can read my article about Jeff Francis by clicking here. Francis is ahead of Loewen right now, being much more polished and much closer to being major league ready. But scouts remain high on Loewen's long-term potential.

The Orioles have Loewen pitching for the Delmarva Shorebirds in the South Atlantic League. Through seven starts, he has a 2-2 record, a 3.48 ERA, and a 31/24 K/BB ratio in 33.2 innings, with 27 hits allowed. Statistically, his K/IP and H/IP ratios are good, but his walk rate is too high, which hurts his K/BB. This is statistical confirmation of his scouting reports. Loewen can hit 95 mph and has a big nasty curveball, but he has problems throwing strikes. So far it hasn't hurt him much at the A-ball level, but he'll need to improve his command significantly before he is ready to thrive at higher levels. He also needs to improve his changeup, which he sometimes telegraphs. He's just 20 years old, so there is plenty of time for him to correct these issues.

In comparison to Francis, Loewen has the higher ceiling since he throws harder. Scouts say he could be an ace/rotation anchor eventually, whereas Francis projects more like a No. 2 or 3 starter. Francis is more refined at this point and less risky on his own terms, though in the long run he'll face the handicap of having to pitch in Coors Field.

Ken from Philadelphia asks: How is Phillies prospect Ryan Howard adjusting to Double-A? He has a lot of power, but I've heard there are concerns about his ability to make contact.

That's a fair assessment. Howard has already hit 12 home runs for Double-A Reading, posting a .571 slugging percentage in 38 games. The power production is very impressive, but his other numbers show holes: he's hitting .264, which is OK, but has drawn just 15 walks in 158 plate appearances, while fanning 47 times. 47 strikeouts in 38 games ... I try not to worry too much about strikeouts, but that's very excessive, and it does call into question his ability to hit for a decent average and make contact against advanced pitching.

Howard is a physical specimen, very strong with decent athleticism and a power bat from the left side. He draws comparisons to Fred McGriff. Howard will kill mediocre stuff and can dial up some major power against most fastballs. But he will chase breaking stuff and changeups outside the strike zone. He's made some progress in correcting that, but while he hit .304 in the Florida State League last year, I think he projects as just a .250-ish hitter in the Show. He produces enough power that he would still be useful even with a low batting average. At age 24, he's not super young as prospects go, so he needs to maintain his progress this season.

With Jim Thome around, the Phils may have some trouble finding a slot for Howard in the lineup, so expect to hear his name in trade rumors.

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.