Kotchman awakening from power slumber

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This is shaping up to be one of the most wide-open baseball seasons in memory. By my count, 23 teams still have a reasonable chance at making the postseason, but how many of those clubs actually look capable of winning the World Series? Though the White Sox have the best record in baseball, to me they look more like a team ripe for a first-round upset than a championship. Right now, the Angels are my favorite in the American League and the Cardinals are my favorite in the National League, and there's not another club that I have complete faith in.

Question: What's going on with Casey Kotchman? His numbers really have slid this year in Triple-A, and he's still not showing any signs of power. Is there any concern about his performance this year?

Will Polumbo
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Kotchman had as impressive a minor league résumé as any prospect entering the 2005 season, having batted .342/.423/.519 since signing as the 13th overall pick in the 2001 draft. But without an opening for him in the majors with the Angels, he headed back to Triple-A Salt Lake, where he hit .372/.423/.558 in 49 games last year.

Naturally, Kotchman destroyed Pacific Coast League pitching, right? Uh, not exactly. He began the year hitless in his first 19 at-bats and was hitting just .138 without an extra-base hit three weeks into the season. His overall numbers are decidedly un-Kotchmanlike: .285/.368/.423 with eight homers and 53 RBI in 87 games. The only thing that fits with his past is that he continues to walk (39) more than he strikes out (38).

The one question with Kotchman always has been his power, an especially valued commodity in a first baseman. He hit just 24 homers in 233 pro games in his first four seasons. Some scouts see him as a 20-homer guy, while others say he's an extremely gifted hitter and that power often comes late. Those scouts see him as capable of 30 to 40 home runs annually. Of course, hitters aren't always able to turn on the power, as the Padres have found with Sean Burroughs.

Scouts in the PCL say that Kotchman messed himself up by trying to produce more homers. He got too pull-conscious and achieved the opposite result.

But as I noted in the July 6 Ask BA about Ian Stewart, season statistics can be misleading. Since reaching his low point at .138, Kotchman has hit .316/.378/.484 with 20 doubles, eight homers and 50 RBI in 71 games. That's not out of line with his previous performance and it's perfectly fine for a 22-year-old in Triple-A. He's still one of the elite hitting prospects in the minors, though his future power remains a matter of speculation.

Question: How would you rank the following Yankees' center-field prospects, in terms of their long-term ability and potential: Tim Battle, Melky Cabrera, Estee Harris, C.J. Henry and Austin Jackson?

Noel Hirsch
Hartsdale, N.Y.

Finding a center fielder remains an ongoing concern for the Yankees, but none of these guys is going to solve the problem in the near future. The top prospect of the group is Cabrera, who has performed well all the way up through Triple-A, while the others have accomplished little yet and haven't climbed above low Class A.

Cabrera doesn't have the ability to play center field in the majors, and he struggled defensively when New York tried to use him as a big league band-aid. What he can do is hit, and I see him as a .280/.335/.450 corner outfielder. He has average speed and enough arm strength to play right field. As a bonus, he's a switch-hitter and he's still just 20, so he has plenty of time to develop more power than I'm projecting.

If I were trading with the Yankees, and they offered me any of those players, I'd quickly take Cabrera because he's so much closer to the big leagues and a much safer bet to produce. But in terms of pure ceiling and tools, he doesn't compare to the others, all of whom are outstanding athletes. I don't think Battle or Harris ever will hit enough, however, and Henry and Jackson (both 2005 draft picks who could have played college basketball) have just 128 complex league at-bats between them.

Ranking all five as prospects, I'd order them like this: Cabrera, Henry, Jackson, Battle and Harris. Harris didn't make our Yankees' Top 30 in the 2005 Prospect Handbook, and he won't make next year's edition either.

Question: What can you tell me about Rangers draftee Steve Murphy? He appears to be doing very well in the short-season Northwest League.

Tony Keeler
Olathe, Kansas

Murphy is doing very well in the NWL, hitting .328/.391/.635 with seven homers, 25 RBI and seven steals in 33 games at Spokane, Wash. He leads the league in doubles (15), homers, RBI and slugging, and ranks in the top five in six other categories.

A 14th-round pick in June, Murphy was something of an enigma for scouts at Kansas State. From a physical standpoint, there isn't much not to like. He's a 6-foot-2, 205 pounder with solid tools across the board. But after hitting 13 homers as a freshman on Central Missouri State's 2003 NCAA Division II championship club, Murphy hit just 13 homers in two seasons with the Wildcats.

Are 33 games in the NWL enough to make Murphy a top prospect? Of course not. But he does have more tools than a typical 14th-rounder, and he's not just an organization player.