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Dec
07

Prospects Report: Cardinals' Adams crushing Double-A

It's time to get something off my chest.

I've been honing my craft here at CBSSports.com since September 2006, forcing my opinion on my loving audience and damn well enjoying every minute of covering sports from baseball to college basketball to hockey -- yes, I once was very knowledgeable in America's least popular sport.

But overall I've always had a solid understanding of sports and could breakdown its sometimes-complex world. That is until today. I'm admitting for once I'm actually perplexed about a sports topic.

Can someone explain to me how a 22-year-old, minor-league baseball player with a lifetime .332 average, .376 on-base percentage, .576 slugging percentage and .952 OPS can hardly be a blip on the prospect radar?

It's baffling that Baseball America -- one of the most respected authorities on prospects -- didn't even have this kid as one of the Cardinals' top 30 prospects at the start of the 2011 season. You do a search for a scouting report on him on the Internet and you'd probably have an easier time finding Waldo.

In case you haven't figured out who I'm talking about -- and likely you haven't if you read the first part of my column about this kid's anonymity -- the player that is mind-boggling to scouts is Matthew Adams, a potential heir apparent at first base to Albert Pujols, whose free-agent-to-be-status has been a media circus.

But even if Pujols leaves town, I feel the Cardinals could be in good hands with Adams, who is leading the Texas League in about every hitting category. He just returned from an oblique injury that kept him out a few weeks, and all Adams did was homer in his first game back and has two homers in his first four games since returning for Double-A Springfield. He is batting .357 with 15 doubles, two triples, 17 homers, 52 RBI, .397 on-base percentage, .685 slugging percentage and 1.062 OPS in 53 games. Adams doesn't even profile like a typical power hitter because his strikeout totals aren't astronomical.

I know what your argument is going to be -- his numbers are inflated by the hitter-friendly Texas League. But this is not Adams' breakout year. He slugged 22 homers and 41 doubles in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League last year and has been a hitting machine since being drafted in the 23rd round of the 2009 MLB draft out of Slippery Rock. I hate to make the comparisons because it's a lot of pressure on Adams, but Pujols was selected in the 13th round in 1999 and didn't become a top 100 prospect by Baseball America until 2001. Maybe Adams' due is coming.

The knock on Adams (owned in 2 percent of leagues) is that outside of his power potential his other skills are below average and he has limited range at first base. One publication went as far as to label Adams as a Matt Stairs-type hitter. But one of the more intriguing tidbits on the young slugger is that the Cardinals skipped him from low Class A to Double-A -- bypassing high Class A Florida State League -- and the 6-3, 230-pound first baseman has handled the transition with ease.

At this point you might think I represent Adams, given this PR piece on an under-the-radar prospect, but that's not my goal. My objective has always been to alert the Fantasy community about players to watch, and Adams in my book is a player long-term keeper owners need to target.

Even if you don't agree with me, I guess I can rest easy knowing Springfield (Mo.) manager Ron "Pop" Warner shares my evaluation about a potential star in the making.

"He knows how to approach hitting," Warner told FOX Sports Midwest. "He doesn't think about mechanics. He thinks about the approach and how guys are attacking him. He is a really intelligent hitter. He makes in-at-bat adjustments. He thinks his way through an at-bat. It is pretty impressive that he has figured it out, especially given his age."

Three Up

Tyler Thornburg, SP, Brewers
Fantasy ownership: 2 percent of leagues
Current team: Brevard County (high Class A)
Stats (combined low Class A and high Class A): 8-0, 1.59 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, .198 opponents' batting average, 82 strikeouts, 25 walks, 15 runs (13 earned), 51 hits and three homers allowed in 73 2/3 innings (13 starts)
Analysis: Thornburg, a 2010 third-round draft pick, hasn't lost in his pro career, which included nine appearances (six starts) last season. After going 7-0 with a 1.57 ERA and .203 opponents' batting average at low Class A Wisconsin, the Brewers promoted Thornburg to Brevard County and all he did was win in his debut, allowing one run on two hits in five innings. Thornburg draws Tim Lincecum comparisons because of his build (5-11, 185 pounds) and delivery, but now they can add success on the mound as well. Thornburg is still considered a tweener. The scouts feel if he can't develop a third pitch -- he is working on a changeup to complement his fastball and curveball -- then he might have a future in the bullpen. But thus far Thornburg is doing just fine as a starter. His real test will come when he reaches the high minors, but Thornburg could be Milwaukee's answer to finding an in-house replacement for Jake Odorizzi, who was shipped to Kansas City in the Zack Greinke deal. It wouldn't surprise me if Thornburg ends the year as the Brewers' top pitching prospect.

Ryan Lavarnway, C, Red Sox
Fantasy ownership: 2 percent of leagues
Current team: Pawtucket (Triple-A)
Stats (combined Double-A and Triple-A): .296 average, .370 on-base percentage, .538 slugging percentage, .908 OPS, 44 runs, 10 doubles, 17 homers, 48 RBI, 30 walks and 57 strikeouts in 66 games
Analysis: Lavarnway has wasted little time laying waste to Triple-A pitchers. He already produced a two-homer game in his first 11 appearances since his promotion from Double-A, and is batting .356 with five doubles, three homers and 10 RBI. But offense has never been a problem for the Yale product. He hit in college -- he's the Ivy League's all-time leader in homers (33) -- and he is hitting in the pros, as he is well on his way to a third straight season of at least 20 homers. No, Lavarnway's struggles have been on the defensive end. The scouts felt he would have to come out from behind the plate to make it to the majors, with a potential future as a designated hitter. But Lavarnway's defense continues to improve and he might just be the Red Sox's in-house replacement once they tire of veteran Jason Varitek. Fantasy owners will want Lavarnway to remain at catcher because his offensive numbers would put him up there with the likes of Victor Martinez, Brian McCann and Joe Mauer. If he moves to another position, then he might get lost in the mix.

Most Owned Minor Leaguers
* as of June 28
Player % owned
1. Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays 43
2. Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays 36
3. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals 35
4. Kyle Drabek, SP, Blue Jays 29
5. Jesus Montero, C, Yankees 28
6. Mike Trout, OF, Angels 25
7. Travis Wood, SP, Reds 25
8. Julio Teheran, SP, Braves 23
9. Mike Minor, SP, Braves 22
10. Dexter Fowler, OF, Rockies 19

Eric Surkamp, SP, Giants
Fantasy ownership: 1 percent of leagues
Current team: Richmond (Double-A)
Stats: 5-3, 1.74 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, .232 opponents' batting average, 87 strikeouts, 24 walks, 17 runs (15 earned), 66 hits and three homers allowed in 77 2/3 innings (13 starts)
Analysis: The two things the Giants aren't shorthanded on are outfielders and starting pitchers, but you can never have too much depth, which is where Surkamp enters the mix. If the Giants get jumpy and decide to deal top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler for a much-needed power bat, then they probably will do it feeling comfortable that Surkamp will be a viable replacement on the organizational depth chart. He has taken his game to the next level coming off hip surgery last summer. Surkamp's fastball isn't overpowering, usually sitting in the high 80s, but thanks to the development of his curveball, changeup and slider, his fastball looks much faster than it is. Surkamp is striking out 10.6 batters per nine innings in his career and walking just 2.5 per nine, so he doesn't have command issues. Surkamp has also allowed just 15 homers in 327 1/3 career innings, so he is very good at working low in the zone. The 6-4, 190-pound lefty probably needs some time at Triple-A before his MLB debut, but Surkamp is probably going to climb the prospect rankings if he keeps at his current pace.

Three Down

Casey Kelly, SP, Padres
Fantasy ownership: 9 percent of leagues
Current team: Portland (Double-A)
Stats: 6-3, 4.48 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, .290 opponents' batting average, 65 strikeouts, 27 walks, 53 runs (43 earned), 99 hits and six homers allowed in 86 1/3 innings (16 starts)
Analysis: I'm definitely not going to be Mr. Popular after this, but someone has to say it -- How is Kelly considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball? I get the kid is a heck of an athlete, as the 2008 first-round pick turned down a scholarship to quarterback at Tennessee and began his pro career as a shortstop. But his numbers in the high minors have been awful. Kelly did go 7-5 with a 2.08 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in 17 starts in 2009 when he transitioned to being a starter in the low minors, but he has since gone 9-8 with a 4.91 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in 37 career Double-A starts. He hasn't even tossed a pitch in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. I wouldn't be surprised if his numbers got worse. Kelly was a key piece in the Adrian Gonzalez trade, so that clearly upped his appeal. I truly get why the scouts love this kid. They feel his struggles are because he is learning how to pitch as he fills out his 6-3 frame and is only going to get better the farther he gets from his shortstop and football days. But if he keeps at his current pace, then maybe it's time to start dropping him down the rankings and project him to be at best more of a mid-rotation arm at the major-league level.

Engel Beltre, OF, Rangers
Fantasy ownership: 1 percent of leagues
Current team: Frisco (Double-A)
Stats: .230 average, .263 on-base percentage, .291 slugging percentage, .554 OPS, 30 runs, seven doubles, three triples, no homers, 10 RBI, eight walks, 45 strikeouts and three stolen bases
Analysis: It's been tough sledding for Beltre in 2011. Not only has he dealt with his struggles offensively, but Beltre served a suspension in May for an altercation with fans. He didn't need any more bad publicity after his game has been suspect this season, but believe it or not the scouts still aren't giving up on Beltre, who came into the season as the Rangers' fifth-best prospect, according to Baseball America. They keep telling themselves that Beltre is only 21 years old and is still very raw, but he has been in the minors since 2007 and has been frustratingly hot-and-cold during his career. Clearly, his plate discipline remains an issue. The signing of Leonys Martin signaled the Rangers needed a backup plan since Beltre is no longer a slam dunk to be an everyday center fielder in the majors.

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Rudy Owens, SP, Pirates
Fantasy ownership: 1 percent of leagues
Current team: Indianapolis (Triple-A)
Stats: 6-5, 5.33 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, .294 opponents' batting average, 39 strikeouts, 20 walks, 46 runs (44 earned), 87 hits and eight homers allowed in 74 1/3 innings (14 starts)
Analysis: I remember Owens being a hot topic in spring training. With the Pirates having some many questions about their rotation, Pittsburgh fans wanted Owens to be in the mix for a rotation spot. How could they not? All Owens did the last two seasons at Class A and Double-A was go 23-8 with a 2.30 ERA. Unfortunately, he has fallen apart at Triple-A, just as he was on the verge of entering the major-league fray. Owens' command has been on par, but he is just having a tough time making Triple-A hitters miss, as he sports a .294 opponents' batting average and is yielding 10.5 hits per nine innings. He is also on track to allow the most homers in his career (previous high is 11). Owens' K/9 rate is once again in decline for a second straight season, which is a big red flag for Fantasy owners.

Minor details

Not sure if you've been keeping an eye on the minor leagues outside of the top prospects, but there's a second baseman in the Astros' system by the name of Jose Altuve, who is tearing the cover off the ball between two different levels this year. Despite being listed at 5-7, 170 pounds, he's supposedly only 5-5, 150 pounds. What do you think this guy's chances are of making it to the big leagues and continuing to find success at the highest level of the sport despite being significantly undersized? His minor-league track record looks great so far and I’d love to see it happen! --Chris Weiss, Columbus, Ohio

MH: Chris, you are talking to the guy that is pushing little-known Matthew Adams onto the masses. Of course I've been keeping tabs on Altuve, who is hitting .366 in 25 games since his promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi after batting .408 in 52 games for high Class A Lancaster.

Don't let height deter your opinion on Altuve. I'll give you two quick examples of undersized players thriving on the major-league level -- Dustin Pedroia (5-9, 180) and Shane Victorino (5-9, 190). So, Altuve can succeed in the majors if he has the skills. That's the biggest question, however.

The scouts seem to agree with you, Chris. They don't make comparisons because they don't know who to compare him to? They rave about his defense and say he has all the offensive skills needed. He came into the season with a career .307 average and .373 on-base percentage. He has good speed, but up until this year he had average home run and gap power. This year he is slugging a career-high .599, adding 20 doubles, 10 triples, eight homers and 51 RBI through 77 games. The Astros would kill for that kind of production at second base, which has been an issue for them in 2011.

Altuve, who entered the year ranked No. 28 in the Astros' system by Baseball America, is likely to shoot up the prospect rankings after his breakout season, but I'm cautious to call him a must-add keeper. I would like to see how he responds to the added attention next year before I can better gauge his potential.

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