The West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx opened their first Southern League Championship Series in four years last night, and I missed it, because the scheduling change slipped my mind. But at least the Jaxx won (recap
), and how!
With the recent promotions of Felix Hernandez, Francisco Liriano and Matt Cain to the big leagues, yesterday's starter for the Jacksonville Suns, Chad Billingsley, is most probably the best pitching prospect in the minors right now. He throws a lively fastball anywhere from 93 to 97 and has superb secondary stuff in the shape of his plus-plus slider and hard curveball. In his last seven starts prior to yesterday's contest, Billingsley had a 46.2 IP, 17 H, 3 HR, 15 BB, 46 K, 0.96 ERA line, and if 17 hits allowed in his last 46.2 innings pitched wasn't ridiculous enough, try 12 in his last 40.2. Or 0 in his last 7, for it was only last Thursday that Billingsley combined with reliever Jonathon Broxton to pitch a no-hitter, in the process picking up his sixth consecutive win. All in all, I think it's fair to say that the kid, for he's only 21, was on a roll.
And did it bother our Jaxx one bit? Well, let's just say that...
Patterson walks (I repeat, Patterson walks, Eric Patterson that is!).
Patterson steals 2nd base.
Greenberg singles, Patterson scores, Greenberg to 2nd on throw, 1-0 Jaxx.
McGehee strikes out swinging.
Craig hit by pitch.
Sing homers (well over 400 ft mark in LF/CF), Greenberg and Craig score, 4-0 Jaxx
Reyes grounds out, Coats to 2nd.
Ryu strikes out swinging.
Patterson strikes out swinging (oh, boo!).
Greenberg grounds out.
Craig homers (second row of the RF bleachers), McGehee scores, 6-2 Jaxx.
Sing strikes out swinging.
Pitching Change: Beltran Perez replaces Chad Billingsley.
Though the Jaxx's starter, Jae-Kuk Ryu, gave back two runs in the bottom of the second with three consecutive doubles, and another two in the bottom of the third on a two-out two-run homer, the Jaxx found it plain sailing from there, and they now have a 1-0 lead in the series. Furthermore, the next three games see Renyel Pinto, Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Marmol, the three starters in the last round of the playoffs, matching up favourably, on paper at least, with what the Suns have left to throw at them.
Jae-Kuk Ryu (pronounced "You"!) is one of the more interesting pitchers in the Cubs' system, signed out of Korea by the Cubs in 2001 for $1.6m as an extremely raw but exciting young arm. Ryu though had a tough time settling in America, as might be expected of any teenager thrown into a completely different culture without a word of the language or anyone to turn to. He had a few reported run-ins with teammates, among them Andy Sisco, but he shot to notoriety when he deliberately threw at, hit and killed an osprey in spring 2003. A grave and misguided mistake, certainly, but, America seemingly ignorant of the fact that there aren't many 19 year olds that haven't done things they deeply regret, Ryu was relentlessly villified across the nation. He has since suffered further setbacks in the form of arm injuries, which have cost him velocity on his fastball. All the same, now working around 90-91 (as opposed to 93+) while mixing in a splitter, changeup and a good curveball, Ryu, still only 22, has put together a nice season for the Diamond Jaxx this year, with 28 starts and a 176.2 IP, 161 H, 13 HR, 51 BB, 136 K, 3.41 ERA line. He's one to watch out for, and the Cubs have a decision this winter as to whether or not to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
Let's talk a little about Eric Patterson, Corey's younger brother, who's had a nice first season in the Cubs' system. Drafted in the eighth round in 2004 out of Georgia Tech, the 22-year old "E-Pat", a second baseman that bats from the left-side, spent the majority of the year at the Low-A Peoria Chiefs, where he put up a .333/.405/.535 line in 110 games, with 26 doubles, 11 triples, 13 home runs, 53 walks, 94 strikeouts and 40 stolen bases in 51 attempts. His reward for such a season was a double promotion to West Tennessee for the last week of the season and a spot on their playoff roster. In 13 games with the Jaxx now, he's hit .311/.396/.444 with 6 doubles, 7 walks, 12 strikeouts and 3 steals in 5 goes.
Patterson plays very good defence at second base, with excellent range both to his left and right, good balance, soft hands and a decent arm. He also turns the double play well and made just 9 errors at Peoria, comfortably leading the Midwest League in fielding percentage among second basemen. On the basepaths, while he's not quite as fast as his older brother, he can still most definately run, and he's very much a spark plug on the bases, capable of and eager to make things happen, stealing bags, stretching doubles into triples, going first to third, and scoring from second on singles, from first on doubles. He's an exciting player in the field and on the bases. But it's his bat that will decide whether he has a major league future.
While Patterson's hitting numbers look superficially impressive (in a "who can argue with .333/.405/.535?" sense), there are some legitimate concerns. Firstly, Patterson's numbers at Peoria need to be taken with a pinch of salt, for, as a college draftee, Eric was old for his league. The Midwest League is mostly populated with much younger players that, while they may have the talent, are invariably raw, unpolished and have a lot of developing still to do, guys either fresh out of college or a year or two out of High School, like Ryan Harvey, Sean Gallagher and Mike Billek. A more appropriate level for Patterson given his three years at college would have been Daytona, which for hitters is something of a step up from Peoria, with more advanced pitching and a slightly friendlier pitching environment.
Patterson though may be skipping Daytona all together, just like his brother, if Fleita decides that he's held his own well enough in this short end of season stint at West Tennessee and re-assigns him there to begin next year. The jump from High-A to Double-A is more than big enough, a jump that a lot of players struggle with as quality off-speed stuff and patient and refined hitters become much more commonplace. But the jump from Low-A to Double-A is enormous, and indeed it was I believe the beginning of Corey's problems at the plate. Eric, while a different player, one a lot less preoccupied with power for starters (because he's not as strong), and one much more willing to wait for his pitch and take walks, worryingly has numbers that in some respects are similar to his older brother's. He strikes out a lot (92 times in 432 at-bats at Peoria, and 12 times in 45 at-bats at West Tenn so far), which is alarming for a non-power hitter, and has only been able to maintain his high .300+ averages with off-the-chart .400+ averages on balls in play. Together, those strikeout and ball in play numbers point to a plummeting average at some stage in the future.
All of which reminds me of last year's second base prospect of choice, Richard Lewis, the man acquired alongside Andy Pratt in the Juan Cruz trade. He had a big year at West Tenn in 2004, hitting .329/.391/.532 with plenty of doubles, enough walks, very good defence, but lots of strikeouts and he was a bit old for his league too. In fact, statistically, it was pretty much Eric Patterson's year without all the baserunning fun. Lewis' 2005? .222/.299/.312 in nearly 400 plate appearances, most of them at Iowa. Beware, Eric, beware.