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Down on the farm

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Facing a night without baseball, I figured I could move up my planned minor league wrap-up to fill up the blank space.

Prior to the minor league assignments being handed out, I would have guessed that Aaron Cunningham was headed to Birmingham and Gio Gonzalez to Charlotte. They both ended up a level lower than expected, and have predictably dominated.

Gio had a tough campaign at AA Reading last season in the Phillies system, giving up 24 home runs and walking 81 batters in just 154.2 innings. The reason I was relatively unconcerned about those numbers, and thought he should be starting the season at AAA, was that he struck out more than a batter per inning (166) and Reading is a hitters' park, which could explain away some of the homer problems.

After 4 starts in Birmingham, Gio leads the Southern League in strikeouts (30) while cutting his HR and BB rates. He's allowed 8 walks, 2 home runs, and just 12 hits in his 21.1 innings of work.

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Cunningham probably would have received a mid-season promotion last year if he had been healthy. But due to a wrist injury, he entered the All-Star break, the usual time for player promotions, with just 107 at-bats and a batting line around (I can't find confirmation) .285/.365/.450. He finished out the year dominating the SALly league to the tune of a .305/.386/.496 batting line.

There were holes in Cunningham's game, however. He plays mostly LF because of a poor arm, though I've heard that he's a "Rowand-type" player and could surprise with his ability to shift to the more difficult defensive position of CF. He also struck out 72 times in 341 at-bats, and was caught stealing in 10 of 29 attempts.

In the early season at Winston-Salem, it appears that Cunningham is filling those holes. He's currently batting .385/.455/.615 mostly from the leadoff position while displaying remarkable control of the strike zone. He's struck out just 5 times in 65 at-bats while walking 8 times. He's also stolen successfully in 7 of his 10 attempts. Look for him to hit the Birmingham outfield sooner rather than later.

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Jack Egbert largely flew under my radar last season. I knew his name, and knew that he was having a good season, but he was a 23 year old pitcher doing well in A-ball. That's not the type of player I usually get excited about. Egbert isn't your typical prospect, however.

In his first 340 minor league innings, he's lost just 9 balls over the outfield wall. That's a staggeringly low HR rate. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another prospect with as many innings and a similarly low HR rate. What's even more amazing is that his HR rate continues to get better. Adding in his 25 innings pitched this season, he's allowed only 2 home runs in his last 185 innings.

They say that you need to do two of three things to succeed as a pitcher; limit walks, limit homeruns (get groundballs), and strike guys out. Prior to reaching AA, Egbert appeared to be the type of pitcher who could succeed by limiting walks and home runs. Since his late-season promotion last year however, Egbert has transformed into a strikeout pitcher as well. In his 46 innings at Birmingham, he has struck out 50 batters while walking 12, allowing 30 hits and 0 HR.

I don't know if he has added something to his repertoire. I suspect he has, since his GO/FO ratio has dropped since he reached AA. Whatever he's done, he's transformed himself from a possible 5th starter-type to a middle of the rotation guy with potential.

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Looking at some guys tabbed to have a more immediate impact on the Sox, Josh Fields and Ryan Sweeney are both off to relatively slow starts in Charlotte. Fields used 6 hot weeks last season to vault near the top of most prospect lists as I continually called for him to be traded in part because of an unsustainably high BABIP (.397) and a high strikeout rate (29.5% of ABs).

This season he's batting just .232/.349/.391 but he's improved his K/BB ratio (16/13) significantly and doesn't figure to carry a BABIP of .260 for the entire season. He's probably a better prospect than I give him credit for, but Brian Anderson's inability to adjust to the majors has probably unfairly tainted my view. 6 of his 16 hits have come in the last 3 games, including 2 homeruns, one of which was a 10th inning walk-off, with the other coming off Detriot's 6th starter last year Zach Miner.

Sweeney entered last season with just 9 home runs (1 above A-ball) in his three seasons in the minors. He started slow last April with a poor K/BB ratio, but adjusted as the season went on posting a better OPS in each successive month. He finished with 13 HR, and strikingly similar stats to Brian Anderson, with the exception of K-rate, the year before.

Sweeney is once again off to a slow start, batting .246/.342/.377, but he's showing more patience at the plate with 10 walks in 69 at-bats. Sweeney has never walked at rate of 1 walk for every 10 at-bats, so it would be a significant development if Sweeney carries this new found plate discipline for a full season. Sweeney's current BABIP is a more regular .297, so he'll have to cut down on the strikeouts to rebound to his more typical .295 average.