Lake Elsinore Storm Year in Review - Part I

JJ Furmaniak

<b>Position Players</b><br><br> The Lake Elsinore Storm won 75 games this year, the most in the Padres system for 2003. The Storm arguably had the most prospects of any team in the system and maybe the best player in second baseman Josh Barfield, the Padres minor league player of the year. Several other players also emerged as legitimate prospects, Freddy Guzman, Greg Sain, JJ Furmaniak, Josh Carter and Michael Johnson for position players.

Lake Elsinore has proven to be a great place to hit, but it is also a very tough place to pitch and play defense. The grass on the fields in the California League tends to be cut short which, in the high dry heat of most of the stadiums, creates an asphalt-like effect rocketing through the infield.

The Storm finished second in overall batting in the California League. Both Josh Barfield and Greg Sain were among the league leaders in RBIs, while Barfield was among the league leaders in nearly every conceivable batting category. Barfield, relief pitcher Mike Wodnicki, third baseman Sain and shortstop JJ Furmaniak made the All Star team, with both Barfield and Furmaniak making the season ending all star team. Because of the amount of players who could develop in the future, the report will be divided into analyzing the position players now and pitching prospects in the next report.

If anyone read the last reviews, I will repeat the section on what determines a "prospect". If you are already familiar with the process, skip down to the section that begins to analyze the position players.

When doing these types of analysis, as rudimentary as they are, if you are only looking at statistics as opposed to actually scouting the players in person, one is looking for a separation, something that indicates the player will have the capacity to develop into a major league player. The three main criteria that form the basis of this analysis usually look for the following indicators:

(1) Tools - This can loosely be defined for position players as the ability to run, field, throw, hit and hit with power. Typically for position players, someone needs to be a plus player in at least one category to make it in the major leagues. For pitchers it can be a variety of components, velocity, control, ERA, strikeouts; something that indicates the pitcher is able to dominate the competition. Control is important but velocity tends to get greater weight. If a pitcher can harness outstanding velocity, he may have a chance at a major league career. Very few pitchers can advance without a decent fastball.

(2) Performance - The easiest one to evaluate. How well the player actually performed in their league. Someone can have all the "tools" in the world, but as the player advances higher in the minor league system his actual performance becomes more important than his actual potential. Performance is the main criteria at AA or AAA level, as compared to the lower minors.

(3) Age - Age is an indicator of how well the player does against the competition that he is facing. A 19 year old hitting .310 in the rookie leagues carries far more weight than a 23 year old, with four full seasons of college ball experience, doing the same thing. The younger and more successful a player is, the bigger upside they could possess.

Position Players - Eight of the position players for the Storm in 2003 could be considered prospects, but the two with the highest upsides are probably second baseman Josh Barfield and center fielder Freddy Guzman. All of the rest have very good upsides but will probably need a big year in Mobile to really emerge as potential major league players.

Josh Barfield, a 6', 185 lb second baseman out of Spring, Texas simply had a monster year in 2003. Barfield, 21, hit .337/.389/.530 (Batting Average/On-base Percentage/Slugging Percentage), with 46 doubles, 16 Home runs and 128 RBIs in 135 games. Barfield is projected as a Jeff Kent type of second baseman who could hit in the middle of the order with power. He is one of the rare Padres position prospects who came into the organization straight out of high school. Going into next season at Mobile, he will enter his fourth season within the organization and still not turn 22 until December. Its expected Josh will be at Mobile for a full year, followed by a full season at Portland. Most scouting services agree that he has by far the most upside of any player within the Padres' minor league system.

Each year Barfield has improved in average, power, walks and defense. Josh has a rather unorthodox batting style, standing very far back in the box. Some scouts have questioned his plate coverage as he advances to upper levels but his numbers are just too good to have many doubts right now. He uses the whole field and hits with power.

Barfield made 20 errors in 135 games and his defense is going to have to improve for the major league level, especially if he expects to remain at second base. He is easily the Padres top second base prospect in the system, if not the best player in the whole system. However, I am still anxious to see if he continues to improve in Mobile, the toughest spot to hit in the Padres minor league system. Mobile was the only level where Sean Burroughs, an earlier Padres minor league phenom, didn't hit .300.

All analysis of Freddy Guzman, also known as Pedro de los Santos, begins and ends with his speed. Guzman is the classic leadoff hitter who stole 90 bases at three different levels in 2003. Freddy is a 23 year old (we think) switch-hitting centerfielder out of the Dominican Republic. Obviously, Guzman's speed is his dominant tool, both offensively and defensively. Freddy, 5-10 and 165 pounds, makes up for a below average arm with a great ability to chase down balls in center. Guzman has little power but has good control of the strike zone, as evidenced by his high walk rate at Lake Elsinore and Mobile. After starting off hot in Mobile after his call up, he went into a pretty good slump which saw his average plummet from .350 to .276.

Guzman ended up being promoted to Portland for a season ending series because of the suspensions of several Beavers for an on the field fight. There is a lot of upside for Freddy and a need at the MLB level for speed, but he still has to prove he can hit consistently above A ball. It's unsure where he will start in 2004, my guess is he will be the starting CF in Mobile. If he performs, he will move up mid-season to Portland, especially if the Padres can trade outfielder Terrence Long.

JJ Furmaniak, a 6', 185 lb shortstop established himself as a potential prospect with his solid performance at Lake Elsinore in 2003. Furmaniak, 24, hit .314/.524/.397, with 9 HRs and 54 RBIs. He credited his increased power surge to a more intensive weight lifting routine in the winter. After making the California League all star team, JJ was called up to Mobile where he ended the season at .262/.408/.336, with 3 home runs and 11 RBIs in 31 games.

"It was definitely a tough place to hit," Furmaniak said of his time in Mobile. "I don't know if the humidity has anything to do with it but the ball doesn't travel as much. In the Cal League it travels really well, but compared to a lot of other leagues it doesn't travel as well."

After his promotion from Lake Elsinore, Furmaniak started slowly and luckily a wrist injury sidelined him for only a few weeks. Stepping away from the field seemed to help Furmaniak because he played much better after his return.

He struggled in the Arizona Fall League hitting .237 with little power, but then again it was only 59 ABs. JJ should start the year in Mobile and depending on how he performs, could advance to Portland by mid-season. A concern with JJ's future progress could be the 9 errors in 31 games at Mobile, which is going to have to improve this upcoming season.

Obviously Furmaniak's ability to hit for average and power moved onto the Padres' radar screen. It's unlikely that Furmaniak will unseat Khalil Greene, but he could have an opportunity as a utility infielder or with another team. That being written, I can't think of any minor league player the Padres have called up to be a utility guy, a position that usually goes to a MLB veteran.

Michael Johnson, 23, was the Padres number two selection in the 2002 draft, a collegiate teammate of Khalil Greene at Clemson. Johnson spurned the Padres offer last year and returned to Clemson for his senior season. The Padres were able to sign Johnson before the 2003 draft for a $500,000 bonus, less money than what was offered to him the previous year. Johnson, a 6-2, 215 pound left-handed hitter started his career at Lake Elsinore, which was the highest level for any Padres draft pick in 2003.

After Michael signed with the Padres, he instantly became one of the top Padres left handed hitting prospects in the organization. He put up some good numbers in 2003 for the Storm despite fighting a series of nagging injuries. In 178 ABs, Johnson hit .275/.466/.343, with 17 doubles, 5 home runs and 24 RBIs. His defense needs some work, but it was still a very good start for a debut year in professional ball.

Most of the Padres draft picks begin at either Idaho Falls or Eugene, or in rare cases Fort Wayne. Although the Padres have a lot of talent at the corner spots, Johnson is one of the few power hitting left handed hitters in the organization and will be given every opportunity to succeed. Johnson being sent to Lake Elsinore to begin his professional career probably indicates that the Padres don't foresee him spending a lot of time in the minors. At 24, MJ doesn't really have a lot of years for development. Depending on what the Padres do with Tagg Bozied, MJ could end up in Portland by the end of the year.

Johnson could have an outside chance to contend for a position on the Padres in 2005 depending on his progress this year. It will be interesting to see how much he improves with a year of professional baseball under his belt.

Greg Sain, the Storm's third baseman for 2003 had the best offensive season of any member of the Storm – not named Josh Barfield. Greg hit .274 with 35 doubles, 19 home runs and 100 runs batted in. Sain plays three positions, third, catcher and first base. Last year, he primarily played third base but struggled defensively committing 38 errors in 128 games. Despite his defensive shortcomings, Sain emerged – after Jon Knott of Mobile – as one of the few legitimate Padres power prospects in the organization. His ability and willingness to play three positions could lead him to San Diego.

"Playing third base, catcher and first base can only work in my favor in trying to make the major leagues," Sain said.

Josh Carter, 23, hit .300/.362/.417, with 18 doubles, 6 home runs and 56 RBIs. Carter is a 6-2, 215 lb draft pick out of Oregon State, originally from Fallbrook. Carter had a solid year but doesn't seem to have any spectacular "tool" in his speed, power or defensive abilities. He did, however, have a better season than either Ben Johnson or Kennard Jones, much higher rated prospects. He can play all three outfield positions but will have to begin to hit with more power to advance up the system. Carter has the all around game and athletic ability that could develop in the future. Keep an eye on him in Mobile next year.

Ben Johnson, 23, was part of the long ago Woody Williams trade with St Louis which brought us Ray Lankford, one of the biggest busts in Padres history. Johnson, at 6-2, 200 pounds, is one of the types of "tools" players scouts rave about, good arm, strength, speed and a lot of potential to become much better. He has consistently been rated in Baseball America's top forty prospects, but has yet to quite put it all together at any level. After a poor start at Mobile, the Padres wisely demoted Johnson to Lake Elsinore and he began to produce. Ben hit .266/.354/.446, with 8 HRs and 29 RBIs in 184 ABs.

Johnson has a nice combination of speed and power and, and, as stated above, is one of the highest regarded tools guys in the Padres system. The Padres made the right move in sending Johnson down to regain his stroke and confidence. The Padres probably should have done the same with Vince Faison, another high draft pick who was traded to Seattle as part of the Jeff Cirillo trade. If Johnson can work on improving his selectivity at the plate, he could be a force in the system with his raw abilities. Johnson is the type of player the Padres should be developing in their system, a good athlete whose baseball skills are trying to catch up to his athletic gifts.

The upcoming year should be a crucial year for Ben. It will be his second time around in AA and hopefully he will be able to demonstrate that he has made adjustments. If he fails again at Mobile, he will probably move on.

Nick Trzesniak was part of the ill fated class of 1999, which included Vince Faison and Mark Phillips both of whom are now with other organizations and struggling. Trzesniak is considered one of the best defensive catchers in the system, with good arm strength, power and especially speed for a catcher. Kevin Jarvis, on a rehab assignment in Lake Elsinore, praised Trzesniak's defensive skills. Nick improved his performance at the plate in LE this year but still needs to improve his offense. He hit .245/.340/.336, with 8 home runs and 45 RBIs. For most of the year he hit much better, but went into a bad slump toward the end of the season.

He finished second on the team with 17 stolen bases, and was only caught 4 times. His walk totals improved, and he did cut down on his strike outs. Baseball America, in their 2003 Prospect Handbook, claims that he tends to "muscle his swing too much, and is a bit over aggressive". How he hits in Mobile remains to be seen. He draws raves about his defensive ability, but will need to improve offensively, especially as he moves up to the Southern League, which is much more difficult place to hit than Lake Elsinore.

Other players - Marcus Nettles, Jon Benick and Joe Hastings all played at Lake Elsinore during the year but it's difficult to see much of a future for any of them. Nettles went into the season ranked as the Padres #30 prospect by Baseball America. He struggled badly in his second year in High-A, finishing with a .232 average and 122 strikeouts in 423 at bats. He does have great speed, but a weak arm and other defensive problems limit him to left field. If he is still with the Padres, he will probably return to Lake Elsinore. The switch hitting Jon Benick played well at Lake Elsinore but struggled badly after being promoted to Mobile. Although Benick was promoted to the Southern League in 2003, his promotion was primarily to clear room for Michael Johnson. He may be in Mobile for 2004 but probably in reserve role. Joe Hastings, a left handed hitter also struggled at both Lake Elsinore and Mobile, and will probably return to Lake Elsinore in 2004.

Potential MLB players this past year at Lake Elsinore - Obviously Josh Barfield. After that it would probably be followed by Freddy Guzman, Michael Johnson and Greg Sain. Furmaniak, Carter, Johnson and Trzesniak are slightly behind, mainly because their skill sets are not as in demand as the speed of Freddy Guzman, the left handed power of Michael Johnson and the versatility and power of Greg Sain.

Josh Carter, if he can continue to improve his all-around game, could become a factor. Trzesniak has a bigger hurdle in trying to convince the Padres that his bat is at the same level of his glove. I tend to think Furmaniak, if he makes the major leagues, will do it in another organization. I have a hard time seeing the Padres keeping a rookie utility infielder. If they do, Bobby Scales, who has played every position except catcher, has a better chance to become a major league utility player in the big leagues.

In the next report, we will summarize Lake Elsinore's pitchers in 2003.

John Conniff can be reached at conniff@sandiegosports.net

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