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Michael Taylor, Liam Hendriks and Simon Castro: Prospect Chatter

New year, new roles. That’s the 2012 outlook for a few prospects who are nearly big league-ready but now have to figure out where they stand in the wake of some recent transactions.

In this edition…

What the re-signing of Coco Crisp means for a former top prospect, why getting Jason Marquis is — gasp — a good move for the Twins and how the other side of the Carlos Quentin deal could play out.

1) Michael Taylor, A’s
With news of Coco Crisp reportedly re-signing with the A’s on a two-year, $14 million deal, Taylor’s 2012 just got a bit murkier. While the 26-year-old was in line for an Opening Day starting job after the A’s let outfielders Josh Willingham and David DeJesus walk away earlier in the offseason, the re-upping of Crisp means that Taylor will have to prove himself — perhaps in Triple-A again — rather than “earn” a starting gig by default.

Once a highly-regarded prospect, the former Philadelphia Phillies draft pick has battled injuries since joining Oakland from the Toronto Blue Jays in the deal for Brett Wallace. His power production saw the biggest hit as a result, most notably in 2010 when his slugging dropped to .392 down from .549 in 2009. But Taylor recovered enough to regain part of his prospecty goodness last year, hitting .272/.360/.456 at Triple-A. For a big guy (6’5″, 255), he also runs fairly well, swiping between 14 and 21 bases the past four seasons.

Considering his age and the A’s total lack of offense in recent years, it’s time for Taylor to get a legitimate opportunity to play in the big leagues. In other words, more than the 11-game audition he got at the end of last year. But with Crisp once again manning center for Oakland and newly-acquired Josh Reddick also entering the picture in right, that leaves only left field as a possibility for Taylor. And even there, he’ll have to compete with yet another recently-added outfielder in Collin Cowgill.

From a tools perspective, Taylor has the skillset to reach double digits in homers and steals, and he’s a better prospect than Cowgill, who profiles more as a fourth outfielder. But for now, it seems the best-case scenario has Taylor splitting time in the corners — perhaps his righty bat can platoon with the lefty-hitting Reddick? — and the worst case could mean Taylor spends part of a fourth straight season in Triple-A if he doesn’t have a strong spring. Either way, his future playing time has gotten squeezed in recent weeks, as the A’s have brought in three outfielders. Whether that’s a sign that the organization doesn’t have much faith in him is debatable, but one thing that isn’t is that Taylor has now become a dicey draft pick for owners in AL-only leagues next March.

2012 ETA: Taylor is ready to be in Oakland from the start of next season, and barring another move to further block his path, he should get that opportunity, either as a starting outfielder or at least a backup/bench bat.
2012 IMPACT: If he gets enough PT, Taylor could be a nice sleeper as an OF4 or 5 in deep AL leagues, even playing half his games at the pitcher-friendly Coliseum. But if not, he’s merely bench fodder.

2) Liam Hendriks, Twins
Hendriks is your prototypical Twins pitching prospect — throws strikes in the low-90s but struggles with being too contact-prone. The 22-year-old Australian was pushed to the bigs, perhaps a little too soon, when he debuted last September. He was called up after just 49.1 IPs above Double-A and posted a solid 16:6 K:BB in his first 23.1 MLB innings, but Hendriks also gave up 16 ERs and 29 hits, including 3 HRs.

With plenty of question marks in the Twins rotation heading into the offseason — can Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker stay healthy? Are Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing really starters? Is Carl Pavano actually the No. 1? — there seemed to be a chance that Hendriks could break camp with the team if he looked okay in spring. But the addition of Jason Marquis should put an end to that possibility.

While I don’t like Marquis much*, he should at least give the Twins some innings (and a horrendous ERA, WHIP and K rate in his first go-round on an AL team), which will allow the org to break in Hendriks a little slower. Not that Hendriks is going to be a great major league starter either, but he did throw 162.2 innings in 2011, which was easily a career-high for the formerly injury-prone righty. Easing off the peddle won’t hurt.

*A brief aside: Despite being a fellow native Long Islander with the same first name, Marquis is one of my least favorite pitchers in baseball because he’s never been all that good — his career WAR is just 12.2 over 12 seasons — and he’s pretty consistently been overrated — dude was an All-Star in 2009! — for being, what, an innings-eater? A hits-allower? No, I’ve got it: a runs-surrenderer!

When you check Hendriks’ career stats as a minor leaguer and see the spiffy 2.78 ERA, sexy 1.09 WHIP and smooth 1.4 BB/9, don’t be too upset that he’s not getting a shot to be the team’s No. 5 starter from Day One. Rather, it’s better for AL-only owners that the known quantity (read: Marquis) handles the job for a few months. That way, no one will get fooled into drafting him — unless you want to lose your league — and Hendriks can spend a little more time developing at Triple-A.

2012 ETA: Another half-season (or more) at Rochester would do Hendriks some good, so unless injuries once again ravage the Twins rotation — or Marquis is really that bad — expect to see him up after the All-Star break.
2012 IMPACT: There’s a good chance Hendriks’ stuff won’t translate well to the bigs right away, so until he proves he’s capable of being a spot starter, it’s probably best to leave him as a Watch Lister in AL leagues.

3) Simon Castro, White Sox
Familiar with the acronym TINSTAAPP? Well Castro might wind up proving that There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. Once one of the top young players in the San Diego Padres’ system — if not all of baseball — the 23-year-old Dominican had a brutal 2011.

After looking very much the part of a No. 2 or 3 starter following his impressive 2009 (3.33 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.1 K/9) and 2010 (3.28, 1.18, 7.3) campaigns, Castro started the season in Triple-A and proceeded to get tattooed: 29 earned runs, 37 hits and 18 walks in 25.2 IPs. Even a demotion back to San Antonio didn’t help much (4.33, 1.24, 7.4). And with the Padres’ acquisitions of young arms like Casey Kelly, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland over the past year coinciding with Castro’s freefall, it’s easy to see why he became expendable in the Carlos Quentin trade.

There’s some good and some bad here. First it’s important to point out that Castro still has the makings of a mid-rotation starter, thanks mainly to his size (6’5″, 210) and stuff (mid-90s fastball, plus slider), and he could be a guy who just needs a change of scenery to get back on track. Of course, that scenery change also means that once he reaches the majors, he’ll be pitching in homer-haven U.S. Cellular and not pitcher’s-best-friend Petco. There’s also a more than fair chance that Castro becomes a bullpen arm, where his heater can hold up better and his lack of a third pitch won’t be as detrimental.

It will be interesting to see how the White Sox handle Castro. I’d imagine they’ll start him off in the rotation at Triple-A to see how he fares. If he adapts, renowned pitching coach Don Cooper might be able to turn him into a useful starter; if he falters, Chicago can convert him to relief full-time to recoup some value. Either way, GM Kenny Williams already hinted that Castro — along with Pedro Hernandez, a relief prospect acquired in the same trade — could make his debut at some point in 2012.

2012 ETA: If Castro shows he can be a starter, he’ll still need most of the year in the minors to prove it, and if he has to fall back on becoming a reliever, the transition alone will cost him some time, so expect a late-summer debut at the earliest.
2012 IMPACT: Castro isn’t likely to make any waves in fantasy next year as a starter, but if he does convert to the pen, he could earn a late-season audition for the 2013 setup job. Regardless, he’s no longer a premier option in keeper leagues.