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Hoppers laden with pitching prospects

Guest markotsay7

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Guest markotsay7



GREENSBORO - Brandon Hyde finds himself in an enviable spot as he opens his second season as manager of the Greensboro Grasshoppers.


He'll send first-round draft selections to the mound tonight and Friday against visiting Hagerstown. Then he'll call on pitchers taken with supplemental picks preceding the second round of last June's amateur draft to face the Suns on Saturday and Sunday.


The Grasshoppers' No. 5 starter, seventh-rounder Chris Leroux, has excellent potential, as well, although he's coming off reconstructive elbow surgery.


On one hand, Hyde and pitching coach Steve Foster might be inclined to think: Better enjoy these guys while we have them, because they won't be here long. On the other hand, the Marlins have so thoroughly restocked their farm system with pitching talent that the organization feels no pressure to rush its younger prospects.


That means the fabulous foursome of opening-night starter Chris Volstad, Aaron Thompson, Ryan Tucker and Sean West could remain intact for a while. They're all 19-year-olds taken very early in the draft straight out of high school. They started together in the Gulf Coast League and climbed to short-season Jamestown, N.Y., almost in unison.


Now they're in Greensboro, starting their first full season of pro baseball. Volstad and Thompson are rooming together, just like last year.


"As much as the minor leagues are supposed to be about competition between you and your own teammates to get to the major-league team, we all get along well," said Thompson, a left-hander from Houston. "We know we're all different. Nobody out of the young pitchers is exactly the same. It's all going to be how hard you work and what the organization needs."


What they do have in common is each has been teased in the clubhouse for being a "bonus baby." Florida's first five picks in '05 -- former Grasshoppers pitcher Jacob Marceaux was the other -- signed for a combined $5.575 million.


Volstad, a 6-foot-7 right-hander who had a 2.13 ERA last summer with Jamestown of the New York-Penn League, is ranked by Baseball America as the No. 7 prospect in the Marlins' system. Thompson is rated 10th, Tucker 16th and the 6-8 West 20th. Clemson alum Kris Harvey, a second-round pick who will play the outfield for Greensboro, is No. 15.


"That's one of the most 'prospecty' rotations you're going to have in all the minor leagues, but especially at the low Class A level," said John Manuel, an editor for Baseball America. "Actually, I'm kind of surprised Volstad is there because he is so polished."


Jim Fleming, the Marlins' director of player development, said Volstad's tremendous body control and command of his pitches gives him upward mobility. But another Jason Vargas scenario -- he dominated in five starts for Greensboro last year, flew through the system and finished the season in the majors -- is unlikely.


"I would say we're not going to fast-track a high school kid like we did Vargas," Fleming said. "And, secondly, all the talent we brought in with the trades, there's no need to push any of these guys. We'll just react to how they do."


The Marlins landed this group thanks mostly to free-agent losses in 2004. They received five compensatory picks in the first two rounds of the '05 draft. Six of Florida's first seven selections are, or will be, in Greensboro (catcher Brett Hayes is expected back from a hand injury in about two weeks).


Then came the salary-clearing trades of which Fleming spoke. In dealing away Josh Beckett, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo and Paul LoDuca, Florida got many prospects in return. That includes a number of pitching prospects now filling rotation spots for the Marlins' higher-level teams. The loss of pitcher A.J. Burnett via free agency netted them an additional early pick in this year's draft.


The influx of talent has elevated the Marlins' farm system from 14th-best in baseball to No. 3, according to Baseball America.


"Someone in the top 50 for the Marlins might be top 10 with the Mets," Manuel said. "The Marlins are that deep."


Prospects such as Thompson take that as a challenge.


"When you hear they've brought in 10 new pitchers," Thompson said, "it's like, well, I've got to work a lot harder."


Volstad will try not to worry about how his minors-to-majors timetable is impacted.


"It's something I can't control," he said. "I have to go out and pitch my game. If they decide to move me up, I'll be glad to go up."


The Grasshoppers' young pitchers all throw strikes consistently, making their coaches optimistic about how they'll fare in the South Atlantic League. Starting tonight, they'll see.


"In spring training, you get a feel for the guys," Hyde said. "But it's never the same until you're under the lights and there are fans in the stands."

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