What with Jason Heyward’s, Wilson Ramos’ and Starlin Castro’s hot starts (to name only a few), there is perhaps even more hype than usual about the next top minor league prospects to get the call up.  One player I’ve been hearing a lot about is the Florida Marlins’ Mike Stanton.

About the only bad thing I’ve heard about Stanton is that a clear majority of major league executives think Jason Heyward has more long-term up-side than Stanton, and that’s mainly because execs are blown away by the Jay Hey Kid.  Like Heyward, Stanton is big-bodied 20-year-old centerfielder with loads of talent.

I saw a post on mlbtraderumors.com that quoted Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria as saying the team doesn’t want to call Stanton up until they’re absolutely certain he will be ready to stay for good.  That’s BS, of course.  This is the Marlins we’re taking about. What Loria really meant was there’s no way the team is calling Stanton up until they’re absolutely certain he won’t have super-two status and they get to underpay him for another season before he becomes arbitration eligible.

One thing is for certain, however: Stanton is ready to be promoted to AAA.  After exactly 100 at-bats in AA ball so far this year, Stanton is hitting .340 with a 1.317 OPS.  He clearly has accomplished all he needs to accomplish at this level, and if the Marlins aren’t ready to call him up to the majors, there’s no down-side in promoting him to AAA, and letting him rough up those pitchers for awhile.

The latest word on Buster Posey is that the San Francisco Giants think he needs more time at AAA Fresno to work on his defense behind the plate.  Posey is hitting at a level right now (.345 with a .970 OPS after 29 AAA games) where you have to think he’s ready offensively, at least for a catcher. Given what a good place Fresno is reputed to be for hitters, the Giants should probably wait until Posey’s OPS tops 1.000 if they plan to play him extensively at 1B at the major league level.

Right now, with Aubrey Huff hitting well at 1B and Eli Whiteside hitting well as the back-up catcher, there really isn’t any good reason to rush Posey up to the majors unless Bengie Molina’s hamstring injury is more serious than we have been led to believe and requires a trip to the DL.

As for the old-timers, Aaron Rowand and Andruw Jones are having big years.  I have heard reports that Rowand tried out a new work-out regime this past off-season and retooled his swing in Spring Training, as reasons why Rowand might be off to hot start.

I don’t know.  During his time as a Giant, Rowand has never looked like a player who wasn’t working out enough.  Particularly, he has traps (shoulder muscles) you usually see only on football players, and it makes me think he’s long been something of a gym rat.

I haven’t seen enough of Rowand hitting so far this year to have noticed any big changes in his stance or his swing, but it’s possible.  However, I still wonder if, given Rowand’s career progression, 2010 isn’t just the one in three seasons when Rowand is a great player.

As I’ve mentioned before, Rowand had tremendous seasons in 2004 and 2007.  He was mediocre in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009.  In other words, he is due for a big year in 2010, at least based on his career trends.

The up-and-down nature of Rowand’s career, I think, has something to do with the fact that Rowand is not a very patient hitter (free swingers tend to be more inconsistent) and the fact that he has had a lot of injury problems in his career (he runs into walls and gets hit by a lot of pitches—at least 110 in his major league career to date).  Of course, part of it is just dumb luck, which doesn’t make for accurate predicting of future performance on a year-to-year basis.

As for Andruw Jones and his hot start in 2010 (.984 OPS so far), here’s my theory.  Jones was a tremendous, tremendous talent, comparable to Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Cesar Cedeno (I’m throwing him in just to make the point that having all the talent and potential in the world doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll live up to it), and Jason Heyward.

In fact, Jones had some tremendous seasons, hitting lots of homeruns and winning ten consecutive Gold Glove awards in center field (many of which he actually deserved).  However, Jones was always a big-time party boy.  When I had part of a season ticket plan in the bleachers at what is now AT&T Park from 2001-2003, we all used to chant “Gold Club! Gold Club!” at Jones whenever the Braves were in town and the Giants were at bat.  If you have forgotten Andruw’s Gold Club escapade, here’s a link .

(The internet means you never get to live down your peccadillos anymore, no matter how much time passes; however, one thing that amused me about Andruw’s 2001 testimony is that he was so matter-of-fact about it and apparently felt no shame about it; needless to say, Andruw’s conduct really didn’t hurt anyone.)

Anyway, when steroids reached their crescendo in the MLB, Jones was one of the many players reputed to have used and abused them.  As opposed to Bonds, McGwire or Clemens, who used PEDs to enhance their workouts and push themselves to unbelievable levels of performance on the field, I’d bet dollars to donuts that Jones’ use was in the Jose Canseco mold, where ‘roids were used as a substitute for the long hours of hard work it takes to be the best in any of the major league sports.

Given his enormous talents to begin with, ‘roids were all Jones needed to maintain himself as a major star, peaking in 2005 and 2006 when he hit 51 and 41 HRs, respectively, his career highs.

MLB’s first steroid policy took effect before the the 2005 season, but only called for ten game suspensions for first offenses.  MLB and the players’ association agreed to the 50 game suspension for first positive test regime before the 2006 season, but it wasn’t until a significant number of players began to get hit with 50-game suspensions and the events of 2007, culminating in the release of the Mitchell report on December 13, 2007, that most of the steroid abusers really began to clean up their acts.

Meanwhile, in 2007 at age 30, a year when players with Jones’ talent traditionally have been at or near peak performance, Jones hit only .222 and his OPS dropped by 170 basis points from the year before.  In 2008, his performance fell off a cliff, and he finished the season with a .158 batting average and a .505 OPS.  The drop-off was, no doubt, exacerbated by the fact that Jones played his home games in Dodgers Stadium, a terrible place to hit, in 2008, after his prior years in the friendly confines of Atlanta.

Nevertheless, Jones was unbelievably bad in 2008, and I distinctly remember how doughy looking his body was in a Dodger uniform.  In retrospect, the change in his body was classic steroid withdrawal, where the body, which has largely shut down its own testosterone production in response to being bombarded with artificial male hormones, has not yet regained the ability to produce male hormones naturally.

It was clearly something of a wake-up call to Jones, and I suspect that he has begun working out since the 2008 season in a way he hasn’t since at least the time he first established himself as a start for the Braves. He’s also had time for his testicles to start pumping out testosterone again naturally.

Jones didn’t hit well in Texas last year, but at least his power stroke came back, and his bat seems to be all the way back this year.  However, Jones is now 33 this year, so he’s definitely in the decline phase of his career.

Four years ago, Jones was a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer, and probably a first ballot electee.  Now, it’s a lot more doubtful.

I think that Jones will eventually make the HOF, because he really was a great player for a nine year period for the Braves, doing everything you would expect from a HOFer.  I also think that, while known steroid abusers are going to suffer in the HOF balloting in years to come, eventually time will heal the sportswriters’ wounds and a lot of the best of these players (Bonds, McGwire and Clemens) will make the HOF. 

It will be a lot tougher for Rafael Palmiero and Gary Sheffield, who put up fantastic career numbers but were never really the best players of their era.  Because of their steroid abuse, the veterans committee isn’t likely to overrate their astounding offensive performances like it has for the hitters of the 1930′s, another great offensive period in baseball history.

Where Jones falls into this mix remains to be seen.  If he is able to put up a few more strong seasons before he retires, it will make a big difference in how he’s finally remembered.

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