November 2005

Q (for Qualifying) Rating

Well, they finished up in Arizona last week with the United States sweeping the competition. So Team USA moves on to Havana in August 2006 along with Canada, Nicaragua and Panama for the final round of qualifying for the 2005 Summer Games.

There were a number of affiliated Minor Leaguers who stood out during the five-game tourney, so I figured, why not give some of them some love here. I’m going to stick with the teams that actually qualified for the next round. I’m also going to try to avoid talking about the AFL guys, since t hey’ve gotten enough attention over the last couple of months.

He’s not really a prospect, considering he’s 24 and spent another year in the Carolina League, but Avelino Asprilla had a nice little tournament for Panama (one of the few affiliated players from Panama, Nicaragua or Guatemala). He spent the year in Lynchburg (Pirates) — the fourth season he’s played in the Carolina League, where the third baseman hit .269 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs. DHing for Panama, Asprilla hit .412 in four games.

The top player from Nicaragua (who’s affiliated) may have been William Juarez. The light that went off for Juarez in the postseason with the Jacksonville Suns clearly didn’t go out. Juarez had a 0.60 ERA in the Southern League playoffs, allowing just one run in 15 innings, walking one and striking out 10. Juarez threw up zeroes in his one start last week, going six innings while yielding just four hits and one walk to pick up one of his country’s three victories (granted it was against Guatemala).

It was Teams USA and Canada that had the most impressive rosters of prospects, and many of them did not disappoint. Just about everyone hit for Canada, as evidenced by the fact that the Dodgers’ Russ Martin was sixth on the team among players who played three games or more with a .308 batting average. Joey Votto (sorry, can’t avoid some AFL guys) of the Reds hit .450 in five games. The Braves’ Scott Thorman hit .364 and while he only played in two games, the Mariners’ Sebastian Boucher was impressive, going 6-for-9 with a pair of steals in those games. Pitching-wise, Adam Loewen (Orioles), Mike Meyers (Brewers), Jon Lockwood (Mariners) and Chris Begg (Giants) all threw well. Lockwood, interestingly, was a reliever during the season with Everett and Wisconsin, but tossed five no-hit innings as a starter last week for Canada.

Then there’s Team USA. It’s hard to pick one guy when a team goes 5-0, and you don’t want to mention everyone. You have to call out Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Braves catcher. Anyone who goes 7-for-8 and has an OPS of 2.525, albeit in three games, deserves some props. But how about guys like the Rockies’ Ryan Shealy (.500), the Angels’ Jeff Mathis (6-for-12; Team USA catchers combined to go 13-for-20 with two homers and 10 RBIs), the Mariners’ Bryan Lahair (4-for-9) and the Phillies’ Shane Victorino (.318) who weren’t fresh from the AFL and had to shake off the rust from a layoff? Pitching-wise, two AFL alums who had up-and-down seasons had terrific outings, with the D-Backs’ Bill Murphy beating the lefty-laded Canadian team and the Cards’ Chris Lambert blanking Guatemala to get things going on one hit and no walks.

Better late than never

OK, so this is more than a little late. If this were college, I’d be in big trouble. But luckily, I finished with that nonsense (kids, if you’re reading this, college is not nonsense. I am very much for advanced education. But I digress) long ago. So, let’s finish up with some AFL odds and ends.

We had a few records broken after all — highest batting average, highest ERA, homers and runs per game — as the final results below indicate…

All-time batting average record: .292 (2004)
2005 average: .296

All-time worst ERA: 5.32 (2004)
2005 ERA: 5.40

All-time homers: 243 (1997)
2005 homers: 212

Note on homers: The record for homers per game was 1.82, set in 2001. In 2005, balls flew out at a rate of 2.21 per game.

All-time runs per game: 12.07 (2004)
2005 RPG: 12.15

That’s what made the AFL championship so interesting. Sure the final score had a nine in it, but it was the most unexpected pitcher’s duel into the sixth inning. Kudos to Jamie Shields and Brian Bass for throwing up a bunch of zeroes. Shields won’t show up on any top prospects lists (nor will Bass), but he’s on the  map like he’s never been before. If I’m the Devil Rays — which clearly I’m not — I give him a shot at the Trop in 2006. The Scorpions were cursing his changeup during the game last week. Whether he can use it at the big league level remains to be seen, but he’s earned the chance.

That’s about all she wrote for AFL blogging…I’ll try to throw some comments up about winter ball stuff if I can. And if there are any Hot Stove trades that involve prospects, this’ll be the place to come. If there’s anything on your mind, don’t hesitate to let me know.

It all comes down to this

Thought I’d drop a note before heading to the park this morning…Another beautiful day here in Arizona. We’ve got the Desert Dogs against the Scorpions this afternoon. Check out MiLB.com for all the coverage — we’ve got live video, live audio, Gameday, you name it.

If all goes well, I’ll be in the dugout doing interviews between innings. So be sure to check it out.

As far as the game is concerned, I can’t imagine the offenses not taking over. But even though Phoenix had the best record in the league, I have a feeling Surprise is going to win the championship game. Let’s say 9-6. Talk to everyone after the game.

Just one more to go

Hard to believe today was the last day of the AFL regular season. We headed out to Peoria again to catch another glimpse of the Surprise Scorpions before the championship game against Phoenix on Saturday. I’ve got to tell you, I think they’re going to be very hard to beat. Not that the Desert Dogs are slouches at all. They do have the best record in the league… It’s hard to put my finger on it. The Scorpions just looked so loose, relaxed, like they had been playing together all season. They’re the first team we’ve seen take batting practice in two days. Everyone here is understandably fatigued, but Surprise looked like they had something left in the tank. One player said he thought they had been re-energized with the thought of playing for the upcoming championship. I’d look for a pretty high-scoring affair, but it may come down to which starter — Jamie Shields or Brian Bass — who can limit the damage the most.

On another note, we spent the morning in Peoria shooting the first of what I hope is an annual MiLB.com Minor League Awards Show. We took a look at the top performers and performances across the Minor Leagues in 2005. We’ve got interviews, we’ve got highlights, we’ve got my big, bald head on screen. What else could you ask for? Look for the Awards Show to air on MiLB.com early next week, possibly Tuesday afternoon before the Olympic Qualifying game.

I’ll have the final league-wide stats for you guys tomorrow (don’t forget about "Around the Minors" on MLB Radio on Friday, 2-4 ET).

National pride

We’re in Peoria on Wednesday (where, by the way, Glen Perkins was lights out) and we look over to a side field at the complex where the Mariners and Padres have their Spring Training homes. A bunch of players were working out and playing an exhibition game where red and white uniforms.

Being the curious sort, I had to check it out. Lo and behold, it’s the Canadian National Team. With all the focus on the conclusion of the AFL, it’s easy to forget that several nations are headed to Arizona for the first round of Olympic qualifying. Most of Team USA is on AFL rosters, with the remaining few players working out at various spots in Arizona (I believe they’re in Mesa today). In fact, we’ll have Shane Victorino on MLB Radio’s Around the Minors in a special two-hour show this Friday, 2-4 p.m. ET. US manager Davey Johnson will also join the show. It’ll be interesting to hear how everyone is dealing with the pressure of trying to erase the 2003 experience when the U.S. did not qualify for the Olympics in Greece.

Back to the Canadians. They were playing a team with jerseys that simply said "WFAST" on it. A semipro team? A beer league softball squad? No, it turns out it’s a collection of young Mariners Minor Leaguers who are in Peoria for offseason workouts. A few Canadian team members are still on AFL squads — Scott Mathieson and Adam Loewen should give them a pretty good 1-2 punch in the rotation and George Kottaras should help out behind the plate when Russ Martin is not in the lineup. Speaking of Martin, the Dodgers prospect, he’ll join the show on Friday as well, along with Team Canada skipper Ernie Whitt. When a friend watching the exhibition asked one team member why he was doing this (namely, playing this deep into November when most players are probably ready to go home), the proud Canadian simply responded, "I want to help my country qualify."

ROY from the AFL

Another feather in the AFL’s cap. We’ve talked about all the alumni (close to 1,200) who have made it to the bigs. We’ve blogged about the 2005 sliver sluggers (7) who played here. And I mentioned on the radio show that nine gold gloves honed their craft in the AFL.

Now we can add two more Rookies of the Year to the ever-growing list of accomplishments. Not only did both winners this year — Huston Street and Ryan Howard — play in the AFL, they were here last year. Think their experiences in Arizona prepared them for the bigs? Especially for Street, who didn’t spend much time in the Minors, getting to face the advanced competition of the AFL had to be very important not only for his development, but for the organization to be sure he was ready at least to compete for a big league job (I’m proud to say I featured Howardi n a Spring Training story about prospects who were stuck  behind veterans and didn’t have a place to play even though they were ready for the bigs. Also on that list were Dan Johnson, Casey Kotchman, Andy Marte — who’ll face that fact again next year — and Eric Duncan, who has begun the move to first base to become unstuck. But I digress).

Street and Howard join a pretty impressive list of 11 other AFL alumni who went on to win Rookies of the Year. Here’s a list, with the year each player played in the Fall League and the year they took home top rookie honors:

AL — Bobby Crosby (2002, won 2004); Eric Hinske (2000/2001, won 2003); Ben Grieve (1996, 1998); Nomar Garciaparra (1994, 1997); Derek Jeter (1994, 1996); Marty Cordova (1994, 1995); Bob Hamelin (1992, 1994)

NL — Albert Pujols (2000, won in 2001); Scott Williamson (1998, 1999); Todd Hollandsworth (1993, 1996); Mike Piazza (1992, 1993)

As you can see, it’s not every day that a player goes straight from the AFL to the big leagues the next year and wins Rookie of the Year. It’s happened to four other players; fans of the Phillies and A’s better hope Street and Howard turn out more like Piazza and Pujols and not Cordova or even Hollandsworth.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more on rookies. perhaps looking into my crystal ball at which 2005 AFL performers may have a shot at some 2006 hardware.

First day in Zona

You wake up at some ungodly hour in the morning (4:40 a.m. for the record) to get your flight, so you can get to Arizona in time for some AFL action. You  pick up your co-worker and fly to Mesa in time to get some interviews done and take in some Fall League baseball. And you get treated to… a 17-1 blowout. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

There were some good things to be seen, believe it or not. It was a season-high 28 hits for the league, and the win kept Mesa’s slim playoff hopes alive. It’s not often you see three guys pick up four hits apiece, all on the same team. As good as Phoenix’s Bill Murphy was in his last outing, he was bad in this one. Eight runs on 12 hits in three innings will not help your ERA, I don’t think.

But even with all of this offense, the real story was Humberto Sanchez. The Tigers prospect never lost focus in going an AFL-high seven innings. He gave up just three hits while striking out four. Perhaps more important for a guy who’s had some command issues and is coming back from an injury-filled season is that he walked only two. His ERA goes down to 2.15 with 29 K’s in 29 1/3 IP.

And the guy didn’t exactly look tired. According to one gun reading, he threw between 91-94 mph all game. In the seventh, perhaps because he knew it was his last, he showed he had plenty left in his tank, throwing 93-94 consistently. And his fastball, if you’ve not seen it, has got some heavy sink to it. He sawed more than one bat in his outing while working his other pitches to near perfection. He’s now thrown 12 consecutive scoreless innings at a point when just about everyone else is tired. Of course, he only threw 64 2/3 innings during the regular season, he may be a bit more energized. At any rate, one teammate said it was by far his best outing in the AFL. That’s saying something since he went five scoreless in his last outing as well.

Tigers fans had already been feeling giddy about the possibility of Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya pitching in the Detroit rotation sooner rather than later, and for years to come. If Sanchez continues to stay healthy and builds off this superb AFL performance, he could be right there with them to form one of the most formidable and hard-throwing young trios in the big leagues.

And now on to the league stats (notice how it now seems like there may not be so many records broken):

All-time batting average record: .292 (2004)
2005 average: .294

All-time worst ERA: 5.32 (2004)
2005 ERA: 5.30

All-time homers: 243 (1997)
2005 homers: 180 (on pace for 206)

Note on homers: The record for homers per game is 1.82, set in 2001. This year, balls are going out at the rate of 2.14 per game.

All-time runs per game: 12.07 (2004)
2005 RPG: 12.08

Three cheers for Troy

And I don’t mean the god-awful movie with Brad Pitt. Troy Percival became the first pitcher to be enshrined in the AFL Hall of Fame on Tuesday night. Kind of funny, isn’t it, that the first pitcher to go into the AFL Hall — which includes such superstars as Derek Jeter and Mike Piazza — is a guy who didn’t start pitching until the year he went to the Fall League. Percival was a converted catcher who began the transformation in 1992. That fall he pitched for Scottsdale and struck out 23 in 17 innings. Think his time in the league helped him prepare? 324 saves say yes.

The ceremony led to a thought: Which of this year’s AFL relievers — a group that hasn’t gotten much attention on this blog at least — look like they may at least have a shot at being the next Percival. Despite his hefty ERA, it’s hard not to like Travis Bowyer, who’s got 17 K’s and just 2 walks in 12 1/3 IP this fall after saving 23 and striking out 96 in Triple-A this season. Jim Miller saved 34 games this year and struck out a total of 87 in 62 2/3 IP, though he too has struggled in the AFL. Brian Wilson hasn’t pitched all that well this fall — including in a rare start — but the AFL journal writer went from Low-A all the way to Triple-A this year, saving 21 games and whiffing 65 in 60 IP. You’ve got former starter Casey Daigle, who moved to the pen this year with dramatically good results. He’s pitched pretty well this fall and could sneak into the D-Backs pen in 2006.

OK, so maybe there aren’t any future Troy Percivals out there. But, truth be told, did anyone think Troy Percival would be Troy Percival back in 1992?

AFL Silver Sluggers

In case you didn’t see it, the 2005 Silver Slugger Award Winners were just announced. Not that you needed any more proof that the AFL helps develop top-flight talent in the big leagues, seven of the 18 winners this year spent some time in Arizona during falls past.

It seems that 1998 was a good year for Silver Sluggers. Alfonso Soriano played for Grand Canyon that year, probably as a shortstop. On the left side of the infield with him was third baseman Morgan Ensberg. Carlos Lee played for Phoenix when he was still a White Sox prospect and Michael Barrett, then with the Expos organization, played for Scottsdale.

Derrek Lee and Jason Varitek were AFL opponents for two consecutive seasons. Lee represented the Padres in 1995 and 1996 with Scottsdale; Varitek was a Mariners prospect when he played for Peoria in those seasons.

The most recent AFL graduate among the Slugger winners is Mark Teixeira. He played for Peoria back in 2002.

All-time batting average record: .292 (2004)
2005 average: .297

All-time worst ERA: 5.32 (2004)
2005 ERA: 5.48

All-time homers: 243 (1997)
2005 homers: 150 (on pace for 209)

Note on homers: The record for homers per game is 1.82, set in 2001. This year, balls are going out at the rate of 2.17 per game.

All-time runs per game: 12.07 (2004)
2005 RPG: 12.38

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