August 2007

Jeffress gone for 50

Evidently, today is suspend the prospect day. First, it was Matt West (see below), who got caught with performance enhancers. Now it’s Brewers pitching prospect Jeremy Jeffress who’ll be gone, but perhaps not forgotten.

He wasn’t caught with performance enhancers, though. The 2006 first-round pick was popped for a "drug of abuse." That’s all the official release says, but I’m guessing most of you are willing to guess.

In case you were wondering, that brings the unofficial total of minor league suspensions to 21. Here’s the list of those other than West and Jeffress, with name, team, length of suspension, kind of suspension (PE – performance enhancer/DA – drug of abuse) for most and age of the player for most as well:

Juan Valdes, Cle, 50 games, PE,
22
James Houser, TB, 50 games, PE,
22
Donnie Sadler, Ari, 50 games, DA,
32
Thomas King, FA, 50 games, DA,
23
Angel Salome, Mil, 50 games, PE,
21
Sergio Garcia, LAD, 100 games, PE,
27
Matt Childers, Phi, 50 games, ??,
28
Brandon Monk, Atl, 50 games, PE,
20
Lino Urdaneta, NYM, 50 games, PE,
27
Francisco Cruceta, Tex, 50 games,
PE, 26
Jorge Reyes, NYM, 100 games, PE,
23
Lou Santangelo, Hou, 50 games, PE,
24
Jonathan Figueroa, LAD, 50 games,
PE, 23
Cedrick Brooks, FA, 50 games, DA,
??
Tyrone Wilson, KC, 50 games, failing
to take, 19
Anthony Swarzak, Min, 50 games, DA,
21
Hector Made, Phi, 50 games, PE,
22
Leonard Landeros, Oak, 50 games, DA,
26
Maikol Mesa, NYM, 50 games, PE,
??

West tests positive

There have been a number of Minor Leaguers suspended for taking illegal substances, most notably the Rays’ James Houser a while back. But the most recent news of a Minor Leaguer getting a 50-game suspension for taking a performance-enhancer truly made me pause.

MattwestThat’s because it was Matt West. What’s special about Matt West, you ask? Well, other than the fact that I interviewed him in May for a pre-draft story on high school powerhouses, he was the Texas Rangers’ second-round draft pick. Just this past June. He’s all of 18 years old and was just starting his pro career in the rookie-level Arizona League. Playing second, short and third, he’d been hitting .301 over his first 29 games.

Here’s what’s the most disconcerting thing about this as compared to others, and I don’t mean to belittle the importance of the other positive tests.  Maybe there’s more to this than meets the eye
, but right now it looks like a teenager, a high schooler, was using illegal substances to get ahead. And I can’t see a scenario where he just started in the last month or so. The only conclusion I can draw — and perhaps it’s erroneous, but I doubt it — is that he was doing it while at Bellaire High School. The Rangers gave this kid a touch over $400,000 to join the organization and now they’ll have to wait until part-way through the 2008 season to see if he can play at all — or play clean.

You see and hear all these public service announcements imploring kids not to take steroids or anything like them, to not do what it seems some of the big stars in professional sports (not just baseball) have done to excel at the highest level. While there aren’t any details yet on the West case, it seems like this young man didn’t get that message. And if that’s the case, there should be a lot of people, starting with West and his family and continuing to Bellaire HS, a big baseball program that has produced many top-notch players. And I’m not sure how or if the Rangers should have or could have known about this, but perhaps it’s time for drug testing to be part of the draft process before someone signs, if it’s not already.

Kevin C. gets to Tacoma (finally)

Saturday afternoon turned out to be a bit of a nightmare getting to the ballpark in Tacoma. This is my first trip to the great Northwest and when
Interstate-5 got shut down because of an accident I was left to my own devices.
I had to make my way from Seattle to Tacoma using a map from Hertz while listening
to the radio for traffic updates. The 25-minute trip took almost two hours but I
made it and was able to get a sit down with Tacoma outfielder Wladimir
Balentien.
 
He proved to be a nice guy. He was frank and honest and I?m hoping he gets a
call from the Mariners over the weekend when the rosters expand. While I enjoyed
my time with Balentien I can?t say the same about my time in Cheney Stadium. The
place is more than a bit run down and doesn?t have any ambiance whatsoever.
Having spent time in Albuquerque, Toledo and Oklahoma City, this Triple-A
ballpark was a let down. This club needs some new digs.
 
Team owner Nick Lachey was also supposed to take batting practice but that
got washed away, thankfully, with a late afternoon shower. Nothing like a faux
celebrity sighting to get my blood boiling. The Rainiers were giving away Lachey
jerseys that day but after BP was canceled, several female fans left in a bit of
snit, complaining they wouldn?t get to see Lachey. Though he showed up later
than expected, he did show up and threw out the first pitch. A Rainiers?
official said he wasn?t going to be speaking with the media. And I even shaved.
 
I got up early Sunday morning for the drive up I-5 to Vancouver and I can?t
tell you when I?ve seen more beautiful country. What a drive. I enjoyed my tour
through Utah two years ago but this one takes over as my favorite among all my
travels for MiLB.com. San Diego used to be my favorite city on the road but
that?s been replaced with Seattle, a fact only added to by the drive.
 
The border checkpoint was a bit of a bore. I was in line for 45 minutes
before I got to the checkpoint. Once over the border I was surprised to see a
llama farm right next to the highway. That was interesting.
 
The ride up to Vancouver was brief and I got lost in the city. I had heard
so much about this city from so many people but honestly, I liked Seattle
better. While the scenery around the city and the harbor is stunning, the
architecture in the city itself is a bit too industrial and European for my
taste.
 
Anyway, we?re headed over to Nat Bailey Stadium on Sunday so I?ll be back.

Kevin C. heads to Everett

I?m back for another day of blogging here from the Pacific Northwest. Today started with a trip to the Space Needle because that?s what you do when you?re
in Seattle? Right? Well, I went to the top and it was pretty cool. Now, it?s not
as high as the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center [I made several
trips to the top of those buildings before you know] but at better than 600 feet
it was impressive. You can see all of the city, the mountains and the harbor and
it?s all so peaceful.
 
Mount Baker, an active volcano, was visible today. According to the tour
guide, you can only see it 50 or 60 days out of the year so I was fortunate. And
Mount Rainier was stunning. There was fog around the base so it appeared as if
it were floating off in the distance. I wish I had a camera.
 
As for the baseball, the trip up I-5 to Everett was quick and scenic. I
gotta tell you, Seattle is a great jumping off point to see some Minor League
Ball. Everett, Tacoma, Yakima, Vancouver and, to some degree, Portland are all
within driving distance. A few days up here make for a very special baseball
trip.
 
Everett
Everett Memorial Stadium is a nice little place, much like the parks I?ve
been to in the New York-Penn League. The difference here is that the right field
wall is set back  from the remainder of the fence with a portion of the wall ?
about 40 feet ? set at a 45-degree angle. I?m sure that makes for some
interesting hops and caroms.
 
The view over the fence reminded me of the ballparks I visited when I was
in Utah two years ago. The Cascade Mountains can be seen beyond the fence and
offer a stunning setting.
 
I came up here to speak with reliever Nick Hill and wasn?t disappointed. A
West Point grad, Hill is one of those special athletes who went to the USMA
knowing that there were no guarantees of playing professionally. Not that there
are any more guarantees if you play anywhere else but playing at West Point does
limit your options, at least as far as post-college athletics is concerned.
 
When I worked for a newspaper several years ago, I had the privilege of
covering Army football. I covered the team when it was bad and when it went to a
bowl game and the thing that struck me the most was how great the players were.
Whether they won 30-0 or lost 30-0 they were the same in the interview room ?
polite, respectful and always willing to give a thoughtful, insightful answer.
 
I was reminded of that talking with Hill because he addressed me as sir, as
the football players did, even though the only rank I held over him was the fact
that I am some 20 years older. It was refreshing for me. I have the utmost
respect for people who attend the academies because it?s something that always
intrigued me. I never had the courage ? or the Congressional nomination ? to
actually act on it, though.
 
So long for now. Catch up with you tomorrow in Tacoma. <p>

Kevin C. hits the Emerald City

Well, I?m in Seattle and I?m not exactly sleepless. Actually, I?m a bit over-tired, having gotten up this morning at 3:30 a.m. New York time to catch a 6:55
flight to the Emerald City. But tacked onto the flight was a 90-minute delay on
the tarmac at Newark because of mechanical problems, so I would up spending
seven hours on a plane before I even touched down in the Pacific Northwest.
 
I was clearly not in the best frame of mind as I headed into Seattle
proper. But I have been looking forward to this trip for weeks. Having never
been to Seattle but having heard such great things about it, I couldn?t wait to
see what all the fuss was about. Sure, I?m here for work. I?ll be in Everett on Friday night to watch the AquaSox and in Tacoma on Saturday for a little
Raniers action before heading to Vancouver on Sunday to do a series of stories
on that franchise.
 
Keep an eye out for all these over the next week or so. I?m sure they?ll be
gems.
 
But, in between working on these trips, I have the pleasure of seeing so
many different parts of the country. My colleagues, Lisa Winston and Jonathan
Mayo, are always talking about putting together some kind of page detailing
different cities and what makes them fun or unique. That includes baseball and
non-baseball stuff.
 
So it is with that in mind that I decided to give blogging a serious try on
this trip. Now, if you?ve read the two or three blogs I?ve posted in the last 12
months, then you know I like blogging about as much as Hilary Clinton would like
to have dinner with Karl Rove. But I guess if I can get over my belief that no
one really cares about what I have to say, this can be a handy little tool.
 
So here goes. I have found, in my first afternoon here, that this town is
quite remarkable. Let?s start with the fact that I walked much of the area down
by the waterfront and around my hotel and found it to be clean and pleasant and
not nearly as crowded as New York. There was a cop on almost every corner, one
for almost every Starbucks I saw. [How can two Starbucks exist within 100 yards
of each other? It makes no sense.]
 
I ate lunch at a snappy little place called Elliot?s Oyster House. It was
right on the water and I got to sit outside, enjoying my sole stuffed with
Dungeness crab and shrimp. The rice rocked and the broccolini was outstanding.
So, here?s to making Elliot?s the first entry in Jonathan and Lisa?s guide to
fine eateries and sites to see when touring the country looking for Minor League
Baseball.
 
A quick walk through Pike?s Place Public Market and the Farmer?s Market
followed. This is a great place to hang out and meet people, have a cup of
coffee and relax. Since I am the anit-Lisa [I pretty much keep to myself] I even
surprised myself today talking to several people in the market, one woman in
particular who commented on the book,  ?The Judas Strain? by James Rollins, that
I was carrying. Since I usually travel alone, I read a great deal and it was
nice to meet someone interested in an author I enjoy.
 
Tomorrow before heading over to Everett I?m hoping to get up early enough
and check out the space needle. Seems like a plan. When I get to Everett, I?m
planning on doing a story on AquaSox pitcher Nicholas Hill. What a great story
he is. He?s a recent graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and
he?s playing ball while serving on active duty.
 
I live about a half hour from West Point and in another life, spent three
seasons covering Army football. There?s nothing like Michie Stadium in the fall
for an Army football game. But I digress. I have the utmost respect for Hill and
he deserves some attention.
 
Saturday at Tacoma I?m hoping to speak with Wlad Balentien, a phenomenal
prospect with a huge upside. And, if time permits, I?ll speak with Raniers owner
Nick Lachey, a pop singer whose greatest claim to fame is that he married
singer/actress Jessica Simpson. Now, I don?t care for the whole tabloid thing
and what Nick and Jessica went through. Actually, I don?t know why anyone would.
But he does own a Minor League team, so if we can swing it, we?ll try and get a
story done.
That should keep the plate full for a while. I?ve written more in this blog
than I have in some stories. Let?s hope someone?s interested.  — Kevin Czerwinski

Trade musings

Chris Carter was finally freed from the Diamondbacks and sent to the American League. To complete the deal that sent Wily Mo Pena from Boston to Washington, the Diamondbacks sent the first baseman to the Nationals who sent him on to Boston. In return, the Diamondbacks get RHP Emuliano Fruto from the Nationals.

Carter has been a "Free the Prospect" favorite for us and has just put up ridiculous numbers in Tucson for two years running. Yes, it’s a nice place to hit, but his road numbers aren’t that awful. The biggest issue has been his defense, or lack thereof. He’s gotten some time in left field but, truthfully, he’s a DH. His best position is batters box. Now in the AL, he can get some playing time in the field on occasion, but can get most of his at-bats without hurting his team with his glove. Too bad he got dealt to the AL team with the best designated hitter in baseball. Fact of the matter is, though, Carter deserved a shot after putting up those kinds of numbers and it wasn’t going to happen with the Diamondbacks or likely with any National League team where having to make defensive substitutions for him late in games would have to be the norm.

Fruto has always had a good arm. He was a Futures Gamer this year for the Nats, though he’s struggled in the second half as a starting pitcher — he had been a reliever for most of his Minor League career, which was in the Mariners organization until this year. He could provide some bullpen help right away for Arizona should they need it.

The other recent trade saw the Reds send Jeff Conine to the Mets for a pair of Minor Leaguers, Jose Castro and Sean Henry. While they aren’t exactly elite prospects, it certainly doesn’t help the St. Lucie Mets’ quest to make the playoffs, does it? St. Lucie has won 8 straight and stands in first place of the FSL East by 2 games. Castro, a shortstop (do the Reds really need another minor league shortstop? Jeez), led the team with a .318 batting average. Henry, an outfielder, was hitting .293 with 11 homers and 18 steals and is near the top in a number of team categories (2nd in OPS, for instance). They may not be the kind of player Reds fans will go nuts over acquiring, but it just shows to go you that even a "minor" trade like this can have a big impact at the minor-league level.

Maybin to NY

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard, or seen on MLB.com, that the Tigers somewhat surprisingly called up phenom Cameron Maybin. He’ll be in uniform at Yankee Stadium tonight. I have to be honest, I’m trying to figure this one out.

It’s not that he’s not going to be a very good big leaguer, a perennial All-Star. And it’s not because the Tigers had previously said they weren’t going to call him up. People change their minds all the time. But how does this fit, exactly? Maybe they have Upton-envy. They see how much Justin has added energy to the first-place D-Backs and they feel calling up a young uber-prospect is the way to win a division. And Maybin is 20, so much older than Upton.

Where will Maybin play, you ask? The best guess is in left because I don’t think you move Curtis Granderson over to a corner at this point of the season. That being said, the only corner outfield Maybin has played in game action was in Spring Training. He’s a tremendous athlete, so he should be able to handle it. The one thing you have to be certain of is that he’s going to play. Just like with Upton, you don’t call up a guy like Maybin from Double-A and have him sit and watch.

It’s been quite a year for prospect callups, no? I can’t remember anything like it — Gordon and Young to start the year in the AL, Chris Young in the NL, Braun, Pence, Hughes, Bailey, Upton, Chamberlain and now Maybin — and that’s just off the top of my head.

If people want to respond — let me posit these questions: Which callup will have the greatest impact the rest of the way? Also, how do you think Maybin will fare in his first go-round in the bigs? — Jonathan

ATM Correspondent: FSL Wild

WILD, WILD? CARD: Fourth in the standings, First in the
Wildcard

The Florida State League has an interesting rule when it comes to the
playoffs. If the same team wins the
first and second half, the best overall record over the course of the season
makes the playoffs by virtue of the wildcard.

With Brevard County winning the first half and holding a 5 game lead
over Jupiter and St. Lucie in the second half of the season, fourth place Palm
Beach is in line for the playoffs if the season ended today.

The Cardinals, who finished 5 games behind the Manatees in the first
half, also finished five games ahead of the Mets and Hammerheads, which tied for
last in the division.

In theory, the Cardinals have two ways of pulling this out. One way is to beat Brevard County for
first place and leave no doubt in the matter. The second option is to scoreboard watch
and root for Brevard County to finish in first place and make sure they finish,
at the worst, five games behind the Mets and Hammerheads.

There is a very possible chance that Palm Beach could finish in fifth
behind Jupiter, St. Lucie and Daytona and still make the playoffs as the
wildcard the way the schedule plays out with a gridlock in the
standings.

The Cardinals play the Manatees only three times the rest of the
season. However, they can rest easy
knowing, win or lose, they will benefit as long as Brevard County stays in first
place and Palm Beach stays within five games of Jupiter and St. Lucie and
five-and-a-half of Daytona.

Palm Beach?s last 21 games include three against Daytona, St. Lucie and
Brevard County. Five against
Jupiter and seven against last place Vero Beach. Jupiter may have the biggest advantage
or worst scenario considering they play three doubleheaders in the last nine
days of the schedule, but two are against Vero Beach and one against the rival
Cardinals. You can bet manager Luis
Dorante will be calling for a few extra starters from the player development
office that week.

Winning with a losing record is nothing new to the Cardinals. In 2005, Palm Beach backed into the
post-season with an overall record of 69-71 due to Daytona pulling a
doubleheader sweep of Brevard County on the second to last day of the
season. The Cardinals went on to
defeat Vero Beach in the divisional series 2-1, before knocking off Lakeland 3-2
in the championship series, after the Tigers set a franchise record with an
85-48 mark during the regular season.

Last season, Brevard County knocked off Daytona on the third to the last
day of the season, then had a doubleheader rained out on the next day, keeping
the Cubs from making up enough ground, thus vaulting the Cardinals into the
playoffs again.

Minor League tour: Final Stop

Jonathan and Izzy Salant filed this report from their final stop ontheir nine-day tour of upstate New York Minor League ballparks, Falcon Park in Auburn.

Izzy and I wound up our baseball trip at Falcon Park in Auburn last night, and we truly saved the best for last.

It was New York state Senator Michael Nozzolio Night, where the veteran
state legislator buys up all the general admission tickets for an
Auburn Doubledays game and hands them out for free to constituents.
Almost 3,000 fans filled the park on a warm Tuesday night. Nozzolio
didn’t buy up the box seats, which is where we sat, front row adjacent
to the visiting Jamestown Jammers dugout. I had covered Senator
Nozzolio, then a state assemblyman, when I covered Albany for the
now-defunct Syracuse Herald-Journal, doing a story in 1984 on how the
lawmaker bought up all the seats and gave them to his constituents, and
then kicked off the game by throwing out the first ball. I did a
similar story in 1992, as the Washington correspondent for the
Herald-Journal and The Post-Standard of Syracuse, on how the late U.S.
Representative Frank Horton did the same thing. I don’t recall there
being box seats at the time, so Nozzolio and Horton, both using their
campaign funds, bought out the entire stadium to treat their
constituents to a night at the ballpark. They were known as the Auburn
Astros then, long before Falcon Park was renovated (thanks in part to
state funding that Nozzolio obtained) in 1995.

Falconpark_1
The field itself was named for Leo Pinckney, the late president of the
team and of the NY-Penn League, who died last year. The Doubleday
players wore gold patches in the shape of a crown with ”Leo” on their
sleeve, a tribute to the man dubbed Auburn’s "King of
Baseball.” His picture also adorned the program, which was printed
”in memory of Leo Pinckney.” I had met Pinckney, sitting in his
customary seat near home plate, when I did my earlier stories at Falcon
Park.

On this night, which happened to be my mother’s 80th birthday, Senator
Nozzolio was not going to throw out the first pitch. Instead, he
invited Izzy, with me accompanying him with a camera, to do so. Izzy
got a ball with the Doubledays logo, stood in front of the pitching
mound, and let the spheroid fly. It crossed the plate in the air. We
were told later that it was one of the better first pitches they had
seen in a long time. Izzy would later also get an official New
York-Penn League ball, tossed to him by Jammers right fielder Dustin
Kaats after he caught a fly ball ending the seventh inning.

Izzy posed for pictures with the team mascot, Abner, named for Abner
Doubleday, who may or may not have invented baseball but definitely
grew up in Auburn. Abner signed his mitt, but there was no stuffed
mascot to take home. Izzy also got some autographs before and after the
game of some Doubledays.

After Izzy threw out the first ball, the game was almost an
afterthought. The Doubledays won, 4-2, despite making more errors –
five — than runs scored. Twice, bunts by Jammer Bryan Peterson were
thrown past first and turned into two-base errors. First baseman Victor
Santana overran a pop up between first and home, only to see the ball
fall behind him. There was also a muffed ground ball and a errant throw
from the outfield that got past everybody. We also saw Doubledays
pitcher Marc Rzepczynski pick off Rigoberto Silverio at first base,
only to have Silverio beat the throw to second.

Despite all that, the Jammers scored in only one inning, the inning
with the muffed ground ball, botched pickoff and errant outfield
throw. They threatened in many other innings but couldn’t get a key hit.

The Doubledays, meanwhile, got a home run from Shawn Scobee early in
the game, and then broke a 2-2 tie in the seventh when Santana smoked
a ground ball toward first base with Ben Zeskind at second. Ben Lasater
made a great stop, but Santana beat the throw to pitcher A.J. Battisto,
and then Zeskind, who never stopped running, slid into home ahead of
Battisto’s throw. Auburn scored its fourth run in the last of the
eighth on a two-out single by Luis Sanchez off pitcher Steve Cishek,
who regularly broke 90 and sometimes hit 94 and 95 on the radar gun.
Doubledays pitcher Joe Wice struck out the side in the ninth to finish
the game.

After 10 games and nine stadiums in nine days, we ended our trip. Home
teams went 8-2. The Syracuse Chiefs went 0-4. Mets’ farm teams
(Brooklyn and Binghamton) went 0-2. The Buffalo Bisons went 3-0.
Frontier Field in Rochester was the best stadium we visited, with NYSEG
Stadium in Binghamton and Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy deserving of
honorable mentions. Damaschke Field in  Oneonta was the most
fan-unfriendly stadium, with those two rows of season ticket-only box
seats separating the rest of us from the dugouts and the field. I was
surprised that most of the minor league parks did not have diversions
for kids like they have in Bowie and Frederick in our home state of
Maryland, where kids can ride on a carousel, climb on a moon bounce and
play games.

The most unforgettable highlight was Izzy throwing out the first
pitch at the Doubledays game. The biggest disappointment was the rain
that canceled the baseball clinic in Cooperstown. I still can’t believe
we saw Bowie score 10 runs in the top of the ninth inning to beat
Binghamton, and remain most impressed with Jammers’ manager Darin
Everson, who first threw Izzy a ball he fielded in the third base
coaches’ box and then signed it after the game, taking the time to chat
with Izzy and pose for a picture with him.


Izzy’s final report:
Last night’s game was better than the other one I
said was the best game ever. I got to throw out the first pitch. I got
a ball — my sixth — I got to meet the state senator and I got to have
the last mascot sign my glove. Now I only need the Oneonta Tigers’
mascot to sign my glove. I thanked the state senator, Michael
Nozzolio, for letting me throw the first pitch. That was the best game
ever on my final report. I’d love to do another baseball tour some time.

 

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