March 2009

Prospect Impression for March 31

Hey folks —

Sorry I haven’t been able to be as diligent in filling you in about prospects I’ve been seeing. But between the Reds coverage, finishing up the last couple of organization previews last week, the draft reports… and my kids coming to visit over the weekend, time has been at a premium.

But I wanted to jump on quickly and talk about someone I saw at the Yankees-Reds game today. It’s not often we can talk about a Yankees prospect, right? OK, that’s an unfair shot, but still…

Starting for the Yankees in this game, as he will on Opening Day, was Brett Gardner, who was named recently as the starter in center field over Melky Cabrera, had three hits in the game, though he was doubled off of first following the first one (not his fault, it was  rocket line drive) and getting caught stealing after the second one. Overall, he’s had a terrific spring, hitting .390 in 59 at-bats. He’s stolen five bases and had a .446 OBP.

Those last two stats are what makes him interesting. His best tool is his speed, and it’s a plus. He’s stolen 153 bases in his Minor League career. Even better is that he seems to know what he’s doing as well, with just 31 caught stealing for an 83-percent success rate. Of course, having speed doesn’t help if you don’t get on base. Gardner seems to understand that. He’s hit a respectable .291 in the Minors, though batting average in the Minors for speed guys is always called into question (fair or not) because, especially at the lower levels, guys with Gardner’s kind of wheels can hit groundballs and leg them out consistently for hits.

But Gardner’s managed to continue hitting as he’s moved up the ladder, including a .296 mark last year in his first full season of Tripole-A last year. More importantly for his leadoff potential is his career .389 OBP. He may not hit for much, if any power, but he’ll use his speed on the bases and in center field whie trying to get on base as much as he can for the big boppers. He’s a fun guy to watch play because of his effort and his speed and you know he’s not going to get outworked.  It should be fun to watch him patrol that new center field when they get going up there in the Bronx.

Draft Aft: An Update

I know, don’t be too shocked. But I had a few moments of down time while covering the Reds to throw up some draft tidbits. It’s not much, but hopefully it’ll keep you going until the next random time I can hop on here and talk draft.

First off, my latest Draft Report is up and ready for your perusal. Be sure to go to the landing page if you’ve missed any of the previous ones. We’ve got 32 in total to date, not too shabby considering it’s still March.

A couple of bits of information I’ve gathered along the way lately…

  • USC shortstop Grant Green, who I’ll have a report on next week, came out of a game earlier this week with an ankle injury. He was seen wearing a boot afterwards, which had some concerned. But from everything I’ve heard, it was just a precaution. He didn’t play in Wednesday’s doubleheader against Brown — which USC swept — but it seemed probable that he’d be in the lineup this weekend against ASU.
  • Scott Griggs, a high school right-hander in Northern California who was an AFLAC All-American last summer, has been dealing with a blister problem. That’s nothing serious, obviously, but it’s kept him from throwing enough for scouts to get a really good read on how he looks this spring.
  • Speaking of USC-ASU… how about this for a Friday night matchup: ASU’s Mike Leake vs. USC’s Brad Boxberger. That’s about as good a matchup as you can hope for at this point of the season.
  • Stephen Strasburg, the consensus top talent in the draft, will pitch against a tough TCU team. The game’s in Fort Worth and it should be his toughest test to date, as he’s been putting up video game numbers so far this season.

Well, that felt good to get a little info out there. I can’t promse I’ll be able to do much of this draft stuff until my Spring Training duties are over, but know it’s not from lack of effort.

Day 11: Sarasota

Day 10 was an “off day,” so no ballgame for me. Today, I was back at Ed Smith Stadium to watch the Red Sox and Reds play. Both teams had more or less their ‘A’ lineups in for much of the game, but there were some interesting names. Anthony Rizzo got into the contest for the Red Sox late, but struck out in his lone at-bat. So we’ll go with a Red for today’s Prospect Inspection:

It’s hard not to like Chris Valaika. The shortstop is outgoing, personable, loves to play for Team USA (he’s done it like 428 times… ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration). He made some headlines during his debut in 2006 when he reeled off a 32-game hit streak while playing for Billings. He was our Short-Season Offensive Player of the Year for his efforts. He’s got a .306 career batting average and reached Double-A for the first time last year. The UC-Santa Barbara product hit .317 last year with 18 homers and 81 RBIs across two stops.

He was in big-league camp, but had been sent down before I got here to take over. He certainly made an impression, hitting .353 in 17 at-bats before moving over to the Minor League side. He hit a tie-breaking grand slam in his final game against the world champion Phillies… not too shabby.

One of the benefits of how things are set up here is it’s really easy for Minor Leaguers to get called over for big-league games when there’s a need. The Minor League side is literally within spitting distance (not that I’ve tried) of the big-league side. So, with Alex Gonzalez out with a minor hamstring issue and Jerry Hairston Jr. just getting back into the swing of things, there was a need for a backup shortstop to come in behind today’s starter (and prospect in his own right), Paul Janish.

I saw Valaika signing autograhps before the game here and realized I might get lucky and get to see him play a few innings. He made a nice play in the field at short and then added a single in his lone at-bat. That raised his official Spring Training average up to .389. No one is going to outwork him, that’s for sure. So while maybe this was the last AB he gets with the big-leaguers this spring, something tells me Cincy fans should prepare for seeing the 23-year-old again in the not-too-distant future.

Day 9: Sarasota

Hey kids. Back in Sarasota at good ‘ol Ed Smith Stadium. Don’t have a ton of time today, so I’m going to get straight to today’s Prospect Impression:

I must admit going in that I’ve always been a big fan of Ricky Romero. I can’t say it’s because I’ve seen him blow hitters away in the past or because I’ve heard amazing scouting reports on his abilties. No, it’s really because he wrote a player journal for us during the 2007 season. On the field, the 2005 first-round pick (No. 6 overall) has been a little up-and-down in his career, mostly because he’s had to deal with some injury issues along the way.

Here’s the good thing, though. The 24-year-old has climbed back into the race for a spot in the Blue Jays rotation. That wasn’t necessarily because of anything he had done, but because of the futility of the other candidates. In fact, Romero had a 7.50 ERA  and had walked nine in six previous Grapefruit League innings. He hadn’t pitched in a big-league game since March 7. But that’s neither here nor there. He’s back in the race and if Monday is any indication, he could snag the job.

Over the past few weeks, Romero’s been working on making some adjustments to his mechanics, working to not throw across his body. Those kinks were causing much of his command issues. It looked like all that work has paid off, at least for now. The southpaw walked two in his five innings and allowed two runs, but overall looked very sharp. He scattered seven hits and struck out five. It’s looking like he’s going to get at least one more start and definitely seems to be moving forward while the other veteran options are going in the opposite direction. It could come down to a choice between lefty prospects Romero or Brad Mills. Should be interesting to watch the rest of the way.

Day 8: Bradenton

Sorry I’ve been a little less than daily. Truthfully, the game yesterday was kind of devoid of prospects. I could’ve come up with something, but it was Saturday, I figured no one would mind.

In today’s (Sunday) action, I once again saw the Reds and Pirates for the second day in a row. I’m looking forward until tomorrow when I get to see the Blue Jays play the Reds. With all due respect, I see the Pirates all the time back home. I don’t need to see them here every day.

But I digress. The Prospect Impression… Since I won’t see the Pirates again for a while, I’ll go there.

I’m not 100 percent sure about his status (meaning is he a rookie or not), but Brian Bixler is a guy who was highly regarded, the possible future shortstop for the Pirates. And it’s not that he’s been bad in the Minors — he’s been an All-Star the past two years — but he’s been an All-Star two years in a row in the same league. His stints in the bigs last year weren’t particularly inspiring, with a .157 average in 108 at-bats. He didn’t seem ready to handle big-league pitching.

But something’s looked different this spring. He looks, well, like he belongs. Playing both second and short to increase his flexibility, he’s hit .333 and slugged .513. Now, I wouldn’t expect that kind of production, obviously, but he’s working his way into the picture as a utilityman for the Pirates. Something to watch for anyway for the rest of Pirates camp.

Finally, that small world story I promised. I was at my hotel in Clearwater and I went to the front desk to make sure I had the best directions to head to George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa for the Pirates-Yankees game. The conversation went something like this:

Front desk lady: I don’t like the Yankees.
(We chatted a bit about the Evil Empire, etc.)
Front desk lady continued: I’m a Braves fan.
Me (figuring that people in Florida are often Braves fans back when there weren’t teans in Floriday): Oh, a Braves fan, huh?
(This basically was the pleasant ****-chat between hotel patron and nice front desk lady. Then she said…)
FDL: My brother is a manager in the Braves’ Minor League system.
Me: (After double-taking) Who’s your brother?
FDL: Rocket Wheeler
Me: (Flabbergasted) I know Rocket Wheeler!

I then went on to explain how I got to know Rocket a little during the Arizona Fall League. I mean, I knew he was the manager of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, but I knew him more, in some ways, as the skipper of the Mesa Solar Sox, who played in the AFL championship game. Don’t know if you remember this (or ever knew), but Rocket let his players vote on who should play and what the lineup should be. Don’t believe me? Read about it here.

OK, here’s hoping Travis Snider makes the trip to Sarasota in the a.m.       

Day 6: Fort Myers

What happened to Day 5, you ask? That was spent in my hotel room in Sarasota, catching up on work (Check out the fruits of that labor, my Dodgers organization preview). Sorry I didn’t get to the draft post I had mentioned, but you can read this week’s draft report. In fact, I insist. I’ll wait.

OK, today’s trip took me to Fort Myers and the Boston Red Sox. I had the pleasure of driving down with long-time Pirates beat writer John Perrotto. Not only did he do the driving, but the pleasant conversation made the time go by quickly. I was on Pirates coverage again today and watched an ugly 11-4 loss. Tomorrow, I become Reds beat writer until the end of Spring Training.

So, the Prospect Impression… there wasn’t much to choose from, really. So I’ll pick out two players, one of whom is not really a prospect. We’ll call it The Good and The Bad (no ugly today).

The Good: Clay Buchholz. Yes, I know. Technically, he’s not a prospect because he’s no longer a rookie. But he’s trying to re-establish himself after a rocky 2008 season. And let me tell you, he was sharp. he went five innings, allowing four hits, one unearned run while walking one and striking out three. That’s on par with what he’s done most of the spring. This was his fourth start and his ERA now stands at 0.66. That’s one earned run over 13 2/3 IP. In that time, he’s given up nine hits and three walks while striking out 12. I don’t know about his other outings, but it looked like his changeup was particularly sharp today and he kept Pirates hitters off-balance throughout his outing. Maybe if Brad Penny isn’t ready to go, Buchholz will get another shot in the bigs early.

The Bad: As you all know, I’m a fan of the Rule 5 Draft. I like it for a number of reasons, but the biggest is probably because it’s a great underdog story, watching guys get a chance to compete for a big-league job they didn’t think was possible before getting taken. So when Donnie Veal started out like gangbusters, I got excited for the lefty. It wasn’t just that he didn’t allow a run through his first five outings. It was that he had walked just one. You see, one of the biggest things that held his progression through the Cubs system was his command as a starter. Perhaps pitching shorter stints in relief was the answer. He certainly has the stuff, with a mid-90s heater from the left side. I didn’t worry too much when he walked four and gave up two runs in outing number six, because reports were that even though his command was shaky, he gathered himself and did well to get out of further trouble. Two more scoreless — and walkless — outings followed. Outing No. 9 (officially No. 8 because one of the earlier outings was an exhibition against the Netherlands) saw no runs score, but there were two walks.

Then came today. He did only give up one run in 1 2/3 innings (maybe that was the problem — it was the first time he’d pitched a second frame), but he gave up that run without yielding a hit. He walked four, hit a batter — J.D. Drew had to be taken for x-rays, which turned out to be negative — and nearly hit former Pirate Jason Bay. He also hit the Bull… whoops, sorry, couldn’t resist the Bull Durham reference. Listen, all in all, he’s still having a pretty solid spring, with a 2.79 ERA in nine official Grapefruit Leauge games spanning 9 2/3 innings. He’s only given up three hits. But he’s now walked 11 and struck out five in that span. For a guy that has had command issues, that’s a little troubling. I still think the Pirates need to stick it out and continue to work with him. Lefties with that kind of stuff don’t come around all the time and even if it means riding a roller coaster for a while, the payoff could be worth it.

Oh, and I know I completely forgot to tell that “small world Minor League story” I promised the other day. That’ll have to wait ’til tomorrow…

Day 4: Bradenton

I’m in Pirate City folks. And yet, the guy I’m going to focus on in a bit is a Twin. Go figure.

First, a couple of tidbits, one on-the-field related and one an off-the-field bizarre small world story I meant to share with you yesterday.

I’m beginning to fear that prospects — especially in the Pirates organization — are going to start avoiding me. I saw — and wrote about — Jose Tabata here yesterday. Then I find out when I arrive in Bradenton that Tabata, along with Tom Gorzelanny, had been sent to the Minor League side. Gorzo will be in the Indianapolis rotation and it’s looking like Tabata will start with Double-A Altoona.

Then, to add to it, I see the Pirates again today. Neil Walker makes a few nice plays at third, walks and scores a run. Then, after the game, he’s optioned to Triple-A as well. To be fair, both were eventually going to be sent down. Turns out that Walker’s was more a procedural move than anything else. If a player is on the 40-man roster and is still in big-league camp after March 20, if he gets hurt, he has to be put on the big-league disabled list. That might not sound like much, but that counts against his service time clock and he’d get a Major League salary. Since Walker was not going to make the club anyway, it’s not that big of a deal. Walker, as always, handled it with grace and said he understood the situation. Sounds like it was well communicated to him and the Pirates, for their part, would’ve loved to keep him around to let him learn in this atmosphere for a while longer. But rules are rules.

OK, on to our Prospect Impression:

luke_hughes.JPGI first met Twins prospect Luke Hughes at the 2008 Futures Game. The Aussie was on the World Team and we took him and New Zealander (Kiwi) Scott Campbell of the Blue Jays on a double-decker bus tour of New York City. A good time was had by all. You can watch the video feature we did by going here. The link is on the bottom right, where it says “Hughes, Campbell tour NYC.”

Now, Hughes isn’t just a good personality. He split the year between Double- and Triple-A in 2008, finishing with a .309 average and .524 slugging percentage. The 24-year-old then went to Venezuela and handled himself well, hitting .298 in 32 games. He’s on the 40-man roster and participated in the World Baseball Classic, where he went 3-for-12 with a homer and three RBIs in Australia’s three games.

He’s still in big-league camp and really opening some more eyes. He had two more hits today against hte Pirates to raise his average to .429 (6-for-14). He’s played second, third and the outfield over the past year. He’ll either settle into one position (an offensive-minded 2B perhaps?) or he can be a superutility guy who can really rake. Whatever the case, he’s bound for Triple-A eventually. He told me he was hoping he could stick around in big-league camp for another week, at least, maybe show more people what he can do. The bigger impression you can make up here, after all, the more likely the whole “phone call away” thing comes true.

I’ve got an “off day” tomorrow, but I’ll try to do a draft update of some sort just to mix it up.

Day 3: Tampa

Sorry I’m a little later with the entry today, but there was night baseball at George M. Steinbrenner Field between the Yankees and Pirates. Filling in for the esteemed Jen Langosch on the Pirates beat (I’ll see them tomorrow and Friday to boot. Go Buccos!), I wrote a story about Xavier Nady’s reunion with his old team on the Major League side of things. But lets move on to what we’re all here for, right? Today’s Prospect Impression.

I really wanted to be able to write about Virgil Vasquez and his quest to be a serious contender for the No. 5 starter spot. While one start does not a competition end, he can’t really be the focus here after giving up six runs on seven hits over 2 1/3 IP. I saw VV pitch in the 2006 Arizona Fall League championship game and he’s always been a good dude to talk to, so here’s hoping he gets back on the horse — assuming he’s given the chance to — and shows the club how he can bounce back from a bad outing.

Since I was writing about Nady, though, I thought it only fitting to write about the guy here fortabata_curve.JPG the Pirates who came to Pittsburgh on the other end of that deal. I’m talking, of course, about Jose Tabata. The young outfielder’s had a real nice spring, hitting .391 through 23 at-bats. It’s a big reason why he’s still in big-league camp and made this trip. He didn’t seem fazed by  coming back to Yankee-land, though things didn’t go so well for him here, particularly at the end. Using his ever-improving English — he was apologetic at the end, but I always make a point of giving kudos to a guy for trying (I couldn’t conduct an interview in another language, could you?) — he talked about how happy he was to be a part of the Pirates organization and how he felt like it was a family. He also spoke of how he idolized Roberto Clemente, seeing a video of him when he was a kid (not that he’s so old now, mind you). He’s even got a tattoo of Clemente’s picture more or less over his heart. Only seems fitting he should become the Pirates’ right-fielder in the future, a cast-off of sorts from another team (the Pirates got Clemente, you may remember, from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 draft).

Anyway, as for tonight’s performance, Tabata showed a bit of everything. He singled off of C.C. Sabathia in his first at-bat, got balked to second, stole third and scored to make it (briefly) a close 2-1 game. He made a real nice catch up against the right-field wall to snare a Johnny Damon drive in the third. He picked up another hit against Alfredo Aceves in the seventh. He went 2-for-4 overall, making him 11-for-27 this spring, a .407 average for those of you scoring at home. I think Tabata was targeted for Double-A at the start of this spring. It wouldn’t shock me after this to see him go to Triple-A Indianapolis to play in the same outfield as Andrew McCutchen to begin the 2009 regular season. 

Day 2: Lakeland

Hey all, coming to you from Joker Marchant Stadium after a thrilling 7-6 Tigers victory over the Cardinals. There’s a lot of stuff I want to talk about, but let me start with my Day 2 Prospect Impression.

It was a good day to watch young relievers who can light up radar guns. Jason Motte, the converted catcher who’s competing to be the Cardinals’ closer this season, entered the game in the eighth and struck out the side, topping out at 98 mph and breaking Mike Hessman’s bat in the process. He’s now gone six innings this spring, allowing five hits while walking none and striking out 10. Works for me.

Not to be outdone, Tigers 2008 first-round pick Ryan Perry came into the game in the ninth. While he gave up a hit and struck out just one, he was just as overpowering, routinely hitting 97 and 98 on the stadium gun, which I’m told isn’t necessarily the most consistent machine you’ll ever see. Still, it seemed pretty legit. The fastball was working so well, he threw just one slider and that clocked in at 88. In a word, nasty. The right-hander out of Arizona has definitely made some noise this spring, going 5 2/3 innings, allowing five hits, one walks and striking out six. He’s yet to yield a run. If Joel Zumaya isn’t ready to answer the bell on Opening Day, don’t be shocked to see Perry head north with this club.

Two other things I wanted to touch on… I always enjoy when the more “mainstream” media, which don’t often write about prospects or the Rule 5 draft, do something on the subject. I was very pleased when I got my USA Today at the hotel this morning to find that Bob Nightengale had done a nice feature on several Rule 5 picks hoping to stick in the big leauges (once I made it through the 457 pages of NCAA tourney coverage). Good stuff.

Finally, and this is oddly related to the Rule 5 stuff, so much of the talk and stuff we write about Spring Training is about hope, optimism, you know, “up with people” kind of stuff. There is a down side, of course, when people get sent down. Sometimes it’s inevitable or known ahead of time. Jess Todd, the Cardinals prospect about whom I just filed a feature, knew he wasn’t going to make the team this spring and loved experiencing his first big-league camp (don’t be surprised to see him in St. Louis this season, though).

But sometimes it’s a little surprising. 2007 Rule 5er Brian Barton was optioned today. He’s a great underdog story, a smart guy who was a non-drafted free agent. He moved up the Indians’ ladder until the Cards plucked him in the Rule 5 when Cleveland didn’t protect him. He had a big spring last year, made the team and though he had two stints on the DL, looked like he was ready for a career as a backup outfielder at the very least.

But he hadn’t played well this spring and it was tougher to find him enough playing time, so the Cards sent him down so he could play every day. Barton’s a classy guy and handled the ensuing questions with aplomb, saying that he’s always been the type of player to have a positive attitude. So don’t look for him to sulk. Here’s hoping he puts up monster numbers and forces his way back into the St. Louis outfielder picture soon. They could use a right-handed bat and I’d like nothing more than to see him get another shot.

I’ll be in Tampa for the night tilt between the Pirates and Yankees. Till then… 

Cards lineup

Since I’m filling in for Matthew Leach, I figured I’d throw up today’s starting lineup for the game against the Tigers here at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.

Skip Schumaker  2B
Rick Ankiel  DH
Albert Pujols  3B
Chris Duncan LF
Ryan Ludwick  RF
Khalil Greene SS
Joe Thurston  3B
Jason LaRue C
Colby Rasmus CF

Todd Wellemeyer gets the start on the hill. He went five solid innings in his last start.

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