Thursday, February 11, 2010

Winter Wonders

Is this the year that Liriano's comeback is finally complete?

While we place a little more emphasis on Winter Baseball than we do Spring Training, it is still important to remember that, just like Tuesday Thoroughbred Racing, you’re never quite sure exactly why they’re running. Some players play Winter Baseball to work on new skills, some are there to get ABs or IPs that they missed due to injury, some play because it takes place near where they grew up, some play because they are trying to catch on with a team and prove they still can play a little and some even play to show they are ready to take the next step. The individual player’s motivation ranges from ‘begrudgingly’ to ‘possessed’, so it’s important to not read too much into the results. Just a quick look back on the 2007 AZFL season shows that some players put up big numbers as a springboard to better things (i.e. Evan Longoria and Travis Snider), while others put up big numbers that are likely never to be seen again (Sam Fuld and Eugenio Velez). Some players bomb and it’s an indication of trouble (Reid Brignac and Matt Antonelli), while others bomb only to have a breakout regular season. So we have to be careful when we interpret the results. As we head toward the beginning of Spring Training, I have compiled, what I believe to be, the 15 hitting and 10 pitching performances that were the most eye opening( in a positive sense) from this past Winter.

Here is a brief summary of the Winter Leagues for those that don’t pay close attention to them. The five Leagues are basically divided into two categories with the Venezuelan League (VWL), the Dominican (DWL) League, The Mexican (MXWL) League and the Puerto Rican (PRWL) League all forming the Winter Caribbean Series, where the Dominican team walked away with the crown. These leagues combined have the most diverse range of players and the average age ranges from about 27.5 in the Venezuelan League to nearly 30.0 in the Mexican League. Many of the players have MLB experience, with a handful of MLB regulars. The Arizona Fall League (AZFL), on the other hand, is almost exclusively made up of players with no, or at least minimal, Major League experience.

Most Significant Hitting Performances

1) Connor Jackson, 1B/OF, ARZ (DWL) – While this is primarily a piece on Minor League prospect performances, clearly the biggest position player story of the Winter was Jackson’s return from an illness that essentially cost him his entire 2009 campaign. Going down to the DWL, Jackson not only posted the best performance in the Dominican Republic, but it was also the best performance from any winter league, as he batted .425/.561/.589 in roughly 100 PAs. Not only is Jackson healthy, but he looks poised for a solid 2010.

2) Starlin Castro, SS, CHN (AZFL) - After some precocious showings in the FSL and SOL that announced his arrival on the premier prospect scene, Castro gave the Cubs pause about his 2010 assignment when he hit .376/.396/.475 in a little over 100 AZFL ABs. Castro doesn’t turn 20yo until the finally week of Spring Training, so we don’t expect for him to open the season in Chicago, but he isn’t far off, and could be there by this time next year.

3) Alcides Escobar, SS, MIL (VSL) – The Brewers had already cleared the path for Escobar to open the season in their everyday lineup, but they still had to be pleased to see Escobar win the VWL batting title with a .393/.440/.491 line. His glove has been Major League caliber for some time now, and anything that he produced with the bat was going to be a plus, but now it isn’t hard to envision him near the top of the order as opposed to the eight hole.

4) Jose Iglesias, SS, BOS (AZFL) – The Red Sox shocked the baseball world when they gave Iglesias, who was considered an all-glove/no-hit shortstop, an $8.0MM contract this past summer. But Theo Epstein and crew look to once again be the winners, as his glove was everything that was advertised, and his bat showed some legitimate contact possibilities with a .275/.324/.420 showing. Give the barely 20yo a solid season and one-half in the Minors, and he’ll be one of the best shortstop gloves in the Majors by mid-2011.

5) Juan Francisco, 3B, CIN (DSL) – Francisco has now put together back-to-back stellar years in the DSL, as he led the league in home runs (11), going .302/.352/.566. Maybe most impressive was his strike out rate that was slightly below 21%--almost a playable number. We still feel that Francisco is one of the game’s more underappreciated prospects, and it would come as no shock, to us, to see him patrolling left field in Cincinnati by mid-season. The power potential here is huge.

6) Josh Thole, C, NYM (VSL) – The Mets need a catcher, and while there are many that doubt that Thole can hold down the job on a regular basis, we don’t see a better option in the offing. To make his case, Thole hit .381/.470/.568 in more than 180 PAs. The idea is growing on us.

7) Fernando Martinez, RF, NYM (DSL) – We have been pleading patience for Martinez for some time now, as the detractors came out in full-force this past season. The kid is just 21yo and is six months younger than Dustin Ackley and two months younger than Brett Jackson. If either of them posted an .877 OPS in AAA this past season, we would be punching their ticket to Cooperstown. We don’t know if he answered more questions about his bat, or raised more questions about his heart, as he struggled during the DWL regular season, but when the Caribbean Series got started for real he hit .316/.316/.684 and was named the series MVP. Give him time, and he is going to be a good one.

8) Sebastian Valle, C, PHI (MXWL) – Valle got off to a slow 2009 season, but heated up later in the summer. A trend that continued as he got off to a sizzling start in the MXWL, hitting .281/.326/.556, with 11 home runs. With the trade of Travis d’Arnuad to Toronto, Valle becomes the top backstop prospect in the organization, and he if he improves his defense and stays at catcher, he could become one of the backstops in the Minors.

9) Mike Moustakas, 3B, KCR (AZFL) – It was a disappointing 2009 for Moustakas, who appears to be a victim of Royals’ player development, but he showed glimpses of a more promising 2010 when he posted in .848 OPS in the AZFL. He will be only 21yo for the 2010 season, and he’ll be opening it in AA, which means he remains on track as one of the Minor’s best hitting prospects.

10) Wilson Ramos, C, MIN (VSL) - We are still not sure what his upside is, but with thin catching corps in Minnesota, Ramos may get a chance to be Joe Mauer’s caddy when the season opens after going .332/.397/.582 in over 230 PAs—while showing strong defense.

11) Japhet Amador, 1B (MXWL) – Perhaps one of our biggest questions, and trust us we have searched to no avail to get an answer to this, is why no Major League team has signed the barely 23yo first baseman. He was the #1 pick in last summer’s Mexican League draft. He posted a standout season in the Mexican Summer League—eventually being named the League’s ROY. Now he posts the best offensive season by any player in the MXWL with a .270/.391/.530…Send answers if you have them.

12) Wilin Rosario, C, COL (AZFL) – Rosario posted a solid 2009 season in the CAL—for a 19yo, but it was nothing like the .304/.344/.571 he put up against players two to three years his senior down in Arizona. The Rockies could probably use a little more patience in his development path, but it would not surprise us to see a breakout 2010.

13) Gaby Sanchez,1B, FLA (DSL) – Sanchez is hearing the footsteps of Logan Morrison, but he looks poised to open up 2010 as the Marlins starting first baseman after posting a .786 OPS in the DSL. We still think that he may become trade bait by the second half of the year, but in either case it looks like his opportunity has arrived.

14) Alexi Amarista, 2B, LAA (VWL) – We hate to keep sounding like a broken record about Amarista, but he is a legitimate prospect despite his diminutive, 5’8”, size. In over 200 VWL PAs, Amarista posted a .339/.382/.510—with surprising pop.

15) Marwin Gonzalez, SS, CHN (VWL) - While the 20yo Gonzalez only posted a .596 OPS in the FSL this past season, he could be a sleeper prospect for the Cubs in 2010. The switch-hitting Gonzalez posted a .313/.361/.493 and earned a spot on Venezuela’s Championship Series roster.

Most Significant Pitching Performances

1) Stephen Strasburg, RHP, WSN (AZFL) – No pitcher in AZFL history has ever made a more anticipated debut than did Strasburg, where he not only fanned 23 batters in 19IP, but his fastball hit triple digits, while sitting around 97MPH. His performance rivals Tommy Hanson’s of last season, as one of the best AZFL seasons by a pitcher in the last decade, and he certainly appears ready to go.

2) Francisco Liriano, LHP, MIN (DWL) – After struggling for two years to regain his past promise after 2007 Tommy John surgery, the 26yo appears to have taken a major step forward with his post season performance in the DWL. Liriano went 3-1 with a 0.46 ERA, throwing harder, possessing better command and relying on his breaking stuff more than at anytime since his surgery.

3) Aaron Crow, RHP, KCR (AZFL) – We expected more rust from Crow than we got, as he fanned twelve while walking only two in 15IP. While we think there were college pitchers with more upside available in the 2009 draft (besides Strasburg), he could be ready to join the Royals in 2010.

4) Tanner Scheppers, RHP, TEX (AZFL) – When he was on, he was lights out, but there were those two rough outings, as Scheppers sat at 96MPH for most of the fall. We don’t know if/when his arm will fall off, but the Rangers should get some good production out of him until it does.

5) Mike Leake, RHP, CIN (AZFL) – It was the year of the pitcher in the AZFL, as a number of high profile collegians chose the venue to make their debut. Leake posted a 1.37 ERA and a 15:3 K:BB ratio, while showing a low-90s fastball. Chapman will grab the headlines in Cincinnati, but Leake is the more sure bet.

6) Ivan Nova, RHP, NYY (DWL) – Nova checked in at #19 on our Yankees prospect list, but his 1.05 ERA in the DWL ranked third and his Performance Score was #1. The 23yo Nova could be in line for a breakout 2010.

7) Robbie Weinhardt, RP, LAA (AZFL) – Weinhardt put himself in position to find his way to Anaheim in 2010, with 29Ks in 19IP in the AZFL. His fastball sat in the mid-90s, and while he isn’t likely closer material, he could be a valuable bullpen arm.

8) Hector Rondon, RHP, CLE (VWL) – Rondon keeps plugging along without any real fanfare, as the 21yo gave away two to three years to most of his opponents in Venezuela and still went 2-0, with a 4.26 ERA. If the Indians are smart, they will find a way to get Rondon into their rotation before mid-season 2010.

9) Juan Oramas, LHP, Padres (MXWL) – As far as we know Oramas remains property of the Padres, but there still isn’t plans to have him pitch in the U.S. despite a solid Winter campaign that came on the heels of a stellar summer season. Only 19yo, Oramas isn’t a flamethrower, but has an advanced feel for pitching.

10) Jenrry Mejia, RHP, NYM (AZFL) – The 20yo Mejia got hit hard in Arizona, but he still managed to fan 16 in 14 IP, while throwing in the mid-90s. He remains extremely raw, but if he can harness his ‘stuff’, he could have a breakout 2010.

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