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November 20, 2006

Future Shock

Monday Morning Ten Pack, 11/20/06

by Kevin Goldstein

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The 2006 Arizona Fall League season came to an end on Saturday afternoon, as the Phoenix Desert Dogs won their third title in a row by topping Grand Canyon 6-2 in a one-game championship. Looking at the final numbers, there are plenty of performances--both good and bad--that catch one's eye. Here are five from each side of the ledger.

The Good

Ryan Braun, 3B, Scorpions (Brewers)

After tearing through the low-scoring Double-A Southern League in the second half of the regular season, Braun put an exclamation mark on the year with an offensive show in Arizona, firmly establishing himself as one of the elite hitters in the minors. The fifth overall pick in the 2005 draft, Braun hit .326/.396/.641 in 25 games, with 16 of his 30 hits going for extra bases. While everyone loves the bat, reviews on the glove work got no better in the desert, as Braun is still a sloppy defender despite plus athleticism; most people project that he'll have to move to right field sooner rather than later. It shouldn't matter much, because no matter where you put him, you're looking at a future All-Star.

Chip Cannon, 1B/DH, Desert Dogs (Blue Jays)

Cannon was clearly the best statistical performer in the league this year, batting .352/.474/.714 while leading the league in slugging, home runs (11), and RBI (29), and finishing second in OBP. Scouts nevertheless remain unimpressed. As a hitter, there is nothing more difficult than making it as a first baseman, which is the position Cannon's athleticism (or lack thereof) limits him to. If you don't project as an impact bat, you just don't project much at all there, and scouts still point to his age (he turn 25 in a couple of weeks) and a long swing (33 strikeouts in 105 at-bats) as significant shortcomings. He'll need to keep this up at Triple-A next year to quiet what is still a pretty sizeable group of naysayers.

Yuni Escobar, INF, Javelinas (Braves)

After what was by any measurement a disappointing season at Double-A, Escobar bounced back by winning the AFL batting title, hitting a nifty .407 (35-for-86) with more walks (nine) than strikeouts (seven) while playing all over the infield and finishing the season on an 18-for-38 tear. What's most concerning about Escobar is the apparent lack of confidence the Braves have in him as a shortstop. He was moved to second base at the end of the regular season, and he doesn't have the power to be an everyday third baseman. Despite the heroics, it's hard to see him as anything more than a utility player at this point.

Carmen Pignatiello, LHP, Solar Sox (Cubs)

Pignatiello won't make any top prospect lists because of his stuff, but after spending his third year at Double-A, he might finally be on the verge of being a big league bullpen arm. In 10 AFL games, the lefty allowed four hits and one run over 10.1 innings while striking out 15, but he doesn't give radar guns much of a workout, sitting in the mid-80s with his fastball and rarely touching 90. However, his curveball is a thing of beauty and a true major-league out pitch. A 20th-round pick in 2000 out of a suburban Chicago high school, he'll begin 2007 at Triple-A, but will likely be on the short list should the need for an extra bullpen arm arrive. Additionally, he's more than just a LOOGY, as right-handed hitters went 0-for-21 against him in the desert.

Ben Zobrist, SS, Desert Dogs (Devil Rays)

Zobrist was an OBP darling of many when Tampa Bay acquired him at mid-season in the Aubrey Huff deal, but he was clearly overmatched in his big-league debut, batting a miserable .224/.260/.311 in 52 games. He was back to his usual ways in Arizona however, not only hitting .366 in 27 games, but drawing 23 walks in 101 at-bats for a .466 on-base percentage, good for third in the league. Despite his struggles in the late summer month, he'll go into spring training with the starting job as his to lose, and the organization hopes his AFL performance will be a confidence-booster that leads to better things in the future.

The Bad

Travis Ishikawa, 1B, Scorpions (Giants)

Ishikawa was one of the biggest disappointments in the Giants system this year. Just when it looked like he was beginning to put everything together after a very good year at High-A San Jose in 2005, he flopped at Double-A, batting just .232/.316/.403. While some of the players listed above used the AFL as a chance to rebound, Ishikawa continued to struggle, batting .186 without a single home run in 59 at-bats, along with 17 strikeouts and just four walks. The same mantra about first-base prospects I mentioned in Cannon's comment applies here. The Giants gave Ishikawa nearly one million dollars to four years ago, but if he's to see that kind of money again, he's facing a possible make-or-break season next year.

Bobby Livingston, LHP, Javelinas (Mariners)

Livingston pitched very well in the Seattle system from 2002 to the middle of 2005, but scouts saw a finesse lefty with good control of marginal-at-best stuff, and many predicted that the wall for that combination would come soon. Unfortunately, they were right. After putting up ERAs in the upper 4's over the last two seasons at Triple-A Tacoma, Livingston was mauled in the AFL. Despite striking out 17 and walking just three over 20 2/3 innings, he was battered for 37 hits and 25 runs, "good" for a 10.45 ERA. The Mariners haven't given up on Livingston, and some believe they've found a mechanical problem that has cropped up, but even if he's fixed, 2007 could be his last chance to avoid the career path of an organizational lefty.

Chris Lubanski, OF, Rafters (Royals)

Playing on the taxi squad limited the 2003 first-round pick's playing time and ability to get into a groove, but those who saw him were nonetheless far from impressed. Lubanski went 5-for-27 with a double, triple, and 11 strikeouts in his limited play. Scouts saw a return to some bad habits, including a tendency to chase bad pitches, as well as more bad outfield play, even with a move to left field. Over the last two years, Lubanski has shown some ability to hit, but it's still hard to find people who are convinced it's enough to be an everyday corner outfielder.

Vinny Rottino, C/1B/OF, Scorpions (Brewers)

If you aren't rooting for Vinny Rottino, there's something very, very wrong with you. Undrafted out of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, the Brewers signed Rottino in 2003 as a local product who could fill some organizational holes, yet all he's done is hit at every level, including a .314/.379/.440 mark at Triple-A Nashville this year, good enough to earn him his major-league debut. While the bat has worked at every level, the glove has not--he's a below-average third baseman, and limited to first base or left field otherwise. In response to those problems, he Brewers keep trying to get him to catch, and it's still not working. Rottino caught during the majority of his time in Arizona, and was pretty awful back there, as opposing base stealers went 15 for 16 against him. He doesn't have the power to turn into a Craig Wilson kind of player, so the options are limited. The fact that he got to the big leagues at all puts him ahead of plenty of high-profile first-round picks, so keep rooting for him.

Matt Tuiasosopo, 3B, Javelinas (Mariners)

When the Mariners gave "Baby Tui" a $2.29 million bonus as a third-round pick two years ago, they envisioned a power-hitting threat on the left side of the infield. Seattle has rushed Tuiasosopo through the minor leagues for no apparent reason, placing him at Double-A just after his 20th birthday, and his power potentially has yet to blossom. After smacking just two home runs in the entire regular season over 448 at-bats, including a downright depressing .185/.218/.259 showing in the Texas League, things didn't improve with Peoria, as the drought continued with 78 homerless at-bats and just a .167 batting average on top of that. The bust label is closing in quickly.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Triple-A,  Vinny Rottino,  Bad Season

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