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July 12, 2009

Future Shock

Futures Game Viewing Guide

by Kevin Goldstein

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Having once been involved in the selection process for the Futures Game, I can tell you first-hand that it's not a simple process. Just like the All-Star Game, there are limitations imposed to ensure that each team is represented, and the US vs. World set-up creates additional challenges certain positions. Still, when the game kicks off (ESPN2 on Sunday at 2 pm ET), there will be plenty of top prospects in action, and for so many fans, it also represents the first time to get an actual look at players you've been reading about, at times for years, so here are some things to look out for.

Catching: Two of the best you can find are on the World roster.

The story as far as prospects behind the plate is definitely to be found on the World team roster, as it features two of the best catching prospects in the game in Cleveland's Carlos Santana and Yankee phenom Jesus Montero. Acquired last summer in the Casey Blake deal, Santana has plus power and an excellent feel for the strike zone, while Montero is nothing short of an absolute beast offensively, with 80 raw power and a feel for contact that is well beyond his 19 years. Without the participation of the best catching prospect in the game (San Francisco's Buster Posey), the US can't come close to matching that duo.

Other Catchers

  • Jason Castro, Astros (US): The 2008 first-round pick is solid all around, but is nothing spectacular.
  • Tyler Flowers, White Sox (US): A behemoth who has the bat that plays at any position in a lineup, which is a good thing, as his catching is suspect.

What to look for: Santana's histrionics-as he reacts to balls and strike calls, foul balls off his foot, plays that are close and not close-always entertain, but at times they border on irritating; Montero's defense has improved, but is it good enough, or just lipstick on a pig?

Infield: What happened to the shortstops?

Over the last two years, scouting directors have lamented the absence of shortstops in the draft, and that is reflected on a US roster that has only one shortstop, and he's a sleeper prospect at best in Washington's Danny Espinosa, a third-round pick out of Pepperdine last year who's having a nice little year at High-A. There may be a new positional scarcity here, and it could make this year's first-round selections of true shortstops Grant Green by Oakland and Jiovanni Mier by Houston that much more astute. Conversely, the World team counters with three shortstops, two of whom are legitimate defenders, so maybe the two teams could make a pre-game trade, or at least grant someone citizenship. Milwaukee's Alcides Escobar will likely start and play most of the game there for the World squad, and he's one of the best defenders around, with enough bat to end up as an ideal hitter in the second slot.

Other Infielders

  • Pedro Alvarez, Pirates (US): He will either miss a pitch by three feet, or hit it 400.
  • Pedro Baez, Dodgers (World): A good defender with plus power and a cannon for an arm, but his approach is lacking.
  • Barbaro Canizares, Braves (World): He's a late replacement for injured Giants slugger Angel Villalona, and he's more than a decade older than the player he replaces.
  • Chris Carter, Athletics (US): See Alvarez, Pedro.
  • Starlin Castro, Cubs (World): Challenged by the organization with a High-A assignment at 19, he responded with a .300+ batting average and Florida State League all-star game MVP honors.
  • Wilmer Flores, Mets (World): Just 17, but he's more than holding his own in the Sally League.
  • Brett Lawrie, Brewers (World): The Canadian slugger isn't really a second baseman, but really is a very good hitter.
  • Alex Liddi, Mariners (World): An Italian import, he needed just 57 games with High-A High Desert to surpass his home-run total from the last two years combined.
  • Scott Sizemore, Tigers (US): A surprising selection, he has hitting ability, but is not a future star.
  • Dayan Viciedo, White Sox (World): The big signee out of Cuba is here on hype alone, as neither stats or scouting reports have met expectations.
  • Josh Vitters, Cubs (US): A very special hitter, he makes consistent hard contact.
  • Brett Wallace, Cardinals (US): On-base machine with questionable power ceiling, even more questionable range at third base.
  • Jemile Weeks, Athletics (US): A monster athlete, he flirted with .400 during his first month, and can surprise people with his power.
  • Eric Young Jr., Rockies (US): Eerily similar to his father, both physically and in terms of what he can do on the field.

What to look for: Will Danny Espinosa just play all nine innings at short? That could make him a good game MVP guess, just based on the fact that he'll get more plate appearances. One look at Brett Wallace, and you will finally understand why scouts dubbed him "The Walrus" while he was in college. An excellent young hitting prospect but one so young, don't be concerned if Wilmer Flores of the Mets looks overmatched.

Outfield: Is the US outfield the Futures' best ever?

This is where the excitement lies, as a possible starting outfield of Jason Heyward (Braves), Desmond Jennings (Rays) and Mike Stanton (Marlins) could be the best group yet in the short history of the game. Already moved up to Double-A before his 20th birthday, Hewyard has all the tools in the world and the numbers to boot, while Stanton, who hit 39 home runs as an 18-year-old last year, had one scout gushing, "I've simply never seen power like that from a player so young in my life." Jennings is not the middle-of-the-order threat that the other two are, but he's a potentially game-changing leadoff hitter with a patient approach, gap power, and plenty of speed; think Carl Crawford with a little less power but 40 more walks a year. Don't be surprised if five years from now all three are starting in the major league All-Star game.

The great dichotomy here is that the group of fly-chasers for the World squad makes for a miserable list, as Indians walk machine/home-run hitter Nick Weglarz is the only big-time prospect of note, with the irony being that few scouts think he has the athleticism to even stay in left field.

Other Outfielders

  • Luis Durango, Padres (World): He's the rare speedster who also know how to draw a walk, but he also has absolutely bottom-of-the-scale power.
  • Tyson Gillies, Mariners (World): This Canadian burner has as many triples (17) as doubles in his pro career.
  • Kyeong Kang, Rays (World): A Korean import, he sprays line drives all over the field, but lacks the power for a corner or the speed to play center.
  • Chris Heisey, Reds (US): A former organizational player, he has turned into a very real prospect with a breakout campaign that scouts say is the real deal.
  • Daryl Jones, Cardinals (US): His tools really are only a tick below than of Jennings; he can play, too.
  • Rene Tosoni, Twins (World): A decent hitter with gap power, but nothing about him says 'impact.'

What to look far: Stanton is capable of a jaw-dropping bomb every time he steps to the plate, while Heyward and Jennings are prospects who can make you say "wow" at least once per game. Gillies and Durango both have plus-plus speed, but have trouble stealing bases efficiently. Heisey is arguably the most advanced hitter of the group, and could play a key pinch-hitting role late in the game.

Pitching: The largest imbalance ever gives the US a huge advantage.

While the World team features some power arms out of the bullpen, Rangers righty Neftali Feliz is the only premium prospect of the ten, and he himself has converted to relief recently to help the Rangers in the second half with his fastball, one that can reach triple digits on the radar gun. On the other hand, the US squad features seven players who could arguably be ranked among the thirty best prospects in baseball. Still a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner is already dominating Double-A with a plus fastball and plus-plus control; Phillies righty Kyle Drabek's return from Tommy John surgery has been nothing short of remarkable, and he's considered untouchable in recent trade talks; Boston's Casey Kelly has had a breakout year on the mound in his first full season, taking perfect games into the seventh inning twice in his last seven starts; Padres righty Mat Latos is a 6-foot-6 pure power arm who adds excellent command and movement; Brian Matusz has allowed just one earned run in 26 1/3 Double-A innings; Jarrod Parker is at Double-A as a 20-year-old, thanks to mid-90s gas; Chris Tillman is a future ace in Baltimore. All seven have true star potential, so expect to see plenty of flailing at the plate from the World squad.

Other Pitchers

  • Manny Banuelos, Yankees (World): An undersized lefty, he makes up for a lack of stuff with outstanding command and ability to keep hitters off-balance.
  • Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies (World): He's been good but not as dominating as expected at Double-A; he has above-average velocity and two quality breaking pitches.
  • Danny Duffy, Royals (US): The left-handed curveball specialist could be a solid back-of-the-rotation piece by 2011.
  • Yohan Flande, Phillies (World): A breakout performer, he has gone from Rookie-level ball last year to Double-A thanks to excellent off-speed stuff.
  • Chia-Jen Lo, Astros (World): The former ace of Taiwan's Olympic team overcomes questions about his size with an impressive fastball/splitter mix out of the bullpen.
  • Brad Lincoln, Pirates (US): Like Drabek, Lincoln has come back strong from a Tommy John procedure, getting up to 94 mph with his heat and also throwing a plus curveball.
  • Luis Perez, Blue Jays (World): A left-handed sinker specialist, he's limiting Double-A hitters to a .228 average, with a ground-ball ratio of over two to one.
  • Trevor Reckling, Angels (US): A steal as an eighth-round pick in 2007, he's already in Double-A at 20, and possesses one of the best changeups in the game.
  • Francisco Samuel, Cardinals (World): Nobody questions his stuff (a 93-97 mph fastball and upper-80s slider), but he has no idea where it's going half of the time.
  • Leyson Septimo, Diamondbacks (World): Once a toolsy outfielder who couldn't hit, he now delivers 92-96 mph heat from the left side, but he's still looking for a dependable second pitch.
  • J.C. Sulbaran, Reds (World): He made waves in scouting circles by striking out big leaguers in the World Baseball Classic, but has struggled with command this year despite plus fastball/curve combo.
  • Junichi Tazawa, Red Sox (World): The classic Japanese arm equipped with as many as five pitches, all of which he throws for strikes.

What to look for: Drabek's curveball is among the best in the minors, and he backs it up with a fastball than can get up to 96 mph. Matusz doesn't have a dominant pitch, but his ability to carve hitters up with four average-to-plus offerings had one scout calling him, "a lefty Greg Maddux." Chacin is the second-best prospect on the World squad, and like Matusz, his arsenal is deep. Feliz will likely throw the fastest pitch of the game, and the surroundings and emotions of the day could help him get up to 101 mph or more. Kelly is expected to pitch one inning, and it will be his final inning of the year, as the two-way player will go to Florida after the game to prepare for finishing the year as a shortstop.

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

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