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July 12, 2009
Futures Game Viewing Guide
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.
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.
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.
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
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.