As mentioned in yesterday's Daily Prospectus, one of the best perks of an Arizona Fall League trip is seeing the players up close. Watching a Josh Karp curve fall off the table or seeing Chip Ambres staying back long enough to drive the ball enhances a fan's enjoyment of the game immensely.
With that in mind, here are a few player observations from my recent trip to Arizona. I won't be covering everyone here. Some guys I didn't get to see, others I barely saw, others didn't interest me enough to cover. If you have questions about AFL players not mentioned here, just drop me a line. Also keep in mind, the comments come equipped with the standard caveats of small sample size, personal observation bias and my future as a scout being dubious at best. Still, watching some of the top prospects in person formed a more complete picture in my mind, as I hope it does for you.
Justin Huber (NYM): Didn't look all that comfortable at the plate for the most part, though he did nearly take Luke Hudson's head off with one shot up the middle. Fairly agile for a big man behind the plate. His defense is the best part of his game right now, though he's shown some power in the minors. One of the youngest players at AFL at age 20, so there's hope for development. Still, needs plenty of work on his offensive game.
Kevin Cash (Tor): All-world defensive player. In one game, I got a complete look at his skills. Though it was a botched hit-and-run, he gunned down a would-be basestealer by a mile, confirming the lightning-quick release we'd heard about in the scouting sessions. On one play, he didn't properly block a ball with a runner on third, the only negative I'd seen. Cash then sprinted to the backstop, and sliding, from his knees, falling away from home, fired a knee-high strike to the pitcher covering for the out. His bat was another story. Seemed to have trouble pulling the ball, and showed a long swing for someone with only moderate power. Fully recovered from the broken hand he suffered in August, he should be the Jays' starting catcher next season on his defense alone, even if it's not by Opening Day.
John Buck (Hou): A masher. Showed good pop to left and right field, hitting the ball hard several times. He rarely walked in AA, something he'll need to correct to take the next step. Still, he'd be a better choice than Brad Ausmus tomorrow at 1/16 the price.
J.D. Closser (Col): Played on the same team as Buck, forced to DH in the games we saw. Worked counts, crushed one pitch to deep left and looked equally adept from both sides of the plate. Closser needs the Rockies show more patience with his defense than they did with Ben Petrick's.
Koyie Hill (LA): Disappointing. It could have just been a bad couple of days, but given the strong scouting reports and 271/368/400 line in AA this year, I was hoping for more out of Hill. He was late or fooled on multiple pitches and didn't get a good swing on anything. A converted third baseman, he looked agile behind the plate. Still, with Paul Lo Duca and Dave Ross ahead of him, he'll need to step up soon.
Corey Hart (Mil): This boy in the box never surrendered, though he eschewed wearing his sunglasses at night (sorry, Corey Hart jokes were rampant all weekend). That aside, he opened a lot of eyes, crushing several balls, notably to the opposite field. Built like a shorter, much lankier Richie Sexson, hope that he hits the weight room and works a little on his pitch selection. He doesn't have the glove to handle third base, but he might be young and talented enough to become useful at first in a few years.
Justin Morneau (Min): Another player bumped out of his normal position to DH, Morneau looked pretty pedestrian at the plate when I saw him. Still, you could see the ability in glimpses, including a well-hit opposite-field shot to left that might have gone out in another park, a common AFL theme. Tall and athletic with room to grow, he's already put up fairly good numbers at AA at a young age. The Twins have a ton of 1B/corner OF/DH types, so he'll need to take a step forward in the next couple of years.
Taggert Bozied (SD): Ugh. Part of the Bermuda Triangle of Padre players who muffed several pop-ups in one game (along with 2B Jake Gautreau and RF Xavier Nady), Bozied looked awful in the field. His ugly performance there may have weighed on his mind at the plate, as he flailed at pitches all day. Again, the first-hand account confirms the reports: bad defensive player, he'll need to hit a ton to be valuable at 1B, especially if his walk totals don't pick up. I wouldn't bet on it happening.
Hee Sop Choi (ChC): The great part about sitting so close to the action at AFL is you get to see players' physical tools up close, matching bodies to stat lines. Choi's huge, an ox with massive calves and shoulders wider than Von Hayes' batting stance. In one game we saw, Choi reached base his first five times up, walking twice after going down 0-2, and crushing a triple off the 410 sign in center field (all AFL parks have borderline ridiculous dimensions, including 360 to left and 430 to center in Scottsdale). He did get eaten up by one inside fastball, supposedly a flaw in his game. I wouldn't lose too much sleep over it. Choi's got power and patience to burn, even showing the ability to hit tough pitches where they're pitched. The Cubs are crazy if they re-sign Fred McGriff for millions instead of letting Choi win the job.
Ken Harvey (KC): He's been one of AFL's best performers, but good luck finding someone who'll rave about him. Scouty types question his weight (he looks like Greg Vaughn's older brother), and performance types shrug at his mediocre power numbers. Scottsdale manager Al Pedrique told us Harvey's been working diligently at pulling the ball. We'll see. He profiles as a much heavier Hal Morris right now.
Brandon Phillips (Cle): The fact that he's listed here is a giant black mark against an Indians organization that's otherwise done a great job building for the future. Omar Vizquel's ego shouldn't matter here–Phillips can be part of the next good Indians team, Vizquel won't. Shifting Phillips to second hurts his offensive value, and puts him at risk for the kind of frequent little injuries that can hurt a young hitter's production. Worst of all, a year or two away from shortstop may atrophy Phillips' defensive skill at that position, making it tough for him to ever switch back.
The weekend featured multiple barbs about Phillips' attitude, supposedly a chink in his armor. While that might be true, I'd be more worried about his plate discipline, which comes and goes. Phillips has all the tools–he looked awesome running the bases–but he'll need to finish converting his tools into skills before making a big impact.
Adam Morrissey (Oak): Played third base and shortstop when I saw him and didn't look particularly good doing it. Has a weird hitch in his swing where he leans back, to the point where you don't know how he'll be able to get the bat around. But his short, powerful stroke lets him catch up to hard stuff. He hit a rocket of a homer in one game on just such a high fastball. Stronger, better hitter than Mark Ellis, with an inferior glove.
Scott Hairston (Pho): After overpowering two levels of A-ball this year with 73 extra-base hits, he's been decent this fall. Good plate discipline, holds his own in the field. As with most prospects, the key will be seeing his adjustment to AA. If he succeeds there, the Snakes will have a fun dilemma on their hands with Hairston and Junior Spivey.
Mark Teixeira (Tex): He looked like a man among boys, smoking the ball to all fields and not giving in on any pitch. No worries about lack of focus among weaker competition either. He was locked in. Supposedly his main weakness, Teixeira's defense–he turned a spectacular diving stop into a double play in one game. Good hands and better lateral movement than advertised. Looked like a future star even if his defense sucked, and it doesn't. Count on Hank Blalock moving to another position or getting traded.
Drew Henson (NYY): The Yanks had made some noise about letting Robin Ventura walk to make room for Henson. Ha! After dominating the AFL last year, Henson's been awful this year. Instead of attacking ground balls, he leans back and lets them eat him up. Every other throw he made seemed to be wild. Oh yeah, and he swings at everything and rarely makes contact. When he does, his timing's off. Every fan in the park caught a foul ball. OK, everyone except the statheads.
Chase Utley (Phi): Looked awful in the field, almost as bad as Henson. Booted several balls. His arm looked reasonably strong, but erratic. At bat, the running joke was that his name befitted his game. He chased outside junk and whiffed more than once. He's posted solid power numbers in the past. Bottom line, he needs to get on base more. Even then, there's little chance he'll ever show enough offense to play an outfield corner, and he's a pretty lousy defensive third baseman.
Kevin Youkilis (Bos): We were making fake bets on every Youkilis at-bat. I should say plate appearance. This guy just refuses to swing unless the pitch flies right into his happy zone. That's admirable, if you can pound the good ones like Bonds. Unfortunately, Youkilis hasn't yet shown much over-the-fence power. He's shown good doubles power and also a propensity for hitting into double plays, given his slow feet. I'm curious to see how he develops. Rich Becker didn't carve much of a career out of a lot of walks and not much else. But a .400 OBP at third base would still make 29 other teams pretty jealous.
Tom Whiteman (Hou): Will Hall's highlight reel defense aside, Whiteman was the only SS who impressed. He launched a long home run with a surprisingly powerful swing. Not a favorite of scouts, and at 23 not young for a split season of A- and AA-ball last year, Whiteman could follow the lead of the Astros' short pitchers down the road, helping the team even while most people don't expect much. He'll need to improve his power and stay at SS to be an offensive asset down the road.
Gabe Gross (Tor)/Rocco Baldelli (TB): I'm lumping these guys in together because I barely saw both. Baldelli took a foul ball in the mouth his first time up when I saw him and left the game. Gross crushed a long double but pulled up lame with a hamstring injury. The jury's still out on both, though I don't see any prospect at Teixeira's level right now, tools or not.
Xavier Nady (SD): Like Bozied, Nady will need to hit a ton to justify his place on the defensive spectrum, in this case an outfield corner. The 2002 season gave out mixed signals. His line of 283/325/422 in AAA looked crummy in the Pacific Coast League. But Nady was coming off Tommy John surgery, skipping AA. If he consolidates his power and patience next year, he could man right field in the Padres' new park in 2004.
Michael Restovich (SD): Dead red. Throw him any kind of off-speed pitch and he flails at it. Throw him a fastball, even one on the edges of the plate, and he crushes it. He hit an opposite-field cannon that flew well over 400 feet and got one of the loudest cheers of the weekend. Between Lew Ford, Mike Cuddyer, Mike Ryan, Matt LeCroy and the rest, Restovich faces an uphill climb in the battle for the future first base/corner outfield/DH slots on the Twins.
Chip Ambres (Fla): Like an older Grady Sizemore, Ambres is hoping to turn gridiron success into a successful baseball career. Notice I didn't say Drew Henson. One game put all of Ambres' skills on display. He cracked four hits, including a double in seven times up, hitting the ball hard five times. He worked an impressive ninth inning walk, passing on close pitches despite smacking the ball all night. Ambres' numbers weren't impressive in the Florida State League in 2002, though he did walk once every 10 times up and showed glimpses of great athleticism. At age 23, 2003 could be his make-or-break year. If he performs like he did last weekend, watch out.
David DeJesus (KC): Fourth outfielder. Thin, not much pop, good enough glove to carry center field, nowhere near the bat to carry an everyday job anywhere. He did show decent patience in A-ball this season, which could help keep him around for a while.
Todd Linden (SF): Big kid who may get a shot by default next year given the question marks in the Giants' outfield. Doesn't look all the way there though. He could use a year in AAA to turn some of his 26 Shreveport doubles into homers.
Terrmel Sledge (Mon): Good news: strong fielder, good speed, great eye, sound on-base skills. Bad news: smallish, not enough power to start at a corner outfield or first base, unless he gets a sudden power surge at age 26. Really bad news: he's the best position prospect the Expos have.
Kyle Snyder (KC): A former first-round draft choice, he didn't look like the flamethrower the Royals once thought they had. That's not a bad thing. Snyder threw about 60 pitches Saturday, breezing through six one-hit innings by forcing hitters to pound balls into the dirt and hit harmless pop-ups. He's had elbow problems in the past, including TJ surgery. That said, great command over several pitches, with movement. Whether the Royals leverage Snyder into a useful major-league pitcher remains a question mark given their recent history.
Mike Paradis (Bal): Performance types dislike him for his low strikeout rates. Scouts frown at his unimpressive stuff. He still looked good when we saw him, working quickly and setting hitters down. Looks like another Josh Towers type. On the Orioles, that's saying a lot.
Horacio Ramirez (Atl): Another TJ surgery patient, Ramirez has recovered enough to regain his prospectdom. Sneaky fast with a late release point, he was one of the most impressive pitchers at AFL this year, especially with many of the top prospects sitting home to rest their arms.
Josh Karp (Mon): Three-quarter delivery makes like tough for right-handed hitters. No one touched his curve, though he struggled a bit spotting his fastball at times. He's the best of the Expos' legion of number 3-5 starter types kicking around the high minors.
Buddy Hernandez (Atl): Not much bigger than the batboys, but throws darts. He's posted obscene strikeout rates the last two years, a theme he's continued in AFL with 19 in 13.7 innings. It's not hard to see Hernandez following the legacy of Ligtenberg, Spooneybarger and others as an effective member of the Braves bullpen.
Luke Hudson (Cin): Fooled everyone in the park Thursday night, fanning six, five looking. Changes speeds well, with a nasty slider as an effective strikeout pitch. He's thrown only two starts in his nine AFL appearances, fanning 30 in 19.7 innings, with eight walks. Graves' graduation to the rotation should open the door for a 2003 bullpen job.
Jerome Williams (SF)/Bobby Basham (Cin)/Clint Nageotte (Sea): Didn't get to see any of them. Williams is the youngest of the Giants' big three AAA prospects (with Jesse Foppert and Kurt Ainsworth) who could give the 2003 staff a big boost or provide juicy trade bait. Basham posted a ridiculous 10-to-1 strikeout rate in Dayton this year. Nageotte threw a lot of innings with a ton of Ks this season–he's in AFL for a little relief work, nothing more.