Last weekend, I attended my fourth First Pitch Arizona, a seminar sponsored by Baseball HQ. Ron Shandler has been inviting me to participate as a speaker since 2002, for which I’ve been honored. As I’ve said, though, the year that Ron goes in a different direction, I’ll likely show up anyway. I can’t say enough for the event–three days filled with baseball and great people, the kind of thing that’s a highlight of any year. Take a BP Ballpark Feed and make it five times better, and you’ll have some idea of what the weekend is like.

The forum is built around the Arizona Fall League schedule, with sessions in the mornings with top fantasy baseball analysts like Shandler, Jeff Barton of Scoresheet Sports, Jeff Erickson of Rotowire and Rick Wilton of Baseball HQ, as well as more “real baseball” guys like Jim Callis of Baseball America, Neyer and myself. Then, in the afternoons and evenings, you take off to various Phoenix-area (in some cases, that’s a generous term) ballparks to see top prospects square off. The AFL games are played in an environment much like spring training before spring training went Fodor’s–small crowds, great seats, no hype.

The ballgames are just fantastic. Set aside that you’re getting to see prospects like Lastings Milledge, Stephen Drew and Alex Gordon. You’re watching baseball in November with a group of like-minded addicts, sitting in the sunshine and moving easily between discussion of so-and-so’s status within his organization to remembrances of the early-’90s Yankees to…well, to discussions that happen when groups of guys get together.

Now, I am not a scout. And despite the protestations of at least one forum attendee this weekend, I think I get myself in the worst trouble when I let my eyes do evaluations for me. I certainly think analysts who have that club in their bag, guys who have more experience with observational evidence like Callis, Deric McKamey and John Sickels, bring a bit more to the table. I’ve been watching baseball for 30 years or so, but I can be badly fooled by one or two games, as my impassioned support of Carlos Pena and Sean Burroughs has shown.

So as you read the following notes, keep in mind a couple of things: these are based on a couple days of observation by someone who isn’t trained to do this kind of work. I will pass along, where I can, the opinions of various people I talked to, but again, take those with a grain of salt; for the most part, everyone is working off of small sample sizes for players at the end of long seasons playing in an environment tilted towards hitters.

For more on every player in the AFL, I’d recommend the Arizona Fall League Guide. It includes stat lines and scouting reports–a mix of performance analysis, opinion and scouting–on almost every player in the league, and is the only AFL-specific publication out there. I should disclose that I get an unofficial kickback on sales, as Jason Grey and his staff are prone to funneling money to my pocket in late-night poker games.

Again: I am not a scout. On to the players.

Reggie Abercrombie: “Tools!” was the watchword whenever Abercrombie, or his partner-in-jeans-selling Charlton Jimerson, went into motion. Neither player is going to have a fruitful career barring a surprising change in plate discipline, although Abercrombie seems to use his speed in enough baseball ways to make him a useful extra outfielder, especially for a team with slugs on the corners. Maybe Gerald Williams is the best comp.

Daric Barton: His catching days are pretty much over, although it would be nice to see the A’s let him retain the skill so he can go behind the plate 10-15 times a year. It’s a good skill to have. There’s some question as to whether his power is going to come, but remember, he played this year at 19 and hit .316/.413/.491 in the Texas League. Even if he has to play first base full time, he’s going to be a valuable player.

Michael Bourn: There was some speculation that the Astros’ success with Willy Taveras atop the lineup might generate demand for similar .280/.330/.350 hitters who can play center field and run. Bourn would benefit from that meme. His K/BB fell apart at Double-A, but he’s been quoted as saying he’s aware of the problem and why it happened (better pitchers getting ahead of him early in the count). Worth watching, as the Phillies could use a true CF.

Billy Butler and Alex Gordon: “Blue Thunder,” according to Rob Neyer. So it is written, so it shall be. The two stood out in a league that, for all the hype, lacks A prospects. Butler is just a hitter, the kind of guy whose glove–eventually a first baseman’s mitt–will be tolerated. Scouty note: he’s 19 years old and a not-particularly athletic 225 pounds.

Gordon, like Delmon Young a few years back, has made his professional debut in the AFL. He reminded me of Mark Teixeira from my first trip to the AFL; just that much better than the rest of the field. He didn’t do anything that impressive, but his approach at the plate and his swing were just ahead of the field. These two guys are arguably, right now, two of the top four hitters in the entire Royals organization.

(What’s funny is that, in the first game in which we saw them, it was 26-year-old Matt Tupman, a catcher in the Royals’ system, who upstaged the two high picks. Tupman broke up a no-hitter with a long home run to right field in the sixth, beat out a bobbled ground ball to continue a rally in the ninth, and scored the game-winning run two batters later. “Blue Streak”? “Blue Cold Front”? “Blue Cumulus Cloud”?)

Jeff Clement: Mentioned here because I want to reiterate two points: I don’t think he’ll remain a catcher much into his MLB career, and the Mariners taking him instead of Troy Tulowitzki was a mistake. See also “Blue Jays,” “Ricky Romero.”

Stephen Drew: What’s aggravating is that no matter what Drew does in baseball or in life, there are people who have already decided what he is. The whispers that we heard all weekend could have been pulled from the J.D. Drew file: not a good guy, won’t play hurt, selfish. Whether these things are true or not isn’t clear, but I’m 1000% certain that if his name were “Bob Smith,” the volume on this stuff would be much lower.

There’s talk that Drew could jump from the California League to the NL West–not as big a leap as you’d think–by Opening Day. Realistically, he’ll make short stops at Double- and/or Triple-A and be the Snakes’ shortstop by the All-Star break.

Eric Duncan: Played first base in the one game I saw and looked stiff and awkward. His bat isn’t going to get it done there; at third base, he could be a regular, although not a superstar. Still just 22, so don’t let the bad year at Trenton get you down. He’ll be out of the Yankee organization by the end of 2006.

Brad Eldred: He can’t play. He’s huge and he hits the balls he hits a long way, but he can’t play. If the Pirates give Eldred at-bats ahead of Craig Wilson, they’re making a mistake. Eldred’s bat is just too slow, and he doesn’t recognize pitches well enough to get away with a long swing.

Alcides Escobar: I had never heard of Escobar before last Friday. He’s 18 years old, and played the entire season in the Midwest League at 18. Forget how he played: he was a full-season shortstop at 18. That’s worthy of attention all by itself. In the AFL, he showed off a nice gun and little in the way of offense. Considered to have a “projectable” body, he’s expected to hit for more power over the next few seasons.

There are two organizations right now that are coming up on the outside, loaded with talent, with very little hype, doing a ton of things right: the Brewers and Devil Rays. I expect the Brewers to have a Twins-like run starting in 2007, maybe even 2006, and the D-Rays will not be far behind if they can become proactive about their talent distribution.

Corey Hart: Mixed reviews on Hart. Some people think he’s an everyday player, others want to see him used as a utility regular, starting 4-5 times a week at four positions, because they don’t think he’s good enough at any one spot. Me, I’d live with him at third base in a Brewers infield that looks to be league-average for a total cost of $1.5 million, and make him prove that his ’05 line at Nashville was a fluke.

Casey Hoorelbeke: Think Steve Reed if he ate Tommy Lasorda. Hoorelbeke is a 6’8″ sidearmer who throws hard for a player of his ilk, cracking 90 on the gun. Like any other sidearmer, he’ll have a big platoon split, one that might be mitigated by a high groundball rate. Low-profile guy who could have a job as long as Pat Burrell is in the league.

Shane Komine: One of very few pitchers in the AFL who impressed people enough to say that he’d be ready for an MLB job. Komine is a tiny right-hander, listed at 5’8″, who reminds me of Shigetoshi Hasegawa on the mound and could have about that kind of career. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery in ’04, so 2006 may not be the year to look for him.

Andy LaRoche: Coming quickly, tearing up the league after a huge half-season at Vero Beach. Not to put to fine a point on this, but why doesn’t the name “Logan White” come up more in baseball discussions? He’s put together one hell of a farm system in Los Angeles, even as the rest of the organization was having its problems. If the rumors are true, Kim Ng has inherited a good baseball situation; it remains to be seen whether the ownership and media will allow her to succeed.

Adam Loewen: Huge, throws hard, has no idea where the ball is going after he releases it. He was the #4 overall pick in 2002, and at times, he looked like he’d learned how to pitch on the bus ride to the park. Just 22 next April, so there’s time.

Lastings Milledge: The people who like him really like him. Me, I see a guy who looks smaller than advertised, and who doesn’t have the speed for center field, the plate discipline to be a great hitter or the power to make you not care about the other two things. True story: When we submitted our names for last year’s Top 50 Prospects, which each writer does based on the teams he covers for the book, I didn’t even submit Milledge. He was eventually added, but I remain unimpressed.

Guillermo Quiroz: Looked absolutely horrible in the game we saw, with three passed balls and a botched play at the plate that allowed the winning run to score. Supposedly has good defensive skills, but on this night, he looked like a position switch waiting to happen.

Denard Span: Speedy guy, but he runs routes in center field as if his corner outfielders are yelling “Marco!” “Polo!” If Shannon Stewart can be considered an asset defensively, I guess Span can, too. Span won’t hit as well as Stewart did.

Taylor Tankersley: Could throw 40 good innings for the Marlins next year based on the two innings I saw. The slider is for real, and while he’s likely going to be pigeon-holed as a specialist, I think there’s enough here for him to be a two-inning guy, a real 90-inning-a-season difference-maker.

Brandon Wood: Terrific hitter who will probably be a third baseman, and a pretty good one, in the majors. The Angels don’t need him to come quickly, but he may anyway, as his bat really is that good.

Someone I didn’t mention? Drop me a line.

Thank you for reading

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