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Here in Chicago, we had easily the nicest day of the year weather-wise on Monday, a day with plenty of sun and temperatures in the 70s. On Tuesday morning, I woke up to a quarter-inch of ice on my porch, with temperatures in the 30s, heavy winds, and a sleet/rain combination that one of our local weather forecaster referred to (with an annoying smile) as a “wintery mix.” It was the kind of day that puts you in a bad mood–the kind of mood that makes work difficult. Luckily, my work involves baseball, and some talkative scouts called during the afternoon. When that happens, the articles all but write themselves.

  • With Mark Teahen doing practically nothing at the big league level, and Alex Gordon doing practically everything at Double-A Wichita, the countdown is on. One amateur scout who saw the Royals on numerous occasions in spring training thinks the choice is obvious. “You watch that team consistently,” said the scout. “And it was pretty clear that Gordon was the best player in a Royals uniform, at any level.” A pro scout who saw the talented group at Wichita agreed. “He’s so much better than Teahen right now. He’s just a player–he’s not fazed by anything, he’s never intimidated, and he never gets out of his approach,” said the scout. “He’s not perfect. His arm is not a cannon but it’s enough and he has a tendency to spin off on some swings–but if he started the year with the Royals he would be among the team leaders in walks, OBP, and OPS.”
  • The Twins system is rich with pitching, as evidenced by the High-A Fort Myers staff ERA of 2.98, but one American League scout is concerned with the mechanical struggles of 2004 second-round pick Anthony Swarzak, who has a 4.24 ERA in 17 innings on 21 hits, and an alarming 12 walks after giving up just 11 free passes in 59 innings at Fort Myers last year. “Last year he was 91-plus with sink,” said the scout. “Now he’s 89 or so with real command problems because he’s throwing across his body and really limiting his arm speed.”

    Miracle shortstop Trevor Plouffe also drew a mixed reaction. “He hit 13 home runs in the Midwest League last year as a teenager, and that’s pretty impressive,” said the scout. “At the plate, he’s trying too hard to be what people think he should be. His hips are stiff, he doesn’t really fire the bat through the zone, and he has real trouble with inside pitches.” However, Plouffe’s defensive skills continue to shine. “I like his glovework quite a bit,” added the scout. “He has a plus arm, he doesn’t get rushed, and I’ve seen him make lots of throws from odd angles, be it coming in on balls or getting one in the hole, and he does it with no problem. He makes some throws he shouldn’t, but all teenagers do that.”

  • Since being drafted in the fourth round last year out of Texas A&M, Tigers reliever Kevin Whelan has put up numbers that look more like something from a top high school pitching prospect than a minor leaguer. In 31 pro innings, the 22-year-old righty has allowed eight hits and 11 walks, while recording 52 strikeouts. One scout was surprised at Whelan’s arsenal when he recently saw him pitch for High-A Lakeland. “I thought he’d throw harder; he’s low 90s, but he’s interesting because he basically does it with three fastballs,” said the scout. “He throws the straight fastball, a splitter with good fade, and a big forkball that just goes straight down and can be unhittable.” However, the scout was concerned with Whelan’s mechanics. “He short-arms everything. He was a catcher, and it looks like it when he pitches. I put him down as a potential closer, but it could depends on if his arm holds up.”
  • With the Diamondbacks putting Russ Ortiz in the bullpen, they’ve yet to decide on a replacement in the rotation. One rumor has them promoting top pitching prospect Dustin Nippert to fill the role, but an American League scout who saw Nippert pitch recently thinks that would be a bad idea. “They should resist that temptation. He got the win when I saw him, but if he pitched that way in a big league game, he’d get hammered.” The scout added that he while he’s a strong believer of Nippert in the long-term, the 6’7″ righty still has plenty of work to do. “He’s awkward and gets out of sync–that comes with the height–and he has a hard time correcting himself when it happens. It’s like he’s trying to be outstanding, and then gets frustrated when he’s not. He just needs to make his pitches and he’ll be fine.”
  • Nobody questions the pure stuff of Texas righthander Edison Volquez, but his statistics are rarely as impressive, and that trend has continued at Triple-A Oklahoma, as the 22-year-old Dominican has posted a 4.43 ERA in four starts. He’s striking out over a batter per inning (23 in 22.1), but as usual, giving up too many hits (21) for a pitcher with his arsenal. One scout points to Volquez’ control (10 walks), and more importantly, the way he deals with it, as the main culprit. “Volquez just needs to refine his stuff and his approach–he’s throwing 96-97 mph and guys are jumping out of their shoes at the chance to hit it,” said the scout. “He has a good changeup and a good breaking ball, but when he gets behind in the count, he’s coming at you with a fastball and everyone knows it. Guys are just sitting back and waiting for that pitch.”
  • Dodgers prospect Joel Guzman has been much-hyped for years, and is batting .325/.345/.538 for Triple-A Las Vegas as a 21-year-old. However, one scout who recently saw the 51s in a series is unimpressed. “The Pacific Coast League is perfect for him, and he’s going to put up big numbers in Las Vegas,” said the scout. “But that’s a long swing, and it’s easy to tie him up inside and the way he cheats on breaking balls just isn’t going to work long-term. Look at his strikeout to walk ratio. I bet it’s pretty awful,” he speculated, and correctly so, as Guzman has 21 whiffs and just two free passes. The talent evaluator was even less kind when it came to Guzman’s defense. Originally signed as a shortstop, Guzman has grown into a 6-foot-6, 250 pound behemoth, and now splits time between first base and left field. “Defensively, he’s a joke,” added the scout. “He just doesn’t care. He doesn’t move for balls–he’s just terrible. With what he is defensively now, everything changes, and I don’t think the bat is good enough to carry him. He’s just not the player people think he is. He’s not special.”

    The scout had far batter things to say about Guzman’s teammate, outfielder Andre Ethier, acquired from the A’s in the Milton Bradley deal. “I know the knocks on him–he doesn’t have a lot of range, he doesn’t have much of an arm, he doesn’t have a ton of power–but he is just so solid,” said the scout. “He doesn’t give up any at-bats. He waits on his pitch, and when he gets it, he hits it hard, and has a lot of plate coverage. People says he’s a fourth outfielder because he’s a corner, but he could hit .300 with 15 home runs and do all the little things right, and that’s a pretty good player.”

Tomorrow, I’ll ignore the scouting reports for a little while and take a look at the raw numbers, pointing out what’s good, what’s bad, and focusing on some early-season unanswered questions. And small sample sizes be damned (for now).

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