OF Wladimir Balentien, Cardenales de Lara (Venezuelan Winter League, Mariners)

In 2003, Balentien crushed 16 home runs in the Arizona Rookie League, easily setting a new record in a circuit where more than five round trippers is a rarity. While Balentien’s plus-plus power is evident to anyone who sees him in batting practice, his overall approach and frankly, his overall effort, has come into question in the years since. He slumped to a .230 batting average at Double-A San Antonio this season, with 22 home runs in 444 at-bats offset by 140 strikeouts. The 22-year-old is making up for it by swinging the hottest bat in Venezuela, going 2-for-4 with a pair of homers on Friday, smacking a triple on Saturday, and going 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles last night. In 11 games with the Cardenales, Balentien is now 17-for-40 (.425) with four doubles, three triples and three home runs (.900 slugging); he’s on pace to lead the league in several categories once he gets enough at-bats to qualify. The adjusted Rule 5 rules in the new CBA give the Mariners one more year to see if Balentien can figure things out and pay the team some dividends for scouting and finding him in the first place.

RHP Joba Chamberlain, West Oahu CaneFires (Hawaiian Winter League, Yankees)

For the few who have scouted the Hawaiian Winter League this year, we seem to have a consensus on one thing: Joba Chamberlain is the best pitcher from this side of the Pacific. On Sunday afternoon the former Cornhusker went five innings, allowing a run on three hits, but what really has scouts buzzing is his command and control (and yes, those are two different things). In this particular game, Chamberlain recorded five strikeouts without walking a batter. That’s pretty much par for his particular course: in seven appearances on the year, he’s struck out at least a batter per inning five times, and he’s not walked a batter in five games. The net result has been 35 strikeouts and just three walks in 28.2 innings. With two plus pitches (fastball and slider) and a classic power pitcher’s frame, Chamberlain will likely begin 2007 at High-A Tampa, but he’s expected to move up quickly.

OF Jacoby Ellsbury, Peoria Javelinas (Arizona Fall League, Red Sox)

Ellsbury was pegged as a mid-first-round pick going into the 2005 draft, but while there were no perceptions of high bonus demands, he somehow dropped into the Red Sox’ collective laps with the 23rd overall pick. Go back and look at the first round that summer–of the eight players selected immediately before Ellsbury, you’d trade every one of them for him 18 months later. Maybe it’s because Ellsbury has limited power, but everything else about him profiles as a classic, old-school centerfielder/leadoff man. He’s a plus runner who knows how to utilize that speed offensively and defensively, plus he has an excellent approach at the plate and a quick bat. With multi-hit games in three of his last five games in Arizona, Ellsbury is batting .296/.378/.423 in the desert, with three triples, eight walks, and five stolen bases in 71 at-bats. He’s slated to begin next season at Double-A Portland, but he could be patrolling center field at Fenway by the end of the year, or Opening Day 2008 at the latest.

OF Brett Gardner, Peoria Saguaros (Arizona Fall League, Yankees)

Gardner was a fashionable choice as a sleeper in the Yankee system going into the season, and he didn’t disappoint–but then again, maybe he did. After batting .323/.433/.418 at High-A Tampa in the first half of the season, Gardner dropped off to .272/.352/.318 at Double-A Trenton. Gardner’s a top-of-the-line runner, but his slappy hitting style means you’ll never see any power out of him (110 of his 134 hits were singles this year, including zero home runs), so he needs to hit .300 and/or get on base at a ridiculous rate in order to profile as more than a fourth outfielder. He’s working on the latter skill in a big way in Arizona, batting .267/.456/.347 thanks to 25 walks in 75 at-bats. The minor leagues are always filled with 80 runners, but we seem to have a new generation of them coming up who are also good hitters who understand their role in the leadoff slot. If this means a return to 1980s-style baseball of power and speed, I’m all for it.

1B Joe Koshansky, Grand Canyon Rafters (Arizona Fall League, Rockies)

Koshansky has turned himself into a prospect by ranking among the minor league leaders in home runs over each of the last two seasons, but many remain skeptical. In 2005, he slugged 36 home runs at Low-A Asheville, but as a 23-year-old in the Sally League’s top hitting park, few were particularly impressed. At Double-A this year, Koshanky was a little more inline with the standard age/level curve, and hit .284/.371/.526, but concerns remain. He has a career rate of a strikeout for every 3.5 at-bats, and he may be in need of a platoon partner after batting .216 against southpaws this year, with only three home runs in 116 at-bats. His stock has taken a hit in Arizona this fall, thanks to a .155 batting average in 58 at-bats, with scouts pointing to a long swing as the main culprit. With Todd Helton signed through one year past the next mid-term elections, Koshansky is one of the top trade chips in the organization, so he might have to wait to get exposure elsewhere.

OF John Mayberry, West Oahu CaneFires (Hawaiian Winter League, Rangers)

Few people saw Mayberry as a first-round talent in last year’s draft, but the Rangers bet on his athleticism when they selected him with the 19th overall pick. This year, his first half at Low-A Clinton had the pick looking like a big mistake, but he rebounded once the weather warmed up, batting .304 with 11 home runs over his last 60 games. As a college player in the Midwest League, he’s supposed to hit a ton, but to his credit he’s brought his hot streak to Hawaii, batting .368/.419/.632 in 57 at-bats, with ten extra-base hits. At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, many see Mayberry as a Jermaine Dye clone–we’ll find out if they’re right next season as Mayberry is likely to finish if not start the year at Double-A.

RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, Tigres de Licey (Dominican Winter League, Rockies)

Jimenez has long been rated one of the top arms in the Colorado system, but injury problems, mostly related to Jimenez’ bad mechanics, limited him to just 180 innings over the last two seasons going into 2006. While Jimenez stayed healthy this year, his season was really a tale of two halves. At Double-A Tulsa, Jimenez has a 2.45 ERA in 73.1 innings with 86 strikeouts, but his control issues and a nightmare ballpark to pitch in got the better of him at Triple-A Colorado Springs, where he put up a 5.06 mark in 78.1 innings. Jimenez allowed one run on three hits over five innings on Friday for Licey, striking out six, and will likely go into spring training with a decent shot at a big league job for the always pitching-desperate Rockies. With a mid-90s fastball and a knee-buckling curve, Jimenez could be successful in a bullpen role right now, and with his injury history and lack of a third pitch, it’s already his likely final destination.

RHP Billy Sadler, Scottsdale Scorpions (Arizona Fall League, Giants)

I realize I’ve been bringing up Sadler quite a bit lately, but what can I say–I like a bandwagon. Last Friday was just a usual Sadler outing, as he struck out the side. In 10.1 innings over nine appearances so far, the 25-year-old former sixth-round pick has limited opposing batters to a 4-for-35 (.114) mark with three walks and 17 strikeouts. In a league where the composite ERA is 5.25, this is an especially dominating performance. I’m still not convinced that he’s a closer, but there is little doubt that he can pitch high-leverage bullpen innings in the big leagues right now.

LHP Fernando Valenzuela, Aguilas de Mexicali (Mexican Pacific League)

It happens every year. One peruses the box scores from south of the border, sees Valenzuela in the pitching line, and says to themselves, “No, it can’t be.” But it is. On Saturday night, three days after his 46th birthday (we think), Fernando-mania was in full effect, as Valenzuela did not only pitch, he got the win, allowing two runs on four hits over 5.1 innings. Valenzuela hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 1997, so he’s not doing this in an attempt to get another chance, and he’s not doing it for the money. He’s doing it because he loves baseball, something we all need to be reminded of now and again.

RHP Kyle Yates, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Arizona Fall League, Blue Jays)

A 13th-round pick in 2004, Yates had a breakout season in 2005 and held his own at Double-A New Hampshire this year with a 3.75 ERA in 127.1 innings while allowing 118 hits to go along with a 102/38 strikeout-to-walk ratio. While he’s hardly the best prospect in the Arizona Fall League, Yates has certainly been one of its top performers. With 5.1 shutout innings on Saturday, Yates has a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings to go along more strikeouts (21) than base runners allowed (20). Yates is a little undersized, as is his fastball. His curveball, on the other hand, is a true major league out pitch, and one that should serve him well in the Blue Jays bullpen, as early as late 2007.

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