Tuesday, December 2, 2008

By Jock Thompson - Angelswin.com Columnist

The 2008 season ended too prematurely once again for the Angels. But even as teams were being eliminated in the MLB postseason, interesting baseball was starting up on the West Coast in Phoenix. Kicking off every October, the Arizona Fall League consists of six teams of MLB prospects that play 36 games in spring training facilities in the Phoenix area, ending just before Thanksgiving weekend. Tickets are cheap and the crowds number in the hundreds, not the thousands seen in March. This makes it easy to watch legit MLB prospects from the best seats in the house, while comparing notes with scouts and MLB front office types.

Every November, Ron Shandler and Baseball HQ sponsor the First Pitch Arizona Forum, an event that attracts 100-150 fans, writers and other baseball types. Organized around three-plus days of baseball / fantasy industry discussions and a long weekend of AFL games, FPAZ has always been a great excuse for me to head for Phoenix to re-connect with colleagues and friends, watch Angel prospects, and discover new talent. Not to mention eat at some of the better restaurants in one of the best restaurant cities in the country – more on this later.

This year’s AFL prospect list was extremely impressive. Not only did it include several consensus Top 20 talents – like Matt Wieters (C, BAL) – but the league also provided an early showcase for a number of top 2008 picks, such as Gordon Beckham (SS – CHW) and Justin Smoak (1B – TEX). It also provided work for several recognizable names – Clay Buchholz (RHP – BOS) and Phil Hughes (RHP – NYY) – that have already had MLB exposure. I saw six games in four days, and can’t think of too many better uses of my time – except for Angel prospects not being in top form while I was in attendance.

But my three games watching the Angel kids was a small sample size, at least for Chris Pettit (OF – Angels). Although he recorded an uneventful 2-for-12 with Yours Truly in the stands, Pettit was the Halos’ top AFL performer numbers-wise, putting up a .359/.417/.545 offensive line in 145 AB, including four HR and 8-for-10 in SB attempts. It was a redeeming end to a tough 2008 for Pettit, who struggled at AA Arkansas over the last couple months while attempting to come back from the broken foot and torn tendon he suffered in the first game of the season. On the down side, while he does everything reasonably well, Pettit has no excellent tools and will turn 25 next summer. He’ll need to stay healthy and move quickly.

Mark Trumbo (1B – Angels) was the most highly-rated Angel prospect sent to the AFL, and while he didn’t embarrass himself, he did little to build on his 2008 power breakout at A-AA. Trumbo batted .292 in an offensive-oriented league characterized by spacious OFs, poor defense and thin air, but he slugged only .357 with one HR and only eight xBH in 154 AB (2-for-13 in the games I watched). The 32 HR Trumbo launched this past summer speak to his very legitimate power, but he showed none of this in the AFL. A 5/37 BB/K ratio suggest that Trumbo still has pitch selection and patience issues to work on, but at age 23, he remains young enough to improve in this area. His body type / agility suggest that he’s either ticketed for 1B or DH. Again, his power will be his calling card.

Given the nature of the AFL, David Herndon (RHP – Angels) had a very impressive AFL, finishing in the Top Ten in ERA. Not an overpowering type (eight K’s in 17 1/3 IP), Herndon didn’t give up a HR while inducing a ton of groundballs. I watched him pitch two scoreless innings out of the pen, and he was effective enough.

Being mindful that I am not a scout, it’s still difficult to come away without impressions of some of the players I see at the AFL, even in a few game sample size. I’ve seen players who look lost but later turn out to be stars – Huston Street being one, several years back – and players who I’m told by certain scouts are bums, but my eyes tell me otherwise – Yunel Escobar being the perfect example in 2007. But even taking pre-AFL numbers and performances into account, the following are my most lasting player impressions:

From a pitching standpoint, Tommy Hanson (RHP – ATL) owned this league, even over Buchholz and Hughes, both of whom flashed brilliance while being erratic.

Hanson led the AFL in Wins, Ks and ERA. I had the privilege of watching Hanson pitch five scoreless innings on one of his “off-days” (per the scout sitting behind me) in my first game in Phoenix, and as a colleague of mine said, “he wrecked my evaluation of all AFL pitchers after him”. A man among boys, I’m betting he’ll be in ATL by July of 2009.

A name you may not have heard yet – Logan Morrison (1B – FLA). Morrison put up a fine 2008 in the pitching-favorable FSL (A+), and he destroyed the AFL (.404/.444/.667) afterward. I watched him collect seven consecutive hits over two games and play with purpose. The day I first saw him was the day that the Marlins announce that 1B Mike Jacobs had been dealt to KC. Maybe he was motivated, but he looks like he has a real shot there, as early as next season sometime.

I watched Tyler Flowers (C – ATL) hit two monster HR; he finished with a league-leading 12 HR in only 75 AB while showing good plate patience (ten BB). As of this writing, it’s been speculated that Flowers is one of the principles in the Javy Vazquez deal. If Flowers’ defense allows him to remain behind the plate, he might be a monster in HR-friendly U.S. Cellular. Or at any other position.

2008 Dodger standout Ivan DeJesus looked awful, both at the plate and in the field. In light of the Dodger holes in the middle infield, some observers thought he might show enough in March to win a job out of spring training. Again, it’s a small sample size, but DeJesus’ .254/.333/.328 AFL suggests otherwise.

I was impressed with the little I saw of two of TEX’s better prospects – Justin Smoak (1B) and Julio Borbon (CF). Smoak - the Rangers’ first round pick (#11 overall) in this year’s draft – put up a 1.000+ OPS in limited AB in an AA-equivalent league, hitting everything on the screws while drawing walks in 20% of his plate appearances. After swiping 53 bases at A/AA this past summer, Borbon was instructed to improve his plate patience. 17 BB in 104 plate appearances suggest he’s taking the message to heart. If the Rangers find some pitching, they’ll soon challenge the Angels in the AL West.

I’d love to report that I saw Matt Wieters – who FPAZ attendee John Sickles described as “a hybrid between Joe Mauer and Mike Piazza” - play. But I opted to avoid the hour trip to Surprise that Friday night since I was scheduled to see his team later that week in Scottsdale, and of course he didn’t play. Instead, I opted to visit one of my favorite Phoenix restaurants, The Barrio CafĂ©, an upscale Mexican place that I first learned about watching the Food Channel – and I can’t honestly say I regret my choice. Between Barrio, Blue Adobe Grill, Los Dos Molinos, TeePee Restaurant, and – if you don’t want to eat Mexican – Pizzeria Bianco, The Farm at South Mountain and others, Phoenix has some of the best dining experiences around, for wallets of all sizes. All are worth a March visit…
Love to hear what you think!

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