WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.â€”OK, so weâ€™re five days into this spring training stint, so itâ€™s time to deliver. What follows is a full extravaganza of notes from a myriad of camps across Florida (so far):
FAR FROM FINISHED: When the Red Sox traded David Wells away last August, they expected to receive a nice bat from the left side and a catcher with average skills for the Double-A level in the Padres’ George Kottaras.
And while the bat has been thereâ€”Kottaras was one of the postseason heroes on Double-A Portlandâ€™s roster as they went on to win the Eastern League titleâ€”his defense didnâ€™t exactly wow anybody.
Kottaras had been suspect behind the dish at Double-A Mobile prior to the trade, with one scout saying he â€œlooked great during infield, but the game sped up on him pretty quick.â€ Another scout went on to say that it â€œreally didnâ€™t look like guys on his staff felt comfortable throwing to him,â€ and severely questioned his overall defensive tools.
Heading into spring training, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein impressed on his player-development staff the importance of Kottaras improving behind the plate. The brass recognized the advanced bat, but also obviously acknowledged the 23-year-oldâ€™s shortcomings defensively.
â€œHeâ€™s got pretty good mechanics at the plate, a nice stroke and a great idea of what heâ€™s trying to do at the plate–but if he canâ€™t catch, that changes things a little bit,â€ Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen said. â€œWeâ€™ve done a tone of work with him to quiet his actions down and giving him base mechanics and fundamentals which maybe at times werenâ€™t always there. Itâ€™s a huge point of emphasis this season that we follow through with this so he can continue to develop as a catcher.
â€œNo matter how much we love the bat, heâ€™s not going to be a DH. This is a huge year for his development.â€
Kottaras is scheduled to be the everyday catcher at Triple-A Pawtucket this season.
BOSTON BREAKTHROUGH?: The expectations were high when the Red Sox took Arizona State righthander Beau Vaughan as their 2003 third round pick.
But after a solid season at low Class A Augusta in 2004, Vaughan moved out of the rotation and into the pen for the last two seasons with mixed results. The 25-year-old spent all of 2006 at high Class A Wilmington, going 3-5, 3.72 with a 60-20 strikeout-walk ratio in 65 innings.
â€œHe had a great second half last yearâ€”weâ€™ll see where that takes him from here,â€ Epstein said.
Vaughan has been the talk of minor league camp. He features a solid-average fastball/changeup mix, and allowed seven earned runs over his last 27 innings in the Carolina League last season, carrying a 26-5 strikeout-walk ratio over that span.
COMING HOME: Phillies third baseman Mike Costanzo has gone through an awful lot of scrutiny since the club took him with their top pick (second round) in 2005.
Scouts were down on Costanzo last yearâ€”his first full seasonâ€”at high Class A Clearwater, with several saying he took at-bats off and were openly critical of his defense.
â€œIâ€™ve never taken an at-bat off in my life,â€ Costanzo said. â€œI play hard every day. I understand itâ€™s their job to judge, but to me, I really feel like I had a good season and put myself in a good position for this year. People made early judgments on me and you canâ€™t let that first impression be the lasting one.â€
A suburban Philadelphia native (Costanzo hails from Glen Mills, Pa.), Costanzo batted .258/.364/.411 in the Florida State League, but itâ€™s really how he finished that matters.
Costanzo hit .324 with four of his 14 homers and 24 of his RBIs in Augustâ€”in the worst month to play in Florida . . . temperature-wise anyway.
And though reports hadnâ€™t been exactly glowing defensively as a pro, Costanzo dropped 15 pounds in the offseason.
â€œCompared to 2006, heâ€™s come in here in so much better shape,â€ Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said. â€œTowards the end of last year it really clicked in for him as to what he really needs to do.
â€œI thought at times there wasnâ€™t that intensity youâ€™d want to see on a daily basis last year, but the latter part of the season he kicked it up and his offseason program shows the commitment. Heâ€™s a lefthanded-hitting third baseman with powerâ€”those guys are hard to find, so weâ€™re looking for him to make the jump to Reading this year and do well.â€
And playing in Readingâ€”which regularly draws 8,000-9,000 fans a nightâ€”Costanzo will also be playing in front of his family. And with Abraham Nunez in as the Phillies everyday third basemanâ€”the only player to come from outside the organization in the current infieldâ€”the Philadelphia Eagles season-ticket holder hopes to complete the homegrown infield picture.
â€œI canâ€™t wait to get to Reading,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s going to be awesome. I think Iâ€™m looking forward to this season more than any other one in my life.â€
PHILLIES MOVES: As expected, righthander Matt Maloney will move up to Double-A Reading. A third-round pick out of Mississippi in 2005, Maloney was named the South Atlantic League pitcher of the year after leading the circuit in wins, innings and strikeouts while finishing second in ERA at low Class A Lakewood.
Joining Maloney in Reading will be lefthander Michael Zagurskiâ€”which really isnâ€™t much of a surprise either.
The 12th-round pick out of Kansas in 2005 went 4-4, 3.51 with 75 strikeouts in 56 innings at Lakewood last season.
â€œHeâ€™s 91-92 (mph), has a pretty good breaking ball and throws strikes,â€ Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said.
Incidentally, Zagurskiâ€™s nickname is â€œMini-Me,â€ referring to his body-type being compared to Arbuckleâ€™s: thick through the middle like a barrel.
The Phils donâ€™t have much depth when it comes to position players, but theyâ€™re just fine on arms. Fronting the rotation at high Class A Clearwater this season will be No. 1 prospect Carlos Carrasco, righthander Drew Carpenter and lefty Josh Outman.
TWINS BIGGEST LOSERS: Twins lefthander Jose Mijares allegedly quit the game four times over the course of last season, and things got worse when the 22-year-old decided not to play in the lower-level Venezuelan Winter League in the offseason.
But there are positive signs with Mijares, who has plus stuff across the boardâ€”and losing 25 pounds off his 230-pound frame might be the first step in showing true commitment to the organization.
â€œMinus the changeup weâ€™re talking as good as (Johan) Santana,â€ Twins pitching coordinator Rick Knapp said. â€œProbably has as good a stuff as anybody in the system. If you talk to any hitter in our organization, this guy is the last one any of them want to face. His stuff his hard, breaking, down, sharp. His fastball has hard ride in to lefties. If he doesnâ€™t want you to get a hit, he wonâ€™t let you get it.
â€œReally, the only thing holding him back is whatâ€™s between his ears. But heâ€™s come in here with some different focus, so thatâ€™s been a positive sign.â€
Another positive sign for Minnesota is third baseman Matt Moses losing 30 pounds.
Moses has been pushed aggressively through the system, reaching Double-A New Britain by age 20 in 2005, but he stalled in the Eastern League last season.
His range was below-average, he struggled with his footwork considerably and his throws were often erratic. But the Twins hope getting more trim will help the 22-year-old this seasonâ€”not only defensively, but at the plate as well.
â€œHe looks tremendous,â€ Twins farm director Jim Rantz said. â€œHe knows whatâ€™s at stake. Some of these guys have got to step it up here because a lot of them are starting to get pushed from behind. Heâ€™s one of those guys.â€
TREMENDOUS VISION: Twins righthander Yohan Pino might not have above-average velocity, but itâ€™s his command and control that have the clubâ€™s brass intrigued.
Pinoâ€™s numbers were ridiculous last year in the low Class A Midwest League: 14-2, 1.91 with 99 strikeouts in 94 innings.
A command and control righthander, Pinoâ€™s velocity was up to just 88 mph last year, but that was up from 84-86 the previous season. The 23-year-old Venezuelan flashed some 89s over the winter for Aragua in the Venezuelan Winter League (where he went 6-0, 1.67 in 27 innings as a reliever) and despite the age, Knapp believes he might pick up slightly more velocity in the future.
â€œHeâ€™s a command/control guy, but he commands four pitches,â€ he said. â€œHe can dot them anywhere. You watch him and heâ€™s not one of those guys thatâ€™s imposing, but heâ€™s got enough stuff to get it done. Heâ€™s got enough where he works back and forth and the thing that impresses me most is heâ€™s got tremendous vision of the front part of home plate. He has an uncanny knack of slowing the ball down and getting hitters to swing out front. He can get his ball by a guy and he knows when he can pull them out or pull them out even further. And he can spot his fastball wherever he wants in any count.
â€œHe was low (velocity) when we got him, but weâ€™ve seen a slight increase and there might be a chance for some more. Heâ€™s somebody now, but if he gets to 90-92, then youâ€™ve really got somebody.â€
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