SURPRISE, Ariz.–Hunter Pence has never really been a good defender. The 23-year-old will hit for average, and you know he’™s going to hit for power with 59 homers over the last two seasons–the last 28 of which came at Double-A Corpus Christi during the regular season.
“A lot of people look at the guy and have no idea this guy hit 60 home runs over the last two years,” a scout from an American League said. “He’s ridiculous. There are plenty of (scouts) that look at him, see his approach and break him down negatively because he’s anything but textbook, but the guy gets it done . . . with big-time power.”
And above-average speed as well. In addition to those 59 homers, Pence stole a career-high 17 bags in 21 attempts for the Hooks. His approach might not be prototypical, but really, there is nothing prototypical about his game.
As he waits in the on-deck circle, he swings–non-stop. But the swing itself is the interesting thing. Pence wears only one batting glove in an era when it’s hip to wear both and becoming more and more rare to wear none. He croutches down in his 6-foot-4 frame and uses a low, compact swing he repeats over and over, swinging at least four times before stepping into the batter’™s box.
The bottom line is Pence might look just plain strange–and even he knows it. He wears his socks high, and is slightly bowlegged. But again, he gets it done.
“Like everyone says that I choke up and it’s weird–everybody makes fun of me, even my mom,” Pence said. “It’s comfortable for me and that’s the way I’ve always played. I’m not Captain Cool by any means. I just try to go out and play hard, do my job, have fun and help the team win.”
So far this fall, Pence is hitting .362/.403/.603 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 58 at-bats for Mesa. But everyone knew he could hit–it’s his defense that has opened a lot of eyes this fall.
“He’s the best guy out here right now,” Solar Sox manager Pat Listach said. “There is nothing that screams fundamentals as far as hitting goes, but his defense has been outstanding.”
And to say that is a major improvement is an understatement. Pence spent the final 41 games in 2005 at high Class A Salem, where scouts and managers alike wore him out and graded him as a below-average outfielder in left field.
A year later, Pence is playing strictly center and right field in the Arizona Fall League, getting good jumps, taking good routes to balls and turning in the occasional highlight-reel play.
“That’s really a credit to the Astros organization because they were out there every single day working with me, hitting fungoes, helping me with routes, jumps,” the second-round pick in 2004 said. “They work with us every single day because they care about us and they want to get the most out of us. All you can do is give your best effort. I think it’s improved my game just from continuing to work hard and doing those little things.”
Defense aside, Pence is still working on some things at the plate, still discovering what kind of hitter he is. Though he has above-average power, he’s found that he could have even more by having a more refined approach.
“Through the season, I wasn’t getting my front foot down early enough and it was making things really difficult for me,” Pence said. “Just from watching all the really good hitters out here, they all get their foot down really early and I’ve been working on it in BP and taking that new approach into games.
“What’s really surprised me is that I still have all the power, if not more, it’s just how I connect with the ball. So when I get my foot down early, I feel like I just have so much more time to be in that hitting position–everything slows down. It’s given me this boost of confidence–and I don’t know whether it’s mental or not–but it feels like I get to see the ball a lot longer.”
One scout compares Pence to major league outfielder Eric Byrnes for his unorthodox approach at the plate, his speed and the way he plays from day-to-day.
“This is a guy who has that undeniable energy,” the scout said. “He’s got that different approach, but to me, he’s a bigger, stronger version of Byrnes who will hit for more power and give you some defensive versatility in the outfield.
“For me, he can play all three spots, with enough arm strength and power to be a legitimate everyday right fielder. But he’s also showed enough burst and range to play center if you need him there. He’s proven he can do a little bit of everything defensively–he’s no longer a liability. He’s a big league quality outfielder.”
IT’S THE GRIND: There’s no denying Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is tired, playing the Texas League for the majority of the year and getting a taste of the big leagues in his first full season.
“Yeah, I’m tired. Everybody in our organization knows I’m tired, but I’m out here battling through it every day,” Tulowitzki said. “I’ve never played this long in my life, but it’s a great opportunity to continue to come out, play hard every day and make them realize that I’m ready.”
There is little question that Tulowitzki is ready, as he’s playing a solid shortstop while hitting .357/.396/.452 in 42 at-bats for Grand Canyon. The 22-year-old knows this is what’s expected of him, to show both consistency and endurance after being the seventh-overall pick in 2005 out of Long Beach State.
“There are a lot of people in my position that could have easily just shut it down, but I’m always striving to get better,” Tulowitzki said. “I’m happy with the way everything went. Making the big leagues in my first full season was my goal. Now it’s time to step my game up and plan another goal for the next year. It’s never finished–it’s never over. You can always do something to get better. This game is all about maintaining everything on a daily basis.”
TURN TO THE RIGHT?: Braves infielder Yunel Escobar played all over the infield at Double-A Mississippi during the regular season, filling in at short, third and some second base.
But the 23-year-old Cuban defector has drawn criticism from scouts and Southern League managers for both his bat and his play on the left side of the infield, as well as his well-known tendency to chirp at umpires, opponents and himself.
“The guy just talks too much for what you get–he doesn’t back it up,” one scout from a National League club said. “There isn’t enough juice in there to have him at third, he doesn’t have the range or the arm strength to play short. But you put him at second base . . . maybe you’ve got something.
“I just don’t see it on the left side. But at second, he has good range, nice hands and turns a pretty good double play.”
SLEEPER OF THE DAY: The Reds claimed lefthander Jon Coutlangus off waivers from the Giants in March, and the 25-year-old is reaping dividends and opening eyes this fall with 1-0, 1.69 numbers in five innings for the Phoenix Desert Dogs.
A converted outfielder in the Giants’™ system, Coutlangus batted just .241 over two seasons as a position player. The 19th-round pick out of South Carolina in 2003 went 4-0, 3.04 in 77 innings as a reliever at high Class A San Jose in 2005. He was lost on waivers to the Reds when the Giants tried to remove him from their 40-man roster. In his first season in the Cincinnati system, he went 1-3, 2.74 with a 56-32 strikeout-walk ratio in 66 innings between Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville in his Reds debut.
Coutlangus has an average fastball with an above-average breaking ball, and could be an impact arm out of the pen as a lefty specialist.
“This was a steal for Cincinnati,” a scout from an National League club said. “The one thing he has to do is command his fastball better, but if he does that like he’s doing it here, combine it with a breaking ball that can be plus at times and he’s there. This guy’s a sleeper–no question.”
• Mets righthander Mike Pelfrey got the start in the inaugural AFL all-star game on Friday, and he didn’t disappoint the large number of pro scouts and front office executives in attendance in Surprise as he worked out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the first inning.
Pelfrey came back to strike out the side in the frame, whiffing Kevin Kouzmanoff (Indians), Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox) and Amaury Cazana-Marti (Cardinals) to end the inning.
Pelfrey, who scrapped his inconsistent curveball and replaced it with a hard slider Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson introduced to him during his brief stay in the big leagues this year, had trouble commanding the newest pitch in his arsenal. But his fastball was quality, cutting and running down and in to righthanded hitters.
“You don’t need a (radar) gun on this guy. It was like watching a high school kid throw 96 (mph) to high school hitters,” a scout from one NL club said. “All the other guys in the game were throwing 93, 94, 95, but it wasn’t nearly as devastating because of the swings guys were getting against him. The fastball is plus-plus in terms of velocity and movement down in the zone. The secondary stuff still has a ways to go, but his arm speed on the changeup was good and he showed flashes of getting closer to really burying his breaking ball. It’s much better than the curveball, and I think it’s better suited for his mix with that pure power stuff.”
• Phillies lefthander Gio Gonzalez got the start against Pelfrey in the all-star game after Royals righthander Luke Hochevar was removed from the AFL with shoulder stiffness, and the 21-year-old was impressive.
Gonzalez sat in the low 90s, topping out at 94, and showed his trademark curveball while mixing in a quality changeup. Gonzalez, who is 0-0, 5.06 in five AFL innings for the Peoria Saguaros, is in the Fall League to better harness his fastball command.
“He can fly open and leave that ball up at times,” a scout from an AL club said. “But there’s a lot to like because he’™s just so young and he showed some durability this year. I heard a lot of negative things about his emotions on the mound, but I haven’t seen anything like that (in Arizona). Maybe that’s the laid-back demeanor of the league, but maybe he’s matured some. He’s got all the tools to be a power lefty, but the changeup and fastball command have to come.”
• Athletics righthanders Marcus McBeth and Mike Mitchell have also been impressive this fall. McBeth, a converted outfielder who moved over to the mound in 2005 and went 3-2, 2.48 with 65 strikeouts in 54 innings at Double-A Midland this season, is 0-0, 4.50 in five innings for Phoenix.
The fourth-rounder in 2001 has a boring, 95-96 mph fastball that eats up righthanded hitters, and his 84-86 mph slider is emerging as an above-average pitch.
Mitchell, a 35th-round draft-and-follow in 2003, sat at 94 with his fastball in his one inning of work in the all-star game, showing off an average slider and changeup.
“His command has been erratic in the past, so that’s the biggest thing against him,” a scout from an NL club said. “And the changeup is definitely his third pitch.”
Mitchell went 3-2, 3.22 with 59 strikeouts in 67 innings between high Class A Stockton, Midland and Triple-A Sacramento during the regular season. He is 1-0, 1.69 with six strikeouts in five innings for the Desert Dogs.
• Tigers outfielder Brent Clevlen received an unexpected callup to Detroit in 2006 and delivered with a multi-home run game against Tampa Bay on Aug. 1, the highlight of an otherwise poor season. Clevlen hit just .230/.313/.357 at Double-A Erie, and one National League scout questions the second-round pick in 2002’s ability to make adjustments.
“I don’t see any adjustments–period,” he said. “He’™s got bat speed, but it’s the same plane to his swing every time . . . and he definitely doesn’t like breaking balls.”
• Blue Jays righthander Dustin McGowan had his best start of the AFL Saturday in Mesa, allowing a run and whiffing eight over five innings of work in the Solar Sox’ 5-3 win against Phoenix.
McGowan sat at 93-94, topping out at 95 with his fastball, and showed a plus slider throughout the outing. Though he has good arm speed on his 79-81 mph changeup, he struggled to command it, often leaving it up in the zone.
“He loves to pitch in, but you just don’t know what he is,” a scout from an American League club said. “Is he a starter? Is he a middle guy or is he Adam Wainwright with a harder breaking ball?”
Coincidentally, McGowan and Wainwright are both Georgia high school products, picked four spots apart in the 2000 draft. Wainwright went 29th overall in the first round to the Braves, while the Blue Jays took McGowan at No. 33 in the supplemental first round.
• Devil Rays righthander Jeff Niemann–who has spent more time off the field rehabbing injuries than on it before this season–hasn’t pitched since Oct. 16. The first-round pick in 2004 out of Rice left the AFL to attend his grandfather’s funeral, and is expected to start today for the Desert Dogs.
• Nationals outfielder Kory Casto, who hasn’t played since Oct. 14, is expected to be back with the Saguaros this week after getting married and going on his honeymoon. Four of Casto’™s five AFL games have been multi-hit affairs, and he has nine hits in 18 at-bats overall.
• Mets outfielder Fernando Martinez is getting rave reviews for his overall approach at the plate that includes plus power to all fields, especially to the opposite field. Martinez, who turned 18 on the AFL’s Opening Day, is hitting just .196 in 51 at-bats for Mesa. But that doesn’t mean scouts aren’t gushing over the young outfielder.
“His approach is so advanced for his age and the ball just jumps off his bat,” a scout from an AL club said. “The only negative you see is he’s a little late in his jumps and reads in center field. He’s not as explosive as you’d think he would be.”
• Dodgers righthander Jonathan Meloan has come a long way in his first full season. The 2005 fifth-rounder out of Arizona went 3-1, 1.90 with 91 strikeouts in 52 innings during the regular season as he jumped to Double-A.
Saturday, Meloan’s fastball topped out at 93, sitting consistently in the 91-92 range. He also showed and 85-86 mph slider, 74-76 mph curveball and changeup as he picked up the save for Mesa. Meloan went 1 1/3 innings, striking out three.
• Dodgers shortstop Chin-Lung Hu hasn’t gotten off to a fast start at defensively this fall, showing long actions at times and often trying to make the routine play into something spectacular. His bat also hasn’t been impressive, hitting just .216 (8-for-37) with just a pair of extra-base hits.
“He just tries to do too much,” a scout from an NL club said. “He has first-step quickness, he has some explosiveness defensively, but he’s not fundamentally sound. He’s not the guy you want the ball hit to when it means something. (Dodgers 2005 second-round pick) Ivan DeJesus is such a much better prospect for them at that position.”
• Indians third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff moved over to the opposite corner for his second AFL season in three years, and he’s been above-average defensively. That should prove to be an interesting battle in spring training, as Kouzmanoff and Ryan Garko will be getting the majority of reps during big league camp.
“Not just good, he’s been great,” Peoria Javelinas bench coach Lee May Jr. said. “He comes off the bag well and he’s got good awareness over there. The only thing he has to work on over there is he doesn’t have to cover as much ground as he did at third base. He just needs to get a feel for how far he has to range out. Everything else’"he’™s got great hands, he’s shown he can pick it and he’s got good footwork.”
• Speaking of newcomers to first base, Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes got his first taste of life on the infield over the weekend. And if moving to first in the prospect-laden league wasn’t enough, Dukes had to do it in front of Rays vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and big league manager Joe Maddon.
“Oh he’s raw, no doubt–the footwork, the range . . . he’s got a lot of work to do,” a scout with an NL club said. “But I’ll tell you–he’s got instincts. He gets to the bag pretty good and the guy has real soft hands. He’s showed he can pick it when he has to.”
Aside from learning the new position, Dukes’ offense has been right on cue, even after the long layoff from his last suspension that kept him off the field since July 26. The 22-year-old has eight hits in 18 at-bats (.444) with three doubles and a homer.