SURPRISE, Ariz–The Rangers staff should have given each participant in their fall instructional league team a “Hello, My Name Is” sticker. Having acquired a wealth of young prospects this summer in trade deadline deals as well as having six picks in the first two rounds of the draft, the Rangers brought to camp a lot of players new to the organization. The enthusiasm of the club’s coaching staff about the influx of new talent was readily apparent.
“All of these guys are down here, so we’re getting a chance to see them for the first time,” said camp coordinator Dave Anderson. “We’ve got a lot of young, exciting players that can do a lot of different things . . . they can run, can throw, hit for power–the big focus in our camp is these guys that we haven’t seen very much of.”
Anderson specifically cited two teenage prospects, shortstop Elvis Andrus, acquired from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira trade, and outfielder Engel Beltre, one of three players picked up from Boston in the deal for Eric Gagne.
One player not familiar to Anderson was 19-year-old Dominican pitcher Neftali Feliz, another of the players acquired from the Atlanta organization–at least not until the righthander made his initial appearance in the last inning of the Rangers’ sixth game at instructs. Feliz pitched a scoreless inning against the Royals, striking out two hitters and retiring the third on a weak ground ball to second base.
That one inning told Anderson all that he needed to know about Feliz, who fanned 55 in a combined 42 innings during the regular season between the Rookie-level Danville and short-season Spokane.
“Great arm, great body,” Anderson said. “He has an above-average fastball, and there are a lot of positive things about him. We’re really happy to have him with us.”
The Rangers are also getting their first real look at righthander Blake Beavan, a Dallas-area high school product who was selected with the first of two Texas first-round picks. Beavan signed just before the Aug. 15th signing deadline and did not make a regular-season appearance in 2007.
Beavan is also using the instructional camp to get acquainted with his new organization and to improve his conditioning.
“It feels good to come out here and meet a bunch of guys and be part of the team,” he said. “The running part of pitching is tough and the workout is a little different. All in all, baseball is baseball, and you just come out here like it’s another day and you learn stuff as you go. The hitters are better, so you have to adjust . . . it’s just pitching.”
There’s a special buzz around the Rockies’ instructional league in Tucson these days. With the big league club moving on to the National League championship series, several veterans are using the Tucson facility to rehabilitate injuries or get in some extra work in preparation for the next round of playoffs. Righthanders Aaron Cook and Elmer Dessens and outfielder Willy Taveras were just three of the Rockies players seeing action.
But it was Mike Mitchell, an unheralded 25th-round selection out of Virginia, who was one of the bigger surprises of the fall so far in Tucson. The 22-year-old outfielder was known more for his plus speed and outfield defense in his four-year college career, and that reputation followed him in his first pro season with short-season Tri-City. Mitchell batted .259/.356/.292 in his pro debut and stole 32 bases in 43 attempts.
The bat is starting to show signs of life for the Chesapeake, Va., native, whose speed has frequently been graded at 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
“He experienced some good growth already in terms of hitting,” said Rockies outfield/baserunning instructor Trenidad Hubbard, a veteran of 10 major league seasons. “He’s one of those guys from college that doesn’t load too much (in his swing) because of the aluminum bat. We’ve got a great hitting coach and as an organization we’ve got a good hitting philosophy, so he’s getting some of that and it’s turning his swing around. There’s a lot of promise there. We’re going to see some really special things out of this kid.”
Mitchell agrees with Hubbard’s assessment that he’ll be a better hitter as he continues to gain more experience in the transition from metal to wood.
“You really have to get your swing right to be able to hit with a wood bat,” said Mitchell. “With an aluminum bat I was able to get away with not really having that same approach as with a wood bat. Now I’m working on a lot of the things that will make me a better hitter overall. I think my swing is 10 times better now than how I was swinging in college.”
Paying Your Own Way
Instructional league rosters are usually dominated by first- or second-year pros, with organizations wanting to spend time especially with its new draft choices. It’s not surprising that second baseman Eric Young Jr. would not have received an invitation to the fall camp.
But the son of the former major league veteran has a plan for his career and decided that he needed the extra work. Young told the Rockies front office that he would pay his own way to Tucson if he could come in and work out with the instructional league team.
“I came here on my own because I want to work on my defense,” said Young, who is one of the fastest players and best basestealers in the minors. “(I’m here) taking advantage of all of the instructors down here, just using their knowledge of the game and their experiences throughout the years, putting it to your own game, and trying to mold into your own type of player.”
Young, 22, hit .291/.359/.430 with 73 stolen bases this season at high Class A Modesto.
Pitching, Pitching And More Pitching
The Diamondbacks went for pitching in the 2007 draft, selecting pitchers with three of their top four picks. Jarrod Parker (first round), Wes Roemer (supplemental first round) and Barry Enright (second round) are all part of the D’backs instructional league camp this fall. Each of the young pitchers is following the plan for them set forth by the parent organization.
“We take a different approach and a different look down here,” said field coordinator Jack Howell. “We meet with them early and let them know one or two bullet points of things we really want them to work on. This group especially has taken the things we’ve asked them to work on and really adapted to it well and applied it. I’ve been surprised that a lot of them have picked up on the success of it pretty quickly. If the kid is working on a changeup, instead of throwing it in a changeup situation we ask them to throw it in all situations.”
Roemer, a Cal State Fullerton product who made his professional debut with 12 innings at short-season Yakima, sees the value of the Diamondbacks’ approach. The righthander says he’s keeping an open mind.
“They want me to start working a lot more on my sinker,” Roemer said after a recent three-inning appearance against the Rockies, “Running it on the inside part and trying to get guys to roll over in the count, and it seems to be working out a lot. I did that pretty well today and it felt good.”
The Diamondbacks are especially excited about the Parker who, like many other first-round choices this year, signed too late to make an appearance in the regular season.
“He’s really impressive for an 18-year-old kid coming out of high school and thrown into his first professional situation here with us,” said Erik Sabel, who served as the pitching coach at Yakima in 2007. “(He) throws anywhere from 94 to 98, and it’s pretty easy. A lot of things come pretty easy for him. He’s a great kid and great to work with. I’m looking for big things out of him.”
Sabel believes that Parker can move quickly through the system if the situation is right.
“You’ve got to be careful with an 18-year-old kid,” he said. “(It’s about) putting him in the right situation, getting him accustomed to wherever he’s at. When the organization feels like he’s made the strides and doing the things we want him to do, then he’ll move. Stuff-wise, absolutely, he can move through the system.”
It’s not all about pitching in the D’backs camp. One of the hitters opening eyes every day is outfielder Evan Frey, a 10th-round draft choice out of Missouri. The lefthanded hitter batted a solid .309/.384/.390 at Yakima in his debut.
It’s not Frey’s numbers that have impressed the organization as much as his savvy on the field.
“He knows the game,” Howell said. “His big asset is that he really knows the game and plays it well. We’ve asked him to utilize his speed, think more as a leadoff hitter type, and bunt. He’s got about three base-hit bunts already and a couple really good bunts that he was thrown out on. We’ve asked him to pick up the little game–get on base, be a better basestealer, and work on jumps and leads.”
• Angels 2006 first-rounder Hank Conger has shown enormous potential in his two-year career, but he’s also had a hard time staying healthy. The switch-hitting catcher only made it to his third at-bat of the Angels first instructional league game before sustaining a hamstring injury while legging out a double and was expected to miss the remainder of camp. Conger also was expected to miss out on playing for Team USA in the World Cup in Taiwan next month, though thta roster move has yet to be officially confirmed.
• Giants third baseman Angel Villalona, the Rookie-level Arizona League’s top prospect this year, has seen some action this fall at first base. With three other first baseman in camp, it’s not a move of necessity but rather to see how the Dominican native can handle himself at the position.
• Mike Moustakas is the player everyone is watching at Royals camp this fall. The second overall pick in the 2007 draft is playing shortstop for one of two Royals squads based at the team’s training facility in Surprise, Ariz.
The lefthanded hitter is coming off one of the greatest careers in California high school history, and the Royals know it. They are being careful not to mess with success in Moustakas’ case.
“We’re just wanting him to get some at bats,” Royals hitting coach Tommy Gregg said. “He’s a young kid that just needs to come here and do what he’s been doing. If there’s anything that needs improving, we’ll get that later. Right now, it’s just a matter of letting him play. He’s got a lot of tools, he’s got a lot of power in his bat, and he has an idea of what he’s doing. In that case, with a kid like he is that’s had success, you don’t want to mess with him right now. You just want to let him play and just go from there.”
Moustakas has primarily been playing shortstop this fall, but has taken some ground balls at third base, the position that many outside the organization believe is Moustakas’ future. Some in the Royals organization aren’t sure the 19-year-old can’t stay at shortstop.
“He moves around well, he’s got good range, he’s got a good arm, and he catches the ball,” said Gregg. “What we’ve seen has been really impressive. For right now, he’s playing shortstop . . . he’s had some success at it.”
• Two-time NCAA champion Oregon State is well represented in Arizona with five former Beavers in their first fall camps. The quintet of players includes shortstop Darwin Barney (Cubs), catcher Mitch Canham (Padres), outfielder Mike Lissman (Athletics), and pitchers Daniel Turpen and Joe Paterson (Giants). Paterson and Turpen have played together off and on since Little League, and now are together in pro ball.