WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.’"OK, so we’™re five days into this spring training stint, so it’™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 there’"Kottaras was one of the postseason heroes on Double-A Portland’™s roster as they went on to win the Eastern League title’"his defense didn’™t exactly wow anybody.
Kottaras had been suspect behind the dish at Double-A Mobile prior to the trade, with one scout saying he “looked great during infield, but the game sped up on him pretty quick.” Another scout went on to say that it “really didn’™t look like guys on his staff felt comfortable throwing to him,” 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-old’™s shortcomings defensively.
“He’™s got pretty good mechanics at the plate, a nice stroke and a great idea of what he’™s trying to do at the plate–but if he can’™t catch, that changes things a little bit,” Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen said. “We’™ve done a tone of work with him to quiet his actions down and giving him base mechanics and fundamentals which maybe at times weren’™t always there. It’™s a huge point of emphasis this season that we follow through with this so he can continue to develop as a catcher.
“No matter how much we love the bat, he’™s not going to be a DH. This is a huge year for his development.”
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.
“He had a great second half last year’"we’™ll see where that takes him from here,” 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 year’"his first full season’"at high Class A Clearwater, with several saying he took at-bats off and were openly critical of his defense.
“I’™ve never taken an at-bat off in my life,” Costanzo said. “I play hard every day. I understand it’™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 can’™t let that first impression be the lasting one.”
A suburban Philadelphia native (Costanzo hails from Glen Mills, Pa.), Costanzo batted .258/.364/.411 in the Florida State League, but it’™s really how he finished that matters.
Costanzo hit .324 with four of his 14 homers and 24 of his RBIs in August’"in the worst month to play in Florida . . . temperature-wise anyway.
And though reports hadn’™t been exactly glowing defensively as a pro, Costanzo dropped 15 pounds in the offseason.
“Compared to 2006, he’™s come in here in so much better shape,” Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said. “Towards the end of last year it really clicked in for him as to what he really needs to do.
“I thought at times there wasn’™t that intensity you’™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. He’™s a lefthanded-hitting third baseman with power’"those guys are hard to find, so we’™re looking for him to make the jump to Reading this year and do well.”
And playing in Reading’"which regularly draws 8,000-9,000 fans a night’"Costanzo will also be playing in front of his family. And with Abraham Nunez in as the Phillies everyday third baseman’"the only player to come from outside the organization in the current infield’"the Philadelphia Eagles season-ticket holder hopes to complete the homegrown infield picture.
“I can’™t wait to get to Reading,” he said. “It’™s going to be awesome. I think I’™m looking forward to this season more than any other one in my life.”
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 Zagurski’"which really isn’™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.
“He’™s 91-92 (mph), has a pretty good breaking ball and throws strikes,” Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said.
Incidentally, Zagurski’™s nickname is “Mini-Me,” referring to his body-type being compared to Arbuckle’™s: thick through the middle like a barrel.
The Phils don’™t have much depth when it comes to position players, but they’™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 board’"and losing 25 pounds off his 230-pound frame might be the first step in showing true commitment to the organization.
“Minus the changeup we’™re talking as good as (Johan) Santana,” Twins pitching coordinator Rick Knapp said. “Probably 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 doesn’™t want you to get a hit, he won’™t let you get it.
“Really, the only thing holding him back is what’™s between his ears. But he’™s come in here with some different focus, so that’™s been a positive sign.”
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 season’"not only defensively, but at the plate as well.
“He looks tremendous,” Twins farm director Jim Rantz said. “He knows what’™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. He’™s one of those guys.”
TREMENDOUS VISION: Twins righthander Yohan Pino might not have above-average velocity, but it’™s his command and control that have the club’™s brass intrigued.
Pino’™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, Pino’™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.
“He’™s a command/control guy, but he commands four pitches,” he said. “He can dot them anywhere. You watch him and he’™s not one of those guys that’™s imposing, but he’™s got enough stuff to get it done. He’™s got enough where he works back and forth and the thing that impresses me most is he’™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.
“He was low (velocity) when we got him, but we’™ve seen a slight increase and there might be a chance for some more. He’™s somebody now, but if he gets to 90-92, then you’™ve really got somebody.”