Chris Kline’s AFL Road Trip: LaRoche Vs. Stewart

MESA, Ariz.’”Check the hot corner in the Arizona Fall League and you’re sure to find a hot prospect.

Ian Stewart (Rockies) and Andy LaRoche (Dodgers) entered 2005 as two
of the best prospects in the game and did nothing to change that
impression during the course of the season. Ryan Zimmerman began the
year at Virginia but ended it in the majors for the Nationals. He made
his AFL debut Wednesday for the Peoria Saguaros.

“Zimmerman does it all,” a National League scout said. “(He’s) one
of the best defenders I’™ve seen as an amateur, and he could play at
either short or third for me every day. (Nationals incumbent shortstop)
Cristian Guzman? Give me a break.”

Stewart and LaRoche, both 2003 picks, have yet to reach the majors
but have the tools to top Zimmerman’s performance once they do. Both
offer big raw power and both have the ability to hit for average.
However, both are still learning the nuances of the position and
neither has gotten off to a hot offensive start in the hitter-friendly
AFL.

Stewart is hitting .258-2-9 in 31 at-bats for the Peoria Javelinas, while LaRoche is hitting .275-0-4 in 40 at-bats for Phoenix.

Stewart, 20, started the year in extended spring training with a
hamstring injury before joining high Class A Modesto in May, where the
20-year-old finished .274-17-86 in 435 at-bats.

“To me, he’™s the class of this league,” a scout with an American
League club said. “He just works so hard and you have to love that
makeup. No knock on Andy, who’™s also a hard worker, but Stewart has
better bat speed, a better game plan against pitchers, better actions
around the bag, quicker reactions and a plus arm. His footwork needs
more work and he doesn’™t move to his right very well. Bottom line is
Stewart is just more polished than LaRoche right now.”

LaRoche, 22, started the season between high Class A Vero Beach,
challenging Angels shortstop Brandon Wood for the minor league home run
lead until being promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in mid-June, where
his power numbers dropped off significantly. He played a key part of
getting the Suns in a position to make their Southern League title run,
but wore down late in the year. LaRoche hit just .154 in the
postseason, and hasn’™t hit a homer since Aug. 20′”including the AFL.

“He’™s a streaky hitter,” another NL scout said. “You’™ll see him not
hit anything for weeks and then all of the sudden, it’™s four homers in
five games. He’™s just not consistent’”with pitch recognition, discipline
at the plate and really just finding his pitch and driving it. The
consistency will come though. There’™s too much to like.

“His swing gets long at times and there are also times when it lacks
good leverage. And that goes with consistency too. Stewart has a better
base for attacking pitchers’™ weaknesses and not missing when they make
a mistake. Both will be big leaguers. How good they’™ll be depends on
that capacity to make adjustments and put that extra work in. That’™s
where Stewart is the overachiever. He does anything it takes to get
better.”

Miller Down, Out

The Dodgers shut down lefthander Greg Miller on Wednesday, after the
first-round pick in 2002 came up with some tenderness in his shoulder.
Miller, who began the year in extended spring training and was arguably
the comeback story of the year in the minors after posting a 2.08 ERA
in 35 innings between three minor league stops, went 0-0, 4.50 in four
innings of relief for Phoenix this fall.

Miller established himself as one of the top lefthanded pitching
prospects in baseball in 2003, going 11-4, 2.49 at Vero, then finished
up that season 1-1, 1.01 with 40 strikeouts in 27 innings in Double-A.
But over the next two years, Miller had two shoulder surgeries, the
last one coming just eight months ago.

The 20-year-old featured an over-the-top delivery before the initial
surgery, and the Dodgers had altered his arm angle to get his release
point slightly lower to reduce stress on his shoulder. Miller had two
full weeks off after Jacksonville won the Southern League title and
came into the Fall League throwing from his old arm slot again, causing
an impingement on the top of his shoulder. The injury is considered
minor, but the Dodgers are being understandably cautious.

“We pushed him to Double-A this year because his velocity was back
and he was throwing pain free,” scouting director Logan White said. “He
was pitching at 95 (mph) with good command and the secondary stuff was
there. He came up a little tender and we decided to shut it down. We
fully expect him to come into (big league) camp competing for a bullpen
job along with (lefthander Hong-Chih) Kuo.”

FALL GUYS

• Speaking of shoulder problems, Cubs righthander Angel Guzman
started Wednesday for Mesa. Guzman, who had arthroscopic surgery to
repair a labrum tear in 2003 and missed most of 2005 with forearm
stiffness, allowed two runs on two hits over three innings in the Solar
Sox’™ 9-3 loss to Surprise. While the velocity on his fastball is
back’”consistently in the 91-93 mph range, topping out at 95′”his command
is not. Guzman walked four and struck out one. He showed flashes of a
plus curveball, but used it sparingly. His changeup’”which was a plus
pitch with excellent deception pre-surgery’”still needs work to get back
to where it once was. “The fastball was impressive, and you expect it
out of this kid,” an AL scout said. “There was some command in there,
but he’™s not locating well. And 95 percent fastballs in this league
tells me lack of confidence in the secondary pitches.”

• The best piece of hitting on the day came from Surprise second baseman Howie Kendrick
(Angels). Facing Guzman in the second inning with runners on first and
third, Kendrick passed on two curveballs in the dirt, then watched a 90
mph outside fastball to work the count to 2-1. Guzman challenged
Kendrick inside, burying a 93 mph fastball in and up on his hands, and
the Angels’™ 10th-round pick in 2002 fought it off and pulled it down
the left-field line for an RBI single.

• An AFL position change for Reds infielder Kevin Howard was
like reacquainting with an old friend. Howard, a fifth-round pick out
of Miami in 2002, is back playing third base, where he spent much of
his time in college for the Hurricanes. He moved to second base after
the Reds drafted him but has come to the AFL to increase his
versatility so the club can use him at any infield position. “I had
never played second in my life until I got to pro ball,” Howard said.
“But that’™s where they projected me as an everyday player in the big
leagues. Now, with all the movement in the system, they want me to move
around a little bit and I’™m willing to do whatever it takes to get up
there.

“You have to have much better feet to play second. I played three
full seasons over there and I’™m just now starting to feel comfortable.
The first two years I was very uncomfortable. It was tough getting used
to third base again, but once I got used to it again it was like going
home. I think I’™m much better at just reacting, which is what that
position is all about.”

Chris Denorfia, also a 2002 Reds draft pick, enjoyed a huge
2005 season, hitting a combined .317-20-87 between Triple-A Louisville
and Double-A Chattanooga. Denorfia earned a September callup to
Cincinnati, where the 19th-round pick became the first product of
Wheaton (Mass.) College to play in the majors. He’™s in the AFL to work
on being more consistent in his approach at the plate, having solid
at-bats to carry that over as he competes for an outfield job next
spring. He’s been going full-throttle since reporting to spring
training in February. “You can’™t play seven months straight without
having aches and pains and everything’”it’™s just part of the grind,” the
25-year-old outfielder said. “At this point, it’™s a mental challenge
just to get up every day. But that’™s one of my favorite parts of the
game, so I’™m doing fine out here.”

• Indians righthander Brian Slocum is in the AFL to tighten
up his slider, which could easily spell a recipe for disaster in this
league. “I’™m trying to tighten it and get it more consistent,” said the
second-rounder in 2002 out of Villanova. “I can flash one that’™s great
and then I can throw a few that aren’™t so great. Repetition’”that’™s all
I keep telling myself.” Slocum was an innings-eater in 2004 at high
Class A Kinston, but missed a considerable amount of time during
Double-A Akron’™s Eastern League championship run this year. He was out
for a month after having surgery to remove a cyst on his wrist, then
battled blister problems and missed two more starts after returning.

Minors | #2005 #Arizona Fall League #Winter Baseball

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