PITTSBURGH–Two sets of American League East prospects squared off against each other in Sunday’s Futures Game.
High Class A Frederick teammates Nolan Reimold and Radhames Liz faced one another in the sixth. The 22-year-old righthander eventually won out after Reimold forced a 3-2 count before flying out to left.
“It didn’™t really matter who it was at that time,” Liz said. “I was laughing a little bit when he came up and he kind of smiled at me too. We had talked about it before the game if we’™d face each other. He told me he’d be better off walking him, but that wasn’t going to happen. I was really trying to strike him out.”
Meanwhile, the two top prospects in the Yankees organization squared off in the fourth inning. Righthander Philip Hughes said prior to the game that he had faced Tabata once in spring training and struck him out in intersquad play with a curveball.
Hughes already was having a tough frame, having given up three hits and three runs, including a two-run homer to George Kottaras. With two outs, he needed to get Jose Tabata out to end his one inning of work. Tabata wouldn’t let him off easy, though. After getting down in the count 0-2, he laid off an 0-2 curve, fouled off three pitches and worked the count back to 2-2.
“I decided I wasn’t going to walk him,” Hughes said with a smile after being removed from the game, “so I just fired another fastball in there, and he hit it.”
Tabata lined a Charlie Brown comebacker right up the middle for his only hit in three trips.
“He’s a great young player,” Hughes said. “To have the year he’s having in (the South Atlantic) league and to be here at 17, it’s pretty amazing.”
Votto Freed Up With Adjustments
World first baseman Joey Votto (Reds) has been mashing all season at Double-A Chattanooga, as the 22-year-old Canadian came into Sunday’s Futures Game hitting .327/.403/.598 with a 1.001 OPS in 333 at-bats. Part of the reason for his success this season has been his ability to take an everyday approach, and Sunday was just another day for him, despite the bigger stage.
Votto impressed his World coaches by asking for more balls away so he could work them to the opposite field during batting practice, then did a quick interview with the Canadian press before asking Triple-A Tucson manager Chip Hale to hit him some ground balls at first base.
“I just treated the day like any other day–I still have to get my work in,” Votto said. “It wasn’t a day off by any means. It was fun, but it wasn’t a day off. I hit some balls out of the park during BP today and I didn’™t mean to at all.
“I’ve been a lot more calm and patient at the plate this year and have had some success in doing that, so really the best way for me to kind of put all of this playing on a big stage thing out of my mind, I just wanted to approach it like every other day doing what I need to do to get better.”
Another reason for his success this season has been controlling things at the plate without organizational interference. For the past two seasons–including last year when he batted just .256/.330/.452 in the high Class A Florida State League–the Reds asked him to take first pitches in every at-bat. But as the new regime headed by general manager Wayne Krivsky came in, that plan was quickly scrapped.
“Krivsky doesn’t do that–he just lets everybody go out and it’s about working to individual strengths and playing baseball the right way,” Votto said. “Before, in A ball, I had to take a strike–that’s what I had to do for two years and I was literally 0-1 every at-bat. That’s why I struggled so badly last year.
“For example, you go in and you face a guy like (Tigers righthander Justin) Verlander and you’re screwed, basically. First pitch he’d throw would be 95 right down (the middle of the plate). Then you’re 0-1 and he’d come inside and 97 (mph) and then what do you do? You try to get a good swing on an 0-2 slider or an 0-2 changeup or another fastball–you just can’t catch up because you’re always put at a disadvantage, especially against a guy like that.”
Despite his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame, Votto’s stance at the plate is very compact, and as he goes into his approach, he glides back to improve his overall balance. Scouts in the stands Sunday noticed that was the major adjustment Votto has made in his hitting mechanics from last season until now.
“I know I’m quick and I know I can get on good fastballs, but when I was more upright, my hips would drift and that would cause my bat to drag which added a lot of length to my swing,” Votto said. “Now I’m spread out and I feel so much more direct and I can just use my natural ability.”
Tigers righthander Humberto Sanchez made it look easy in his one inning of work, which was no easy task considering he faced the likes of Stephen Drew, Howie Kendrick and Alex Gordon. He whiffed two, and his mound presence was certainly felt by scouts in the stands.
“The biggest thing that surprised me in this game was the lack of quality pitching, especially on the World side,” a pro scout from an American League club said. “But Sanchez wasn’t one of those guys. He has presence and he kicked it into a second gear against some pretty good hitters. He had good life on his fastball, and this is the best his slider looked in the two years I’ve seen him.”
A lot of that is because Sanchez is completely healthy. He missed the first two months of the season with muscle spasms and an oblique strain last year, and most of August with a groin injury. But he’s trimmed down his body somewhat from last year, and with improved health has come more confidence. So has seeing guys like Verlander and Joel Zumaya head to the big leagues in front of him.
“This is my first full year of throwing a slider and a cutter, so it’s kind of helped me in throwing four pitches,” Sanchez said. “And it’s that confidence of knowing I can throw any of them whenever I want to now. That was never there before. I was always worried about trying to be too fine with things–so that helped me out big time.
“And with all the respect to the Tigers, when I got here in 2002 I just felt like the organization was weak, it felt flat. I didn’™t feel like it had that burst–that hunger to win games like I imagine it must have been like back in the early ’80s. But over the last three years it’s really come a long way and everyone wants to be better–everyone wants to help the organization win. And seeing guys like Verlander and Zumaya make the moves they’ve made and see the success they’ve had makes you that much more hungry to get there and that also helps your confidence by knowing you can do that too.”
While every Futures Gamer was thrilled to be a part of this year’s events, no one had more to say about it than Cardinals lefthander Jamie Garcia. The 22nd-round pick last year out of Mission (Texas) High, Garcia had elbow tendinitis as an amateur and wondered if he’™d ever get on track after not making his debut until this season at low Class A Quad Cities. But Garcia came out on fire in the Midwest League, where he went 5-4, 2.90 with 80 strikeouts in 78 innings and was named to the all-star team. From there, he was named to the Futures Game, was promoted to high Class A Palm Beach three days later and celebrated his 20th birthday on Saturday–which only made his rise that much sweeter.
“A year ago, I was hurt and the Cardinals didn’™t want to sign me,” Garcia said. “I wasn’™t feeling good about myself or where I was at. The Cardinals offered me some money as a take it or leave it thing and I really just wanted to play. I knew what I could do, so the only thing I could do was sign and go show them.
“It’s been unbelievable. I was sitting at home after the draft watching the Futures Game last year, watching Chris Lambert in the game. I got to thinking maybe I could be in that game two or three years later or something, but I was just dreaming. I’™m not dreaming anymore. This whole year has been the best thing ever.”
World Cup Fever
Probably the most obscure player in this year’s Futures Game hails from Brazil, and White Sox outfielder Anderson Gomes was just glad his home country wasn’™t playing in Sunday’s World Cup Final.
“Sometimes they lose and sometimes they win, but I was watching every game,” Gomes said. “When there was a game on during one of our games, all my teammates couldn’t tell me what happened. I wanted to watch it when I got home–even if we were on a road trip, I would wait, not watch TV or not read the papers because I didn’™t want to know.
“When I watched the game when they were eliminated, that’s when I could finally go back and listen to some voicemails from my family back home. Everyone there was really hurt by them losing. I’™m not glad they lost or anything, but at least I didn’™t have to think about what was happening today.”
Gomes’™ route to this year’s game is about as circuitous as it gets. Gomes signed as a 16-year-old to play for Japan’™s Fukuoka Daiei Hawks as a pitcher, where he took the mound when White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi played for the club. But Gomes broke his arm when he released a 93 mph fastball in 2003, and was released. He returned to Brazil and began working on his hitting and the White Sox took a chance on the outfielder, signing him in January.
“My elbow just popped out,” Gomes said. “And it’s been really hard for me not to pitch anymore. This change has been very difficult for me. I really wanted to be a pitcher again, but the White Sox wanted me to hit. I did OK in my first season here, but it’s been a really big adjustment. I’m learning new things every day, so to be here and represent the organization is an honor. I never thought I’™d be in any place like this–especially as a hitter.”
Braun Coming Around in Double-A
Brewers third baseman Ryan Braun had a tough first seven games since being promoted to Double-A Huntsville. But the 2005 first-rounder out of Miami has made adjustments since his 4-for-27 start, and came into the all-star break with a five-game hit streak in which he’™s hit .473 (9-for-19).
“It’s just my timing–I was getting started a little bit late and when you do that, you try to rush everything else to try to catch up and that obviously isn’™t good,” Braun said. “I’m just trying to start my approach a little bit earlier–when the pitcher’s breaking his hands instead of when he’s at the top of his delivery and it’s made a huge difference for me.”
One thing that hasn’t changed: Braun wears some of the tightest pants in the minors, a matter of some amusement among his U.S. teammates. One just shook his head and said, “That’s Miami for you.”
It’™s a Z, Not An S
The last letter in Diamondbacks outfielder Carlos Gonzalez’s last name has been under debate–even within the organization–for the last year, but the 20-year-old Venezuelan set the record straight on Sunday.
Not that our 2006 Top 10 prospects for the organization was any help in the last letter department.
“It’s a Z,” Gonzalez said. “Last year everybody spelled my name with an S and that bothered me a little bit. It was like no one knew who I was. Even my family got on me when they saw the top 10 prospects in Baseball America and it was spelled with an S. They were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Luckily I made the top 10, so my picture was in there. So when I saw that, I didn’™t mind the S as much.”
Scouts were all over Gonzalez’s tools on Sunday, and he came away with the biggest buzz of any position player on either side.
“Gonzalez was the guy we were all talking about,” a front office executive from a National League club said. “He can hit, run, throw–the bat speed is plus and the power is in there. His running is just OK, and he’ll probably slow down some more as he gets bigger, but that’s OK with me. He’s really quiet in his approach–there’s no wasted movement there. He’s got such quick hands to the ball because of that hand-eye coordination and he has that big-time natural raw power. He doesn’t try to hit home runs. Home runs are a result of his approach.”
Reds righthander Homer Bailey had the most amount of helium among the scouts in attendance, despite throwing virtually all fastballs and giving up a run on two hits.
“Bailey pitched very young today,” a scout from an American League organization said. “There is obviously no questioning the stuff, even though we mostly saw what kind of life he has on his plus fastball. His mechanics are textbook, with some good deception. I just wish we would have seen more breaking balls from him. But that fastball has devastating late life, sinking and diving away from lefthanders. He was impressive.”