TUCSON'"No team has increased their presence in Latin America over the last few years more than the Colorado Rockies. General manager Dan O'™Dowd has given Rolando Fernandez and his international scouting department more discretion on the Latin American market, and the Rockies system is seeing the results.
The Rockies are flush with young talent at the big league level, but most of their newfound depth courtesy of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela is not there yet. A visit to their minor league spring training complex makes it obvious that this influx of foreign talent is not far away.
One of the fruits of the international scouting department'™s labor that is generating buzz in camp is shortstop Hector Gomez. Hailing from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, the same city that produced the likes of Sammy Sosa, Robinson Cano and Alfonso Soriano among others, Gomez did not garner a lot of interest from anyone besides the Rockies as an amateur.
"I know the Dodgers and the Braves had him in and those are two bigger market clubs, but they both passed," Fernandez said.
Their loss turned out to be the Rockies gain as the signed the wiry shortstop for $60,000 on July 2, 2004. He spent 2005 in the Dominican Summer League and was rated as the No. 3 prospect in the Rookie-level Pioneer League after hitting .327/.364/.485 with five home runs for Casper in 2006.
"He is wiry, very athletic and has great actions," Fernandez said. "You can dream on him in every aspect of his ability."
What makes Gomez so unique is that his bat is probably his best tool because of his exceptional hand-eye coordination and bat speed.
"A lot of Dominican or high school middle infielders, you are waiting on the bat," assistant GM Bill Geivett said. "This guy already shows you the bat."
Listed at 6-foot-1, 157 pounds, Gomez has already added two inches and at least 15 pounds, prompting both Geivett and farm director Marc Gustafson to compare his skill set to that of another Rockies shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki. Gomez turned 19 last week and is set to spend 2007 with low Class A Asheville.
"Gomez has put himself into position," Geivett said. "He has a chance to be an offensive shortstop and a guy that will emerge on the scene for those who follow prospects."
The scary part is that the Rockies have another exciting young shortstop in the pipeline, having signed Carlos Martinez in 2005 for $650,000, more than 10 times as much as Gomez got. Martinez is a nine months younger than Gomez and ticketed for Casper.
Where the Rockies newfound presence in Latin America has been most apparent is on the mound in the form of flamethrowers Franklin Morales, Ubaldo Jimenez, Juan Morillo and Sam Deduno. Colorado has also added a couple of other power arms from Latin American arms to that mix from within the organization when they converted shortstops Pedro Strop and Esmil Rogers to pitchers last year in Casper. Strop shone from the outset, going 1-0, 2.08 with a 22-2 strikeout-walk ratio in 13 relief inning, and there was concern that he might get taken in the Rule 5 draft, though it didn'™t happen.
"He has a lot of physical tools, but he struggled at the plate," Gustafson said. "We gave him every opportunity to succeed as a shortstop and we didn'™t see the results we were looking for. But with an arm like that you don'™t just release him, you put him on the mound."
Strop'™s fastball easily touches 93-95 mph and he has nasty, albeit inconsistent, slider to go with it. With his promising two-pitch mix, the Rockies see the 21-year-old as a power reliever. Rogers, also 21, went 3-6, 6.96 in 63 innings for Casper as a starter. He has similar fastball velocity and has shown a feel for a changeup so the Rockies will continue to use him in that Role.
"He played in the DSL for two years," Gustafson said. "He had some limitations with the bat, but has a phenomenal arm like Pedro."
Of the players have signed in the United States recently, outfielder Dexter Fowler has quickly distinguished himself. The 14th-rounder from the 2004 draft is the best athlete in the system and has quickly proven adept at switch-hitting, something he did not do as an amateur.
"We had some concerns with his righthanded swing as far as playing everyday," Geivett said. "Even scouts from other organizations told me they had some concerns about how he would handle good breaking balls from righthanders."
After signing Fowler, the Rockies tried to ease him into by suggesting he take some swings from the left side during batting practice, tee drills and soft toss.
"When he showed some aptitude early, we ran with it," Geivett said.
Fowler proved a quick study when he homered from both sides of the plate last year on opening day. In fact, he ended up hitting .296/.362/.444 from his natural right side for low Class A Asheville and .296/.378/.470 from the left.
"We are pleasantly surprised with how he has done it," Gustafson said. "If you try it at Triple-A it might not work, so we got him (to try) when he got joined the organization."
Like many of the position players, Fowler came to camp March 4, a week before the mandatory reporting date. As a result, he got a chance to play in a big league game when they needed an outfielder last week. Fowler has been getting a lot of press in Denver this spring and while the Rockies rave about his potential, Geivett had to make sure the callup did not go to his head.
"We told Dexter, '˜we are going to send you to the big league game, but we don'™t want you to think you are close to the big leagues, it'™s because you are the only guy here.'™ "
From Modesto, Nuts?
There was a couple hanging out around the minor league field that seemed to have a good rapport with a few of the Latin American players. I asked them how they knew so many Rockies, and they explained that they are a host family in Modesto, the site of the Rockies high Class A affiliate.
Bill and Kathy Lafountain'™s son Brian used to work in the Modesto Nuts ticket office and when catcher Alvin Colina and righthander Tomas Santiago needed a place to stay in 2005, the club asked the Lafountains if they could put them up for a couple of weeks.
"We called them up a week later and said, '˜we'™ll take them for the whole season,'™ " Bill said.
The Lafountain'™s have an extra room with two bunk beds that serves as refuge for some of the foreign players who do not have the cash for their own place. Though they were resistant to charge rent, the Rockies asked that they do so that the players can learn some money management skills.
"So we charge them about $150 a month," Kathy said. "But we spend more than we take in."
The family feeds the players breakfast and lets them make lunch for themselves while they are at work. Bill is a sales manager for Culligan Water and Kathy works in accounts receivable for a lumber company. Dinner, however, is a different story.
"We tell them what we are going to have, and depending on what we are serving they decide if they are going to eat at the ballpark or at home," Bill said. "Sometimes, they eat both meals."
The Lafountains clearly enjoy doing it and are prepared to do it again in 2007. They have hosted up to three players at a time, including Deduno and Morillo.
"Juan is the strongest guy I have ever seen," Bill said. "He did a handstand on the deck of our pool and walked around the entire pool on his hands."
• One of the interesting aspects of going to different camps on consecutive days is that you get a feel for the idiosyncrasies for each organization. In Rockies camp, after stretching and infield, they have what they call all-star demonstrations where they take a group of players who have been in the organization for a few years to demonstrate how the organization wants a certain fundamental to be done.
Today it was a group that included Joe Gaetti in left field and Eric Young Jr. at second base that was demonstrating proper relay and cutoff techniques. On Sunday it was bunt defense and Tuesday will be pickoffs. After the demonstration, they divide the players into four groups to go practice what they just saw.
• I checked out a little of the Rockies'™ big league game against the Diamondbacks and chatted with Arizona GM Josh Byrnes for a story I am working on about Chris Young. We watched as Alberto Callaspo, the man with the best contact rate among our top 100 prospects, swung through a pitch from Aaron Cook as Dave Krynzel stole second base.
"That never happens," Byrnes said in amazement regarding Callaspo'™s whiff.
After our conversation, I grabbed a seat in the stands to jot down some notes about what Byrnes said. As I was sitting there, I noticed everyone in the rows in front of me jerk their head back in my direction. I know media aren'™t supposed to sit in the stands, but it was only a couple of minutes and the fans probably don'™t know I was not supposed to be there. Turns out that they had just announced my seat number over the PA as the winner of a $25 gift certificate to Hooters. I have been to roughly 900 ball games in my life and never once have I had my seat called for any of those kinds of contests and the one time I do, I don'™t have the ticket for it. And it was for Hooters no less. Life, as we know, just isn'™t fair.