Short-Season Report

Red-hot AZL is tough on players, good for development





See also: Previous Short-Season Report 


PHOENIX--All players face adversity in their first year in professional baseball. Then there are those assigned to the Rookie-level Arizona League.

Not only are they living away from home and being seriously challenged on the diamond for what might be the first time in their lives, but they’re also enduring the intense heat of an Arizona summer.

For the three months of the AZL season, which runs from late June through August, the average highs top 100 degrees. Players from the baseball hotbeds of Texas, Florida and California may think they know hot weather, but playing in Arizona takes it to a new level.

“The first week I was down here was pretty rough,” said catcher Hank Conger, the Angels’ 2006 first-round pick and a Southern California native. “There was one day when I didn’t drink enough water, but other than that I’ve managed OK.”

Water is an obvious key to survival in the league, and managers become impromptu hydration experts to keep their players on the field. AZL Rangers skipper Bob Skube said he and his coaches police the clubhouse for coffee, colas and other caffeinated drinks that could lead to dehydration. He also insists that his players drink plenty of water before bedtime.

“It’s not just the water they’re drinking today that helps them today,” Skube said. “You need to have it already in your system.”

Not surprisingly, players from the East Coast take longer to get the message. Third baseman Matt Sweeney, an Angels eighth-rounder out of high school in Maryland, said his friends who played Rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League told him what to expect. Still, he needed about three weeks to get used to playing in the AZL.

“All I do is drink a lot of water and stay in the shade as much as possible,” he said. “And when I’m in the dugout, I always sit down and rest. Other than that, I just suck it up and play through it.”

Matt Jaimes, a 12th-round pick of the Rangers out of high school in Northern California, found that was no easy task. About a month into his stint in the AZL, Jaimes started having trouble breathing.

“Playing in this weather drains you,” he said. “You go home and all you want to do is sleep.”

Dealing With The Heat

The heat isn’t the only thing that wears on players. Getting up at 5 a.m. every day also takes a toll, as it would on most teenage males. The first half of the Arizona League schedule features 10:30 a.m. starts, and most teams require players to be at their complex by 6 a.m. The Rangers, for instance, serve players a continental breakfast at 6 before sending them out to the fields for early work. Regular batting practice starts at 7:15.

“It’s already really hot by then,” Skube said, “so I let the players practice in shorts and T-shirts.”

Angels manager Ever Magallanes said he tries to balance physical activity with plenty of instruction.

“When it’s that early, your body isn’t ready to crank it up yet,” he said. “Most days, guys are OK. But when we’re playing a long game, you start to see guys getting a little tired. The biggest thing for me is knowing the players so I know how far I can push them.”

Many players said the early-morning routine is a bigger hurdle to clear than the heat. Sweeney said a regular afternoon nap helped him adapt until the schedule switched to 7 p.m. starts at the end of July.

The heat, however, is inescapable no matter when the games begin. The mercury typically stays north of 90 degrees no matter when games are played, and every player follows a strict routine to cope. Starters sit in the dugout and nurse cups of water between innings. Bench players stay in the dugout and frequent the water cooler. Pitchers not in uniform seek out any patch of shade where they can watch the game, chart pitches or handle the radar gun.

That isn’t always easy. AZL games are played on the back fields of spring training complexes, where there are few creature comforts. A game at the A’s complex in Papago Park means it will be a good day. The field there has the usual tarp-covered bleachers plus a few trees, leading to the unusual sight of the A’s bullpen pitchers sprawled out under a tree behind the dugout during games. A more challenging day, on the other hand, comes at the Angels complex in Tempe, where there is practically no cover except in the dugouts and players, fans and scouts look for anything that casts a shadow.

Paying Their Dues

There aren’t many fans to begin with, which is another unusual feature of playing in the AZL. Most games have scattered groups of 20 to 200 people, who pay no admission and often bring coolers filled with bottled water to the bleachers. The makeup of the crowds is always the same: parents and girlfriends, scouts, and the random minor league baseball nut.

“It’s a little weird at first,” Sweeney said. “I’d rather play in front of bigger crowds, but once the game starts I’m not paying attention to that anyway.”

Magallanes said the sparse attendance is actually helpful from a player-development perspective.

“You want guys to work for it and have to play in front of five people,” he said. “Plus, a lot of guys who are starting out are intimidated by large crowds. In this league they can relax and concentrate on baseball. They can keep their focus on the field and apply all the things we go over in the morning.”

It’s one of the many features of the AZL that players consider challenging but player-development personnel regard as beneficial. Conger, for instance, said living in a hotel--which is where most teams in the AZL house all their players--is tough because he’s used to living at home with his close-knit family. But Mariners director of player development Frank Mattox said putting all the players in the same hotel with a coach to monitor curfew is ideal for the Rookie level.

“Having a team in this league is a benefit when we sign these kids because we can tell their parents we’re not just putting their kids out in the middle of nowhere to live on their own,” Mattox said.

Mattox also likes the “dues-paying” principle inherent in the AZL. With the unforgiving sun and strange schedule, what better incentive do players have to reach the next level?

“This place is hell,” Jaimes said. “But it’s good to know that once you get past this, it only gets better. That motivates me to play as well as I can while I’m here.”

Chris Gigley is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.



NEW YORK (PENN) STATE OF MIND

• Williamsport second baseman Jim Negrych, a two-time BA All-American at Pittsburgh and a sixth-round pick of the Pirates in June, had the finest day of his nascent professional career by going 4-for-4 with a home run, a triple and three RBIs as the Crosscutters beat Jamestown 9-5. It was Negrych’s second home run of the season, and overall he was batting .267/.327/.384 with seven doubles in 146 at-bats.

• Oneonta outfielder Brennan Boesch went 3-for-3 against State College to extend a hitting streak to nine games, and though the streak ended the next day, Boesch continued to put up multi-hit games more often than not to raise his numbers to .294/.338/.455. Boesch, a third-round pick of the Tigers out of California, boosted his batting average by 60 points in a month’s time in spite of a 1-for-12 effort in Oneonta’s 26-inning game against Brooklyn.

• Hudson Valley outfielder Josh Hamilton was sidelined at the end of July with a knee injury, and he might not return to action this season. He was scheduled to have the knee examined by Dr. James Andrews. Hamilton was hitting .260/.327/.360 in 50 at-bats after missing four years because of injuries and drug suspensions.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

• Righthander Tim Lincecum, the 10th overall pick in June out of Washington, made his pro debut with a scoreless inning for Salem-Keizer. Lincecum started and struck out three Vancouver batters, but because one of his victims reached on a wild pitch, he faced a fourth batter, who flied out. He ended up making just two starts for the Volcanoes, working four scoreless innings and giving up one hit. He had 10 strikeouts and no walks. He was limited to 25 pitches in his first outing and 35 in his second.

“It’s been a couple months since I’ve been out there,” Lincecum told the Salem Statesman Journal. “It felt good. I was nervous. For the most part I was just trying to attack the zone. As a starter in college, you always want to keep going out there.”

Lincecum, who signed with the Giants for a club-record $2.025 million, earned a quick promotion to high Class A San Jose, where he allowed a pair of earned runs on three hits in 2 2/3 innings in his first start--when he was limited to 50 pitches.

“Sometimes you wish you could just stay out and pitch more to get your team in a position to win,” Lincecum said. “I know I wasn’t as sharp as I would have liked and you want more time to prove yourself. But at the same time, you know where the organization is coming from. Coming in after pitching all year in college, you want to make those adjustments to pro ball and you’re given a timetable each start to do that. You learn a little more every time out.”

• Tri-City righthander Aneury Rodriguez, 18, has been tearing up the Northwest League in his second pro season. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound native of the Dominican Republic struggled in his stateside debut last year when he posted a 7.55 ERA for Rookie-level Casper. It’s a different story this year, as he got off to a 3-1, 2.62 start for the Dust Devils, with a 51-21 strikeout-walk ratio in 55 innings.

• Third baseman Matt Antonelli returned to the lineup for Eugene after missing a week with a bruised hand. The 17th overall pick out of Wake Forest went 0-for-2 but scored four times, by virtue of reaching on an error and three walks, and that showed how effective he has been at getting on base. He was batting .267/.421/.336 with 34 walks against 19 strikeouts in 131 at-bats.

APPALACHIAN TRAILS

• If nothing else, the 397 Bristol fans who paid to see their White Sox play the Burlington Indians got a lot of baseball for their money. The Indians won the marathon affair with an eight-run outburst in the 13th inning for a 13-5 victory, but the game was more notable for the ineptitude of both the pitchers and hitters. The pitching staffs combined for 27 walks among 15 different pitchers, with Bristol starter Justin Stires recording just one out and walking five before he was pulled. Nearly five hours later, Bristol lefthander Jacob Jean took the loss by giving up eight runs on three hits and four walks (one intentional!) in 2/3 of an inning. Pitchers also had four wild pitches, two hit batters and a balk in the game. But the batters weren’t any better, striking out 23 times. That also meant an amazing 52 plate appearances were resolved without the ball being put into play. And just for good measure, the game featured a 20-minute rain delay.

• Is that another Braves pitching prospect on the horizon? Righthander Jamie Richmond, a Canadian native signed as a draft-and-follow out of Texarkana (Texas) Community College in May 2005, was dominating the Appy League for Danville. He had allowed just four earned runs in 49 innings to pile up a 7-0, 0.74 record, and he easily led the league in both wins and ERA. But his 39 strikeouts (against three walks) meant he was unlikely to win the league’s pitching triple crown.

PIONEER SPIRIT

• The knock on righthander Kyle McCulloch during his college career at Texas was that, while he had a great feel for pitching, he was rarely dominant. He was considered a safe choice by the White Sox at No. 29 overall and seemed to profile best in the middle of a rotation. But McCulloch did a lot to change that profile at Great Falls, dominating hitters in 22 innings of work before earning a promotion to high Class A Winston-Salem.

McCulloch didn’t allow a run in his final two starts in Great Falls, and he finished with a 1-1, 1.61 record and 27 strikeouts against seven walks. He overcame two strange early outings when he allowed 14 runs--though just 11 of them were earned. He gave up just four earned runs overall, and Pioneer League batters hit just .213 against him.

“He mixed his pitches nicely,” pitching coach Curt Hasler told the Great Falls Tribune after McCulloch’s outing against Missoula. “He’s got a plus changeup and a plus breaking ball, along with pretty good command of a fastball. Whenever you put those things together, it usually spells success.”

COMPLEX ISSUES

• Catcher Hank Conger’s first pro season ended after 19 games in the Arizona League. Conger, who signed for a $1.35 million bonus as the Angels’ first-round pick in June, had surgery after breaking the hamate bone in his right hand. Conger hit .319/.382/.522 in 69 at-bats, and the Angels expect him to return for instructional league.

• Chris Hobdy, the Dodgers’ seventh-round pick in the 2005 draft, was arrested and charged with multiple counts of burglary and petty theft, according to the Vero Beach (Fla.) News Journal. Hobdy, 19, was on the Gulf Coast League Dodgers roster, but he had not made an appearance this season. He pitched five innings in the GCL last year.

Several players at the Dodgertown complex complained of missing credit cards and cash over the course of several weeks. Police set up cameras in one of the Dodgertown suites, and after viewing the video they arrested Hobdy.

• Brewers first-rounder Jeremy Jeffress allowed just three hits and no runs over six innings, striking out four, in his longest outing of the season in the Arizona League. The righthander was 2-2, 3.00 with 24 strikeouts and 15 walks in 21 innings overall.

Compiled by Will Lingo