Prospect Pulse

Twins look to build depth in middle infield





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FORT MYERS, Fla.--One of the major weaknesses in the Twins system is the lack of impact bats, but looking beyond the missing pop, there appear to be questions in the middle infield as well.

That's one of the reasons the club acquired second baseman Luis Castillo during the offseason for righthanders Travis Bowyer and Scott Tyler and dealt lefthander J.C. Romero to the Angels for shortstop Alexi Casilla.

The Twins weren't entirely sold on Jason Bartlett filling the shortstop hole for the short or long term, as shown when they sent Bartlett down to Triple-A Rochester and opted for Juan Castro on the major league roster. And with 2004 first-rounder Trevor Plouffe and 2005 second-rounder Paul Kelly in the system, it seems the future at the position lies in the lower rungs of the organization.

"We still don't have one shortstop that's really cemented himself (in the major leagues)," farm director Jim Rantz said. "It's been a heck of a battle over there and we feel like we have some guys who could fill that role. But obviously those guys are a little ways away."

Plouffe is the frontrunner and will likely begin the year at high Class A Fort Myers. While many clubs liked him better on the mound as an amateur--where he flashed a four-pitch mix and could command a 91-92 mph fastball--Minnesota saw him as a shortstop. They still see him in the center of the diamond after struggling through his first full season at low Class A Beloit, where he finished up batting .223-13-60 in 466 at-bats.

"His numbers didn't show that he had an outstanding year with the bat, but he put the ball in play, he made improvements," Rantz said. "He showed that he has some pop in his bat, and in the long run I think he's going to be an everyday shortstop. This will be his third year out and he's still working at it.

"He obviously has enough arm to play any position on the diamond, but his footwork and the overall smoothness of the game has to be ironed out a little bit."

Behind Plouffe is Kelly, and scouts continue to rave about the Flower Mound (Texas) High product's arm--which grades out as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale--as well as his leadership skills and presence on the field.

"He just goes about his business as a young player," a scout from an American League club said. "The arm makes you gasp a little bit, but there are a lot of things to like. He controls the strike zone pretty good, and I think he's going to hit for some power down the road. The thing you like about him is his defense at this point, though. But for me, he's a guy who could move quickly."

Kelly hit .281-3-24 in 153 at-bats between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and low Class A Beloit last season in his pro debut.

The X-factor is Casilla, a career .297 hitter who has hit just three homers in 694 at-bats. The 21-year-old wows scouts and Twins officials alike with his range, soft hands and fearlessness on the double play. Though Casilla will never hit for as much power as either of the other candidates, his speed on the bases and his ability to get on base give the Twins three legitimate shortstops at three levels heading into the 2006 season.

"This young man could be an exciting player for us in a very short time," Rantz said. "He moves well, has arm strength and range. But right now, we're looking at how much his bat is going to play into what he's going to be able to do. We know he can bunt, and we know he's going to leg out a lot of ground balls, but we'd like to see a little more consistency offensively. Right now, he could be a .260 hitter with those wheels.

"We're just hoping he can handle New Britain right now."

Back On The Blade

High Class A Wilmington has been a perennial playoff contender since joining the Carolina League in 1993 as a Royals affiliate. With the likes of Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Zack Greinke, the Blue Rocks won the Northern Division eight times, and advanced to the Mills Cup finals four times.

But the Rocks struggled in 2005 in their first season as an affiliate of the Red Sox, though that is likely to change this season with a pair of 2005 first-round picks and the return of first baseman Ian Bladergroen.

Bladergroen struggled with a wrist injury that sapped his power all of last season. Sox officials hope the wrist problem was directly responsible for his .253-5-37 line in just 281 at-bats. But the Blade has been back on track this year and is expected to start the season with the Blue Rocks, a season that is as much about him gaining confidence again as it is for him to make up for lost time.

"He's fully healthy, which is a major positive for us," farm director Mike Hazen said. "From center to the right-field pole this guy's got juice. He's a big strong kid that handles himself around the bag pretty well. He's got an advanced approach at the plate. We're still trying to work on him being able to shoot the ball the other way when he needs to as well as still being able to turn on the ball, but the major thing is he finally feels comfortable."

Bladergroen was anything but last season, as the nagging injury sent him back to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League for a short stint before returning to Wilmington. He struggled with his confidence and never found his power stroke as a result.

"He's still working on that wrist thing from a mental standpoint, trying to handle that pitch on the inner half, and that's to be expected," Hazen said. "That's going to have to be something he's going to have to balance if he wants to get to what everyone expects out of him. But we have some guys on that club that maybe we didn't have last season."

In addition to a returning Bladergroen, the Blue Rocks will boast shortstop Jed Lowrie and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, giving them a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the order as well as solid defense up the middle.

Lowrie, a supplemental first-round pick last year out of Stanford, batted .328-4-32 in 201 at-bats in his pro debut last season at short-season Lowell. Lowrie generates good loft power from the left side and does a nice job at controlling the strike zone.

"He was in his first-ever (spring training) camp, and then put into an uncomfortable situation in his first big league camp for three weeks because of the World Baseball Classic and held his own," Hazen said. "He's very mature, he's got a great approach mentally in terms of his approach to the game, his approach to his career, his approach to his routine. He's got obvious physical abilities in that he can play shortstop and he can swing it. He has a really good idea at the plate."

In Ellsbury, the Red Sox have a legitimate leadoff hitter with plus range in center. Ellsbury, a first-round pick out of Oregon State last year, finished second in the short-season New York-Penn League in steals in his debut despite getting a late start and missing two weeks with a hamstring injury.

He was slowed by a sore wrist early this spring, but is fully healthy now and should help Wilmington return to playoff contention.

"He can backspin the baseball as good as I've seen," Hazen said. "It's not jaw-dropping power--it's not big from a power standpoint, but his ability to work the ball around the field, along with his speed and his range in center, are very impressive. Those are three guys who could impact our club at that level."

Big Arms In Bowie

SARASOTA, Fla.--High Class A Frederick, an Orioles affiliate, won the Carolina League crown on the strength of its pitching in 2005. With the bulk of the staff moving up to Double-A Bowie, the organization is expecting big things.

The Baysox rotation will feature at least four integral parts of last year's Keys club in righthander Brian Finch and J.J. Johnson, as well as two of the best pitching prospects in the organization in lefthanders Adam Loewen and Garrett Olson.

Loewen is the highest-profile of the bunch, coming off his win for Canada against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, but his success really started to take hold last May and continued through a brilliant Arizona Fall League performance, where he finished 2-1, 1.67 in 27 innings.

"I think mostly it was a matter of getting to a point where he was playing against players that could embarrass him if he didn't get better," Orioles farm director David Stockstill said. "Early in the year he faced some situations where he couldn't get by with just throwing the ball. Working with (Frederick pitching coach) Scott McGregor helped him a lot where they were able to get channel his focus and make him understand that no matter how good his arm was, he needed to be better than whoever was in the box."

The organization came under scrutiny for its handling of Olson last season after taking him in the supplemental round of the 2005 draft out of Cal Poly. Between Cal Poly and his three stops for the Orioles, he threw more than 200 innings, though the number of pro innings is somewhat skewed considering the stuff Olson was bringing against lesser hitters at short-season Aberdeen, low Class A Delmarva and finally Frederick.

"He doesn't waste pitches and a lot of people don't realize how many seven and eight-pitch innings he had," Stockstill said. "He didn't really wear his arm out and he felt he actually gained 3-4 miles an hour from the time he signed with us until the last playoff game, which is unheard of.

"(Scouting director) Joe Jordan said this guy was 87 to 89 and he's a master at pitching. Well, by the last playoff game he was hitting 93. That puts him in a whole different category. His makeup and his work ethic--he's very special. Everything about him says he's a gamer."

Lefthander Richard Stahl, a 1999 first-round pick, secures the No. 5 spot, giving the Baysox three lefties in the starting rotation. Hampered by injuries over much of his career, the 25-year-old is completely healthy after splitting last season between Frederick and Bowie.

"Even though he's not on the (40-man) roster, he's still an outstanding talent," Stockstill said. "He throws 93 miles an hour, has a very good slider, and he's 6-foot-7. It's taken some time with the injuries he's had, but in his last outing our coaches said it was the best they've ever seen him throw. So we're pretty excited about Richard too."

Making Strides

WINTER HAVEN, Fla.--Indians first baseman Michael Aubrey is still in the process of making his way back from back injuries that limited him to just 28 games at Double-A Akron last year.

It's been two years since Aubrey put up huge numbers at high Class A Kinston, mashing his way through the Carolina League with 10 homers and 60 RBIs in just 218 at-bats. But a nagging hamstring injury ended his 2004 season soon after he was promoted to Akron, and then he injured his back on a slide into second base last year that ended his season in May.

He had another setback this spring when the Tribe shut him down for a week and it appears the back injury might be chronic. It dates back to his days as a standout two-way player at Tulane.

"We're trying to string everything together at this point," Aubrey said. "It's been really tough. You can only beat your head against a wall so many times. You can also only control what you can control--and that's your effort level--getting the treatments and doing the therapy, believing in the program they set up for you and executing that out to the best of your ability."

Aubrey played every other day in games during spring training, but was limited to DH duties with Triple-A Buffalo. He took ground balls on those game days also, but on off days he was rehabbing and spending a lot of time in the pool as part of his strength program.

"I think instincts take over when I'm out there," Aubrey said. "It's more after the play is over or after you take a swing that you notice. But just in that moment, you're more worried about focusing on the pitch. So for a slight second it goes away, but it's always in the back of your mind. It's just going to take more time and repetition and hopefully that will diminish.

"I have to stay positive though, so that's the attitude I take into everything. I'm going to give my best effort. It is what it is. But you've got to have fun too, or else it's going to kill you."

Aubrey was left behind in extended spring training when camp broke, and the Tribe is leaning on sending him to Kinston--for DH duties only--when he's ready to go.

"We're looking at mid-April, maybe the end of April," farm director John Farrell said. "We're just trying to give him every opportunity to get loose on a daily basis and really build some confidence from a physical standpoint before getting him out of here."



QUICK HITS

• Catcher is obviously a weak spot in the Orioles organization, with Eli Whiteside unable to make the jump from Triple-A and no potential candidate to surpass him on the depth chart. That weakness is why scouting director Joe Jordan drafted Brandon Snyder in the first round last year and why the former shortstop and third baseman continues to hone his skills behind the dish.

"This might be the best pure hitter we've signed since I've been here," said Stockstill, who has been in the organization for 13 years. "He's in the middle of a position change and is just starting to catch. We're still working with his arm slot and his throwing motion, simply because it's considerably different than shortstop. He wants to make the throw quicker and sometimes he takes short cuts where he doesn't get the strength and accuracy. He wants to come out with it as opposed to staying short and straight with his arm motion."

Snyder batted .291 in 172 at-bats in his pro debut last season and will begin 2006 at low Class A Delmarva.

• Keep an eye on Phillies righthander Julio de la Cruz. The 25-year-old Dominican is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and the Phillies expect to move him quickly this season, probably starting him out at high Class A Clearwater. De la Cruz tops out at 95 mph with his fastball, commands it well and backs it up with a hard slider. "We're going to try to fast-track him because he's essentially missed two years," assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said. "He's an older kid, but all of the sudden what we initially saw looks like it's back with command. We may start him to get him innings, but he probably profiles as a reliever."