Prospect Pulse: Uggla Earning His Big Break





See also: Previous Prospect Pulse

JUPITER, Fla.--Don't blame Dan Uggla if he sounds a little excited. He's penciled in as the 2006 starting second baseman for the Marlins since Pokey Reese left camp and subsequently was released.

"It's been going good, man," Uggla said. "I'm real excited to be here, basically. I guess for the way it's started off, I really can't ask for anything more. I know there are no guarantees. The only thing I can do and have control over is how hard I play out there and the effort I put out to get all my other work in.

"You never know what's going to happen in this game, I'm telling you."

Needless to say, it's a long way from last season, when he spent the summer at Double-A Tennessee.

Through 15 games, Uggla was batting .240-2-6 with a homer in a team-high 50 at-bats in big league camp. Obtained in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft last December from the Diamondbacks, Uggla had cooled after a fast start but remained not only poised to stick with Florida, but to be the Opening Day second baseman when camp breaks in April.

"He's a baseball player," vice president of player development and scouting Jim Fleming said. "He's a hard-nosed kid who wants to play and is playing himself onto this team. He's got a determination about him that you really like."

An 11th-round pick out of Memphis in 2001, Uggla was known for his solid bat and defensive versatility in the Diamondbacks' system, but he was viewed as more of a utility player than anything else. Until 2005, that is, when he followed a career season (.297-21-87) with a breakout Arizona Fall League performance.

"I'll tell you what, he's made remarkable strides on defense," a scout with a National League club said. "The bat always seemed to speak enough for him to continue to move up through the minors, but the defense was always a question mark. Not anymore, especially since it looks like he'll have a definitive position. And you've got to love the gamer in him."

But don't say anything to Uggla about having a set position. Sure, he feels more comfortable at second base than anywhere else, but he'll play wherever he can to work himself in the order.

"I can play them all," Uggla said. "I mean, I'm not an everyday shortstop, but I can play third probably everyday . . . but for me, second is where it's at. Maybe that's just me, but that's where I feel at home."

Uggla, a career .276 hitter in the minors, built on his strong season at Tennessee by having success in the AFL, hitting .304 with seven home runs in 102 at-bats for the Peoria Javelinas.

He was the only Diamondback on the Peoria team as a late addition to the league. The remainder of the Arizona prospects all played for AFL champion Phoenix.

"I guess that maybe should have told me something from the beginning," Uggla said. "I had a pretty good follow-up to a good season. And that's all the Fall League is anyway--it's just a showcase. But it can be one of the most important showcases in your life and it was for me. Just playing in front of scouts and owners and GMs . . . everybody's there.

"It's kind of weird that the Diamondbacks want you out there and you have a good Fall League and they don't protect you. I thought I'd be going out there regardless and then they added me at the last minute. That whole situation, it just really didn't make a lot of sense to me, so I just went out there and tried to have fun."

After all the fun, the Marlins stepped in, grabbing Uggla in the Rule 5, and now he finds himself in the middle of an opportunity of a lifetime.

"I stood up and did a cartwheel out of bed that morning," Uggla said. "I realized right then it was a new start and a great opportunity. I was about as excited as you could be."

His defense, however, still needs work if he's going to make the jump from Double-A to the big leagues and stay a Marlin for the foreseeable future. Uggla is taking advantage of one Marlins resource, renowned infield coach Perry Hill.

"Dan's worked very hard with Perry Hill and there's no doubt in my mind that he's going to continue to improve defensively," Fleming said. "That's something he needed to do and wanted to do. There's obviously a wide-open hole at second, and you can see he's already improved on his defense at second base.

"Perry's an asset for us. As good as Luis (Castillo) and (Alex) Gonzalez were, he made them that much better. Dan's one of those guys that's taken the information, applied it to himself and is making himself a much better all-around player."

L.A. Shuffle

The Dodgers still have impressive infield depth, as imposing as any organization in the game.

That depth allowed the organization to move some pieces around this spring, trying to find better ways for players to use their talent.

Joel Guzman, the most prominent prospect of the bunch, moved from shortstop to left field. He had not let the move affect his bat; through 17 games in big league camp, he was 13-for-41 (.317) with two home runs.

"The factors taken in are what's best for the kid, what's the best way to have him reach his full potential; and two, what's best for the organization--where is there a need?" Dodgers vice president of scouting and player development Roy Smith said. "And corner outfield is a position where there's a path there. So the decision was made to put him in left and work him hard. That doesn't mean that there's a place waiting for him as soon as we think he's ready. His bat is going to determine when he's ready for the big leagues. Obviously if his bat was ready and he was at shortstop, there wasn't a place for him to go with (Rafael) Furcal here."

Guzman has atypical size at shortstop--he's listed at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds--but also brought atypical power to the position. The Dodgers tried him at third base last season at Double-A Jacksonville but have plenty of talent there as well, and a move to a corner-outfield spot had long been predicted by scouts both inside and outside the organization.

"Going back, the best little leaguer played short; the best outfielder played center," Smith said. "There is a pride that goes along with catching. So whenever you move one of those guys, you're telling them they can't, but in their minds anyone can play second base. Anyone can play the corners.

"So I think he took a lot of pride in the fact that he was a big man playing short. He looked at (Alex) Rodriguez and (Cal) Ripken and said I can be one of those guys. And that he'd be disappointed to move from there is totally understandable--it's a pride thing."

Joining Guzman in the outfield is his former double-play partner at two minor league stops, Delwyn Young. Blake Dewitt, a 2004 first-round pick, moves from third base to Young's old spot at second base, switching spots with Travis Denker, who flips from second to third.

"When you're in the organization you feel good and you're looking through rose-colored glasses, but our infield depth speaks for itself, although Guzman's now moved to the outfield," Smith said. "But with guys like Tony Abreu, Blake DeWitt now moving to second base gives us a potential lefthanded bat in the middle of the field--you've got to feel good there.

"I think since we've had (DeWitt), something like that's been contemplated. But having that lefthanded bat in the middle of the field--he's got the feed, he's got the arm, he's got the makeup--so we like what we've seen so far and we think he's going to have a real future at second."

Getting Their First Look

The Mets were in their second training camp under general manager Omar Minaya and have been aggressive in signing and developing Latin American players in his tenure. Last year, they signed outfielder Fernando Martinez for $1.4 million out of the Dominican Republic and righthander Deolis Guerra out of Venezuela for $700,000. The two were making impressive showings in spring camp, with Martinez even getting an at-bat in a big league spring game.

"He's just very mature, very strong physically," said new farm director Adam Wogan, who was getting his first look at Martinez. "He's ahead of his years in terms of his ability to hit. I'm not talking about power, but his ability to use the whole field.

"In terms of his strike zone, obviously I haven't seen him in minor league games yet, but he went with a pitch (in an intersquad game) and hit it out the other way. He has speed and he has arm strength. He seems to be a guy who has everything you could want out of a center fielder."

Guerra, who is listed at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds and does not turn 17 until April, has shown an advanced changeup, particularly for a young pitcher. "Physically looking at him as a 17-year-old kid is impressive," Wogan said. "And he has a chance to get bigger and stronger as his body fills out. Obviously he still has a lot to learn in every phase, but (is) another very mature guy."

Two more young Latin American Mets to keep an eye on: Righthander Jacobo Neguilis and first baseman Junior Contreras. Neguilis missed a few days after oral surgery, but has a power arm with good command and should make his debut in the States this season after spending three years in the Dominican Summer League. The 21-year-old went 0-1, 1.94 in 42 innings in the DSL last season.

Contreras, 20, is especially intriguing--a first baseman with plus raw power, he also has especially soft hands at his position and moves well for a 6-foot-6, 250-pounder. He hit .291-8-31 in 148 at-bats in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last season and will likely begin the year at low Class A Hagerstown.

QUICK HITS

• Speaking of position switches, the Braves say none is imminent for top prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The catcher was taking infield groundballs at first base during the spring, and he could be blocked at the big league level by rising star Brad McCann, who seized the job last summer.

"We're committed to Salty staying behind the plate," assistant general manager Dayton Moore said. "And he's worked so hard. I remember when we drafted him and some of our scouts sitting around and some thought he could play third or first base, some felt he could stay behind the plate, some didn't. But I believe the consensus among baseball was that he wasn't going to stay behind the plate because everybody thought he was going to hit. And if everybody felt he had that hitting combination along with his ability to catch, there's no way we get to him in the sandwich round that year.

"So I think it was probably a consensus throughout baseball whether he was going to be able to stay behind the plate or not. That being said, he has taken a lot of pride in that position, (roving instructor) Chino Cadahia has done a lot of work with him and I know Salty credits Chino for a lot of the help. The plan is to continue to develop him behind the plate."

• The Braves didn't want to trade Andy Marte, but their third-base depth means they could afford to without leaving themselves short at the hot corner. Moore was impressed with the spring showings of both Van Pope and Eric Campbell, the organization's top two remaining third basemen.

"I think Van Pope's going to have a monster year," he said. "He left here at 212 pounds in instructional league and he looked good. He's at 200 right now and his body has tapered to it. He looks like a big leaguer right now. He'll start in Myrtle; Campbell will start in Rome."

• Marlins righthander Anibal Sanchez was shut down for seven days with minor shoulder tendinitis. Sanchez, who came over from the Red Sox as part of the Josh Beckett deal, had yet to make an appearance in big league camp.

• Pirates lefthander Tom Gorzelanny was sent back to minor league camp, but not before making a strong impression against big leaguers. The 23-year-old posted a 1.69 ERA in 11 innings in major league camp.

"(His performance) doesn't surprise me because his pure stuff might be better than (Zach) Duke and (Paul) Maholm, but Duke and Maholm command the ball better," farm director Brian Graham said. "They both have an extraordinary maturity to them. They have a great feel for how to pitch, what pitch to throw, reading hitters' swings; both Maholm and Duke understand game situations and have great poise. If they get a couple balls hit hard off them, they're OK. They'll settle back in and get a ground ball. Gorzelanny isn't at that point yet from a maturity standpoint or an experience standpoint. But, his stuff is very good. He just needs more innings."

Gorzelanny should start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis.

• The Nationals have more confidence in shortstop Ian Desmond than most outside observers. The 20-year-old, a third-round pick in 2004 out of Sarasota (Fla.) High, is expected to start the season at Double-A Harrisburg, even though he has hit just .244-9-66 in 743 at-bats as a pro. "He's made some adjustments and people really like him over in big league camp," farm director Andy Dunn said. "That experience is going to really help his confidence. He's a confident kid, and he's going to need that this season heading to Double-A. It's going to be his biggest challenge, but we feel like he's up to that challenge."

• A big surprise early in Nationals camp was outfielder Justin Maxwell, the fourth-round pick out of Maryland last year whose pro debut has been delayed two years by injuries in his college career. Maxwell, who emerged as a prospect with a big summer in the Cape Cod League in 2003, had shown a solid line-drive approach at the plate and was hitting with authority to all fields. "We've had a limited look on Maxie, but everything you like, you love," Dunn said. "You love the makeup--he's the first guy in, last guy out. He approached conditioning tests at the beginning of camp like it was an NFL combine. He's a tremendous athlete who has a chance to be a special player." The Nats would like Maxwell to start the season at low Class A Savannah, but there is a chance he could be held back in extended spring training and report to short-season Vermont in June.

• The Dodgers had high hopes for lefthander Greg Miller to make the team as a bullpen specialist out of camp, but he was reassigned to minor league camp. "He still has a good arm," Smith said. "We lowered his arm angle last year and he's taken to it. He still has to be more consistent with his release point.

"The thing with him is he needs to pitch this year. He really needs to post up and show that he can go day in and day out. I'm sure there's more in there as he gets further and further away from his operation. He's a big kid, so you have to let him grow into his body, get to know it and almost re-learn it because he's been out so much. There's been so many stops and starts. But there's still a lot to like. There's still plenty in there for him to be a big league pitcher in whatever role."

• Lefthander Jeff Ridgway has impressed Devil Rays officials this spring after finishing up last summer completely healthy after having a history of both shoulder and elbow injuries. The 25-year-old logged just 45 innings in the high Class A California League last year and has not pitched 100 innings since 2001. "He has some history, but he's come back pretty strong," farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "We're anxious to see how he does day in and day out and go from there, but everything with Jeff's been very positive."