Winter Leagues Notebook: Nov. 16

Brandon Jones trying to get comfortable in center




Braves' outfielder Brandon Jones has been playing a lot of center field in the Mexican Pacific League this winter for Navajoa, though he is unlikely to replace Andruw Jones in Atlanta anytime soon.

Brandon Jones, who played strictly left field at two stops in the minors this season before getting the call to Atlanta in September, doesn't have the range or athleticism to be an everyday center fielder in the big leagues according to several scouts.

"You look at him and yes, he is athletic," said one scout from an American League club. "But he's not that athletic. He runs pretty good, but he doesn't run that good. It seems like people want him to the second-coming of Andruw and that's just not fair. That's not who he is."

Andruw Jones is expected to leave via free agency this offseason, leaving a hole in the middle of the outfield that he filled as an everyday player since 1997. But Brandon Jones is not the answer.

"He doesn't get real good reads off the bat and his routes are just OK," said another AL scout who saw Jones in Mexico two weeks ago during his extended stint in center. "And this isn't a guy who can make up for mistakes with his speed. He might be a slightly above-average runner, but it's more speed when he's underway than having that true explosion. He's not a major league center fielder."

That's not to say Jones doesn't have value, however. A 24th-round draft-and-follow in 2003 out of Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College, it took time for Jones, a three-sport star in high school, to grow into his tools. He began to emerge as a power threat in 2006, then followed up that 14-home run campaign with .295/.367/.490 numbers and 19 homers this past season.

But as he filled out into his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame, Jones' speed decreased and he was more seen as a power-hitting corner outfielder who could hit in the middle of the order and drivein  runs.

He's certainly followed up the regular season playing that role for Navajoa. Through 114 at-bats, Jones was hitting .289/.381/.404 with three homers and 14 RBIs. He's also crushing lefthanders at a .341 clip.

So far in Mexico, Jones has seen action in center field in 19 of his 30 games, but it's been his approach at the plate that has most scouts talking.

"He's really improved his pitch recognition more than anything else, and that's something that was a weakness," said the scout. "He's laying off more breaking balls out of the zone—and he's probably seen more of those than he ever has."

Oh, Henry

Athletics' righthander Henry Rodriguez started the offseason pitching out of the bullpen for Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he was touched up for a pair of runs against Lara over 2 1/3 innings in his debut.

Since then, however, the 20-year-old has been virtually untouchable, lowering his numbers to 1-0, 2.13 over 13 innings.

Signed out of Venezuela in 2003, Rodriguez is undersized as a 6-foot-1 righthander, but has electric stuff. His fastball was often clocked at 100 mph in the Dominican Summer League in 2005, and again in the Rookie-level Arizona League the following season.

But at that time, the secondary pitches were raw and he had the mentality of just trying to blow away hitters with heat. Rodriguez started to turn the corner in August of 2006, combining on a no-hitter with Athletics' righthander Trevor Cahill against the AZL Padres.

After that outing, confidence suddenly kicked in and Rodriguez finished the AZL season winning two of his final three starts and racking up 21 strikeouts in 15 innings.

"Henry's stuff has always been off the charts," Athletics' director of player personnel Billy Owens said. "After that season in rookie-ball, he worked hard to improve his mechanics and really learned that throwing 95 with location is better than throwing it 100 with no location."

Still, success in his native country eluded him last winter, as Rodriguez made just two appearances for Zulia. He walked four over a total of 2/3 of an inning and left the club with a 13.50 ERA.

But that seemed to have little lasting effect, as Rodriguez broke out in 2007 at low Class A Kane County. In 18 starts for the Cougars, Rodriguez finished the year with 6-8, 3.07 numbers and struck out 106 in 100 innings.

"He's got a full arsenal. He's got a good breaking ball and feel for his changeup," Owens said. "He's starting to get on the map and he's got legitimate stuff. This is a starter that tops out at 98 that had good numbers. He's not tall, but he's strong as a bull."

Bullpen Wells

The Padres knew they had something in Jared Wells. The trouble was that the 26-year-old righthander was only scratching the surface of his ability as a starting pitcher.

And that's putting it mildly. In the span of 25 starts for Triple-A Portland in 2006 and 2007, Wells went a staggering 3-15, 7.26 while allowing opponents to hit .316. A lot of those sins were forgotten, though, when the Padres converted Wells, a 31st-round draft-and-follow from 2002, to relief in early June.

In 37 relief appearances for Portland thereafter, Wells struck out 47 batters in 43 innings, while walking 18 and allowing just a .230 average. He hit 95 mph more consistently out the pen. And in shorter stints his hard slider played up and he could forget about his changeup.

But because the Puerto Rican Winter League is on hiatus—perhaps permanently—the Padres sent Wells to Mexicali of the Mexican Pacific League to continue his education as a reliever. The decision was aided by the fact that Wells' hometown of Brazoria, in southeast Texas, was close to the border.

Through his first 12 MPL games, Wells was 0-1, 6.00 with 11 strikeouts and seven walks in 15 innings. Just one of those appearances came as a starter.

Padres farm director and VP of scouting Grady Fuson was pleased with the progress Wells made as a reliever in 2007, but noted that the righthander was working on fastball command in Mexico, particularly early in counts. Because he's historically worked too many deep counts, Wells has struggled to get the most out of his slider and his change.

—MATT EDDY

Holding His Own

After a strong outing in his second season in the U.S., lefthander Jose Ortegano headed to Venezuela to pitch for Caracas of the Venezuelan Winter League.

Ortegano went 6-1, 1.48 in 61 innings for Rookie-level Danville last season and struck out seven in five innings in the first game of the championship series only to receive a no decision.

The 20-year-old lefty is tabbed as a starter and is in Venezuela to simply develop further against quality competition.

"At this point he would continue to be a starter for us," said Braves' director of player development Kurt Kemp. "You don't take a guy from Rookie-advanced ball and put him in a league with the quality of players they have."

In 23 innings, Ortegano was 1-1, 2.38 with 18 strikeouts and six walks. His strikeout-walk ratio was down from 5-1 in the Appalachian League to 3-1 in Venezuela, but Ortegano is facing much stiffer competition.

Ortegano's strengths come in his demeanor and knowledge. He doesn't blow hitters away with a big fastball, but he can out-smart them.

"He knows how to pitch and he competes," Kemp added. "Those are the things that are big strengths for him."

—NATHAN RODE

QUICK HITS

• While the Braves don't seem close to a decision on Andruw Jones' replacement, there may be an in-house answer, at least temporarily. Gregor Blanco hit .282/.369/.362 in 464 at-bats for Triple-A Richmond and stole 23 bases. He is also in Venezuela playing for La Guaira. In 102 at-bats, the 23-year-old was hitting .314/.421/.441 and has a 22-18 strikeout-walk ratio. He's led off every game for the Sharks, hitting .429/.556/.571 in 21 first inning at-bats.

• The tale of two Brewers: In a strange twist, Hernan Iribarren is hot, Alcides Escobar is not. The pair of middle infielders, who helped Double-A Huntsville to the Southern League championship series against Montgomery during the regular season, are again playing for the same club—this time for Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League. Iribarren was hitting .333/.419/.426 in 54 at-bats. In his defense, Escobar, who batted .385 in the SL postseason, has played sparingly this winter. In just 13 at-bats, Escobar was hitting .077.

• Major league veteran righthander Jose Lima couldn't find a home in the big leagues this past offseason after helping the Dominican Republic win its 16th Caribbean Series title. Now 35, Lima found work in the Mexican League, going 13-4, 3.60 in 160 innings for Saltillo, tossing six complete games in the process. This winter, Lima is back pitching for Aguilas again in the Dominican Winter League, and sits atop the pitching leaderboard with 2-1, 1.86 numbers in 29 innings. No longer armed with a much velocity, Lima relies on supreme command of three pitches to survive—though some scouts say it's more like six pitches. "It's all smoke and mirrors," said an international scout for a National League club. "He'll change arm angles, he'll pitch you backwards. He doesn't really care. He knows he has to walk a tightrope out there, but still knows how to get outs."

• Former big league outfielder Jody Gerut is also trying to work his way back to the majors, and is off to a great start for Caribes in the Venezuelan Winter League. The 30-year-old was hitting .415/.504/.623 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 106 at-bats. Gerut hasn't played since 2005, when he played for the Indians, Cubs and Pirates. He was released by Pittsburgh in March after missing all of 2006 with knee problems.