Winter Wonders: Brian Bogusevic Gets Some Needed At Bats





A lefthanded-hitting, lefthanded-throwing profile tied to an imposing projectable frame with athleticism to spare. An elite two-way amateur with prodigious power potential and a cannon for an arm. A legitimate top two round talent as either a hitter or a pitcher.

The same words could have been used at draft time to describe fellow top pitching prospects turned outfielders Rick Ankiel and Adam Loewen. After hitting road blocks on the mound due to injury and/or ineffectiveness, each found his way back to the batters box. Following a similar conversion path after being selected in the first round of the 2005 draft as a lefthander, Astros outfielder Brian Bogusevic is doing everything possible to establish himself as an everyday big league outfielder.

After taking advantage of his first extended big league look in 2011 behind a .287/.348/.457 hitting line (in 164 at-bats) coupled with fine defense in right field, Bogusevic looked to build on his success this winter. Following a few midseason consultations with fellow Astros teammates such as former Dominican Winter League alum Jason Michaels, Bogusevic sought out to play in the Dominican Republic due to "their history of treating import players well, the advanced competition, and the playing atmosphere," he said in a December phone interview.

Playing for Aguilas, Bogusevic took the Dominican League by storm. The 27-year-old hit .317/.446/.500, ranking third in the league in batting and slugging while placing first in on-base percentage. He added eight doubles, four home runs and a 27-28 walk-strikeout ratio in 120 at-bats.

Bogusevic explained he had established two development goals for the winter: putting together consistent at-bats and improving against lefthanded pitching. The former goal's attainment is evident in his numbers, including his improved power. "It was a product of everything coming together and feeling more comfortable at the plate," he said. "Being later in my career with more at-bats under my belt has allowed me to take a bigger picture approach to hitting."

Bogusevic needs the additional at-bats most against same-side pitchers. He faced lefthanders for just 13 at-bats in the majors, getting two singles, and hit .217 against them in Triple-A (15-for-69). However, he held his own against lefties this winter (.782 OPS).

The intensity of winter ball play helped speed Bogusevic's development.

"The biggest thing as a hitter is the pitching matchups," he said. "Each team has expanded rosters with very deep bullpens. Opposing managers are very quick to bring in the specialist, and you end up getting matched up on every at-bat after your second or third at-bat. It may be frustrating, but it is good for you as a hitter long-term. When it comes down to it, you have to do well against lefties for them to run you out there everyday."

On the rebuilding Astros, Bogusevic could win an everyday corner outfield spot, with veteran Carlos Lee (also in the mix at first base) and fellow 2011 rookie J.D. Martinez as the main competition. The key for Bogusevic will be to avoid the shortcomings that kept Ankiel and Loewen from being everyday players. Ankiel's inability to hit lefthanded pitching (.652 OPS in the majors vs. .759 against righthanders) has rendered him a platoon player, while the lumbering Loewen has modest defensive ability, placing greater demands on his bat.

Bogusevic will have ample opportunity in Houston to see if he can hold down the everyday job both Ankiel and Loewen have been unable to do thus far.

—Tim Ednoff

Herrera Finds Niche

Wise scouts say it's never smart to make a blanket statement when it comes to any aspect of pitching. Pitching isn't black and white, it's all kind of shades of gray. What may be an awful delivery for one pitcher works for another,

And when it comes to starting vs. relieving, it's hard to get a consensus as to which is easier on the pitcher's arm. Some say the regular work of a starting rotation is better, others argue the 20-pitch bursts of relieving do a better job of caring for a balky arm.

The Royals don't have the answer to the starting vs. relieving debate either. But they do know that relieving is working quite well for Kelvin Herrera, and they are not about to risk screwing things up by moving him back into a rotation.

As a starter, the undersized Herrera was extremely impressive. He showed a fastball that he could run up to 97-98 mph. Pair that with a plus breaking ball and a potentially plus changeup and the righthander had the makings of three plus pitches, just what teams love to find in a starting pitcher.

There was one problem. He could never stay healthy longer than a couple of trips through the rotation. Herrera burst onto the prospect scene by dominating the Rookie-level Appalachian League in 2008, finishing the season with a great start in low Class A Burlington. But for quite a while that looked to be Herrera's career highlight. He missed almost the entire 2009 season with a strained elbow and he threw only 41 innings, again in Burlington, in 2010 thanks to more elbow problems.

Before the 2011 season, Kansas City decided to move Herrera to the pen in the hopes that the change might keep him healthy. It worked wonderfully as the righthander jumped from high Class A Wilmington to a late-season callup to Kansas City over the course of the 2011 season. Along the way he showed a 100 mph fastball, an above-average breaking ball and an average changeup.

It was an impressive enough season to put Herrera in the mix of relievers competing for spots in the Royals' 2012 bullpen. And if there was an question about that, Herrera answered it in winter ball. Pitching for Escogido in the Dominican League, Herrera went 0-0, 0.52 with a save and 15 strikeouts in 17 innings. He gave up 14 hits and only four walks over his 12 appearances.

"We felt like he needed to throw a few more innings since his innings totals were not that high this year. In addition, we felt like it would help his development as he continues to grow into a back-end bullpen type," assistant general mannager for scouting and player development J.J. Picollo said. "He has gained a lot of confidence through the year and winter ball has just helped his confidence even more. He has pitched well this winter and it will help him this spring."

With the addition of Jonathan Broxton to a bullpen that already had Joakim Soria, Greg Holland and Aaron Crow, the Royals won't be looking for Herrera to pitch high-leverage innings in 2012, but if Herrera's arm can stay healthy, he could play a significant role in Kansas City in 2012.

—J.J. Cooper

Portillo's Progress

Padres righthander Adys Portillo made progress in the Venezuelan League with Zulia, including a Nov. 19 start where he pitched five shutout innings, allowing only one hit. He turned 20 a month later and wound up 2-1, 4.29 in 21 innings with 23 strikeouts in 21 innings. That effort marks improvement from his 2011 campaign at low Class A Fort Wayne, (3-11, 7.11, 1.75 WHIP, 10.6 K/9), and the Padres think he may be turning the corner. The 2008 signee for a $2.5 million bonus has touched 100 mph, so improved control (10 walks) was a goal, as was working on his breaking ball.

"Obviously the fastball velocity is impressive, but the slider has been better this winter," Padres farm director Randy Smith said. "It is something he can attack with rather than just coming with only the fastball. The changeup is coming along and is a work in progress."

Not only is the 20-year old's big stuff impressive, but Smith believes Portillo's makeup makes him special. Unfazed by his rough 2011, Portillo sought out the opportunity to pitch in his native Venezuela this winter.

He has a "burning desire to be successful. Even after getting hit around, he bounces back the next day," Smith said. "I think he gets it; he understands he is a work in progress and does not get too high on a good day or too low on a bad one."

Look for Portillo to have some success back in the Midwest League in 2012 before moving up, but "once he gets it, he could really fly up the system."

—Tim Ednoff

CARIBBEAN DREAMS

• The player Minnesota acquired in the midseason Delmon Young trade, righthander Lester Oliveros has shown impressive arm strength by running his fastball up to 96 mph in the Venezuelan League this winter. With some brief big league time in 2011 with Detroit and Minnesota, Oliveros will have the opportunity to win a big league job in spring training for the revamped Minnesota bullpen. Already possessing the best fastball in the Minnesota system that sits in the 93-96 range, the key to Oliveros' future will be the development of his currently below-average slider. He performed this winter for Anzoategui, posting a 1-1, 1.33 mark with nine walks and 18 strikeouts in 20 innings.

• Giaints catcher Hector Sanchez probably delivered the best season by a prospect in Venezuela, as he ranked second in the league in batting and slugging in a .339/.402/.548 campaign. He added nine home runs for La Guaira.

• Two prospect outfielders helped lead Escogido into the Dominican League's round-robin playoffs. Starling Marte (Pirates) batted .328/.368/.467 and adding nine steals; he would have ranked third in the league in batting had he qualified. Meanwhile Denis Phipps (Reds) added a .297/.403/.436 line, then went 6-for-10 in Escogido's first three playoff games.