SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.–Most mornings, the future of the left side of the infield in Tampa can be found at a little breakfast spot in Old Town Scottsdale, just around the corner from the string of shops where you can buy anything from homemade salsas to snake oil.
But for as close as third baseman Evan Longoria and shortstop Reid Brignac are off the field, mornings aren’t usually the best time for conversation. They sit in their booth, waiting for their omelets armed with crossword puzzles, often in complete silence.
Then they dig in with the writing utensil of choice and fade into a singular comfort zone.
“We actually do talk sometimes,” Brignac said. “But it’s really about enjoying the morning, enjoying the scenery and I guess each other’s company even though it might not look that way a lot of the time.
“It’s just a nice way to kind of get away from everything else. The only time we really say anything is if there’s something we can’t figure out on the page in front of us.”
The two teammates, who first ran into each other at high Class A Visalia in 2006 after the Rays took Longoria with the third overall pick in the draft out of Long Beach State, quickly became the best of friends during Longoria’s brief stay with the Oaks before they both moved up to Double-A Montgomery and wound up winning the Southern League title.
They started the 2007 season together again with the Biscuits before Longoria was promoted to Triple-A Durham and have been reunited in the Arizona Fall League as Scottsdale Scorpions.
“We just hit it off right away,” Brignac said. “There was obviously an immediate respect as players, but we’re also pretty quiet guys who want to continue to get better every day.”
And lead by example. Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics has repeatedly called both Longoria and Brignac ‘winning players,’ which is a key separator between players who simply have outstanding tools and players who are all tooled-up, but also bring a ton of intangibles to the table.
“They’re just different,” said a scout from an American League club. “You can see how advanced they both are in their approach to the game. They have a routine. A lot of guys at the same age have tools and they have an idea of what they want to be and what they want to accomplish in this game, but these guys visualize success.”
Which is good news for Rays fans everywhere. Longoria came into pro ball with more polish from an elite college program, and is still a step ahead of Brignac, a 2004 second-round pick out of a Louisiana high school.
While the third baseman has a good chance of breaking camp with the big league club in 2008, Brignac still has things to work on.
“I’m always working on things,” Brignac said. “Always. The reason you’re here is because you’re close, but you’re not quite there yet. So I’m just trying to be more consistent with my defense. I feel fine in all aspects of my game, but it’s just having that consistency–making the routine plays, challenging myself with balls to my left and to my right . . . and throwing the ball across the diamond from deep in the hole. Catching the ball is sometimes the easy part. If you get to those balls deep in the hole, your job is like a third of the way done. I’m always working on me feet and having good quickness. That’s so important because the surfaces in the big leagues are quick, the surfaces here are quick, so having that speed to get to balls and then slow everything down body control-wise to make those throws–that’s a huge part of what I’m constantly trying to do.”
After winning the 2006 Southern League title, Brignac and Longoria were at it again in Biscuitville until the Rays sent Longoria to Durham in the second half. Brignac stayed in Montgomery, helping the club to its second straight championship–a feat that hadn’t been done in the SL in 20 years.
“I wanted to contribute more this year (in the postseason) and I wanted to help carry my team,” Brignac said. “But it wasn’t just me by any stretch. (Chris) Nowak was the MVP of the playoffs, (John) Jaso was unbelievable in all aspects of his game and we had really good pitching.
“To win a championship means having a different person stepping up every night and we had that type of team. When you look at it, that’s two years in a row. I feel really fortunate to have been a part of those teams, but this year was exciting for me and exciting for Tampa and not just in Montgomery. We had great teams in the minor leagues. (Low Class A) Columbus won it, Durham got to the final game of the championship series–that says a lot about the scouting and the job the development staff has done throughout the system.”
For now, Brignac will finish out the fall with Scottsdale while Longoria will leave the club to play for Team USA next week. But both players are focused on going through separate experiences now to reach the same goal down the road.
“As a player, you want to get to the point where you play deep into October,” Brignac said. “This league is perfect for that. This year has been the most games I’ve ever played in my life–I think I had seven days off total during the season–but I need to learn how my body reacts to playing so long and learn that kind of endurance level.
“It takes a lot of preparation and it takes a good balance off the field to have that kind of mindset.”
And it seems early-morning crosswords are essential in the grand scheme of things.
Devon White Redux?
Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler is here in Arizona making up for lost time. A 14th-round pick in 2004, Fowler crashed into the metal outfield wall trying to make a catch at San Jose on June 17, shattered his right hand in three pieces and was out for the rest of the regular season.
The injury required surgery, and team doctors in Denver placed two screws in the base of Fowler’s palm.
“It wasn’t too pretty,” Fowler said. “It feels pretty good right now, but it kind of comes and goes and I have to get used to it.
“I’m taking it day by day. I think just through normal wear and tear it’s kind of worn down a little bit, but I’m going to continue to work to strengthen it during the offseason.”
The Rockies are obviously concerned with Fowler’s return to action, especially since the injury–which has affected his entire wrist–flared up in the first week of action in the AFL.
“It’s something we’re monitoring very closely,” Rockies assistant general manager Bill Geivett said. “His strength was all the way back (when he went to the fall league), but we’re watching to see what he’s doing from both sides of the plate.”
Fowler didn’t start switch-hitting until he turned pro out of Alpharetta (Ga.) High, though he’s shown a good ability to go the other way from the right side against lefties this fall with the Peoria Javelinas.
“I guess the return of that power is an issue,” said one scout from a National League club. “But he’s young and still needs to grow into his frame. When I see him, I see Devon White reincarnate. He’s got the same long, graceful strides and is a plus defender in center. He’s got the ability to hit for a high average with power from both sides of the plate. Sure, the injury is a setback, but this is a guy.”
When Nationals outfielder Justin Maxwell reported to spring training this year, GM Jim Bowden pulled him aside.
“He just told me to stay healthy and I’d be surprised at what happens,” Maxwell said.
But not even Maxwell, a 2005 fourth-round pick out of Maryland, ever thought a call to the big leagues was in that surprise equation.
After battling injuries since his sophomore year with the Terps all the way through his first year of pro ball in 2006, Maxwell stayed healthy, put up good numbers and found himself at RFK Stadium in September–after beginning the year at low Class A Hagerstown.
Maxwell hit .269/.296/.500 in 26 at-bats with Washington after he finished up his season at high Class A Potomac, where he batted .263/.338/.491.
“In Hagerstown, in Potomac, we all admired the way (the big league club) was playing despite the payroll issues and whatnot, and we always watched them every night. And then all of the sudden I’m on Baseball Tonight, which was kind of cool.
“Kind of freaky, but cool. As far as injuries go, when I broke my arm, I never stopped working out my legs. When I had a leg issue, I never stopped working my upper body. I really think going through all the stuff I’ve gone through injury wise has made me a lot more mentally tough and a better person–and hopefully a better player in the long run.”
A physical specimen at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, the 23-year-old drips classic right field tools with a plus arm and considerable pop in his bat.
“The physical appearance of him alone is something to behold,” Javelinas manager Tony Franklin said. “He can run extremely well for a big man and brings a presence to the middle of our order.”