Arizona Fall League Notebook: Oct. 22

TEMPE, Ariz.–Sunday is an off day in the Arizona Fall League, but we really don’t believe in off days here at Baseball America.

An off day for the league is the perfect day to catch up on random notes and especially one of the best parts of breaking down players in the AFL: identifying sleepers.

We’ve always tried to knock out a few sleepers a day in the past, but with as fringy as the pitching is in the league this year–we’re talking all back-of-the-rotation starters or middle relievers for the most part–it’s been a difficult assignment to say the least.

Position players are another story. Yes, there are impact bats like Brewers’ outfielder Matt LaPorta and Rays’ third baseman Evan Longoria (who is leaving the AFL later this week for Team USA), but for the most part the league lacks the high profile players it drew in the past . . . and this is a circuit that in 2006 boasted the top two candidates for this year’s National League Rookie of the Year honors in Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Braun.

And so let’s get back to the sleepers, beginning with two players from the Surprise Rafters:

Craig Tatum, c, Reds

An exceptional receiver during his college career at Mississippi State, the Reds signed Tatum for $450,000 as a third-round pick in 2004 and he struggled through his first two seasons as in pro ball.

Tatum was sidelined by Tommy John surgery early in his career and when healthy spent the 2005 and 2006 seasons at low Class A Dayton, hitting .277/.344/.408 in ‘06 before moving to the Florida State League this past season.

Always a solid catch-and-throw guy, Tatum’s offense began to emerge in 2007. He hit .320/.348/.525 as a 24-year-old at Sarasota and earned a promotion to Double-A Chattanooga where he threw out 34 percent of baserunners in 46 games with the Lookouts.

“I look at him and he doesn’t show you anything on his throws between innings,” one scout from an American League club said. “But when there’s a runner challenging him, he shows you a cannon.”

Tatum gunned down two runners on Saturday, showing off a 1.92-second pop time down to second base in the process.

In addition to arm strength, Tatum has all the tools defensively. He’s an above-average receiver, blocks balls well and shows excellent leadership skills.

“He might be the best catcher I never read about,” Surprise reliever Randy Newsom said. “He just quietly does his job and he’s one of the best defensive catchers in this league.”

On top of that, Tatum has a short, compact stroke from the right side and uses all fields in his approach. While he scuffled early in his career, the AFL has been a coming out party of sorts for the Hattiesburg, Miss., native.

“He kind of got the reputation for being lazy early in his career,” said another AL scout who saw Tatum in college. “But he’s always had the tools. I think coming to the Fall League is the best thing for him in terms of allowing him to recognize that he’s for real. I think he might not have believed that before and this has been a huge confidence boost.”

Dusty Hughes, lhp, Royals

Working primarily with his changeup this fall, Hughes has limited AFL hitters to a .139 average and is rolling up ground balls at nearly twice the rate he did during the regular season at Double-A Wichita.

A 2003 11th-round pick, the 25-year-old lefthander went 6-2, 3.08 in 108 innings for the Wranglers and profiles as a future left-on-left specialist out of the pen.

“But that’s only if his changeup isn’t working,” a National League scout said. “With his changeup and his fastball command, he could still profile as a No. 5 guy. He has weapons to attack hitters on both sides of the plate.”

Hughes’ fastball sits anywhere from 88-91 mph, touching 92. His breaking ball can get loopy at times, but it has the potential to be an average pitch.

“He pitches a little bit backwards, which gives him that sneaky fastball,” the scout said. “But having that ability with his changeup opens up a lot of doors to keep hitters guessing. He can locate the fastball in any count. If his breaking ball is more consistent, then he has a chance to be something. But this is a left-left guy right now that can get you a lot of miss-hits.”

Banged Up Bruce

Last week we announced that Reds outfielder and Baseball America’s 2007 Minor League Player of the Year wasn’t going to play for Team USA in the World Cup this winter.

Bruce won’t play for the national team, but only because of a lingering hamstring injury that continued to bother him during instructional league in Sarasota, Fla.

“After talking to the Reds about it, we decided it was best just to let it heal and get ready for spring training,” Bruce said. “It’s a mildly sore hamstring and I’m extremely disappointed, but this decision is best for the organization.”

Davis Hurting

Rangers third baseman Chris Davis has only played three AFL games for Surprise so far this season, mainly because the 2006 fifth-round pick has been trying to allow a stress fracture in his left foot to heal.

The injury hasn’t affected Davis’ bat whatsoever. The 21-year-old third baseman still shows plus raw power to all fields and hit a two-run homer in Surprise’s loss on Saturday.

But his range at third base has understandably decreased and he might be shut down for the remainder of the fall to rest the injury.