Arizona Fall League Notebook: Oct. 25

See also: Previous Arizona Fall League notebook

PHOENIX, Ariz.–Rangers prospects Anthony Webster and Travis Metcalf are on most decidedly different paths as they try to finish 2006 by making an impression on the Texas brass.

Webster, a 15th-round pick of the White Sox in 2001, is coming off his best season in terms of making adjustments as he hit .288/.339/.421 between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Oklahoma. The solid season followed his breakout 2005 season when he put up .301/.346/.484 numbers in the hitter-friendly California League.

Meanwhile, Metcalf, an 11th-round pick out of Kansas in 2004, never showed up in the Texas League, struggling to a .221/.298/.325 line in Frisco after hitting .291/.358/.513 with a career-high 22 homers as a teammate of Webster’™s at Bakersfield in 2005.

“I don’t know, I mean if I had an answer for that I’d be able to figure things out,” Metcalf said.

Part of the reason for the drop-off might be to the change in scenery. Metcalf spent most of the spring in big league camp riding the bench and serving as a late-inning replacement instead of getting regular reps with the team slated for Double-A. He worked hard in the cage to try to find a rhythm with his swing, but found himself behind his teammates once he was sent to minor league camp.

“I can’t take away anything from the Texas League,” Metcalf said. “There was great pitching there, great teams–the first time I’m in Double-A I have to make adjustments. And my swing didn’t feel nearly as fine-tuned as it had been. At first, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t getting overpowered. I felt like I was getting myself out. But then everything snowballed, I lost confidence and it just carried over.”

Metcalf’™s strength has always been his defense at third base, but with his bat lagging behind it was tough to ever find any kind of positives over what turned out to be a long season in Frisco.

“No one wants to come out and have a season like that–to come out and have just a horrible season,” Metcalf said. “No one wants that ever. But I’m a hundred percent happy that it happened. I got a full glimpse of how bad . . . being in the valley after being someone who drives a lot of runs in to being nothing. The whole year was an extreme learning experience.”

On the other side is Webster, who raked in Frisco and earned a promotion to Oklahoma. A center fielder with speed, Webster seems to be putting it all together after struggling through his first three seasons as a pro in the White Sox system. He came over to the Rangers as the final piece of the package in the 2004 Carl Everett deal.

“Things just kind of clicked for me,” Webster said. “It really took me a while to understand what pitchers were trying to do to me–to understand what it took to get to that next level. Luckily for me, they’re clicking right now.”

And unlucky for the Rangers, who will have at least one roster decision to make that will likely affect Webster.

“He’s got good speed and has shown he can go get it in center which was probably his biggest question mark,” a scout from an American League organization said. “With the way the bat came to life over the last two years, now there’s a track record–now he’s answered some of the questions. He might not be more than a fourth outfielder, but there is some value, no question.”

MAKEUP TIME: Pirates catcher Neil Walker was one of the youngest players in the AFL last season. But a wrist injury at the end of the Fall League caused him to miss all of spring training and he didn’t make his debut until May at high Class A Lynchburg.

Walker was promoted to Double-A Altoona in mid-August after hitting .284/.345/.409 with 22 doubles for the Hillcats. Bue he was shut down early when a viral infection caused the 20-year-old to lose 10 pounds in a three-day period.

Walker is handling the bulk of the catching duties for the Rafters this fall, working on squaring up balls to the center of the diamond and improving his game-calling abilities. Through 27 at-bats in the AFL, Walker is hitting .259/.286/.333 with a pair of doubles.

“We’re just trying to sharpen up his blocking skills,” Rafters coach and Double-A Altoona pitching coach Ray Searage said. “He needs to work on his footwork, getting his timing back, recognizing pitches, which way are balls going to bounce and when they are going to bounce–we’re doing those drills at least twice a week (in early work).

“He’s getting better. He’s improving. I just see good things in the future for him right now because his work ethic is outstanding and I’™m on him like white on rice. He doesn’t have much leeway–when he’s with me, he knows he’s got to get it done.”

TOP PITCHING PROSPECT?: Royals righthander Luke Hochevar came into the AFL as one of the top arms in the league, but the results haven’™t exactly been there. Through eight innings, the first overall pick in June has allowed 13 hits and is carrying a 8.64 ERA.

A lot of that comes from giving up seven runs on Oct. 16 against Scottsdale, but more comes from fine-tuning his changeup, which Hochevar is still behind the learning curve on deciding when and how to use it.

Hochevar bounced back from his performance against Scottsdale by allowing a pair of runs and striking out four over three innings on Saturday, and his changeup is emerging as a weapon.

“His changeup’s really come a lot way from the first day he was here,” Rafters pitching coach Kennie Steenstra said. “We’ve been working on it a lot and that was the pitch he wanted to concentrate on because he knows the value of its effectiveness. He’s throwing it more and more and taking it into games. For me, it’s going to be a big pitch for him. His reputation precedes him and a lot of people are going to be cheating on his fastball–they all know that he throws hard–and it’s a big pitch for him to keep hitters off the pace. We worked on putting the ball a little deeper in his hand to get him to throw it more like his fastball and not just baby it up there.”

SLEEPER OF THE DAY: On Day Two, our Sleeper of the Day goes to another unexpected arm–Royals lefthander Neal Musser. Musser, who turned 26 in August, was a second round pick of the Mets in 1999 and started 2006 in the Diamondbacks system after signing as a six-year free agent. The Royals picked Musser up in May, and the lefthander spent the bulk of the year at Double-A Wichita where he was just OK in the starting rotation. He was moved to the bullpen in August, finishing with 2-0, 2.89 numbers in 22 innings as a reliever.

“He’s looked so much better out of the pen,” an American League scout said. “He’™s been a starter his entire career until the last month of the season, and you see that aggressiveness that wasn’t there in the rotation. He’s 92-94 with good life on his fastball and good command, which is a huge plus. Average breaking ball, average changeup, but he’s been working on fastball command and you see it to both sides of the plate.”


• Rockies first baseman Joe Koshansky missed three games last week with lower back stiffness that occurred during a morning workout, but had little trouble turning around a 90 mph fastball Reds righthander Phil Dumatrait left up around his letters in Grand Canyon’s 9-6 win against Phoenix on Tuesday. Koshansky blasted Dumatrait’s elevated heat off the scoreboard at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, some 375 feet away in the second inning . . . Speaking of Rockies, Rafters shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had a huge at-bat in the top of the ninth inning of Grand Canyon’™s win, drilling an 0-2 fastball the other way down the right field line for a bases-clearing triple. The clutch hit came against righthander Tracy Thorpe (Blue Jays), who was consistently in the 93-95 mph range, but had little command. “That’s the kind of thing you want to see out of a guy with premium tools like he has,” a National League scout said of Tulowitzki. “You know he wants it with the game on the line. It takes a special player to elevate his game in crucial situations and he’s got a history of doing that.” . . . Keeping in the Rockies’ vein, lefthander Josh Newman showed plus deception and first-pitch strikes to every batter he faced in his one inning of work on Tuesday. A 19th-round pick in 2004 out of Ohio State, Newman has average life to his fastball, which was in the low-90s, along with a useable slider . . . Finally, what does Devil Rays shortstop Ben Zobrist have to do to get some respect? Zobrist, who spent the tail-end of 2006 in Tampa after coming over from the Astros as part of the Aubrey Huff deal, was playing on his home field at Phoenix on Tuesday, but the P.A. announcer apparently wasn’t aware there was a big leaguer in his midst . . . “From the Tampa Bay Devil Rays . . . shortstop . . . Ron Zobrist.”