Daily Dish: June 2

Natale is jumped to high Class A after explosive start

See also: Thursday's Daily Dish
See also: Baseball America Prospect Report

When 5-foot-9 second baseman Jeff Natale first showed up at short-season Lowell after being drafted in the 32nd round out of Division III Trinity (Conn.) College last summer, Spinners manager Luis Alicea was not impressed.

"The impression he made on me right away, when I saw him come onto the field, I didn't know he was a player," said Alicea, who now manages low Class A Greenville. "I saw him in batting practice the first day, you could knock the bat out of his hands. Then I saw him in a game and it was a different guy--like he turned on a switch."

Natale went on to hit .488/.522/.610 in his 12-game stint in the New York-Penn League, then kept up it up after a promotion to Greenville, going .338/.463/.544 with two home runs and 35 RBIs the rest of the way.

But that was just the beginning for the 23-year-old Natale. He returned to the South Atlantic League to start this season and hit a ridiculous .343/.487/.571 with 10 home runs, 10 doubles and 41 RBIs in 175 at-bats, stunning scouts who saw him in college.

"I thought Natale was just a post-draft roster filler last year. Now he's hitting in the Sally League--with power," an area scout with an American League club said.

Finally the Red Sox promoted Natale to high Class A Wilmington, where he went 1-for-2 with a home run in his Carolina League debut Thursday. Alicea said Natale has learned to take batting practice more seriously than he did upon his arrival last summer, and his success is a product of his compact swing.

"It's a very simple swing. He stays square to the ball, and he swings always through the hitting zone--he keeps his bat going through the zone for a long time," Alicea said. "He's got very good hand-eye coordination, he doesn’t swing at very bad pitches, and he has a good idea of the strike zone, well ahead of most guys in this league."

Alicea doesn't think Natale's power numbers are a fluke. In fact, he said he believes Natale can actually hit for more power if he goes to the gym and puts on more muscle.

The real key to Natale's advancement will be his defensive progression. One reason the Red Sox wanted him to work with Alicea, a former major league second baseman, is to improve his defensive fundamentals.

"Being a guy that didn’t play much baseball (at a New England small college), there was a lot for him to learn defensively," Alicea said. "There were a lot of aspects of the game he didn’t know because he didn’t play it. Mechanically, we had to get him to use his feet right, turn a double play, use his body correctly. We had extra time to work at home, so we went ahead and worked at it. He's now functional turning the double play, a lot better at it. Starting the double play, he does a nice job. Backing up bases was new to him.

"He's got to work hard, he's got to be able to continue to do the things to get better, improve his first-step quickness. He can go as far as he allows himself to go."


Baez Bounces Back

Because of his struggles, the Nationals decided to demote outfielder Edgardo Baez from high Class A Potomac to low Class A Savannah, with a stop at extended spring training along the way. After a .103 start with the P-Nats, Baez has responded to the move with a 23-for-44 start (.523).

"When he came down (to extended), we had (hitting coaches) Jason Camilly and Tony Tarasco work with him a little bit, give him a breather and he played for a week with our extended program," farm director Andy Dunn said. "We were going to give him four or five days, but we had an injury (at Savannah), called him up and said, 'Listen, it's time for you to play like I know you can play. Let's put the other stuff behind you.'"

"He was a little late on pitches, so we are working on his mental approach, having a game plan when in the box. I think at Potomac he was trying to be a reactionary hitter. We are teaching him to have a plan, to look at hitter's counts and what we want him to accomplish every at-bat. He was late, getting beat a lot of times because he wasn't thinking about what he wanted to do."

Baez has started implementing his plan, walking seven times in 12 games with the Sand Gnats after drawing just eight walks in 20 games with Potomac.

He was a fourth-round pick of the Nationals in 2003 out of a high school in Puerto Rico. He spent time in the SAL in 2004 and all of 2005 there, where he hit .246/.329/.394 in 447 at-bats. The organization grew frustrated with him because he continually had trouble making adjustments and did not seem receptive to instruction. However, because of his impressive package of tools that includes above-average raw power and a true right-field arm, the organization still sees him as a prospect.

It might only be 44 at-bats, but he is finally performing like one.


Pence On Power Tear

Double-A Corpus Christi outfielder Hunter Pence is on a rampage in the Texas League. The 23-year-old belted his 16th home run in an 11-3 Hooks win against Wichita, moving him into a tie for the minor league lead with Triple-A Albuquerque veteran Scott Seabol.

"When that kid's on, we win ballgames," Hooks manager Dave Clark told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. "It just seems like he's the guy who gets everybody going. When he swings the bat and comes up big like that, everybody wants to feed off him. He's special."

Pence led a 17-hit attack against the Wranglers, that also included a three-hit night from leadoff man Josh Anderson. Pence started it off early, hitting a two-run homer in the first inning.

But all he could talk about was the first-half race in the TL’s South Division, where Corpus Christi holds a 1 ½ game lead over Midland. After coming off a 2-6 road trip, the Hooks will play 12 of their final 16 first-half games at home in Whataburger Field, where they are 17-7 this season.

"In batting practice, it was just kind of quiet, and we were upset at the way this road trip has gone," Pence told the paper. "It was a kind of a wake-up call, and I think we answered that today.

"Every game right now is big. We're not putting any pressure on ourselves. We're just going to go out there with some confidence and go after some of these other teams. At home, we've been really successful, so (returning home) should be good for us right now."

The Hooks also got a solid effort from Pence’s roommate, righthander Chance Douglass, who allowed two earned runs on five hits over 6 1/3 innings.

"That (early homer) was big, to come out and score and kind of set the tone for the game," Douglass told the paper. "It just let me go out there and relax and make pitches."

One the season, Douglass is now 4-1, 3.99 in 56 innings. Pence is now hitting .299/.349/.621 with 45 RBIs in 214 at-bats.



First, Matt Kemp made a splash in the big leagues for the Dodgers straight from Double-A Jacksonville. Now, Los Angeles is again turning to its farm system, calling up outfielder Joel Guzman from Triple-A Las Vegas. In 196 at-bats, the 21-year-old Dominican was hitting .291/.346/.418 with six homers and 31 RBIs . . . Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart returned to the lineup at Double-A Tulsa on Thursday, after missing nearly two weeks with a jammed right wrist. Stewart went 0-for-4, and now has .239/.324/.434 numbers in 159 at-bats . . . Not just anyone can steal Double-A Akron third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff’s thunder these days, but lefthander Rafael Perez was the Aeros hero in Thursday’s 2-0 win against Altoona. Perez tossed a nine-inning two-hit complete game—easily his best outing of the season—and lowering his ERA to 2.98 in 63 innings. “He was down in the zone, got ahead of just about every batter he faced and just had so much movement on his pitches,” Akron manager Tim Bogar told the Akron Beacon-Journal. As for Kouzmanoff, the minor league leader in batting, the 24-year-old was hit by a pitch in his only official at-bat. Curve pitchers also walked him intentionally three times. “It was awesome,” Kouzmanoff told the paper. “That's never happened to me before.” Kouzmanoff is now the only hitter in the minors batting over .400 with .424/.472/.653 numbers in 144 at-bats . . . Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels made a rehab start last night at low Class A Lakewood, allowing a run on three hits against Hickory. He threw 55 pitches—40 for strikes—and his fastball sat in the 88-92 mph range. “He hadn’t pitched in two weeks, and he held his velocity pretty good,” Phillies GM Pat Gillick said. “What impressed me is the fact he looked very natural out there. Usually sometimes with an injury, you’re a little bit hesitant and reluctant to get back with it, but he didn’t have any reluctance whatsoever and he looked just like he pitched last time (in Milwaukee); free, easy, and very confident. He looked good. He had a very natural delivery. He didn’t do anything wrong mechanically and that’s what you’re looking for, something natural.” . . . Days after Athletics GM Billy Beane publicly praised Mark Teahen, whom he traded to the Royals in the Carlos Beltran deal, the third baseman showed some Oakland-caliber patience. Teahen drew four walks in Thursday's game for Triple-A Omaha, tripling in his only at-bat. Since a slow start at Omaha, Teahen is red-hot, collecting 27 hits in his last 52 at-bats . . . White Sox knuckleballer Charlie Haeger continued his winning ways in the International League yesterday, allowing just one run in seven innings to bring his Triple-A record to 6-0. The righthander struggled in a May callup to Chicago, but has been virtually untouchable in the minor leagues this season with an 0.97 ERA in 65 innings . . . When in the lineup, Mariners outfielder Chris Snelling hits. After going on the disabled list with yet another injury earlier this spring, Snelling is now back in the Triple-A Tacoma lineup, and again, hitting well. Thursday, Snelling hit his first home run of he season, also collecting a double to raise his average to .288.