MINNEAPOLIS -- Several dozen scouts travel to the All-Star Futures Game each year to watch the top prospects in baseball match skills for nine innings on a big stage. But the talent evaluators are just as immersed in the little details leading up to the game.
About an hour before the U.S. and World squads squared off on Sunday at Target Field, a National League personnel man diligently took notes from the stands while Pittsburgh prospect Josh Bell and San Diego minor leaguer Hunter Renfroe took balls on a hop and made throws on a line from right field. This is what’s typically known as "due diligence" -- an observation to file away for a rainy day or a staff meeting to come.
The really fun, eye-popping stuff came during the U.S. Team’s batting practice, when Texas Rangers prospect Joey Gallo peppered the outfield seats with home runs. To paraphrase New York Yankees play-by-play man John Sterling, they were high, they were far, and they were gone.
“He’s not up there to hit singles," a scouting director for an American League team said to no one in particular.
Once the game began, pitching prevailed, for the most part. The respective offenses combined for 15 hits and 18 strikeouts and looked overmatched for extended periods, before the U.S. Team prevailed by a score of 3-2.
The most buzzworthy moments, not surprisingly, were generated by the players with the biggest thump.
Cubs prospect Javier Baez sent a charge through the crowd and the World Team’s dugout in the top of the sixth inning when he took a 79 mph curveball from Lucas Giolito and hit it 399 feet the opposite way over the right-field fence. It was the type of swing that prompted Baseball America, in its preseason assessment of Baez, to observe that he "hits the ball so hard, he doesn't have to square it up to hit it out of the park."
Baez, now in his fourth season with the Chicago organization, is putting up so-so numbers this season. He’s hitting .240 with a .753 OPS in 84 games with Triple-A Iowa. But the Cubs have fast-tracked him to the Pacific Coast League at age 21, so it’s understandable if he endures a few growing pains this summer.
The biggest long-term question about Baez revolves around where he’s going to play in the majors. He’s the everyday shortstop in Iowa. But at 6-foot, 200 pounds, he’s a prime candidate to move to an infield or outfield corner spot long-term. The Cubs have a 24-year-old All-Star shortstop in Starlin Castro and just picked up Addison Russell from the Athletics in the big Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel deal a week ago, so something eventually has to give.
The only sure thing is Baez will be fun to watch wherever he plays.
"He has crazy power," an NL personnel man said at the Futures Game. “Like Gary Sheffield."
Gallo, 20, provided Sunday's other signature moment in the bottom of the sixth inning with a 419-foot blast off Houston prospect Michael Feliz. The home run was only fitting, given that Gallo is slugging .703 in 85 games with Texas’ minor league affiliates in Myrtle Beach and Frisco this season. In 907 professional at-bats with the Rangers, Gallo has 93 home runs and has shown a flair for tape-measure shots that even he can't fully understand.
"I’m not a big, huge, body-builder guy," said Gallo, who’s listed at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds. “I see big guys who don’t drive the ball, and I’m like, ‘How?’ Maybe it’s because I’m tall and I get leverage. Ever since I was 8 years old, I’ve always been able to hit the ball out of the park."
Gallo grew up in Nevada with Cubs prospect Kris Bryant, and coincidentally, they’re tied for the minor league lead with 31 homers at the break. Bryant, whose monster numbers with Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa have prompted Cubs fans to begin keeping a vigil in anticipation of his arrival at Wrigley Field, went 0-for-3 with a walk in the Futures Game. He attracted the bulk of the pregame attention and easily fielded the most interview requests. But in the end, fellow Las Vegas-native Gallo took the most impactful and memorable swing.
It was also the most damaging swing. Gallo’s blast cleared the seats behind the 23-foot-high wall in right field and hit a red truck that was parked on the concourse for promotional purposes. Shortstop J.P. Crawford, Gallo’s teammate on the U.S. squad, called the home run “a nuke."
When a reporter asked Gallo if he used to hit parked cars in Little League, the slugger demurred.
"I don't know if I ever broke one in Little League," Gallo said. "I broke one last year in Asheville. I felt pretty bad, because that one was actually somebody's car. That one out there (today), that was like for show."
For the record, Bryant expressed faux relief that Gallo’s home run Sunday didn’t count, so they remain tied for the minor league lead at 31 each as they prepare to resume play with their respective teams.
"I don't expect anything else from him," Bryant said. “He puts the barrel of the bat on the ball, and it goes."
Another Gallo HR to rf power alley broke this windshield. pic.twitter.com/JCLuJCUOAT
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) July 13, 2014