Saturday, March 12, 2011
Four who may soon shine in big leagues
By Jerry Crasnick
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Hope springs eternal in March. But once the happy talk subsides, and the payrolls and Opening Day rosters start coming into focus, reality gives hope a run for its money.
After winning 67 games in 2010 (the eighth time in 10 years they've failed to crack 70), the Kansas City Royals are resigned to another sub-.500 finish. The Seattle Mariners, fresh off scoring a major league-low 513 runs, have Felix Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki and a hammerlock on fourth place in the American League West. And the Cleveland Indians probably aren't going anywhere in the AL Central unless Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore can make every day Turn Back the Clock Day.
If these three Cactus League teams have hope, it's because of young players with the talent to fulfill the hype. Optimism comes from Indians third-base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall hitting rockets all over Goodyear and pitcher Alex White showing some amazing athleticism while springing off the mound to make a play on a bunt. Or Seattle pitching prospect Michael Pineda filling up a doorway at 6-foot-5, 257 pounds and lighting up a radar gun at 98 mph. Or converted catcher Wil Myers roaming the outfield while waves of young pitchers put their stuff on display for the Royals.
And it comes from the players below, who are only a few tweaks and a little experience away from being impact big leaguers for a long time.
Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, Royals
Moustakas and Hosmer get a reprieve from the Kansas City organization's minor league rules with their appearance in big league camp this spring. They don't have to wear their pants 6 inches above their cleats so that their socks show, and they're exempt from a prohibition on facial hair.
While Moustakas is in full stubble mode this spring, Hosmer looks like he took a wrong turn on the way to the Iditarod. There aren't many 21-year-old kids who can pull off the musher/lumberjack look this easily.
"Yeah, and there probably aren't a lot of guys who are 21 and 6-5, 240, either," Moustakas said. "That's a big boy."
In the late 1970s, the Royals won four division titles in five years with youngsters such as George Brett, Frank White, Al Cowens and U.L. Washington joining Amos Otis and Hal McRae in a stacked lineup. Now, the Royals are once again pinning their hopes on a loaded farm system.
If all goes according to plan, the Royals think they'll be set at the corner infield spots for years. Moustakas, 22, hit 36 home runs and slugged .630 for Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha last season. Hosmer hit .338 with a .406 OPS in two minor league stops. Early in camp, Hosmer crushed a ball over the center-field batter's eye on one of the back fields. Although Hosmer isn't known for his speed, he took off running with two outs during an intrasquad game the next day and scored all the way from first base on a single.
"You've got to be a complete baseball player. You can't just worry about hitting,'' Hosmer said. "All the guys here take pride in their defense, and we're well-conditioned and we work out really hard. Nobody wants to be a clog on the bases.''
In both actions and words, Moustakas and Hosmer are dream prospects. They show up early, tend to the little things, listen to the coaches, defer to the veterans and embrace their responsibility as organizational ambassadors. And if there's a flaw in their games to be corrected, they're determined to address it.
Moustakas' main goal at the moment is changing the perception that he can't play an adequate defensive third base in the big leagues. Early in camp, Royals infield coach Eddie Rodriguez spent several days watching Moustakas field ground balls and devising a plan of attack. Then they went to work weeding out some bad habits and "cleaning up some things,'' as Rodriguez put it.
Rodriguez began with Moustakas' footwork, making sure to get him aligned properly. They moved on to Moustakas' hand actions, in an effort to create more rhythm. Finally, Rodriguez worked with Moustakas on angles -- breaking back on balls, rather than laterally -- and making sure he keeps his front shoulder closed on throws.
Moustakas broke into pro ball as a shortstop, so he's accustomed to getting rid of the ball quickly. Rodriguez wants him to take a calmer approach at third base.
"The harder it's hit, the slower you get,'' the coach tells him. But the agility, athleticism and arm strength all are there.
"I believe he can be a better-than-average third baseman,'' Rodriguez said. "I've heard through the grapevine the difference between last year and what we've seen so far this spring. It's like night and day.''
Barring some late Cactus League development, it's likely both players will begin the season in Omaha. Hosmer needs at-bats, and Moustakas can work on his defense. And if things go well, Moustakas will be promoted in late May or early June, and postpone his free agency and salary arbitration eligibility by a year. Once these guys show up in Kansas City, it won't be for a cameo.
The Dominican Republic is adept at churning out pitchers (Pedro Martinez and Juan Marichal), shortstops (Miguel Tejada and Tony Fernandez) and outfielders (Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero and Sammy Sosa). But with the exception of a Tony Pena here and a Miguel Olivo there, the island is a tad light on catchers.
|Mike Moustakas, 22, is expected to be the Royals' third baseman of the future.|
Santana, 24, has a chance to make a big impression in Cleveland. The Indians spirited him away from the Dodgers in the Casey Blake trade in 2008, and Santana was settling in nicely last season when he hurt his knee in a home plate collision. Santana underwent surgery in August, but the knee has been fine in Arizona.
His bat is never a concern -- from either side of the plate. In six minor league seasons, Santana posted an on-base percentage of .401. In 46 games with Cleveland last year, he hit .260 with an identical OBP of .401. Cleveland first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. said Santana's stance, power and presence at the plate remind him of another former Indians catcher, Victor Martinez.
Santana's biggest challenge is learning his pitchers and their repertoires, and separating his defensive responsibilities from his offense. Joe Mauer and Buster Posey made it look easy, but Matt Wieters can attest that it's not.
"It takes a while to learn the ins and outs of calling a game, and the intricacies of each pitcher that you're handling,'' Cleveland pitching coach Tim Belcher said. "The one thing he has going for him is that he's interested in doing it. He wants to do it. That's a plus.''
Santana broke into pro ball as a third baseman and an outfielder, so he has a lot of ground to cover. He's fortunate to have an attentive mentor in Alomar, a six-time All-Star and former Gold Glove Award winner with a warehouse of catching knowledge and a knack for communicating it.
The Indians thought Santana was too aggressive in trying to "frame'' pitches last year, so Alomar wants the catcher to polish his receiving skills before he becomes too obsessed with trying to snag called strikes on the black. Alomar also is working to simplify the exchange from Santana's mitt to his hand before he throws the ball. It's a lot different for a catcher than an outfielder.
"Get the ball in the air,'' Alomar said. "You don't want to have a two-piece motion. The ball is there, and it's gone. You can't hold it and throw it, because then you have time to think and make mistakes. Catchers tend to overload when they do that.''
The Indians think Santana's natural ability will take care of the rest. He has the requisite quick feet, and at a stocky 5-11 and 190 pounds, he's close to the ideal build for a catcher. The Indians want Santana to play some first base when he's not behind the plate, and they've assigned recent front-office additions Mike Hargrove and Eduardo Perez to work with him around the bag this spring.
Santana's intangibles will help take him a long way. He has worked hard at his English and continues to improve.
"We don't want to overwhelm him with information,'' Alomar said. "You have to think about how much is on this kid's plate. When you bring a young quarterback to the NFL, he can sit on the bench and learn from an experienced quarterback. In Major League Baseball, if you need a catcher, you bring him to the big leagues and he's learning on the fly. You have to be patient.''
|Carlos Santana had a .401 OBP in 46 games for the Indians last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a home plate collision.|
Dustin Ackley, Mariners
Ackley's swing path reminds some talent evaluators of Robin Ventura. And as a left-handed-hitting, offensive-minded second baseman whose glove is still evolving, he is occasionally mentioned in the same sentence as Chase Utley. Ackley runs better than Utley and has less power at a similar stage, but the end result is similarly gratifying to watch.
"He's a fabulous hitter -- or at least, he's going to be,'' a National League scout said. "He could win a batting title one day.''
Ackley embodies all the attributes that teams look for in a polished hitter. He has great hand-eye coordination, the ability to use the whole field and lay off borderline pitches, and the maturity to stay as focused and relaxed during a crucial at-bat in the ninth inning as he is in the first.
Now all he needs is a position. Ackley underwent Tommy John surgery at North Carolina and shifted from the outfield to first base. Now he's in the midst of a transition to second base, with all the challenges that entails. If he's not ranging to his left and throwing across his body, he's racing into short right field or center and trying to catch pop flies over his head. And there's the constant challenge of turning double plays while baserunners bear down on him with malice aforethought.
"It's a dangerous spot, especially if the ball gets there late,'' Ackley said. "I found it out pretty early in Double-A. People come in hard. Even if you're behind the bag, they're going to come through it at you. You have to get out of the way or you're going to risk injury, and you still have to get the ball off, too. It just takes game experience.''
After hitting .424 to win the Arizona Fall League MVP award, Ackley gained almost 10 pounds in the offseason, which should enhance his power and help his stamina over the course of a long season. He'll probably begin the year with Triple-A Tacoma while the Mariners break camp with Brendan Ryan or Adam Kennedy at second base. An extra two months will give Ackley time to polish his defense -- and, coincidentally, push back his free agency and salary arbitration eligibility by a year.
Jack Zduriencik, coming off a trying year as Seattle GM, spent a day early in spring training gushing over the potential of Ackley, pitchers Michael Pineda, Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke, and young outfielders Johermyn Chavez and Carlos Peguero. Justin Smoak, who got off to a slow start in the Cactus League, is ticketed to begin the season as Seattle's regular first baseman. How soon will it be before Pineda and Ackley join him?
"They're going to be big leaguers and good big leaguers,'' Zduriencik said. "It's just a matter of when. If it happens right out of spring training, God bless them. If it takes a little bit of time, that's OK, too. We're not in a hurry.''
The Mariners are actually in a little bit of a hurry. But for every Buster Posey or Jason Heyward who amazes right out of the chute, a lot more prospects progress on their own sweet time. In baseball, as in life, the best things are worth the wait.
|Dustin Ackley, 23, could become the Mariners' second baseman as early as this season.|
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.
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