Friday, December 29, 2006

Pirates Winter Ball Review: Part I - Arizona Fall League

This is something I've been wanting to do ever since I first started listening to Hawaii Winter Baseball games at 2 a.m. when I should have been sleeping.

See, when your team sucks as much as the Pirates, you get excited about things like fringe prospects spending their winter in some South American country rife with crime and political tension.

Fortunately for you all though I've learned the error of my ways; getting "gleeman length" assigned as a label for your post is a jarring experience. Thus, I'll be breaking these down into one post for each winter league in which the Pirates have players participating. This way, I can start now to prevent Jonny from completely taking over the blog, and also because not all of the leagues are done playing.

This first installment will cover...

Arizona Fall League

The AFL is the most successful of the U.S.-based winter leagues in recent years. Experiments in California and Maryland both fizzled, and Hawaii Winter Baseball was going strong but went dormant for the better part of a decade before its reinstatement this year.

The AFL has produced several very notable alumni, including Mike Piazza, Derek Jeter, Todd Helton, Roy Halladay, and Albert Pujols, among others. It was once a place for the cream of an organization to test their mettle against other highly-ranked prospects, but with the growing popularity of winter leagues in the Carribean, Central America, and South America among players who are not natives of those countries, the players selected to participate have become a little watered down.

This year, more than most years, it seemed the AFL was becoming dotted primarily by older players, many of whom had significant experience at AAA, and some of whom had even logged extended time in the Major Leagues. A large number were not even considered true prospects by the teams they represented. This could have been partially due to the fact that the newly re-formed Hawaii Winter Baseball catered mainly to the younger, A and AA-level players.

Let's take a look at the players the Pirates sent to Arizona, all of whom played for the Grand Canyon Rafters, and whether their winter performance was a step forward or backward for them in terms of their development.

C Neil Walker
2006 AFL line: .290/.306/.391 (69 ABs)
Walker, the hometown hero from suburban Pine-Richland High School taken in the first round of the draft a couple years back, found himself splitting time at catcher for the Rafters three ways with Kevin Richardson and Adam Donachie, with Walker getting the majority of the at-bats. He's struggled with a multitude of things since becoming a pro, namely injuries, a tendency to look pretty lost behind the plate at times, and a frustrating lack of power (the first and last things are believed to be related).

All in all, his performance in the AFL has to be encouraging, at least from an offensive standpoint; while the power still wasn't there, and his plate discipline was rather shoddy, he was easily one of the youngest players in the league, just having turned 21, and found himself going up against pitchers up to seven years his senior, often with big league experience.

2007 will be a big year for young Neil, although even if he doesn't live up to expectations it will be easy to point out that a lot of players tend to struggle at 21 in AA. There is still talk of moving him to another position, however, which would drastically reduce his worth as a hitter and make him much more of a first-round bust than a boon. People also continue to worry about his low on-base percentages, but his strikeout rates have always been low, and those who have watched him first-hand corroborate the evidence by claiming he doesn't walk because he hits his pitch so often, an aspect common with many high-average hitters.

Even if the power never develops, he still projects as an above-average Major League catcher offensively, and his defense behind the plate has reportedly improved as he's progressed through the lower minors to go along with a solid arm.
Overall Winter Performance: POSITIVE

1B Brad Eldred
2006 AFL line:
.231/.311/.354 (65 ABs)
The Pirates have been so starved for hitters who can make the ball go over the fence every once in a while over the past five years that when stories of his mammoth blasts in Altoona started reaching the fans, we couldn't help but get excited despite his painfully obvious drawbacks, i.e. inability to draw a walk, mind-boggling strikeout numbers, being labeled a defensive liability, etc.

"Big Country," as he is very unoriginally nicknamed, reached the bigs at age 25 in 2005 after slugging about .580 in his minor league career. With nothing to lose, the Pirates handed him the bulk of the playing time at first base after his callup, and he performed about as expected; low batting average and on-base percentage, outstanding isolated power (.458 slugging despite a .221 BA), swatting 12 homers and 9 doubles in 190 at-bats.

Since then, it's been all downhill for Eldred. Dave Littlefield traded for GIDP machine Sean Casey and said Eldred needed more time at AAA to work on the shortcomings in his game, as if the plate discipline fairies would suddenly visit him with a few hundred more at-bats at a level he's already pretty much had his way with. He got off to a slow start, then badly dislocated his thumb about a month into the season, forcing him to sit out the rest of the year.

Things didn't get much better in the AFL, where he was expected to be a major contributor but ended up behind Joe Koshansky on the Rafters depth chart. Not satisfied with his playing time, the Pirates brass sent him to Escogido of the Dominican League, where he went 1-for-18 with 10 strikeouts before the Leones actually fired him and told him to go home.

2007 is most certainly Eldred's make-or-break year. It's a shame, too, because he's pretty much "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't." If he tears up AAA, well, he's going to be 27 in July and it'll be his third go-round there. If he is even slightly mediocre, it'll probably be the end of his career as a Pirate. Like so many of their prospects prospects, the Pirates focused too much on his negative attributes and not enough on what he does well, unlike proven winning organizations such as the Twins and A's.

The only real chance for him is if the offseason keeps going the way it has, it really doesn't appear as if the Pirates will get their lefty masher at first base. It could be a huge blessing for Eldred. I'd personally like to see the big guy succeed, because there are so few players in baseball with the capability to hit the ball as far as he can as regularly as he does.
Overall Winter Performance: NEGATIVE

2B Craig Stansberry
2006 AFL line: .128/.263/.192 (78 ABs)
Stansberry looked like an intriguing prospect for a few years. Throughout his minor league career, he showed that he possessed both good power and a decent eye at the plate, two things that are rare among both middle infielders and Pirates players in general. He rose quickly, finding himself in Altoona just two years after being drafted in 2003. Once he reached AA, he began sacrificing average for power, probably more because he couldn't hit advanced pitching consistently than by choice. Still, a .470 slugging percentage at AA playing his home games at such a murderous park for righties is nothing to scoff at.

In 2006, he returned to AA to start his age-24 season, and improved both his average and plate discipline without losing much power. Unfortunately, he hit a brick wall when he reached AAA, lending credence to the theory that he just can't hit higher-level pitching. His plate discipline was still outstanding, walking exactly as many times as he struck out. It would have been interesting to see how he would have adapted to another stint in AAA, but his performance in the AFL was so dismal he literally played himself off the 40-man roster, and into the waiting arms of the San Diego Padres, who claimed him when he was cut. While the move wasn't quite something to get worked up about, it certainly is a puzzling one for a team that is letting Humberto "What exactly would you say it is you do here?" Cota occupy a space on the 40-man roster despite just having handed Einar Diaz and Carlos Maldonado Minor League contracts.
Overall Winter Performance: NEGATIVE, but perhaps positive for his career since it's assumed the Padres are one of 29 franchises that value things like power and walks more than the Pirates.

RHP Jesse Chavez
2006 AFL line:
0.64 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 11/3 K/BB (14 IP)
The Rangers donated Chavez to Dave Littlefield's quest to acquire every relief pitching prospect in the world in exchange for 8 innings of Kip Wells. His Minor League career has been pretty unspectacular apart from getting his K rate to a good, if not impressive level since moving to the bullpen, which is to be expected from a guy who's considered a hard thrower.

His AFL campaign opened a lot of eyes, which is especially a plus considering he wasn't absurdly old to be pitching there, as he turned 24 in August. While he probably won't really be given a chance to win a bullpen spot out of spring training, especially since he's not yet on the 40-man roster, as long as he doesn't regress with Indy, he should be one of the first in line for a callup.
Overall Winter Performance: POSITIVE

LHP David Davidson
2006 AFL line: 5.17 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 14/6 K/BB (15 2/3 IP)
Davidson is a "stuff" lefty that the Pirates are very high on, evidenced by the fact that they added him to the 40-man roster this winter to avoid losing him in the Rule V draft. He has rarely been healthy during his pro career, but when he has, he's always posted very good strikeout numbers. 2006 was his first complete season as a pro, and he made the most of it, whirling through three levels and posting a sub-2.40 ERA at each one.

His 2006 AFL campaign was a bit of a mixed bag, as the Rafters had him starting games early on, in which he was bombed (11.57 ERA, 3/4 K/BB), but after moving to his more familiar relief role, he pitched much like he had throughout the season (2.45 ERA, 11/2 K/BB). That could have just been coincidence because he simply needed a few games to shake off rust from the brief layoff between Altoona's dismissal from the playoffs and the start of the AFL. Regardless, his stint in the AFL was overall pretty solid considering he was also one of the younger guys there at 22. He'll probably start 2007 at AA with the strong likelihood of a promotion if he doesn't fall apart or get injured.
Overall Winter Performance: POSITIVE

RHP Brian Rogers
2006 AFL line: 0.00 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 6/3 K/BB (7 2/3 IP)
The Tigers donated Rogers to Dave Littlefield's quest to acquire every relief pitching prospect in the world in exchange for having given Sean Casey the knowledge and experience required to be able to hit the Cardinals pitchers (I figure that had to be it since no one else on the Tigers seemed to know how to do it). Since moving to the bullpen full-time in 2005, he has been very hard to hit, allowing fewer than seven hits per nine innings. His strikeout rates have also been very impressive for someone who has never been considered a hard thrower.

He was lights-out in his AAA debut after coming over from the Tigers in July, and received a cup of coffee with the Pirates but was torched there, surrendering 8 runs in 8 2/3 innings pitched. In the AFL, though, he picked up where he had left off with Indy, and was virtually unhittable. He's never been much of a ground ball pitcher, which for someone who throws in the high 80s, does not bode well for the Major Leagues. Still,
he'll most likely be one of the twenty-eight candidates for the last two spots in the Pirates bullpen, but his ceiling isn't very high.
Overall Winter Performance: POSITIVE

LHP Josh Shortslef
2006 AFL line: 2.65 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 7/10 K/BB (17 IP)
Shortslef has been in the Pirates organization for seven years and still only made his AA debut this year, mainly because he is constantly struggling with injuries of some sort. This year, a strained forearm cut short what was turning out to be a promising season for this lefty. The Pirates are still very high on him as a starter, and added him to the 40-man roster this offseason.

His AFL season was somewhat shaky, especially the walk and strikeout numbers, although he certainly didn't do himself any harm with the performance. Indy's rotation will probably pretty crowded with a bunch of ailing former first-round picks, an ancient Japanese guy, and a Cuban defector, so Shortslef will probably return to Altoona to start 2007, but will be on call when one of the aforementioned inevitably gets hurt.
Overall Winter Performance: POSITIVE

The Pirates representatives in the Arizona Fall League were pretty much a microcosm of the organization as a whole. Two of the hitters they sent completely bombed, one to the point of being kicked out liberated from the club. The third, who was by far the furthest away from the Major Leagues, didn't really do anything to answer the numerous questions about him. The majority of the good news came from the pitchers, three of whom were relievers, the fourth one a starter who is going to be 25 in about a month and has only 60-odd innings of experience above high-A.

Crud, it's still too long, isn't it.

Oh, well. Next up, the grand return of Hawaii Winter Baseball.


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