Monday July 12th, 2010

ANAHEIM -- Yonder Alonso raised his right foot a few inches off the carpet in the visiting clubhouse to show off his brand-new Nike cleats, black with the red trim of his parent club, the Cincinnati Reds.

"Braun got me these cleats," Alonso said with a smile, referring to Brewers leftfielder Ryan Braun.

Though Alonso and Braun are on track to one day be National League Central rivals -- and maybe before the end of the season -- for now they merely share the bond and friendship of having both played at the University of Miami. On Sunday as Alonso, a first baseman/corner outfielder and Cincinnati's most prized hitting prospect, participated in the 12th annual All-Star Futures Game at Angel Stadium, he was all too happy to rave about his new kicks and the experience of playing in a major-league ballpark.

"This is unbelievable," Alonso said. "I mean, wow. It's breathtaking, man, and this is only the visiting clubhouse. The field is unbelievable, and the balls seem to carry more because we're so excited."

For as close as many of these players are to the majors, they have still retained their sense of awe, even though Alonso and several of his Futures Game teammates and opponents -- most notably Phillies Triple A rightfielder Domonic Brown and two Rays in Triple A, outfielder Desmond Jennings and starter Jeremy Hellickson -- could all play roles in the major-league pennant races.

Two other players originally selected for this game -- pitchers Andrew Oliver of the Tigers and Daniel Hudson of the White Sox -- did, in fact, pitch today but for their major-league clubs as they battle for the American League Central.

The U.S. beat the World 9-1 (RECAP), with MVP honors going to Angels Triple A catcher Hank Conger, who hit the game's only home run. Not only was he playing in his big-league club's home stadium but just 15 miles from where he grew up in Huntington Beach.

Brown is so highly regarded that the Phillies are not dismissing the possibility they'd trade starting rightfielder Jayson Werth, who will be a free agent at the end of the season but leads the club in OPS. The 22-year-old Brown has batted .364 with a .390 OBP, four home runs and two steals in 15 Triple A games. This came after starting the year in Double A with a .318 average, .391 OBP, 15 homers and 12 steals in 65 games.

With Rays fifth starter Wade Davis having slumped in June and the offense having suffered some injuries, both Jennings and Hellickson could be called upon to propel Tampa Bay into the playoffs. Hellickson, at 11-2 with a 2.21 ERA, is tied for the International League lead in wins and is second in ERA. He has 104 strikeouts in 105 2/3 innings. Jennings is batting .297 and is tied for third in steals with 21 and tied for fourth in runs with 51.

Alonso, meanwhile, who went 1-for-4 with a single on Sunday, could just as easily be traded away to a rebuilding team and away from the excitement of a playoff push. His power numbers this year haven't been gaudy -- .266 average, .333 OBP, nine home runs and 10 stolen bases -- but he's been simultaneously learning to play the outfield with All-Star Joey Votto entrenched at first base at the major-league level.

When the prospect of moving from the infield to the outfield arose, Alonso consulted Braun, who made the same switch with the Brewers.

"He said the outfield was great," Alonso said. "It can help you get to the majors quicker and if you can play left and right, it opens some options up. Any time you can play more than one position, it helps."

Alonso worked out almost every day of the offseason with the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, a part-time Miami resident and generous benefactor of The U, and with his father, who hit him flyball after flyball to help him prepare for his new position.

Of course, Alonso still may not play in Cincinnati's outfield either. Jonny Gomes and Jay Bruce are holding down the corner spots, Alonso may get his major-league chance only as a pinch hitter -- or with another team. He was mentioned as a possible trade chip when the Reds pursued Mariners starter Cliff Lee.

When those rumors first circulated about his possible involvement in a trade, he consulted his friend Matt LaPorta, the Indians' first baseman traded as part of a deal for CC Sabathia two years ago. LaPorta counseled Alonso, saying that trades are simply out of a player's control and too much time spent worrying about them will negatively affect one's play on the field.

Brown, who beat out an infield single on Sunday but left early with mild tightness in his right hamstring, was the object of intense speculation both at least year's deadline and over the offseason when the Phillies pursued Blue Jays starter Roy Halladay. Brown's own lesson was just to ignore it.

"I don't know anything about that," he said. "I just go out and do the best that I can. If I were worrying about all the trade talk, I'd be hitting a buck-fifty."

Jenning -- who was 0-for-3 with a walk, hit-by-pitch, three runs and a stolen base in the Futures Game -- said that maintaining his patience is the hardest part, doubly so because he was primed for major-league consideration in spring training only to injure his wrist. Because of that ailment, he started slowly in the minors though he's picked up his game of late and now feels ready.

"I feel that way, of course," Jennings said. "It's not my decision, obviously, but I've got to be confident in myself."

Hellickson started on the mound for the U.S. and pitched two innings, striking out one while giving up two hits and one run. He doesn't care if the Rays want him to start, pitch in mop-up duty or set up the closer, like how David Price broke into the majors for the Rays during their 2008 World Series run.

"I'll do whatever they want me to do," Hellickson said. "If that's to come out of the bullpen and eat up innings or to pitch in a big spot, it doesn't matter to me. I just want to be up there."

While the Futures Game is a fan-friendly showcase of up-and-coming talent, it's the curious exhibition when little of the focus is on the game the players are about to play and mostly on the ones they could be playing in August or September.

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