July 14, 2008

There are about a half-dozen easily reparable problems with the Futures Game, not least of which is that it's scheduled against a full slate of games on a Sunday afternoon. What should be a showcase of the next generation of All-Stars -- "This year, they play on Sunday. Soon, they'll play on Tuesday!" -- ends up as something of an afterthought, as baseball fans around the country are much more likely to be watching their hometown favorites do battle on the last day before the break.

Those fans who do tune in, or who are lucky enough to be in the house for the kickoff of All-Star Week, are treated to some entertaining individual performances from some of the top prospects in the game. Like the Arizona Fall League, the Futures Game can fall a bit short of the hype due to the appearance of some second- and third-line players, a problem exacerbated this year by USA Baseball's desire to use the game as a tryout for the Olympic team. There's also the fact that it's clearly an exhibition; at any given moment, it was 50/50 whether anyone on the field or in the stands would know the score.

Then Dexter Fowler goes streaking across Yankee Stadium's center field, perhaps the most sacred patch of grass in the baseball universe, to take away a triple, and you forget everything but the baseball. Henry Rodriguez comes in from the bullpen, dealing 100-mph heat and striking out the side, and it doesn't matter much that his victims aren't top-10 prospects. Rockies minor league pitcher Casey Weathers faces off against Angel Villalona of the Giants with two men on, and just for a second you see September 2012 in the NL West, a season on the line.

That's what makes the Futures Game great. It is, to borrow a phrase from my colleague Kevin Goldstein, something to dream on, a glimpse of great baseball to be played years down the road, by players whose stardom is still gestating. This year's Futures Game was, by and large, a dud, a desultory 3-0 win by the World team that included two extra-base hits, a couple of sharp defensive plays and a whole lot of weak contact. Those moments mentioned above, though, were the takeaway. Fowler, the Rockies prospect who, like every outfielder in this game, played very shallow, got a good jump and took a direct route to the rocket hit over his head by Ivan DeJesus. The play showed not just good physical skills, but a clear ability to play center field that went beyond the player's speed.

Che-Hsuan Lin's two-run homer in the seventh, a line drive down the left-field line, was the nominal highlight of the game. Impressive as it was, the game's best memory was made by A's prospect Rodriguez, who came into the game throwing 99 and got to 100 during his inning. After walking Bryan Anderson on four pitches, Rodriguez struck out Chris Valaika, Greg Golson and Chris Getz on 13 pitches, relying almost entirely on his fastball. Rodriguez has been a disaster at Class AA (8.82 ERA, 36/36 K/BB), and there's no way that he ends up as a starter in the majors, but no pitcher today -- not Weathers, not Carlos Carrasco -- showed the kind of dominance Rodriguez did. He is not far from being a shutdown short reliever in Oakland.

Other players worth writing about, for one reason or another: Matt LaPorta. Everyone's talking to LaPorta this weekend, following the big trade that sent him to the Indians earlier this week. He didn't have a great day, picking up a soft single in the first, drawing a walk and striking out. It doesn't mean anything, especially when you're facing four different pitchers and not playing a competitive game. It just means he didn't display the skills he clearly has on this day.

Remember two things as you read on: it's one day, and I am not a scout.

Fernando Martinez, Mets, OF. He put on a show in BP and pulled a single through the 34 hole in to right field during the game. Health as much as talent and performance is going to determine his arrival time in Queens, but when you consider the Mets' holes in the outfield, "20093 seems like as good a guess as any. I think he's become something of an underrated prospect.

Angel Villalona, Giants, 3B: One of the two players, along with Jesus Montero, I was most looking forward to seeing, Villalona grounded out and was overmatched by Weathers in a pretty big spot in the eighth. He's as big as advertised, and he honestly looks soft -- his weight is around his middle. I have no idea how his physical development will affect his baseball skills, but it already seems like the challenge for him is going to be to stay in some kind of playing shape as he gets older. He looks kind of Molina-ish, and that's not good for an 18-year-old. The strikeout didn't bother me as much as his body did.

Nate Schierholtz, Giants, RF. One of the USA Baseball guys, Schierholtz has to hold some kind of mark for most MLB experience for guys in the Futures Game. He was a regular during two stretches for the Giants last year, and barely has his rookie eligibility. He also can't really hit, with a Lance Niekro skill set that produces some decent batting averages and little else. It was really weird seeing him here, and he wasn't even the oldest guy on the team.

Jamie D'Antona, Diamondbacks, C/3B. He was the oldest. At 26, D'Antona needs a Present Game to play in, but he's been blocked by better players in the Diamondbacks' system. Because he can almost play catcher and third base, he'd have a lot of value on a major league bench. A smart team could make him Brandon Inge, but with more bat than glove.

Greg Golson, Phillies, OF. You could actually see his trade value collapsing during the game. Golson has had the best season of his professional life, fooling some people into seeing him as a prospect. He's not. He swings at everything, he's an awkward outfielder and he doesn't do anything else well enough to make up for those traits. The Phillies have about nine minutes to turn him into something of value, because by the end of the season, he'll have been exposed again.

Will Inman, Padres, P. Today, Inman provided a great lesson in the value of observation versus stats. He's had solid performance lines in his four professional season, and the stats make him look like a mid-rotation prospect. In person, he's...awkward. I'm not sure how you get to the third-highest level of your profession and still do things the way Inman does, but he has. He has the longest arm action I can remember seeing, the kind of motion you cringe while watching. It also should leave him very exposed to lefthanded hitters. I could see him as a Jeff Nelson reliever, which limits his innings and lets him chew up righties. Anything else...unlikely.

I can't emphasize what an eye-opener this was. I'm not going to sit here and say that performance analysis is invalid and I'm headed over to start a Web site devoted to the advancement of scouts, but the gap between what a player does and how he does it -- and what that means for his future -- was really put into stark relief by watching Inman.

Taylor Teagarden, Rangers, C. Teagarden threw out two basestealers today. OK, one of them was Pablo Sandoval, another apprentice Molina, but still. Teagarden has to hit more to elbow out Max Ramirez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- yes, those names are in the correct order -- in Texas, but if he provides even adequate offense, he'll be a good major-league catcher because he can play the position well.

Carlos Carrasco, Phillies, P. The best starting-pitcher prospect I saw, Carrasco threw fastballs at 90-93 and changeups about 10 mph slower, eschewing any breaking balls. He's been rumored to be trade bait for the Phillies, who need starting pitching help. I'm not sure that Carrasco is much worse than the kinds of pitchers you can get back for him.

Ryan Mattheus, Rockies, P. He has the track record of a non-prospect, but was dealing at 96-97 today, continuing the good work he's done since moving to the bullpen at the start of the year. He did give up the homer to Lin, who jumped on a first-pitch fastball that was in off the plate. In addition, Jesus Delgado, Jake Arrieta and Hector Rondon looked like the best of the pitchers not mentioned so far.

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