The Futures of the Game
Rob McMillin (6-4-2) and I went to the Stockton Ports @ Rancho Cucamonga Quakes game Saturday night. The primary attraction was watching Jered Weaver of the Quakes make his first home start, but I was also interested in checking out teammates Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick for a second time in less than a week as well as seeing Daric Barton, Danny Putnam, and Kurt Suzuki of the Ports.
I had witnessed Weaver's professional debut the Monday before and was anxious to see if he could improve upon his three-inning, three-hit, one-run effort against the Lake Elsinore Storm. It turned out that there were 5,797 curious fans in attendance--or nearly triple the number that braved the Southern California freeways five days earlier--who found out that Weaver (2.1-5-4-4-0-5, L) may not be as "major-league ready" as his agent Scott Boras once thought. (I may be guilty of being overly optimistic as well, although I think it remains a distinct possibility that Weaver could make the jump to the Angels as early as next summer.)
The ballpark, known as the Epicenter, is about an hour's drive from my home in Long Beach. It is located just off the famous Route 66 near the San Gabriel Mountains in the Inland Empire.
I requested media passes far in advance and took advantage of the opportunity to access the field and dugout prior to the game. Rob and I also sat in the tiny press box, which accommodated one radio announcer from each team, two local cable-TV broadcasters (including Darrell Miller, brother of Reggie and Cheryl), the official scorekeeper, the scoreboard operator, and a local reporter.
Arriving on the field around 5:45 p.m., I met Todd Steverson, the 33-year-old manager of the Stockton Ports. Steverson, who was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round (25th pick) of the 1992 amateur draft out of Arizona State, played 31 games in the big leagues in 1995 and 1996. While introducing myself and shaking hands, I realized just how much more professional "Baseball Analysts" sounds than "Rich's Weekend Baseball Beat."
Upon my request, Steverson arranged for me to interview Barton and Suzuki in the Stockton dugout. Suzuki, who played his college ball at Cal State Fullerton and was on the 2004 NCAA Championship team, was a familiar face to me. The 21-year-old catcher was drafted in the second round last June. He signed for $550,000 and played in the Rookie League last summer and the Instructional League in the fall.
The Hawaiian-born Suzuki likes playing for the A's. "I love it. Everybody's laid back. They just want you to get your work in and get the job done."
I asked him about the A's penchant for teaching plate discipline (each farm team is either first or second in its league in walks drawn according to Kevin Goldstein of Baseball America) and Suzuki (.280/.394/.459 with 41 BB and 39 SO) revealed that, "It's not so much about walking but gettting on base. If you get a pitch to hit, they want you to hit it."
As to whether it was true that the A's don't promote players unless they walk at least once every ten plate appearances, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound catcher candidly remarked, "No, there's nothing like that."
Suzuki, who hit a two-run homer off Weaver in the second inning later that evening, was 3-for-9 with no extra base hits and two strikeouts vs. the Long Beach State right-hander in 2003-2004. "He was pretty unbelievable in college. He's a competitor. He throws a fastball on both sides of the plate and a decent slider to keep you off balance."
Barton waited patiently while I spoke to Suzuki, then walked over and sat next to me on the bench. Daric, who went 3-for-5 that evening, was an important piece of the Mark Mulder trade between the Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals last December. Listed at a generous 6-foot-1 and a more realistic 205 pounds, he was a first-round draft pick in 2003 out of Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California.
A catcher by trade, Barton was moved to first base this year for three reasons. First of all, he lacks a strong arm and the receiving skills to catch at the major-league level. Secondly, the A's have their fill of catchers in the minors, including John Baker (Sacramento, AAA), Jeremy Brown (Midland, AA), Suzuki (Stockton, High-Class A), and Landon Powell (the 24th selection in last year's draft), who tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee and has yet to play in 2005. Thirdly, Barton, whom general manager Billy Beane labeled as "the best pure bat in the minor leagues," has the stick to play elsewhere.
Fair-skinned and sporting a blond crewcut and the makings of a goatee, Barton (.310/.439/.467 with 59 BB--second in the league--and 46 SO) told me that, "Patience is one of the keys to my success. When I'm going good, I'm selective." The sweet-swinging, left-handed hitter, with an advanced knowledge of the strike zone, said he was "one of the few guys who worked with the A's philosphy of working the pitcher and getting on base via walks" when he was with the Cardinals last year. He likes the fact that "everybody does that here."
As far as which position he plays now or in the future, Barton's answer was rather refreshing: "Whatever keeps me in the lineup." Although he got off to a slow start this year, the modest Barton didn't even mention that he underwent an emergency appendectomy during the spring. Instead, he admitted to "pressing a bit the first couple of months, trying to do too much" on the heels of the trade.
Besides Weaver, who wasn't on his game that night, the two best players on the field were undoubtedly Barton and Wood. In addition to being the only invitees to the seventh annual All-Star Futures Game on Sunday, July 10 in Detroit, Barton and Wood are the youngest players on their teams. Daric, 19, is a full two years younger than any of his teammates, while Brandon, 20, is six months younger than anyone on the Quakes.
When it comes to evaluating prospects, one of the most important factors is age relative to level of play. Starring in High Class-A ball at or under the age of 20 is a telltale of a potential impact player.
Wood (.306/.358/.661) hit a towering shot to straightaway center field--his league-leading 26th HR of the year and fourth in five games--in the bottom of the first inning. It was "the longest home run" that the official scorekeeper had ever seen at the Epicenter. The Angels' #1 choice in the 2003 draft is a special talent. At 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, he is another protypical big shortstop from the post-Cal Ripken era.
If Wood has a weakness or two, it would arguably be his plate discipline (24 BB against 68 SO) and perhaps range in the field. Whether he winds up at SS, 2B, or 3B, Wood is likely to make it to Anaheim based on his bat more than his glove. He has a slightly open stance and likes to pull the ball. As such, the former high school star out of Scottsdale, Arizona may find more and more pitchers testing him with off-speed pitches and fastballs away as he moves up the chain. How Wood responds could determine just how quickly he makes it to the big leagues.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]