- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
I did not attend the Arizona Fall League in 2006, so I missed my chance to see Ryan Braun, Hunter Pence, Troy Tulowitzki and some of baseball's best rookies-to-be in action. But I was in Phoenix this past weekend, courtesy of the 13th Annual First Pitch Arizona, a fantasy baseball symposium hosted by our friend and colleague Ron Shandler from BaseballHQ.com, and I saw the next round of possible stars. The key is figuring out who they are and differentiating Brandon Wood from Kevin Kouzmanoff.
The seminar lasts for a few days and discusses the good and bad from baseball the past season, while also looking ahead so fantasy baseball fans can get a jump on 2008. There are panels with baseball and fantasy experts and fans come from all over to watch, listen and learn. Oh, and the weather doesn't stink, either. While most of the topic matter centered on young players we would be seeing while in Arizona, there was also time spent on the shocking Carlos Pena, the disappointing Andruw Jones and other veterans from the recent season.
We've got plenty of time this offseason to focus on the veterans, but here are some thoughts on the young players I saw. I was in the Phoenix area for two full days, and I attended four games. As a Phillies fan, I had hoped to watch recent first-round draft pick Joe Savery in action, but didn't get a chance. I also did not see Cameron Maybin, Evan Longoria or Adam Miller, for various reasons. But I did see plenty since there are six teams made up of 35 players each, with every major league team sending seven eligible players, generally in the Double- and Triple-A range.
The best way to evaluate talent in any sport is to actually watch them in action. Simple stats and box scores don't tell the story. A 10-foot RBI bleeder down the third-base line looks like a line shot to the gap in a box score, you know. So, you watch and trust these players with your eyes, talk to scouts in attendance, see what the radar guns are showing on pitchers and it never hurts to be sitting up close in the first row to get a better feel for what is happening.
Here are a few players on my mind this fine Wednesday.
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates: Playing center field for the Phoenix Desert Dogs -- no, I don't know where the names come from -- it was clear early on that McCutchen has the speed to be an impact fantasy player right away. I saw McCutchen generally hack early in at-bats and take inconsistent swings, but let's face it, the kid is 21. He also hit a gapper in one game that he turned into a triple. I remarked that had David Ortiz hit it there, he would have stopped at first base. The kid can motor and is exciting to watch. His power should develop in time when his body fills out, but he could hit double-digit homers soon. The question on the table is not whether he's going to be a star, but how soon? Do the Pirates rush him to the majors next spring, with only 67 at-bats of Triple-A baseball? I'm betting they do. Fantasy owners should expect a learning period if he makes the team, but 10 home runs and 30 steals are enticing, and really, those are low expectations.
Justin Maxwell, OF, Nationals: Tall and thin, Maxwell still hasn't played at a level above Single-A, except for his September time with the big club, when he hit .269 in 26 at-bats. At 24, Maxwell could figure into the team's plans as a starter, and like McCutchen, he brings a nice speed/power combination, showing off his long strides. I saw Maxwell rope a few solid base hits for the Peoria Javelinas, including to the opposite field, and after one of them he stole second and third base. Then again, it did seem like everyone was running in this league. Maxwell hit 27 home runs and stole 35 bases in his stops at Single-A in 2007, though he was a bit old for that level, so I wouldn't expect to see Chris B. Young numbers in the bigs in 2008. Would I spend a buck or two on Maxwell late in an auction? Absolutely, but I would be surprised if the Nats don't give him some time in Triple-A first.
Reid Brignac, SS, Devil Rays: I saw Brignac twice for the Scottsdale Scorpions, and he looked bored to me, which showed in the results at the plate. He didn't do much. Then again, it's such a small sample size, I wouldn't get too worried if you already drafted Brignac in a keeper league. By the time I left Arizona, Brignac was hitting around .170 and striking out quite a bit. In the field, he looks ready, and I don't the Devil Rays are going to wait long to promote him, even if it means he hits at the bottom of the order. A tall, left-handed hitter, Brignac has the look of Stephen Drew, as he does take walks and the power shouldn't be far away, but I could also see a low batting average.
Matt LaPorta, OF, Brewers: Since the Brewers call Arizona home for spring training, there seemed to be quite a few locals rooting for LaPorta, a strong, large right-handed power hitter who once led the NCAAs in homers, slugging and on-base percentage while at Florida. LaPorta, one of the few 2007 first-round picks in this league, didn't show much in the at-bats I saw for those Mesa Solar Sox (now I'm just going to make sure I name the teams, if you hadn't noticed), but he was leading the league in RBIs at the time, as well as taking a healthy number of walks. He's not going to be a good fielder, and he's not going to steal bases, but he has the look of a Pat Burrell type (in his good years), a middle of the order left fielder who hits for power and gets on base. I don't think he starts the year with the big club, but he also shouldn't be in the minors all year. Ryan Braun is a brutal third baseman and it's my belief the team will have to move him to left field at some point, unless he improves. This could affect LaPorta's progress.
Sam Fuld, OF, Cubs: Who? OK, this is basically my favorite player from the games I saw in Arizona. This little guy -- well, I say little because a guy like Maxwell towers over him at 5-10, not that I'm 6-4 or anything -- was all over the place. He was hitting homers, stealing bases, making great catches, hustling everywhere, basically putting on a show. Fuld got six at-bats for the big club last season, making six outs, but he also walked three times. For a team that doesn't have a natural center fielder, wouldn't a spunky line-drive hitting, on-base guy like Fuld be a perfect fit? Well, it doesn't matter, because teams like the Cubs would rather spend millions on Jacque Jones or another name guy than give a perceived overachiever like this a chance. OK, that just sounds bitter. Fuld might end up being the MVP of the AFL this season, and who knows, it could translate to a job with the Cubs as a fourth outfielder, though the Cubs have people to do that. At 26, the Stanford product might have to wait awhile for a chance, but I'll always be rooting for him!
In the news
• You're not happy if you own Joel Zumaya in a keeper league. The eventual Tigers closer injured his shoulder while moving boxes during the California wildfires, and the resulting surgery will have him out for half of the 2008 season. I think the Tigers wanted to re-sign Todd Jones to close anyway, then take their time moving Zumaya into the role, but now we'll never know. There's no need to keep Zumaya anymore, but sometime around next July we'll recommend him as a pickup.
• Ryan Dempster was hinting at it in October, and now the the Cubs seem to be confirming that their erratic closer the last two seasons is rotation-bound, and that opens up a number of new closing possibilities. Is it Bobby Howry, who has been waiting for this chance and seemingly earned it with two solid seasons? Is it Carlos Marmol, who had terrific numbers as a seventh-inning guy, and was rumored to be taking the role during the season? What about Kerry Wood? Who would let him go back into the rotation? Keep an eye on this, and don't assume Dempster will stink as a starter. I could see him winning 12 games with an ERA in the low-4s.
• Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman broke a bone in his left wrist while swinging a bat over the weekend, and can't confirm whether this is an old injury aggravated or something new. Whatever the case, he should be fine for spring training. It took a while, but Zimmerman ended up with fine stats for the position, 24 homers and 91 RBIs, though chances are his value was a bit high in drafts and more was expected. He's Scott Rolen, circa five seasons ago, not Alex Rodriguez circa today.