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MLB

7/17/2008

These rookies are lost in the woods. Good thing we have a map.

After early success, it's not unusual for even the most highly touted phenoms to struggle once the rest of the league discovers and exploits their weaknesses. Those who have staying power learn to play the big league game of adjusting to opponents' adjustments. To help the kids out, we asked several MLB scouts to pinpoint their problems and offer some advice on how to fix the flaws.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

By Keith Law

On July 2, the Athletics inked 16-year-old Dominican pitcher Michael Inoa to a $4.25 million bonus, underlining a significant change in baseball's international talent scramble. Where once only the richest clubs dominated the market for high-end Latin American talent, now teams at the lower end of the economic scale are buying in.

"If Inoa were in the draft in two years, as an 18-year-old, we felt like he'd be a top-five pick," says GM Billy Beane, famous for getting the most for his money. Beane reportedly outbid the Yankees and outmaneuvered other clubs that had bid more.

International players are not subject to the draft; they can sign with any team as soon as they turn 16. With his above-average curveball and a 93 mph fastball that's projected to pick up even more speed as he gets older, the 6'7", righthanded Inoa could be a once-in-a-decade talent who came along at the perfect time—a few weeks after a mediocre draft. But Inoa's bonus was just one of several big-ticket signings by teams that hadn't recently been players in Latin America.

The Padres, also bidders for Inoa, spent close to $5 million on five international prospects. "We've stopped operating under the assumption that we can't compete for the high-profile guys," says Paul DePodesta, an assistant to GM Kevin Towers. Meanwhile, the Reds were in on Inoa and spent $2 million in March on 16-year-old Dominican outfielder Juan Durán. "Young players have become the ultimate currency," says one exec. "Everyone's spending a lot of money in the draft, but it's somewhat regulated, so everyone is going to an unregulated place."

And coming home with valuable autographs.

TWIN ENGINES

By Jorge Aranguré Jr.

From eating breakfast together each morning to shagging flies during BP, Carlos Gómez and Alexi Casilla are inseparable. That also applies to their place atop the batting order, where the Dominican duo is providing a spark for the upstart Twins. And yet their paths to the Twin Cities were quite different.

The son of a well-known amateur player in the D.R., Gómez was considered a prospect almost from birth, and the centerfielder attracted attention from at least five teams before signing with the Mets in July 2002. Casilla, whose father is a tailor in San Cristóbal, received only mild interest from an Angels scout, who was hesitant to sign a stocky, 5'9" second baseman. Casilla considered quitting the game before the Angels finally offered him a contract in 2003. That's the year the two players first crossed paths, when Casilla upset Gómez in a footrace to determine the fastest prospect in the Dominican Summer League. (Gómez swears he got a late start.)

Casilla, who's 24, came to the Twins in a 2005 trade for reliever J.C. Romero, and he hit just .222 in a 56-game stint last year. He's batting over .300 this season, thanks to a tip from hitting coach Joe Vavra, who advised Casilla to rest his bat on his shoulder to speed up his stroke. "I noticed the difference immediately," Casilla says. "I told Coach, 'Why didn't you tell me that last year?' "

Gómez came over in a slightly higher-profile deal: He was the key to the four-player package the Twins got for Johan Santana. Inserted as Torii Hunter's replacement in center, Gómez quickly became a fan favorite because of his combustible style. The leadoff man is eighth in the AL in steals, but second in strikeouts. "It's only my first full season in the majors," he says. "People don't understand that. How many 22-year-olds are accomplishing what I'm accomplishing?"

When either player does something good, they celebrate with an extended dugout hand slap. They disagree on who invented it. Most likely they came up with it together.