- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHOENIX -- Heartwarming as it is to see George Brett throw batting practice to the Kansas City Royals or new Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan monitor pitchers warming up in the bullpen, nothing makes your pulse quicken like the sight of prospects mingling with veterans in training camp. Think it's not fun to watch the pages of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook spring to life before your very eyes?
A few young players, like Cubs catcher Geovany Soto, Arizona right fielder Justin Upton and Oakland first baseman Daric Barton, are already penciled in for starting jobs in April. Others, such as Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus, are getting a taste of Cactus League competition so they'll feel more comfortable down the road.
Right between those two groups, you'll find several players who are on the cusp of winning jobs but might need a little more nurturing before their big breakthrough. Who'll be the Ryan Braun of 2008? Here are six players in Arizona spring training camps who might be graduating to a ballpark and a fantasy league roster spot near you this season.
Felix Pie, CF, Cubs
The Cubs dabbled in acquiring a veteran center fielder in the offseason. They expressed interest in the Angels' Chone Figgins, but found him cost-prohibitive. And they discussed a Matt Murton-for-Marlon Byrd deal with Texas, only to find the Rangers weren't buying.
So now it's come down to the overachieving Stanford economics major, Sam Fuld, vs. the perennial prospect, Pie. While Pie isn't guaranteed a spot in Chicago's Opening Day lineup, he appears to have the best chance of anyone on this list of breaking camp with the big club. Manager Lou Piniella has consistently hinted that it's Pie's job to lose.
At 23, Pie already has 2,171 at-bats in the minor leagues. Last year he hit .362 with a .963 OPS in Iowa, so there's not much left for him to prove in the Pacific Coast League.
Right now Pie has three things to overcome: (1) A swing that's a tad long, (2) a tendency to expand his strike zone too readily and (3) trouble with breaking balls. Will Piniella be patient with the kid as the Cubs try to get off to a fast start? We'll see.
"I think it's put-up-or-shut-up time with this guy,'' a scout said. "At some point, you have to let him play his way on or off the team. I don't think you're going to know with him until he plays half a season and gets 300 at-bats.''
Or 600. Even if Pie takes his lumps offensively, he's likely to be hitting in the No. 8 spot. He also has the speed, glove and arm to contribute when he's not hitting. As we saw with Dustin Pedroia in Boston last season, Pie's grace period could hinge in part on how well the Cubs play in April and May.
Carlos Gonzalez, RF, A's
Gonzalez, acquired from Arizona in the Dan Haren trade in December, didn't take long to make an impression with his new teammates. The first thing they noticed was the extraordinary carry on his throws from the outfield. Second baseman Mark Ellis made a mental note that he won't have to range very far into right field for relay throws in 2008.
He has a sweet stroke at the plate, too. That helps account for those 16 homers and 33 doubles with Double-A Mobile in the Southern League last season.
Factor in the speed and athleticism, and Gonzalez is already eliciting the inevitable Carlos Beltran comparisons.
"He's one of those guys who's got a real flat bat, almost like a Jason Giambi,'' Ellis said. "The ball stays on his bat a long time.''
Said shortstop Bobby Crosby: "You watch him throw and take batting practice and you say, 'This guy can play.' I think 95 percent of the guys in the big leagues would take his swing.''
Gonzalez still needs to develop the discipline to grind out four at-bats a night, so the Athletics might send him to Triple-A Sacramento to open the season. But with an outfield of Emil Brown, Ryan Sweeney, Travis Buck and Chris Denorfia in Oakland, an opportunity awaits. Buck surprised the A's by making the big club on Opening Day last year, and it won't be a shock if Gonzalez does the same.
Wladimir Balentien, RF, Mariners
Some talent evaluators in the Seattle organization think Balentien has a higher upside -- at least offensively – than former Mariners golden child Adam Jones. If so, that'll help cushion the blow of Jones' departure to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard deal.
Balentien, a product of the Netherlands Antilles, is a physical specimen at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. While he has strong hands and impressive pop, he has trouble at times recognizing breaking balls and laying off the high fastball. Balentien has reduced his strikeout total from 160 to 140 to 105 over the last three seasons, so that's a good sign.
If there's a rap against Balentien in the scouting community, it's that he seems almost disengaged at times. One scout in the Cactus League said Balentien needs to apply himself more, and another seconded that observation.
"He's got ability,'' the scout said. "But with some of his actions, it's like he's playing at the game -- he's not playing in the game. It's a 'look at me' kind of thing.''
Short-term, the Mariners will probably keep one or two players from the Mike Morse-Charlton Jimerson-Greg Norton contingent and send Balentien to Triple-A Tacoma to begin the season. But if new right fielder Brad Wilkerson starts slowly or the team is scraping for runs in April and May, they know where to find him.
The immediate opening is slightly bigger for Balentien than prospect Jeff Clement, who is blocked this year by Kenji Johjima at catcher and Jose Vidro at DH in Seattle. Balentien has worked with Jay Buhner on improving his technique in the outfield and running better routes, and the lure of a big league job might be just what he needs to take his game to the next level.
"He can smell the big leagues,'' manager John McLaren said. "He knows he's in the mix to make the club, and you can see his focus has picked up a lot.''
Chase Headley, LF, Padres
Headley elicited some double takes with a monster home run against the Mariners at the Peoria Sports Complex. The ball cleared the 30-foot batter's eye in center field and traveled an estimated 440 feet.
San Diego Padres
"Anybody in the game would be proud of that one,'' McLaren said. "I'm talking about the big boys. That was [Ken Griffey Jr.] territory out there.''
The Padres love Headley for his intangibles as well as his bat speed. Headley was a third baseman in high school, at the University of Tennessee and in his first three minor league seasons. But after Kevin Kouzmanoff staked a claim to the position last season, the Padres approached Headley about giving left field a whirl.
Headley said he would do whatever was necessary, and he's taken a crash course in outfield play this spring. What he lacks in footspeed, he makes up for in desire.
"I think we've all been around players who would look at it the wrong way -- as unfair in some ways. Like, 'I'm a third baseman. Why are they messing with me?'" said Padres manager Bud Black. "Chase wasn't like that. I told him right away, 'Chase, you're a baseball player.' And he was fine. He said, 'I'm in. I just want to play.'"
Barring a surprise, Scott Hairston will break camp as San Diego's starting left fielder. If Headley goes to Triple-A Portland, will it be as a third baseman or a left fielder? That depends in part on how his spring experiment goes. One thing the Padres don't want to see is Headley's focus on changing positions mess up his hitting, which is his eventual ticket to the majors.
Headley is a switch-hitting, on-base machine who's very selective and comfortable hitting with two strikes. Like second baseman Matt Antonelli, he's a polished college player who takes the field with a plan.
"I think the strikeout is one of the most overrated stats in baseball,'' Headley said. "It's an out just like anything else. You can pretty much tell how I'm hitting by the counts. If somebody is on base, I'm trying to do some damage. But if there's nobody on base, I like to see some pitches.''
Manny Parra, LHP, Brewers
Parra, the oldest player on this list at 25, has come back strong from rotator cuff surgery in 2005. He went 10-4 with 106 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings in two minor league stops last season, and threw a perfect game in his second start for Triple-A Nashville. After a callup to Milwaukee, he broke his thumb while squaring to bunt.
Parra has three plus pitches, velocity in the low- to mid-90s and enough strike-throwing ability to make a smooth transition to the majors. The question is, do the Brewers have room for him in their rotation?
Even with Yovani Gallardo slowed by arthroscopic knee surgery this spring, the Brewers have Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, Carlos Villanueva, Chris Capuano and Claudio Vargas in the mix for starting jobs. Parra has an option left, so the Brewers might send him to Triple-A to get regular work and be ready when an opportunity arises. Last year Gallardo arrived from Nashville in mid-June and provided a nice pick-me-up.
In spring training, Parra has been concentrating on fastball command and working ahead in the count. He was very impressive in his first two outings.
"Coming into the season, I kept telling myself that the only thing I can control is how good I pitch,'' Parra said. "I'm going to make the decision as hard as I can for them, but I'm not going to worry about it on a day-to-day basis. There's just no point.''
Brandon Wood, SS/3B, Angels
It's been the same song with Wood throughout his five professional seasons. He's a mature and grounded player with terrific power, and he's athletic enough in the field to play third base or shortstop. At 6-3 and 190 pounds, Wood is straight out of the Cal Ripken-Alex Rodriguez rangy shortstop prototype.
Los Angeles Angels
High strikeout totals won't prevent Ryan Howard from making $10 million this season. But based on Wood's 583 whiffs in 2,163 minor league at-bats, you wonder how he's going to make consistent contact when the pitching gets really challenging.
"He has one of those leveraged swings where fly balls go forever,'' a scout said. "The bad thing is, the bat isn't in the hitting zone for a very long time. But when he catches it, he hits it.''
Wood has a problem with pitch recognition as well as a lengthy swing. One scout watched him for several days last year and noticed that Wood made the same instinctive, flinching movement time after time against sliders. "He just didn't make any adjustments,'' the scout said.
Not long ago, the Angels had a "can't-miss'' third-base prospect in Dallas McPherson. Then he was grounded by back trouble and some swing issues of his own. The Angels nontendered McPherson in December, and he signed a one-year, $425,000 deal with Florida.
Wood needs a chance to play every day in Anaheim and work through the inevitable slumps, but that's difficult on a team with pennant aspirations. Chone Figgins is set at third, and Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis are duking it out at shortstop, so the Angels will probably send Wood to Salt Lake City to start the season. But if there's an injury or a need, they won't hesitate to call.
"His time is going to come,'' manager Mike Scioscia said. "This guy is going to be a terrific player. There's no doubt.''
Felix Pie and Carlos Gonzalez are only two among a group of young Cactus League players who could emerge in 2008.