If there's one word which sums up the reaction on looking at the box-scores from the first week of spring-training, it's probably "Who?" For there are a lot of less well-known names that get an invite to camp as well, either to work on specific aspects of their game, or simply to experience the 'big-league' atmosphere. This is the first in a couple of articles which will cover the players with whom you may not be as familiar. Today, we start with the back end of the 40-man roster; the second part will cover the non-roster invitees.
We will not generally be covering those with major-league experience in Arizona, though I've stretched the point to include Josh Whitesell and his seven at-bats. I'ts interesting to note, even after bringing him in, that the vast bulk of the remainder on the 40-man roster are pitchers. Very few of them have any realistic chance at making the roster on Opening Day - Blackley, Gutierrez and Skelton appear the only three. But you will be able to get cool points with the spectators around you at the game, if you are at least somewhat aware of their histories and potential. Not all of these will necessarily be down in Tucson, but it should cover a good chunk of the 2009 contenders. Here's a quick listing: details of each are after the jump.
Travis Blackley. This Australian left-hander has bounced around a few teams, after initially signing with the Mariners in 2000. He was rated the 6th-best minor-league player in all baseball in 2004, but was sidelined for all of 2005 thanks to shoulder surgery, and has been making his way back since. A Rule 5 pick for the Phillies in December 2007, he didn't stick and became a free-agent at the end of the year, where Arizona picked him up. Nick Piecoro reported his velocity was back to the old level this winter, pitching in Mexico, where he had a 4.24 ERA over 63.2 IP.
Jonathon Coutlangus. First things first. It's pronounced COOT-langus. Certain commentators have already mentioned this. See the Mets' guys and their reaction in 2007:
Gary Cohen: The new Reds pitcher is Jon Coutlangus.
Keith Hernandez: Oh, oh, yeah. We mean it with that name.
Gary: Yes, it's very carefully pronounced.
Keith: That's a tongue twister, isn't it?
(10 seconds of silence)
I'm sure he had fun in high-school. He was a regular in the Reds 'pen that year, but was traded to the Diamondbacks last April for minor-leaguer Daniel Perales and immediately optioned to Tucson. He seems to have had elbow issues and vanished from the radar within a couple of weeks, having only thown 5.1 innings for the Sidewinders. But specifics of exactly what ailed him are hard to come by.
Juan Gutierrez. Part of the haul we got from the Astros for Jose Valverde, Gutierrez is out of options so will need to be found a slot or exposed to waivers. He didn't exactly impress in Triple-A last season, making 22 starts with a resulting ERA north of six - bad even by PCL standards. However, he had a very successful winter league campaign in Venezuela, starting 13 games with a 2.63 ERA, holding opponents to a .218 average, including tossing a one-hitter.
Jose Marte. This tall, lanky right-hander came from the Rangers in exchange for Dustin Nippert, which gives you some kind of idea about his potential - especially as neutral opinion had Texas getting the best of the deal. He started the year in Visalia, but won promotion to Double-A after 14 innings, 15 K's and a 1.93 ERA there. Not quite as successful in Mobile (49.1 IP, 37 K, 4.38 ERA), and his control needs work, with a walk-rate of almost five per nine IP since his arrival.
Kyler Newby. After a delayed 2007, caused by an injury in the Hawaiian Winter League,. Newby spent the year in the High-A Visalia bullpen. The 23-year old had a very successful season, allowing only 49 hits in 67 innings, while fanning 86. Not bad for someone picked in the 50th round of the 2004 draft - and he's a local boy, out of Mesa Community College. With success at every level (a cumulative ERA over four minor-league seasons of 2.30) he has an outside chance of a September call-up, but 2010 probably beckons. Here's an interview with Kyler from last month.
Leyson Septimo. Drafted as an position player, Septimo was switched to a pitcher after three less-than stellar seasons in the outfield [an OPS of only .561]. Described before the season by farm director AJ Hinch as "A left-hander with plus arm speed and velocity," his fastball can reach the upper-90's, but he's clearly a work in progress. That could be seen in his 2008 stats with Visalia, where although he struck out more than a batter per inning, Septimo also walked 33 in only 41 IP.
Cesar Valdez. Well, you probably should know about him now, after he was nominated by GM Josh Byrnes as his 'under the radar' prospect. He had startling success for Visalia, with a K:BB ratio of 80:16, and a 2.53 ERA in 96 innings, results which garnered him a promotion to Double-A. He was named to the California League All-Star team while in Visalia and the 23-year old Valdez was awarded the D-back organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year for his performances.
Esmerling Vasquez. He preceded Valdez as AZ's Pitcher of the Year, in 2007 but almost immediately after, injured his shoulder diving for a bunt in the Fall League. While he avoided surgery, it did seem to have a negative impact, and he got lit up pitching for the Sidewinders in Tucson. He was dropped from the rotation, finishing the season off as a reliver, and overall, had a 6.72 ERA. His walk-rate was particularly affected, shooting up from 3.27/9 IP in 2007, to a monstrous 7.92 last year. That needs to be corrected if he's to be of any use to the team.
Clay Zavada. Probably the only player ever with a middle name of 'Pflibson', Zavada may be the most intriguing prospect of all, whom we already highlighted when the NY Times wrote a story on this lunch-pail prospect. But he can pitch too: after re-entering our system in June, he allowed six hits over 35.1 IP for the South Bend Silver Hawks - a .056 BAA - for an 0.51 ERA, including 30.2 consecutive scoreless innings to end the year. He says, "I just don't want to be an old man, throwing another log on the fire, feeling sorry for myself and talking about what I could have done when I was young. All I want to be able to say is 'Hey, I gave it my best shot.'"
James Skelton. It looks like we're gravitating towards the nickname 'Jack' for him, based largely on his lightweight appearance - I can't wait to see him standing beside Chris Snyder. It's going to be a stern test, leaping all the way from Double-A to the majors, after being snatched from Detroit in the Rule 5 pick. He has to give some indication he can handle major-league pitching, though as a third catcher and second backup infielder, to some extent he can be hidden on the roster. If he can keep his OBP anywhere near the startling .416 he's posted in the minor-leagues, he should be fine.
Pedro Ciriaco. While he repeated High-A ball, the then 22-year old made obvious steps forward, adding 133 points to his OPS, and stealing an organization-leading forty bases. Even lighter then Skelton, Ciriaco also made his first starts at 2B, and got his SS errors down significantly [though after making forty-five in 128 games his rookie year, it could hardly be otherwise!]. Scout.com reckoned, "It's highly unlikely that [he] will fix all of the fundamental flaws in his game to reach his ceiling and become a star shortstop. But if he can, that ceiling is awfully high." For amusement, he's a video of Ciriaco running the bases, which showcases both his flaws and his skills:
Josh Whitesell. He won the team's Player of the Year award, batting .326 with 26 HR and 110 RBI for Tucson, but it's hard to see how he will fit onto the current roster, with Jackson, Tracy and Clark all ahead of him at first-base. It'll probably take an injury for him to see playing time before September, but no harm in having some backup there. Next year - with Clark presumably gone (though I said that after 2007!) and Tracy at the mercy of the team and his $7m option - may prove to be Josh's coming-out party.