California Fall League Report: Lancaster at Lake Elsinore

After fighting through some nasty traffic to get out of San Diego, my wife and I arrived at the Lake Elsinore Diamond in the 2nd inning of the season finale. This game was everything that my first California Fall League experience wasn’t: well played, well attended, and, well — more like an actual baseball game.

By the time we showed up, the home Land Sharks were already up, 1-0, thanks to a leadoff homer from Oriole outfielder Roberto Rivera. After receiving our complimentary set of Land Sharks baseball card, we quickly found our seats, in the first row, behind home plate. We sat in the section right next to all the scouts, with their radar guns, notepads, and cellular phones.

Oriole righthander Sean Douglass, from nearby Lancaster (coincidentally, tonight’s opponent was the Lancaster Stealth-the town, about an hour north of Los Angeles, is home to a large Air Force base, hence the name “Stealth”), was on the hill for the home team. Douglass is a 20-year-old stringbean (listed at 6’6″, 198 lbs.), with a nice, compact delivery. His fastball generally came in at 88-91 mph, and he was able to get it in on the hands of hitters, even lefties. He also featured a decent breaking ball.

Douglass was pretty much in control until the 4th inning, when he allowed a 1-out single to the Pirates Kory DeHaan. I’d been impressed with DeHaan at the Carolina/California League All-Star Game (actually, I’d seen quite a few of the players in tonight’s contest at that game); he struck me then as a Steve Finley/Andy VanSlyke type player, with perhaps less power. Back to Douglass. He then walked the next two batters, loading the bases for Pirate infielder Rico Washington. He fell behind Washington, 3 and 1, then threw two perfect pitches to strike him out. Douglass retired the next batter to end the inning, unscathed. That was the closest he came to allowing a run.

Douglass struck me as the kind of kid scouts love — great pitcher’s body, decent stuff with good movement, and young enough to fill out a bit and add a little something to his fastball. In other words, he’s the kind of guy who could end up in the back of a big league rotation or, if he picks up some velocity, perhaps in the middle of one. Sort of like the Padres’ Buddy Carlyle. I liked the way he threw the ball, and I was particularly impressed with the way he was able to get out of trouble in the 4th inning. I don’t want to overstate the significance of that moment, but it’s always good to see a kid who doesn’t fold under pressure. I’ll be keeping an eye on him next season.

Douglass also earned himself a little extra cash by striking out the side in order one inning. After the inning, the PA announcer had ushers “pass the hat” for Douglass. Fans were invited to drop a $1 bill into a brown envelope, which was then presented to the young hurler at the end of the game. A nice touch, and a reminder of what a struggle it is for most of these kids to play at this level — a far cry from some out-of-shape millionaire sitting in the clubhouse playing cards while his team is being eliminated from the playoffs.

Other Lake Elsinore players impressed me as well. Mets righthander Leslie Brea worked the 9th inning to seal the victory. He came in with a 9-0 lead, and surrendered two runs. He’s not a big guy (5’11″, 190 lbs.) but his fastball comes in at 93-95 mph. It must not have much movement, or maybe hitters were just sitting on the one pitch, because he gave up back-to-back doubles to Seattle infielder Bo Robinson and (check?) that were hit like bullets. He also struck out Twins infielder Mike Ryan to end the season. Brea has a terrific arm. It remains to see whether that translates into success.

Expos righthander Mark Mangum worked two scoreless innings. The 20-year-old from Texas didn’t throw very hard (86-89 mph) but seemed to have a good idea of what he was doing. At his age, and at 6’2″, 165 lbs., there’s always a chance that he, like Douglass, could add some velocity and turn into something.

Giants catcher Giuseppe Chiaramonte played the final 3 or 4 innings. I’d seen him once before, a couple years ago, when he was playing for San Jose. I didn’t remember much about him except that he was from the area and thus a fan favorite. Tonight he only batted once and struck out. But he did hit an impressive foul ball–not for its distance but for its height. In the batter’s box, he’s practically squatting, a la Jeff Bagwell, and when the pitch arrives, he absolutely uncoils. Chiaramonte is a very strong kid and I’m sure when he hits the ball on a line, it goes a long way.

Infielders Chris Rowan (Brewers) and Ty Wigginton (Mets) also showed some promise. Rowan has good power for a shortstop but will swing at just about anything. The main thing he’s got going for him right now is his age — he spent a full season in the California League as a 20-year-old. Still, he’s got to develop some semblance of plate discipline before he is taken too seriously as a prospect.

Wigginton, a second baseman, reminded me a bit of Braves prospect Marcus Giles, a fellow San Diegan who doesn’t quite look like he belongs out there. At 6’0″, 200 lbs., Wigginton looks more like a fireplug than a middle infielder. He looked a bit slow in the field, particularly to his right, and I have doubts that he’ll remain at second base. If he has the arm, a move to third base wouldn’t be out of the question. He’s got the bat for it. Wigginton is extremely aggressive at the plate. On more than one occasion, he took a vicious cut at (and missed) the first pitch he saw, then worked the count in his favor before taking another vicious cut. One of his swings resulted in a line drive homer 410 feet to left center (for which he was rewarded by another passing of the cap). Wigginton probably won’t be able to get away with being that aggressive when he moves up the ladder and faces pitchers who can locate a little better, but his stroke is reasonably short and he appears to have a plan.

Outfielders Doug Clark (Giants) and Robert Stratton (Mets) also caught my eye. Clark is sort of a Paul O’Neill type hitter — line drives, good power to the gaps. He also has a terrific arm in right field, twice making nice throws to second base (one for an out, the other just a tad late). Stratton commands attention because of his 6’3″, 255 lb. frame. He’s also got prodigious power potential, although he didn’t show any of that tonight. He reminds me of Rob Deer — big, strong, faster than you expect, and lots of holes in the swing.

A few Lancaster players are also worth mentioning. In addition to the previously discussed DeHaan, southpaw Mike Gonzalez (Pirates) and righthander Kevin Sheredy (Cardinals) showed promise. This was the second time I’d seen Gonzalez. He left the same impression this time as he had the first — live arm for a lefty; spotty command and control. He should get lots of chances to succeed. Sheredy consistently hit 91-93 mph but didn’t appear to have a reliable second pitch. He did well in his first inning of work but was touched up a bit in his second.

Infielders Bo Robinson and Rico Washington showed the ability to handle the stick. Robinson played first base tonight (he also plays third base) and displayed a nice inside-out stroke that provided surprising opposite-field power. He’s also fun to watch. Just before he comes to the plate he takes a practice swing in which he ends up in a fencing-like pose. I half-expected him to say “en garde” to the pitcher.

Washington is a short, stocky kid who hits from the left side. He didn’t do much at the plate but in the field, he showed good instincts at third base — quick feet and a strong arm. He’s also played some second base this fall and he spent part of the regular season behind the plate. Washington reminds me a bit of Lenny Harris in terms of body type, ability to play multiple positions, and general peskiness. He’s not as fast as Harris, though.

Finally, outfielders Juan Pierre (Rockies) and Michael Restovich (Twins) looked promising. Pierre is a lefty-swinging centerfielder who slashes at the ball, puts it in play, and runs like crazy. He takes pitches, bunts well, and generally looks like a guy who could prove useful to Colorado down the line.

At 6’4″, 233 lbs., Restovich is built like a football player. In fact, until recently, he was a football player. But since being drafted out of a Minnesota high school by the Twins in 1997, he’s focused his attention on terrorizing opposing pitchers. He shows good patience at the plate and stays back nicely on breaking balls. He came into the game about halfway through it, so I only got to see him bat twice. The first time, against starter Sean Douglass, he fell behind 0 and 2 on good sliders (took the first, swung and missed at the second), then worked the count full before being called out on a perfect slider that painted the outside corner. His second time up, Restovich took the first pitch low, then grounded a breaking ball to third base. He appeared to recognize the pitch well and made a good pass on the ball. Running down the line, he looked a bit awkward and slow. I didn’t get to see him run the bases but I expect he looks better going from first to third.

On defense, Restovich provided quite the adventure in right field. I can only recall three balls being hit in his direction, and they were all more interesting than they needed to be. On one play, he charged right past a ground ball single that saw the batter end up on third base and a second run score. Another time he took a bad angle on a ball and ended up jumping into the wall while the ball landed about 10 feet to his left (in his defense, this was not an easy chance). Even the one ball he did catch almost ended up going over his head. Either he was having a bad night (always a possibility) or he has a lot of work to do in the outfield. Whatever the case, Restovich sure carries himself like a guy who’s going to make the Show and by all indications, the talent is there.

Well, that does it this time around. The inaugural California Fall League has come to an end. I hope it has been deemed enough of a success by the powers-that-be to return for another year. In the meantime, thanks for joining me and be sure to support your local team, whoever and at whatever level they may be.

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