Ah, winter ball. A time for prospects to bask in Hawaii, Arizona, and Latin America, honing their game. No pressure at all, just beaches, babes, and baseball, right? Well...
For one gang of minor leaguers, it's a last chance to get included on the 40-man roster, a sure sign that you've arrived in an organization. Make it and you know you're in the team's future; miss it and you may be wearing a different uniform.
A ballyhooed star in the making like Jose Tabata doesn't have to sweat it. As soon as he's eligible, he's on the roster. And the youngster is playing like he deserves a spot, batting .288 with a homer and 9 RBI, 7 K and 7 BB, and 5 stolen bases in seven tries in 73 Venezuelan League AB.
There's some debate about whether he signed in 2004 or 2005. If it's the former, he's on the 40-man, no questions asked. If the latter, he's got a year to go.
For other guys, it's not so clear cut. RHP Evan Meek was put on the roster, but he earned his spot at Indy. Even so, he's kept his stats up in Mexico, with a 1-1 record and 7 saves in nine opportunities. In 11-2/3 IP, he's got an ERA of 3.09, giving up 9 hits and striking out 14 while walking 7.
Lefty Dave Davidson, who pitched for the Canadian Olympic team, is trying to preserve his place on the 40-man. DD is 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA in Mexico, giving up 9 hits in 8 innings with 8 K and 7 BB.
Two AA pitchers are trying to work their way on the protected list. One is Pirate Minor League Pitcher of the Year, RHP Jeff Sues. After a horrid start at Arizona, his slate is 11-2/3 IP, giving up 18 hits and running up an ERA of 6.94. He's struck out 13, walked 4, and hit 3 batters while trying to develop an inside presence.
Lefty Kyle Bloom is knocking hard at the 40-man door with his excellent work at Hawaii. As a starter, he's 2-0 in 30 IP, yielding but 15 hits while K'ing 32 and walking 11 with a 1.50 ERA.
That's good enough to get him on the MLB scouts' radar, and the Bucs have a decision to make with him. A lefty with some potential is likely worth a roll of the Ruke 5dice.
Class A RHP Ron Uviedo is trying to make a name for himself, too. His ERA in Venezuela is 1.93, but in 9-1/3 innings, he's given up 14 hits. Still, Uviedo has struck out 11 without a walk. A long shot, but...
All the catchers on the 40-man save Ryan Doumit are playing winter ball. Ronny Paulino is playing lights out in limited time in the Dominican League, batting .400 in 25 AB with 4 HR and 11 RBI, drawing 6 walks and striking out 4 times. His slugging percentage is a ridiculous .960.
Ol' man Raul Chavez is raking, too. He's hitting .333 in 39 AB in Venezuela, with, as during the regular season, no power at all, swatting a pair of doubles.
Robinzon Diaz, the new boy on the block, isn't doing much to press his case in the Dominican League. He's hitting just .238, without an extra base hit and 5 DP in 42 AB. Ouch!
Steve Lerud, the next catcher in line, has had a tough go of it in Arizona. He's hitting just .194, and is a cinch to be left off the roster this time around.
So catching has pretty much sorted itself out for next year. Paulino - who is out of options - and Chavez will battle for the back-up spot in the spring, unless Paulino plumps up his value enough to bring some bacon home in an off-season deal.
Catching is a hot commodity this year; he may be on some team's wish list after the first wave of current free agent backstops find a home.
Diaz has an option left, and should start at Indy. Lerud? Well, he better have a breakout year at Altoona next season, or he'll find himself off the prospect list and on the organizational depth chart, if he already isn't.
Luis Cruz is playing steady ball in Mexico. The utility infielder is batting .269, with 2 HR and 7 RBI, and showing a nice eye, drawing 11 walks to 7 K. After a not-so-sweet September in the show, he's using the fall to try to establish himself as a MLB-caliber player, even if off the pine.
A loser in the winter rat race is Steve Pearce. He hit just .203, with no homers and 6 RBI, and a slugging percentage of .305. It's not bad enough to dump him from the 40-man, but as for making the active roster...
It's no secret that the Bucs are actively beating the bushes for a RH bat with some pop, but Pearce's half season in Mexico has put him squarely behind the 8-ball going into 2009. The Pirates will almost certainly go another direction this winter to find that power stick.
Might it be Jamie Romak, who's also looking for a spot on this year's 40-man? Well, he's struggling almost as much as Pearce in Arizona. He's hitting .232, with 1 HR and 7 RBI and a slugging % of .339. But he does have 45 HR the past two seasons.
The suits have another week, until November 20th, to set their 40-man roster and protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft. Guys they'll talk about are Tabata, Sues, Bloom, Davidson (who's already on), and Uviedo. Neil Walker, who didn't play fall ball, is a shoo-in, and Cruz has laid claim to holding his spot.
Can Pittsburgh risk losing any arms, in an organization woefully short of pitching? That's the question they face this week.
Maybe Romak and certainly Lerud have hurt their chances to create some buzz in the organization. Ya gotta answer when opportunity knocks.
The same dynamic is in play for next year. Shelby Ford (.294, 3-11 in Arizona) and Miles Durham (.276, 2-26 in Hawaii) are making noise. Jim Negrych (.225, 0-4 in Hawaii) has been hurt, and Brian Friday (.184, 0-4 in Hawaii), is blowing his claim as the SS of the future.
Winter ball is just a small slice of a prospect's career, but it can serve as a launching pad or a set of cement shoes. Winners and losers...