Leftover fall league stuff

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For those who haven’t read them yet, here are links to my stories from today’s paper about the Nats’ Arizona Fall League participants, along with a brief recap of Stephen Strasburg’s dominant start. I had a chance to sit down and talk to Strasburg for about 10 minutes after yesterday’s outing and spent a good amount of time asking others with the Phoenix Desert Dogs (including manager Gary Cathcart and Nats Class A pitching coach Paul Menhart) about the No. 1 draft pick. I’ll be compiling all of that into a longer feature on Strasburg that will run in another week or two, probably after the World Series.

But since I’m currently stuck at Midway Airport in Chicago, waiting for a delayed connecting flight to Dulles — thank you, Southwest Airlines — this seemed like a good time to wrap up my short trip to the AFL. I saw the Desert Dogs play only two games, but I got to see six of the Nats’ seven prospects in action: Strasburg, Drew Storen, Chris Marrero, Danny Espinosa, Sean Rooney and Josh Wilkie. Only guy I missed was Jeff Mandel.

So a quick rundown of some of these guys, along with some leftover quotes from some of the pertinent parties…

STEPHEN STRASBURG: In a word, wow. This was the first time I’d seen the guy live, and he certainly lived up to the hype. What astounded me the most about his 4 1/3-inning, one-hit performance was that he didn’t even look like he was at the top of his game. Especially in the first two innings, he was still getting a feel for his offspeed stuff and was falling behind in the count some. So imagine what he’s capable of when everything is working. The other thing that impressed me, both from talking to him and to his coaches, is that Strasburg uses his mind just as much as his arm when he pitches. It would be easy to just rear back and fire that 100 mph fastball and back-breaking slider and hope for the best. But he knows physical talent will only get him so far at the professional level. He analyzes his pitching approach and has a real grasp of how to make adjustments, both in-game and between starts. I’ll delve into a lot of this in my story in a couple weeks, so I won’t give away everyone’s quotes right now. Suffice it to say, Strasburg really is the complete package, and I don’t believe he’s going to wind up the kind of hard-throwing, brain-less busts that a lot of hyped pitching prospects become. (In other words, he’s no Daniel Cabrera, and thank god for that.)

DREW STOREN: The hard-throwing closer hadn’t allowed an earned run in his first four AFL appearances. Then I showed up and he blew the save Monday. I wouldn’t worry about that too much, though. Storen has a great arm and a real closer’s mentality. I fully expect him to be in the Nats’ bullpen early in 2010, if not on Opening Day. Some quotes from Drew…

On the differences of each step he’s taken this year: “There’s minor differences between each level. Each time I’ve moved up, I’ve seen it’s harder to strike people out. A lot of times you throw those really good pitches that you think a guy’s going to swing through, and he ends up fouling it off or getting a hit. That’s the big difference.”

Is this the final step, or do you think you need more seasoning? “I don’t know. I really don’t try to look at the big picture too much. I just look at this as a good step to get ready for spring training. And then I’m hoping I have a successful spring training and that could put me in position to make an impact next year. But I’m just taking the same attitude I did during the summer league, just trying to get better each time and make adjustments each time to get better.”

CHRIS MARRERO: The big first baseman can hit, we’ve always known that. He’s still kind of raw in the field, though. In yesterday’s game, he dropped as routine a throw from second base as you’ll ever see, allowing a run to score. But one inning later, he made a nice lunging play on a sharp grounder. So he’s making progress. Offensively, I was kind of surprised to see him trying to go to right field almost every time he came up. I didn’t get a chance to ask him afterward if that’s an intentional approach he’s taking or if he was just going with the pitches he was seeing, but it does show you the guy isn’t just a pull-happy slugger. Quotes…

Is there a noticeable difference in quality up here? “Yeah definitely. Everyone here is throwing 93-94 mph with good movement. You don’t really see that too much in the lower levels.”

How important was it to get one month at Class AA at the end of the season? “I was happy. Last year I broke my ankle so I had to come back this year and that slowed me down. But I feel like I’m getting back to where I want to be.”

DANNY ESPINOSA: Aside from Strasburg, this was the guy I was most interested to see in person. He looks like a complete package at shortstop. He’s got a great arm, and he’s an accomplished hitter from both sides of the plate. He doesn’t look at all fazed by the AFL competition, even though he hasn’t played above Class A yet. Manager Gary Cathcart raved about his ability, as you’ll see in the upcoming quote…

Espinosa, on the potential of having a quick track to the majors: “I think I can. We’re going to have to see, though. If I can go up quick, I’d love it. As long as I can show I’m progressing and making the strides I’m supposed to, then I think I can. Defensively, I feel pretty comfortable. There’s always things I can make better about my defense. But my hitting … everyone has said, ‘Are you going to hit? Are you going to hit? Are you going to hit?’ And finally this year, I did a pretty good job of it. Maybe I’m starting to turn some heads.”

Cathcart, on Espinosa’s ability: “Everything comes so naturally to him. He’s got such god-given ability. He’s one those guys who is so naturally talented that the details haven’t had to come into play yet. But once he gets to the higher levels, the little things will become more important. That’s really all he’s got left to polish up. He’s really talented.”

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Mark Zuckerman

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