By JAY LeBLANC
Since its inception in 1992, the Arizona Fall League has served as both a training ground and a showcase for some of baseball’s best young talent. Players benefit from the high level of competition and the extra instruction while scouts and front office executives gain perspective on their present strengths and weaknesses. The Baltimore Orioles assigned eight players to the AFL’s Phoenix Desert Dogs this fall, and in each case, there was a specific purpose for doing so. Here’s a rundown of the O’s farmhands that will look to sharpen their skills and make a good impression on Andy MacPhail & Co. when the AFL season kicks off Oct. 13.
Matt Angle, OF, Bowie
Angle hit .292 and swiped 40 bases for Frederick this season to earn Carolina League Post-Season All-Star Honors and impressed in an late-season stint with Double-A Bowie. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound speedster offers very little pop - he managed a mere 22 extra-base hits, including just one home run, this season - but is adept at small ball. He bunts well and is an above-average defender, and a keen batting eye helped him to post a solid .374 on-base percentage this year. At 24 and with just eight Double-A games to his credit, Angle doesn’t have a lot of upside. But if he continues to rise to the competition as he moves up the ladder, he could have a future as a fourth outfielder or a fringe starter. He’ll look to continue refining his table-setting skills against top-notch pitching prospects this fall.
Josh Bell, 3B, Bowie
Bell, the key piece in the deadline deal that sent George Sherrill to the Dodgers, has always been a well-regarded prospect but took a big step forward in 2009. Previously criticized for a lack of speed and range, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder showed such marked improvement that Baseball America tabbed him as the best defensive third baseman in the Double-A Southern League at midseason. The 22-year-old switch-hitter slugged 11 homers in 94 games as a Dodgers farmhand this year, then found his power stroke and blasted nine more in 33 games for Bowie. He hit .295 for the year but struggled mightily from the right side and managed just four hits in 31 at bats against left-handers with Bowie. Addressing that weakness is at the top of Bell’s to-do list - in bold and underlined.
Brandon Erbe, RHP, Bowie
Erbe is heading to Arizona primarily to make up for innings lost to shoulder fatigue earlier this season. The 21-year-old missed all of May and most of June but was outstanding before and after the hiatus. He had a 0.90 ERA and was averaging nearly a strikeout per inning when he went on the shelf, and he went 4-0 with a 2.89 ERA in his last 10 starts. He held Double-A hitters to a .170 average this season, and his 2.34 ERA would have ranked second in the Eastern League if he had enough innings to qualify. It should be noted, however, that Erbe’s success came in spite of subpar command. The 6-foot-4, 180-pound righty walked 35 batters in 75 Double-A innings and must do a better job of harnessing his impressive arsenal if he is to succeed as a starter in the big leagues.
Eddie Gamboa, RHP, Bowie
11-0 record, 1.08 ERA - numbers like these are usually associated with first-round picks-to-be in their senior years of high school, not unheralded 21st rounders out of UC Davis in pro ball. But those are in fact the statistics Gamboa put up this year as he progressed from Delmarva to Frederick and finally to Bowie. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder was victimized by poor run support in going 1-7 with a 3.63 ERA as a starter for Bluefield in 2008, but his transition to relieving was a smashing success. He used his deceptive delivery and good command of his three pitch-arsenal - two-seam fastball, cutter and changeup - to post a 75-to-17 K-to-walk ratio, and while he was old for his level at his first two stops - he turns 25 in December - his statistics improved as he moved up the ladder. A strong showing in Arizona could put him in the mix for relief work in Baltimore in 2010.
Josh Perrault, RHP, Norfolk
The Orioles selected Perrault in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft last winter, and he ended up as one of the most pleasant surprises in the system this year. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound right-hander racked up 18 saves and posted a 2.13 ERA and 74-to-18 K-to-walk ratio while splitting his time almost evenly between Bowie and Norfolk. At 27, Perrault will be one of the older players in the AFL, and the Orioles assigned him there primarily because they need to decide whether to place him on the 40-man roster this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. A strong showing for Phoenix would put Perrault in position to secure a spot in the Baltimore bullpen next spring if the O’s choose to protect him - or make him a target of teams seeking relief help in the Rule 5 draft if they don’t.
Brandon Snyder, 1B, Norfolk
Snyder heads to Arizona in hopes of rediscovering his stroke after a hugely disappointing three-month stint in Triple-A. The 22-year-old earned his promotion to Norfolk by hitting a robust .343 with 10 home runs in 58 games for Bowie but managed just a .248 average and two longballs in 73 games for the Tides. Snyder appeared poised to compete for a 2010 big league job at the time of his promotion but is a now a near-lock to return to Triple-A, though a good showing in the fall league could put him back in the mix with Michael Aubrey and Rhyne Hughes for time at first base. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound first baseman also saw limited action at third base for Norfolk and could see more reps at the hot corner for Phoenix with Melvin Mora highly unlikely to return to Baltimore next season.
Ryohei Tanaka, RHP, Bowie
Tanaka posted solid numbers for Bowie in his first season in the United States, going 4-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 21 appearances (12 starts). The 6-foot, 169-pound right-hander appeared in a handful of games for the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese League in 2003 but spent the next five years in Japan’s minors after posting a 8.10 ERA in 10 innings. The book on Tanaka is remarkably thin, and the Orioles probably assigned him to the AFL primarily to get an extended look at him against some of the minors’ better hitters. Given his age (26) and the fact that he was unable to stick in the Japanese major leagues, Tanaka can’t be considered much of a prospect, but the O’s can use all the pitching help they can get.
Brandon Waring, 1B/3B, Bowie
Waring came to the Orioles organization along with Justin Turner in the trade that sent Ramon Hernandez to the Reds last winter and exceeded expectations by taking Carolina League MVP honors. The 6-foot-4, 195-pounder hit .273 and slugged 26 homers for Frederick and performed well after a late-season promotion to Bowie, hitting .292 with a home run in 24 at bats. Waring complements his potent bat with the ability to play both corner infield spots - he appeared in 76 games at first base and 62 at third this past season - and could have a future as a utility man if he doesn’t develop into a big league starter. Waring turns 24 in January and was a bit old for his level this year, so the Orioles will be interested in seeing how he fares against the tougher AFL competition. As a member of Phoenix’s taxi squad he’ll only be eligible to play in two games a week, though.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prospect Q&A - Josh Bell, Orioles
Prospect Q&A - Brandon Erbe, Orioles
Prospect Q&A - Brandon Snyder, Orioles
Prospect Q&A - Brandon Waring, Orioles
September 2009 Orioles Prospect Rankings