Not all payers develop at the same rate. Luis Gonzalez never hit more than 15 home runs in a major league season until age 30. In contrast, Mark Reynolds clubbed 17 home runs in just 266 at bats at the age of 23. While we'd all love to see early returns on every young prospect, sometimes a little patience is required.
The following five players, for varying reasons, played too old for their levels last season. While we remain enthusiastic about their tools and their performance, we have to temper that enthusiasm with the realization that their solid numbers are partly the product of facing less experienced opposition.
One nice thing about these players is that we won't have to wait much longer to determine whether or not they are for real. They will either contribute at the major league level in the next couple of seasons, or soon look for another line of work.
RHP Jailen Peguero, born 1/4/1981
Jailen Peguero turns 27 in January, and will be dubbed a 4-A player if he can't contribute to the big league club in 2008. He has a career 3.08 ERA in the minors, including 1.89 last year in Tucson, good enough to win him the FutureBacks Pitcher of the Year Award there.
But Peguero was given every chance to help the Diamondbacks in their quest for the NL West crown last year, and he hindered the team's efforts more than he helped. In fact, the D-Backs went just 8-10 in games in which Peguero appeared. To be fair, Peguero allowed runs in "only" seven of those 18 appearances, but a 9.20 ERA is a 9.20 ERA.
Walks were the main culprit in his big league struggles. If Peguero can show this spring that he trusts his stuff and is willing to get aggressive with major league-quality hitters, he has a chance to make the 25-man roster in April.
LHP Bill Murphy, born 5/9/1981
Bill Murphy is the kind of player you have to root for. He's one of the few high draft choices from Billy Beane's 2002 draft not made into a household name by Moneyball. He was then the Player Named Later in the 2003 deal that brought Mark Redman to Oakland and a throw-in player in the 2004 blockbuster that sent Brad Penny to the Dodgers. His stay in the Dodgers' organization lasted just one day, as he was used to acquire Steve Finley from the struggling Arizona Diamondbacks.
Murphy posted earned run averages over 5.50 in four separate stops in his first three years with the Diamondbacks. He then went to play Winter Ball, and worked with Mel Stottlemyre Jr. on a new two-seam fastball in spring training. Suddenly, he was an effective pitcher.
"I really worked on my mechanics and stuff, and it just carried over into the season, being able to command my two-seamer," he told us the day of his callup. "I think staying on the rubber really helped with my mechanics and my ability to throw strikes."
Murphy struggled in his September callup, but remains protected on Arizona's 40-man roster, making him a candidate to win a spot in the bullpen alongside fellow southpaw Doug Slaten.
RHP Leo Rosales, born 5/28/1981
Leo Rosales came to the Diamondbacks this summer in the Scott Hairston deal. Both prospects were in similar situations, posting excellent minor league numbers but struggling to earn playing time at the major league level. One difference between the two is that Rosales came to the Diamondbacks with a right hand that he fractured while punching a wall after a blown save.
While we can question his mental makeup after such an incident, Rosales does appear to be fully healed now. He appeared in five games in the Mexican Winter League, allowing just three base runners out of 20 batters faced. He uses a well-located two-seam fastball and a devastating changeup to often combat left-handers better than he does right-handers. If he can succeed at the major league level, he could make a second southpaw in the bullpen to compliment Slaten superfluous.
He is 26-years old already, however, and comes with those character issues. He prefers being used as a closer, and might not take to a situational role. Plus, we've already seen how Rosales responds to a bad outing. Rosales has a high amount of upside for a reliever his age who claims no big league experience, but he also threatens to be that brief callup who allows six runs in less than an inning because he simply loses it on the mound.
RHP A. J. Shappi, born 8/16/82
As a soft-tossing right hander without overpowering stuff, A.J. Shappi was never considered much of a prospect. A conversion from starter to reliever this season rejuvenated his prospect status, however, as he compiled his best numbers since he was in Low-A ball.
Shappi had always exhibited great control, but after moving to the bullpen he fanned nearly seven batters per nine innings, a feat he had not matched since his first professional season in 2004. Don't let his 1-7 record last season fool you; His 3.66 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 3.35 K/BB ratio are far better indicators of a successful season.
The question for Shappi becomes, can a 25-year old soft-tossing right hander who hasn't pitched above Double-A and just one quality season as a reliever under his belt ascend to the major leagues? The odds are against him, but if Shappi can build on last season's success, he has a chance to earn a spot in the Diamondbacks' bullpen by 2009.
OF Peter Clifford, born 12/20/1983
Clifford finished as runner up in the FutureBacks Position Player of the Year for Missoula in part because he was so old for his level. Clifford turns 24 in December, which means that he still has a lot of baseball in him, but it also means that his offensive dominance in rookie ball was a little less noteworthy.
The five-year senior out of Jacksonville University hit .351 with 14 homers and 21 stolen bases in his final collegiate year before leading the Osprey in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average. This is how his combined totals for the year look:
Clifford was an offensive force who was able to handle all three outfield positions adequately. It's not his fault that the organization did not test him at a higher level towards the end of the year. At 24, in an organization teeming with excellent outfield prospects in the upper levels, Clifford is going to need to put up even better numbers to advance as quickly as is necessary for his development.