Beyond the Top 50: Age/Injury Concerns

Nothing can set back a prospect's career as surely as an injury can. Others can get sidetracked by a position change. Still others are old when drafted, and need to play catch up from the start. Here are ten Arizona Diamondbacks prospects who did not make the FutureBacks Fifty due to age or injury concerns, but who could still impact the major leagues.

A few of the Diamondbacks' Top 50 prospects have a history of injuries, but have since rebounded to post good numbers and remain young enough to be considered top prospects.  Matt Torra, Daniel Stange, Daniel Schlereth, and Kyler Newby are good examples of this.  Josh Whitesell, Peter Clifford, and Clay Zavada were each a bit old for the levels at which they played, but performed so well that they are legitimate top prospects.  John Hester and Tony Barnette were older college players when they were drafted, but both advanced through the system and finished 2008 in the Arizona Fall League.

The following 10 players each have talent, but we either do not know how they will come back from an injury, or they played against younger competition to the point where it is difficult to know what to make of their solid performances.  Here they are, in no particular order:

2B Rusty Ryal

Ryal's ascension through the system has slowed in part due to positional switches, as he has bounced between second and third base frequently, even playing shortstop on occasion.   But he can also blame his slow acclimation to each level as he has advanced.  In contrast, his father, Mark Ryal, rushed through the minors and made his major league debut at age 22.  Mark would only go on to play in 127 big league contests, so perhaps slow and steady will win the race for Rusty.

We had actually planned to rank Rusty Ryal in the upper-30s to low-40s range after we learned of his selection to the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League.  But his dismal performance there and the lack of his inclusion on the 40-man roster dropped him into Beyond the Top 50 purgatory.  A good 2009 season with the Reno Aces could still land him the starting second baseman's job in 2010, however.  Ryal will turn 27 that March, so he would more likely serve as a stopgap measure bridging Felipe Lopez to one of the organization's younger prospects than become a long-term solution himself. 

3B Cesar Nicolas

Nicolas was a top power-hitting first base prospect in the organization at a time when the D-backs were teeming with first base prospects.  The developmental staff felt that the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Nicolas was athletic enough to make the hop across the diamond to third base.  Nicolas is now serviceable at the hot corner, as his .939 fielding percentage there this season can attest to.  However, the demands of the position have combined with his tendency to get plunked by pitches to cause Nicolas' playing tome to decrease in each of the past two seasons.

These durability questions are underscored by Nicolas' declining offense ever since his switch to the hot corner.  That positional change has also corresponded with his two seasons at Double-A, so higher quality pitching could be subduing Nicolas' power stroke as much as the positional swap has.  Despite the power outage, Nicolas is still a valuable offensive player.  He reached base at a 39% clip last season, although he was already 26 years old at the time.  With Jamie D'Antona's departure to Japan, Nicolas could be the next in line at the third base position should something happen to Mark Reynolds

OF Trent Oeltjen

Oeltjen played for his native Australia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, then participated in the July Futures Game.  After a sub-par 2007 regular season, The Minnesota Twins decided not to retain Oeltjen's services.  The Aussie rebounded with a terrific showing in that November's World Cup Tournament and continued that success in Tucson after signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks. 

On one hand, Oeltjen has good tools, has shown that he can compete well against top talent, and hit .375 with seven triples and 10 stolen bases after the Triple-A All-Star break.  On the other, he turns 26 in February, has shown a proclivity towards getting mired in slumps, and has spent eight seasons in professional baseball without ever cracking a 40-man roster.  Oeltjen will likely play for Australia again in this year's WBC, but his subsequent role in the Diamondbacks organization is uncertain.  The Snakes feature just five outfielders on their 40-man roster. One of those has only played 80 outfield games in three-plus major league seasons and another is coming off hamstring issues that limited him to six games played after May last year.  Oeltjen should be a part of that 40-man squad now, but figures to be added at the first sign of big league outfield trouble.

RHP Matt Green

A former 49th-overall draft pick, Green has actually only enjoyed two sub-5.00 ERA seasons since high school.   He dominated as a college senior in 2005, earning himself his high draft selection, and he performed very well for the Mobile BayBears in 2007.  He had gotten beaned in the head by a liner his freshman year at University of Louisiana - Monroe, but had remained healthy until this past season.  Green has yet to rebound from this injury, failing to succeed even after getting demoted back to Mobile.

Now 27 years old, Green can no longer be considered a prospect, but his slider is still good enough to get him to the big leagues at some point.  He was eligible for selection in this year's Rule 5 draft.  The lack of interest generated in him indicates that he still may not be ready to contribute in 2009.

RHP Jason Urquidez

Urquidez suffered a torn labrum that sidelined him for all of the 2006 season.  He has been playing catch up ever since, and may finally have caught up in 2008.  Urquidez made the jump from Hi-A to Triple-A last summer before settling back down to Double-A.  Overall, he averaged more than one strikeout per inning thanks to a fastball that regained velocity in the 89-91 MPH range, although his best pitch is still his slider.  He also uses a circle-changeup that he developed in 2007 while his velocity was down.

Urquidez is 26 years old and was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft.  This former Arizona State and Central Arizona star will need to take a similar step forward this year to the one he made in 2008 in order to realize his dream of making the big leagues.

C Josh Ford

At the end of the 2007 season, Josh Ford has secured his status as having one of the best catcher throwing arms in the minor leagues.  Apparently, he was throwing too hard for his own good, because he underwent Tommy John surgery in the offseason, a procedure normally reserved for pitchers.  He was ready to make an August comeback, then suffered a setback and underwent a second surgery.  Now 26, Ford has fallen behind a number of other catchers on the Diamondbacks prospect ladder.

Another issue with Ford is his lack of power.  At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, you would figure that he would have hit more than 10 home runs in his 813 minor league at bats.  He has always had a flat-planed swing that doesn't generate much backspin on the ball.  Many catchers develop power later in their careers, and if Ford can be one of those catchers, then he may yet have a future in the major leagues. 

OF Joey Side

Joey Side is one of those intense Eric Byrnes/Aaron Rowand/Rusty Greer types who goes all out on every play.  Unfortunately, that style of play almost always leads to injuries.  Side endured many bumps and bruises in his collegiate career, but nothing compared with the lower body injury that sidelined him for spring and early summer this year.  He got on a hot streak briefly, then managed just three hits and an uncharacteristic 14 strikeouts over his final eight July games before once again landing on the DL.

When healthy, Side is one of the best defensive outfielders in the organization, a .280-.290 hitter, and as aggressive of a base runner as you'll see.  His managers have tried to tone down his aggressiveness and intensity, which can lead to frustrated slumps as well as fatigue and injuries.  He may yet be able to harness his raw energy into more productivity and less profanity, and if so, he would be a great fourth outfielder to have in the big leagues. 

RHP Esmerling Vasquez

Vasquez ranked as the 14th best prospect in the organization last April even following his partially torn labrum.   The skinny right-hander opted for rehab rather than surgery to repair that tear, but so far, the results have not been encouraging.  He walked an absurd 73 batters in 83 Tucson innings this summer, which led to a 6.72 ERA.  He then made two starts in the Dominican Winter League in October, walking five more over five innings. He took over a month to rest that shoulder and clear his head and came back as a reliever in December.  He allowed just two walks and one earned run in 7.1 relief innings, which is hopefully a sign that he is finally healthy again, both mentally and physically.

Vasquez has a sharp breaking ball and above average changeup when he is throwing them for strikes.  Because he has three solid pitches, the organization would like to keep him as a starter, but his small body type and less-than-100% shoulder may relegate him to relief work.  The door has not been closed on surgery in the future if he continues to struggle. 

3B Clayton Conner

Clayton Conner put up incredible numbers at Yakima, but hasn't figured out the Midwest League.  Really, he hasn't had much time to do so; he landed on the disabled list in early May and missed the remainder of the 2008 season.  Like Side, Conner pressed a little too hard, and his body wore down.  He did not deal with the adversity of a slump well - a phenomenon this talented 22-year old isn't used to.

When things are going well, Conner has one of the best power strokes in the organization.  When things aren't, he's chasing pitches out of the zone and not waiting back on the ball.  His defense at the hot corner has improved, though he still makes a lot of mistakes over there.  He will likely rebound with a strong 2009 season, but that is uncertain enough to land him here rather than on the top 50.

SS David Cooper

David Cooper is quite a valuable anomaly, being a left-handed hitting shortstop.  Beyond that, he is one of the most disciplined hitters in the organization, as evidenced by his setting a Yakima record for walks in a season with 66.  Cooper also runs well, throws well, and has a good glove.

Unfortunately, at age 23, Cooper hasn't shown that he can hit Short Season pitching consistently.  He batted .252 and slugged just .286.  At higher levels, pitchers will pound the strike zone against Cooper with better stuff, meaning he will not be able to take as many walks and could struggle even more to make solid contact.  The 5-foot-8 infielder has been lifting weights since the Fall Instructional League, but has a pretty low threshold for bulking up at that size.  If Cooper can overcome these concerns and make a solid showing at South Bend this year, he could propel onto the 2009 FutureBacks Fifty. 

DBacks Insider Top Stories