The Instructional League features ten games and a dozen workouts featuring the best young prospects in the Diamondbacks organization, some of the coaches, and all of the field coordinators. It is as much a time for the D-backs' developmental staff to get better acquainted with the players they acquired in the previous summer's draft as it is for the players themselves to hone their skills and learn what it takes to be a professional ballplayer.
"I'm glad I went because I get to see what's coming and in what direction we're going to take these kids," Mark Haley told FutureBacks.com. Haley has managed the D-backs' Low-A affiliate South Bend Silver Hawks for the past five seasons. It is particularly useful for him to work with these players, as almost all of them will pass through South Bend on their way up the organizational ladder.
We asked Haley how the level of play at Instructs compared to what he sees in the Midwest League.
"Not as polished [as the Midwest League], but in the Instructional League they're always working on things: leads, jumps, secondary pitches, command - you have a hard time getting a read, but you do look at how these guys compete."
What we were most interested in from Haley was which of the 25 position player prospects stood out and really impressed him the most.
"The star of the Instructional League was Paul Goldschmidt out of Texas State," Haley began. "He hit some bombs. He had legitimate, raw power. What I like about him even more is that for a big man, he's got a nice, short, compact swing. He has the ability to kind of turn it on when needed; when it comes time to pick up an RBI, he focuses in a little bit more and gets locked in, which is something that is almost impossible to teach."
We then asked about the logjam at first base. With Goldschmidt and Ryan Wheeler coming off dominant rookie seasons and several other young prospects that could conceivably move to first base, it's difficult to predict how the opening day rosters will shake out next spring.
"He's going to challenge some people at higher levels above us," Haley said of Goldschmidt. "There's going to be a lot of competition, because some of these guys are going to challenge to go to the next level. It's going to be a dogfight. With Wheeler being the best athlete out of all of them, I wouldn't be surprised it he moved around [the diamond]. He played some third base in the Instructional League. He's got some pretty good hands and is a pretty good athlete."
Bobby Borchering and Matt Davidson, the #16 and #35 picks overall this draft, are both third basemen who were considered among the best prep hitters of the draft class. They both look like they will stick at third base for now, but are among the prospects that could see a move to first base in the near future. Naturally, we asked Haley how the pair performed at Instructs.
"Not good, very raw," Haley admitted, but he went on to offer considerable praise for the duo. "I tell you what, though, if you would have told me that those two were high school kids, I'd have told you no way. They're big and they're strong and they've got great aptitude. They're fun to watch, because those guys really love the game and really tried to bear down. The Instructional League was fun because they'll admit that there's a lot coming at them. They were blown away a little bit because of all the work that they have to do. They're pretty good-looking athletes. I was very, very impressed with the young guys and the level that they are at right now."
Since we were on the subject of raw talents, I asked about the Diamondbacks' rawest talent of all, Jose Jose. The confusingly-named outfielder received a $150,000 bonus for signing with the Diamondbacks, but has struck out a whopping 199 times in 403 Dominican Summer League at-bats to go with a .171 batting average.
"He has a lot of work to do yet," agreed Haley. "He's got a good-looking body and has a lot of arm strength, but there's a lot that he has to work on to get him where he needs to be. And he's working at it. He really works hard, he does. But that's raw, raw, raw. Real raw. But he made adjustments with instruction, and I was real proud of him. He was flattening his bat and spinning, but he really worked on staying on balls and did a good job."
We got back onto the subject of the most impressive position players, and Shortstop Chris Owings immediately came to Haley's mind.
"We saw a kid throwing 96-97 [miles per hour] and little 18-year old Chris Owings turned that [pitch] around real quick. I was like, 'where did he pull that out of?' I thought it was a fluke, but the next at-bat, he hit it again! So it's fun to watch him; he's a good kid. I like him a lot."
"The guys I really liked were Owings, David Nick out of Cypress California (he had a little funky arm action, but he always seemed to be in the right place a the right time. It looks like he's going to play second base), and Matt Helm (he's got a little giddyup in his bat)."
We then asked Haley more specifically about Bobby Stone, the big Texan who improved his slugging average by over 100 points from his rookie 2008 season to 2009.
"Stoney has really come a long way," confirmed Haley. "His swing has shortened up. His approach, his understanding of pitch selection and sequences has gotten much better."
Since Haley played as a catcher himself, we wanted to be sure to ask him about the catchers he saw.
"Tyson Van Winkle made some gains, but obviously Rossmel Perez was the better of all of the young ones," said Haley of two backstops he worked with in South Bend this summer. "Jae Yun Kim was interesting and did some good things."
And Raywilly Gomez, the Dominican third baseman who had throwing issues from the hot corner and has been trying to learn the catcher position for the past year?
"His throwing has gotten much better," Haley revealed. "His release, exchange, and footwork has gotten a lot better. The jury's still out. He did much better, but as you get to higher levels and pitchers are sinking and moving it a little bit more, pitches become more difficult to catch. He can play at catcher, but is that going to be his primary position? We'll have to wait and see on that."
Although his primary duties were as a hitting coach, Haley's experience as a catcher and as a manager has taught him a thing or two about pitching as well. He offered his opinion on who some of the best-looking pitchers at Instructs were.
"Chase Anderson out of the University of Oklahoma threw well. I likes the way the ball came out of his hand. He looked like he had pretty good command of the zone, too. He's a pretty polished guy. He's probably going to start for us [at South Bend in 2010], but we'll see how it all ends up. Mike Belfiore out of Boston College as well. We'll be careful with him; we're not going to push him too hard."
"Kevin Eichhorn caught my eye. He had pretty good secondary stuff along with a decent fastball. He also had good composure on the mound. I was pleasantly surprised. You know who impressed me too was Jake Hale out of Ohio State. Big, tall kid with a nice slider. I only saw him for an inning or two, so I couldn't really tell a whole lot."
Finally, we couldn't resist asking about the man who tossed four consecutive no-hitters in Florida before getting drafted this year, Patrick Schuster.
"He did pretty good. The ball moves a lot. He's got to command a little bit better, but he's shortened things up," Haley reported. "He's funky, though! He gives you a hundred different looks, especially holding on runners. Schuster's a competitor, and I like that. He'll give you different windups, different looks, different everything."
All in all, this year's draft class looks very promising indeed.
"These young ones are going to be a big part of it in 2012. A huge part of it," Haley reiterated. "It's amazing how they've bonded as a group."
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