AFL/Winter League Update: 11-7

The Arizona Fall League season is now more than half over, with the Peoria Javelinas seven and a half games out of first with seemingly no chance of playing in the championship game. To say it's been a strange journey might be an understatement, but it happens every year.

Generally, players are a part of the same basic group throughout the first few years of their careers, but the AFL builds teams with prospects from four different organizations and expects them to quickly adapt to each other's strengths and weaknesses. Things don't always work out perfectly, and understandably so. More often that not, it's better to look at how each individual did against the level of competition and try to throw out the team numbers.

The Mariners position players have been dealing with their own rollercoaster ride. After spending the first two weeks leading the team and even the league in certain offensive categories, the M's prospects lost playing time to other prospects and still have yet to recover. At last check, Choo and Dobbs were playing slightly below team average and only Morse has been batting above .300.

For Michael Morse, putting up decent numbers with his bat is just icing on the cake. The 22-year-old came to Arizona intent on improving his defense enough to justify staying at shortstop.

The first few weeks yielded a few errors, but after helping to turn a triple play on the 15th, Morse has only made one mistake and his total is now four errors in sixteen games. It seems like his hard work with manager Mike Goff, who also taught Dobbs to play third, has been paying off.
As for hitting, Morse's numbers have been more indicative of a batter trying to spray the ball all around the field than the power that first garnered him some attention when he was playing in the Chicago White Sox organization. Through 61 at-bats, he is hitting .328/.369/.377, with only two of hits going for extra bases. Not eye-popping numbers, but many players before him have sought to refine their hitting for average before trying to hammer the ball. Morse may just be doing the same.

Another batter who might have more power than it seems is outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. A perfectionist in nature, Choo is rarely satisfied with his performance and is always striving to improve one more thing in his game. It's paid off so far, and he has hit above .300 in every season but one so far, and through the first few weeks of his time with the Peoria Javelinas, it was looking like he would do the same thing.

A stray pitch that hit him on October 25th seems to have temporarily derailed those plans. Since that time, the 22-year-old has only started two games and has had one hit between them. Factoring in an earlier mini-slump, his average is now at .283.

When you look beyond the average, however, Choo has been no slouch. The South Korean has walked and struck out ten times each and his on-base percentage is still up at .409, despite his struggles. As for the power in question, it's been off and on, but he has two so far in 50 at-bats, despite slugging .415. More could be on the way later, provided he's healthy.

While both Morse and Choo have seen all their games in the field, Greg Dobbs has spent his AFL season splitting time between third and DH. Defense is usually regarded as one of the 26-year-old's strongest traits, so the move isn't a punishment so much as an attempt to get him focused on his swing.

Dobbs had been playing better than any other M's prospect after the first few weeks of play, batting .320+ at the end of last week, but an 2-13 skid over three games has sent his average south of .300 and his line now reads .293/.346/.400.

Regardless, Dobbs has still been one of the more consistent contributors to the Javelinas offense, and should continue to get regular playing time.

From the mound, things seem to have been following a clearer trend. After spending a few weeks with an ERA in the double or triple digits, Brett Evert seems to have rebounded into one of the more reliable pitchers on the Javelinas staff. To put things in context, his first two appearances saw five hits and eight runs scored in just two-thirds of an inning. The 24-year-old's last three appearances have totaled three runs and only six hits in ten and a third innings.

This week, Evert got into one game against the Grand Canyon Rafters and picked up the win in the 9-4 victory. Through three and a third innings, he held the Rafters to just two meaningless hits and struck out two of their batters.

The more games Evert gets into, the sharper his pitches have become. His walks and hits have gone down substantially from one week to the next and, slowly but surely, his strikeouts are starting to climb up. In fact, if you take out his first two games, his ERA drops from 8.79 to below 4.00, and his opposing batting average drops from .283 to .226.

Such is often the statistical price of relief work, but Evert is out to prove he can adapt and take control of a game from the ‘pen.

That might be the same path Jon Huber will eventually take, but for now, he has a position locked up as one of the five starters in the rotation, despite being one of the youngest and least experienced players on the team.

The 23-year-old's starts have hardly been the model of consistency. Since week one, Huber has been alternating between above-average, if not dominant performances and ones where he can't get out of the first few innings without giving up a handful of hits and runs.

This week was no different. Monday afternoon, Huber locked up the Scottsdale Scorpions, the best offensive team in the league right now, and was in line for the win after five innings of work where only one earned run scored on four hits and a walk.

Still, it's hard to fault Huber too much. The Javelinas have gotten only a 4.96 ERA out of their starters, and without the miraculous damage control that Cleveland prospect Jake Dittler has been providing, the number jumps to 5.85. More than half a run more than what Huber does by himself. Not too bad, for the guy who supposedly lacks experience.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jared Thomas, who tried the starting gig briefly in 2003 before the Mariners decided that he was better suited to relief work. Unfortunately for him, he's done little to impress on that point since early in the AFL season.

In the first two weeks of play, the 24-year-old was the closest thing the Javelinas had to a sure thing coming out of the bullpen, notching a 2.61 ERA in six and two-thirds innings and even earning himself pitcher of the week honors in week one.

Things haven't been the same since, and in his infrequent appearances, just two and two-thirds innings in the past three weeks, Thomas has an earned-run average of over thirty.

Maybe he tweaked something a few weeks ago or maybe he just has been showing a little too much rust, but Thomas is struggling to regain form and is becoming part of the staff's collective pitching problems, rather than the solution he used to be. The Michigan native is likely to go unprotected in the rule V draft this offseason, but more likely than not, he'll stick with the organization and try to improve on this year in either San Antonio or Tacoma.

Venezuelan Winter League:
Much has been said about how dominant Rick Guttormson has been closing for the Cardenales, but Matt Thornton has been the closest thing to a left-handed counterpart on the staff. Usually the first southpaw out of the bullpen, the 28-year-old has been sent in to attack the league's toughest lefties and has only recently run into any sort of difficulty.

Saturday night was the first time Thornton got himself into trouble, giving up two solo shots to give the Tigres in the eighth inning to give them a 9-8 lead as they rallied ahead again. After those two pitches to lead off the frame, Thornton came back and struck out the side.

Those K's were actually a lot more indicative of how Thornton has been doing. In seven and two-thirds innings, he's racked up eleven of them. Even with the home runs, other teams are only hitting .233 against him.

Don't be surprised if he jumps into the mix for a bullpen spot in the spring.

Jose Lopez has finally made his season debut back in his native country, taking over shortstop duties from Luis Ugueto and becoming one of the better power threats at the bottom of the order. Through his first six games, the 20-year-old is hitting .286/.318/.476 with three runs and two RBIs.

Lopez was part of the reason that Saturday's game had been so close, hitting a solo home run in the fourth to tie the game at four apiece. The Cardenales would take the temporary lead later in the inning when former Mariner and current Yankee coach Luis Sojo doubled with the bases loaded to put Lara up 7-4.

Considered to be the shortstop of the future, Lopez will continue to start at shortstop and get more opportunities to prove himself as he adjusts. At the rate his team is going, he may even get a chance to represent Venezuela in the Caribbean Series early next year.

Dominican Winter League:
With Rafael Soriano and Julio Mateo missing time this year due to injury, the Dominican Winter League this year has not been as strong on Mariners prospects as it has in the past. In fact, through ten games, only two of them have made a debut with their respective team.

Ramon Santiago, acquired along with shortstop Juan Gonzalez in the Carlos Guillen trade, has started four games at short for the Escogido Leones. The 24-year-old has started out hot, batting .467/.529/.500 with three runs scored, but he has yet to earn consistent playing time.

Not too far away from where Santiago is playing, right-hander Gustavo Martinez has begun play with his usual team, the Cibao Gigantes. The 28-year-old is playing alongside some former Mariners prospects in Blue Jays reliever Aquilino Lopez and current indy league pitcher Enmanuel Ulloa. So far, Martinez has struggled to catch a break, making four relief appearances and sporting a 9.81 earned-run average in those games.


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