Name: Matt Antonelli
DOB: April 8, 1985
Skipping a level and beginning the year in Lake Elsinore was supposed to slow Antonelli down a bit. It took him 12 games to settle in before turning on the jets and completing a terrific season.
On April 20, Antonelli went 0-for-4 and his average dropped to .220. He would hit .330 during the rest of his tour in Lake Elsinore, ending with a .314 average before a promotion to Double-A San Antonio. So much for skipping a level holding him back.
More importantly, he came into the season with questions about his power while having to learn a new position. He answered one with a bang and the latter has been a growing process.
In his first year, the Massachusetts native went without a homer. Part of that was learning his own game and the pitching he would face. He stayed patient through the 2006 season, preferring to see what pitches were best suited for him. He missed some and hit others but wasn't being that aggressive.
This season, however, he clearly figured out the pitches he could turn on and drive. That, in turn, made him more aggressive within the strike zone.
"He is a good player," former San Antonio and current Fort Wayne hitting coach Tom Tornicasa said. "I like Matt. I had him in Instructional League last year and he was still a little raw then. He really picked up his game. He got into the flow.
"You could see he had some ability but he just had to fine tune a few things. He had a very good year."
The pitches he allowed to skirt by last season were being hit hard this year – thanks in part to an off-season regimen that made him stronger.
Altering his stance and stride through the ball also helped. Antonelli had a tendency to lose some momentum going forward with the bat head when his front knee dipped. By staying back on the ball and improving his timing to align with his body, the ball traveled farther.
The result was 14 homers in 82 California League games. He still maintained his excellent batting eye as well, drawing 53 walks compared to 58 strikeouts and was on base at a .409 clip.
"Durability and his approach day in and day out," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said of Antonelli's reason for success. "He was very professional. His toughness and the adjustments he made coming from second to third.
"He will be in the big leagues soon."
The success continued through his first month in Double-A. He hit .419 in July but petered out down the stretch, as the rigors of a full season affected his stick. Still, he managed a robust .294 average with a .395 on-base percentage.
In total, Antonelli belted 21 homers and drove in 78 runs – both numbers were fourth-best in the system - with all but a handful of his at bats coming from the leadoff spot.
The second baseman wasn't only driving in runs; he was scoring them too. A natural tendency to see pitches makes him an ideal leadoff man. He never hit for much power growing up, knowing if he got on base he would be touching home.
"I think his presence – plate presence," former Lake Elsinore and current Portland hitting coach Max Venable began. "His toughness – the guy was a bulldog. He never gave in at all.
"Matter of fact, I used his as an example one day: Rancho Cucamonga – this kid struck out four times. I am not sure if they were swinging or taking. But he did not put his head down once. There were some guys who would come back to the dugout after making an out and had their head down. ‘Now here is a guy, Matt Antonelli, that struck out four times and the kid did not pout.' I thought that was impressive.
"The guy is a battler. He never gives in. He has a nice, short stroke and is very competitive. He was a tough kid."
He topped the .400 mark in on-base percentage for the year and scored 32 runs in July. He combined to hit .307 over 131 games and two leagues, leading the system in runs scored (123) and hits (164). Antonelli also placed second in the system with 28 stolen bases.
His advancement as a hitter took the next step without showing deficiencies – and he has been around professional ball for only a year and a half.
"Matt had a solid season if you combine San Antonio and Lake Elsinore numbers," former San Antonio and current Portland manager Randy Ready said. "He gives you a quality at-bat. A very patient hitter. He had some pop when he first got to us. I think fatigue set in in his first full season. This guy loves to play. He is going to play in the big leagues some day."
His approach at the plate is easy and balanced. He does not over-step or reach for balls, but waits until he can take a clean hack. The entire field is his playground, as Antonelli will go with the pitch just as easily as he will pull it – a major advancement since last year when he preferred to take the pitch the other way.
Antonelli has an advanced feel for pitch recognition and as a result he can allow the ball to get deep, see its rotational spin and whether it will be a strike, before dropping the bat head.
He has good speed and his baseball acumen on the bases makes him appear faster than he is. He picks up on a pitcher's move to the plate and that extra jump gives him an advantage. His first-step explosion still needs some work, but he improved on his balance in his running stance to put himself in position to run.
New to second base after manning the hot corner last season, Antonelli was introduced to the keystone position during Instructs last year. Not blessed with fluid hips, the pivot and how he attacks the ball became the trouble spots.
"Is Antonelli a finished product at second base? No, let's face it," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "He has only been over there for a few months. Does he certainly have the chance to be a very good one? You bet. There are certain nuances that he is missing and lacking. That takes time."
Antonelli worked hard with Randy Ready on a daily basis to improve defensively. The pivot, range, throwing steps, footwork – every intangible was being covered. And the progress was evident. With each ground ball, Antonelli is thinking less and reacting more.
He has soft hands but has to work on being in good position to field the ball. He is often closed and stiff when he comes in on grounders, lacking the proper body positioning to cleanly field and be in position to throw.
"At second base, he has only been playing there a year and I think he has done a good job," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "He will be an average second baseman. He is never going to be pretty in the field. He is blue-collared, full effort, all out, no matter what position he plays. He is not going to be that smooth, pretty fielder; he will just get it done."
"What impressed me the most was the way he turned a double play," said Lezcano. "It is not easy coming from third to turn a double play with a runner bearing down on you. He stayed in their very well. Once you get used to that it is about getting used to the range and the movement and getting used to the position. You look at him and he looks like a second baseman."
Stamina will be a question he has to answer in 2008. He faltered down the stretch, not uncommon for a player in his first year of full-season ball.
Blessed with baseball aptitude and a desire to be a great player, Antonelli is well on his way. Shoring up his defensive game is the next step in the process and he has All-Star potential at the major league level. Given the improvements he made from year one to year two it is easy to see him making the same adjustments this off-season and continuing towards greatness.
"Matt is going to play somewhere," Bryk said. "Someoene asked me if I believe he could play centerfield, ‘Yes, I believe he could.' I think he would be an Aaron Rowand type centerfielder – someone who would go through the wall for you."
"I think (Antonelli is) teetering on being very close," Fuson said of when he expects him to be a major league regular. "He controls the strike zone, which is not going to change. Once you learn the strike zone and figure out the rhythm to it that is locked in. You got it. It gives you an easier way to trust what a player may go up and do."
ETA: Antonelli didn't get a chance to fight for a spot in San Diego this spring, despite the strong year. He has a knack for getting on base, is mature beyond his years, and can handle the pressure and challenge. He could use half a year improving his defense, but development in baseball never ends – majors or minors. Regardless of how the Padres proceed, Antonelli will make his major league debut in 2008 and will man second base for as long as needed (with a possible move to centerfield after that?).
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