That's the truth, the young outfielder began the year as an intriguing prospect, but not necessarily a top one. That changed, maybe not quickly, but definitively.
Ball, in a Double-A Tennessee outfield that featured top prospects everywhere, might not have claimed the center field job outright, but his production certainly warranted it. The proof came in the pudding. His main competition in centerfield at Tennessee was Marland Williams, who represented the Diamondbacks in the Arizona Fall League last season. This year, it was Ball who got the invite.
"It was nice to have a good year and get recognized for it," Ball said of the AFL invite, "but I didn't expect it."
Despite hitting only .253 for the season, Ball's on base percentage was a stellar .438, and combined with his speed and defensive ability in center he's certainly got a puncher's chance to start '06 with the big league club. The first step toward that would be a solid AFL campaign.
"I'm down here to get at bats, and cut down on my strikeouts. That's the deal."
Ball's strikeout numbers have been high since coming into the Diamondbacks in the ninth round of the 2001 draft, but in his breakout year of 2004 they really started rising. That season Ball hit .297, but struck out 123 times in 472 at bats. In Double-A the average was down, as were the at bats, but the strikeouts only fell slightly, to 115. The obvious conclusion, with Ball's speed, is cut down on the strikeouts and the average will rise.
"That's the goal, more contact." Ball says matter of factly.
But those numbers don't tell the whole story. Ball has improved every time the Diamondbacks have asked him to improve. They asked for more consistency in the outfield, and Ball obliged, improving both his range and his arm during the offseason between '03 and '04. They asked for more walks in 2005, and Ball obliged, walking more than he ever had, taking pitchers deeper into counts. In the AFL the process begins again, this time with an eye on contact.
"I hope my stock rose this year, but it's really not for me to decide," Ball said, "Everybody should have the attitude that they are going to go out and make a team. If you're in Double-A or higher, you can jump to the big leagues, and I always try to believe that I'm ready for the next step. The next step for me would be the big leagues."
Through the first week and a half of the AFL Ball seems to be on target, and Monday was a prime example of his progression. He was 2-2 on Monday, with a pair of walks to boot. Though he has struck out five times in 30 at bats, that ratio, a strikeout every six at bats, is far better than the more than one in three number he put up in Tennessee this past season. Better yet, the walks continue to pile up, eight in eight games so far, and eight RBI to boot.
"This league is going to help me, it gives me confidence just being here, and if I can hit a little, I think it can be a real positive way for me to go into the offseason, and then next year."
The odds on Ball starting the year with the D'Backs might still be long, but there is no denying the gaping hole in Arizona's center field, and with every successful at bat in the AFL, the chances get a little bit better.