A Look at Lakeland: Manager Andy Barkett sounded very optimistic about his team heading into the summer months. He summed up the start of the season by saying "We had the cream in our coffee, but it was just sitting at the bottom. We didn't have anyone to stir it. Now we do, and the cream is starting to rise to the top." Barkett has settled into his first season in the Florida State League, having adjusted to the faster pace of the game. He could be getting some help in short order, as several of his players are starting to come around. First baseman Ryan Strieby got off to a rough start, but was praised for his strong defense, good base running, and the fact that he's swinging a much better stick of late. The same can be said for outfielder Brennan Boesch; who Barkett indicated has ‘hit some of the hardest balls I've seen this season' in recent games, a sign that he could be coming out of his early season funk. The defense continues to improve, led by what Barkett called Major League defense by shortstop Cale Iorg. After two years away from the game, Iorg is making average to above-average plays at shortstop on a daily basis; and there is still room for improvement.
On the hill, reports that Rick Porcello had been working with just his fastball have been inaccurately reported. Because of rough defense and some corresponding tight situations, Porcello was forced to fall back to his go-to pitch, his fastball. He's been using his change-up extremely well, and has started getting a feel for his breaking ball in recent outings. What's most impressive to his Manager is the fact that as a teenager in the Florida State League, he's not striking guys out by choice, and ‘they still can't hit him!' In case you were wondering, I think we can safely assume Porcello is as filthy as advertised. A bullpen that has seen some departures in recent weeks has three guys that could be keys as they work with a bullpen by committee scenario. Brendan Wise and his excellent sinker seem to be coming around as he's thrown more strikes. Barkett says the newly acquired Zach Simons wants the ball in his hand and that when he's on, guys just don't get good swings against him. Rounding things out, Jay Sborz has been excellent in nearly all of his outings, pumping serious heat past hitters and throwing a curveball that's as good as Barkett's seen it over the last two seasons.
The Word from West Michigan: Whitecaps Pitching Coach Mark Johnson was blessed with a staff of guys that can bring heat from the hill. One of those pitchers is right-hander Alfredo Figaro, who Johnson indicated has really matured over the last year, and it really shows on the hill. With mid-90s gas and three additional pitches, Figaro has the stuff to make serious noise and help the ‘Caps back to the playoffs. Another guy with mid-90s capability is reliever Wilton Garcia. Two Midwest League managers raved about Garcia's mound presence and approach in the late innings, and his own pitching coach chimed in with concurring thoughts. One hurler with a little less velocity, but possibly more pitching know-how is Paul Nardozzi. The second-year pro out of Pitt mixes speeds well with four pitches, and he has reportedly gained some consistency with his mechanics, enabling him to command his fastball better. That improved command, combined with a nasty splitter and solid slider-change combo has been a huge reason for his surprising success.
Two youngsters that are still adjusting to the atmosphere in West Michigan are Santo Mieses and Mauricio Robles. Mieses has been with the ‘Caps all season, and he is starting to settle in and learn the ropes. With a great sinker and above-average slider, he has fine bullpen stuff, and could be just what the team needs as we head to the summer months. Robles – who pitched in the VSL last season – has seen some drastic gains in velocity since the middle of 2007. Having been reported as working in the 87-90 mph range from the left side, Robles has consistently worked from 90-94 in his limited outings with the ‘Caps, and Johnson sounded optimistic that he could be an integral part of the relief corps going forward.
Tokens from Toledo: While all the focus has been on the offense at Toledo, some International League managers believe this team could get even better once the pitching gets rolling. Casey Fossum and Chris Lambert have been good in their starting roles, but one IL manager thinks Virgil Vasquez could be close to topping both of them. "He was up in the zone a bit, but the movement was still there," said the same manager, "If he works down like he did last year, he won't need an offense behind him." Eddie Bonine has also been doing the job in the rotation, and with tons of runs behind him, his undefeated streak could continue for quite a while.
The hand injury that sidelined third baseman Mike Hessman isn't thought to be of major concern heading forward. One source believed it was just a matter of getting comfortable with the bat in his hand again, and thought he'd be back in a groove in short order. In the meantime, the rest of the Toledo lineup continues to rip the ball around, leaving little concern for Manager Larry Parrish. There have been recent calls for the head of Detroit Hitting Coach Lloyd McClendon, with thoughts he could be replaced by Toledo hit-man Leon Durham. Well, I wouldn't count on that, as the same source said ‘I don't see that move happening any time soon.'
Seawolves' Sounds: Word from several Eastern League managers indicates that we shouldn't expect Wilkin Ramirez's early season tear to end any time soon. When asked which Erie player stood out the most, every manager I spoke with emphatically stated Wilkin's name. One manager went so far as to say ‘That kid is scary good, and he's going to get better.' The long awaited breakout campaign from Ramirez is finally upon us, and it should be a fun show to watch.
It's unfortunate that Luis Marte has hit the disabled list with an elbow problem, because one scout, along with many Tiger fans, were really looking forward to watching him. A National League scout saw his first start for Erie, and walked away wondering where this guy came from. ‘He was attacking hitters with above-average stuff, and he refused to back down,' stated the scout. There is no question that Marte has talent, but unfortunately there are now questions about the health of his arm.