Despite being a former first-round pick, left-hander Mark Pawelek is not the top prospect in the Chicago Cubs' Instructional League program in Mesa, Ariz. He's not the player coming off the best season. But it's unlikely that anyone has shown himself more likely to turn the corner in 2008 than the club's top pick from 2005.
Pawelek, who just turned 21 in August, was drafted by the Cubs out of high school in Utah. He posted a 2.72 ERA in 14 games that summer in the Arizona League, limiting hitters to a 1.70 average and a 2.51 ERA in 15 games at Class A Short-Season Boise in 2006.
But after pitching in just two games at Class A Peoria in April, Pawelek headed to extended Spring Training in Mesa to work on mechanics. While preparing to rejoin Boise when the Northwest League season began, he suffered a fractured right (non-throwing) elbow when he tripped over his PlayStation.
After six weeks of rehabbing the injury, Pawelek headed up to Boise in late July, and he pitched in eight games in relief.
He's been making up for the lost time back in Mesa this fall and farm director Oneri Fleita was extremely enthusiastic about what he's seen, particularly when it comes to the mechanics which had been hampered by inconsistency.
"We finally have a delivery that I think he can repeat and that's really what it's been all about," Fleita said. "He's having fun and he's finally got a smile on his face, and usually with that comes success. So we're hoping this is the start of a huge gain for 2008."
Fleita attributes much of Pawelek's progress this fall to pitching coaches Dennis Lewallyn and Tom Pratt.
Pratt has been with the Cubs for a long time with a lengthy record of success stories, while Lewallyn joined the organization this season after working with such pitchers as Brandon Webb and Jose Valverde in his 12 years with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"Sometimes it takes awhile for someone to 'connect,'" Fleita explained. "It can be a lot of things and sometimes you don't know how the dots get connected."
Fleita's own enthusiasm about Pawelek's progress is off the charts.
"He's young and left-handed and healthy," he said. "That equation can pay big dividends."
Another first-rounder making a big impression in Mesa has been the Cubs' most recent top draftee, Josh Vitters. The third baseman was taken with the third overall pick this past spring out of high school.
Since he signed too late to play much more than a few weeks this past summer, Vitters has been getting to know his new organization and vice versa.
"Anything we do with his swing or his fielding would be very little this early on," Fleita explained. "This is just a chance for him to get to know what his plan is to prepare for Spring Training."
Vitters' days consist of working defensively with roving infield instructor Bobby Dickerson, base running and bunting drills and other fundamental work.
"We threw his feet in the fire and said, 'Here, you're baptized,'" Fleita joked. "He's a great kid and has fit in well with the other players."
Considered one of the most polished high school hitters in the Class of '07, Vitters' top tool is his bat.
But it's not just players whose seasons were abbreviated who have been spending time in Mesa. Among the prospects on hand are pitcher Donald Veal and outfielder Tyler Colvin, both of whom played full Minor League seasons in 2007.
Veal, who came into '07 regarded as the Cubs' top pitching prospect, had an up-and-down season at Double-A Tennessee, where he was 8-10 with a 4.97 ERA.
"He's just here to throw an inning, maybe two tops, in a game, with the focus more on the little things like fielding his position, holding runners and a few little mechanical things to improve on his command," said Fleita. "But they're little things that we think will pay big dividends in 2008."
Colvin, an outfielder who split his season between Class Advanced A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee batting close to .300 with 16 homers and 81 RBIs, is in camp to prepare for a bigger challenge.
"Tyler is here for a little while to get in shape because he'll join Team USA later this month to go to Taiwan to play in the World Cup," Fleita explained. "We didn't want to bring him to full-fledged instructional league so it's more geared to getting him in shape for this great honor."
Los Angeles Dodgers
In their second season of Arizona Instructional League action after having moved west from Florida, the "baby Dodgers" are making themselves at home at the Peoria Sports Complex, their temporary fall ball/Spring Training home before the club moves to a new complex in nearby Glendale in 2009.
Some of the names on hand are familiar, even if they're not all ones you'd automatically associate with the Dodger Blue.
Infielder Preston Mattingly, whose dad Don was a New York Yankee-for-life, has been in Arizona as he continues his transition from shortstop to second base. A supplemental first-round pick in 2006 out of high school in Indiana, Mattingly struggled a bit in his first full season in the Class A Midwest League but his bloodlines and work ethic give double assurance that the problems should be temporary.
The position switch began after his first month at Great Lakes. It's hard to say if he was taking his defensive woes to the plate with him, but after hitting .296 in June he batted .258 in July and .181 in August and finished at .210 with 40 RBIs and 11 steals.
Dodgers farm director DeJon Watson has been very happy with the way Mattingly has been swinging the bat in Arizona, and thinks the move over will be a good one for the youngster who just turned 20.
"He's spending a lot of time with the infield coordinator, getting comfortable with his pivot," said Watson, who is in his first "fall ball" with the Dodgers after coming over from the Cleveland Indians last winter. "We really just want him to get in a position where he can have success. The game was going a little fast for him in the Midwest League, and he had to be too perfect at that position. So we want to slow the game down for him and allow him to maximize his overall toolset."
Also in camp is the southpaw phenom taken with the seventh pick overall that same summer, 19-year-old pitcher Clayton Kershaw. In Kershaw's case, having made 25 starts this summer between Great Lakes and Double-A Jacksonville, it's more a matter of doing some minimal mechanical tweaking than logging innings.
"He's working on secondary pitches and getting more consistent with them," Watson explained. "We play a lot of games here, but he's not in the games against other clubs. It's more in-house so we can control the situations."
In 20 starts at Great Lakes in his first full season Kershaw posted a 2.77 ERA, striking out 134 batters in 97 innings and limiting Midwest League hitters to a .203 average. In his five starts at Jacksonville, the older hitters had even less luck, batting .193 against the teen as he posted a 3.65 ERA.
The Dodgers also have this past spring's top pick in camp in right-hander Chris Withrow, an 18-year-old taken with the 20th overall pick out of high school in Texas. On a very limited pitch count this summer in the Gulf Coast League, he struck out 13 in nine innings of work, and he has impressed the Los Angeles folks with his athleticism.
"He's here to work on his delivery mechanics, getting him at a consistent place where he can repeat his delivery," Watson said. "The arm strength is there, and he's been solid."
Other Dodgers prospects making a good impression in Arizona this fall include right-hander Justin Miller, a sixth-rounder this spring from Kansas, and first baseman/outfielder Andrew Lambo, a fourth-round pick.
Miller, who came on in relief of Withrow in the Gulf Coast League Championship Series against the Yankees, posted a 3.57 ERA in four starts, throwing a heavy sinker and tight slider.
Lambo finished third in the league's batting race, hitting .343 with five homers and 32 RBIs and could be a quick mover.
The Mariners have long been on the cutting edge when it comes to success in their international scouting and the fruits of those worldwide labors are on display in Peoria at their instructional league camp.
Out of 53 names on the roster, 33 hail from outside the United States, with nine other countries represented.
Two of the top prospects are foreign-born: 6-foot-7 right-hander Philippe Aumont, the club's top pick this past spring out of high school in Quebec, Canada, and 17-year-old shortstop phenomenon Carlos Triunfel from the Dominican Republic.
Aumont, the 11th player taken overall, was drafted largely on upside since not only did he have limited time on the mound, hailing from Quebec, but he didn't even start pitching until the last few years.
Still he boasts a plus-potential fastball and slider and has shown good feel for the changeup. A late sign who pitched for the Junior National Team in Canada this summer, his instructional league is all about getting his feet wet.
"We work these guys hard, they start at 7 a.m. and don't finish until 4 p.m., so he's getting acclimated to the pro game, to the conditioning and endurance you have to have," Mariners farm director Greg Hunter said.
Triunfel missed time when he broke his thumb when he was hit by a pitch, but when he was active he was outstanding. Starting the season at Class A Wisconsin just a month after his 17th birthday, he was hitting .309 in 43 games before his May 28 injury. He returned to action in July, heading to Advanced A High Desert and batting .288 there.
"You look at him and, despite his age, he's a developed young man with strength and size and a lot of ability," Hunter said. "We're very optimistic about him."
With new visa rules, clubs no longer have the problems of the past in which they could not get work visas for many of their foreign-born Minor League players. But they still can run into a problem in terms of finding playing time for all of them, as the Mariners have discovered.
"We have players who need innings and at-bats from Latin America and all over the globe, and we need to give them an opportunity to play," Hunter said. "We have academies in Latin America so we might leave a guy back who could potentially come here, but if he's going to have trouble getting playing time we'll leave him there to get his at-bats or innings."
Many of those players end up here for instructional league action so they can get a taste of the Peoria complex and take the English language classes the club offers for its foreign-born players.
"We try to have all our instruction in English and we encourage them to speak English, but we still have enough Latin American that they can translate and make sure the message is getting across," Hunter said.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.