The annual Futures Game, now in its ninth year, showcases up-and-coming young talent from around Minor League Baseball. And in the case of the 10 pitchers that will be representing the World Team, the emphasis is definitely on "young."
While none of the 50 top prospects who will be on hand July 8 in San Francisco could even remotely be construed as anywhere near eligible for AARP benefits, six of the 10 World pitchers are 21 or younger, while six of the U.S. pitchers (including Matt Garza, who was named to the team but promoted to the Majors this past week) are 22 or older.
But what the World group may lack in "life experience," it more than makes up for in what it has accomplished on the mound so far.
With six different countries represented (three pitchers each from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and one apiece from Colombia, Cuba, Australia and the Netherlands), the crew will converge on AT&T Park from clubs at all four levels of full-season ball.
Some have already been climbing their respective organizations' ladders. Phillies top prospect Carlos Carrasco, for example, moved up from Advanced A Clearwater to Double-A Reading in recent weeks, while San Francisco's Henry Sosa, one of the biggest breakthrough pitchers in the Minors this season, missed the chance to start for the South Division in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game when the Giants promoted him from Class A Augusta to Advanced A San Jose right before that contest.
And no one can claim a more impressive promotion schedule than the Marlins' representative, Rick Vanden Hurk, the lone member of the staff to have pitched in the Majors this year, as he shocked the baseball world by being called up to Florida a week into the season after never having pitched higher than Advanced A.
So will the edge go to experience, or youthful exuberance? Tune in on Sunday to find out.
Pedro Beato, Baltmore Orioles, Dominican Republic
It was something of a shock to draft followers when the Mets demurred from signing their 17th-round draft-and-follow pick from 2005 prior to the 2006 Draft. He'd posted a 2.75 ERA at St. Petersburg (Fla.) Junior College, was considered by most draft experts to be a legitimate first-round pick, and the Mets were without a first-round selection that year ('06).
But the Mets' loss was the Baltimore Orioles gain, as they scooped up the Dominican-born Queens/Brooklyn high school ace with the 32nd pick overall and he signed almost immediately, beginning his pro career at Short-Season Aberdeen.
Cutting his repertoire from five or six pitches to three solid ones, highlighted by a fastball in the low 90s, a power curveball and a circle change, the 21-year-old right-hander has been more than impressive since turning pro, maintaining a fine ERA at Aberdeen and now with Class A Delmarva.
One of the top two starting pitching prospects in the Orioles organization, Beato was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, before moving to New York City right before his 13th birthday. He became one of the acknowledged aces in that city despite undergoing Tommy John surgery at the end of his sophomore year at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn.
His front-of-the-line stuff combined with his terrific makeup and work ethic makes him an exciting and intriguing prospect to watch.
Carlos Carrasco, Philadelphia Phillies, Venezuela
At just 20 years old, Carlos Carrasco has emerged as the Phillies' top pitching prospect and he celebrates that status with a rare return trip to the Futures Game, having also represented Philadelphia here on the World Team's pitching squad in Pittsburgh in 2006.
The Phillies made sure they would not make the same mistake twice when it came to sliding Carrasco up the organizational ladder. Originally signed as a free agent out of his native Barquismeto, Venezuela, in November 2003, Carrasco was impressive enough to post a 3.56 ERA in the complex-level Gulf Coast League in his 2004 pro debut, earning him a skip up to Class A Lakewood of the South Atlantic League in '05, just two weeks after his 18th birthday.
But Carrasco struggled mightily in that stint, going 1-7 with a 7.04 ERA in 13 games and his season was basically a lost one.
To his credit, and that of the Phillies, his return to Lakewood in 2006 was remarkable. He combined with fellow ace Matt Maloney as one of the best one-two punches of any rotation in the Minors, going 12-6 with a 2.26 ERA and 159 strikeouts in as many innings. His .182 average against led the organization as the BlueClaws won the league championship.
This year, though, the Phillies didn't want to make the same mistake twice. While they jumped Maloney past Advanced A Clearwater to Double-A Reading to start the season, they let Carrasco begin the year in Florida, where he went 6-2 with a 2.84 ERA, including a complete-game shutout in his final start there and a .199 average against before moving up to Reading in mid-June. There, in three starts, he'd compiled a 4.32 ERA with a fastball in the low 90s with late life and excellent command, a plus changeup and an improving curveball.
Fautino De Los Santos, Chicago White Sox, Dominican Republic
How much of a sleeper is De Los Santos? Enough that his own first name has been misspelled (Faustino) as often if not more so than it's been spelled correctly.
But let's face it, the 21-year-old right-hander has pretty much come out of nowhere to emerge as one of the most dominant flamethrowers in the South Atlantic League, earning a spot on the World Team staff.
One of the biggest sleepers named to the team, he's also off to one of the hottest starts of anyone on the club. After making his pro debut last summer in the Dominican Summer League where he posted a 1.86 ERA in 10 games, his stateside debut at Kannapolis has been remarkable.
To start the season he was flip-flopping between starting and relief roles for the first month before moving exclusively to the rotation since mid-May.
Overall, De Los Santos has gone 6-2 with a 2.67 ERA, striking out 96 batters in 77 2/3 innings, scattering 42 hits in that span and limiting Sally League hitters to a .159 average.
On May 22, he made headlines by tossing seven innings of no-hit ball against Hickory and in his last start on June 29 he struck out 14 in eight innings, without walking a batter. De Los Santos has allowed more than five hits in a start just twice all season.
His fastball averages somewhere in the low 90s and he has maintained that power late into games, adding a slurve and a developing changeup to his repertoire.
Emiliano Fruto, Washington Nationals, Colombia
The Seattle Mariners have been at the forefront when it comes to scouting the top prospects in Colombia, and Fruto, no pun intended, has been one of the top fruits of their labors, signing with Seattle back in 2001.
During this past offseason, the Mariners dealt him to Washington along with outfielder Chris Snelling in exchange for former All-Star veteran Jose Vidro.
Though Fruto had been working out of the Mariners' Minor League bullpen for the last few years, the Nationals have decided to move him back to the rotation, for now at least, and the results have been heartening.
The 23-year-old right-hander is one of just two pitchers on the World Team staff (the other being Rick Vanden Hurk) with any Major League experience coming into the game.
He made his Major League debut last year when he was called up from Triple-A Tacoma and spent some time in the Seattle bullpen. He had posted a 3.18 ERA with the Rainiers with 10 saves prior to that promotion, and posted a 2.57 ERA with 12 saves at Double-A San Antonio in 2005.
Fruto's stuff has never been questioned but he still needs to prove he can "put it all together" when it comes to all the fundamentals and other factors that go beyond pure ability.
The Nationals are hoping that by giving him more innings and a new role he may find new life on the East Coast and so far, at Triple-A Columbus, that seems to be working.
In his first start of the season on April 9, Fruto tossed six innings of no-hit ball against Louisville. Though he missed a month midseason with a sore elbow, he's got a respectable 3.93 ERA in a starting role for the Clippers.
He offsets an average fastball with an outstanding changeup that is basically a screwball, a plus curveball and a good slider.
Deolis Guerra, New York Mets, Venezuela
Being the youngest player participating in the Futures Game is nothing new for Guerra, who turned 18 a few weeks after this past Opening Day.
Last year, he was the youngest player in the South Atlantic League, and all he did was post a sparkling 2.20 ERA in 17 games at sweet 17 with Hagerstown, limiting opposing hitters to a paltry .208 average.
This year at St. Lucie of the Advanced Class A Florida State League, the 6-foot-5 right-hander is once again the baby of the circuit, where he's gone 1-4 with a 4.27 ERA in 12 starts.
Though Guerra missed a month as a precautionary measure with a mild case of biceps tendinitis, when on the mound he's exhibited the command that belies his age, walking just 10 batters against 40 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. He's walked just three men in his last six starts combined, mixing the best changeup in the organization with a fastball that creeps into the low 90s.
His curveball is still very much a work in progress, and its development as a usable third pitch will probably be the determining factor in where he eventually lands in a big-league rotation.
But at 18 years old, his "learning curve" is very much ahead of him.
Serguey Linares, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cuba
The 24-year-old Linares lost some valuable development time when he missed a year during his defection and emigration from Cuba, finally signing with the Pirates this past offseason where he joined former Cuba National teammate Yoslan Herrera.
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds it's no surprise that Linares is a flamethrower, a pure power pitcher who is still working on command and the development of his secondary pitches.
He made his pro debut in early May at Class A Hickory and dominated South Atlantic League hitters with his heat for his first three starts, not allowing an earned run in his first three games, a span of 18 innings. After his fourth start, where he finally gave up some runs, he moved up to Advanced A Lynchburg in the Carolina League and the older hitters there finally challenged him.
In six starts, he's posted a 1-4 record and a 5.46 ERA, with his control being his biggest issue as he's struck out just 11 but walked 25 in 29 2/3 innings. Command has been the hardest thing for this young man with a great arm to harness, as his numbers in Cuba were similar.
But when you throw hard -- 97-98 mph hard -- with possibly the best pure heat in the organization, it's a nice challenge for the Pirates esteemed Minor League pitching gurus to have to work with.
Franklin Morales, Colorado Rockies, Venezuela
The lone left-hander on the 10-man World pitching staff is that rare commodity, a true southpaw power pitcher. The 21-year-old has moved steadily through the Rockies system one step at a time, emerging as their top left-handed prospect last summer when he led the Advanced A California League in ERA (3.68) and strikeouts (179) at Modesto, ranking among the top strikeout artists in the Minors.
This year at Double-A Tulsa he has been pitching just as well but in bad luck when it comes to the win column, In 13 starts, he's allowed more than three earned runs in an outing just twice and has yet to pick up a victory, at 0-4 with a 4.05 ERA. League hitters are batting just .236 against him.
Morales throws a fastball in the mid 90s and an outstanding biting curveball, adding a potentially Major League-caliber changeup as his third pitch, and he throws all three for strikes.
Henry Sosa, San Francisco Giants, Dominican Republic
Sosa zoomed onto the radar screen seemingly out of nowhere the first half of this season, as the 21-year-old right-hander was the top ace of an all-aces rotation at Class A Augusta in the first half of South Atlantic League play.
In his first full season, he moved from piggyback starter for the first month to full-time starter in mid-May, going 6-0 with a Minor League-best 0.73 ERA before being promoted to Advanced Class A San Jose right before the league All-Star Game (which he had been slated to start for the South Division).
In his time with the GreenJackets, he limited the league batters to a .144 average, striking out 61 batters in 62 innings without ever allowing more than one earned run in any of his games. Between April 13 and May 10 he did not allow an earned run at all.
Upon Sosa's promotion to San Jose, he sandwiched three fine starts around one that finally showed he was mortal, giving up seven runs in two innings, but allowing just five earned runs in the other three outings combined.
Sosa's bread and butter are a fastball that reached the high 90s and a hard curveball, and he can throw both for strikes.
Rich Thompson, Los Angeles Angels, Australia
The lone Australian entry on the World team is coming off of a Texas League All-Star Game appearance as well to add to his resume. He is also the lone reliever on the squad, having posted a 2.01 ERA mostly out of the bullpen for the Arkansas Travelers, where he's limited hitters to a .193 average and struck out 50 batters in 49 innings.
Thompson, 22, had been working exclusively in relief for the Travs for the first few months of the season, but three of his last seven outings have come as a starter so he continues to straddle both roles (in 2005, he made 15 starts out of 42 total games at Advanced A Rancho Cucamonga).
Thompson has really come on strong this season, lowering his ERA more than three runs from his 5.13 mark in 2006, when he also collected 10 saves.
Rick Vanden Hurk, Florida Marlins, Netherlands
Being named to represent his home country of Holland just adds to what has already been a fairytale season for the previously unheralded Vanden Hurk.
The 22-year-old had pitched just 53 innings combined in the last two seasons as he came back from Tommy John surgery, but he made such a strong first impression on Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez during Spring Training that when the early need came for a big-league starter, less than a week after Opening Day, Vanden Hurk was summoned from Double-A Carolina before he'd even had the chance to pitch for the Mudcats.
He made his Major League debut that week and stuck around for a few starts before heading back to Carolina. But he'd made a good enough second impression that he was recalled once again, this time in June to face his childhood idol John Smoltz and the Atlanta Braves.
Vanden Hurk took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, outdueling Smoltz and earning his first Major League win that night.
Signed in November 2002 out of the Marlins' Dutch academy, the converted catcher was used carefully in his early years as he also underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor from his hip.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander got some needed time last fall, though, when the Marlins sent him to pitch in the fledgling Hawaiian Winter League. He was the league's Pitcher of the Week twice, both the first and last week of action.
He throws a low-mid 90s fastball that has continued to gain speed and adds a curve and changeup to that arsenal. He has tremendous polish for someone with so little formal pitching experience, which speaks to his outstanding makeup.
In his nine starts at Carolina, in between his big-league stints, he has posted a 3.52 ERA and struck out 61 in 53 2/3 innings, limiting hitters to a .219 average.