Tigers farm director Glen Ezell watched his two 6-foot-5 2007 draftees walking together in Lakeland the other day and couldn't help but smile.
"That's a right-hander and a left-hander, wow," Ezell said. "That's pretty good stuff there."
The "wow factor" belonged to first-round pick Rick Porcello, the righty, and southpaw Casey Crosby, taken in the fifth round of the most recent draft. Both signed close to the Aug. 15 deadline, and instructional league play is the first time Ezell and his staff are getting a good look at the two prep stars.
The spotlight, obviously, is shining more brightly on Porcello, the top high school arm from the 2007 Draft class, but that doesn't mean Crosby lacks ability. The top player from Illinois slid to the fifth round because of some signability concerns, but he inked for close to $750,000. He's a touch raw, but has a big power arm from the left side and has shown potential with two secondary offerings. A back spasm issue slowed him down at first, but Ezell has been extremely impressed with his competitiveness on the mound, even in the instructs atmosphere.
Crosby and Porcello squared off in an intra-squad game on Wednesday and, needless to say, it was a good day to be in Lakeland. In just his second outing, Crosby had some trouble with command and ended up going two innings instead of the scheduled three. Despite that, there was enough there to get people excited.
"He has young stuff," Ezell said. "But it's good stuff that makes you put your head up and say 'wow.'"
Porcello gets a double-wow, then, for his efforts in instructs thus far. He slid to No. 27 overall because of bonus demands and eventually signed a lucrative Major League deal with Detroit. He's shown the ability to throw four pitches -- two- and four-seam fastballs, a curve and an off-speed pitch -- for strikes. That's a lot of hype to live up to, but so far Ezell thinks he's just as good as advertised.
"I'm just going to continue to watch that advertisement roll," Ezell laughed. "It's not exactly Major League at this time with location, but he's got more command of his stuff than anyone on the staff here. It's as good as I've seen coming from a high schooler in quite some time, maybe the best."
Beyond the stuff, the Tigers have been very pleased with how Porcello has carried himself in camp and on the mound. In his outing before the intra-squad game, Porcello went three innings and his defense made four errors behind him. There was no tantrum, no bonus-baby sense of entitlement, no feeling of getting flustered.
"The effect on him was minimal," Ezell said. "Not even minimal. He continued to pound the zone down. It was quite nice to see a young man unaffected by play behind him."
While not on the mound, Porcello already seems to understand the protocol for someone just trying to introduce himself to the organization. He's been working hard, keeping his mouth shut and soaking up information from pitching coordinator Jon Matlack. That, as much as his stuff, is what Ezell thinks will separate him from ordinary pitchers.
"Just because he was [the Tigers'] No. 1 pick and got a lot of money, you can't forget he's just trying to fit in, too," Ezell said. "I have seen a steady, non-assuming workout every day, how he goes about his business. He fits right in the mold with some of our other young players [in terms of attitude]. He's going to put himself in a position to succeed because of his work ethic."
In case you haven't noticed, work ethic and attitude are pretty important to farm directors and the like. There always are going to be certain guys -- even if the directors won't admit it publicly -- who become favorites. They're not necessarily the best prospects with the highest potential, but the kinds of players every farm director wishes they could fill their system with in terms of effort. Case in point with the Tigers: outfielder Deik Scram.
"He's a real dirt dog," Ezell said. "He has as good at-bats as anyone down here. I don't know where he's going to go. But when he gets the chance to play, he'll do things like go 0-2 and work out a walk. His eyes are open, and he loves to be where he is. I have to mention this dirt dog. He's always looking to learn. I think he's going to make himself a prospect at some point in time."
New York Yankees
There may not have been anyone who had as stirring and suprisingly effective pro debut than Dellin Betances did in 2006. The tall right-handed pitcher was seen as a major project coming out of the New York City high school ranks. The Yankees took a shot, selecting him in the eighth round and giving him close to first-round money. They sent him to the Gulf Coast League to get his feet wet, with the understanding that, at 6-foot-7 and relatively inexperienced, much tinkering would need to happen.
Then Betances put up a 1.16 ERA over 23 1/3 IP, allowing just 14 hits and seven walks while striking out 27. The league hit just .173 against him, and his command was much better than advertised as he proved adept at making quick adjustments. There was talk he'd be ready for a full-season assignment to start the 2007 season at age 19.
It didn't quite happen that way. Betances didn't make his 2007 debut until the Short-Season New York-Penn League got underway, and he made just six starts before being shut down in the middle of July. The reason was forearm tightness, and the Yankees understandably were cautious. Tightness in your forearm isn't necessarily a horrendous thing on its own, but it can be a bad sign of future problems.
"It sometimes is a precursor for elbow trouble," explained Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman. "But he had an MRI, and there was no structural damage."
After that sigh of relief, the Yankees sent Betances to instructs to make up for lost time. He hasn't skipped a beat and is throwing just as well as he did before he had arm troubles.
"He's fine, he's throwing 95-96 mph with that big downhill plane, spinning the ball well," Newman said.
Newman pointed out a couple of other players creating some buzz in instructs this fall. Brandon Laird has been flying under the radar even though his brother is Rangers catcher Gerald Laird. The 27th-round draft choice out of Cypress Junior College in California, Laird hit .339 and slugged .577 in 45 GCL games in his summer debut. The third baseman has continued to shine at instructs.
"He continues to be big-time impressive," Newman said. "He's the kind of kid coaches are talking about."
Also along family tree lines, second-round pick Austin Romine has shown what being in a baseball family is all about. His older brother Andrew was the shortstop for Arizona State before being drafted in the fifth round by the Angels and his father, Kevin, spent seven seasons in the big leagues. The high school catcher has plus arm strength behind the plate and a pretty good idea about what to do when he's at it with a bat in his hands.
"He comes from a baseball family and it really shows," Newman said. "He's pretty advanced. He's doing things high school kids normally can't do."
One more under-the-radar guy to remember: infielder Carmen Angelini. The Yankees took him in the 10th round and gave him a nice chunk of change to keep him from going to Rice University. He really didn't play after signing, so the Yankees are getting their first long look at him at instructs. And they like what they see.
"He's a plus runner, he really can defend, and he puts the ball in play," Newman said. "He needs to get stronger and he will because he's got a good frame. He kind of flew under the radar but our Midwest scouting supervisor, Tim Kelly, fell in love with the guy."