Seeing Stars

Mat Gamel fields a ground ball during practice. July 16, 2008 (Josh Kalk)
Introduction

The Huntsville Stars, the Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, have one of the most prospect-laden teams in minor league baseball. Even after trading away Matt LaPorta to Cleveland in the CC Sabathia deal, this Alabama team is loaded with position players.

I had the good fortune of seeing the Stars play a few games last week and wanted to bring you a peek at a few players.

The players

Alcides Escobar
I came to Huntsville knowing that Escobar is a very solid defender, so the fact that he wowed me with his play in the field should tell you something. In the first game I saw a check-swing roller get by the pitcher. Escobar charged it hard and made a bare-handed pick and throw to just beat the speedy left-handed batter. Shortstops don’t need to make plays like that often, so I was impressed.

Before the next game, I was talking to SABR member Jim Sandoval (
), who has seen almost all the Stars' home games, and mentioned I was impressed with that play. He made a yawning motion and said Escobar would make three or four better plays in the next few games. Sure enough, Escobar would be tested early and often the next game. The first play came on a grounder deep in the hole by the opposing pitcher. Escobar went way to his right to field it and realized he had plenty of time so he set himself and made a good throw to first.

The next play again came with the opposing pitcher batting. He hit a Texas Leaguer that looked like it would drop for sure. Escobar got an amazing jump on the ball, took the perfect route back and a little to his left, and leaped and caught the ball with his back to the infield. Escobar made it look almost routine.

Near the end of the game, Escobar had to field a tough hop and throw out another speedy runner; he showed his arm strength throwing a laser to first. Some defenders have range or a strong arm or reliable hands, but Escobar is the complete package. I am convinced he is the best infielder defensively in the Brewers organization and, at 21, has room to improve.

At the plate, Escobar is having a breakout year after some so-so seasons in the past. He already has hit as many home runs this year than his previous years combined. He also has more walks this year than any one previously. That said, Escobar will probably never walk much. A lot of that has to do with how much contact he makes at the plate. He swung and missed only two times in the 33 pitches he saw at the plate. It seems pretty clear that his plate discipline has improved; he didn't swing at too many balls out of the zone and frequently was ahead in the count when he put the ball in play.

He went two for four in both games with three line drives, two of them the other way, and a sharp grounder down the third base line for a double. The ball doesn't exactly jump off his bat like it does with some of his teammates, but with his strong defense he won't have to hit .330 to help his team. It is likely that most of Escobar's offense will be from his batting average, so I would expect some up and down years depending on whether the balls are falling. He defense, though, would be a stabilizing addition now if the Brewers were to call him up.

With J.J. Hardy playing well in Milwaukee, Escobar's future is a little uncertain. He likely could take over as early as next year, but his bat probably could use a year at Triple-A. Here is a video of Escobar taking a ground ball before the game.

Angel Salome
Angel Salome is a 22-year-old catcher who has been in the Brewers system since he was drafted out of high school in the fifth round in 2004. Salome has hit wherever he has gone. Many players like him have gone through Young Catcher Offensive Stagnation Syndrome, but that hasn't been a problem for Salome. His stats are eye-popping for a catcher in a tough hitters league like the Southern League.

He is hitting almost .350 with an OPS well clear of .900. He has a rather large BABIP of almost .400, so he probably will cool off a bit, but there is some evidence that he can keep that up somewhat; he is getting very few cheap infield hits because he's slow. One scout timed him at 4.73 trying to beat out a double play; that's considerably slower than MLB average. Salome doesn't walk much, but he doesn't strike out much either and has a "see ball hit ball" mentality at the plate, kind of like Hunter Pence. He probably could turn into something like A.J. Pierzynski with a nice batting average and some decent pop.

He has a somewhat open batting stance with his front leg pointing out to shortstop and a pronounced crouch. When the pitch is in flight, Salome steps in the bucket before he swings. You would think this would hurt him going the other way, but in the two games I saw him he did that with authority several times. The crazy thing is that in batting practice Salome has almost no step at all.

I saw Salome play a couple of years ago and I don't remember the stepping toward the dugout, so this seems new, but maybe I just missed it. Stars manager Don Money told me that the Brewers have no interest in adjusting his stance, and while I think that is the right way to handle things, this is something to watch. Plenty of excellent major leaguers have had strange batting stances.

Defensively, Salome has improved his throwing but it still is somewhat of an issue—not arm strength, but, Money said, footwork. He threw out one of three runners in the two games, with one of the two steals completely off the pitcher; Salome smartly just ate the ball. On the runner he did get, the throw short-hopped, but Escobar made a nice pick and tag. That throw took just 1.90 seconds, so he clearly has the tools to be successful.

Blocking pitches is another issue. From what I saw, Salome relied on his glove a little too much and didn't always get in front of the ball. On one wild pitch, Salome asked for the curve in the dirt, then had it bounce off his glove and the runner advanced. The roving catcher instructor was in town, so before the game on Wednesday Salome got plenty of work with balls in the dirt. Here, he was very effective keeping the balls in front of him and blocking them with his body. So again, the tools are there; he just needs to put it together.

Two other things I want to mention. Salome is known as a workout warrior and when you see him up close you can see how chiseled his body is, and he obviously is a very hard worker. Secondly, he speaks Spanish, which I would consider a little plus for a catcher, with many pitchers speaking either just Spanish or Spanish first.

Because he is just 22, he has plenty of time. Because of his short stature (listed at 5-foot-7) and lack of speed, there probably isn't another position for Salome besides catcher (and DH), so expect the Brewers to give him every opportunity to stick behind the plate. It looks like Jason Kendall will be back for another year, which might give Salome the time he needs before taking over in 2010. Salome is a high risk-high reward type of prospect. If he can handle catching and if his batting stance isn't exposed at higher levels, he could turn into an All-Star. If not, well, you get the idea.

Mat Gamel
Since LaPorta was traded, Gamel has taken over as the prospect who gets the most attention on the club. Gamel is destroying Double-A pitching, doing it all at the plate. Amazingly, he is hitting left-handed pitching almost as well as right-handed pitching this year. Money suggested this is because Gamel goes the other way well and is mostly a right field gap to left field kind of hitter. That showed in the two games I saw, with two of his three hits coming opposite field (including a fliner) and five of his eight balls in play going to the left side of the diamond. Gamel has a nice quiet stance with a short leg kick toward the mound. He has a nice weight transfer and the ball just explodes off his bat.

Money suggested that as Gamel learns when to pull the ball, more power will come, but even if it doesn't his bat could easily play at third in the majors. His bat is clearly ready now and I don't think any more seasoning in Double-A or Triple-A is needed. He has some speed and doesn't strike out much.

The fly in the ointment is Gamel's defense. Despite cutting his error rate dramatically this year, Gamel still has a ways to go. When Ryan Braun was in Double-A at third, most of his errors came on throws, giving hope that if he could fix that he could stick at third. Gamel has made a rather even amount of fielding and throwing errors, but Money said that footwork was to blame for most of his problems.

From what I saw, he let the ball play him several times, making a fielding error and a bobble that would have been another error if his strong arm hadn't saved him. He did make several nice plays, including a backhand stop on a ball down the line with runners on first and second. He got up, stepped on the base, and threw to first in one motion for a double play. He seemed more comfortable going to his backhand than going to his left, which might not be too big an issue if Escobar continues to play to his left.

It seems the tools are there for Gamel to stick at third; the question will be how patient the Brewers are with him there. His bat could help them now, so how long do you keep him in the minors honing his defense? The Brewers do look to have an opening long term at third base, so they could sure use him there, but assuming they don't pick up Mike Cameron's option, a corner outfield spot also would be open next year with Corey Hart or Braun moving to center.

Cole Gillespie
Gillespie is easy to overlook when watching the Stars, and that is too bad. Gillespie has done nothing but hit from his time at Oregon State to his time in the minors. Gillespie looks like a baseball player up close and he plays like one in the field.

While he isn't exceptional at any one thing. he is a well-rounded player doing everything well. He hits for average, has some pop in his bat, controls the strike zone very well, has some speed on the base paths, and has good range and gets a good jump in the field. While his arm has been weakened by two shoulder surgeries while in college, he does have an accurate arm and hit the cutoff man perfectly both times I saw him throw. Gillespie also has a high baseball IQ, which he displayed both in the field and on the basepaths.

On a soft line drive down the left field line, Gillespie got a great jump and was aware that the ball was going to fall slightly in foul territory. This let him go for it and he came up with a great diving catch. Later in that game, a similar ball was hit but this time it clearly was going to be fair and with a runner at first Gillespie played the ball on the bounce, holding the runner to one base.

In the second game, Gillespie hit a long fly ball to center field. The center fielder camped out but somehow ended up more than 10 feet from the ball and it landed near the warning track right in front of the 405-foot sign. The bases were loaded and the runner on first, Gamel, was clearly deked and ended up only at second. Gillespie recognized that Gamel wasn't going to get to third and held his ground instead of running up Gamel's back.

Gillespie reminds me of Corey Hart, who also does everything well without being outstanding in one area. One scout told me he was high on Gillespie, liking his complete package and knowledge of the game. With the Brewers' potentially crowded outfield, it is uncertain where Gillespie might fit in, especially if Gamel needs to move there, but I am confident Gillespie will make it to the major leagues. Unlike Salome, he is a low-risk prospect. Also, he revealed that he broke his foot in spring training and has been playing the whole year with it. It might need offseason surgery, which makes what he has accomplished this year even more impressive.

Conclusions

The Huntsville Stars team is loaded with talented position players who will have a major impact at the big league level soon. Because Escobar is already on the 40-man roster, he almost certainly will get a September call-up. Gamel, Salome and Gillespie could also. Even if these players don't make a splash this year, all could be ready at some point next year and have long careers in the majors.

References & Resources
I would like to thank the Stars staff, especially Brian Massey, for setting up intertviews for me, and manager Don Money and the players who allowed me to hang around during practice and in the locker room after. I'd also like to thank Don Money and Cole Gillespie for taking time for my interviews. A transcript of Gillespie's interview will be available soon, as will excepts of the interview with Money. Stay tuned to hardballtimes live for that.

I'd also like to thank Jim Sandoval for chatting with me before practice.

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