Prospects Remain Dialed In Under Sun

Arizona Fall League participant Justin Maxwell got a taste of the major leagues this year, appearing in 15 games for the Nationals and hitting a grand slam against the Marlins.
Arizona Fall League participant Justin Maxwell got a taste of the major leagues this year, appearing in 15 games for the Nationals and hitting a grand slam against the Marlins. (By J. Pat Carter -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When the announcement came over the public address system last month at the Peoria Sports Complex -- "Fans!" a voice boomed, though no such group appeared to exist -- the throng of scouts in the shade underneath the press box readied their radar guns, but otherwise remained unfazed. Perhaps 100 people spread from foul pole to foul pole, including one who openly stretched, shirtless, ready to take in some baseball following a jog.

With that, under a mid-day Arizona sun, Justin Maxwell jogged to right field, Kory Casto to first base, and they warmed up for some October baseball. Later that night, the National League Championship Series was to resume in Phoenix between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies. This, though, is the Arizona Fall League, where Casto, Maxwell and other Washington Nationals prospects -- indeed, some of the top minor leaguers in the game -- added a month onto their seasons in what has been billed as "graduate school" for potential stars. The list of alumni includes four most valuable players and three Cy Young award winners.

Not that, considering the setting, such notoriety seems in the offing.

"It's hard, because it's so different than the regular season," Casto said. "You're waking up at 7:30 a.m. You're playing at 12:30 under a hot sky. At home [in Oregon], it's rainy and 50 now. There's some challenges. But it's nothing you can't deal with, and it's important."

Casto and Maxwell, who each made brief major league debuts with the Nationals in 2007, took the field wearing Nationals jerseys, but they technically appeared as members of the Peoria Javelinas. (Unfamiliar with a "javelina"? It's Spanish for peccary. Explanation forthcoming.)

The Javelinas, on this day, faced off against the (natural rival) Peoria Saguaros. The Javelinas sported jerseys of the Yankees, Mariners, Braves, Rockies and Nationals. The Saguaros represented the Phillies, Dodgers, Tigers, Marlins and Padres.

"It's good to get to know some guys," Maxwell said.

That, though, isn't what the Arizona Fall League is about. In the midst of its 16th season, the fall league was established as a means to allow select minor league players a chance to evaluate themselves against their peers. Score is kept. Admission is charged. There are records and standings. But the idea isn't for the players to stress. Rather, the environment is supposed to foster creativity, a place where players can come and work on a specific skill or fix a mechanical flaw.

"It's invaluable," said former Nationals manager Frank Robinson, who oversaw the league for three seasons in the 1990s. "Results don't matter. You can use it to teach and develop. An individual can take what he learned in the middle of the season and refine it, but not worry about the results."

The Nationals have seven players here -- Casto, Maxwell, catcher Devin Ivany and pitchers Adam Carr, Garrett Mock, Alexis Morales and Zech Zinicola. Each earned his spot, though Ivany was a late substitution for catcher Jesus Flores, who decided playing winter ball in his native Venezuela would be enough offseason activity. Games began Oct. 9 and wrap up Nov. 15, adding another month to seasons that began with spring training. And while the players agreed with the idea that experimentation is possible, they know this is an important stretch.

"There's nothing guaranteed," Mock said, noting that the Nationals must decide on which prospects to protect on their 40-man roster. "The front office has to make some decisions. Everybody would like to think: 'They're going to protect me. I did well.' Well, you have to earn it. I haven't earned anything, and I'm very thankful and very fortunate that I get to come out here."

Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden has sent scouts to see his players in the fall league. But there's another angle, too. This is an offseason in which the Nationals would like to jump into the trade market. With so many of the game's best prospects -- Boston closer Craig Hansen, Seattle catcher Jeff Clement, Detroit outfielder Cameron Maybin and Tampa Bay infielder Evan Longoria among them -- Washington's scouting staff must take every opportunity to evaluate the talent of other teams.

"We have to get a handle not only on where our guys are," Bowden said, "but we need to know everything we can about other organizations. We're taking a hard look at all the talent out there because you never know when one of those names might come up in a trade. The more reports we have, the better off we are."

Thus, on some days, it appears the scouts outnumber the fans. In that environment, some of the Nationals have excelled (Mock, who reached Class AA Harrisburg this year, has a 2.95 ERA in six appearances) while others have struggled (Maxwell, typically the Javelinas cleanup man, is hitting .204).

"You have to treat it like a work session, where if you're 0 for 4, who cares?" said Casto, hitting .245 in 49 at-bats. "At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter as far as a pennant race goes or anything like that. It's a place to kind of try some things that you maybe wanted to try, but maybe there was a little fear of doing something new."

New is taking grounders at 10:30 a.m. New is playing cards in the clubhouse with the members of other organizations, suddenly your buddies. New, too, is donning a Javelinas hat and familiarizing yourself with the logo. A javelina, as we said, is a peccary, which, according to Webster's, is a "piglike . . . mammal with a musk gland, sharp tusks and porklike flesh." A saguaro is a "thick, spiny cactus with a spiny stem and white flowers."

In the fall, in Arizona, though, they're baseball players.

"We're here to work," Maxwell said. "We have specific goals and instructions, and we've got to get better at it -- no matter where we are."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company