Futures Exchange: Olympic dreamin'
Gonzalez, Espineli sidestep Beijing, settle for debuts in bigs
In their last quest for the gold medal in the summer Olympics, at least unless and/or until the sport is reinstated in the summer games, the United States has sent a 24-man roster to Beijing that is a combination of some of the Minors' top prospects, most prolific veterans and, in one case, a young pitcher who has yet to throw a professional pitch.
This week's Futures Exchange is brought to you by the Letter "O" -- as in Olympics -- as we look at some of the players representing the United States in the 2008 Summer Games (and just so you don't think we're being "U.S. snobs," next week's entry will feature Olympians from Canada, Taiwan and the Netherlands.)
In the bigs
When his name was absent from the list of players named to the United States Olympic Baseball team in mid-July, it was pretty evident that the subplot was that it was almost "Gio time" in Oakland. So it was only fitting that southpaw sensation Gio Gonzalez made his Major League debut as the 24 members of Team USA were on a plane en route to Beijing.
The A's were doing a little addition by subtraction during the offseason as they loaded up on top prospects by dealing pitcher Dan Haren to the D-backs and outfielder Nick Swisher to the White Sox, with Gonzalez coming over in the latter deal. But they weren't done retooling their pitching staff, trading Joe Blanton, Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin in the space of a few weeks, thus starting the Gio watch.
That came to fruition on Wednesday, when the 22-year-old had his contract purchased from Triple-A Sacramento and started that night in a 5-1 loss to Toronto. Gonzalez gave up four runs on four hits in six-plus innings, walking two and striking out four. Most of the damage came in a three-run first inning.
Since being selected in the first round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft by the White Sox, Gonzalez was traded to Philadelphia (for OF Aaron Rowand) and back to Chicago (for P Freddy Garcia) before this last trade.
At the time of his promotion, Gonzalez was 8-7 with a 4.24 ERA in his Triple-A debut at Sacramento, with 128 strikeouts on the season. That latter category has always been where he's dominated, thanks to a deadly combination of fastball and curveball. He led the Minors in 2007 with 185 strikeouts in 150 innings at Double-A Birmingham, limiting Southern League hitters to a .216 average. The previous year, Gonzalez was second in the Eastern League as a 20-year-old at Double-A Reading when he fanned 166 in 154 2/3 innings.
Gonzalez, who is also known for his loosey-goosey personality, had limited opposing hitters to a .221 average over four seasons coming into 2008 since being drafted with the 38th pick overall out of high school in Miami.
In the bullpen for the other team in the Bay Area is a pitcher that had been named to the initial 2008 U.S. Olympic team, only to get called up for his big league debut a week later: San Francisco Giants southpaw Geno Espineli.
A 14th-round pick in 2004 out of Texas Christian University, Espineli was nowhere near the household name -- as prospects go -- that Gonzalez was, but his numbers in his first full-time stint in relief at Triple-A Fresno were eye-opening. Enough so that when veteran reliever Keiichi Yabu went on the disabled list, it was Espineli who was summoned from Triple-A Fresno for his debut. And enough so that when Yabu came off the DL, Espineli remained in San Francisco.
Espineli posted a 2.06 ERA in 52 1/3 innings, walking six and striking out 43 with Fresno before his promotion. In the bigs, he has a 4.00 ERA over seven games, but the overall ERA was deceptive, since he gave up all four runs in one outing on July 25. In his other six games combined, he'd limited the opposition to no runs on three hits over 7 2/3 innings.
In 2007 at Double-A Connecticut, Espineli was 8-10 with a 3.45 ERA primarily as a starter, after posting a 4.11 ERA for the Defenders the year before in a split role. It's that versatility that has helped his cause as the Giants know they could use him pretty much anywhere in a pinch. Espineli's out pitches are his offspeed offerings in his slider and changeup.
A phone call away
Outfielder Matt LaPorta is arguably the top prospect on the U.S. Olympic team. Selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round of 2007 out of the University of Florida, he was the marquee player dealt to Cleveland last month in the trade for ace CC Sabathia. He made the shift from one Double-A team (Huntsville) to another (Akron) and combined to hit .277 with 21 homers and 73 RBIs between the two before joining Team USA. A two-time SEC Player of the Year with the Gators, the power-hitting corner outfielder/first baseman batted .304 with 12 homers and 31 RBIs in 30 games in his 2007 pro debut between short-season Helena and Class A West Virginia and should continue to be fast-tracked. The National League owners of LaPorta were no doubt weeping when he switched leagues before they could get his big league numbers.
Texas Rangers catching prospect Taylor Teagarden already got the phone call once, coming up to the bigs for two games before heading back to the Minors to qualify for the Olympic team. The third-round pick from 2005 made a quick impression, especially on the opposing Minnesota Twins, as he broke up hurler Scott Baker's perfect game with a homer. Though he was hitting just .234 with six homers and 15 RBIs at Triple-A Oklahoma, that is no indication of how Teagarden should fare with the bat down the road. After missing most of 2006 following Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, he combined to hit close to .300 with 27 homers and 83 RBIs between Advanced A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco in 2007.
As mentioned up top, the Oakland Athletics have been cleaning house when it comes to veteran pitching and right-hander Trevor Cahill, a 2006 second-rounder, could be a surprise stealth mover. The 20-year-old Southern California native who was drafted out of high school and posted a 2.61 ERA between Advanced A Stockton and Double-A Midland before joining Team USA. He combined to strike out what was then a Minor League-high 136 batters in 124 1/3 innings between the two stops. Cahill's average against was below .190 and he even lowered his ERA from 2.78 at Stockton to 2.19 at Midland. Despite his youth, he could be called upon to contribute soon if he continues his remarkable progress.
A year away
Colorado Rockies fans can look forward to the not-so-distant arrival of outfielder Dexter Fowler before long, but for now they can watch him roam the outfield in Beijing. The 22-year-old center fielder, who missed much of 2007 due to a broken hand, boasts speed and defensive acumen as his top tools, but he can also provide a little pop and a live bat. Finally healthy in 2008, he was hitting .337 with nine homers, 61 RBIs, 27 doubles and 20 steals at Double-A Tulsa before joining Team USA. The rangy Fowler, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 175 pounds, was a 14th-round pick in 2004 out of high school in Atlanta -- falling that far strictly due to signability questions as he'd committed to play baseball at Miami.
Right-hander Jake Arrieta has been nothing short of remarkable in his pro debut for the Baltimore Orioles, posting a 2.87 ERA in 20 starts at Advanced A Frederick after being a late sign in the fifth round out of Texas Christian last summer. But die-hard fans of the Minors might have expected this after Arrieta tossed 14 scoreless innings in Arizona Fall League action. Boasting a lively fastball in the mid 90s, a curve, a changeup and a cutter, Arrieta has international experience as the ace of the 2006 Team USA squad and will be looked to as one of the anchors of the Olympic rotation for now. He should have the same role in Baltimore very soon.
Philadelphia Phillies fans can look forward to the arrival of catcher Lou Marson before long, as the 22-year-old Arizona native continues to rake in the Minors, while developing his defensive game. Hitting .319 with five homers and 46 RBIs at Double-A Reading when he took his Olympic leave, the 2004 fourth-rounder has an even-keeled demeanor and tremendous plate discipline.
Down the road
While most of the prospects on Team USA are realistically not more than a year away, where the biggest surprise on the squad ends up is anybody's guess. Twenty-year-old right-hander Stephen Strasburg became the first college player to land on the U.S. Olympic team or qualifying team since they started using professional players in 2000. The San Diego State rising junior made national headlines when he struck out 23 batters against Utah this past April and prior to joining the club was pitching for the USA National team in international competition this summer. He'll likely go high in next spring's Draft.
Lisa Winston is a reporter or MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.