WAUSAU (Press Release) - As the Wisconsin Woodchucks get set to close out their season this week, six former Woodchucks are playing through the final two months of the Major League baseball season, while upwards of two dozen alumni are working to make their mark in the minors.
2011 has been a very solid, if not spectacular season for Major League alumni, highlighted by a revitalized Ben Zobrist, and the emergence of Daniel Descalso as an everyday player for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Playing predominantly second base, Zobrist has rebounded from an off year in 2010 with a bang – improving his .699 OPS in '10 to a current .875. Hitting .276 on the season, Zobrist is tied for the league-lead in doubles with 35, and has hit 15 homeruns with 64 RBI.
Battling through the loaded American League East Division, Zobrist and the Tampa Bay Rays sit at 60—54, 11 games out of first place, and nine and a half games out of the wild card spot.
After being presumably blocked from the majors for another season following the off-season signing of Nick Punto, a hot spring – and a couple of injuries – put Daniel Descalso in striking-distance for an opening day assignment.
And strike he did.
The 24-year-old utility infielder seized the opportunity this spring to make the Cardinals' roster, prior to impressing St. Louis fans and manager Tony La Russa alike – becoming a regular in the Cards' lineup in the midst of a playoff race with the Milwaukee Brewers.
After starting nine games last September, the UC-Davis product has started across the infield in 70 games, and has seen action in 111. While drawing high praise for his defensive acumen, the slight 5-foot-10 lefty has hit .262, and is getting on base at a nice .339 clip.
Journeyman relievers Casey Janssen, Mark Lowe and Pat Neshek are all having solid, productive seasons for their respective franchises, while Jay Buente and Justin Berg have been unable to find their Major League groove in 2011.
Plagued by injuries the past three seasons, Neshek has made three stints between the San Deigo Padres' big-league club and Triple-A Tucson, but appears to have recovered from his heart-wrenching, career-threatening injury bug, compiling 24 Major League innings with a 3.75 ERA in his first season in the National League.
Casey Janssen had one of the better starts of his career in early 2011, before being sidelined for about a month from a forearm strain on his throwing arm. Janssen has kept up the good work since being recalled in late July, however, and has a career-low 2.60 ERA through 34.2 innings of work for the Blue Jays, holding a very impressive 32/9 K/BB ratio.
With a surprise early-season option to Triple-A, Mark Lowe got a chance to work on his arsenal in "non-stress" situations, giving him a better chance to return to his pre-2010 form, where Lowe made 75 appearances in a breakout year. Lowe looks to be back after returning to the bigs in early May, posting a 3.51 ERA in 38 appearances for Ron Washington and the Texas Rangers.
Once Justin Berg and Jay Buente establish their respective spot in the big leagues, the next Woodchuck to get their crack at the majors will likely be one of Justin Fitzgerald, Pat Venditte, Samuel Freeman or Darin Ruf.
Justin Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-5 righty playing Double-A ball in the San Francisco Giants organization, has logged 114.1 innings through 22 starts in 2011, posting an 8—6 record with an impressive 3.38 ERA. Fitzgerald has moved up the organizational ladder one level per year since being drafted in 2008, making the 25-year-old on pace for a big-league call-up in late 2012 or early 2013 – projecting as an innings-eating, back-end starter at the Major League level.
One of the most highly publicized players in minor league baseball over the past four seasons, Pat Venditte, a switch-pitcher, has proved himself to be less of a media sideshow, and more of a valuable – and rare – asset in the upper-levels of the New York Yankees minor league system.
Playing for Double-A Trenton, Venditte has likely earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A – or possibly a September call-up – by way of a 2.83 ERA over 76.1 innings of work.
Darin Ruf, working through an encore assignment in High-A Clearwater, is having an incredible offensive season in a league notorious for tough pitching and unhittable conditions and ballparks.
Already 24-years-old in High-A, Ruf can't be overlooked as a prospect in the Phillies organization, as .529 slugging percentages are virtually unheard of in the Florida State League. While splitting time as the designated hitter and first basemen, Ruf is hitting .319 with 36 doubles and 15 homeruns, while keeping strikeouts relatively low and walks relatively high. If Ruf can continue hitting at this pace, he can expect either a big-league promotion or a Rule 5 draft selection in the next couple years, regardless of defense.
Missing the entire 2010 season after having Tommy John surgery, Samuel Freeman – who made an impressive debut at Double-A as a 22-year-old in 2009 – is back in Double-A Springfield this season, and doesn't appear to have any lingering effects from his injury. Posting a 3.83 ERA in 42.1 innings on the season, the 24-year-old southpaw should expect a promotion to Triple-A next spring.
Several alumni from the 2009 and 2010 teams are making an early impression in the lower levels of their respective organizations, as the youngest crop of former Woodchucks begin their professional careers.
Playing four years for NAIA Cal Baptist, catcher Sharif Othman, who was drafted this spring in the 32nd round, was promoted to the High-A Florida State League – a rarity for even the most touted of prospects.
Othman has made only 19 starts, collecting just 13 hits, but his starting assignment speaks volumes as to the esteem he's held at in the Florida Marlins organization.
A 49th round draft pick in 2010, Bryce Shafer, a member of the 2009 and 2010 ‘Chucks, has been impressive in his second professional season. Playing for the Single-A Peoria Chiefs, Shafer has a solid 2.79 ERA in 29.0 innings pitched over 17 relief appearances, after being promoted last month from Low-A Boise.
Making 29 starts in right field for Low-A Salem-Keizer, 2009 Woodchuck Brett Krill is tearing up the Northwest League in his first professional season. Drafted in the 25th round this spring by the San Francisco Giants, the UCLA product is hitting .349, with five homeruns and 30 RBI.
Three mainstays on the 2010 squad – Travis Whitmore, Kevin Pillar and Jerad Eickhoff – are also starting off their pro careers strong.
Playing Low-A, Whitmore is hitting .275 while playing predominantly third base, and Kevin Pillar, who is starting out in the rookie Appalachian League, is hitting .291. Signing late, the 15th round pick Eickhoff has a 1.74 ERA through his first eight professional appearances.
Exhausting their collegiate eligibility without collecting a professional offer, Don Lisi and Pat Terry – two more of the ‘Chucks top players in 2010 – elected to play independent ball.
Lisi joined up with the River City Rascals of the Frontier League, where he is 5—1 with a 4.11 ERA over 10 starts. Terry signed with the Chico Outlaws of the North American League, where the catcher is hitting .300 in limited at-bats.
Courtesy: Woodchucks Press Release