The four corners of the World Team
Futures corner infielders hail from hotbeds, hinterlands
Major League Baseball and Baseball America took the concept of a "World Team" pretty seriously when they selected the corner infielders for the 2005 XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game.
Kendry Morales is from Cuba while Edwin Encarnacion is a native of the Dominican Republic, but went to high school in Puerto Rico. And these are the only two players that are even within 1,000 miles of each other. Justin Huber is one of the few players in professional baseball to call Australia his motherland while John Hattig is the first ever professional baseball player from Guam.
It seems that the only people missing are Tibetan monks, African bushmen, and Amazonian forest-dwellers.
But these players were not just chosen to represent different regions of the baseball world, but because they are the best the world has to offer.
Kendry Morales, 1B, Arkansas (Double-A, Angels)
The fact that Morales is available to play in this year's Futures Game is an accomplishment. Because of visa problems, the 22-year-old Cuban defector wasn't even sure he would be in the United States at this time of year. Once his paperwork cleared in mid-May, he played first base for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes like he hadn't missed a game, hitting a home run in his first at-bat.
The switch-hitting first baseman draws raves from scouts with his impressive power and discipline from both sides of the plate and his ability to utilize the whole field from either side. In 22 games with the Quakes, Morales hit .344 with five home runs, 17 RBIs and just 11 strikeouts. He is also praised for his defensive work at first, making good use of his soft hands and quick feet, and scouts have noticed an increase in his mobility since his professional debut.
Los Angeles Angels Director of Player Development Tony Reagins feels that once Morales has had a chance to familiarize himself with life in America, his talents will really shine.
"It was a big ordeal for him coming over to the States, so the biggest thing for him is to get comfortable playing here," Reagins said. "The first time I saw him, he seemed a little overwhelmed with everything. Now I see him hanging out and laughing with his teammates, looking more at ease."
If Morales becomes comfortable in his new surroundings and at the plate, the only players who won't be comfortable will be the ones trying to pitch to him.
John Hattig, 3B, Syracuse (Triple-A, Blue Jays)
Before being traded last year by the Red Sox, not much was expected out of the switch-hitting Hattig. All the 1998 25th-round pick from Guam did was help the New Hampshire Fisher Cats win the Eastern League's Northern Division by hitting .296 with 10 home runs and 30 RBIs in just 40 games.
"John far exceeded expectations when he came over here after the trade," said Dick Scott, Toronto's Director of Player Development. "His bat and glove helped New Hampshire win the title. The kid is the total package as far as abilities go, and he just loves to play."
Scott describes the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Hattig as a "big man with a little man's quickness." He possesses a sound arm and has steadily improved his footwork and range. Hattig's best trait, according to Scott, is his makeup -- the fact that he has a great approach and can easily handle any kind of difficulties he might face.
What is even better for the Blue Jays is that he's continued to improve, hitting .325 with six doubles and a home run in 22 games for the Syracuse SkyChiefs in International League before suffering a pulled hamstring on June 13. It was more of the same when he started the year at Single-A Dunedin, torturing Florida State League pitchers by hitting .386.
Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, Louisville (Triple-A, Reds)
The future might already be now for Encarnacion, Cincinatti's top position-player prospect, who was called up by the Reds on June 24 to fill in for the injured Kenny Kelly.
Encarnacion has shown consistent improvement in every phase of his game since his first professional season in 2000. Through 69 games with the Louisville Bats this year, the Dominican-born, Puerto Rican-educated Encarnacion was hitting .292 with 12 home runs, 46 RBIs and 31 walks. Last year for Double-A Chattanooga, he hit .281 with 13 homers, 76 RBIs and 53 walks.
"He's a unique player," Reds Director of Player Development Tim Naehring said. "No one thing jumps out at you because he does so many things well. And there still is room for improvement."
Most critics say that Encarnacion's difficulties fielding his position have kept him in the Minors for so long. But Naehring, a former third baseman himself, is quick point out this may not be the case for much longer.
"He's worked very hard on improving his footwork and staying on top of the ball when making the throw," Naehring said. "As soon as he keeps his feet under him and keep his arm from dropping down consistently, he won't be in the Minors for too much longer."
Justin Huber, 1B, Wichita (Double-A, Royals)
Making the switch from catcher to first base has worked wonders for the man from Down Under. Huber earned a call-up from Kansas City after dismantling Texas League pitchers, hitting .332 (2nd TL) and driving in 50 runs (T-3rd) while reaching base at a .420 clip (T-3rd) through 67 games. Freed from the rigors of catching and the stress placed on his arthroscopically-repaired left knee, Huber's keen eye and natural hitting abilities have not only blossomed, but exceeded most expectations.
"He's been a pleasant surprise since joining the organization," said Royals Senior Director of Player Development Shaun McGinn. "Offensively, he's very good staying inside the ball. he has plus power, but you see it more in batting practice because he uses the gaps and isn't pull-heavy in games."
According to McGinn, Huber has been a quick study in the field, too, learning to scoop the ball and range from left to right.
"Ever since he changed positions, he's made very good strides over there. He's a work in progress, but we've seen great improvement."
Enough improvement to warrant a jump from Double-A to the big leagues, apparently.
Michael Echan is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.