Take a look around the Milwaukee infield and what do you see?
J.J. Hardy at shortstop. He figures to be there for a while. Rickie Weeks at second base. Yeah, that spot seems to be locked up for the foreseeable future as well. Throw in Prince Fielder at first base and the recently drafted Ryan Braun at third base sometime in the next year or so, and, well, you get the picture.
The neighborhood is crowded, but Brewers general manager Doug Melvin says there is always room for one more, especially when that someone is Hernan Iribarren. The young second baseman, who is slated to play in the XM Satellite Radio Futures Game on July 10 in Detroit, is currently tearing up the South Atlantic League, blistering opposing pitching the way he did in 2004 while playing in the Arizona and Midwest Leagues.
Iribarren was hitting .323 through 71 games for the West Virginia Power, driving in 34 runs and stealing 25 bases. He's been handling Sally League pitching all right, but that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering he hit a combined .422 last year in Arizona and Beloit. His .439 average was the second highest in Arizona League history.
Yet, while Melvin says that Iribarren may get bumped up to the Florida State League before too long, switching positions out of an already crowded infield picture isn't likely to happen. Not for a while anyway.
"I think he's best staying where he's at," Melvin said. "Those things seem to work themselves out later on, and a lot can happen over the next two or three years. But he's a pretty exciting offensive player. At the end of Spring Training last year, he started to come on and open some people's eyes. Not a lot of people had talked about him that much.
"But he has a nice stroke, and he uses the whole field. He has more power than you think; he'll hit a lot of triples and doubles. Last year he started to hit in extended spring, and he followed that up in the Sally League this year after a slow start. Since May 1 he's hitting between .350 and .360."
Signed as a free agent out of Venezuela in 2002, Iribarren (who turned 21 on Wednesday) quickly showed that the Brewers may have come up with a big-time prospect. He played 46 games in Arizona last year and averaged nearly two hits per game before earning a promotion to the Class A Midwest League. A 15-game stint in Beloit produced nearly the same results (25 hits), leaving little in the way of discussion when it came time to decide on where to place Iribarren this season.
"Every team signs young Latin players, but he wasn't a high-profile signing," Melvin said. "He just came on the scene and started opening eyes last year. It happens with a lot of young Latin players. Not many will open eyes that first year because they are just getting acclimated. They try to adapt and gain knowledge, but when they do come around, they come real fast.
"You've heard stories of Pudge Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez. Juan might have been on the radar, but Pudge wasn't. And this kid can hit pretty good pitching. He could come fairly quickly, too. With us having Rickie, it's not necessary to have him come quickly, though. It just gives us more depth in the organization which we haven't had."
Melvin likened Iribarren to Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, saying the two were similar in the way they both slash the ball at the plate. And, he'll surprise you, like Reyes, with his power.
"He doesn't run like Jose, but he has more discipline at the plate than Jose did at an early age," Melvin said. "I saw him drive a ball in Spring Training over the center field fence. He's a little like Reyes that way."
Moving Iribarren up to the Florida State League is a consideration, but Melvin feels that since Iribarren will hit wherever he is, he should probably stay in West Virginia for a while. Iribarren's close friend, Alcides Escobar, plays shortstop for the Power while the club is managed by Ramon Aviles, a native of Puerto Rico, which Melvin says is of benefit to the youngster.
"He's in a good situation in the Sally League," Melvin said.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.