Saturday, August 16, 2008

Up From the Valley (Part 2)

In the second installment of this series, I'm profiling three players who came up through the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization. They're all fairly established players who appear to have reached their major league ceilings.

The third, and final, installment will include a few potential future stars, who may be on their way to being considered the most successful players to pass through Hudson Valley.

Toby Hall (1997)Toby Hall
Toby Hall was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 1995, after playing junior college ball, but did not sign, opting instead to play at UNLV. Two years later, he was drafted and signed by Tampa Bay. He played 1997 for Hudson Valley, and began climbing the organization's ladder from there, until reaching the majors briefly in 2000.

Two years later, he became the Devil Rays regular catcher, a role he filled for 4+ years, before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the deal that brought Dioner Navarro to Tampa. In the off-season following the 2006 season, he signed with the Chicago White Sox and has been the backup to A.J. Pierzynski since.

His statistics are far from overwhelming, but in his time as Tampa Bay's starting catcher, he was an above average major league backstop, solid behind the plate and not a weak spot in the lineup. His career totals include a .263 batting average, with 45 home runs and 267 RBI in 2313 at bats. It seems as if his future is as a backup catcher, but his opportunity to be a starter again may not have completely passed him by just yet.

Dan Wheeler (1997)Dan Wheeler
Dan Wheeler was drafted by the Devil Rays in 1996, but did not sign until the following May. He played at Hudson Valley in 1997 and worked his way up through the system, as a starting pitcher, until reaching the majors in 1999. The next three seasons, he saw very limited major league action (70 IP total) while shuttling back and forth between Tampa Bay and the minors.

Wheeler was released by Tampa Bay in the off-season following 2001, but picked up by the Atlanta Braves. However, he spent the entire 2002 season at Richmond, Atlanta's AAA affiliate, and was subsequently released again.

The New York Mets signed him after his release by Atlanta, converting him to a reliever, and he spent most of the 2003 and 2004 seasons in the majors, before a late season trade to the Houston Astros. He enjoyed his most successful seasons as a mainstay in Houston's bullpen in 2005 (73 IP, 2.21 ERA, 3 Sv) and 2006 (71 IP, 2.52 ERA, 9 Sv). After struggling in 2007, Houston traded him back to Tampa Bay, where he's enjoyed a resurgence this year (52 IP, 2.61 ERA, 4 Sv).

Now in his 9th major league season, Wheeler has developed into a dependable setup reliever and his career numbers are solid, as he's posted a 3.93 ERA in 458 IP, with 404 strikeouts and 29 saves.

Jorge Cantu (1999)Jorge Cantu
Jorge Cantu was signed by the Devil Rays as an amateur free agent in 1998, at the age of 16. He played at Hudson Valley the following year, then steadily rose through the system, and was called up to the major leagues during the 2004 season. He batted .301 in 173 at bats, and the following season became a full-time player for Tampa Bay, due to the retirement of Roberto Alomar, playing significant time at both second base and third base.

Cantu quickly became a star in that first full season in the majors. He batted .286, with 28 HR and 117 RBI, and even received one 10th place vote in the MVP balloting. In 2006, he began the season as the everyday second baseman, but slumped to .249, with 14 HR and 62 RBI.

He failed to make the opening day roster in 2007, and was subsequently traded in mid-season to the Cincinnati Reds, where he was given minimal playing time before being released in the off-season. He was picked up by the Florida Marlins, and has enjoyed a return to form in 2008, batting .282 with 21 HR and 68 RBI, as the surprising Marlins contend in the NL East.

At age 26, and in his fifth season in the majors, Cantu appears to have a bright future. Whether he'll fully realize the potential that was on display in his 2004 season remains to be seen, but his career numbers of .276, 66 HR, 277 RBI and 220 runs indicate that he should enjoy a productive career for years to come.

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